Sunday, November 23, 2014

Honest Prayer

At church this morning, the pastor preached about Thanksgiving.  He told us about the 1965 movie Shenandoah, in which Jimmy Stewart played a farmer during the American Civil War.   Stewart’s character was named Charlie Anderson, and he was trying to protect his family from the war.  Charlie’s wife wanted Charlie to raise their kids to be Christians, so Charlie led the family in prayer at the dinner table.  He said in the prayer that he and his family were the ones who produced that food through their own sweat and toil, but he thanks God for it anyway!

The pastor asked us if that was a good prayer.  I told him after the service that I respected the prayer for its raw honesty.  Why should Charlie Anderson say things that he does not truly believe?  And yet, I thought that the prayer did not consider certain important details: the things that brought the food that were outside of Charlie’s control, such as rain.

I have to respect honesty when it comes to religion.  If someone has problems with religion, why pretend?  At the same time, there is a superstitious part of me.  We were watching Constantine on Friday night.   Constantine and Papa Midnite were doing a spell, and the spell was not working.  “It is because you do not respect the gods, and that keeps them away,” Papa Midnite told Constantine, who, yes, did not manifest a particularly respectful attitude towards these “gods,” probably because he’s been around the block in terms of the spirit world and just does not respect what he has seen!  But, anyway, I have a similar concern: does one keep God, God’s protection, and God’s blessing away by being disrespectful to him?  I don’t want to disrespect God.  If I have problems with him, I should express those to him respectfully.

And, yes, my superstition (if that is the right word) does lead me to ask myself how exactly I envision God: what kind of God do I believe God is?

Saturday, November 22, 2014

II Chronicles 8

I have two items for my blog post today about II Chronicles 8.

1.  II Chronicles 8:1-2 states in the NRSV: “At the end of twenty years, during which Solomon had built the house of the LORD and his own house, Solomon rebuilt the cities that Huram had given to him, and settled the people of Israel in them.”

In the KJV, we read: “And it came to pass at the end of twenty years, wherein Solomon had built the house of the LORD, and his own house, That the cities which Huram had restored to Solomon, Solomon built them, and caused the children of Israel to dwell there.”

Do you notice any significant difference between the two translations?  According to the NRSV, King Huram of Tyre gave Solomon cities.  According to the KJV, King Huram returned cities to Solomon, implying that Solomon had given Huram those cities earlier.

The Hebrew in this case is natan, which means “to give” (or literally, “he gave”).  If the writer had wanted to say that Huram returned the cities, he probably would have used some form of sh-w-v.  Why, then, did the King James Version translate natan as “restored”?  The reason is probably that it was trying to harmonize II Chronicles 8:2 with I Kings 9:11, which states that Solomon gave to Hiram twenty cities in Galilee.  Hiram in that chapter is displeased with those cities, however.  We have II Chronicles 8:2, which states that Hiram gave Solomon cities.  We have I Kings 9:11, which states that Solomon gave Hiram cities.  One way that people try to harmonize those two texts is to say that Solomon gave Hiram the cities, Hiram was displeased with them, and so Hiram returned them to Solomon, who rebuilt the cities and settled Israelites in them.

I tend to believe that there are two separate agendas in I Kings and II Chronicles.  I Kings is trying to explain why those cities came to be called Cabul, which is rather disparaging.  The reason, in I Kings 9, goes back to Hiram’s dissatisfaction with those cities.  II Chronicles 8, however, is presenting Huram as adoring and subordinating himself to Solomon, and thus giving Solomon cities.  And Solomon rebuilding the cities and settling Israelites in them occurs within the context of his projects of expansion and building, which we read about in the subsequent verses.

Of course, I have read in the Jewish Study Bible that I Kings presents Solomon and Hiram as equal parties making an agreement, whereas II Chronicles depicts Huram as subordinate to Solomon.  There is probably something to that, but it should not be taken in the direction of saying that Huram in II Chronicles lacked power in his own right.  II Chronicles 8:18 affirms that Huram sent Solomon ships and servants familiar with the sea, and so Huram had a lot of resources!

2.  II Chronicles 8:11 states (in the KJV): “And Solomon brought up the daughter of Pharaoh out of the city of David unto the house that he had built for her: for he said, My wife shall not dwell in the house of David king of Israel, because the places are holy, whereunto the ark of the LORD hath come.”

I Kings has a similar story, but II Chronicles adds a rationale for Solomon doing what he did: Solomon did not want his Egyptian wife to dwell in the holy city of Jerusalem.

Why not?  A common explanation is that she was a Gentile.  I heard more than one sermon saying that Solomon was sinning in being married to a Gentile, but he was somehow trying to be religious, too, by forbidding his wife to live in Jerusalem.  It would be like someone making money off of a shady business deal, and deciding to get on God’s good side by donating the money to the church.

Granted, there are places in the Hebrew Bible that are against Israelites intermarrying with Gentiles.  I Kings criticizes Solomon for intermarriage, since that was what turned him away from God, and Nehemiah 13:26 refers to him as an example in defending a policy against Jewish intermarriage.  But I have problems saying that II Chronicles had this sort of view.  For one, the genealogies in Chronicles refer to intermarriages, without any hint of criticism.  The genealogies present intermarriage as part of the history of Israel.  Second, the Chronicler (as far as I can remember) does not criticize Solomon for intermarriage.

Maybe the Chronicler still had problems with a Gentile dwelling in Jerusalem, or he was trying to depict Solomon in a positive way: yes, Solomon married a Gentile, but at least he did not let her live in Jerusalem.

Raymond Dillard, however, has another idea.  He wonders if II Chronicles 8:11 could be sanctioning the late Jewish practice of separating men and women in worship.  You see that in orthodox synagogues today: the men sit in one section, the women in another.  Could II Chronicles 8:11 be about this sort of practice?  I seriously doubt that there was a blanket prohibition on women living in Jerusalem, so I tend not to absolutize Dillard’s proposal.  But to see it as a stray verse sanctioning the separation of men and women in worship?  I am somewhat open to that being a function of the verse—-not that I am in favor of such a practice.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Ramblings About the Fine-Tuning of the Universe

I recently read an article by Julie Roys, host of Moody Radio’s Up for Debate program.  The article is entitled “Facts About the Universe That Will Blow Your Mind.”  

The article goes into the fine-tuning of the universe.  Essentially, this concept notes that, if certain natural constants varied by only a little bit, there would not be any interactive life in the universe.  For a number of theists, that is evidence for the existence of an intelligent designer of the universe.

The article mentioned something else, though: that the earth is in a spot of the universe that is favorable to life, when there are actually a lot of places in the universe that are not favorable to it.  Roys states:

“MIT Professor Max Tegmark mapped the arrangement of temperature disturbances in radiation throughout the universe and discovered something surprising. These disturbances are concentrated in such a way that they reveal a very specific arrangement or ‘axis.’ And, the earth occupies a very favored location in the axis. My guests this Saturday disagree on exactly where the earth is located.  According Robert Sungenis, producer of the new controversial movie, The Principle, the earth lies at the center of the axis. But, Dr. Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe, says the earth lies more at the edge of the axis. Either way, the earth occupies a very favored location in the universe, which disturbs atheistic scientists. Fascinating!”

As I read this, I thought about an atheist podcast that I heard recently.  I talk about it here.  On this podcast, an atheist lady was saying that she talks to Christians and they tell her that the universe is so finely-tuned for life, and so there must be a God.  She responds that actually there is not that much life in the universe.  Christians then say that it is such a miracle that there is life on earth, amidst a largely hostile, lifeless universe, and so that shows there is a God!  You just can’t win!  These Christians keep changing the criteria of evidence, the atheist lady appeared to be suggesting.

I’m a bit mixed when it comes to the argument from fine-tuning.  I think that whether or not it makes sense to people depends on their perspective.  Allow me to give an example.  I am here.  But things had to turn out a certain way for me to be here.  If my Dad stayed in bed rather than going to church, he would not have met my Mom, and I would not be here.  If another sperm got to my Mom’s egg, I would not be here.  Now, I could believe that God arranged for my Dad to meet my Mom, and for my sperm to be the one that got to my Mom’s egg.  On the other hand, though, my existence could just be the result of accidents, or of things turning out as they did, when they could have easily turned out otherwise.  One could say that there is no iron-clad rule that we have to be here: that we are here because, fortunately for us, things turned out as they did, and they could have happened differently.

So earth is in a part of the universe that is conducive to life.  Does that prove there is a God, or serve as evidence for that proposition?  Or does it just highlight one reason that there is life on earth: that the earth happened to be in a place that is conducive to life?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Jeopardy Match: Julia vs. Arthur Chu

I wrote a post last week, Jeopardy Disappointment, in which I expressed disappointment because I thought that Julia Collins would not be going up against Arthur Chu in the Tournament of Champions, since Julia had lost the night before.  But, perhaps because of her impressive record, she was allowed to compete again, and she won.  So, tonight and tomorrow, the match will include Julia, Arthur Chu, and a third guy who won yesterday, but whom I only vaguely remember.  I remember Julia and Arthur Chu, though: Julia because she was on for so long, and Arthur Chu because he was in the news for selecting across the board and thereby allegedly annoying Alex Trebek.

Who will win?  I have no idea.  In watching Jeopardy, I’ve seen both Julia and Arthur Chu at their best and their worse.  Julia did not know that Habeus Corpus was one of the latin terms in the U.S. Constitution.  That, or she did not remember it.  Arthur Chu has made some mistakes.  To be honest, I can see the game going either way.  Julia dominates categories when she is on a roll, but there are plenty of times when she is conservative—-she does not ring in unless she is sure that she knows the answer.  And, during that time, the other contenders often answer incorrectly and bury themselves deeper.  Arthur Chu will be a tougher opponent, though.

In terms of whom I want to win, I’m on Team Julia!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Movie Write-Up (Sort of): Redeemed

I recently watched the 2014 Christian movie, Redeemed, which was produced (in part) by Pure Flix Entertainment, the company that gave us the movie God’s Not Dead.  As is the case with a number of Pure Flix films, David A.R. White played a significant character.

Redeemed is about marital fidelity and guarding one’s marriage from adultery.  In this movie, Paul Tyson is a Christian, a devoted husband, and a businessman, but he is tempted when a beautiful representative of a Brazilian company, Julia, visits his company to see if her company should do business with his.  Paul makes excuses to see Julia and lies to his wife about her.  In the meantime, a couple he knows from church has recently split up, and the husband, David (played by David A.R. White), tells Paul that this was because his wife fell in love with a man she met online.

Paul receives conflicting messages about what he should do.  He sees a therapist of a seedy fellow employee, and the therapist tells Paul that being attracted to another woman is natural and so Paul should not worry too much about it.  The therapist is a bit surprised that Paul considers this attraction a problem, especially since Paul has not crossed any lines and committed actual adultery.  David, however, tells Paul that Paul is treading on pretty serious territory.  David refers to Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:28 that looking at a woman and lusting after her is adultery of the heart.  When Paul responds that nobody takes that seriously, David asks why Jesus said it if it wasn’t important: was it to hear himself talk?

There is also a Brazilian pastor, whom Paul meets on a plane to Brazil.  Paul is going to Brazil to confess and to apologize to the Brazilian company, since there have been shady dealings going on.  Paul also wants to see Julia.  On the plane, Paul unloads his story to the Brazilian pastor, who listens compassionately, asks him why he is not at home with his family, and invites him to a Brazilian church, where Paul can experience Brazilian Christian hospitality!  Paul goes to that church’s service and is convicted of his sins.

The movie had quite a bit of intrigue, but I do not want to get into that in this post, since I did not entirely follow it, plus I want to focus on the movie’s theme of adultery.  I’ve read a number of post-evangelical bloggers or listened to post-evangelical podcasts, and they have problems with the sort of message that the movie conveys.  They do not respond to the movie itself—-maybe they have heard of it, and maybe not—-but the movie expresses prominent conservative evangelical messages about marriage and adultery: that one can commit emotional adultery, and that married men and women should not get too intimate with people of the opposite sex who are not their spouse.  Some post-evangelicals say that it’s all right to be friends with people of the opposite sex.  Some go so far as to suggest that evangelical teaching on marriage and sexuality can objectify people just as badly as pornography does: when a man sees an attractive woman as a threat, for example, he is objectifying her rather than viewing her as a real person.

I can somewhat identify with what the post-evangelicals are saying.  The portrayal of women as a lure that men should resist has contributed to the stigmatization of women within Judaism and Christianity throughout history, and, yes, it has objectified and dehumanized women.  At the same time, I think that there is something valuable to the conservative evangelical message, themes that even non-evangelicals appreciate and teach.  Allow me to share with you two examples.

First of all, there was a presentation that I attended back when I was a student at Harvard Divinity School.  The presentation was about how ministers should not become romantically involved with their parishioners—-or, for that matter, people in authority should not become romantically involved with people under their authority (i.e., professors should not date students).  We watched a video, presenters offered their comments, and the class split up into discussion groups.  One of the presenters said that it is perfectly understandable for a person in authority to become attracted to someone under his or her authority, but the person in authority should establish boundaries.  If he is going to an event specifically to see the person to whom he is attracted, that is a warning sign.  If their conversation becomes a bit too hot, it is time to back off.  While the subject-matter of this presentation was a bit different from that of the movie Redeemed, both highlighted the importance of establishing boundaries.

Second, there was an anti-fundamentalist book that I perused years ago: Pathological Christianity, by psychologist Gregory Max Vogt.  Vogt tells the story about a woman whose husband was a respected and loved pastor, and this pastor would have golf games with another woman.  The pastor insisted to his wife that nothing was going on, but she still felt that he was giving another woman the intimacy that belongs to his spouse.

Any lessons here?  Probably be careful.  The conservative evangelical message offers warnings that should be heeded and that should encourage the establishment of boundaries.  But one can easily take boundaries to an extreme that is not good—-they can discourage platonic friendships and objectify people.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Book Write-Up: Political Speaking Justified

Teresa Feroli.  Political Speaking Justified: Women Prophets and the English Revolution.  Newark: University of Deleware Press, 2006.

Political Speaking Justified is about women prophets in seventeenth century England.  During that time, James I ruled the country, his son Charles would succeed him, and Charles was killed and replaced by Puritan Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell.  The women prophets whom Teresa Feroli profiles wrote about such events.

What did these prophetesses have to say?  With whom did they side, Charles or Cromwell?  Well, Lady Eleanor Davies supported James I because she saw him as a bulwark against Roman Catholicism.  She did not care for his son, Charles, however, believing that James’ daughter Elizabeth would make a better successor because she had James’ virtues.  Charles’ marriage to a Catholic woman aroused a great deal of controversy, and Lady Eleanor was also upset that Charles did not step forward to support a prominent relative of hers, who was accused of sodomy.  Lady Eleanor thought that her days were the end times preceding the second coming of Christ, and she freely associated people of her time with biblical characters, some of them unsavory.

Overall, my impression is that most of the women prophets whom Feroli profiles did not care for Charles.  That did not mean that they were Cromwell supporters, for one prophetess declared that Cromwell was becoming too attached to luxury.  Moreover, more than one prophetess supported the institution of monarchy, but their problem was that they did not think that Charles was serving the English people as a king should.

Feroli wrestles with the question of whether these female prophets can indeed be called feminist.  They were women writing about the political issues of the day, but did they promote gender equality?  Actually, some of the prophetesses upheld patriarchy.  Lady Eleanor demonized the wife of her accused relative, comparing her with wicked women in the Bible, and more than one prophetess wrote that God was sending a woman to prophesy because the men were not doing what they should, as if God sending a woman was somehow a punishment.  At the same time, there were prophetesses who defended the right of women to speak, to prophesy, and to lead, appealing to such biblical examples as Deborah, Anna, and the women who first encountered the risen Christ.  Quaker George Fox and his wife wrote at length about the contributions that women could make.

Feroli also interacts with the question of how women exercised power in seventeenth century England.  One way was through fasting, which was believed to bring people closer to God and to grant them a degree of authority.  One woman Feroli profiles, Anna Trapnel, was notorious for her fasting.

I enjoyed this book on account of my interest in Puritanism, to which the seventeenth century is certainly pertinent.  Moreover, Lady Eleanor’s end-time proclamations and interpretation of her contemporaries in light of the Bible were very intriguing.  I would have liked to have seen more, however, about what the female prophets thought about the Puritans, and how society responded to the female prophets’ messages.  At the same time, I have to remember that Feroli could only work with the sources that she had and what they say.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Strength of His Hand, by Lynn Austin

Lynn Austin.  The Strength of His Hand.  Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2005.

The Strength of His Hand is the third novel in Lynn Austin’s Chronicles of the Kings series.  The first three books of the series focus on the righteous biblical King Hezekiah, who ruled Judah during the eighth century B.C.E.  The last two books are about Hezekiah’s son and successor, the wicked King Manasseh.  See here and here for my blog posts about the first two books of the series.

The Strength of His Hand focuses on Hezekiah’s divorce from his wife Hephzibah, his illness and miraculous recovery, and his response to the Assyrian threat.  After many years, Hezekiah’s wife, Hephzibah, has not given Hezekiah an heir, and so she placates the pagan goddess Asherah.  When Hezekiah catches her doing this, he becomes outraged and manages to burn himself severely.  Hezekiah puts away his wife, Hephzibah, and she is left alone in a room, rejected by her family, her friends, and the nation.  Eventually, Hezekiah recovers, and he has to deal with the threat of the Assyrians.  The Babylonians visit Hezekiah and encourage him to join an alliance of countries against Assyria.  Hezekiah’s right-hand adviser, Shebna, still an atheist, is enthusiastic about this, whereas Hezekiah’s more devout adviser, Eliakim, is not.  What’s more, the prophet Isaiah believes that Hezekiah has become too proud and publicly reprimands Hezekiah for trusting an alliance instead of God.  This greatly disturbs Hezekiah, for has he not tried his best to obey God and to set the nation on the right track?  In the course of the book, the Assyrians find a spokesman who fears neither gods nor men, the anti-Assyrian alliance collapses, and multitudes of Assyrians are threatening the city of Jerusalem.  What will happen?  On a sweet note, Hezekiah and Hephzibah reconcile, and Hephzibah has a son, Manasseh.

Here are some thoughts about the book.

1.  The book’s presentation of Shebna interests me.  In the past three books, Austin has depicted Shebna as an atheist.  While she does not portray Shebna as a villain, she obviously does believe that Shebna’s atheism is wrongheaded, which is not surprising, considering she is an evangelical Christian.  Shebna is fairly loyal to Hezekiah, committed to his job, and intelligent, and he desires the well-being of Judah.  Yet, Shebna is a person with flaws: he is unhappy; he is not particularly compassionate to Israelite refugees in Judah or Israelites in debt; he has lived with the same concubine for many years and has even had sons with her, yet he has never married her; he lives to please himself, since he does not believe in a God for him to please; he is arrogant and frequently clashes with Eliakim; and his encouragement that Hezekiah join an anti-Assyrian alliance ends in disaster, to his humiliation.  I am pleased that Lynn Austin includes an atheist character, one whose problem with religion is not any suffering that he has experienced that leads him to question the existence of a beneficent God, but simply a lack of belief.  Whether one embraces Austin’s depiction of this atheist, regards it as an unfair caricature, or falls somewhere in between these two extremes, Shebna’s presence in the book does invite questions.  The biggest question, in my opinion, is that of practicality.  Granted, Shebna turned out to be wrong in advising Hezekiah to join the anti-Assyrian alliance, for the alliance fell apart.  But was it wrong for Hezekiah to have been practical?  Yes, our plans can fall apart, and in that case we may feel an urge to call on God.  But is God against our planning?

2.  The book effectively captures some of the complexities of biblical interpretation and the attempts to apply the Bible to one’s life.  Hezekiah’s wife was not having children, and the question facing him was whether he should marry another woman.  Hezekiah’s policy was to be married to Hephzibah alone and to trust in God to provide him with an heir, since God promised that the seed of David would always sit on the throne of Israel.  But things were a bit more complex than that.  As Hephzibah notes, yes, God promised David’s descendants would rule, but that does not necessarily mean that Hephzibah would have a son.  Hezekiah’s brother Gedaliah (who had sons) could rule Judah, after all, and that would satisfy God’s promise, since Gedaliah, too, was a descendant of David.  Moreover, Hezekiah relied on the law of the king in Deuteronomy 17:15-20, which forbids the king to multiply wives or to cause Israelites to return to Egypt.  Although his grandfather Zechariah told him that this law required him to be married to only one woman, Hezekiah entertains the interpretation of certain Levites that the law forbids having lots of wives, not having more than one wife.  And, when Eliakim appeals to the part of the law against going back to Egypt to discourage Hezekiah from forming an alliance with Egypt, Hezekiah does not agree with Eliakim’s interpretation: the text says that the Israelites cannot go back to Egypt, not that Israel cannot ally with Egypt.

Another salient issue in this book surrounding the application of the Bible—-and this also appears in Lynn Austin’s Restoration Chronicles—-is that of legalism vs. accepting God’s love and grace.  Hezekiah had long obeyed God because he believed that this would influence God to benefit him and his nation.  Isaiah, however, shows Hezekiah a fresh perspective of God, one that highlights God’s grace and unconditional love.  This dichotomy also appears in the debate about what should be done to Hephzibah.  Shebna advocates that she be executed for her idolatry, since that is what the Torah commands, but Eliakim says that the Torah is also about compassion and mercy.  These themes of grace and love fit into Austin’s evangelical worldview.

3.  My favorite part of the book is where Eliakim’s wife, Jerusha, reaches out to Hephzibah, and Hephzibah later has the opportunity to repay Jerusha’s kindness.  Hephzibah is alienated from her family, her friends, and her people, and Jerusha feels a call from God to reach out to Hephzibah, against the wishes of Eliakim.  Later, Jerusha is incapacitated with fear because the Assyrians are about to attack and she sees that their intimidating spokesperson is Iddina, the Assyrian soldier who captured her and terrorized her in the second book of the series.  Jerusha is afraid that the Assyrians will take her newborn baby, just as they did in the past.  Hephzibah reaches out to Jerusha amidst Jerusha’s pain.

The Strength of His Hand ends with Manasseh being born to Hephzibah, and Hezekiah exhorts his newborn son to love God.  Of course, Manasseh as king will not do this, but will be the most wicked (and, perhaps to the disturbance of biblical writers who believed the righteous prospered and the wicked suffered, one of the longest-reigning) kings.  In the next book of the series, Austin will tell a story about how this happened.

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