The Last Ounce of Courage

I watched the 2012 Christian movie, The Last Ounce of Courage.  Some people in my Bible study group were recommending it, and, after coming home and reading what it was about, I was expecting not to like it.  Well, I recently watched it, and I didn’t like it.

The movie is about a crusty mayor and pharmacist named Bob Revere.  Bob’s son has recently died in battle, and the family is recovering from that tragedy.  But the movie is largely about Bob’s fight against an ACLU-type lawyer for the right of his town to celebrate Christmas, a crusade that Bob believes is faithful to the freedom that his son fought to protect.  Bob wants to display Christmas objects in public places, and the cigar-smoking ACLU-type lawyer believes this violates civil liberties and the separation of church and state.  Meanwhile, some Christian kids at the local public school are conspiring to convert the school’s secular, sci-fi  Christmas play into an actual Christmas pageant, nativity scene and all.

Did the movie display any grasp of nuance?  Well, on some level, it did.  When Bob’s grandson is threatened with suspension for bringing a Bible to school, the school’s janitor remarks that bringing a Bible to school is not against the law, in response to Bob’s comment that “When they took prayer out of the schools, they also took out the Bible.”  The principal was banning the Bible from schools not because of any law, but rather out of a desire to maintain peace on the campus.  Bob himself, when he is launching his crusade to bring back Christmas to his town, says that the law allows him to put Christmas objects in public places, so long as other faiths are allowed to have tokens of their religion there, as well.

A lot of this regard for legal nuance got muddled in Bob’s crusade for Christmas, however.  The footage of Bill O’Reilly attacking the alleged war on Christmas did not exactly help matters.  Although the ACLU-type attorney was expressing his opinion in the movie, he came across as a bully, rather than as someone with legitimate arguments and concerns.  While Bob and others were acting as if there was a ban on Christmas in the town, the fact is that the ACLU supports nothing of the sort.  People can put nativity scenes in their own lawns, or in their churches’ lawns.  But the government is required to be neutral and not to prefer one religion over the other.  Moreover, stores, in their desire to be inclusive to all people, opt to say “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.”

I can understand the sentiments of conservative Christians who wonder why a cross should be removed out of a public place just because an atheist gets offended: Shouldn’t the atheist exercise tolerance, in that case?  But I don’t want to go back to the days when my Mom was a child and her public school put on an actual Easter pageant, to the discomfort of some of the Jewish students.  I don’t want to go back to the time when those who didn’t want to say the school’s prayer were sent into the hall, like they were criminals, and sometimes even put up with bullying from their classmates because they were different.  I can’t expect too much from a conservative Christian movie, but the movie would have been much more powerful had it gone into different perspectives, seeking to understand why people feel the way that they do.

A conservative Christian story about church-state issues that I liked much better was an episode of Adventures in Odyssey, which is produced by Focus on the Family.  It was called “The Graduate.”  In this episode, Connie is graduating from school, and she is to be the valedictorian.  Her principal forbids her to say a prayer at the ceremony, but Connie’s teachers and others are organizing to back Connie up if she decides to say a prayer.  Connie ultimately decides to say no prayer, out of respect for the authorities and for the sacred nature of prayer itself.  This particular episode did not display a grasp of the nuances of church-state debates, and yet I liked it because it went beyond the usual rhetoric of the culture wars.  Out of respect for God and the authorities, Connie decided that losing a battle in the culture war was the right thing to do.

Published in: on January 14, 2014 at 6:47 pm  Comments (3)  
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Book Write-Up: Warranted Christian Belief, by Alvin Plantinga

Alvin Plantinga.  Warranted Christian Belief.  New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Alvin Plantinga is a renowned Christian philosopher.  I first heard of him when I was a student at Harvard Divinity School.  I was taking William Abraham’s class on “Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation,” and Professor Abraham may have mentioned to us that Plantinga was speaking at Boston College.  And so some friends and I went to Boston College to hear Alvin Plantinga.  To be honest, I did not quite know what to make of Plantinga’s lecture.  Plantinga seemed to me to be assuming the truth of Christianity, without attempting to provide it with any foundation of evidence.  My friends and I wondered if there was more to Plantinga’s ideas that we were not getting.

The next morning, I asked Professor Abraham what he thought of Plantinga’s lecture, and Professor Abraham responded that he was up late at night, taking notes, trying to unpack what Plantinga had said.  Later on in the class, Abraham gave a lecture that summarized Plantinga’s thought.  From what I remember of that lecture, Plantinga believed that Christianity was a coherent belief system, and that humans had something within them that allowed them to sense the divine.  I was later talking with a fellow student about presuppositional apologetics.  The concept did not make much sense to me, to tell you the truth: what, you just presuppose that Christianity is true?  The student replied to me that there’s more to it than that, that some of the issue relates to Christianity being a coherent belief system.  That reminded me of what Professor Abraham had said about Plantinga, and I began to suspect that Plantinga might not be the sort of apologist who seeks to rest Christianity on the foundation of evidence; rather, he might be a presuppositional apologist.

I would hear Plantinga speak again, this time at Harvard Divinity School.  To be honest, I did not understand his lecture because it was loaded with logical equations.  Years later, after I checked out Warranted Christian Belief from the library, I decided to listen to the episode of the radio program Unbelievable on which Plantinga was a guest (see here to access the link to that).  Plantinga seemed to be arguing that naturalism (a belief that excludes the supernatural) and evolution are mutually contradictory.  If there is no God, Plantinga appeared to be arguing, how can we trust our minds, which lead us to the conclusion that evolution is true?  Plantinga doubted that naturalism was sufficient to explain how we arrived at the ability to make determinations about what is true and what is false.  My impression, from reading wikipedia’s article on Plantinga’s argument and also Plantinga’s discussion of this topic in Warranted Christian Belief, is that Plantinga does not believe that fully knowing what is true is always necessary for human survival, and so he doubts that natural selection by itself can account for how we got that skill.  (My question is “Why not?”  The skill helps us to survive, even if there are things that we know that are unrelated to our survival.) 

All of that said, what are some of my thoughts about Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief?  Well, as with that second lecture of Plantinga’s that I heard, there were parts of the book that I did not understand, on account of the logical equations.  Moreover, I was not always paying close, intense attention to Plantinga’s analogies.  But there were many parts of the book that I did understand, and so I will comment on those.  I apologize for any misunderstandings on my part.

One topic that stood out to me in reading Plantinga’s book was foundationalism: Is there a foundation for truth-claims, particularly a foundation of evidence or logical argument?  When it comes to Christianity, does a person have warrant to accept it, or should Christianity be rejected because it appears to lack the support of logic and evidence?  Plantinga’s response seems to be that one can have warrant to accept Christianity.  According to Plantinga, Christianity, when understood properly, is a coherent and internally consistent belief system.  We have within us the ability to sense the divine, since there are times when we feel guilty or when we marvel at the majesty of God’s handiwork, and yet that ability has been clouded by our sinfulness and selfishness.  But God confirms to certain people’s hearts that Christianity is true, allowing them to see the beauty of God’s character.  This work of the Holy Spirit in people’s hearts, Plantinga argues, is what makes their belief in Christianity warranted.

But isn’t this rather subjective?  Couldn’t there be some objective evidence out there that Christianity is true, evidence that can is available to everyone, not just those God privileges to receive the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit?  Well, Plantinga does not appear to accept a lot of classical apologetic arguments, such as the one that says that we know Christianity is true because of the alleged evidence that Jesus rose from the dead.  Plantinga does not believe that argument is iron-clad.  And, against the charge that believing in God is simply accepting something that has no logical or evidentiary foundation, Plantinga appeals to philosophical skepticism.  How do we know anything is true?  Is there any solid evidence that our memories are reliable, or that the world outside of us is real?  I’m somewhat doubtful that Plantinga takes this skepticism overly seriously: after all, he says that skepticism about the reality of the outside world will not help us after we leave our study.  I’m not sure if he has some way to get us back to believing that there is a world out there that we can rationally and reliably discern: he mentions Descartes’ view that God’s existence is what assures us of this, but I could not tell if Plantinga was agreeing with Descartes here.  I should also note that Plantinga more than once challenges other views because he says that they lack evidence or logical support: he asks, for example, what the evidence is that Christians believe in God due to wish-fulfillment or insecurity.  Does Plantinga require other views to have evidence, while exempting Christianity from that requirement?

Plantinga’s belief in the inward illumination of the Holy Spirit proves to be significant in some of his other arguments.  The existence of different religious beliefs undercuts the truth of Christianity?  Hey, just because not everyone accepts Christianity, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true, Plantinga responds (albeit with sophistication).  Suffering and evil call into question the existence of a loving God?  Hey, why should a Christian disregard the illumination he or she has personally received on account of the existence of suffering and evil, as if it’s obvious that God has no reason for God’s ways of running the world?  Plantinga’s arguments here are not bad, I guess, but they strike me as rather diversionary.  For example, on pluralism, I wouldn’t say that the existence of different religions means that it’s arrogant to accept one of those religions, or by itself entails that Christianity is false.  I would, however, ask whether a loving God would judge people with eternal damnation in hell for not accepting Christianity, when it’s not obvious to them that Christianity is true, with all of the religions out there for them to choose from.  

One chapter in Plantinga’s book that I found rather disappointing was the one about the historical-critical method of interpreting the Bible.  Plantinga was attempting to show that it is not strong enough to undermine the truth of Christianity.  The chapter was all right in that it discussed the different schools of historical-criticism, but it did not seem to address one of historical-criticism’s most significant challenges: that it highlights the theological diversity of the biblical writings.  That has the potential to undermine the idea that Christianity or the Bible represent a coherent, internally-consistent belief system.  I wonder how Plantinga would address that.  Would he try to harmonize and flatten out the biblical contradictions?  Would he say that God has a purpose behind them?  Or would he say that they’re not important, since they don’t detract from the big picture, which is God’s act of salvation in Jesus Christ?

There were some cases in which the footnotes provided the most interesting discussions in the book.  For example, one question that I have when people say that God reveals his truth to people’s hearts is why there are so many Christians out there with incomplete understanding, if God is revealing the truth to them.  Why do Christians disagree with each other over doctrine, if God is revealing the truth to all of their hearts?  In one footnote, Plantinga says that we don’t entirely know what numbers are, yet we can still know that mathematics works.  For Plantinga, God is somehow at work in the hearts of Christians, revealing to them the truth, even if their understanding is incomplete and they disagree with one another.

Probably the biggest reason that I found this book valuable was its interaction with theological and philosophical thought: Kant, John Hick, Gordon Kaufman, David Hume, and the list goes on.  I learned that there are different ways that Kant has been interpreted, and that some argue that David Hume was a theist.  There were many times when I agreed with Plantinga’s evaluation of certain thinkers’ thought: for example, I have long been confused by the concept of negative theology, the notion that we can only know what God is not, not what God is.  As Plantinga notes, we cannot really escape making positive statements about God.  I also appreciated Plantinga’s argument that God can have emotions: that this does not mean that God is a passive recipient of emotional stimuli, but rather that God acts in a way that demonstrates God’s love.  I have long questioned whether theists should be so committed to a Greek philosophical conception of the divine.

But I wonder: Is Plantinga’s interaction with philosophical thought even necessary, if what is truly important is the inward illumination of the Holy Spirit?  Plantinga interacts with Kant, Hick, and Kaufman because he is trying to dispute any notion that they have shown successfully that humans cannot know anything about God.  But why care about what they think?  If a person knows God after being illuminated by the Holy Spirit, is it really important what Kant, Hick, and Kaufman say?  The person knows God, and no one can take that away from her.  Or is Plantinga interacting with these philosophers because, notwithstanding his rejection of foundationalism, he still wants to show that Christianity is a coherent belief system—-that, even if it has no evidence backing it up, it is still consistent with reason?

I’ll close this already long post by speaking briefly about the inward illumination of the Holy Spirit.  I recently listened to a sermon in which a pastor was incredulous that there were Christians who were becoming atheists.  He was skeptical that they truly knew God over the many years that they were in church, if they could simply wake up one day and conclude that God did not exist.  The thing is, there are many people who have said the sinner’s prayer, who go to church, and who try to believe in the Bible, and yet they do not know that Christianity is true.  And there are some who think that they know, but that’s only because they’ve never been exposed to sources that question it.  My hunch is that these are the sorts of Christians who become atheists.  And is that their fault?  They did what Christianity presents as the right things: accepting Jesus, going to church, reading the Bible.  If God does not come through and reveal himself to their hearts, which Plantinga says God does for certain people, is it their fault that they left Christianity and became atheists?

And does God revealing himself to people’s hearts enable them to know that God exists?  Plantinga’s argument appears to be that it does, and yet in one place he refers to John Calvin’s statement that a Christian may find himself doubting God’s love.  Doesn’t that call into question the idea that God truly reveals himself to people’s hearts?  Or maybe God does so, and yet that does not presto-chango make us perfect?

In any case, this is a good book.  It’s actually the third volume of a series that Plantinga did on warrant, so, in a sense, I jumped in at the third act of the play!  But Plantinga did mention some resources that I may want to check out, such as William Alson’s Perceiving God.

Thankful for Spiritual Blessings

At church this morning, one theme that I heard was the importance of being thankful, not just for material blessings, but also for spiritual blessings.

I thought back to when I was living in New York City.  I would listen to a radio program on Sunday mornings that could probably be characterized as hyper-dispensationalist.  Its message was that we were in the dispensation of grace.  Whereas Jesus taught that God would not forgive those who did not forgive others, the current dispensation (promoted by Paul, the apostle of grace) says that we forgive others because God has already forgiven us.  We have God’s grace, it cannot be lost, and that then motivates us to forgive others.  The hyper-dispensationalist radio program taught that some of the things that Jesus said were for another dispensation, whereas Christians today are to follow Paul’s teaching that one is saved by accepting God’s free grace in Christ.

I enjoyed listening to this program for a variety of reasons.  It was upbeat.  It highlighted the diversity of Scripture.  And it presented a God of grace for whom I longed.  I had long struggled with Jesus’ teaching that God would not forgive me if I didn’t forgive others, for I had a difficult time putting away my grudges.  I also felt unable to obey Jesus’ commandments about love for others, since I was introvert, and also because, well, I did not like people!  I wasn’t looking for a God who would excuse my sinfulness, mind you, but I wanted to know that God loved and accepted me, as imperfect as I was.  The Christianity that I so often encountered in my own reading of the Bible focused on obedience, commandments, and God’s wrath, and I was wondering if there was a way to find in the Bible a nicer God who accepted me.  That would make it easier for me to love others, I thought!

Well, near Thanksgiving Day one year, I was listening to the radio program, and the speaker on it was talking about being thankful to God for spiritual blessings.  These spiritual blessings included being saved by grace, salvation being permanent (meaning one cannot lose it), being accepted by God, and having eternal life and the hope of a glorious future.  We have been given so much, the message went, and thanksgiving was a proper response to that!  Moreover, the speaker was saying that being thankful for God’s grace can help us to have a good attitude during the challenges of each day.  If we are cut off in traffic, the speaker said, we don’t have to get too upset about that, for we are saved by grace: God accepts us and loves us, and has a wonderful future for us.

I had a hard time being thankful for spiritual blessings because I was not sure that I even had them.  I did not know if God loved me or rejected me on account of my sins.  I didn’t know if I was repentant enough to get God’s favor.  I didn’t know if I had eternal life.

I remember this incident with some fondness because listening to that radio program presented me with the sort of spirituality that I wanted.  How are things with me nowadays?  Well, I’m not sure how much of the Bible is true, or if Christianity is even true.  Maybe I will some day find an understanding of Christianity that makes sense to me and bears fruit in my life.  I don’t have the extreme spiritual insecurity that I once had, I will tell you that, but that’s not because I accept a hyper-dispensationalist reading of Scripture, or a free grace, once-saved-always-saved reading.  Rather, I just accept that God is loving, and that a loving God would care for everyone.  If God is the source of our moral laws, then God probably follows them himself.  That’s what I figure.

Anyway, I’ll stop here.

Published in: on November 24, 2013 at 7:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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On Listening to Christian Radio

In our church bulletin this morning, there was a flyer for a Christian radio station.  I used to listen to Christian radio a lot.  In the days when I did not have a television, it was what I would do at night or on days when I was home from school, while I was doing my homework.  To be honest, I don’t have pleasant memories of listening to Christian radio.  I wouldn’t say that my memories are unpleasant, but they’re not pleasant, either!

One reason that I listened to Christian radio was to learn more about the Bible.  But I don’t feel that I learned a great deal about the Bible when I was listening to Christian radio.  Rather, I was listening to predictable evangelical spiels that I had heard repeatedly, some of them pretty kooky.

Another reason that I listened to Christian radio was to get inspiration.  The problem here is that Christian radio can be a mix.  Granted, one can listen to an affirming “God loves you” sort of message, or a message that offers practical insights on how to live life.  But one can also hear fear-mongering, legalistic messages.  In many cases, the same preacher can deliver both kinds of messages.  It’s like he’s using a carrot and a stick, or playing both good cop and bad cop.

The thing is, as I think back to the television shows that I would watch once I got television and watched it while doing my homework, I have largely positive memories.  I would watch The West Wing, Star Trek Voyager, Touched by an Angel, Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons, and the list goes on.  I see those times as good times.

But, come to think of it, I have some good memories about Christian radio.  It’s not so much on account of the preaching on it, though I do have a few good memories of that (i.e., the mornings when I would listen to Nancy DeMoss, before heading off to work).  Rather, I remember how I enjoyed listening to Christian pop music when I was driving to work.  I also remember with fondness Focus on the Family’s Adventures in Odyssey, which featured stories.  Maybe I like music and stories rather than pompous, know-it-all evangelical preachers talking at me through my radio!

In any case, I kept the flyer, but I probably won’t go back to listening to Christian radio.  I learn about the Bible from blogs, articles, books, and, well, the Bible itself.  And I get inspiration from books and television shows.  I don’t want to go back to eating styrofoam or (worse) raw sewage, which is what listening to Christian radio could be like for me.

Wisdom from Josh McDowell on Unbelievable

As of late, I haven’t been able to get enough of the radio program Unbelievable?, a Christian British program that is hosted by Justin Brierley.  Brierley has on prominent Christian apologists, scholars, and thinkers, as well as non-believing writers and scholars.  Among some of the guests who have appeared on the program are William Lane Craig, Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll, Bart Erhman, atheist John Loftus, John Hick, and the list goes on.  (I’ve also enjoyed listening to guests whose names I did not know previously, but who have interesting things to say: I think of Holly Ordway, an academic, who wrote a book about her conversion from atheism to Christianity, and who is updating that book because of her later conversion to Catholicism.)  The program has also had episodes about world religions, in which Christians discuss (say) Islam or Buddhism with a Muslim or a Buddhist.

What particularly impresses me is that the discussions are generally respectful.  Yesterday, for example, I was listening to an episode about the religious right, which had on a British Christian who was a socialist, a British gentleman who was part of a political party that is socially conservative yet economically progressive, the emergent Christian Brian McLaren, and someone from the right-wing American Family Association.  You would expect for sparks to fly on that episode, and, on some level, they did!  But each of the guests made reasonable, albeit different, points, and, overall, they seemed to me to be respectful to one another.  It was an intelligent conversation, not a shouting match!

I was listening to one of the programs, and it had on the Christian apologist Josh McDowell, as well as a skeptic.  I was rolling my eyes at a lot of McDowell’s arguments (especially the one about Jesus fulfilling a bunch of prophecies), but I had to admire his skill as a debater.  He knows his spiel and how to articulate it!  Anyway, after experiencing the ordeal of listening to him mop up the floor with the skeptic (who asked valid questions, but who I wished had manifested more familiarity with the relevant issues, while making his points in a crisper manner), I suddenly heard McDowell say something that changed my outlook on life for the rest of the day.  He was saying that it’s his responsibility to tell people about Jesus, but that it is up to them what to do in response to that.  And, he went on, even if a person chooses not to believe in Jesus, that will not affect how he treats that person, for that person is created in the image of God and deserves respect and love.

That really ministered to me.  I am the sort of person who cannot stand a lot of people, especially people who see things differently from me.  But McDowell was sharing another way of seeing the situation: I should respect people’s right to make their own decisions, and how I treat them should not be conditional on whether they do or see things my way.  Revolutionary, isn’t it?  Well, right now, I think I can do that, but who knows if that sentiment will last!

Published in: on October 4, 2013 at 7:00 am  Comments (2)  

Nixon Off the Record 1

I started Monica Crowley’s Nixon Off the Record: His Candid Commentary on People and Politics.

You may have seen Monica Crowley on Fox News, MSNBC, or the McLaughlin Group.  She’s a conservative pundit, yet she’s an educated conservative pundit, for she has a Ph.D. in International Relations from Columbia University.  Incidentally, her sister is married to Alan Colmes, who was the liberal on the Fox News program, Hannity and Colmes.

I first heard of Monica Crowley when I was living in New York City, which was from 2002 to 2004.  I listened to her on the radio.  To be honest, as a listener, I didn’t care for her that much.  She just struck me as so uncritically right-wing.  Granted, she backed away from that somewhat when it was becoming clear that Iraq was not using forbidden weapons on American invaders (or liberators, if you prefer), but, overall, her spiel seemed to me to be that Republicans are good, whereas Democrats are bad.  After John Kerry gave his speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, her reaction to it, predictably, was that Kerry did a poor job.

When I watched her on the McLaughlin Group and later Fox News, however, I was pleasantly surprised.  It wasn’t because she was attractive—-I already knew she was attractive when I didn’t care for her—-but rather it was because she appeared to have a sophisticated, three-dimensional perspective on issues and political personalities, more than seemed to be the case when I was living in New York City, listening to her on the radio.  She was still a conservative on the McLaughlin Group and Fox News, but she was more of a thoughtful conservative than she seemed to be on the radio (at least when I happened to be listening to her).

I knew when I listened to her on the radio in New York City that she had worked for former President Richard Nixon during the 1990′s.  Essentially, she wrote Nixon a long letter about foreign policy, and, to her surprise, Nixon responded to her letter and invited her to chat with him, which led to a job.  On one of the episodes of her radio program, she was talking about Nixon and some of her experiences working for him.  Now, I was somewhat of a Nixon fan at the time, so I can enjoy a good anecdote about how Nixon was such a nice guy and was so often misunderstood.  But even I had a hard time stomaching that episode.  It just struck me as a one-sided whitewash, a hagiography, if you will—-as if Nixon had few if any flaws.

Years later (well, last year, to be exact), I was planning to do my Year (or More) of Nixon on my blog for the year 2013, which would be the centennial of Nixon’s birth.  I took a look at the Amazon reviews of Monica Crowley’s books on Nixon, Nixon Off the Record and Nixon in WinterAnd, from the reviews, I concluded that her books were not a hagiography, but rather a balanced, realistic perspective on the man, a man who had his share of sensitivity, vulnerability, grudges, and thoughtfulness, not to mention a desire for people to value his opinion.  So I bought the books.  I’ll be blogging through Nixon Off the Record, and, probably in a couple of months or more from now, I’ll blog through Nixon in Winter.

In my reading so far, it’s basically Nixon pontificating.  At first, that was interesting to me, and yet annoying.  Nixon was talking about how a good leader needs “head, heart, and guts”, and he was critiquing leaders who had some of those qualities but not others.  What annoyed me was that he seemed to be upholding himself as the standard.  Part of my annoyance may be due to the fact that I just read two anti-Nixon books for my Year (or More) of Nixon, and so, with the stuff from those books in my mind, I wondered where he came off acting so high and mighty.  And yet, even before I read those anti-Nixon books, back when I was reading Nixon’s 1962 book Six Crises, I found Nixon’s moralizing to be rather irritating.  I enjoyed his talent as a storyteller, his acknowledgement of his flaws, and his analysis of issues, but not so much his moralistic pontifications about how to meet a crisis.  His memoirs were not as bad in terms of his moralizing, and Nixon appeared to be humbler in his memoirs on account of the mistakes in judgment that he made during the Watergate scandal.  He was still pretty defensive in his memoirs, but humbler than he was in Six Crises.  And yet, ironically, I actually enjoyed reading Six Crises more than his memoirs, perhaps because he seemed friendlier in that book, or his writing was better, or other factors.

But back to Nixon Off the Record!  I started to like the book when Nixon was sharing his opinions about certain Presidents: Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush.  Of all of these Presidents, Nixon appeared to have the highest opinion of Truman, who (according to Nixon) went with his gut, and often turned out to be right.  This is ironic, since Nixon’s early political career was largely based on attacking the Truman Administration, plus Truman long held a grudge against Nixon because Nixon supposedly called him a traitor.  On the other Presidents, Nixon is largely ambivalent: he still had hurt feelings from his time as Eisenhower’s Vice-President; he did not respect Ford’s post-Presidential activities (i.e., making money off of delivering speeches and playing golf); he didn’t care for Carter and Carter’s meddling in foreign policy after leaving the Presidency, yet he grudgingly respected Carter for building houses for the poor; he admired Reagan’s leadership and considered Reagan to be a decent fellow, yet he believed that Reagan was naive about Gorbachev, that Reagan’s domestic policies lacked compassion, and that Reagan wasn’t very professional when sleeping during cabinet meetings (Nixon was careful in expressing his opinions about Reagan to Monica because her ideology was highly influenced by the Reagan Presidency); and he felt that Bush I was too nice and not tough enough.

What Nixon said about Kennedy disappointed me somewhat, since I want to like Kennedy, who often came across as someone who was funny and likable, and who did not take himself too seriously.  (It’s like what Peter Griffin said about Sarah Silverman on Family Guy: he wants to like her, so he hopes she’s a nice person!)  According to Nixon, both John and Bobby Kennedy were often mean and rude to the help.  My impression from things I have read and seen on TV is that Nixon tried to be courteous to the help.  In the movies Nixon and Frost vs. Nixon, his character is kind to his butler: he chats with the butler and has listened to the butler’s stories.  In either Six Crises or his memoirs (I forget which), Nixon criticizes high officials in the Soviet establishment for seeing themselves as such men of the people, when they ignored the help, as if the help were mere furniture.  There may be more sides to Nixon than this: Whether or not Nixon was kind to the help, Ambrose narrates that Nixon alienated his staff due to his temper!  But Nixon’s humble roots may have influenced him to try to be kind to the help.

I was somewhat intrigued by Nixon’s opinions on Oliver Stone’s JFK in Monica’s book, not only because I love the movie, but also because Oliver Stone’s Nixon seemed to imply that Nixon suspected that the Bay of Pigs fiasco unleashed forces (anti-Castro forces) that led to Kennedy’s assassination.  Reportedly, even Nixon’s aide, H.R. Haldeman, thought that Nixon was referring to the Kennedy assassination when he (Nixon) expressed fears that the FBI investigation into Watergate could “open up the whole Bay of Pigs thing” (see here).  But, in Monica’s book, Nixon essentially says that Stone doesn’t know what he’s talking about in JFK, that a lone-gunman killed Kennedy, and that (contrary to Stone’s thesis) Kennedy was actually escalating the war in Vietnam, not planning to withdraw.

I’ll close this post by quoting something profound that Monica says on page xii:

“My four years with President Nixon were not White House years, vice presidential years, or years in Congress.  They were the last of the post-presidency years.  What Nixon had accomplished during his years in power determined how others would judge him; what he did during his final years out of power would determine how he ultimately saw himself.”

Published in: on April 22, 2013 at 11:00 am  Comments (1)  

Tim Pawlenty’s Courage to Stand 10: GAMC

I finished Tim Pawlenty’s Courage to Stand.

There were a variety of interesting items in my latest reading of this book.  First, I appreciated Pawlenty’s distinction between radical Muslims and other Muslims, in light of the tendency of a large portion of the right-wing to lump all Muslims together as evil.  Second, Pawlenty criticizes President Barack Obama for alienating the United States’ allies—-Poland, the Czech Republic, and Israel—-and for supporting an arms treaty with Russia “that favors Russia and all but affirms Russia’s decision to help Iran fire up a nuclear energy reactor” (page 292).  I don’t know a whole lot about this issue, so I really can’t critique Pawlenty on this right now, but I’ve decided to make a note of it.  Third, Pawlenty asks why we need NPR and PBS when there are already so many radio and cable TV programs.  I have an answer to that: because NPR and PBS actually offer quality programming.

I’d like to turn my focus to health care, since that is an issue that is of interest to me.  On pages 283-285, Pawlenty talks about General Assistance Medical Care (GAMC) in Minnesota, a government program.  According to Pawlenty, “GAMC provided unlimited health care for low-income single adults without kids.”  But its costs were rising because (according to Pawlenty) “It was an old-style ‘fee for service’ setup that paid providers for how many procedures they performed without much accountability for cost control or quality outcomes.”

Pawlenty narrates that he was emotionally impacted by a man in a wheelchair in Mankato (which I know from Little House on the Prairie), who plead with Pawlenty not to cut his health care.  But Pawlenty says that his goal as Governor was to move the beneficiaries of GAMC to MinnesotaCare, another health care program for disadvantaged people.  Pawlenty states that MinnesotaCare “had benefits that were more limited than GAMC, and the switch would be more affordable to the state.”  Pawlenty reached a compromise with the state legislature: Instead of giving GAMC a “blank check”, the government would give hospitals a lump sum to treat “a fixed number of GAMC patients.”  Pawlenty states that, under this policy, “Providers now had incentive to focus on the wellness of GAMC patients and health-care outcomes rather than how many procedures they performed.”

This sounds a lot like rationing, which many on the right love to condemn when it comes to government health insurance.  But there is a degree of wisdom in Pawlenty’s policy, in my opinion: Rather than giving providers an incentive to order more and more tests for patients in order to get more money for themselves, why not give the providers a lump sum, and that could encourage them to try to get healthy results for their patients for a low cost, with the lump sum that the government gives them?  I hope, however, that this would not lead to the providers denying patients the care that they need.  I fear that it might.

UPDATE: I talk here about Ezra Klein’s contention that moving Medicare away from a fee-for-service model was one of the conservative ideas that Obamacare adopted.

John Avlon on the Decline of Rush Limbaugh

John Avlon of The Daily Beast has an excellent article about the decline of Rush Limbaugh, both in terms of the number of his listeners and the quality of his program.  Here are some of my favorite quotes from Avlon’s piece:

“‘This controversy will no doubt give Rush a temporary ratings lift, but it won’t be worth the damage that’s been caused in terms of loss of revenue and advertiser confidence,’ says WTOP program director Laurie Cantillo, who previously directed Limbaugh’s flagship station, WABC. ‘It is perceived by many as an attack on young women who represent the holy grail for ratings. Women 25–54 is the prize demo for most advertisers. Rush’s remarks strike at the heart of the audience they’re trying to reach, hence the apology. This is an audience that’s already been in gradual decline on many right-wing radio stations, so Rush’s gaffe compounds the problem.’”

“‘There’s been a lot of research done on women and talk radio and while women are keenly interested in issues and politics, women tend to reject the in-your-face conflict and combativeness of politics. That’s just not how women are wired,’ says Cantillo. ‘We prefer more civil discourse on the issues. And that’s why all news and talk programming that’s more even-handed are gaining popularity.’  While Rush is still a giant of the talk-radio industry, there are signs of erosion. Right-wing talk-radio ratings have been declining, at least in part because of PPMs, a new, more accurate way of measuring listenership. In Chicago, Boston, and Minneapolis, local talk-radio stations outperform the station that airs Rush and his national conservative-talk cohort. In San Diego, Philadelphia, and Washington, the local NPR station outranks the Rush affiliates.”

“In what might be another ominous sign for Rush & Co., Mike Huckabee will be starting a nationally syndicated radio show in April for the Cumulus network, which could be positioned to displace Rush in some markets. A former preacher, governor, and presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee is highly conservative, but he is also unfailingly civil.”

“There is an irony in the spot Rush has put himself. His career first took off when he was hired as a replacement for the professionally offensive Morton Downey Jr. at Sacramento’s KFBK. ‘Rush was hired because he was passionate but polite—a nice Midwest guy. The agreement was that he would not be rude or cruel,’ says Valerie Geller, his former program director at WABC, director of Geller Media International and author of Beyond Powerful Radio.”

Some will probably doubt that there was ever a time when Rush was civil and polite!  After all, he used the terms “feminazis” and “environmental wackos” even in his early days.  But, in my opinion, whenever Rush focuses on discussing and debating the issues rather than calling people names, he can be quite effective, even logical at times.  And there was a time when he was more willing to dialogue with people about the issues in public, for he appeared on news programs and talk shows (i.e., Donahue) and debated people who disagreed with him.  He still does that sort of thing on his radio program, on some level, but I remember when he had more of a public profile in terms of discussing issues.

I’m pleased that there is a growing number of people desiring a civil discussion of issues—-an exploration of differences and policies as opposed to name-calling and “us vs. them.”

God and the Occult

Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Volume I: Greece and Rome (Westminster: Newman, 1959) 271.

The subjective belief in God’s existence is derived by Aristotle from the soul’s experience of ecstasies and prophecies in e.g. the state of sleep, and from the sight of the starry heavens, though such recognition of occult phenomena is really foreign to Aristotle’s later development.

This quote stood out to me because the “occult” and the paranormal have often assured me of God’s existence, or at least the existence of the supernatural. I get a cozy feeling whenever I listen to Coast-to-Coast, with all of its talk about aliens and psychics and haunted houses. I turn it off, however, when it starts talking about demon possession, since that’s something I prefer not to think about, and definitely not experience.

When I was in high school, I had a friend who liked sci fi movies. He was a nominal Catholic who didn’t go to mass that much, and I asked him if he believed in God. He replied, “There has to be a God–there are so many unexplainable things out there!” I’ve come to like his answer more and more over the years, since it finds a basis for piety in the phenomena that baffle us: psychics, aliens, ghosts, people having deja-vu, out-of-body experiences, etc.

Then there are times when fear of supernatural evil draws me closer to God, as I run to him for comfort, reassurance, peace, and strength. When I was young, Garner Ted Armstrong told us stories about how he cast out demons, even from himself (if I’m not mistaken). Whether or not that was true, I’ve heard that the movie, The Exorcist, was based on a real-life event.

That kind of evil scares me, so I try to think about positive things when I watch something about it on TV, hear about it on the radio, or read about it. You know how the Ray Walston character on The Stand said, “If Mother Abigail’s God is real, then the evil guy must be real too!” I tend to have the opposite reaction: If evil spirits are real, then I hope God is also–so he can protect me!

But can religion protect me? That little girl on The Exorcist was religious, for she had a cross near her! At the same time, she also used a Ouija board, and that may have opened her up to bad spirits. That’s where I appreciate the Bible’s injunction for us to stay away from the occult!

I’ve said in this post that the paranormal draws me closer to God. It does and it doesn’t. I talked about this a while back in my post, Ghosts and the Afterlife (see also BryanL’s comments). I wonder how to reconcile the existence of ghosts with biblical ideas about what happens to the dead (e.g., they go to Sheol, or Hades, or heaven, or they don’t know anything, etc.). Can things ever occur outside of this paradigm, as true as it may generally be? Or should we assume that every ghost is actually a demon?

For some reason, I like mystery, or I want to believe that God is behind the unexplainable. Part of me sees the Bible’s description of reality as too narrow and rigid. Yet, I’d be hesitant to visit the “occult” or “New Age” sections of bookstores, since I wouldn’t want to open myself up to something evil!

Published in: on July 20, 2009 at 2:37 am  Leave a Comment  

Is Dr. Dobson a Sinless Perfectionist?

Years ago, I visited the web site of Gil Moegerle, who worked for many years with Dr. James Dobson in Focus on the Family. Due to a variety of factors, Moegerle became embittered with Dr. Dobson, and he wrote a book with the subtle title, James Dobson’s War on America.

One thing that Moegerle claimed on his web site was that Dobson is a sinless perfectionist. In Moegerle’s eyes, that’s why Dobson is so judgmental and self-righteous. It’s part of his Nazarene heritage.

I first heard about the Nazarene doctrine of sinless perfection from a high school English teacher. She was a Baptist, and she and I disagreed on eternal security. One day, we were discussing salvation issues and comparing denominational notes, and she told me that the Nazarenes believe a Christian can arrive at a state of sinlessness. I had a math teacher who was a Nazarene, but I didn’t ask him if that was true.

But what Moegerle was saying about Dobson did not sit well with my spirit. Dobson did not strike me as a person who considered himself sinless. In the 1990′s, I heard him say about his wife, Shirley: “You know, the wonderful thing about marriage is that your spouse accepts you, while knowing about all of your flaws. That’s the way Shirley is with me.” In that statement, he admitted he had flaws. On a program about a couple that was doing good, Dr. Dobson said: “You know, we’re saved by grace, and so you don’t have to do any of this to earn God’s favor. And yet it’s wonderful when people like you choose to make an investment in the lives of others.” He kind of sounded like a free gracer there–like a Zane Hodges and Charles Ryrie type, as opposed to a John MacArthur “Lordship salvation” advocate. And so he did not strike me as a sinless perfectionist.

Dale Buss’ book, Family Man: The Biography of Dr. James Dobson, presents some of Dobson’s religious beliefs–in his own words. Here are some quotes, and I’ve emboldened the parts that I want to stand out:

“[A] notion that has shaped much of Dobson’s philosophy and life is…complex, and its complications come largely from the particulars of Nazarene theology. Because of its emphasis on individual free will, explains [H.B.] London (himself a former Nazarene pastor), his denomination believes in a ‘theology of standing’ in many ways: ‘It means you can lose your salvation. You’re constantly striving to measure up. [Our] definition of sin is that it’s a willful transgression of God’s law. And salvation isn’t automatic as in the Calvinist viewpoint. As a result, not only is there guilt but also pressure to measure up.’

Dobson stresses that salvation is a gift of God and can’t be deserved by anyone. ‘If we could have earned our salvation, we wouldn’t have needed a Savior,’ he says. Nevertheless, Dobson believes that the Christian’s part of the ‘contract’ also calls for heartfelt repentance and right living after embracing salvation. The doctrine was strongly developed in the eighteenth century by John Wesley, the British founder of Methodism, and later further shaped by the Nazarenes. ‘There is a call on our lives to be as clean as possible with the help of Jesus Christ,’ Dobson says. ‘We fall short; we sin. But we seek forgiveness for sin, and it’s very much a part of our theology that we’re obligated to live as holy a life as we can.’

“‘I do believe someday I’ll kneel before the Lord, and I want to hear him say, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant!’ What I do and how I live is important. In Matthew 7, Jesus said there will be those on [Judgment Day] who confess him but whom he never knew. Why? Because they didn’t do–D-O–the work of his Father. It’s an emphasis on attempting to walk the talk.’

Dobson is hesitant to discuss this aspect of his beliefs in public because some people misinterpret his holiness doctrine as an assertion that, with enough effort, a person can lead a truly sinless life. Nobody, he affirms, can avoid sinning in the sense of having shortcomings, faults, and other flaws that display our mere humanity. ‘But from the Wesleyan perspective, sin is a willful disobedience or defiance to a known law. When you refuse to do what God tells you, you know it and understand it. The apostle Paul writes that we have a conscience within us, so that none of us has an excuse. The concept of sanctification is that God gives humans the ability, through the Holy Spirit, to live without deliberately defying God.

“‘Just look at Hebrews 10:26,’ which promises God’s vengeance on those who insist on sinning after learning the truth of the gospel, Dobson says. ‘That’s interpreted very differently from my Calvinist friends. But I don’t believe you can disobey God deliberately, do all kinds of heinous things, and then just go sweeping into [God's] kingdom.

The characterization that is made by people who don’t misunderstand it is that Wesleyans think they’re perfect or that they think they can live without any shortcomings. That’s crazy. But I try real hard not to shake my fist in God’s fist and defy him, and God gives me the encouragement and the strength through the Holy Spirit not to violate a known law. And that’s very important to me.’

“It’s clear, London says, that ‘a large part of the pressure that [Dobson] puts on himself to be such a perfectionist and to achieve may come out of his theology, or at least out of the inward pressure that we Nazarenes put on ourselves to be loved and appreciated–to be the best at what we do.’

“This also helps explain the high expectations that Dobson places on others in work, in relationships, and in life. And if the heresy of fist-shaking at God sounds familiar to his fans, that’s because Wesleyan theology also, as Dobson puts it, ‘influences my approach to child rearing. I’ve talked about having a three-year-old son, and if you tell him to go open the door and he misunderstands it and he closes it instead, he’ll never be aware that he’s done the opposite of what you just asked him to do,’ Dobson explains. ‘But when he stomps his foot and says, ‘I won’t do it,’ that’s when he’s most likely to face the consequences.’

“This worldview has influenced ‘nearly everything about me,’ Dobson says. ‘My teaching all comes out of my theology’” (23-25).

According to Dobson, Christians can arrive at a state where they do not commit deliberate and willful sins, even though they may still have flaws. But what is a “willful sin,” and what is a “flaw”? For example, are shyness and introversion “sins”? I know that God wants me to reach out to others and not be self-centered. But I have a lot of social anxiety, so I often don’t follow that command. Am I deliberately sinning? I doubt that Dobson would think so, for he has stated that some people are just naturally quiet, and he has tried to teach us quiet types how to have a conversation. And, yet, aren’t I violating a known law?

How about lust? I know that Jesus equates lust with adultery in Matthew 5:27-28. But I have it anyway, and I enjoy it. I don’t understand how Jesus can command us not to have sexual desire (if that indeed is what he’s doing), since it’s such an integral part of the human condition. Of course, Dr. Dobson has a looser attitude on this than many evangelicals, for he says that parents shouldn’t try to stop their kids from masturbating. In a book of his that I read many years ago, Dobson says that his dad told him not to worry about masturbation. “You can masturbate, and that won’t hurt your Christian walk,” he said. Dobson said that his dad was a conservative Nazarene, yet he was willing to make concessions to human nature. I can understand Dobson being real here, but how’s that mesh with his view that Christians shouldn’t deliberately sin?

There are some sins that I don’t want to do, but I can’t exactly shake them. I know that God equates hatred with murder (Matthew 5:22), for example, yet there are still people I hate. I don’t want to see them dead, mind you, but I just have a lot of anger towards them. I would prefer to have inner peace, but I can’t shake my ego, or my disappointment, or my sense of having been wronged, or my jealousy. At times, God’s known will appears unattainable.

And there are times when Dobson appears more compassionate and pastoral than the above quotes seem to indicate. From the above quotes, you’d think that a Christian puts himself on dangerous ground whenever he deliberately opposes God. But, in When God Doesn’t Make Sense, Dobson acknowledges that people may have legitimate reasons to be mad at God, for horrible things happen in life. But he says that we should bring ourselves to forgive God, which is not to say that God has done anything wrong. It just means that we should let go of our anger towards him. Here, Dobson recognizes that even Christians are human–with all of the imperfections that humanity entails. But how’s he reconcile that with his belief that Christians should be perfect, in the sense of avoiding deliberate disobedience or bad attitudes about God?

I agree with Dobson that being a Christian should make a difference in one’s life. The non-Lordship types act as if Christians are God’s children even if they live in sin, whereas Dobson seems to think that deliberate sin can disqualify a Christian from salvation. I wonder if there can be a middle ground between the two positions, one that stresses the need for holiness while preserving a God of unconditional love.

Personally, I assume that God is patient with me. He wants me to be better than I am right now, but that doesn’t mean that I have to stress out in an attempt to be morally sinless, all to preserve my salvation. In the words of the promises of Alcoholics Anonymous, “We seek spiritual progress, not spiritual perfection.” I still think that the goal is some form of perfection, however, but that’s the result of growth, not me deciding to do everything right at the present moment. And God is with me on this journey of growth.

Published in: on June 17, 2008 at 2:02 pm  Comments (7)  

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