Monday, September 7, 2015

The Only Repeatable Event from History

Why learn history? Why does it matter? The adage that whoever is ignorant of history is doomed to repeat it—ignoring at present what precisely the statement means and whether it is true—implies at the very least that historical knowledge is worth acquiring as a necessary ingredient for shaping our future into a desirable outcome. Why should we have any confidence that historical knowledge can (indeed, must) help us to do this?

The proverb cited above assumes the negative: the situation in the past was bad because of what people did; if we learn what they did, we may choose to do otherwise; if we do otherwise, we will not end up in the same bad situation that they did. Maybe, maybe not. But I would like to look at a positive rendition of the same principle. Let’s assume that the situation in the past was good because of what people did; if we learn what they did, we may choose to do it too; if we do, then we will end up in the same good situation that they did.

Take for example your friend who says to you, “I went to Joe’s Restaurant, and boy, was it ever good!” You think, “I’d like a dining experience that makes me as happy as my friend is. If I do what my friend did, I’ll get what he has.” So you ask him questions—when are they open? where are they located? and so forth. And you take his advice: you do what he tells you to do.

Seems reasonable, right? We do it all the time, every day, every time we take anyone’s advice to do anything.

This might, in principle, apply to historical knowledge about situations of greater impact on comfort or pain, for more people than the individual, with wisdom gathered from longer ago and further afield, than the case of your friend who went to Joe’s. However, when we try to apply it we run into some problems.

First, is there any experience in the past that we truly want to repeat? We can find features of almost any place, time, and culture that we would like to experience in our near future. But in those same situations there are invariably features that we do not at all wish to experience. But can the features we desire exist apart from the whole complex of the situation of that place, time, and culture? To use an analogy, can we take one gene out of the whole strand and splice it into the present for the desired outcome without the undesirable parts of the strand and without harmful side effects? Maybe we can, maybe we can’t; maybe with some things but not with others. But it seems dubious.

Second, even those conditions in the past that we think we want, would we actually like them once we had them? Maybe, maybe not. In the case of the friend who went to Joe’s Restaurant, he might have very different tastes from us. We might go to Joe’s and have the same experience objectively but experience it very differently subjectively if we don’t like the same foods that our friend does. And what if we don’t have the same experience? What if service is inconsistent? What if our friend is prone to exaggerate?

On the other hand, the better we know our friend, the more we could trust him. We might have experience that shows that we do like the same things that he likes and that he does not exaggerate. But how do we do the same character vetting, so to speak, with people who lived in the past? How do we know that we would like what they thought was good? And that leads to still another problem—very often, probably most of the time, people in the past (like people in the present) did not focus on what was so good about their situation but what was bad. We might look back and say that they had it pretty good in one respect, but they generally do not testify to it being so good. What if our hopes are too high?

Third, how do we know how to get what they had? Assuming that people who experienced our desired situation in the past were conscious of it and did enjoy it, did they have a prescription for how to arrive at it? Did it come about by their effort or the effort of previous generations? Or did they sort of fall into it by dumb luck? And even if they did have a prescription that they would give us if they could, how much faith do we have that they are correct? For example, a group in the past might say that they were so prosperous because of their faithfulness to tradition, but is that really the reason for their prosperity? Another group might say their prosperity came because of their devotion to individual liberty, but is that so? In other words, can we trust that people living in any given time know enough about how they got where they were to be able to give an account of its causes?

Fourth, if we knew the causes if past success, if we believed the prescription of the ancients, could we possibly replicate it? The causes may have been—probably were—complex and/or enormous. To use an analogy, we might know that strong winds cause big waves, but that does not mean we can move the air.

So there is much reason for skepticism—or at least some major hurdles to overcome—in order to restore what we like from the past. But there is one past situation, and probably only one, in which this hope is fulfilled: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

This is not because Jesus’ resurrection gets a special pass to evade the rules that apply to all other past situations. To the contrary, it is because the event of his resurrection is uniquely competent to pass all the tests.

First, do we want to repeat Jesus’ resurrection? I certainly do. There is no complaint here about wanting one aspect of it and not another. It is not as though I want my body to be raised but my mind to be elsewhere or vice versa. It is not as though I want to be raised from the dead but with a different sort of body than he had or suited to different purposes. The totality of eternal life—not just perpetual living, but a qualitatively different life that extends perpetually—is plenty appealing to me. I want what he’s having, and don’t change a thing.

Second, would I actually like it once I had it? This is the trust issue—can I trust that what Jesus found desirable and what his followers who knew him and saw him raised found desirable is what I too would desire? It is possible that I might be deceived, yes. But I do not think so. I cannot imagine how a self that is impervious to death, weakness, pain, and attack, that is radiantly glorious and exudes peace and joy, could have any downside—or at least any downside comparable to the downside of life as we know it. In other words, if I got it, I might not care for it, but it seems well worth the risk.

Moreover, Jesus himself seems to be a trustworthy individual. His life and his death reveal a sharp contrast between himself and the humans around him. He seems, quite simply, to be a much better person, perhaps immeasurably so, than any other human in his world or in mine. If I can trust some people around me to however limited a degree, I ought to be able to trust Jesus too.

Third, do I know how to get what he has? Again, the answer is yes. Jesus taught extensively, and his followers who spent the most time with him did too, about how to achieve the eternal life that he gained. Did they know what they were talking about? This is where the magnitude and the uniqueness of the desirable condition that Jesus exhibits play critical roles. If Jesus truly did rise from the dead this way, to which so many witnesses attest, then he achieved something that is absolutely unequalled. There is nothing to compare it to. That strongly suggests that there is nothing to compare him to. Where did the power come from to raise him from the dead? He says it was his Father, God. It certainly came from somewhere. No one else has an alternative explanation. If there was an alternative explanation, that would be one thing, but without that alternative it seems wise to trust the one person who experienced it and to do what he says.

Fourth, can I do what he says? Indeed I can, because Jesus’ prescription is limited only in part by large historical trends affecting masses of humans. For the most part, it just applies to me. Yes, I need to hear the story and the prescription, and that is outside my control. But once I do hear, then it is up to me what I do with it, and no external forces can violate or interrupt that (though they may be affirming or hostile toward it). And his prescription is astonishingly doable. He simply wants me to renounce my life—the thing I want to exchange anyway—and trust him that he will get me what he has that I want if I want him to. Every other instruction that he gives is simply the most rudimentary actings-out of what it is like to have the thing that I say that I want in the first place.

Is it possible for any person from any time, place, and culture to reach back and have access to that life of Jesus? Can the outcome be produced in our future wherever we find ourselves? It can indeed, because Jesus not only rose from the dead but ascended into heaven, as itself was observed by human witnesses and explained by angelic ones (who in turn can be trusted, because their announcements about Jesus’ resurrection were proven valid by the human witnesses later). By ascending into heaven, the life that Jesus has that I desire is located beyond the vicissitudes of change in this world. He took that human life into a realm that cannot be violated and that is equally accessible to all places and times. Furthermore, he said that that realm is coming here to replace this one in some form—all of this world, all places, times, and cultures.

The resurrection of Jesus is the one truly and uniquely replicatable event, the one historical situation that we may desire with confidence, being sure that our choices in the present may reproduce it for ourselves.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

How God Wants You to Complain

Nobody likes whiners. Most of the time, in most of the ways that people whine, God doesn't like them either. There are multiple examples in the biblical Book of Numbers where God's patience after decades of providing for the needs of his people, the Israelites, is finally exhausted. Their repeated complaining provokes him to kill some of them off now and again to drive home the message that their ingratitude is a very bad idea. In fact, it's a heinous sin.

So it is surprising that in some parts of the Bible God welcomes and even encourages complaining to him. One example is Psalm 89. It's pretty remarkable that God's Spirit moved a man to take him to task in a pungently accusatory way.

The psalm does not start out that way, however. In fact, it begins with praise with a special (and crucial) focus on God's faithfulness:
I will sing continually about the LORD’s faithful deeds;
to future generations I will proclaim your faithfulness [v. 1].
Then the psalmist further tips off where he's going to go with this psalm by quoting God as saying,
"I have made a covenant with my chosen one;
I have made a promise on oath to David, my servant:
'I will give you an eternal dynasty
and establish your throne throughout future generations' " [vv. 3-4].
 Then the psalmist swings back to extended, magnificent, picturesque praise:
O LORD, sovereign God!
Who is strong like you, O LORD?
Your faithfulness surrounds you. . . .
Equity and justice are the foundation of your throne.
Loyal love and faithfulness characterize your rule [vv. 8, 14].
Having thoroughly established his profound regard for God's faithfulness, the psalmist poetically retells the story told in 2 Samuel 7 (and 1 Chronicles 17) of how God made an everlasting promise to support, defend, and prosper King David and all his royal offspring. In the psalmist's words, God said,
"I will always extend my loyal love to him,
and my covenant with him is secure.
I will give him an eternal dynasty,
and make his throne as enduring as the skies above" [vv. 28–29].
What if David's descendants act wickedly and prove themselves unworthy of this promise? God asserts that this contingency may have short-term negative consequences, but it in no way nullifies his promise—he will, on the whole, make David's line succeed no matter what they do:
"I will punish their rebellion by beating them with a club,
their sin by inflicting them with bruises.
But I will not remove my loyal love from him,
nor be unfaithful to my promise.
I will not break my covenant
or go back on what I promised" [vv. 32–34].
Then suddenly the psalmist grinds the gears. The psalm shrieks,
But you have spurned and rejected him;
you are angry with your chosen king.
You have repudiated your covenant with your servant;
you have thrown his crown to the ground [vv. 38–39].
He's just getting started. The psalmist says "you have [done]" or "you are" thirteen times. He is accusing God of blatantly violating his agreement. The disasters that have struck Israel are not random occurrences or the sole fault of surrounding nations. These are God's fault.

This is the substance of a "covenant lawsuit," as modern scholars call the ancient phenomenon. When things go bad in Israel, other biblical laments express contrition, acknowledging that God justly brings calamity because Israel has sinfully violated its covenant with God. That is because the covenant between God and Israel made through the mediation of Moses entailed voluminous responsibilities on Israel that the people did not keep.

But the covenant God made to David and his line is different. In that covenant David had no obligations. God took on all the obligations. So despite the sin of Israel and even the sin of David's descendants who reigned wickedly on his throne, the psalmist has no compunction about laying all the blame at God's feet. God never gave himself a way out of keeping his promise. In fact, he specifically detailed his expectation that David's sons would act badly. His promise is entirely independent of that fact. Therefore, in the eyes of the psalmist, God has failed in his duties.

This psalm may be written after the return from exile—which demonstrated that Israel was forgiven for its sins—but with the Davidic monarchy still unrestored. In any case, it is startling that God would inspire a man to write an infallible accusation against God's faithfulness!

Or is it? The psalmist went on at length about how faithful God is. And that may be the indicator of a godly complaint.

When the Israelites of the exodus generation complained it came from a position of doubt. They doubted whether God was able to help them. They doubted whether God wanted to help them. They doubted whether God would keep his promises even while God was in the very act of making good on those promises.

The author of Psalm 89 is exactly the opposite. He complains from a position of faith. He believes wholeheartedly that God is faithful. He believes that God made a promise to David. His complaint presumes that God is acting in contradiction to his words and in contradiction with his very nature. Far from denying God's word, the psalmist calls God back to it. This is who you are, God! he says. This is what you said! But the present circumstances don't line up!

This is the complaint that God welcomes. It's griping and moaning over the fact that circumstances do not square with God's character and his revelation about himself and his intentions. God delights in us indignantly badgering him to get with his own program. It shows that we believe that he and his program are for real—that messed-up circumstances need to turn upside down while God simply needs to be who he is.

Friday, June 19, 2015

"How Long, O Lord?": Grieving for the Martyrs of Emanuel AME Church

It is becoming apparent that the massacre of nine members of Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, SC during their Bible study was a hate crime. The disturbed (at best), evil (at worst) murderer explicitly intended to ignite a race war that he was convinced blacks would lose, resulting in apartheid or (one must suppose) their extermination from American soil.

Reports indicate that the gunman, Dylann Roof, shot up the members of the Bible study because they were black. No evidence has been publicized that he killed them because they were Christians.

Nevertheless, their fellow Christians of all colors and ethnicities have good reason for viewing the fallen as martyrs for Jesus Christ.

The word martyr comes from the Greek word for "witness." It acquired a technical meaning in the ancient church for those who died for their faith, because when threatened with death they publicly bore witness that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead and was a Lord superior to Caesar. They chose their confession over their lives.

The existence and history of the Black Church in America is suffused with believers great and small who followed Jesus Christ at great personal risk.

Some slave preachers learned to read so they could learn and preach the Bible even when it was illegal and would have resulted in horrific punishment.

Slaves and freedpeople formed their own churches outside of white control (like Emanuel) so they could be free to worship God with abandon and proclaim the whole message of the Bible—including parts that their masters wanted them to avoid, like the exodus of Israel from slavery.

During Reconstruction, churches formed the social engine of black uplift and the institutional home of former slaves who demanded equality with whites. A century before the Civil Rights Movement, churches successfully taught their members to combine faith in their dignity as God's image-bearers with peaceableness. Black Christians extended astounding forgiveness toward the whites who oppressed them as slaves and continued (often viciously) to resist their claim to full humanity with its civil and social implications.

The core of the Civil Rights Movement of the twentieth century consisted of black Christians who concluded that to approve of white supremacy tacitly by accommodating it was to bow the knee to a racist idol. They peacefully chose to stop cooperating with that demonic system in order to live as citizens of the kingdom of God.

The members of Emanuel A.M.E. Church were slain while reading God's word. Whether the murder thought about it or not, there was a certain odd fitness to his act. Satan hates justice and the equality of the human family and true freedom, and all of those principles are contained in the word of God and arise from the word of God.

Even the large number of religiously apathetic people today who support such principles are the unwitting heirs of a centuries-long liberal heritage with roots in Christianity. Much of that heritage and many of its adherents have rejected Christianity, but not the members of Emanuel.

They know that justice, equality, and freedom belong to the kingdom of God and are found in Christ. They know that the Bible is more subversive of oppression and more supportive of justice than any other literature. They know that Christ is King and that their voices will never be silenced.
Now when the Lamb opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been violently killed because of the word of God and because of the testimony they had given. They cried out with a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Master, holy and true, before you judge those who live on the earth and avenge our blood?” Each of them was given a long white robe and they were told to rest for a little longer, until the full number was reached of both their fellow servants and their brothers who were going to be killed just as they had been [Rev. 6:9–11].
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven saying,

“The salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God,
and the ruling authority of his Christ, have now come,
because the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
the one who accuses them day and night before our God,
has been thrown down.
But they overcame him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony,
and they did not love their lives so much that they were afraid to die” [Rev. 12:10–11]

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Few Things God Is Looking For . . . and Why Occupation Probably Isn't One of Them

A few months ago I finished a doctoral thesis on a man named Mansfield French. In the nineteenth century, mostly in Ohio, New York, and South Carolina, French was an educator who founded and served institutions of higher learning; a pastor and traveling revivalistic evangelist; a leading magazine publisher in what is called the Holiness Movement; and an abolitionist who ministered among former slaves as a missionary supervisor, army chaplain, and Freedmen's Bureau officer, lobbied the federal government on their behalf, and ran for U.S. Senate. I called French "a model of multivocational ministry," and I examined what enabled him to engage in such a diverse array of activities over a single ministry career.

Because of this study, vocation has been on mind a good deal in the past year. There are a good many people, including a good many Christians, who think nothing of the meaning and implications of what they do for work. I should note that this neglect is not always bad—it is much better to be godly at work and never think about what you're doing than it is to think much about vocation but not actually to be godly. But for some of us, Christian and otherwise, we just can't help thinking about it. The question, "What am I supposed to be doing?" is an itch that does not go away (unless we can confidently answer, "What I'm doing right now," as some of us can at times), so we keep trying to scratch it.

This restlessness also is not always bad, in particular if it drives us to listen to God and get to know him with persistence, patience, and humility. But it is worthwhile to keep this vocational question in proper perspective.

For some of us, the question of "What am I supposed to be doing?" (or "How much?" or "Where and with whom?") can loom over us with what seems like epic significance. We might be very afraid of making the wrong choice (of occupation, workplace, college major, etc.) that will doom us to frustration, failure, and/or meaninglessness. Or we might continually be roiled within where we are currently planted, unsure if we are missing out on what we are supposed to do or instead frustrated at the closed doors in the direction that we think we are supposed to go. We think that if we are not set right then we will get to the end of our life having wasted it uselessly with nothing to show for it.

That right there is the problem hidden under the surface of our yearning to do the right work, even if that yearning is mostly genuine, mostly composed of love for God and people and not of lust for self. The stakes seem enormously high because of our faithlessness. Deep down, we do not really believe in the age to come. Like any worldly person (most consistently a physicalist) we believe that this life is all there is: we really only have one shot at it.

If we are truly Christians, however, we know that this is not all there is. While most Christians (would that it be all of them) recognize that what we do in this life is terribly important because of its ramifications for the world to come, not only for ourselves but for all those around us, we still must be careful not to blow certain details out of proportion. For some of us, occupation may be one of those details.

I understand this by means of my one and only experience as an athletic coach, when I coached my son's teeball team of four- and five-year-olds. I did not stop coaching because it was a bad experience—far from it. In fact, it taught me a valuable lesson: God is really not expecting much from us.

When I say that God is not expecting much, I do not mean that God has low standards. I mean that he has very high standards about only a very small number of very basic things. Other than those few things, I don't believe that he is terribly concerned.

Coaching four- and five-year-olds in teeball requires one to teach extremely rudimentary things, because, by and large, they know NOTHING. A number of my players literally could not throw a ball, period. That's not to mention knowing how to catch a ball and how to swing a bat (and how and where to stand when swinging a bat). And then the rules of the game itself and what to do in what situation in the middle of play (for example, after you hit the ball, RUN—no, THAT WAY)—that was as obscure as quantum mechanics to these kids.

So imagine yourself in your first-ever coaching experience, and you're with a group of four- and five-year-olds, and you're beginning to figure out what you've gotten yourself into. What are you looking for? What do you want from these kids?

Only a few simple things. Will they do what I say? Will they do it when I say it? Will they have a good attitude when they aren't allowed to do what they want to do? When told to do something they can't do, will they try? Will they learn?

Notice that athletic talent is not on this list. At this point, at this level, it does not matter. At this level, no one is keeping score. There are no wins and losses. (Who would watch it if there were?) Also, these kids are small—they are going to grow a great deal before they are really playing at a high level, and we cannot tell now who will be a good athlete then.

Consider further that the things that you tell the kids to do and how they respond in that first practice have no bearing on what position any of these kids will be playing when they are eighteen or twenty or twenty-five, if they are still playing at all. Moreover, these kids do not even know what baseball is, not really. Even if you told them, "When you're in varsity, you'll be a shortstop," they would have no idea what that means. (They might ask, "What's 'varsity'?")

Now imagine that on this teeball team, the first practice is actually a tryout. At the end of practice, there will be a cut—some will continue on to play baseball for many, many years, while others will never play again. Now you are beginning to grasp what this life is in comparison to the world to come.

This entire life that we live in these bodies, however many years that we have, is no more than the first teeball practice of a group of four- and five-year-olds. It is the beginning of a series of practices and games that lead eventually to a major-league-caliber season that never ends. All God has been looking for for these thousands of years of human existence is who really wants to play. I can only come up with five simple questions that he is asking, five things that he is looking for in people:
  • Do they recognize me?
  • Do they want me?
  • Do they love what I love and hate what I hate?
  • Do they trust me?
  • Will they do what I say?
Each of these questions is profound and the manifestations of them in our lives are enormously complex. I do not mean to offer a reductionistic, half-inch-deep view of religion. I merely assert that at root, these things are the few that God wants from people. Anything and everything else, any other command or instruction, derives from them.

Notice that what we do for a living is not on the list. Not directly, anyway—it can be strongly affected by loving what God loves and hating what God hates and even by doing what he says. My point, however, is that if God has us spend this whole practice throwing a ball against a wall, it does not mean that we will be a pitcher in the major leagues. We might end up a designated hitter instead (except that in eternity there will only be the National League, so forget I said that).

If you are privileged to look back on your life one trillion years from now, your profession today, no matter how important for God's kingdom even, will not be what you see. You will be serving then in a vocation that is absolutely incomprehensible to you right now, and far more important as well. All you will see is what God is looking at today: can he coach you?

I should also point out that the default answer to each of God's questions for each person on earth is "No." Fortunately, God is not satisfied with that answer, so he intervenes to alter people's dispositions so that the answer might be "Yes." Are you altered? If you want to be, it may already be happening. Make sure.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Contrasting Approaches to Reading the Bible

I have observed two basic approaches that people take to reading the Bible. And the more learned and scholarly the people are who read it, the more pronounced these two approaches appear and the higher the contrast between them.

One approach is like a prospector searching for gold nuggets amid a welter of silt and rock. The reader sifts through the material, discarding the impurities, accretions, and distracting substances to find the comparatively few precious elements in the texts.

The other approach assumes that the entire thing is pure gold. The problem is that the reader is visually impaired and handling the material in a dim room. Therefore the gold is sometimes hard to see—the luster of much of it is not bright, and sometimes it does not look like gold at all, but the reader believes that it still is.

In the first approach the defect is in the material handled. In the second the defect is in the handler and the environment (the world) in which it is handled.

In the first approach, the reader critiques the word and alters it. In the second the word critiques the reader and alters her.

One might posit that both are possible, that one could approach the biblical texts as imperfect things read by imperfect people in imperfect situations. In that case the critique and alteration goes both ways.

That is logically possible, but in practice I believe it to be rare if it ever happens at all. At least one reason for this is that human beings powerfully oppose being altered deeply. (Even the most flexible and adaptable of people, for example, oppose any attempt to make them inflexible and nonadaptable on certain matters.) Therefore, when the text demands something tough—a major behavioral sacrifice, or an even more imposing relinquishment of one belief or opinion for another—the option of identifying that text as impure (textually obscure, culturally bound, politically motivated, from an unreliable source, self-contradictory, etc.) is too alluring. The path of least resistance is impossible to resist.

I take the second approach instead. The reasons for this are complex, and I do not intend to get into them here. But you can find part of them in this old post.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Leave It to Satan

Last month a bill called the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act emerged out of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee with unanimous support from Republicans and Democrats. The bill would bolster law enforcers' tools against perpetrators of human trafficking—the horrendous, outrageous modern-day slavery that majors on child labor and prostitution—and create a fund to help those rescued.

Two weeks ago, however, as debate on the Senate floor was about to begin with the bill assured of easy passage, some Democrats challenged a provision in the bill that prohibited money from the fund to be used to pay for abortions for five years. This language, known as the Hyde Amendment, has been included in a variety of laws passed by Congress for the last four decades (and, according to some, has loopholes wide enough to drive a truck through).

In previous legislation, however, the prohibition runs on a one-year renewable term, but in the current bill the term is five years. This expansion was enough to send Democrats to the barricades, accusing Republicans of surreptitiously sneaking the language in, despite that the wording had been in the bill from the very beginning. With Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women whipping the Democratic caucus into shape, forty-three senators voted successfully to block the bill from coming to the floor for a vote, effectively killing it unless Republicans removed the abortion-related language.

We are at a point in history where no Democrat on the national level is allowed to depart from pro-choice orthodoxy (just as no Republican is allowed to raise taxes) if they don't want to be exiled by the party to electoral Siberia. But for many Democrats, their antipathy toward the Hyde Amendment comes from deeply held principle.

Take California Sen. Diane Feinstein, for instance. She grieves over vivid memories of the sentencing of women who went to abortion doctors or even mutilated themselves before abortion became legal because they believed they had no other recourse. Feinstein, like many a 1970s-era feminist (and others of later vintage), generalizes the plight of those women to half the human race. "It is our reproductive system. In a sense this has been a battle for our identity," she said in debate. "There are many of us who believe this is one small step for womankind."

Republicans immediately went on the defensive, believing that to give in to the Democrats' demand would grant a victory to the most radical of pro-choice partisans. Many refused to remove the Hyde Amendment on pro-life principle; seemingly all refused on the grounds that it would give the Democrats an easy victory. Accustomed to hardball, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell announced that the confirmation of Attorney General appointee Loretta Lynch, which has already been languishing for months, will not receive a vote until the trafficking bill passes—in the far-fetched hope, presumably, that President Obama will therefore intervene to change Senate Democrats' minds.

Isn't this just like Satan. All senators oppose the oppression of slaves, so he exploits the fact that half hate the oppression of women and half hate the oppression of the unborn, with the result that all of them—women, the unborn, and most of all slaves—remain just as oppressed as they were in the first place. One can only imagine how the Evil One gets off on this stuff.

For the record, I believe that Senator Feinstein is sincere. I believe that I might even learn something from her about sexist oppression. I also believe, however, that her reasoning is morally grotesque. I fail to see how it safeguards women's reproductive systems to annihilate girls' reproductive systems (and the rest of their bodies) before they are born. I fail to see how an oppressed woman becomes liberated by oppressing the person inside her. And I fail to see how a woman (or a man, for that matter) achieves her identity by winning the power to have sex without having children. In the case of women who are forced by wicked men to have sex by blunt or subtle pressure (like sex in exchange for food), there is indeed a screaming need for liberating justice, but abortion does not accomplish it. If anything, abortion compounds the oppression.

That does not mean, however, that the GOP ought to fight Feinstein and the Democrats tooth and nail. Their fear that it gives the pro-choice lobby a victory that will make it even harder to roll back the slaughter of innocents is legitimate, but it plays right into the Devil's hands. There will not be less injustice in the world because Senate Republicans refuse to strike the Hyde Amendment. There will only be more—more women and children sold into slavery and violated in every imaginable and unimaginable way.

I think if you're a Republican senator in this situation, you vote for an amendment to remove the abortion language from the bill even while you publicly excoriate the Dems for having to do it. And I think if you're a Democratic senator, you vote for the bill as is and start looking for work for when your term ends (or try to make lots of friends by bringing home lots of pork).

You do it not because you like it and not because you can't think of plenty of reasons why it's a bad idea. You do it because you recognize a ploy of the Father of Lies when you see it and you refuse to let him win.

Friday, January 2, 2015


First, I'm back. I have written very little on 1st Corynthians for several months, because my writing capacity has been maxed out on a doctor of ministry thesis that blew way beyond what it is supposed to be. You can learn more about that project in a prior post (which does not perfectly describe either my subject or the project as it turned out, but it comes close), and I am sure that I will talk about it here at some future point(s). Meanwhile, two hundred thousand words later, I am trying to find myself again, and apparently that includes finding this blog.

I have never known how many readers I have had, but periodically I have been humbly gratified to get positive feedback from someone. If I have been useful to regular readers, please accept my sincere apology for the silence, if there's anyone still out there. We'll see how much I put out in 2015.

Enough of that. During my desperate struggle to finish my thesis I put off many things large and small. One of the small ones was deciding what to do with a free six-month subscription to Christianity Today. Now, many people (I assume or at least hope) read CT to get out of it . . . well, whatever good things they get out of it. I don't really know, because historically the main thing that I get out of it is a prodigious catalog of successful American evangelicals whose abiding flaw is that none of them is myself.

I don't suppose—no, I do, I just feel guilty for supposing—that the magazine exists to define a list of important people by making them subjects of articles and interviews, quoted sources, and bylines. To me, however, CT (and a lot of other things) becomes what my beloved friend Ted Kluck calls "ego porn"—perfect artifices that excite covetous lust, fantasies not to be realized in one's own life. One masturbates to it by posting something in the comment feed that everyone will love or by tweeting to one of the important people hoping for a response. Like masturbation, it doesn't "work," and even when it does, there is no substance and no afterglow, only an empty hunger for more.

Not that I know from experience or anything.

I got to thinking about greatness today, specifically about where I would wish to be great if I could. I remembered something about becoming great in the kingdom of heaven, so I decided to check into that again.

Jesus said in Matthew 5:19 that "anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever obeys them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven." So if I really want to be great, my ambition must be to do everything the Bible says as Jesus and his apostles frame it for "the Israel of God" and to teach others to do the same. Interesting.

Later in Matthew (11:11-12) Jesus talks about John the Immerser and calls him at least as great as anyone else "born of women"—pretty impressive, since the greatest person in that category is Jesus himself. But then Jesus points out (as I translate it) that John is so great "although the one who is inferior in Heaven's government is greater than he is."

This isn't a remark about John being the best of the Old Covenant, but the least participant in the New Covenant is better than he is, although many have interpreted it this way. Rather, it is a sad observation that as lofty as John is in God's government, people who are of no importance in the coming age appear to be superior to him in today's ranking system. That is why, Jesus goes on, "the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and forceful people lay hold of it." People are the kingdom, and those in so-called high places forcibly took away the kingdom when they threw John in prison and led Jesus to the cross and persecute our brothers and sisters around the world today.

Point? Human beings are horrible judges of greatness. This disturbs me about American evangelicalism. (Note that by the modifier "American" I am referring to a sociocultural entity, not the abstract beliefs and values that this group shares in common with other groups.)

The evangelical subculture's proximity to the center of cultural power in my country has fluctuated over the centuries. Evangelicals have never quite dominated (although in the 1840s and '50s they came close), and therefore big shots in the evangelical subculture have rarely been big-time in the wider culture. According to what Jesus says about greatness, that's quite all right.

But, people being people, it comes naturally to us on the periphery of cultural influence to form an alternate, ingrown pecking order centered on basically the same things that the world values—power, reach, comeliness, charisma, and close acquaintance with others who have them—instead of obedience. That's not to say that the people whom we consider important are not obedient—I hope and (want to) assume that they are. It's just that their obedience is not why we consider them important.

The overwhelming ease with which humans do this comes home to me in Jesus' third remark about greatness in Matthew. "At that time the disciples came to Jesus saying, 'Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?' He called a child, had him stand among them, and said, 'I tell you the truth, unless you turn around and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven! Whoever then humbles himself like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven' " (18:1-4). The phrase "turn around" is actually passive—you are turned around, or as the NASB renders it, "converted." You have to be turned into a little child even to enter the kingdom of heaven, much less to become great.

I automatically think of my youngest child, a four-year-old, when I read this. Don't misunderstand: he is not a moral role model. He can be willful, destructive, and violent. But in one area he is perfect: he is utterly unpretentious. He is totally unaware of who the greatest is and he never thinks about it, and he certainly does not wish to be the greatest himself.

And that is where I am stuck, because I am acutely aware of greatness and have oodles of ambition to be the greatest. Jesus tells me that if I want to slake my thirst for greatness, I must be so altered that I am unconscious of greatness. And then, when greatness is foreign to my psyche, when I don't care or even much notice, then I will become great in the one valuation that matters, that of the kingdom of heaven.

I haven't decided yet whether to get Christianity Today (and I don't want advice about it, by the way). But I know that if I was like a little child it would be an easier decision to make, since it would be neither a trap nor a training. It might just be a great magazine, and I might just be great.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Gun Control: A Conversation with a Friend (5)

This series of posts is a conversation about gun control between me and an American friend living in Canada. Today's, the last one, comes from my friend Jeremy. The first, second, third, and fourth posts are here.

Thanks, Cory.

One of the things that troubles me so much about the proliferation of guns is that even people that you might ordinarily consider the "good" guys have bad days, or more likely moments of bad judgment. Just a couple examples from Florida recently: the former cop in the movie theater who killed the young father sitting front if him for texting . . . during the previews. Here was a guy who had trained and practiced for his entire career who had a serious lapse in judgment. And, unlike a lapse if judgment when you're playing baseball, when guns are involved there is a loss of human life. The other case was the guy at the gas station who confronted some kids about their music, thought he saw something, and unloaded a weapon into the car. No gun was found in the car, but more people were dead. I think it's just too great a responsibility to expect people to make life-and-death decisions in a split second depending on if they "feel threatened." In the home is a different matter: except if someone believes in Santa, I can't think of a good reason that someone would be trying to break into another person's house. The idea of keeping the military in check is one that doesn't really resonate with me (maybe I need to watch Red Dawn). I always assumed that if the military really felt like it, they possess weapons so far beyond what the average person can acquire that resistance would be an exercise in futility. A friend of mine who is at Penn State worked on some naval projects a few years back and told me that if I knew what the military had, I would be freaked out. If it ever got to that point, I think we'd all be up the proverbial creek.

One last thing: we do have a real life example of a one-time gun-owning society that went cold turkey. Australia severely restricted gun ownership and require everyone to register their guns after what I think was a school shooting in the 90's. The only result has been that Aussie kids don't have to practice lockdown drills. I know that would never fly here, but I wonder if the death toll will ever change people's minds.


Monday, September 1, 2014

Gun Control: A Conversation with a Friend (4)

This series of posts is a conversation about gun control between me and an American friend living in Canada. Today's comes from me. The first, second, and third posts are here.

I agree with you overall and with most of the details. I think that background checks should be universal. There are probably other policy adjustments that ought to be made that people better informed than I am know about. But there are still some sticky points.

Your analogy here . . .
Adding more guns to a gun-saturated culture in order to reduce gun violence sounds to me like the alcoholic who wakes up with a hang-over and decides to have a stiff one to feel better rather than to consider consuming less alcohol.
. . . is powerful. That is, it’s powerful to me, but that’s because I, like you, am comfortable looking at the big picture, at the undifferentiated mass of guns floating in the undifferentiated mass of society, and I agree that things have run amok. But that argument will never work with the people who need to be persuaded.

The answer I always hear to this argument is, in essence, “But how will keeping me from getting another gun prevent someone else from committing a homicide?” You either have to give a clear and compelling explanation of how that will work, or you have to convince the person that he or she (or his or her live-in family member) is the one who is likely to commit the homicide with his or her gun. Unless you can persuasively explain how the policy adjustment will save lives on an individual, personal level, many people simply will not believe it. And that frame of mind is not going away.

You are right that sinfulness is pervasive, of course, and also that for very many—probably overwhelmingly most—Americans, “freedom” boils down to an unalienable right to gratify greed, lust, or power on a tiny scale. The freedom to bear arms is no exception.

But this principle operates on two planes. It operates at the level of the individual, self-reliant, power-drunk gun owner, and it also operates at the level of the corporate, institution-reliant, power-drunk governmental security force. The philosophical question is, where do you expect sinful power and violence to be more manifest: among armed-to-the-teeth individuals or in armed-to-the-teeth governments?

Philosophically, my answer is, neither—sin is equally likely to manifest itself at both levels. But that leads to the practical question, are each presently able to keep the other in check, or is one more liable to run away with sinful power than the other?

I really don’t know the answer to that question right now. I wish I did.

Obviously the government is not all-powerful, because it’s unable to stop or deter fully the terrible number of criminal homicides that Americans commit every year.

On the other hand, let’s think again about this analogy:
weapons that are as removed from the muskets the founding fathers had access to as iPads are to feather pen and ink.
No doubt. However, the musket that the average American farmer owned was more or less equal in power to the muskets that the most advanced armies in the world armed their infantry with. Otherwise the Revolution would never have happened. The Founders knew this.

Is there any comparison to today? Is even the most powerful weaponry on the market today anything like the firepower that our military and even the state police have at their disposal?

Don’t get me wrong—I DON’T WANT civilians to be able to arm themselves like the 82nd Airborne! I don’t know how a citizenry like that could be held accountable for their use of their weapons without free-for-all massacres. We’d be Somalia. Indeed, your observation about how we’re inadvertently arming Mexican druglords shows how poor our accountability is already.

And yet, and yet . . . I find myself increasingly doubtful that the democratic governments of a nation this large can be held accountable either. (At least at the state and federal level here; municipally here and perhaps all over in Canada they are more manageable.) I am more and more uneasy that our electoral process is a sort of mass participatory theater that yields outcomes tightly delimited by a silent few elites (and a mammoth bureaucracy) that are far more powerful than voting citizens—the legal system likewise. Does this constitutional democracy work well enough to prevent the government from abusing its lethal power? I am skeptical.

Does that mean that our military should be scaled way back, that not only the citizenry but the government should be disarmed? Certain liberals (including peace-loving Christians) strongly argue for this, and I think that they have great points. The industry and culture of violence is of a piece on both individual and governmental levels.

On the other hand, to the extent that our national government is already taking small steps in the direction of disarmament and withdrawal, we seem to be persuading Putin that the time is ripe to employ Hitler’s foreign policy strategy of the 1930s. Who knows how far he’ll take it.

So Russia, North Korea, and Iran are threats, so therefore we have a colossally powerful military to protect us (and everyone else) from those threats, and then (in the eyes of some) we have a rifle-toting populace to protect us from the threat of our powerful military. It’s madness. But I don’t know a way out of the madness until the millennium.

Meantime, we balance one threat against another. Which threat is the most threatening is not always an easy judgment to make. You may be right that our governments are less threatening and more responsible with their lethal power than private citizens are. I used to be confident of that. I don’t deny it yet, but I’m just not sure anymore.


Monday, August 25, 2014

Gun Control: A Conversation with a Friend (3)

This series of posts is a conversation about gun control between me and an American friend living in Canada. Today's comes from my friend Jeremy. The first and second posts are here.

Hi Cory,

Thanks for the thoughtful reply and the link to that article. The issue of gun control (or the nearly complete lack thereof) is one that riles me up a bit. While understanding the significantly differing cultural views towards violence helps to make sense of why there have been no real changes in gun laws (and why there won't be for the foreseeable future) except to actually make guns more prevalent in public, I think that the "more guns as deterrent" idea simply goes against reason. The US is already, by a good margin, the most heavily armed country in the world (the runner-up is that other beacon of democracy and freedom: Yemen). Adding more guns to a gun-saturated culture in order to reduce gun violence sounds to me like the alcoholic who wakes up with a hang-over and decides to have a stiff one to feel better rather than to consider consuming less alcohol. To me, the overarching problem is accessibility. I think I read that something like 40% of gun purchases are at shows where background checks are famously not required, allowing anyone, convicted felons included, to purchase weapons that are as removed from the muskets the founding fathers had access to as iPads are to feather pen and ink.

There's also the issues of stand your ground laws (which seem to me to simply allow an aggressor to claim victimhood and then rub out the only potential witness to a murder) and the fact that so many easily obtained US guns are being used in the Mexican drug wars (a link I will try to dig up is about US weapons being melted down, turned into musical instruments, and toured with, performed on by Mexican musicians). Ahh, easy guns and border security wrapped up in one, but this is a rabbit hole that gets deep and twisty so I'll stop.

None of this has anything to do with hunting and home defense, which I think are perfectly legitimate functions for guns. But the way the floodgates have opened up in places like Florida, Georgia, Texas are disturbing.  I think the Charlton Heston quote provides a window in to why gun control is so necessary but also unobtainable: when he talks about the exhilarating sense of freedom that comes from gun ownership, I think he really means the intoxication that comes with the realization of possession of power, wrapped up in wood and blue steel. And two things I think are 100% certain in life are man's basic sinfulness, and how power corrupts people. Open-carry + stand-your-ground + average-sleep-deprived-American = I'm not sure, but I don't think it's good.