Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Colossians and Gnosticism, Talents as Forgiveness, Rebels and Exiles, Resurrecting Justice

 My church write-up, followed by two book write-ups:

A. The Bible study is continuing its way through Colossians. On Sunday, the pastor talked about Gnosticism, since Paul in Colossians is probably fighting a proto-Gnostic Christian heresy.

The Gnostics believed that God is utterly spirit and is separate from the material realm. As far as the Gnostics were concerned, spirit is good and material is bad. There are levels between God and the material world, and a key aspect of spiritual advancement is going through those levels to reach the non-material God. Gnosis means knowledge, and Gnostics maintained that people could receive a secret knowledge from God about some mystery. For the Gnostics, the material does not matter. Some Gnostics fought the flesh because they viewed it as evil, whereas others indulged the flesh because they felt it was irrelevant. According to the pastor, there were official Gnostic institutions, but Gnosticism also infiltrated other religions. Christianity especially fell prey to it because Christians, like Gnostics, held that God is spirit.

The pastor argued that Paul in Colossians was employing Gnostic terminology so as to subvert the heresy. Paul’s statement in Colossians 2:9 that, in Jesus, the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily would have been anathema to Gnostics, who radically separated the spiritual Godhead from the material body. Paul, like the Gnostics, believed in a divine mystery, but, unlike the Gnostics, he held that God was proclaiming this mystery publicly rather than secretly and to select individuals (Colossians 1:26-27). Paul, too, believed in knowledge (gnosis) and understanding, but the knowledge and understanding that the Gospel provides bears fruit in this world, including love for the saints, rather than seeking to transcend the material world (Colossians 1:9-10).

At the same time, I observe that there is an otherworldliness, and perhaps even an individualism, in Colossians. The hope of the Colossians is laid up in heaven, and they are to seek the things above, not the things on earth (Colossians 1:5; 3:1-2). Their lives are hidden in Christ as they go through this world, and Christ inside of them is their hope of glory (Colossians 1:27; 3:3). Perhaps Paul (or whoever wrote Colossians) sought to clarify where Christianity overlapped with and diverged from the Gnostic heresy.

As a shy introvert, I tend to gravitate towards a spirituality that is interior and otherworldly, especially in seasons when I do not fit in. But I still believe in helping people. As pissed off as I am at Democrats these days, I winced when I read that Republican South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem sneered at a Christian charity by tweeting that “there is no free lunch.”

B. The pastor in his sermon spoke briefly about Jesus’s Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). He said that he does not believe it is so much about vocation as it is spreading Jesus’s forgiveness in the world. The Parable of the Talents has long troubled me, especially since the fruitless servant appears to be condemned to hell for his fruitlessness. I have no problem with the idea that we should do something with what God has given us rather than ignoring or neglecting it. But, for some reason, I think that salvation should be based solely on God’s free grace, no strings attached. Why do I think that? Why should salvation work that way, in my mind? Perhaps my feeling results from a combination of two factors. First, it is wishful thinking on my part: I hope that salvation is solely by grace because I know how abysmally short I fall from God’s standards. Second, the grace message is prominent within Christianity, so there is outward affirmation of the idea that salvation should be solely by grace, no efforts on our part.

C. Matthew S. Harmon. Rebels and Exiles: A Biblical Theology of Sin and Restoration. IVP Academic, 2020. Go here to purchase the book.

Matthew S. Harmon has a doctorate from Wheaton College and teaches New Testament at Grace College and Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana. This book is part of the Essential Studies in Biblical Theology series, which, according to the back cover, takes “cues from Genesis 1-3” and traces “the presence of these themes throughout the entire sweep of redemptive history.”

As the title indicates, this book is about exile. Adam and Eve were exiled from God’s presence at the Fall. Israel was exiled from her land and God’s presence. And the New Testament uses the language of exile and return. In Christ, people who were alienated from God are returned to him, and Christians in this world are strangers and exiles.

The book is a pleasant read, although, with a few exceptions, I cannot say that I learned much from it that was earthshakingly new to me. Harmon in a footnote refers to N.T. Wright’s view that Jews in Second Temple times believed they were still in exile, even though they lived in their land, while referring to possible indications to the contrary in Second Temple literature. Harmon also speculated that God may have intended for Adam in the Garden to suppress the serpent, which I have read elsewhere, but it was nice to encounter that idea again.

The book would have been better had it more effectively integrated Old Testament prophetic expectations with the New Testament. Harmon tries to do this, on some level. The Old Testament prophets depict Israel’s restoration as inaugurating a new creation, and a new creation is part of Jesus’s restoration of sinners to God. Harmon observes that Israel’s return from exile failed to inaugurate this new creation, so there must be a fuller fulfillment of this hope that transcends the Jewish people’s return to their land. Harmon briefly says at one point that the New Testament treats Israel’s restoration from exile as a metaphor for the sinner’s return to God.

Perhaps I was hoping for a fuller and more sustained treatment of this issue, especially since the Old and New Testaments appear to present two different pictures. The Old Testament prophets emphasize Israel’s return to her land as the nexus for the new creation, whereas the New Testament largely appears to depart from that concept in favor of a spiritual understanding. At least overall, as there are exceptions to that: a case can be made that Jesus in the Gospels sought to restore the nation of Israel.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.

D. Douglas Harink. Resurrecting Justice: Reading Romans for the Life of the World. IVP Academic, 2020. Go here to purchase the book.

Douglas Harink teaches theology at The King’s University in Edmonton, Alberta.

Paul in Romans speaks frequently about “righteousness” (Greek, dikaiosune). What is this righteousness? For many Protestants, it is God imputing Christ’s righteousness to sinners such that God sees them as righteous rather than as the sinners that they actually are. The “Romans Road” approach to evangelism exemplifies this understanding: you are a sinner, Christ paid the penalty for your sins, you accept that, and God now accounts you as righteous. For Catholics, “righteousness” refers to God transforming people such that they become practically righteous; this righteousness is infused rather than imputed.

Harink goes a different route, even though he preserves aspects of the Protestant and Catholic understandings. Harink interprets “righteousness” in Romans as justice. God seeks to deliver people from bondage to sin, especially systemic sin, and to create a loving community in which people accept each other regardless of social class, a radical concept in the ancient world. This occurs through God’s efforts, not human attempts to exert power and control. God’s sheer mercy to sinners contrasts with human attempts to control others, and Abraham trusted that God would bring about justice rather than trying to bring it about himself. In the tradition of John Howard Yoder, Harink appears to be a pacifist.

God’s free mercy and grace are still a part of Harink’s interpretation of Romans, in accordance with Protestants, but “righteousness” still has a practical dimension, as Catholics maintain.

The book has compelling discussions. First, there was the discussion of whether Paul in Romans 1-3 regards all humans as depraved. Harink argues in the negative. Paul in Romans 2 acknowledges that humans do good and bad. But people are trapped in bondage to sin, especially systemic sin, and many are victimized by such a system. God, in God’s goodness, seeks to deliver people from that system. This discussion especially resonated with me, since I have long read Romans 3 and thought to myself, “All humans are not THAT bad, are they?”

Second, Harink talks about the importance of the nation of Israel in God’s plan. God, through Israel, revealed Godself to the nations, which were trapped in idolatry. Israel is indispensable in this part of God’s plan, which is why Paul struggles with most of Israel’s unbelief in Romans 9-11.

The question would then be whether Harink makes a convincing case. On this, I am ambivalent. The “Romans Road” evangelistic interpretation appears neat and clean, even though I struggle with how well it accords with the reality of how humans are. Harink, in my opinion, fails to demonstrate that Abraham’s righteousness was of a systemic sort, and there lingers the question of whether humans are to have any role at all in bringing this about or if God acts unilaterally. Human participation would seem to be necessary, on some level, since people do not naturally come together and create a loving, forgiving community: they have to work at it, and even then, they fall short.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Church Write-Up: Midnight, Transformed, New Colossians Class


Some items from church:

A. Last week was Epiphany. The pastor in his sermon talked about New Year’s Day and how people act as if the dawn of a new year will actually change things. How can a new calendar date change anything for the better? He wondered why the new year, and each day, for that matter, starts at midnight rather than dawn. I did a search, and the results were largely variations of this post, only this post traces the custom to ancient Egypt, whereas other sites trace it to ancient Rome. Essentially, the reason for starting the day at midnight is that the sun is at its nadir at 12 p.m. and twelve hours later than 12 p.m. is 12 a.m.

B. The pastor this morning drew a contrast between incomplete repentance and being transformed by love. Many of us repent in a half-ass manner. “I’m sorry, but you started it.” Or “I’m sorry, but don’t expect me to inconvenience myself to make extravagant restitution.” When we are transformed by God’s love, though, we are willing to do things that otherwise we would rather not do. A single person watching his married friend change a diaper may think, “I’m glad that is not me!” But the person changing the diaper does so willingly out of love. This seems to be a Lutheran approach: to get Christians to appreciate God’s love, grace, and gifts, in belief that this will lead to their spiritual transformation.

C. The church started a Bible study class about Colossians. The pastor went through three proposals about where Paul wrote Colossians (yes, he is aware of the view that Paul did not write it, but he rejects that view). Paul wrote Colossians from prison. Paul was in prison in Ephesus, Caesarea, and twice in Rome: the first time in Rome was a house arrest, whereas the second time was in the typical underground prison. At Caesarea, Paul was on house arrest, in which he could freely interact with others, for he had proclaimed his Roman citizenship and talked with Gallio. It would be an ideal condition for Paul to write a letter, for Paul could dictate it and send it to the church at Colossae. Ephesus, however, is close to Colossae and Laodicea, which is mentioned in Colossians. If Paul wrote Colossians there, he would have dictated it through a wall.

D. The pastor also compared Colossians to other letters in the Mediterranean world. Letters started by identifying the author and audience, then they said “grace and peace” to the audience. The pastor said that Christians can understand “grace and peace” in Colossians in light of Christ: Paul’s audience is under God’s grace and is in a state of peace with God. Mediterranean letters were short because parchment was expensive, whereas Paul’s is longer.

E. The pastor observed that Paul in Colossians feels no need to defend his apostleship, as he does in Galatians and I-II Corinthians. In Colossians, Paul simply assumes it. Still, Paul contends with a heresy in Colossae, one that treats Christ as merely an expression of God rather than as God himself. Paul affirms that everything began and will end in Christ.

Book Write-Up: Free to Choose, by Milton and Rose Friedman

Milton and Rose Friedman. Free to Choose: A Personal Statement. HBJ, 1979, 1980. See here to purchase the book.

Milton Friedman was a Nobel Prize-winning economist, known for his advocacy of monetarism and free market economics. He met his wife, Rose, in a graduate program in economics, so she, too, was knowledgeable about the field.

Here are some thoughts and observations:

A. I read this book in conjunction with Binyamin Appelbaum’s The Economists’ Hour, which has excellent discussions on Milton Friedman’s contributions to economics. Reading both gave me a better understanding of monetarism. In the past, I have been puzzled about what exactly Friedman believed about inflation and the money supply. On the one hand, G. Edward Griffin said in The Creature of Jekyll Island that Friedman was in favor of restricting the money supply to lower inflation. On the other hand, David Stockman in The Great Deformation chastised Friedman for wanting to detach the dollar from the gold standard. Who was right? In a sense, both were. The Friedmans definitely supported limiting the money supply, and the growth of the money supply, as a way to combat and prevent inflation. They did not support a return to the gold standard, though. They acknowledge that there were times when the federal government needed to print more money, for they attribute the deepening of the Great Depression, in part, to the failure of the government to supply the failing banks with more cash. The key is to make sure that the amount of money in circulation does not dramatically outpace productivity, for that can lead to inflation: higher prices that result from the demand for products exceeding their supply.

B. Applebaum in his book says that Friedman believed inflation was primarily related to money supply. Prices on individual items can go up due to other factors, but general inflation is caused by an increase in the money supply. In Free to Choose, the Friedmans do focus on money supply as the contributor to inflation. They also think that government spending is a contributing factor, but this, too, is related to the money supply because the money, in part, comes from the Federal Reserve increasing its supply, and inflation rises as the government spending accentuates demand. The Friedmans also criticize labor unions as contributing to high prices, but, as was said, this may refer to prices on a case-by-case basis rather than inflation in general.

C. Depending on the issue, the Friedmans were more liberal than I expected and more conservative than I expected. In the section on the environment, the Friedmans essentially endorse a cap-and-trade sort of policy and more taxes on pollution, with the tax revenue being used to clean up the pollution. Nowadays, it is mostly the Democrats who support cap-and-trade for carbon omissions and Republicans who oppose it. On where the Friedmans were more radically conservative than I anticipated, they advocate the abolition of the FDA. The Friedmans lament how the FDA hinders the invention, development, and distribution of medication, and they are fairly optimistic that the free market wants safe products and that consumers can make their own decisions with information that the government provides.

D. Applebaum argues that Friedman was a late convert to supply-side economics, the idea that tax cuts can stimulate economic growth and lead to increased revenue. What was the Friedmans’ position on tax cuts in Free to Choose? They support the abolition of the corporate income tax and speak favorably of states’ limitations of tax rates. They are critical of how inflation pushes people into higher tax brackets, even as their standard of living remains the same. The Friedmans also support a negative income tax to take the place of welfare programs. Overall, though, the Friedmans’ primary concern is with the growth in government spending. In many cases, they note, the government chooses not to raise taxes to keep up with government spending because that is politically unpopular, so it has the Federal Reserve print out more money instead. The result is inflation, which is a hidden tax.

E. The Friedmans repeatedly argue that government intervention redistributes money from the lower economic classes to the higher ones. It reinforces inefficient, costly cartels in the fields of railroads and airports, among other areas. The people who lobby most for an increase in the minimum wage are not the poor, who can benefit from the availability of more work due to lower wages, but rather the unions, which do not want their workers to compete with low wages. The Friedmans make legitimate observations, but their point about the unions and the minimum wage may be more obsolete now due to the decline of unions, and their point about the upward redistribution of wealth may need some updating because lower income people nowadays do not pay much, if any, federal income tax.

F. The Friedmans argue robustly for school choice and voucher programs, and they actually attempt to respond to critiques of their position. Against the charge that school choice can lead to greater racial segregation, they point out that segregation already exists in the public schools, as people send their children to the public schools in their neighborhood. If people attended schools based on common interests rather than where they live, we might have diverse schools. Against the argument that school choice is expensive, the Friedmans state that private schools have often gotten better academic results, with little money.

G. The Friedmans support free trade, since that makes goods and products cheaper and enables people to have more money to spend on other goods and products. But what if Americans are buying more from other countries than they are selling to them? Does that not benefit other countries more than Americans? The Friedmans think that things will work out well for Americans, too. People in other countries receive dollars for the products that they sell to Americans, and those dollars are good for buying American products, especially if the American dollar is stronger than the native currency. That sounds reasonable, but I doubt that it excuses or dismisses the problem of outsourcing leading to a decline in American manufacturing jobs.

This book contains a lot of the usual conservative spiel, though it was clearly influential and groundbreaking at the time. The book is lucid overall, and the Friedmans do well to walk the reader step-by-step through what happens when the government is raising money so it can spend more, and who is affected in the process. I believe that I gained greater insight into the Friedmans’ economic views as a result of reading this book.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Book Write-Up: The Devil’s Chessboard, by David Talbot

David Talbot. The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government. HarperCollins, 2015. See here to purchase the book.

David Talbot founded and edited Salon, and he was also senior editor for the left-wing Mother Jones.

Allen Dulles was the long-time director of the Central Intelligence Agency, particularly during the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations. I wanted to read this book after I watched Talbot’s speech on C-Span. Talbot talked about Dulles’s possible role in the JFK assassination, and I have some interest in JFK conspiracy theories.

In this review, I will compare what Talbot says with three things. First, I will compare it John Bircher narratives, since Talbot talks about the same characters who appear in those, albeit from a different perspective. Second, I will compare Talbot with Oliver Stone’s JFK movie. Third, I will compare what Talbot says about Fidel Castro with the work of Cuban-American writer Servando Gonzales, who argues that Castro was a CIA mole.

A. John Birchers believe there is a conspiracy to create a socialistic one-world government, and that Allen Dulles, and especially the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in which he was prominent, pushed for that goal. Talbot, however, depicts Dulles as a staunch anti-Communist. Dulles held many of the same views on foreign policy as Birchers: a desire to keep Eastern Europe from falling to Communism after World War II (and Dulles actually worked with Nazis in pursuit of that goal), opposition to unilateral disarmament, and vigorous opposition to such leaders as Fidel Castro and Patrice Lumumba. Whereas Birchers characterize leaders like Lumumba as Communists, Talbot argues that they were non-Communists, populists, and nationalists, who undermined U.S. economic interests in their countries. The CFR and David Rockefeller, according to Talbot, were against countries falling to Communism because that would undermine Western economic activity in those countries. Birchers regard the mainstream media as left-wing, but Talbot treats it as largely right-wing and as beholden to the CIA. The Hearst and Luce publishing empires were conservative, and American newspapers accepted and promulgated the CIA-crafted narrative that leftist foreign leaders were unpopular Communist dictators. Birchers believe that Communist infiltration in the U.S. government during the 1930’s-1950’s was a real and serious threat, but Talbot argues that the people accused of being Communist or Communist sympathizers were Communists when the U.S. was on the Soviet Union’s side during World War II, or (in the case of Harry Dexter White) merely engaged in informal diplomacy. One area in which Birchers and Talbot overlap is that, in both narratives, Dulles challenged and ultimately took down Senator Joseph McCarthy. For Talbot, Dulles did so because McCarthy was getting out of hand, threatening to investigate people in Dulles’s CIA.

B. Overall, Talbot’s narrative about the JFK assassination resembles that of Oliver Stone’s JFK. Oliver Stone depicts Kennedy as the victim of the American intelligence community, which considered him soft on Communism. Allen Dulles, moreover, resented that President Kennedy fired him from the CIA while threatening to split the CIA into a thousand pieces. Talbot essentially depicts Kennedy as a progressive leader, one who disliked war on account of his own experiences in World War II and pursued peace with the Soviet Union. Kennedy also made controversial moves against American business interests, such as increased taxes on the wealthy, banning the wealthy from taking their wealth overseas, and stopping price hikes by American steel companies. Talbot offers more documentation (especially primary source documentation) and details for his claims. For instance, he speculates that Corsican gangsters were the shooters of JFK, since “they were harder to trace back to the CIA than Italian or American Mafia hit men” (page 501). Talbot offers possible reasons that Lyndon Johnson may have wanted JFK to go, such as JFK planning to drop Johnson from the ticket. Talbot also diverges from Stone’s narrative, in some areas. Stone depicts the Paines (under pseudonyms), who housed Marina Oswald, as CIA agents, whereas Talbot does not go that far, though he does note their connections with the Dulles circle. Discerning Talbot’s view on Lee Harvey Oswald’s precise role in the conspiracy was difficult, for Talbot contends that Oswald did things for the CIA yet takes at face value that Oswald had genuine left-wing beliefs; Dulles sometimes did use leftists for his ends, Talbot narrates, particularly Quakers. Hypnotism and mind-control, of the sort that occurs in the Manchurian Candidate, is a theme that recurs throughout Talbot’s book, for Talbot suggests that Oswald and even Sirhan-Sirhan (in the case of the RFK assassination) may have been victims of that, at the hands of the CIA. A weakness to this book is that Talbot fails to engage the argument that Kennedy sought to escalate American involvement in Vietnam.

C. Servando Gonzales argues that Fidel Castro was a CIA mole. According to Gonzales, the U.S. government was enthusiastic about Castro when he was rising to power. CIA attempts to overthrow Castro were a mere ruse, designed to fail and intended to obliterate the anti-Castro opposition in Cuba. Khrushchev was suspicious of Castro because Castro initiated contact with him rather than vice-versa, Castro was opposed by the Communist Party in Cuba, and Castro was unaccounted for during a significant period of time; according to Gonzales, Khrushchev actually attempted to overthrow Castro, at one point. Castro also protected American business interests when he sent troops to Angola. Some of what Talbot says overlaps with this. Talbot agrees that the U.S. government was initially positive about Castro, but, unlike Gonzales, Talbot accepts at face value that it turned on him, since Castro threatened American business interests in Cuba. Talbot also presents the Bay of Pigs as a bit of a ruse, as if the CIA was setting it up to fail. But, in contrast with Gonzales, Talbot holds that Dulles was hoping this would encourage President Kennedy to take a tough stand at the last minute.

This is an interesting book to read. It gets into the personalities of the people and their conflicting interests. It also offers some gossipy, behind-the-scenes stories (i.e., Ike’s racial slurs, Clare Booth Luce was not the good girl she depicted herself as, Joe McCarthy’s homosexual dalliances, Dulles’s and J. Edgar Hoover’s dirt on each other, etc.).

I checked this book out from the library. My review is honest.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

The Federalist: Georgia Confirms The Pre-Trump GOP Is Dead And Gone

“Instead of being beholden to a wealthy donor class and the exhausted ideas and slogans of the Reagan era, Republicans could embrace populism and become a right-of-center, multiracial, working-class party. Studies of the 2016 electorate indicated GOP voters were more economically liberal and socially conservative than anyone had thought, while Democrats were moving steadily to the left on both counts.”

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

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