Friday, July 31, 2015

The Unborn, Alcohol and Scripture, and the Afterlife

My church’s Sunday School class is going through the United Methodist Church’s Social Principles.  We had a lot of good discussions last Sunday: about pay disparity between men and women, alcohol, eugenics, the unborn, rights and responsibilities, the afterlife, and the list goes on.  In this post, I will concentrate on three topics: the unborn, alcohol and Scripture as a guide, and the afterlife.

1.  We did not have an extensive discussion on abortion, per se, but we did get into issues regarding the unborn.  The pastor has a Ph.D. in genetics from Yale, and she was addressing some of what the Social Principles have to say about genetics.  Although she is politically progressive, she was expressing concern about the unborn.  She was saying that certain fertility procedures result in the creation of numerous unused embryos, and she was questioning whether that was right.  She also told us a story about Saudi couples who wanted to see their child inside of the woman’s womb, and their real reason for doing so was to determine if the child was a female, and to abort the child if that was the case.

After the pastor left the class to prepare for the church service, we stayed behind and continued the discussion (or, actually, I just listened).  One lady, who was raised in a conservative Catholic home and has an ambivalent attitude towards her Catholic upbringing (i.e., her attitude is negative, but she still seems to embrace some of its ideas), appeared to be saying that life begins at conception.  Another lady, who is a progressive activist, said that, if that is the case, then society should care about the well-being and provision of the unborn, just as it cares about children after birth.  A man in the group then said that the reason that the unborn do not have rights is that such rights conflict with women’s rights—-or, rather, the unborn’s rights are being undermined in the name of women’s rights.  His comment was rather controversial among the women in the group, including (it seemed to me) his wife!

I was wondering if it really was the case that the unborn have no rights at all in the United States.  I am aware that abortion is legal, but my understanding was that society still had some concern for the unborn: there are calls for prenatal care in health care policies, and I thought that there were legal penalties for harming a fetus—-if a mother drank and had a child who had fetal alcohol syndrome, for example, or if a man harms a woman and ends up harming her fetus as well.  I later did a search online, and the issue of fetal rights does appear to be rather complex, as far as the law is concerned (see here and here).

When the pastor made that point about embryos, my thought was: “Well, what would be the big deal?  If the embryo is just a blob of tissue, does it matter if there are a lot of them that are unused?”  But even progressive people can believe that human embryos have some special human significance—-that they are more than blobs of tissue.  I recall an online discussion that I had a while back about abortion.  A progressive was saying that she was against abortion personally, but that she still was pro-choice.  I asked her why she was against abortion personally, and she replied that she thinks that, in many cases, abortion is the easy way out—-that there should be some gravity in the decision on whether or not to abort.  Many would say that there already is gravity—-that abortion is not a decision that is made lightly.

I could go on to detail my annoyances with Christian right-wing pro-lifers, particularly the types who proclaim that liberal Democrats are not true Christians because of their abortion stance.  (No one in the group espoused this view, fortunately.)  Personally, I am not satisfied with either side: I believe that the unborn are more than blobs of tissue, but I also think that laws against abortion are too inflexible and can place the health and economic livelihoods of women at risk.  Anyway, I don’t want to write myself into a pit, so let’s move onto the next item.

2.  On alcohol, the Social Principles gave a nod to the traditional Methodist belief in abstinence, but they went on to say that, if people decided to drink, then they should drink responsibly, and with Scripture as a guide.  The pastor thought that the part about Scripture being a guide on alcohol was a bit laughable.  “What Scripture is supposed to be the guide?,” she asked.  “Jesus turning barrels of water into wine?”

That part in the Social Principles stood out to me, too.  Initially, I thought that Scripture could be a guide.  The Bible does condemn drunkenness (I Corinthians 6:10), and the Book of Proverbs depicts negative consequences of drinking too much.  As I reflected on my life, however, I realized that those passages did not exactly convict me in the days when I was drinking.  I assumed that they were talking about something different from what I was doing, that they were not talking about me going out and getting drunk, but rather concerned people who drank all day, or who got into fights as a result of drinking.

It is interesting to me that, overall, the Social Principles do not quote biblical proof-texts for their position.  They refer to Ezekiel 34:4 in arguing for a universal right to health care, but I cannot think of too many other instances like that.  For example, the section on divorce was reasonable, I thought, but it did not interact with biblical passages about divorce.  That is a refreshing contrast to some things I have seen on the Christian right: I remember one magazine quoting biblical proof-texts to argue that God supports President Reagan’s Star Wars program!  I am not in favor of that extreme, but I am curious as to why Scripture does not play a prevalent role in the Social Principles.  Are they trying to avoid simplistic proof-texting?  Do they believe that applying Scripture as a guide is complex?  Maybe their authors would say that they are drawing from the principles of Scripture, even if, as a general policy, they are not quoting explicit texts.

3.  Someone in the group referred to the section of the Social Principles about suicide.  While the section discourages suicide, it states that “A Christian perspective on suicide begins with an affirmation of faith that nothing, including suicide, separates us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39).”  (Okay, there is another reference to Scripture in the Social Principles!)  The ex-Catholic lady then said that, according to Catholicism, people who commit suicide go to hell.  The reasoning for that position, in my understanding, is that suicide is murder, a mortal sin, and a person who commits that sin cannot repent of it and receive forgiveness because he or she has died.  Both the ex-Catholic lady and the lady who referred to the section on suicide preferred what the United Methodist Church’s Social Principles had to say about the subject.

The lady who referred to the section, however, then said something that took me aback.  She said that nothing can separate us from the love of God, but that we can separate ourselves from the love of God.  She probably meant that we can separate ourselves from God’s love by not believing in him, for she went on to say that we should not worry about the soul of a non-believing friend or loved one who died, for that person may have accepted Jesus before dying.  Impending death, she said, can put people in a spiritual state of mind.  I was a bit surprised to see United Methodists wrestling with this question.  I realize that there are conservative United Methodists, but my understanding was that this particular church had recently gone through Rob Bell’s Love Wins, which some say is universalist, and which supposedly argues against the idea that people will go to hell if they fail to accept Jesus in this life (not that Bell would say that spiritual decisions in this life are unimportant).  I’m wondering how people in the church processed the book (which, to be honest, I myself have not read).

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Book Write-Up: God Against the Gods, by Jonathan Kirsch

Jonathan Kirsch.  God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism.  Viking Compass, 2004.  See here to buy the book.

I enjoyed Jonathan Kirsch’s History of the End of the World (see my review here) because I found it to be informative and intriguing, and I appreciated Kirsch’s interaction with scholarly sources about the Book of Revelation.  I figured that I might enjoy his God Against the Gods, as well.  I wanted to learn more about paganism, ideas about the origins of monotheism, and Akhenaton’s monotheistic crusade in Egypt.  I read some of the Amazon reviews of God Against the Gods and saw that the book also discussed Constantine and Julian, and I was not as interested in those topics, since I read a biography of Constantine not long ago (see my review here).  I still decided to read God Against the Gods because I thought I might learn something; plus, Kirsch is a compelling storyteller!

On the one hand, I was very disappointed by the book’s treatment of Akhenaton and Josiah.  I do not feel that I have a greater understanding after reading the book of why these figures decided to pursue and to promote monotheism.  Some of that may be due to the paucity of primary sources, particularly about Akhenaton, but I do feel a need to read more about him to understand him more, and to see how his monotheism interacted with his Egyptian context—-or at the very least to read ideas and speculations about these things.  I also did not find in Kirsch’s book much of a description of ancient Near Eastern paganism or many ideas about how monotheism originated.

On the other hand, I was very impressed by the sections in the book about Constantine and Julian.  Kirsch’s clear telling of the story of Constantine placed in context some of the things that I had read in David Potter’s biography of the man.  Kirsch referred to the idea, for example, that some people in the Roman empire had an almost monotheistic adoration of the sun, and that this could have served as a cover for their belief in Christianity, and Kirsch also discussed the origins of the idea that the Roman empire should have multiple rulers.  Kirsch also portrays Julian as one who embraced paganism because of his disillusionment with the Christians he knew, such as Constantius II, who murdered Julian’s father; Julian’s belief that such people should not receive cheap grace, which Julian thought that Christianity offered, but that paganism did not; and the comfort that Julian received from pagan philosophy during the difficult years of his life.  There may have been additional factors behind Julian’s adherence to paganism, but Kirsch’s telling of the story of Julian really humanized the man.

Overall, I did not find what I was looking for in the book, and I actually enjoyed the sections that I was not expecting to enjoy.  Another impressive section of the book was Kirsch’s discussion of paganism, and his attempts to address Jewish and Christian charges that pagans engaged in human sacrifice and had orgies.  Kirsch argues that human sacrifice came to an end in paganism a couple of centuries before the common era, that the Romans themselves could be rather prudish when it came to sex, that there were pagan cults that prized virginity, and that there are other ways to account for some of the sources that associate prostitution with worship (i.e., some pagans may have associated with prostitutes after worship, but those prostitutes were not necessarily associated with the cult).  Kirsch is not always nuanced in his discussion of paganism, as when he says that pagan worshipers sought a good afterlife, or that pagans had an ethical consideration for the poor, like the Christians did.  Still, Kirsch’s section about paganism was informative.

One may think in reading this book that Kirsch believes that polytheism was good and that monotheism was bad, and that he wishes that polytheism had won out.  Kirsch does give that impression, for he portrays monotheism as historically intolerant and polytheism as tolerant, overall, of different religions and ways to worship.  Kirsch also seems to defend polytheism against charges of intolerance: he says that a number of stories about Christian martyrdom are exaggerated, and that there were cases in which Roman authorities actually begged Christians to offer incense to the gods because the Roman authorities did not want the Christians to be killed.  Still, Kirsch cannot escape the fact that even polytheism has been intolerant, as he points to Antiochus Epiphanes, Diocletian, and even Julian, on occasion.  (Julian was not intolerant, according to Kirsch, but he did turn a blind eye when pagans persecuted Christians.)  In the end, Kirsch acknowledges the contributions of monotheism and polytheism, hopes that they can learn from each other, and expresses a wish that they had reached an armistice, rather than for monotheism to have triumphed.  Kirsch refers to Constantine and Julian as people who supported tolerance for different religions.

After reading this book, I am encouraged to read Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which Kirsch quotes and references, and I may do that someday. I realize that the book is dated, that some of its conclusions have been questioned (i.e., that Rome fell due to moral reasons), and that its biases (i.e., its arguably Enlightenment, anti-Christian bias) have been noted.  Still, I would like to read it sometime.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Story Write-Up: For This Child I Prayed, by William Gage

William Gage.  “For This Child I Prayed.”  2015.  See here to buy the story.

“For This Child I Prayed” is a short story about the biblical story of Hannah in the Bible.  Hannah is barren and prays to God for a child, and God blesses her with Samuel.

There were parts of Gage’s retelling that I particularly liked: Hannah thinking about how her life was not exactly how she envisioned it when she first married Elkanah and was looking forward to children; the children begging to hear Bible stories; and Eli no longer officially serving as priest yet giving the sanctuary a certain dignity with his presence.  The story also effectively portrayed Hannah’s loneliness during the festivals because she did not have a child.

I was a bit dissatisfied with the story’s portrayal of the relationship between Hannah and her husband Elkanah.  In the Bible, in I Samuel 1:5, we read that Elkanah gave Hannah a double portion and loved her, even though God closed her womb.  A few verses later, Elkanah is upset because Hannah is not eating, and he asks Hannah if he is not worth more than seven sons.  Elkanah’s favoritism towards Hannah may have been one reason that his other wife, Peninnah, taunted Hannah for being barren.  In Gage’s short story, however, Elkanah does not appear to me to be as sensitive, supportive, or loving towards Hannah as he is in the Bible.  They do have a romance that goes back a long time in Gage’s story, and that was sweet, plus Elkanah gets Hannah a dog so that she would be less lonely.  But, overall, Elkanah does not shine in Gage’s story.  Elkanah strikes me as rather cold and insensitive towards Hannah.

Something else that dissatisfied me about Gage’s short story was that it did not really go into the political situation in the time of Hannah.  The priesthood was corrupt, and the Philistines were a threat to Israel.  These things are arguably relevant to the birth of Samuel, for Hannah’s joyful prayer in I Samuel 2 says that Samuel’s birth relates to the dethroning of princes and the lifting up of the needy.  Gage did present Hannah as sacrificing her son when she fulfilled her vow of giving him to the Tabernacle, but I wish that he had explained more what the sacrifice was for: so that Samuel would become a leader of Israel, one who would deliver Israel from afflictions.

I give this story 3.5 stars.  3 is too low because it did have excellent scenes, but 4 is too high because I was hoping for more depth.

The author asked me to write a review of his short story, and I thank him for doing so.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Book Write-Up: The Sons of Isaac, by Roberta Kells Dorr

Roberta Kells Dorr.  The Sons of Isaac.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1995, 2014.  See here to buy the book.

The Sons of Isaac is Roberta Kells Dorr’s retelling of the stories of the biblical characters Isaac and Jacob.  A while back, I read and reviewed her book about Isaac’s parents, Abraham and Sarah, and I really enjoyed the book.  The Sons of Isaac was good, too, but I liked Abraham and Sarah a lot more, perhaps because it was chalked with more historical information.  One could say that there is only so much historical information that one can draw on in telling the story of Isaac and Jacob.  Abraham dwelt in the populous area of Ur and traveled to Egypt, where he interacted with the Pharaoh.  Isaac, by contrast, spent most of his time in Canaan, pasturing his flocks and interacting with King Abimelech, whom historians know nothing about.  At the same time, it’s not as if Canaan was a wasteland.  Cities and kings were there, and scholars have sought to learn about Canaanite religion through Ugaritic literature.  Dorr did talk about Canaanite religion, including the deities of El and Baal, but Abraham and Sarah was a lot fuller in terms of historical information.

The Sons of Isaac continues a prominent theme that was in Abraham and Sarah: Why do God’s chosen people have to wait through long seasons of apparent fruitlessness and barrenness, whereas things seem to be much easier for those outside of God’s chosen community?  The Sons of Isaac focuses more, however, on what being chosen entails.  The son of the promise inherits most of his father’s possession and carries with him the promise of his seed becoming populous and inheriting the land of Canaan.  At the same time, there is a deeper spiritual significance to being chosen: becoming a means by which God will bless the world.  A relationship with God is a key element of being chosen, and that is why Isaac was nearly sacrificed in Abraham’s act of obedience whereas Isaac’s brother Ishmael was not, and why Isaac could not marry the Canaanite women whereas his son Esau freely did.  In The Sons of Isaac, the unchosen sons are very practical rather than reflective.  Esau manifests some sensitivity towards the covenant when he seeks to marry a Hittite woman, who deems circumcision to be abominable, for Esau at least recognizes that circumcision is important to his people.  Yet, Isaac and Jacob, the chosen ones, are the ones who are more reflective about life and its larger questions, and that makes them suitable for being the sons of the promise (not that God chose them on that basis, but it does make them suitable).

The Sons of Isaac also attempts to explain certain odd details in the biblical narrative.  Why did Abraham send his servant to find a wife for Isaac, rather than sending Isaac himself?  (Dorr’s answer: Abraham was afraid that his brother Nahor would keep Isaac in Haran, rather than allowing Isaac to return to Canaan.)  Why did the Philistines stop up the wells that Isaac dug in Genesis 26, rather than using those wells for themselves in that time of famine?  (Dorr’s answer: the Philistines opposed the wells because they believed that the wells were trying to circumvent the will of the gods, whom they believed sent the famine, and the Philistines sought to appease the gods to bring the famine to an end.)  Why did Reuben sleep with Rachel’s servant, Bilhah?  (Dorr’s answer: Reuben felt neglected by his father, and Bilhah was lonely now that Rachel had died.)  There was one question that Dorr did not really address: How could the Philistine king Abimelech believe that Rebekah was Isaac’s sister and thus available to him, when Isaac and Rebekah at the time both had children, children who were near or in their teens?  Maybe Abimelech did not notice them, or he concluded that they were someone else’s children!

The Sons of Isaac had some details that struck me as contradictory.  On the one hand, Abraham reflects on his grandchildren Jacob and Esau, and how Jacob is ignored by his father Isaac yet is more like Isaac in being reflective.  You would think that Abraham has somewhat of a preference for Jacob, and yet Abraham is disappointed when he learns that Jacob will be the one taking care of him in his old age.  On the one hand, Jacob appears to be sensitive to spiritual things, for he asks Abraham why he left Ur.  On the other hand, Rebekah reflects that even Jacob did not care much about God.  On the one hand, Laban tries to discourage Jacob from leaving him by saying that Jacob will be departing in poverty.  On the other hand, we are told that Jacob had become rich when he was with Laban.  These may be contradictions, or they may reflect nuance.

The book had beautiful passages.  There was the scene in which Rebekah was finally giving birth to children, after a long time of barrenness, and everyone is paying attention to her firstborn son, Esau.  She, however, falls in love with her second child, Jacob, as he sucks her thumb.  There was the scene in which Rebekah reflected on how she had fallen from being the cheerful, giving woman who watered the camels of Abraham’s servant, to becoming one who would deceive her husband Isaac so that the blessing would go to Jacob.  As in the Book of Genesis, Jacob’s wives, Leah and Rachel, have a fierce rivalry  because Rachel is Jacob’s favorite wife, whereas Leah is having a lot of children.  But a small part of Leah is actually happy for her sister Rachel when Rachel finally has a son and needs to learn the ropes of motherhood.

How The Sons of Isaac handled the story of Dinah (Genesis 34) particularly interested me.  Whereas Genesis 34:2 presents Shechem raping Dinah, Dorr seems to present the act as consensual.  After Simeon and Levi slaughter the Shechemites, Dinah cries and says that Shechem loved her.  Overall, while Dinah’s sex with Shechem is presented as irresponsible in Dorr’s book, Dorr tends to side with the view that Simeon and Levi were wrong to slaughter and plunder the Shechemites.  Jacob actually instructs his sons to return the Shechemite women and the plunder to Shechem, and Jacob feels bad for the Shechemite women who have lost their men.  There are different interpretations of who was right and who was wrong in this story.  Jewish pseudepigraphical literature tends to side with Simeon and Levi, who avenged the rape of their sister.  Other voices have been critical of them.  A famous book about the story that I should probably read is Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent.

In terms of spiritual lessons in the book, a point that I appreciated was that we should go to God with our requests, especially in times of fruitlessness, so that, when our prayers are finally answered, we will give glory to God.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Resentment and Persevering Love

I did not write about church yesterday afternoon because I went to see some beautiful waterfalls and saw some beautiful scenery.  Maybe I’ll talk about that later this week, or next week, looking at the question of how that relates to God.  Today, I’ll write about yesterday’s church service.

The theme of yesterday’s service was love.  The pastor found a prayer online about love, and it asked that we might let go of our grudges and reach out in love.  During the prayer part of the service, the band was playing and singing a song that was written by Sara Groves, “Miracle.”  See here.  Allow me to quote from the song:

Lay down your arms.
Give up the fight.
Quiet our hearts for a little while.

Things have been spoken,
Shouldn’t be said,
Rattles around in our hearts and our heads.

Let’s feel what we cannot feel,
Know what we cannot know,
Let’s heal where we couldn’t heal.
Oh, it’s a miracle, it’s a miracle.

The singing of the song was beautiful, and I would say that most of the song is accurate, at least where I am concerned. Letting go of grudges is indeed a miracle.  And, speaking for myself, a lot of my grudges are about things that people have said.  And, yes, those things do rattle around in my heart and head.  The first stanza seems to imply that I am the one swinging and fighting when I relive bad memories.  Sometimes that is true, and sometimes it is not.  Sometimes I feel as if the bad memories and the negativity are attacking me, and my role in the combat begins when I try to counter them, primarily through taking a breather and praying.  But there have also been times when I have been the one agonizing and wrestling in my bitterness, and, yes, I find rest when I lay down my arms and give up the fight—-my fight in my mind with people, that is.

The sermon was delivered by someone in the congregation.  She was talking about a cheerful lady at work who said “Good morning” to a grumpy man for seven years before he finally returned the greeting.  That does encourage me to persevere in love.  At the same time, speaking for myself personally, I usually do not experience a lack of reciprocal love from grumpy people.  The people who throw my friendliness in my face are stuck-up people, or cliquish people, or people who do not seem to think that I am good enough.  I am tempted not to acknowledge them at all rather than to give them the satisfaction of thinking that I want to be their friend.  But may God give me the strength to persevere in love!

May God give me the strength to have an attitude of love towards those who have offended me—-to see those people as people, like me.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Book Write-Up: One Church, Many Tribes, by Richard Twiss

Richard Twiss.  One Church, Many Tribes: Following Jesus the Way God Made You.  Ventura, California: Regal Books, 2000.  See here to buy the book.

I wrote about Richard Twiss’ posthumous 2015 book, Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys, in my post here.  Richard Twiss was a Native American evangelical who advocated contextualization: Native Americans worshiping Jesus according to Native American rituals, such as pow-wows, sweat lodges, dances, and drums.  This view is in contrast with the view of those evangelicals, including some Native American evangelicals, who regard such customs as pagan or demonic and believe that Native Americans should leave them behind when they become Christians.

While I thought that Twiss made important points in effective ways, I was not entirely satisfied with Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys.  There were some things that I was hoping he would flesh out more, such as the differences between Native American religion and white Christianity, and the original meaning of certain rituals in their Native American context and how Twiss believes that Native American evangelicals can appropriate them, without falling into paganism (which Twiss, too, believes would be a bad thing).  In short, I needed an introduction to the issue, whereas Twiss in Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys seemed to me to be building on previous discussions.  In addition, while Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys did manifest a passionate opposition to historic injustice and included anecdotes, it often used academic language that was rather abstract.

I searched on Amazon, and I came across a book by Twiss that came out over a decade earlier, in 2000.  This book is One Church, Many Tribes: Following Jesus the Way God Made You.  I wondered if this book would have more of what I was looking for, and I requested it from a local library.
One Church, Many Tribes was what I was looking for.  It is introductory, inviting, and down-to-earth.  Twiss includes a number of stories, both fictional ones to illustrate his point, and factual ones.  Twiss had a chapter enumerating differences between Native American culture and spirituality and white Christianity.  In another chapter, he explains how Native American evangelicals can worship Jesus through their own cultural expressions without being syncretistic.  Twiss did not really flesh out the original meaning of Native American rituals and how that differs from the meaning that Native American evangelicals ascribe to them when appropriating them, but this did not dissatisfy me as a reader.  Essentially, it seems to me, Native Americans would do certain rituals in honor of other gods before they became Christians, and they would do those rituals to honor Jesus after becoming Christians.

I still have questions, though, or there are areas in which I am still unclear.  For one, Twiss seems to believe, in accordance with certain Native American cultures, that nature has a personality.  In a poignant passage, Twiss remarks that Native Americans, in reading the story in Numbers 22 about Balaam’s ass talking, would not be surprised that the ass spoke, but rather they would inquire what the ass had to say.  Twiss also appeared to be open to the possibility of trees talking.  (I think of the Disney movie Pocahantas.)  On the one hand, Twiss seemed to be suggesting that nature was an expression of the creator, and that this was how nature could have a personality or speak: it was essentially channeling God.  Twiss was saying that not all Native American beliefs are “spiritistic, pantheistic or animistic” (page 94), for there was a monotheistic component to Native American spirituality, a belief in a supreme being.  On the other hand, Twiss seemed to suggest that nature itself had a personality, in its own right, and that this is consistent with Scripture: the winds and waves obeyed Jesus (Luke 8:24-25), and Romans 8:19-21 presents nature groaning as it awaits and desires release from decay.

Second, on pages 132-133, Twiss talks about burning incense.  On the one hand, Twiss seems to believe that burning incense can have a symbolic value for Native American evangelicals: that it can remind them that their prayers are going to heaven, through faith in Jesus.  As Twiss notes, Revelation 8:3-4 likens prayer to incense.  On the other hand, Twiss refers to Plains traditions that the smoke itself can cleanse, purify, and take prayers to heaven.  Twiss does not comment about whether he considers that belief to be right or wrong, but it does seem to me that this manifests a difference between a Native American tradition and Christianity: the former is saying that the smoke itself cleanses, purifies, and takes prayers to heaven, whereas the latter would say that Jesus cleanses and purifies, and that through him the prayers of believers go to God’s throne.  I am not saying this to be closed-minded, but rather to note that this issue would make a good case study for the larger issue of appropriation versus syncretism, which Twiss addresses.

Third, Twiss refers to Native Americans who predicted the coming of white people who would teach them Christianity.  I do not know how reliable these legends are historically. Could they have been developed after white people came?  I vaguely recall reading about white people who would arrive, and they got the impression that they were expected.  I did an Internet search, and most of the sites that I found took these legends for granted.  Are there any scholars who question them?

One Church, Many Tribes discusses other issues as well.  There is the issue of reconciliation, not only between whites and Native Americans, but also between other people-groups, and even among Native Americans themselves.  According to Twiss, a number of Native Americans have been prejudiced against African-Americans, one reason being that Native Americans felt excluded from the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.  There is also the issue of how Twiss believes that Native American evangelicals will be instrumental in carrying the Gospel to other lands.  Many people regard Native Americans as interesting and exotic, as a result of Hollywood.  Communist countries sympathized with Native Americans because they could point to the United States oppressing Native Americans whenever the United States talked about Communist abuses of human rights.  Plus, there are many people who want to believe that they can worship God without completely giving up their own culture, and a message of contextualization might appeal to them, according to Twiss.  For Twiss, such indicators, and more, not only indicate that Native Americans may be instrumental in carrying the Gospel in the future, but Native American evangelicals have already been carrying the Gospel to other countries and cultures.  This overlaps with a key theme throughout the book: that Native Americans have something valuable to contribute, within God’s purposes, and that their contribution should be welcomed rather than dismissed.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Book Write-Up: Keynes Hayek, by Nicholas Wapshott

Nicholas Wapshott.  Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics.  New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2011.  See here to buy the book.

John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek were economists who profoundly impacted the twentieth century, and whose influence is still present today.  In Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics, Nicholas Wapshott discusses their economic views, their personalities, their relationship with each other, and their influence.

Keynes was a British economist who believed that the government should attempt to create full employment through public works programs.  He also supported low-interest loans for businesses and tax cuts to stimulate demand.  For Keynes, if people had more money in their pockets, then they would spend more, and that would stimulate the economy.  While Keynes thought that the government should resort to deficit spending in slow times to improve the economy, he believed that the government in prosperous times should step back and focus more on paying off its debt.  For Keynes, the government spending a lot in prosperous times could contribute to unnecessary inflation.  Keynes’ thought influenced the Presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon.  Even Presidents who shied away from Keynesian principles in their rhetoric—-such as Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush—-still had policies that could be described as Keynesian, at least partially.

Hayek was  an Austrian economist, and he was skeptical of Keynesian principles.  For one, Hayek thought that giving low-interest loans to people and businesses that did not save enough could prove disastrous, for what would happen when the loans stopped coming?  Would the businesses go belly-up?  Second, Hayek feared that Keynesian policies were inflationary in their support for deficit spending and artificially stimulating demand.  According to Nicholas Wapshott, Hayek was averse to inflation, having experienced its negative effects in Austria.  And third, Hayek did not support Keynes’ belief that the government should seek to influence or tinker with the economy.  For Hayek, the government should stay out of the economy in times of slowdown or catastrophe and allow it to arrive at a state of more equilibrium.  Hayek also believed that the economy was too complex of an animal for the government to successfully shape, meaning that government influence could have unforeseen, and potentially negative, consequences; for Hayek, prices were the best indicator of what consumers wanted and what the market was willing to produce, and they were the ground at which consumers and producers found agreement.  Moreover, in his influential, and controversial, book, The Road to Serfdom, Hayek argued that government attempts to command the economy could lead to totalitarianism, for, if the government could control people’s economic livelihood, what else could it control?  Hayek appealed to Nazi Germany as an example of the kind of danger that he was warning about.  Hayek was marginal for some time because people were enamored with Keynes, plus Hayek’s economic works could be pretty abstruse.  The Road to Serfdom gained Hayek more fame and renown, but it also alienated him from academia due to its controversial nature.  Yet, Hayek would have a profound influence on Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and later the Tea Party movement in America.

To associate Hayek with the political right would be too simplistic, however, for a variety of reasons.  Hayek was supportive of the government having social programs for society’s vulnerable, and he also embraced some form of national health insurance.  At the same time, Hayek was very libertarian in areas and did not think that Reagan and Thatcher went far enough (even though Thatcher practically worshiped the ground that Hayek walked on!).  Hayek was rather critical of conservatism on account of its nationalistic impulses.  Although Hayek and Milton Friedman overlapped in supporting less government, there were differences between the Austrian school of which Hayek was a part and Friedman’s Chicago school.  Hayek focused on microeconomics, whereas Friedman believed that society could influence the economy by regulating its money supply; for Friedman, the Federal Reserve could stimulate the economy by increasing the money supply, but it should not do so too much lest it cause hyper-inflation.  And Ayn Rand considered Hayek’s work to be rubbish (for some reason)!

In addition to describing their economic thought, Wapshott paints a picture of Keynes and Hayek as people.  Keynes for a long time had homosexual relationships, yet he fell in love with a Russian ballerina.  Keynes was a compassionate man: he hated war, he thought that the Treaty of Versailles harshly punished Germany, and he wanted everybody to have a job.  Keynes could also be intimidating and make people feel inadequate, and yet, as Wapshott states, Keynes was open to changing his mind and admitting when he thought he made a mistake.  Hayek was the sort of person I wanted to root for, for he had somewhat of a rags to riches story, in terms of his journey from relative obscurity to growing influence.  That gives a lot of us hope, doesn’t it?

There were parts of the book that I found particularly interesting.  For one, Wapshott said that Dwight Eisenhower put into effect Keynesian principles, but he did so by appealing to national security: let’s build a national highway system, because that will allow us to transport military supplies during the Cold War!  Second, Wapshott referred to Hayek’s response to a critic.  A critic was pointing to Sweden as an example of a country that had strong government influence in the economy and yet was prosperous and far from authoritarian.  Hayek responded that Sweden was prosperous because it was untouched by World War II, and he argued that there was less freedom in Sweden than many may think!  Overall, the critiques of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom were intriguing to me, for the claim that large government influence in the economy could lead to authoritarianism, or even totalitarianism, is widespread in conservatism and libertarianism (or such is my impression).  Some critics of Hayek argued that this would not be the case in countries that had strong democratic traditions; some contended that the private sector, too, could be rather authoritarian.

In terms of which economic perspective I agree with more—-Keynes or Hayek—-I will say that I can understand Keynes’ logic more than that of Hayek after reading Wapshott’s book.  There are still gaps in my understanding of Hayek’s thought.  I can understand Keynes’ rationale that giving people more money to spend will stimulate demand, and that it is better to give people public sector jobs to do useful work than for them to be on the dole.  At the same time, Keynesian policies can be risky, in my opinion: the government is going into debt, with the hope that the debt will somehow improve the economy and pay for itself down the road.  That is not a sure thing.   Keynesian policies can also be inflationary if they stimulate demand without also trying to increase supply.  The existence of stagflation in the 1970’s—-high unemployment and high inflation—-makes me wonder if perhaps Hayek was correct in saying that there are so many considerations when it comes to the economy, and so we cannot package everything into a neat Keynesian package of cause and effect.  And yet, I liked Wapshott’s quotation of someone who said that we are all Keynesians in foxholes: that, in times of economic catastrophe, few politicians want to let nature take its course, but they would prefer for the government to do something to stimulate the economy.

I was surprised to learn that I had already read another of Wapshott’s books: Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: A Political Marriage.  The book had long been in my mind as an excellent book, on account of its stories and discussion, but the name of the author was not in my mind.  I was glad to read another of Wapshott’s books.

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