Thursday, March 31, 2016

Three Days and Three Nights

"For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matthew 12:40).

I was talking with a man on a Christian site six years ago.  This man was becoming familiar with Armstrongite doctrine.  As often happens with people who learn Armstrongite doctrine, he was trying to show other Christians on the site the error of their ways.

Like Herbert W. Armstrong and his followers, the man was challenging the idea that Christ was crucified on Good Friday and rose on Sunday morning.  Jesus said in Matthew 12:40, after all, that he would be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.  Friday to Sunday morning is not three days and three nights.  It is not even one-and-a-half days, for that matter!  It is one full day, two nights, and a morning.  Such was this man's argument.  Such was the argument that I had heard when I was in Armstrongism.

This man was arguing that Christ was in the tomb for a full three days and three nights: seventy-two hours.  In this scenario, Jesus was crucified on a Wednesday, was buried close to Wednesday evening, and rose from the dead late on Saturday.  (The Thursday was the first Day of Unleavened Bread, a Sabbath.)  As I talk about in my post here, Armstrongites, who were seventh-day Sabbatarians, contended against the claim of many Christians that Jesus rose on Sunday and thus we should honor Sunday to commemorate Jesus' resurrection.  For Armstrongites, Jesus rose on the seventh-day Sabbath.

I responded by referring to Luke 24:20-21: "And how the chief priests and our rulers delivered him to be condemned to death, and have crucified him.  But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel: and beside all this, to day is the third day since these things were done."  These are the words that two men are telling an unknown traveler, who turns out to be the resurrected Jesus.  This passage seems to be saying that Jesus is alive on the third day after his crucifixion.  This third day after the crucifixion is a Sunday, as Luke 24:1 indicates.  But, if Jesus rose late on Saturday and after seventy-two hours, would Sunday be the third day after his crucifixion, as the passage seems to suggest?  Would not Saturday be the third day?  Yet, the passage appears to be saying that Sunday was the third day.

The man responded in a variety of ways.  He told me to get a piece of paper and put down the three days and three nights so I could see that Good Friday-Sunday morning did not fit that.  I found that to be extremely condescending on his part: I grew up hearing this argument over and over, and I had said so much to him, so I was familiar with what it said and the basis for it.  I do not appreciate being talked to as if I were not familiar with it, or as if I were a kindergartener, for that matter!  He responded to my question about Luke 24:20-21 with a complex grammatical argument.  The argument itself did not hold water, but he had to know Greek, on some level, to make it, which was somewhat impressive!  He also said that the New Testament contradicts itself on when Jesus rose: one passage says he rose after being buried for three days and three nights, and the other says he rose on the third day.  I doubt that he really believes the New Testament contradicts itself, though.

Indeed, the New Testament says a variety of things about when Jesus rose.  There is the passage that says Jesus was in the tomb for three days and three nights: Matthew 12:40.  In Mark 8:31, Jesus says he will be raised after three days, from the time that he is killed.  Then there are passages that say Jesus will rise on the third day after being killed (e.g., Matthew 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; Luke 9:22; 24:7, 21, 46; Acts 10:40; I Corinthians 15:4).  Do these passages contradict each other?  Does Jesus being raised on the third day contradict Jesus rising after three days?  Is not "after three days" after the third day, not on the third day?

Armstrongites had their ways of addressing such issues.  One way was to suggest that Jesus rose right at the moment when the third day was ending and the fourth day was beginning.  That way, Jesus was raised on the third day and after three days, and the three days and three nights are kept intact!  That does not work, though, in light of Luke 24:20-21, in which Jesus has already risen, it's Sunday, and Sunday is called the third day.

I looked at Herbert W. Armstrong's The Resurrection Was Not on Sunday.  Armstrong offered different solutions.  For one, Armstrong interpreted "third day" in light of Genesis 1:13: "and the evening and the morning were the third day" (KJV).  This was the third day of creation.  Seventy-two hours of creation had passed.  The evening and the morning marked the third day.  Armstrong may be implying here that the "third day" is consistent with "after three days" and "after seventy-two hours."  Three evenings and mornings have passed, and that marks the third day.  If that is the case in Genesis 1, why not in Jesus' resurrection accounts?  There is a problem with Armstrong's argument here, if I am understanding it correctly.  Armstrong believes that Christians are commanded to observe the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week, a la Genesis 2:2-3, Exodus 20:10, etc.  In this case, he rightly interprets the seventh day as the seventh day, not as the time after the seventh day is completed.  "On the nth day" in the Bible means on that day, not after that day has been completed!

Second, regarding Luke 24:20-21, Armstrong says that the "these things" in "to day is the third day since these things were done" include the sealing of Jesus' tomb on a Thursday (Matthew 27:62-66).  According to Armstrong, Sunday was the third day after the sealing of Jesus' tomb on Thursday.

I have been reading C. Marvin Pate's 40 Questions about the Historical Jesus, which Kregel Academic sent me to review.  Pate defends the view that Jesus was crucified on Friday and rose from the dead on Sunday, and he believes that is consistent with Jesus being buried for three days and three nights and rising after three days and on the third day.  Essentially, he argues that Jesus rose on the third day, a Sunday, and that we should take "three days and three nights" and "after three days" not-so-literally, since the Jews did not take these phrases literally.  "Three days and three nights," for Pate, could mean part of the three days, not necessarily their entirety, and that would fit Jesus being crucified on Friday and rising on Sunday.
Pate cites the following biblical passages to show that, for ancient Jews, part of a day could count as a full day and night:

Esther 4:16-5:1: "(16) Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day: I also and my maidens will fast likewise; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law: and if I perish, I perish.  (17) So Mordecai went his way, and did according to all that Esther had commanded him. (5:1) Now it came to pass on the third day, that Esther put on her royal apparel, and stood in the inner court of the king's house, over against the king's house: and the king sat upon his royal throne in the royal house, over against the gate of the house" (KJV).

The Jews, Esther, and Esther's maidens fast for three days and three nights; Esther goes to the king on the third day.

Genesis 42:17-28: "(17) And he put them all together into ward three days.  (18) And Joseph said unto them the third day, This do, and live; for I fear God" (KJV).

Joseph's brothers are in the ward for three days.  Joseph lets them out on the third day, yet they are still said to be in the ward for three days.

I Samuel 30:1, 12-13: "(1) And it came to pass, when David and his men were come to Ziklag on the third day, that the Amalekites had invaded the south, and Ziklag, and smitten Ziklag, and burned it with fire; (12) And they gave him a piece of a cake of figs, and two clusters of raisins: and when he had eaten, his spirit came again to him: for he had eaten no bread, nor drunk any water, three days and three nights.  (13) And David said unto him, To whom belongest thou? and whence art thou? And he said, I am a young man of Egypt, servant to an Amalekite; and my master left me, because three days agone I fell sick" (KJV).

David and his men had not eaten or drank for three days and three nights when they came to Ziklag on the third day.

I Kings 20:29: "And they pitched one over against the other seven days. And so it was, that in the seventh day the battle was joined: and the children of Israel slew of the Syrians an hundred thousand footmen in one day" (KJV).

The pitching for battle occurred for seven days, and the battle was joined on the seventh day.

II Chronicles 10:5, 12: "(5) And he said unto them, Come again unto me after three days. And the people departed. (12) So Jeroboam and all the people came to Rehoboam on the third day, as the king bade, saying, Come again to me on the third day" (KJV).

Rehoboam tells Jeroboam and the Northern Israelites to come back after three days.  They return on the third day, and that is said to fulfill Rehoboam's command.  Here, "after three days" and "on the third day" are synonymous.

Pate also says that "Josephus uses 'the third day' and 'after three days' synonymously (Antiquities of the Jews 7.11, 6; 8.8, 1-2)" (page 344).

The key passage in Antiquities 7.11, 6 is Antiquities 7.280-281:

"(280) He also appointed Amasa for the captain of his forces, and gave him the same high office which Joab before had; and he commanded him to gather together, out of the tribe of Judah, as large an army as he could, and come to him within (meth can mean 'after') three days, that he might deliver to him his entire army, and might send him to fight against [Sheba] the son of Bichri.  (281) Now while Amasa was gone out, and made some delay in gathering the army together, and so was not yet returned, on the third day the king said to Joab, ``It is not fit we should make any delay in this affair of Sheba, lest he get a numerous army about him, and be the occasion of greater mischief, and harm our affairs more than did Absalom himself" (Whiston's translation; emphasis and note are mine).

The key passage in Antiquities 8.8, 1-2 is Antiquities 8.214, 218:

"(214) but Rehoboam told them they should come to him again in three days' time (note: literally 'after three days'), when he would give an answer to their request. This delay gave occasion to a present suspicion, since he had not given them a favourable answer to their mind immediately; for they thought that he should have given them a humane answer offhand, especially since he was but young. However, they thought that this consultation about it, and that he did not presently give them a denial, afforded them some good hope of success. (218) The king was pleased with this advice, and thought it agreeable to the dignity of his government to give them such an answer. Accordingly, when the multitude was come together to hear his answer on the third day, all the people were in great expectation, and very intent to hear what the king would say to them, and supposed they should hear something of a kind nature; but he passed by his friends, and answered as the young men had given him counsel. Now this was done according to the will of God, that what Ahijah had foretold might come to pass" (Whiston's translation; emphasis and note are mine).

Some may take issue with Pate's analysis.  After all, in Esther 4:16-5:1, maybe the Jews continued fasting even after Esther appeared before the king on the third day----they kept fasting until the third day was over.  I cannot come up with an argument against that proposal.  At the same time, some of the passages that Pate presents do seem to show that the Jews were pretty fluid in their understanding of "after three days" and "on the third day," and that they seemed to equate the two.  Plus, "on the third day" seems to mean "on the third day," as opposed to some time after the third day.  After all, the seventh day of the week in the Bible is the Sabbath; the Sabbath is not sometime after the seventh day, but it occurs on the seventh day.  The vast majority of interpreters of the Bible acknowledge this.  "On the nth day" apparently means "on the nth day," in the Bible.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Paralyzing Christian Sayings, and Charity

I'll make no secret about it: There are things Christians say that I do not find all that helpful.  Actually, I find them paralyzing when it comes to living the spiritual life.

This is particularly the case when it comes to giving to the poor.  I have heard Christians say that it is better to give nothing at all than to give with a bad attitude.  Really?  I doubt that the poor would feel that way! 

Then there are Christians who say that we should do good works, but we should not feel that doing those works earns us salvation from God.  We should remember that we are saved by grace through faith, or that our good works do not nullify our exceeding sinfulness.  They have a point.  And yet, when I give to the poor, there will always be a part of me that pats myself on the back, and that hopes that God is patting me on the back.  Should I wait until I have my attitudes together before I give to the poor?  Again, I doubt that the poor would feel that way!

Taking a self-inventory can be a good thing.  Allowing spiritual navel-gazing to hinder one from giving to charity, however, is a sign of privilege.

There are Scriptures that Christians can cite to support such a paralyzing stance.  II Corinthians 9:7 says: "Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver" (KJV).

Then there is I Corinthians 13:3: "And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing" (KJV).

Richard Rohr said the following about I Corinthians 13:3.  This was in his March 16, 2016 Daily Meditation, entitled "Love Never Fails":
Apparently, you can even be a progressive and generous social activist; but if you're just doing it to be holier than thou, or out of oppositional energy, you are still outside of the Big Mystery. Self-proclaiming heroics on the Left can be just as unloving as self-proclaiming religion on the Right.

Then Paul tries to describe the mystery of love, and he finally has to resort to listing almost fifteen descriptions. He talks about love not as simply an isolated virtue, but as the basis for all virtue. It is the underlying, generous energy that gives itself away through those living inside of love.
I can at least do something with this.  Attitude is important, even if I do not believe it should be the determining factor in whether one gives or not.  I should give to the poor out of love for the poor and sympathy for their plight, not as a way to feel superior to others or to oppose the right-wing.  I would say that giving out of a wrong motive is better than not giving at all.  Still, without love, one is outside of the Big Mystery.  Love can be a well for virtue, and, without love, that well can run dry.

I like something that the first century Hellenistic Jew Philo of Alexandria said in Special Laws IV:74:

Let not then the rich man collect in his house vast quantities of silver and gold, and store them up, but let him bring them forward freely in order by his cheerful bounty to soften the hard condition of the poor... (Yonge's translation)
That is a good way to look at it: charity softens the hard condition of the poor.

The thing is, there are so many people in this world who need help.  Many of us have a hard enough time taking care of ourselves and our own.  Are we seriously expected to become deeply involved in other people's burdens?

Many Christians would say "yes."  But the practice of many people, including Christians, is often to help a little, if at all, then to go back to living their own lives, facing their own problems.

Whether that is acceptable or not, I will not say.  At the very least, though, there should be charities where people can go when they need help.  There should be institutions out there.  And charities need donations. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Book Write-Up: Global Church, by Graham Hill

Graham Hill.  Global Church: Reshaping Our Conversations, Renewing Our Mission, Revitalizing Our Churches.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

Most Christians today live, not in the West, but in the Majority World: Africa, Asia, and Latin and South America.  In Global Church, Graham Hill talks about what Western Christians can learn from Christians in the Majority World and among First Nation peoples (i.e., Native Americans, aborigines).

The book has its advantages.  The author's heart is in the right place, in that he supports social justice and creation care as a part of Christian mission.  He is sensitive to the plight of the needy and acknowledges the social and economic challenges that face the world today.  He expounds good principles: listening to people's stories, being hospitable, etc.  His discussion about how African Christians see the Bible as a source of life was profound, and his discussion of what he considered the strengths and weaknesses of liberation theology was judicious.  Hill talks about what Christianity actually looks like among Majority World and First Nation peoples: some African versions, for instance, have a sort of prosperity Gospel, which is not surprising, considering that seeking material prosperity has long been an element of traditional religions.  Hill's book does well to provide a framework for how Western Christians can learn from Majority World and First Nation Christians.  Hill also refers to sources that an interested person may find helpful, as well as key Christian thinkers in the Majority World and among First Nation peoples; that makes the book a good introduction to this issue, and also a useful source for reference.

The book was very repetitive, however.  It could have used more anecdotes: the book talks about hearing the stories and biblical interpretations of the poor.  Why not share examples of that with us?  The book had some anecdotes, though.  The book could have had a more substantive discussion on how Western Christians can respond to aspects of Majority World and First Nation Christianity that they consider unbiblical.  Overall, the book refers to voices that are liberationist, even with regard to gay issues.  While I have no problem with that, the book should have discussed how many Majority World Christians consider homosexuality a sin, which has posed a challenge to a number of mainline Christian denominations.

This book makes important points, but it is not always very specific, and it could have been deeper.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review. 

Monday, March 28, 2016

Ramblings on Philo and "Only One Way"

In this post, I will use as my starting-point something that Philo of Alexandria says in Special Laws IV:109.  Philo of Alexandria was a first century Hellenistic Jewish thinker.  Special Laws IV:109 is part of Philo's larger discussion about the symbolism of the dietary laws in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14.

Leviticus 11:3 permits the Israelites to eat animals that have divided hooves and chew the cud.  By implication, according to Philo, the Torah prohibits the Israelites to eat land mammals that do not have divided hooves.  These prohibited animals would include those with solid, unsplit hooves, and those with toes.  (Note: Leviticus 11:27 prohibits the Israelites to eat animals that have paws.)

For Philo, each of these animals has symbolic value.  Land mammals that have divided hooves and that chew the cud, which are permitted as food, represent a lifestyle of distinguishing between good and evil (presumably in one's walk) and meditating on wisdom.  The prohibited land mammals with unsplit hooves represent a failure or unwillingness to distinguish between good and evil.  The prohibited animals with toes represent the opposite extreme: the toes represent the existence of so many options out there, that one cannot determine which path is the best. 

I can certainly identify with the problem of there being so many options out there, that it is difficult to determine which is the best.  This difficulty can apply to looking for a job or a health care plan, buying products, researching, and the list goes on and on.  There are so many dead ends.  One can be on a path and wonder if that is the best path to be on.

When I was thinking about Philo's statement about many options, I thought about passages in the New Testament. 

Jesus said in John 14:6 that he is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father but by him.  Here, Jesus is the only path to God. 

In Luke 13:24, Jesus exhorts people to strive to enter the strait gate, for many will try to enter but will not be able.  Here, the strait gate seems to represent believing in Jesus and avoiding iniquity.  Jesus in vv 25-30 envisions a time when people who were aware of Jesus when Jesus was on earth would ask to be let into the Kingdom, but they would be turned away.  They are called workers of iniquity.  The people cast out are probably the religious leaders who rejected Jesus when he was on earth.

In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus exhorts people to enter the strait gate that leads to life.  Here, the narrow gate probably refers to obeying Jesus' teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, and avoiding false prophets.  Calling Jesus "Lord" is not enough; one needs to be on the narrow way.

There are many evangelical Christians who believe that faith in Jesus is the only path to God.  For Christian exclusivists, this implies that people of non-Christian religions do not have access to God, or they lack a genuine relationship with God.  For Christian exclusivists, they are doing to hell.

Of course, Philo did not believe in Jesus.  But did Philo have a similar view, albeit one that regarded the Torah or belief in the God of Israel as the only path to God?

Philo did believe in a right path, which includes asceticism, not being weighed down by passions, virtue, contemplation of God and nature (which is orderly), and seeing God.  Philo apparently believed that the Torah was the best exemplar of that path.  In Life of Moses 2.44, he envisions a time when the nations will abandon their customs and embrace the Torah.  Yet, Philo did acknowledge the existence of wise, virtuous people in other cultures.  In "Every Good Man Is Free" I:73-74, Philo refers to Greeks, Persians, and Indians who were virtuous, contemplative, and wise. 

Because there are different kinds of people, Philo also acknowledged that people could be on the path of truth in different ways, or at least that they could relate to that path differently.  A while back, I blogged through Erwin Goodenough's By Light, Light: The Mystic Gospel of Hellenistic Judaism.  See especially my post "Grace and Philo."  For Philo, Noah was a person who was virtuous, yet Noah failed to elevate his thoughts to the immaterial realm.  In a class that I took on Philo, I learned that, for Philo, the three patriarchs represented three different approaches to the spiritual life.  Abraham was one who gained spiritual enlightenment as a result of training and education.  Isaac had it by divine grace.  Jacob, by contrast, had to work hard to attain it and often fell, which is why he is sometimes called "Jacob" and sometimes called "Israel" (which relates to seeing God).  Philo also thought that a person's path could encompass all three of these features: a person may be learning (Abraham) and struggling (Jacob), and God could then decide to give that person divine grace (Isaac) to make the path easier----not by downgrading the path but by elevating the person and giving that person the insight and grace to walk the path successfully.

Is there only one way to God?  For exclusivist Christians, that one way is belief in Jesus.  This includes believing Jesus is God and accepting his sacrifice for forgiveness of sins.  But exclusivist Christians would acknowledge diversity among Christians who embrace that one way: Christians are at different stages and levels of understanding; they have different experiences.

For Philo, the one way, or the best way, was a spiritual path of contemplation, virtue, and asceticism.  Were beliefs unimportant in his conceptualization of that way?  Well, Philo did apparently believe that a person could walk that way without explicit belief in the God of Israel.  At the same time, he also probably held that certain Gentile beliefs and practices were inconsistent with the right way: idolatry, for example, which, according to Philo, brought the divine down to people's level and treated the natural as supernatural.  In the first century, there were Gentiles who disdained idolatry and gravitated towards an abstract or monotheistic conception of the divine.  Philo may have held that they were close to the truth, if not on the true path.  In that case, a belief in monotheism, on some level, would be important to Philo. 

Philo's focus on the true path as a way of life more than a belief system (or a system of doctrines) is tempting to me.  I often wonder: Why stress out over beliefs?  Why not focus on the righteous path itself?  John Hick emphasized the commonality among religions of a respect for the transcendent and ethics.  Could not that be the righteous path, which is manifested in various ways across religions?

Yet, the exclusivist evangelical Christian view can be tempting, too.  The fact is that we do not walk that righteous path consistently.  If a path to God were to require asceticism, rigorous contemplation, and virtue, I would fall short.  Believing in Jesus looks much easier!  That is still consistent with a righteous path, though, for it entails belief in a Jesus who himself is righteous and who encourages our righteousness through his grace towards us, the hope that he provides for us, and his teachings and example.   

Of course, things are messy.  Many of us are close to righteousness in some areas, but not in others.  I think of Jesus' statement to the scribe in Mark 12:34 after the scribe affirmed the importance of loving God and neighbor: You are not far from the Kingdom of God.

There may be one path, but different ways of being on it.  With all the subjectivity and differences among people, one can ask if that in effect means different paths.  I think there is some commonality, even if there are differences. 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Chesed Shel Emet; Easter and Sabbatarianism; New Life from Bitterness

I have three items for my write-up on church this morning.  Since today is Easter Sunday, the sermon was about Jesus' resurrection.  The pastor focused on the story in Luke 24.

A.  The pastor referred to the Jewish concept of chesed shel emet in discussing the women who visited Jesus' tomb with spices and ointments for Jesus' corpse.  Literally, the phrase means "kindness of truth" (depending on how you translate chesed----loyalty, piety, etc.).  It is a true act of kindness, a selfless act of kindness, since it is done for the dead, who cannot pay a person back for the kindness.  I can ask if it is truly an act of selflessness: it is a mitzvah, so would not God reward the person who performs it?  But I do not want to distract myself from focusing on a beautiful concept: a concept of doing something good for someone, without ego or a desire for reward; a concept of giving to Jesus out of love and appreciation for Jesus.

B.  The pastor raised the possibility that Saturday was the first day of Jesus being risen, and the disciples had missed it.  That stood out to me on account of my Armstrongite background.  Armstrongites were seventh-day Sabbatarians in that they observed the Sabbath on Saturday.  Against Christians who honored Sunday and defended their practice by saying that Jesus rose on the first day of the week (Sunday), Armstrongites would argue that Jesus actually rose on a Saturday.  After all, in Luke 24, when the women went to Jesus' tomb on the first day of the week, Jesus had already risen. 

I doubt that the disciples or the women would have been able or willing to visit the tomb on a Saturday.  Not only were they not expecting Jesus' resurrection, but there were restrictions on what they could do on the Sabbath.  Luke 23:56 says that the women prepared the spices and ointments, then rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment.  On the first day of the week, the day after the Sabbath when they were allowed to work, they went to Jesus' tomb to anoint the body.  They could not anoint the body on Saturday, so that is why they waited until the first day of the week to do so.

The issue of a Saturday resurrection raises questions in my mind. 

Armstrongites, of course, have argued that, because Jesus rose on a Saturday, that is just one more reason for people to keep the Sabbath on Saturday.  On a Christian dating site I used to be on, a Pentecostal woman who kept the Seventh-Day Sabbath argued that, because the women were resting on the Sabbath according to God's commandment after Jesus' crucifixion, that shows that Jesus' death did not annul the seventh-day Sabbath: it was still God's commandment, to be observed. 

But here is a question: if Jesus rose on a Saturday, was he not working on that day by rising from the dead?  Interestingly, Seventh-Day Adventists, who also keep the Seventh-Day Sabbath, differ from Armstrongites by believing Jesus rose on Sunday.  Former Seventh-Day Adventist (yet still a Seventh-Day Sabbatarian) Desmond Ford wrote that Jesus rested on the Sabbath in the tomb, then rose on a Sunday.  According to Ford, Jesus in his death was keeping the Sabbath.  But what are the implications if Jesus rose on a Saturday?  Was Jesus violating the Sabbath by rising?  Or was Jesus showing that something was more important than the Sabbath?

If Jesus rose on Saturday and the disciples learned about it on Sunday, could a lesson from that be that Jesus brought the old to an end on the Sabbath, and the next day, Sunday, marked a new week, a new dispensation? 

Here is another question: Maybe it was not Jesus' death, per se, that marked the beginning of the New Covenant, but Jesus' resurrection, and that would be a way to respond to the Christian Pentecostal woman who argued that the Sabbath is still a requirement under the New Covenant because the women were observing it as God's commandment after Jesus' death.  Seventh-Day Sabbatarians have responded to this, however, by saying that Jesus' death marked the ratification of the New Covenant: the stipulations of the New Covenant needed to be set forth before Jesus' death, for Jesus' death was what ratified the New Covenant.  If I recall correctly, they appeal to Hebrews 9:16-18 to support this point: "For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator.  For a testament is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth.  Whereupon neither the first testament was dedicated without blood." 

And yet, did not Jesus in John 16:12-13 imply that the disciples would learn new truth after his death and resurrection, indicating that not everything needed to be stipulated before Jesus died?

C.  The pastor was talking about looking inside ourselves at our brokenness and cynicism and asking if we can find Jesus there, ready to bring new life out of that.  The pastor talked about Peter, who had made mistakes, yet was willing to take a chance at belief when he heard from the women about the empty tomb and the angelic visitations.  Peter in Luke 24, after all, ran to the sepulchre after hearing the women's experience, whereas others were dismissing what the women said as an idle tale.

It is hard for me to see how Jesus can make new life from my brokenness, resentment, and cynicism, especially when Christians have said that God will not forgive me or hear my prayer if I am bitter (see, for example, Matthew 6:15).  I have difficulty envisioning myself without resentment, even though some days I feel better than others.  If there is anything good in my bitterness, it is that it makes me go to God in prayer more often for healing, and it makes me more sympathetic and less judgmental towards others who have bitterness. 

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Exodus 22:2-3 and Self-Defense

Exodus 22:2-3 posits a situation in which a thief is breaking into somebody's home:

2 If a thief is found breaking in, and is beaten to death, no bloodguilt is incurred;
3 but if it happens after sunrise, bloodguilt is incurred. (NRSV)

When I first read this verse, it resonated with me because God was permitting self-defense.  You hear discussions about the Sermon on the Mount, especially Jesus' exhortation that people turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39).  People wonder if Jesus there is forbidding people to protect themselves, their loved ones, or others from those who are immediately threatening their lives.  Like many, I have struggled with Matthew 5:39.  Exodus 22:2-3, on the other hand, struck me as realistic.  Call me a counter-Marcionite, in this case!

But I did not understand v 3.  Why would God allow people to protect themselves from thieves during the night, but not during the day?

I have been reading the first century Jewish thinker Philo's take on this issue (Special Laws IV:7-10), and also various other people's interpretations: Nahum Sarna's Jewish Publication Society commentary on Exodus; Jeffrey Tigay's comments in the Jewish Study Bible; Ed Greenstein's comments in The HarperCollins Study Bible; The IVP Bible Background Commentary; John Calvin; Rashi; John MacArthur; Keil-Delitzsch; and the commentators featured on E-Sword (i.e., John Gill, Matthew Henry, Adam Clarke, Barnes, JFB, etc.).

The commentators phrase things differently, and some of them emphasize things that others do not emphasize.  Still, overall, they have roughly the same explanation regarding Exodus 22:2-3.
Their idea is this: if a thief is breaking into a house at night, there is a greater probability  that the thief will murder the residents of the house.  The thief knows that people are in the house at the time of the theft, since the thief is breaking in at night, when people are at home and are sleeping.  Self-defense is justified in that case, for the residents do not know if the thief will kill them or not.

During the daytime, the situation is different.  The thief is primarily interested in stealing, since he does not even know if anyone is at home.  He would probably prefer for no one to be at home, since in that case no one would identify him as the thief and turn him in!  Philo makes the point that, during the daytime, residents can take the thief to the judges, and there will more likely be people around to help them against the thief.  During the nighttime, people are asleep, so neighbors will be less likely to help the residents then.  During the daytime, by contrast, neighbors are awake, alert, and around in case the residents need help.  In short, there is less danger to residents during the daytime when a thief breaks into a house, and residents are able to pursue alternative paths to killing the thief to protect themselves, their loved ones, and their property.

Philo says that to kill a thief when he breaks into a house in the daytime is to yield to passion rather than reason, which, for Philo, is a big no-no.  Philo also says that such an act would itself be theft in that it steals from justice.  Of the commentators that I read, Matthew Henry was the only one who explicitly appealed to compassion and mercy for the thief.  Sarna, however, acknowledged that Exodus 22:2-3 had a humanitarian element and contrasted that with certain other ancient Near Eastern laws:

“The laws of Eshnunna also deal with the topic of theft and likewise distinguish between daytime and nighttime offenses, but they are concerned solely with the protection of property and ignore the humanitarian issue.  Hammurabi simply prescribes the death penalty for the thief who made a breach in a house or committed robbery.”  (Page 130 of the Jewish Publication Society commentary on Genesis)

There are cultures that had different sets of laws for this situation, and people who interpreted the Torah a bit differently.  They may realize that things are not so simple as a literal interpretation of Exodus 22:2-3 would indicate.  After all, a thief breaking in during the daytime can immediately threaten a resident's life, and there may not be anyone around to help.  What does a person do then? Are his or her hands tied because he or she is forbidden to kill a thief in self-defense during the day?

John Calvin refers to the Roman Twelve Tables, which permit self-defense during the night and during the day.  Calvin then states: "But, since God had sufficiently repressed by other laws murders and violent assaults, He is silent here respecting robbers who use the sword in their attempts at plunder. He therefore justly condemns to death those who have avenged by murder a theft in open day."  Calvin seems to be divorcing Exodus 22:3 from self-defense, saying that it concerns instead an attempt to carry out personal vengeance against someone who stole from one's house during the day.  For Calvin, it seems, Exodus 22:3 does not forbid self-defense during the day, but it does forbid being so concerned about possessions that one kills a thief who is not an immediate danger.

The medieval Jewish exegete Rashi presents a not-so-literal interpretation of Exodus 22:3.  For Rashi, the sun shining on the thief in that passage relates not so much to the timing of the theft.  Rather, it relates to the understanding that the victim has of the thief's motivations----the light that the victim has on the situation.  Does the victim perceive that the thief is peaceably disposed and is not an immediate threat to the victim's life?  If so, then the victim is forbidden to kill the thief.  According to Nahum Sarna, the rabbinic Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael contains a similar opinion.  Rashi may have gotten the idea from the Mekhilta. 

I think that Exodus 22:2-3 does well to balance self-defense with a regard for the life of the thief.  Of course, we should care about the people we love and protect them if we can.  On the other hand, a high regard for self-defense can go in trigger-happy directions, or directions that value property over people.  The abuses of Stand-Your-Ground laws show this to be true.  

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Martyrdom of Zechariah in Rabbinic Literature and Matthew 23:35

In Matthew 23:35, Jesus is lambasting the Pharisees, and he says:

"That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar” (KJV).

A number of biblical scholars say this is an error.  They think that Jesus really means Zechariah the son of Jehoiada, who was murdered in the Temple court in II Chronicles 24.

In II Chronicles 24, the story about the murder of Zechariah the son of Jehoiada is set in Judah's pre-exilic period, during the reign of King Joash of Judah.  After the death of Jehoiada, who was a priest, a mentor to King Joash, and the father of Zechariah, King Joash and the princes of Judah become idolatrous.  This offends God, so God sends them prophets to exhort them to turn from their wickedness.  But the people continue in their idolatrous ways.  Zechariah the son of Jehoiada, under the influence of God's spirit, criticizes their transgression of God's commandments and says that God is forsaking them because they are forsaking God.  The king and princes plot to stone Zechariah in the Temple court, and the dying Zechariah says, "The LORD look upon it, and require it" (v 22 KJV).

But Jesus in Matthew 23:35 does not say Zechariah the son of Jehoida, but rather Zechariah the son of Barachias.  Zechariah the son of Berechiah was a post-exilic prophet.  He encouraged the Jews returning to Judah after the exile in their work of rebuilding the Temple (Ezra 5:1; 6:14).  The biblical Book of Zechariah is attributed to him, and Zechariah 1-8 explicitly concerns figures and events during Israel's post-exilic period: Joshua the high priest, Zerubabbel the governor, etc.  Zechariah's father was named Berechiah, but his grandfather was Iddo (Zechariah 1:1), so Zechariah is called the son of Iddo (Ezra 5:1; 6:14).  Iddo and Zechariah were both priests (Nehemiah 12:4, 16).

Was Jesus, Matthew, or whoever spoke or wrote Matthew 23 mistaken in saying that Zechariah the son of Berechiah, rather than Zechariah the son of Jehoida, was killed between the Temple and the altar?  Many biblical inerrantists think not.  They maintain that Jesus was correct and that Zechariah the son of Berechiah was killed between the Temple and the altar during Israel's post-exilic period.

I am currently reading C. Marvin Pate's 40 Questions About the Historical Jesus.  (Kregel Academic sent me a complimentary review copy of this book.)  Pate argues that Jesus in Matthew 23:35 was not mistaken.  An argument that Pate makes is that there are other ancient sources that say that the prophet Zechariah the son of Berechiah was killed.  Pate states, on page 33:

...rabbinic traditions (e.g., the Targum on Lam. 2:20 and the Midrash Rabbah on Eccl. 3:16) also refer to Zechariah the prophet being killed in the temple.  On this understanding, Jesus and extra-biblical tradition converge in reporting an actual incident not mentioned in the Old Testament.

I had never heard this before, and I was curious to check out these sources.

I took a look at the Midrash Rabbah on my Judaic Classics Library (which is the Soncino one).  The passage is Ecclesiastes Rabbah 3:19.  The passage there did not say that the Zechariah in question was Zechariah the son of Berechiah or the son of Iddo.  It simply referred to a Zechariah who was killed.  The footnote that the commentators added believe that the Zechariah here is Zechariah the son of Jehoida, the one in II Chronicles 24.  And there is good reason that they arrive at that conclusion.  According to Ecclesiastes Rabbah 3:19, Zechariah was killed before the Babylonians invaded Judah.  Zechariah has been dead and buried by the time that Nebuzaradan the captain of the Babylonian guard invades Judah, and his blood is still visible at the Temple.  The passage seems to suggest that the Babylonian invasion of Judah was God's punishment for what Judah did to Zechariah, even though a merciful impulse towards Judah comes over Nebuzaradan at Zechariah's grave.

Zechariah the son of Jehoida, in II Chronicles 24, was killed prior to the Babylonian invasion of Judah.  Zechariah the son of Berechiah lived after the time of the Babylonian invasion, when the Israelites returned from exile.  Ecclesiastes Rabbah 3:19 is talking about a pre-exilic Zechariah, so it probably concerns Zechariah the son of Jehoida in II Chronicles 24, not the prophet Zechariah the son of Berechiah.

The Targum on Lamentations 2:20 is a different story.  C.M.M. Brady's translation of this Targum states the following:

See, O Lord, and observe from heaven against whom you have turned. Thus is it right for the daughters of Israel to eat the fruit of their wombs due to starvation, the lovely boys wrapped in fine linen? The Attribute of Justice replied, and said, “Is it right to kill priest and prophet in the Temple of the LORD, as when you killed Zechariah son of Iddo, the High Priest and faithful prophet in the Temple of the Lord on the Day of Atonement because he admonished you not to do evil before the Lord?”

There, the Zechariah who is killed in the Temple is Zechariah the son of Iddo, the post-exilic prophet Zechariah.  Pate is correct about this passage.

I still have questions, though.  For one, was Zechariah the son of Berechiah/Iddo a high priest, as the Targum suggests?  He was a priest, but was he the high priest?  In the Book of Zechariah, the high priest is Joshua, not Zechariah (Zechariah 3; 6:11).  Does the Targum really have the prophet Zechariah the son of Berechiah/Iddo in mind?  Yet, perhaps one can say that Zechariah the son of Berechiah/Iddo became high priest after the time of Joshua.  Second, the Targum says that Zechariah the son of Iddo was killed on the Day of Atonement.  The reason that this detail stands out to me is that Ecclesiastes Rabbah 3:19 (the source we looked at above) seems to suggest that Zechariah the son of Jehoida was killed on the Day of Atonement: "R. Judan said: Seven transgressions were committed by Israel at that time: they killed a priest, a prophet, and a judge, they shed innocent blood, they defiled the Temple Court, and this was done on the Sabbath which was also the Day of Atonement" (Soncino translation).  This is said immediately after the story of Nebuzaradan visiting the grave of Zechariah.

Were both Zechariahs killed on the Day of Atonement?  Or could it be that the Targum is mixing up and confusing Zechariahs, saying Zechariah the son of Iddo when it really means Zechariah the son of Jehoida (the one killed on the Day of Atonement in Ecclesiastes Rabbah 3:19)?  Could the Targum here be making the same mistake that many scholars think Matthew 23:35 makes?  If so, then the Targum is not actually reflecting a Jewish tradition about the death of Zechariah the son of Berechiah.

I still tend to believe what I said in my post about II Chronicles 24:

Finally, not only is there no evidence that Zechariah the son of Berachiah was martyred, but I also find it unlikely.  Zechariah the son of Jehoiada spoke truth to power and had a message that could get him killed.  Zechariah the son of Berachiah, by contrast, supported the establishment, specifically the attempts by Governor Zerubabbel and Joshua the priest to rebuild Israel.  Why would Zechariah the son of Berechiah be martyred?  Was it because he was challenging post-exilic Jews for not completely giving paganism up?  Still, he was part of the establishment.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Philo and the Unborn in Special Laws III

A while back, I wrote a blog post, "Judaism, Abortion, and Joan," in which I talked about ancient Jewish ideas about the unborn.  The post centered around different Jewish interpretations of Exodus 22:22-25.  This passage states (in the KJV):

If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. 

This passage has often been cited in current debates about abortion.  Is the passage saying that a person who causes a miscarriage should pay a mere fine, which seems to imply that an unborn child is not fully a person?  Or is the passage saying that lex talionis (i.e., eye for eye, life for life) comes into play if a person damages the unborn child, which arguably assumes humanity on the part of the unborn? Many pro-choicers have argued the former, whereas a number of pro-lifers have argued the latter.

I said in my post that the first century Hellenistic Jewish exegete Philo of Alexandria agreed with the latter interpretation.  He does, in a sense, but there is more to the story.

Philo addresses Exodus 22:22-25 in Special Laws III:108-109.  There, he states:

(108) But if any one has a contest with a woman who is pregnant, and strike her a blow on her belly, and she miscarry, if the child which was conceived within her is still unfashioned and unformed, he shall be punished by a fine, both for the assault which he committed and also because he has prevented nature, who was fashioning and preparing that most excellent of all creatures, a human being, from bringing him into existence. But if the child which was conceived had assumed a distinct shape in all its parts, having received all its proper connective and distinctive qualities, he shall die; (109) for such a creature as that is a man, whom he has slain while still in the workshop of nature, who had not thought it as yet a proper time to produce him to the light, but had kept him like a statue lying in a sculptor's workshop, requiring nothing more than to be released and sent out into the world.  (Yonge's translation)

For Philo, Exodus 22:22-25 mandates a fine if a man causes a miscarriage when the unborn child is still unformed, but the death penalty if a man causes the miscarriage of a fully formed unborn child.  The penalty hinges on the stage of the unborn child's development.  People could probably tell if the child was fully formed after it came out of the mother's body.  For Philo, causing the miscarriage of an unborn child who is not fully formed is a serious matter, for it is interrupting nature's creation of a human being.  At the same time, Philo does not appear to regard the unborn child at that stage as fully human, but rather as incomplete in its humanity.

By contrast, Philo does appear to believe that a fully formed unborn child is practically human: nature has finished making the child and has only to release the child into the world.  For Philo, causing the miscarriage of an unborn child at this stage deserves the death penalty, like killing any human being.

Another place where Philo talks about the unborn child is Special Laws III:117-118.  There, Philo says:

(117) Therefore, Moses has utterly prohibited the exposure of children, by a tacit prohibition, when he condemns to death, as I have said before, those who are the causes of a miscarriage to a woman whose child conceived within her is already formed. And yet those persons who have investigated the secrets of natural philosophy say that those children which are still within the belly, and while they are still contained in the womb, are a part of their mothers; and the most highly esteemed of the physicians who have examined into the formation of man, scrutinising both what is easily seen and what is kept concealed with great care, by means of anatomy, in order that, if there should be any need of their attention to any case, nothing may be disregarded through ignorance and so become the cause of serious mischief, agree with them and say the same thing. (118) But when the children are brought forth and are separated from that which is produced with them, and are set free and placed by themselves, they then become real living creatures, deficient in nothing which can contribute to the perfection of human nature, so that then, beyond all question, he who slays an infant is a homicide, and the law shows its indignation at such an action; not being guided by the age but by the species of the creature in whom its ordinances are violated.  (Yonge's translation)

Philo is actually condemning infanticide, the murder of newborn infants that occurred in the Greco-Roman world.  But Philo believes that the unborn are relevant to his discussion.  Philo appears to agree with natural philosophers who maintain that an unborn child is part of its mother.  But a child who is born has become a real living creature and is a human being in his or her own right.  This child is independent of his or her mother, and thus to murder this child would be an act of homicide.  Philo seems to maintain that an unborn child is not fully human.  As we have seen, though, Philo thinks the child is more human once the child has been fully formed in the womb. 

If alive today, Philo would conceivably disapprove of late-term abortions out of a belief that the unborn child at that stage is a human being.  But Philo would probably also disapprove of early-term abortions.  This would not be because he believes the unborn child is human at that stage, but because he would think that such an abortion would interrupt nature's beautiful creation of a human being. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Book Write-Up: The Lion of Princeton, by Kim Riddlebarger

Kim Riddlebarger.  The Lion of Princeton: B.B. Warfield as Apologist and Theologian.  Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015.  See here to purchase the book.

B.B. Warfield was a theologically conservative professor at Princeton in the late nineteenth-early twentieth centuries.  In The Lion of Princeton, Kim Riddlebarger discusses the life and thought of this formidable figure.

The book explores a lot of topics, but the most prominent topic concerns Warfield's thoughts about the relationship between apologetics and grace.  Calvinists believe that a person cannot genuinely come to God without a supernatural act of grace: God unilaterally transforming that person such that the person loves God and righteousness.  For Calvinists, people are too sinful to come to God on their own initiative, and that is why an act of transforming grace is necessary.  But B.B. Warfield was an advocate of classic apologetics, particularly in his defense the historicity of Jesus' resurrection.  For certain Calvinist critics, classic apologetics presumes that the truth can be ascertained by people on the basis of reason and evidence, which nullifies the importance of transforming grace in enabling people to accept the Gospel.  These critics think that the Reformed understanding of conversion and classic apologetics run in different, contrary directions.

Although Warfield was Reformed, he engaged in classic apologetics regarding Jesus' resurrection, and there are scholars who believe that he was compromising Reformed tenets in so doing.  Riddlebarger, however, argues the opposite and presents Warfield as truly Reformed in his thought.  For Warfield, God can make use of apologetics in drawing people to Godself.  Plus, even if the truth can be ascertained through a consideration of the evidence, God needs to transform people so that they can truly embrace and live that truth.  Grace and reason both play a role in conversion, as far as Warfield is concerned.

This looks pretty simple, but the book is still meaty.  For example, Riddlebarger talks about how Warfield responded to Lessing's argument that eternal or general truths cannot be based on the probabilities of history.  Lessing's argument posed a challenge to Warfield's belief that the truth of Christianity could be supported by a historical defense of Jesus' resurrection, so Warfield had a lot to say about it.

In addition, there were areas in which it was difficult to see how Warfield's views on apologetics and grace held together.  On the one hand, Warfield seemed to believe that the Gospel itself was rational: Warfield argued that, even if God needs to transform a person for that person to believe a message, the message itself can still be rational, so there is no necessary contradiction between Calvinist views on conversion and classic apologetics.  On the other hand, Warfield also appeared to maintain that the contents of God's revelation themselves could not be ascertained or supported by evidence or reason, for they are beyond human beings.  What can be supported by evidence, for Warfield, were the signs that authenticated that the message was from God (i.e., miracles, Jesus' resurrection), not the contents of God's revelation itself.  Humans can look at themselves and conclude that they are sinners, but they cannot through reason climb to a knowledge and understanding of God's plan to redeem them: God needs to reveal that to them from above.  But God can still authenticate that message through miracles, and that is accessible to human evaluation of historical evidence.  Warfield apparently believes that the contents of God's revelation and the historical signs need to go together: God's revelation tells us the significance of the historical signs, otherwise the signs would be isolated flukes without much significance by themselves; and yet the signs attest to the truth of the divine revelation, by showing it is from God.  Warfield appears to overlap with both presuppositonal and classic apologists, notwithstanding the criticism that presuppositional apologists have made of his work.

Riddlebarger makes other points in this book as well.  Riddlebarger argues that Warfield's thought was heavily influenced by the Scottish Common Sense tradition.  The Scottish Common Sense tradition maintained that we should trust our sensory perception of the world because we intuit that as common sense; it contended against the skeptical positions of philosophers like David Hume.  As Riddlebarger demonstrates, the concepts of realism (i.e., we can reliably sense, understand, and conceptualize the world), intuition, and induction (we can form conclusions from specific things) that the Scottish Common Sense tradition emphasized played a significant role in Warfield's thought.  They undergirded his focus on history in doing apologetics (which is consistent with realism and induction), as well as his belief that people can intuit basic truths about God (i.e., God's existence).

Riddlebarger also discusses Warfield's polemics against revivalism, specifically the belief among certain revivalists that Christians could become morally and spiritually perfect in this life.  While Warfield did make contributions to fundamentalism, Warfield also differed from many fundamentalists, in key areas.  Riddlebarger also has a chapter about Warfield's textual criticism of the New Testament, which Warfield taught at Princeton.  Warfield believed that the New Testament was inerrant in its original autographs, and that, through textual criticism, we could arrive at a reliable understanding of what those original autographs said.  Surprisingly, according to Riddlebarger, Warfield was controversial among conservatives because he acknowledged that parts of Mark 16 were added later to the text and were not part of the original.  Riddlebarger also briefly discusses Warfield's openness to evolution; according to Riddlebarger, Warfield had an interest in biology.

This book is certainly informative, and it makes a contribution to scholarly discussions about Warfield.  The book was somewhat scattered, however, and I think it could have defined terms more clearly: induction, deduction, Thomism, etc.  A glossary would have been helpful.  The last two pages were rather clear, though, and they did a fairly decent job tying things together and making Riddlebarger's point.  Riddlebarger did not talk that much about Warfield's beliefs on biblical inspiration and inerrancy, which were issues of importance for Warfield.  Riddlebarger mentioned those topics, but he did not really explain the nuances of Warfield's understanding of them.  That, in my opinion, is disappointing.  The book is still a meaty explanation of Warfield's thought.  A background in philosophy and theology would help a reader appreciate this book and understand more of it; yet, a reader without an extensive background in those things can still learn from this book.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Booklet Write-Up: The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, by Timothy Keller

Timothy Keller.  The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness: The Path to True Christian Joy.  United Kingdom: 10Publishing, 2012.  See here to buy the booklet.

I decided to read this after reading L.L. Martin's Positively Powerless.  Martin in her book was talking about how true humility is self-forgetfulness, not thinking less of oneself.  She referred to Tim Keller's The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, which discussed the freedom of not always having to react to things in reference to oneself.  I was curious about what self-forgetfulness is, exactly.  I know that I think about myself often each day.  Even when I am appreciating someone or something else, I am thinking about how that affects me.  Is that wrong?  I doubt that I could repent of that, even if I wanted to!

I was surprised to find how short The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness is.  It is more of a booklet than a book!  By contrast, I was surprised to learn how long another book that Martin recommended is: Randy Alcorn's If God Is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil is over 500 pages!  I still plan to read Alcorn's book, though.  One of the reviews said it is repetitive, yet it is honest about suffering and goes beyond the common Christian platitudes that Christians use about it.  That sounds like a book that I would like to read. 

The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness is like a lot of Tim Keller's sermons that I heard when I attended Redeemer, back when I lived in New York City.  Keller talks about the ego and how empty and fragile it is.  We continually want validation----to feel as if we are worth something.  One path that many of us may take is to avoid hearing criticism of us, so as to guard our feelings.  For Keller, the solution to our fragile ego is recognition of how much value we are to God: Christ died for us.  When we truly believe that, the hole in our ego is filled.  We can think about ourselves less.  We can grow from criticism rather than being afraid of it, for criticism no longer wipes out our personal sense of worth.

Keller's main text in this booklet is I Corinthians 4:3-4.  In that passage, Paul says:

3 But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man's judgment: yea, I judge not mine own self.
4 For I know nothing by myself; yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord. (KJV)

According to Keller, Paul in this passage is saying that he does not care about what others think about him.  What's more, Paul does not care about what he thinks about himself!  Paul realizes that he is not blameless, whether or not he can identify anything specific that he has done wrong, for he is a sinner saved by grace.  What is important to Paul is God's verdict, and God has accepted him and declared him innocent on account of Christ.

Keller has a beautiful passage that practically explains what self-forgetfulness looks like:

Friends, wouldn't you want to be a person who does not need honour----nor is afraid of it?  Someone who does not lust for recognition----nor, on the other hand, is frightened to death of it?...Or perhaps you tend to beat yourself up and to be tormented by regrets.  Wouldn't you like to be free of them?  Wouldn't you like to be the skater who wins the silver, and yet is thrilled about those three triple jumps that the gold medal winner did?  To love it the way you love a sunrise?  Just to love the fact that it was done?  For it not to matter whether it was their success or your success.  Not to care if they did it or you did it.  You are as happy that they did it as if you had done it yourself----because you are just so happy to see it.

I would like to be that sort of person.  And one can probably tell that Tim Keller realizes many people would like to be that sort of person: to have such security, that ego gets taken out of the equation.  To lose oneself by appreciating something else.

Does Keller believe that he is that kind of person?  My hunch is that he thinks it is a process.  When he talks about the fragility of the ego in this booklet, he often speaks in the first-person plural, and he often speaks in the present.  A fragile ego is something that many people, even Christians, deal with. 

One of my favorite things that I heard Tim Keller say in a sermon was when he had just relayed his usual message about how the Gospel changes our perspective and gives us security, and he said: "You may be thinking, 'Now I've attended Redeemer for fifteen years.  I've heard this message already!  I know it by now.'  No you don't!  Why do your feelings still get easily hurt?"  (This is not an exact quotation, but what I roughly remember.)  For Tim Keller, we need to be continually reminded of the Gospel!

How do I respond to this today?  Well, I realize that my ego is fragile.  I can become embittered by criticism.  The line of "What other people say about me is none of my business" resonates with me a lot.  When I get a hint (correct or incorrect) that someone is about to tell me what somebody else said about me, I stop the person right there.  I am aware of my propensity towards bitterness.  I realize that, if I am to avoid hateful feelings towards certain people, I need to protect myself from knowing what they truly think about me.

I also believe that it is good to have something secure to grasp and to hold on to through the vicissitudes of life and the fragility of the ego.  God's love for me is one such thing.  Thinking about that may give me a better attitude, but it does not entirely cure me of my insecure ego.  I am still insecure----and hyper-self-conscious----about social situations.  I still have difficulty being around certain people, especially the types who speak their mind and put me down.  Part of the problem may be that I have difficulty fully believing in God's love.  There are so many worldviews out there, so how can I believe that this one is correct?  There are Scriptures that understandably give people spiritual insecurity, and that includes me.  Tim Keller said more than once when I went to Redeemer that, the more God's love for us becomes real to us, the more secure we become.  He is probably correct about that: it needs to become real to us.  How this occurs is a good question.  Tim Keller talked about the Holy Spirit, the importance of a loving Christian community that affirms the Gospel, and apologetics (i.e., N.T. Wright's argument for the historicity of Jesus' resurrection) as ways that we can receive assurance.  But, in my opinion, things do not always work out that neatly, at least not for everyone.

Then there is the question of how we should treat others.  When I hurt someone's feelings, should my response be: "Well, that person should be stronger than that!  That person should be secure in Christ!"  I am not saying that I reconcile with everyone I have offended, but I also do not think that I should expect others to wear inner suits of armor.  If I hurt someone's feelings, I should be sympathetic and empathetic to that person and should apologize, in part because I know how it feels to be hurt.  That is loving our neighbors as ourselves, or treating others as we would like to be treated (Matthew 7:12).

In terms of self-forgetfulness, I believe that I think about myself less when I read.  Even then, I cannot take myself completely out of the equation, for I am asking myself in reading what I identify with, and I am reading what interests me specifically.  At the same time, I am entering someone else's world, and that leans in the direction of self-forgetfulness.  But I have to admit: when it comes to social situations, I do want some attention or affirmation, and yet it is not always easy for me to give others attention or affirmation, to be genuinely interested in listening to other people talk about their lives.  Even Tim Keller asks how we would feel if we were talking to a person and that person continually brought the subject back to himself or herself.  He presumes that we would be annoyed, as strong and as secure in Christ as we are supposed to be!  I hope that I can arrive at a place of genuinely being interested in others, while God's love fills my own personal "What about me?" whole. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Book Write-Up: Wrapped in the Flag, by Claire Conner

Claire Conner.  Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America's Radical Right.  Boston: Beacon Press, 2013.  See here to buy the book.  See also here, which has a later edition of the book.  One of the Amazon reviews there is by Claire's sister, Janet Conner.

Claire Conner's parents were dedicated and high-ranking members of the right-wing John Birch Society.  They knew high-ranking people in the group, and also a number of high-ranking people in America's right-wing, in general.

In Wrapped in the Flag, Claire Conner talks about her experiences with the John Birch Society and others on the right.  Her narrative goes from the 1940's through the 2000's.  In part, the book seems to be a catharsis for her, as she comes to terms with her feelings about her parents, both positive and the negative.  At the same time, she also believes that her experiences are relevant to America today.  While the John Birch Society no longer has the prominence that it once had, its ideas live on, particularly in the ideas held by the Tea Party.

I have been wanting to read this book for a long time.  I have long had an interest in the John Birch Society, so I was curious about what it would have been like being in that movement, or growing up in it.  I grew up reading Birch literature and Birch-like literature.  I enjoyed it because it presented an alternative version of history, and.spouting Birch-like views was also my personal way of rebelling against the establishment!  I am more to the Left now than I was then, but I do not thoroughly dismiss what I read in Birch literature.  Some of its tenets are still a part of my belief-system: a recognition that government often serves the interests of the rich and powerful, a belief that things are not always as they seem, an aversion to war (yet, JBS views on war were rather complicated), etc.

I grew up in an offshoot of Herbert W. Armstrong's Worldwide Church of God, and I think that people who grew up in ultra-conservative versions of that movement will identify with Claire Conner's story.  A lot of what Claire talked about was familiar to me----not because my experiences in Armstrongism were so bad, but because I know about people with worse experiences in it.  Claire's parents had a rather pessimistic view about the future, for they were paranoid that socialism, Communism, or the new world order could come to America anytime soon.  They expected their daughter to toe the right-wing line, and they often became outraged when she did not.  When Claire received a scholarship to the University of Illinois and was recommended by the governor, they forbade Claire to go because she may be indoctrinated by liberals there, plus they disliked the governor because they thought that he was too liberal.  They told her to go to the conservative Catholic University of Dallas instead (which today is widely-respected, but back then it was unaccredited and was finding its wings).  They refused to pay for Claire's college because money was tight, but they continued giving money generously to right-wing causes.  Survivors of Armstrongism may recognize the rigidity and the stance towards money in their own experiences.  If there is a difference between the two, it may be that Armstrongites expected the end to come soon and believed that would be followed by the second coming of Jesus Christ; Birchers, by contrast, tried to stop the end through mass education and political activism.

In reading this book, I came to understand better the ruptures that occurred within the American right.  After reading this book, I think that the rupture was primarily over what stance America should take towards Communism.  I do not think that the rupture was primarily about racism: from what Conner says, Bill Buckley and Robert Welch tolerated racists such as Revilo Oliver (a holocaust denier) within their movement, and they only parted ways with them when the racists made them look bad.  But there was a difference between the mainsteam right and the Birchers on how to handle Communism.  My understanding is that the mainstream right believed in a strong national defense and aggressive foreign intervention to combat Communism.  The Birchers sometimes echoed that, but there were also times when they were singing another tune.  They believed that Communists were literally running the U.S. Government.
Consequently, they thought that any war America would enter, including the Vietnam War, would serve the interests of the Communists, so they spoke out against the Vietnam War.  Many Birchers viewed the Cuban Missile Crisis as a ruse.  Robert Welch even questioned whether the Soviets had a superior military: they had the U.S. military to serve their ends, after all!  Why, then, would they need a superior military?  And why should we be spending more money to build up our military, out of fear of Soviet military superiority?  Welch differed from mainstream conservatives on that.  I read somewhere that the difference between the John Birch Society and Phyllis Schlafly was that the Birchers viewed Communism primarily as an internal threat, whereas Schlafly saw it more as an external threat.  That makes sense to me, after reading Conner's book.

The book was an interesting account of who was who in the American right.  I recognized many names, while learning new ones.  A new name that I learned was that of Revilo Oliver, who, according to Conner, was the one who introduced concern about the Illuminati into the Birch ideology.  Conner also had informative asides about the history of the Catholic church's stance towards abortion.  According to her, the Catholic church's rigid stance against abortion today was not always its stance.  For this, she cites Peter De Rosa's Vicars of Christ, pages 365-377. 

Conner respects her parents' strength, determination, and intellectual interests.  But she also seems to have understandable resentments about the past.  On some issues (i.e., Mao's brutality, opposition to the Iraq War), she can identify with her parents or the JBS.  Overall, however, she seems to believe that their views are bizarre or short-sighted, and she would probably dismiss the views as eccentric if they did not have the influence that they have.  Their influence definitely concerns her.

What started Claire Conner on the journey of questioning her parents?  For one, she was comparing her parents before they became Birchers to how they were after joining.  Before joining, they were nicer parents.  And her Dad, a WWII veteran, at least saw American intervention in WWII as justifiable before he became a Bircher, whereas he starting questioning that the Holocaust even happened after becoming one!  (Note: The John Birch Society itself has written against Hitler, and it has even been criticized by Holocaust revisionists.  See here.  But I am not surprised that racists and Holocaust deniers gravitated towards the JBS.)  Second, Claire read books and had experiences that encouraged her to question.  One of her teachers allowed her to borrow books from her library if she kept her grades up, and one book that Claire read was John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me, a critical look at racism in the American South.  That led Claire to question what her parents and the JBS was saying about the American South and the Civil Rights Movement.

I have read Birch and Birch-like literature as a hobby, or as an intellectual interest.  Some of it, I buy, and some of it I don't.  Claire Conner talks about what happened when people took those ideas seriously.  Ideas can have consequences! 

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