FSE: Knowing

Yesterday, I saw Knowing, which starred Nicholas Cage.

Knowing is a science fiction movie. At its beginning, we’re in the 1950′s, and we meet an odd little girl named Lucinda, whose special idea is selected by her school. Her idea is for the school to create a time capsule, which would be opened four decades later. While the other students are putting in pictures they drew of what they think the future will be like, Lucinda puts in a page of numbers.

Four decades later, a little boy is handed Lucinda’s page of numbers, and his father, an MIT professor, learns that it details a series of disasters from the 1950′s until the end of life on earth, which is imminent. The professor gets in touch with Lucinda’s daughter and granddaughter. His son and Lucinda’s granddaughter both hear messages from strange whispering people, who give them visions of the coming destruction of earth by a solar flare. These whisperers turn out to be aliens, who are trying to get the kids off of earth. Guided by the aliens and the numbers, the two kids go to a place where a spaceship can take them away, allowing them to start life anew on another planet. We see from the other spaceships leaving the earth that these kids were not the only ones chosen to survive.

The movie puzzled me at first. Why would Lucinda need to write the numbers, if the aliens offered the kids direct guidance, making the numbers apparently superfluous? And how did the other children know the way to leave earth, since they did not have an MIT-professor father who could decode the numbers?

For the first question, I concluded that the numbers represented the aliens’ attempt to involve the professor in the whole process–of getting the kids off the planet. If the kids were just relying on visions from the aliens, then the professor probably wouldn’t have believed them, or he would have resented the aliens for trying to take away his son. But the numbers involved him in the process of gradually learning about the earth’s imminent destruction, so he was more at peace with the aliens’ agenda at the end of the movie, since it didn’t come out of the clear blue sky.

For my second question, I concluded that the aliens guided other children off of the planet in different ways. The numbers were their way to help Lucinda’s granddaughter and the professor’s son, but they could have used other means to get the other children off of earth–in a manner that respected the kids’ free will and the parents’ reluctance to be separated from their children.

This reminds me of a few things. First of all, the movie makes a big deal about determinism vs. randomness. On his blog, Roger Ebert states that the movie assumes everything that happens has been determined in the past and thus cannot be changed. For Ebert, such a notion undermines human free will, which is a key component of many theistic religions. But, in my opinion, the aliens work with human free will rather than against it. None of the human characters are robots, but they have their own thoughts, feelings, and emotions as human beings. The aliens respect humanity, which is why they resort to guiding the professor and the children to the right conclusions by giving them puzzles to work out. Similarly, even Calvinists assert that God uses means to bring the elect to Christ, meaning that (for them) it’s not just a matter of God pre-programming people towards the Christian religion. Those who believe in fate and predestination do not erase from the equation the human ability to make choices, to feel, to experiment, to have opinions–in short, to be human.

Second, I thought about James McGrath’s recent posts on Jesus’ resurrection on his blog, www.exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com. McGrath dismisses a lot of Christian apologetics for the resurrection of Jesus. Christian apologists say we know Jesus rose because of the empty tomb and the mass sightings of the risen Jesus. According to McGrath, such an argument does not coincide with the Bible. In John, when Mary sees the empty tomb, she does not conclude that Jesus rose from the dead, but rather that someone moved the body. That means that the empty tomb didn’t necessarily prove the resurrection, in the mindset of the early Christians. And Matthew’s Gospel states that some people doubted when they saw the risen Jesus. For McGrath, there were a variety of reasons that the early Christians concluded that Jesus rose from the dead. McGrath does not list them (as far as I know), but possibilities include seeing the risen Jesus and the prophecies of the Old Testament.

Similarly, in terms of the movie Knowing, the aliens use a variety of means to bring the children to the truth: the numbers, direct guidance, their connection with their family, etc. That may be how God interacts with Christians today. Sure, he gives us a book that contains his general will, and it fulfills a role similar to that of the numbers in the movie. But he also guides us through his Holy Spirit and other people (or so Christians claim).

Anyway, these are just my thoughts. See Knowing, even though my post just gave you a lot of spoilers!

Published in: on April 10, 2009 at 5:17 pm  Comments (2)  

FSE: Smoke Monster, Joan Actors

Last night, I watched Lost, Criminal Mind, and the new ABC series, The Unusuals.

1. Last night’s lost was about the judgment of Ben Linus, who had some humanity within him when he refused to kill Alex Rousseau. Over the years, however, he degenerated to become much more cruel and heartless, leading to the death of Alex (whom he was raising as his own daughter). In last night’s episode, he went to the temple to summon the smoke monster, who would judge him for his sins. He entered the building not knowing whether the monster would kill him or allow him to live.

I can’t really express what I think about the smoke monster. It appears to be immoral or amoral because it has killed so many innocent people, yet I see from last night that it has the moral sensibility to confront Ben Linus about his past behavior. Maybe it’s like the shooter in Phone Booth: he’s immoral in the sense that he kills innocent people, yet he has enough of a God-complex to judge Colin Farrell’s lifestyle.

Is the smoke monster like God? Going into the temple not knowing whether one will live or die reminds me of the Old Testament’s tabernacle protocol, in which a person was not allowed to stroll into God’s sanctuary unannounced, lest God would kill him. As far as I know, it really didn’t matter if the person was good or bad: if he disobeyed the sanctuary protocol, then he lost his life. Consider Uzzah, whom God killed for merely trying to stabilize the tumbling ark!

At the same time, God did appear to people in some capacity, and they were usually shocked that they were alive after seeing God. They’re like Benjamin Linus, who is relieved that the smoke monster has allowed him to live.

Another tension is that there are times in the Bible in which God preserves the innocent from his wrath, and then there are times when he destroys the innocent along with the guilty (punishing the group, transgenerational punishment, punishing a man’s family for his sins, etc.). Similarly, the smoke monster appears to kill the innocent, yet there are also times when it regards people according to their individual moral merit. I think that God differs from the smoke monster in the sense that God doesn’t go around killing people for no reason, since the innocent perish when he is carrying out an act of judgment on an immoral group.

2. I watched The Unusuals because it has Amber Tamblyn from Joan of Arcadia. She looks good, even if she was a big-time Hillary supporter (which part of me actually admires because at least she wasn’t going with the Obama fad but dared to be different). But what was interesting was that I got to see another Joan of Arcadia actor: on CBS’ Criminal Mind (which I ordinarily don’t watch because it’s on the same time as Lost, but my dad has DVR, so I got to see both last night). Criminal Mind has the guy who played Will Giradi, Joan’s dad. So I got to see two Joan of Arcadia actors in the same night. How cool is that?

Published in: on April 10, 2009 at 12:10 am  Leave a Comment  

FSE: John 14-17

I celebrated the Lord’s supper yesterday, the night before Passover. Within Armstrongite circles, there is a tradition that we read John 14-17 during the Lord’s supper. I’m not an Armstrongite anymore, but I like to read these chapters every year, and I notice something new whenever I read them.

This year, the chapters offered comfort, but they also intrigued me in some cases, and they were a huge turn off in others. The comforting part was Christ’s promise to send the Holy Spirit to his disciples, ensuring that they would not be orphans when he was gone.

The intriguing part concerned Christ promising that God would grant the disciples whatever they requested in Jesus’ name. I think of John 15:16, which states that Jesus appointed us to bear lasting fruit “so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you” (NAB). We bear spiritual fruit so that God will grant our every request, meaning we need to have the character of God before God will give us everything we want; and, of course, us thinking like God will shape our desires and requests.

Do I buy this? Part of me sees this as a cop out, since who among us will ever have the character of God? If these are the rules of the game, then God can always use our imperfections as an excuse not to answer our prayers. In addition, I think that a good person can make a fundamentally decent prayer that can remain unanswered. Does God answer every prayer for healing, even though it is made out of love and concern for another person? I believe God answers prayers, but there are better Christians than me who don’t get everything they want, even when what they want is actually a good thing (e.g., healing).

The turn-off of the chapters was their Jesus-specific nature and their us vs. them mentality. I’ve somewhat been leaning in a John Hick pluralistic direction, which states that God works in different religions to make people moral. For me this year, the Lord’s supper was to represent my faith tradition’s attempt to address atonement for sin and the desire to be a better person, themes that appear in many religions. “Jesus” was to represent the selfless life that he led, an ideal that appears in numerous faith traditions.

But that’s not entirely what I encounter in these chapters of John, where Jesus emphasizes believing not only in the moral values for which he stood, but in him personally. And the chapters do not have an incredible amount of sympathy for the mass of humanity. Jesus says in John 17:9 that he prays for his disciples, not for the world. In John 14-17, the world hates and persecutes Jesus and his disciples. These chapters don’t coincide with a pluralistic or universalist impulse that I possess, in which everyone seeks God in his own way and has God’s favor accordingly. These chapters present a choice of either Jesus or the highway.

At the same time, Jesus in these chapters believes that he is revealing himself to the world. The Holy Spirit convicts the world of Jesus, sin, and unrighteousness. The world knows the Christians are Jesus’ disciples when they have love for one another, and it realizes God has sent Jesus when the Christians are one. Somehow, this small, minority sect was God’s means of shining light on the entire world.

Do I buy this? It seems like so much of the world knows why Christians believe Jesus came and what they have to say about him. Plus, Christians have left their mark on the world, both positively and (when they haven’t obeyed Jesus’ command to love) negatively. Yet, I don’t see Christianity as the only moral religion, whereas the others are godless and immoral. John 14-17 strikes me as too black-and-white.

That doesn’t mean I reject those chapters, however, but rather that I’m intrigued and challenged by them.

Published in: on April 8, 2009 at 11:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

FSE: Matthew 17:24-27 and Culture

For my daily quiet time yesterday, I read Matthew 17:24-27. The passage addresses the issue of whether or not Jesus’ disciples must pay the temple tax. Jesus says “no,” since the sons of the king do not pay taxes; rather, everyone else does. The implication is that the Christians are God’s children, the children of the kingdom, so they do not need to pay money to support the temple. Leave that to those who are not in God’s royal family! But Jesus tells Peter to pay it anyway to avoid offending people. Jesus provides for it by removing a coin from a fish’s mouth.

I thought about two things: God speaking to people in light of their own culture, and offense. Today, I will discuss the first topic.

Peter Enns has come under a lot of controversy for his book, Incarnation and Inspiration. One argument he makes is that God spoke to Israel within her ancient Near Eastern cultural mindset. That’s why there are similarities between the Torah and the Code of Hammurabi.

This is actually an issue that troubles a lot of people. When I was at Jewish Theological Seminary, I took a theology class. The professor was dismissing the idea that God dictated the Torah to Moses. One reason that he disagreed with that notion was the similarity between the Torah and the Code of Hammurabi. “So did God need to bone up on Hammurabi before he gave the Torah?” my professor sarcastically asked.

But God obviously does speak to people in light of their own culture. I don’t think even a hard-core fundamentalist can deny that. I mean, did God come up with the custom of kings’ children being exempt from taxes? I don’t think so. Humans came up with that custom. And, yet, God somehow found it useful for communicating the relationship between God and human beings.

Maybe God developed this truth in response to human culture. Or perhaps he foresaw what human culture would be and constructed his truth accordingly. Extreme skeptics would probably argue that humans make God in their own image anyway, so we shouldn’t be surprised when ideas about the divine reflect human culture.

If God wraps his truths in the cultural constructs of his audience, what happens when the culture changes? Do we then need new metaphors? I remember this one liberal rabbi’s wife who said, “I get so tired of reading these monarchical prayers. This is the twentieth century!”

Personally, I’d be hesitant to come up with new metaphors. I wouldn’t exactly want theology to be continually in flux. We need some authoritative foundation. I guess I’m too much of a fundamentalist on that point. In my opinion, we should just remember that God revealed the Bible within a certain culture, which we should try to understand in order to grasp the Bible better.

And, even though the culture of the Bible no longer exists in many parts of the world (primarily the West), I think that people can still find value in its ancient metaphors. I once went to church, and I was chatting with some visitors before the service. They were emphasizing the value of obeying Christ. “In those days, you obeyed the king,” they said. “People today don’t understand what a king is.” Personally, I don’t see God mainly as a king, for he is a Father as well. But the metaphor of a king is still useful. What are we going to call God to highlight his authority? The President? Americans don’t even respect the President these days! I didn’t respect Clinton much, and there are a lot of Americans who don’t think too highly of President Bush. “King” connotes a grand and (almost) absolute authority, which God is. So the ancient metaphors have value, even though they’re from another culture.

Published in: on April 23, 2008 at 6:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

FSE: House’s Search for Meaning

I watched House, M.D. with my dad last night. This was the first time that I had ever watched the show. I’m not sure if I’ll watch it regularly when I return to Cincinnati, but I liked that particular episode.

It was about a Hasidic Jewish woman with bleeding problems. She was a convert to Hadism, for she had previously been in the drugs and sex culture of the music industry.

There were at least two issues on the show. First of all, there were the reactions of the various characters to Hasidism. Dr. House was your typical village atheist, who viewed religion as a belief in imaginary friends. He seemed to know some about the Bible, however, and he had an understanding of the Hasidic mindset. When he was trying to convince the Jewish woman’s husband to trust him, he said, “You follow 600 commandments, right?” The Hasid corrected House’s number, and answered in the affirmative. House continued, “Well, you don’t know the reason for all of them, but you keep them because many of them make sense, and you trust that the big guy knows what he’s doing.” The Hasid answered “yes.” House then said, “Well, in this temple, I’m Dr. Yahweh.”

I’m surprised that House’s utterance of the sacred name did not shock the Hasid, but his summary of the Hasid’s approach to the commandments was interesting. On some level, that is how I view God’s law, even though I don’t go as far as the Hasid in my observance (since I’m not a Jew). Or, actually, I question the laws I don’t like, but I think that I should trust that the big guy knows what he’s doing when he makes commands.

There was another doctor who was a secular Jew. He came to sympathize with the Hasids, believing that they offered something valuable that was absent in modern culture. At first, he was skeptical, for he didn’t buy the idea of arranged marriage. But someone told him that divorce in that community was very low. And the Hasid said to him that spouses should come to love one another the more years that they are together, since they are getting to know each other more and more. And the doctor respected the Hasid’s strict regard for his wife’s modesty. These values differed from the shallow approach of modern society to sex.

I didn’t think that this episode was condescending to Hasidism, either. When the Hasid was turning his back to his wife out of respect for her modesty, the nurse respected his wish, but he said to her, “You respect my wish, but you see this as a quaint custom. But it’s not that. It’s a commandment. And I honor my wife by respecting her modesty.” The episode also tried to avoid being patronizing by presenting debate about the validity of religion.

I’ve often complained about the entertainment industry’s anti-religious slant. So many times, it depicts religious characters as kooks. I think of Brea on Desperate Housewives. She is probably the only character on that show who believes in God and holds to biblical principles, yet the program presents her as a social snob. But, on another level, the entertainment industry honors religion, perhaps because it recognizes that modern society is often shallow and selfish without it. Eli Stone, for example, presents a man with a mission from God. Maybe the industry is responding to the success of religiously-oriented movies and programs, such as Passion of the Christ and Touched by an Angel.

Second, this episode of House was addressing the question of whether human beings can truly change. Overall, I had a hard time understanding how this fit into the episode. It wasn’t exactly like 7th Heaven, where there is a common theme that lies beneath all of the plots and sub-plots. I don’t even know how this episode resolved the question.

Who was trying to change? There was the Hasidic woman, who had converted from an illicit and empty lifestyle to a strict culture. There was a woman who was dating a friend of House, and she was trying to change from her conniving, ruthless ways. House made a reference to alcoholics. “They’ve not had a drink in ten years? Well, that’s because they’ve not lived long enough,” he remarked with his customary sarcasm.

Can people change? I often look at myself, and I feel that the problems in me right now are the same problems that have bothered me for years. But there are people who talk about the change that has occurred in their lives. I was talking with a Christian woman, a student at a famous Christian college. She said that she was once religious, but she tried to cram religion down people’s throats. In her mind at the time, she was right and everyone else was wrong. She then got into alcohol, drugs, and promiscuous sex. One day, as she was throwing up in her bathroom, she cried out to God for help, and he answered. Now, she tries to love people. Her dream is to start a program for recovery, one that accepts people where they are while also helping them to grow.

Her testimony was not a “been there, done that” sort of narrative, one in which she said that she was once bad but she is now good. She acknowledged that she still struggles in certain relationships, and she emphasized the importance of reading her Bible and worshipping God, which was her definition of “abiding in Christ.” “I’m capable of murder and all sorts of horrible things,” she said. “And that is why I need to abide in Christ. The world has a lot of temptations. I need to feed on God’s word, surround myself with encouraging believers, and worship God, who is bigger than all of my problems.” I could identify with much that she was saying, particularly the part about her capacity to sin. There are many times when I have problems with the doctrine of human depravity, particularly my own. But am I capable of horrible sins? Yes, if I’m not careful.

I’ve heard stories from recovering alcoholics about change. The promises of Alcoholics Anonymous are that, if we follow the twelve steps, we will become happy, less selfish, and less fearful of people and economic insecurity. Recovering alcoholics have told me about where they were and where they are now. They acknowledge that they must continue to be vigilant, meaning that no one has truly arrived. But they are evidence that change can occur, among people of all sorts of backgrounds.

I hope for change in myself, or, better yet, growth. I look at myself and see the same selfishness that has existed within me over many years, but maybe I will not always be in this rut. Change is possible.

What was interesting about the Hasidic woman on House was the dramatic transition that she made. She went from the music industry to a culture that had no television, movies, or stereos. Did her old self completely vanish? I don’t know. But she was committed to a new and radically different life. What she was leaving behind did not appeal to her as much anymore, for she saw it as bankrupt. I don’t know if I would go as far as she did in making my own changes. But, somehow, in my life and in the lives of all Christians, old things must pass away as all becomes new.

FSE: Earth Day 2008

Today is Earth Day, so I’ll be sharing my thoughts about environmentalism, however scattered they may be.

If my memory is correct, I first heard of Earth Day when I was in seventh grade. My mom and grandma owned a health food store, which sold organic foods, the types that lacked pesticides and all that artificial junk. Well, they were going to do a special exhibit for Earth Day.

Come to think of it, my school was really promoting Earth Day that year too. In my home ec class, my teacher was urging us to buy a certain brand of tuna, the type that was not caught in a dolphin-hurting manner. All this emphasis on Earth Day was strange to me, since I had never heard of it before that year. And I’m still puzzled about why that was. This was 1990. The day had existed since at least the 1970′s. Maybe Bush I injected environmentalism into the atmosphere with his promise to be “the environmental President.”

Overall, my family was sympathetic to environmentalism. We didn’t like pesticides. My dad insulated houses, which was a pro-conservationist thing to do. My mom was a member of Greenpeace, and her motive for that was distinctly Christian, for she said that she was trying to preserve God’s creation.

Some relatives and friends of mine believe in a conspiracy among elites to create a one world government. At one time, they tended to see the conspirators as big-time polluters, so they managed to combine their anti-internationalism with an environmentalist streak. Rockefeller was always a villain of theirs, after all, and he owned all these big oil polluters. But, over time, they came to see the environment as the excuse that would bring the nations together. They now view global warming as a sham that will convince the public that global problems require global solutions, leading to a one world socialist dictatorship. And they can point to trends in that direction. Does not the Kyoto treaty compromise the sovereignty of nations and impose regulations on their economies? And who is the biggest promoter of the doctrine of man-made global warming? The UN.

I guess my own personal skepticism about environmentalism came about when I was in the eighth grade. I read Opposing Viewpoints: The Environmental Crisis, which contained both liberal and conservative articles about the environment. There was an article in there from the ultra-conservative American Opinion that really shredded environmentalism. It said that environmentalism was socialist, that Earth Day was Lenin’s birthday, that the government created huge, costly bureaucracies that burdened businesses in the name of protecting the environment, and that environmental problems were not that huge. In high school, Rush Limbaugh was starting to get famous, with his rants against “environmental wackos.” And Al Gore was making the environment a big part of his platform. As a small government conservative Republican, it was clear to me what my stance should be.

But there was always a part of me that wanted to have my cake and eat it too. Can I oppose big government while also supporting the environment? There were some articles in that Opposing Viewpoints book that answered “yes.” According to one of them, private ownership of land is a good way to protect the environment, since people tend to take care of what they own. I also had no problems with recycling or buying green. Isn’t freedom the right to make choices? And if people want to make environmentally safe choices, then they have a right to do so.

But many environmentalists would look at what I just said and declare that such measures are not enough. That’s because they view everything in a crisis mode. For them, drastic big government “solutions,” if not world government “solutions,” are absolutely necessary to preserve planet earth.

And I’m just not sure if there’s an environmental crisis. Sure, there are environmental problems that need common-sense solutions, ones that balance the environment and the economy. I want to breathe clean air and drink clean water as much as anyone. But I don’t really buy into the green apocalypticism that has existed since the 1970′s. Environmentalists have predicted doomsday scenarios for years, and life continues to go on, long after their projected dates for environmental catastrophe have passed.

Global warming? It exists. But are we absolutely certain that we’re the ones causing it? Sure, most scientists will answer in the affirmative. But there are also plenty of credentialed scientists who claim the opposite. They’re usually dismissed as paid-off by the oil industry, but the global warming alarmists also stand to gain with their doomsday scenarios. In the excellent documentary, The Great Global Warming Swindle, the argument is made that scientists get more grants when they exaggerate global warming, making it out to be a crisis. That documentary has other jewels too. It features scientists who dispute the existence of a global warming crisis, along with ex-environmental activists who acknowledge the environmental movement’s tendency to exaggerate.

A big villain of the environmental movement, of course, is President George W. Bush. I once signed an environmental petition to save baby seals, since they were so cute and reminded me of my white cat (“White Baby”). As a result, I got on a mailing list that bashed Bush day in, and day out. But Bush has not hurt the environment. EPA statistics show that air pollution has decreased under his administration. Actually, it was decreasing before him, but at least he’s helping to continue that trend. Bush helped pass a treaty that reduced methane, which plays a significant role in global warming (for those who believe that human beings are causing it). And I remember Christine Todd Whitman, Bush’s former EPA chief, saying on C-Span that Bush’s environmental record is actually better than most think, but the Administration downplayed that fact to appease his conservative base, which dislikes government regulations.

During my high school years, I protested Earth Day. We had to make Earth Day T-shirts, and mine criticized Al Gore. One year, a libertarian friend and I didn’t get desperately-needed extra credit in a chemistry class on account of that. But at least we sparked a good debate with our chemistry teacher!

I read a good quote in Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons that makes me a little more sympathetic to preserving the environment. It was from Pope John Paul II (I think), and it said that God made everything for a reason, and that reason is bigger than our personal or economic gratification. And that is true. God made all sorts of plants and animals for his pleasure, and he called them good. I still oppose socialism. I believe in helping the economy rather than hurting it with big government. But I think that environmental protection is a worthy goal, though I wouldn’t go as far as a lot of environmental preservationists.

Published in: on April 22, 2008 at 2:30 pm  Comments (2)  

FSE: John Hick’s Religious Pluralism

I’m a little drowsy right now, since I’ve just eaten lunch, so please pardon any incoherence in this post. I finished Part I of More Than One Way? Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World. Part I is John Hick’s defense of religious pluralism, as well as responses to his position.

There are things that are quite seductive about what Hick says, so seductive that I may read some of his books. Basically, he believes that there are all sorts of religions that can involve an interaction with God, which he labels “the Real.” According to Hick, both Eastern and Western religions have at least two things in common: an interaction with something or someone who is transcendent and incomprehensible, and a commitment to morality, particularly love of neighbor. For Hick, salvation occurs in these religions when people abandon selfishness for something larger than themselves.

To be honest, I don’t really mind the view that God, on some level, interacts with people in non-Christian cultures and belief systems. After all, God is a big God. Who’s to say that he cares only for Christians, while having nothing to do with the rest of the human race?

But does Hicks believe that all religions are right? I mean, to his credit, he doesn’t say that all religions are basically the same, for he acknowledges that differences exist. He says that his access to God comes through Christianity, so does that mean he accepts Christianity as true? And, if he does, doesn’t that make other religions false on certain issues, since different religions have concepts that are not really compatible with one another?

And that may be why Hick’s pluralism leads him to water down Christianity. Basically, he views Jesus as a great religious teacher, who incarnated God only in the sense that he was open and transparent to God’s purposes. He does not believe in traditional Christian views of the incarnation, nor does he embrace the atonement, the doctrine that Christ’s death brought forgiveness to people. For Hick, all one has to do to receive forgiveness is ask for it, as Jesus discusses in the Lord’s prayer. So Hick’s pluralism leads to a Christianity-lite, one that lacks the doctrines that make it unique. Hick’s Christianity is more like a pious moralism.

In my opinion, Hick is rather unclear about the truth-status of the different religions. Sometimes, he seems to say that there is a basic interaction with God and morality in them, and those are the inspired parts. The rest of the package, however, is rather extraneous. And then there are other times when he appears to embrace the “men and the elephant” story, which says that different religions sense different parts of a bigger picture.

This is a hard one for me. Do Taoism and Buddhism teach anything valuable that Christianity does not? And, if it were valuable, wouldn’t God have included it in Christianity? Taoism talks about not stressing out about life, and Zen Buddhism emphasizes that all is one. Christianity has these things on some level: there is the peace of Christ, and the doctrine that God has created everything, which I guess makes all one (sort of). But, often, my impression of Christianity is that it is rather insular. You have a minority of people that “gets it,” while Satan has blinded the rest. And God will destroy most of the world in his wrath, preserving only a righteous remnant. There isn’t much “all is one” there!

I was cheering Hick on when I read parts of his essay, largely because of my own bitterness towards evangelicalism. He said, for example, that Christians are not morally superior to people in other religions. It’s not that they’re worse. It’s just that they’re not much better. Wouldn’t we expect them to be better if they had access to the Holy Spirit, something that non-Christians lack? That’s why Hicks doesn’t believe that one religion is better than another.

I remember raising a similar question years ago in an undergraduate Bible study. I pointed out to the leader that non-Christians can lead moral lives. He acknowledged that they could and often did, but that something is missing from their belief system: the idea that God sacrificed himself out of love for humanity. Other religions have God’s love. But does it run as deep as the love of the Christian God?

Next, I’ll be reading Clark Pinnock’s defense of inclusivism, the notion that other religions can be a preparation for the truth of Christianity. At the moment, all I can say is this: Hick’s views are tempting, but I’m not sure if I, as a Christian, can embrace them wholly.

Published in: on April 21, 2008 at 7:03 pm  Comments (2)  

FSE: Thoughts on the Resurrection

A few nights ago, for my daily quiet time, I was reading Matthew 16:24-28. Jesus tells his disciples that following him means carrying a cross, possibly even giving up one’s life. But, in the end, it will all be worth it, for the Son of Man will return and reward each person for what he or she has done.

Jesus could be talking about martyrdom, since that was a reality for Christians in the first century. Or he may be saying that self-denial in general is a big part of the Christian life, in the sense that Christians are not to yield to their fleshly desires. Being a Christian involves a degree of self-sacrifice. Followers of Christ do not always thrive in this life. Rather, the act of obeying Jesus can often lead to the opposite effect.

Being a Christian–and by this I mean truly doing what Christ says–would be very difficult if this life were all there is. Jesus tells us to be humble, not to focus so much on money, to put his kingdom first, and to love the poor and powerless, not just the wealthy and influential people who can help us. In a world that encourages self-promotion and getting all that we can, such commands can inhibit us. Doing the right thing does not always bring positive results.

But what we need to help us do the right thing is a sense that God truly will reward us, that, in the end, he will be the only one whose opinion of us truly matters. In the here and now, there are all sorts of elites and prominent people we feel we have to impress. Sometimes, impressing them may require us to compromise important values, and sometimes it does not. But, in the end, their opinions of us will not be important, for their power will eventually cease to exist.

And what is the assurance we have that Jesus’ kingdom values will become the status quo? His resurrection from the dead. Through the resurrection, God has exalted Jesus above every principality and power (Colossians 2:15). And God has proven that Christ will judge the world by raising him from the dead (Acts 17:31).

But how do we know that Jesus really rose? On this, I’m in the mood to fall back on some well-known evangelical arguments, although they are not perfect. One proof that the New Testament cites is the many witnesses to the risen Christ (Acts 2:32; I Corinthians 15:3-8). The fact that the early Christians were willing to die tells me that they didn’t make up Jesus’ resurrection. The empty tomb is another important item of evidence.

N.T. Wright argues that Messianic movements in the first century died with the death of their founder, so the fact that the Jesus movement continued attests to Jesus’ resurrection. Well, I don’t agree with everything N.T. Wright says, but something must have given the Christian movement hope after the crucifixion of Jesus. What was it? I think it was Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation. What else could have revived their shattered spirits, which were perplexed with disappointment?

Many scholars say that the disciples had a case of cognitive dissonance. They were so sad that Jesus died, yet they doubted that they were wrong to sense something special about him. And so they saw a vision that convinced them that Jesus was still alive. Such scholars usually point to I Corinthians 15, which calls Jesus’ resurrection spiritual. For them, that eliminates the historicity of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. Consequently, the empty tomb stories are not necessarily historical, as far as they’re concerned. Jesus could have been eaten by dogs, yet the apparition that the disciples saw (which probably has some scientific explanation) convinced them that Jesus was still alive. So, for them, a hallucination flowing from their cognitive dissonance is what gave them hope.

But, as N.T. Wright has often pointed out, Paul asserts that Jesus was resurrected. Resurrection entails an empty tomb, for at the very least it is the revival of the body. In my opinion, I Corinthians 15 is not just saying that Jesus’ body was revived, but also transformed into something immortal and different from the corruptible flesh most humans possess. That’s what I think he means by “spiritual body.”

Here’s another thought: suppose the disciples saw a ghost of Jesus. Would that impress them? In Luke 24:36-39, when the disciples see the risen Christ, they are initially scared because they think Jesus is a ghost. But Jesus assures them that it is him, for a ghost doesn’t have flesh and bones, as they see that he does. Maybe the disciples believed at first that the risen Jesus was some spirit, like a demon, someone who was appearing as Jesus. Jesus, after all, tries to convince them that it is him, not a spirit.

But could they have initially believed they were seeing Jesus’ disembodied soul? In their minds, all people had souls, which went somewhere after death. Hellenism had its influence on first century Judaism, after all. At the very least, they expected Jesus to have a soul that survived death, as all people had. Seeing it would not be that much of a surprise to them (although it certainly would be scary!). But a disembodied soul is no evidence that someone has defeated death by returning back to life. It’s no proof that someone is special, for everyone’s soul survives death. A resurrected body, however, does constitute such evidence.

So I think that Jesus’ resurrection is what convinced them of his exaltation as king. That’s what gave them the courage to endure persecution and even death. And that’s what can give us strength for the Christian life.

Published in: on April 20, 2008 at 11:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

FSE: My Senior Thesis

I’m at my dad’s in Indiana for a week, so I’ll be writing free style entries. I introduced my readers to this on Thanksgiving. Basically, my dad doesn’t have high speed, and my BibleWorks is at my place. So these posts are a lot freer. They are not as well documented, and they’re rather informal. What I say in them should not be used against me (though, of course, I welcome correction).

I woke up at about 5 a.m. last night, and I could not sleep. I went to our book room, saw a purple folder, and looked inside it. Lo and behold, there was my senior undergraduate thesis.

As I said in my post on Krister Stendahl, my topic was Matthew’s interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. When I was at DePauw, I heard Jewish and historical-critical arguments that Matthew was playing “fast and loose” with the Scriptures. The main charge was that Matthew disregarded the contexts of the passages he cited. Isaiah 7 doesn’t relate to Jesus’ virgin birth, for example, but to a geopolitical crisis in the time of King Ahaz, or so their argument went.

What I found was not really original, but it was interesting. I learned that the vast majority of interpreters in antiquity went beyond the literal, contextual meaning of Scripture. One rabbi said that a single text could contain a multiplicity of teachings, many of them not apparent on the surface. The rabbis could see the Messiah in Genesis 1, for example. Philo often dismissed the text’s literal meaning as absurd, seeking a deeper, philosophical sense. The Qumran sectarians interpreted the Hebrew Bible in an eschatological sense that related to their own community.

And interpreters often acknowledged that they were seeking meaning beneath the surface. Jesus Ben Sira said that this was the role of a scribe. Somewhere in the Dead Sea Scrolls is the statement that the Teacher of Righteousness uncovers the mysteries of Scripture (Unfortunately, I just cited a book and a page number for this, rather than the specific Dead Sea Scrolls reference). And so I think that Jewish counter-missionaries, the types who accuse Matthew of playing fast and loose with the Scriptures, are disingenuous. Who are they to attack Matthew for not sticking with the Hebrew Bible’s literal, contextual meaning, when the rabbis they revere did not always (or even usually) do so?

I was surprised to find that my thesis was a lot better than I remember it being. And I’m not being proud here. I’ve read many of my own papers and have thought, “What the heck? I don’t understand what I was trying to say!” My thesis was actually pretty lucid in a number of places, plus I used clear examples from primary sources of ancient biblical exegesis. That was good for me, for I often walk around with generalities in my head about what ancient exegesis was all about. Unlike a lot of my HUC colleagues, I’m not exactly a walking encyclopedia. I usually don’t have a lot of specifics in my mind, but mostly generalities. Or I focus on specifics that few people consider important, but that’s another story. But my thesis gave me examples of ancient exegesis, and that is helpful to me as I read Matthew for my daily quiet time.

Strangely, I remember my thesis being bad. Maybe that was because I didn’t care for my conclusions. I mean, I’d like Matthew to be faithful to the literal, contextual sense of the Hebrew Bible, not looking for “hidden meanings.” As a professor told me when I presented my paper, “If anything can mean anything, then nothing means anything.” Sticking with the literal sense at least allows one to say that some interpretations are right while others are wrong.

But Matthew perhaps wasn’t writing to convince non-believers. Rather, he was telling believers that their faith is continuous with the Old Testament. One of my midrash professors at HUC said that, even if Christians of antiquity used some of the same hermeneutical methods as the Jews, the Jewish authorities would not accept their conclusions. Communities had their own beliefs, which were the starting point (and not really the conclusion) of their biblical exegesis.

So could Jews and Christians in antiquity arrive at enough hermeneutic common ground for a genuine debate to occur? Well, they certainly did try. In Acts, Paul and Apollos debate with the Jews about the true meaning of Scripture. They manage to convince some Jews that the Hebrew Bible points to Jesus. And the Bereans could search the Scriptures to check whether or not Paul’s teachings were true. For this to happen, there needs to be some objective (or agreed upon) criteria of interpretation, doesn’t there? I mean, I doubt that the “hidden meanings” approach would persuade the Bereans. “We couldn’t find Jesus.” “Well, he’s hidden underneath.” “Yeah, right!”

I wonder if Matthew knew about the literal, contextual meaning. When he read Isaiah 7, for example, did he have any awareness at all that the passage relates to the time of Isaiah? Maybe he did, and maybe he didn’t. There are plenty of exegetes in antiquity who speak with contempt about the literal sense of Scripture, which shows that they knew about it. That doesn’t make much sense to me, since, as far as I’m concerned, what the passage literally means in its context IS the meaning of Scripture. Other interpretations are eisegesis.

One book I’d like to read sometime is The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts? This is published by the conservative Baker publishing company. One question it addresses is this: Do Christians today have the right to approach the Bible as Matthew did? Or do we have to stick with the literal-contextual sense, a good arbiter of meaning, whereas Matthew could be freer because he was divinely inspired? I remember that Peter Enns addressed this question in his controversial book, Inspiration and Incarnation, but I don’t remember what he said.

My project as an undergrad exposed me to how messy religion can be. I was in an evangelical Bible study at the time, and we were continually encouraged to defend our faith to save souls. The leader of it, as a matter of fact, wrote an apologetic sort of thesis that defended the cosmological and teleological arguments for the existence of God (while rejecting the ontological one). I was trying to defend the faith myself, but I didn’t exactly succeed. My conclusions were too messy. A belief that the Old Testament prophesies the New Testament and that this is obvious to anyone who reads the Hebrew Bible with an open mind is neat and clear. What I did was messy.

The leader of the Bible study group once had the view that the Old Testament in its literal, contextual sense prophesied Christ, and my thesis perplexed him. But at least it encouraged him to compare how the New Testament used the Old Testament with what Old Testament passages said in their own contexts, and he found that the two can often conflict with one another. Were his beliefs as neat as they were before? Not really. Did I help him by showing him complexity and messiness? Maybe, and maybe not.

In the old days, I was always reluctant to share my thesis or scholarship with believers, including people in my family. I feared that what I wrote would make people think I was a unbeliever, or (worse) shake their faith (an arrogant thought on my part, I know). What I find today is that people outside of academia are familiar with the messiness of religion. Maybe this is because of shows on the History Channel and A&E. The Internet is enough to convince anyone that there are all sorts of ways to look at issues, not all of them fundamentalist. People can be dogmatic only so long on the Internet, before someone challenges them and they see a need to defend their doctrine (for themselves, or to win the debate).

My exposure to Jewish counter-missionaries came through my Armstrongite background, as some spin-offs from that movement were converting to Judaism and circulating “Jews for Judaism” cassettes to promote their anti-Christian beliefs. That forced Armstrongite Christians to formulate a response! And so perhaps the widespread availability of information makes people think about why they hold the beliefs that they do. Or maybe they always have done this on some level, I don’t know.

Published in: on April 19, 2008 at 4:31 pm  Comments (3)  

FSE: The War on Drugs

I read an interesting editorial in today’s Indianapolis Star that criticized the War on Drugs. The author observed that many politicians and Presidential candidates have admitted to using drugs when they were younger. The list covers the political spectrum, as it ranges from Barack Obama to Newt Gingrich. Although society tends to see their past drug use as youthful indiscretions, the author argues, it is perfectly willing to let people rot in jail for non-violent drug offenses. Because the war on drugs makes jails overcrowded, many violent criminals have been released.

Part of me sympathizes with what the author is saying. Politicians got a second chance at life, so why shouldn’t everyone else? What purpose does letting people rot in jail actually serve?

I can understand the view that there should be a deterrent to drug use, since it hurts the user and people around him. But if our concern is for the user, then why lock him up? Wouldn’t it serve him better to get him the help that he needs? But what if the user doesn’t want help? On some level, I think that many users recognize that they are doing the wrong thing and that drugs are an inadequate “solution” to their problem. Unfortunately, they are hooked. They need to learn how to overcome their habit and cope with life. But for those who don’t want to quit, maybe there should be such options as jail or a fine. And perhaps the court should be harder on repeat offenders than it is on people who are arrested for the first time.

I’m not sure if I’d say “legalize drugs,” since drugs are harmful, and society should send that message unequivocally. But the way that society currently deals with drugs is not making things better.

Published in: on November 24, 2007 at 2:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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