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Rowling's Ethics of Magic

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I was involved in a conversation several weeks ago about the fiction of Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowling and the theological-ethical frameworks that those authors apply to their characters' use of magic. One viewpoint among the participants was that Tolkien and Lewis have clear criteria for when the use of magic is evil, and Lewis has a complete theological framework. Tolkien argues that magic is perfectly appropriate for beings created with it as part of their natural abilities. In their case, it's not actually supernatural, because it's part of their innate capacities. As long as they keep the use of such abilities within their proper limits and in the appropriate circumstances for the right motivations (as with any natural ability or function), there's nothing wrong with it. Lewis clearly disapproves of Lucy's use of magic to overhear what her friends are saying about her and her desire to change her looks with magic. (This was one of the most disappointing things about the third Narnia film, which completely misunderstood that scene and left out both in exchange for a different misuse of magic.)

I didn't agree with all the details of how this was presented, but the basic thesis struck me as correct. But then came the claims that J.K. Rowling's treatment of magic is very different. There are some differences in the magic of her world, but they are incidental to this issue. The claim that struck me as most difficult to support was that she treats magic as casual, ordinary, and mundane, and there's no sense of the serious import of magic with dire consequences if it's misused. In responding to that, I realized that it was probably worth writing up a more careful presentation of why her treatment of magic is nothing like that.

First of all, one of the early distinctions we learn in the Potter books is between curses and charms. Curses are never intrinsically good, and when she presents them as morally permissible it's only because a greater good is at stake. They aren't intrinsically good, just like violence, but some of them can be used in certain contexts, perhaps, to achieve a good purpose. The same restrictions would apply as with violence in the real world, and any arguments against the of use of curses would parallel those pacifists make against using violence. Snape takes Harry to task for using Sectumsempra on Harry, but he's willing to use a nasty curse (but notably not one that would kill) against George Weasley as part of his masquerade as a Death Eater. There's no question that she distinguishes between good and bad use of magic, and it's not hard to see much of what she's doing as an analogy for technology in the real world. The ethics of magic is a major part of her series.

Even on relatively small-scale misuses of magic (meaning not Death Eater level but just things Harry and his friends do that seem fun), there's a lot of moral reflection going on. Take love potions as an example. Rowling is pretty clear that love potions don't actually produce love, just an intense infatuation. She distinguishes that from genuine love. We see the consequences of love potions most clearly in the case of Voldemort's parents, but a love potion also has serious consequences for Harry and Ron in the sixth book. We also receive a number of serious warnings from Professor Slughorn about the Felix Felicis potion, which Harry does put to great use at the end of book 6, but it helps him mostly in ways he doesn't recognize at the time, and Slughorn's cautionary urgings demonstrate mature reflection on important moral principles, and we see tight regulations on its use (e.g. the restrictions on its use in Quidditch). We encounter severe warnings about splinching from apparition (called apparation in its earlier appearances in the series), and becoming an Animagus is so dangerous that it requires registration with the government. The warnings in the third book about the dangers of time travel require a metaphysically-impossible theory of time, but the moral considerations brought to be there show that Rowling certainly has a moral framework at work to evaluate the use of magic.

The true horror of dark magic is front and center from book 4 on. You have the unforgivable curses. She seems to be tolerant of the use of the Imperius curse for a greater good (she certainly has Harry thinking so), but she doesn't seem to take the other two unforgivable curses to be ever all right (except for Snape's use of the killing curse on the already-dying Dumbledore to continue his masquerade as a double agent and to prevent Malfoy from doing so and harming himself in the process). You can't even use the Cruciatus curse without deeply evil intentions. Harry tried and failed. Harry's killing blows almost always come from redirecting evil characters' curses back at them (something the Death Eaters consistently make fun of him for). The depth of evil required for making horcruxes is vividly portrayed both in what Voldemort comes to look like as he's been losing pieces of his soul and by what he appears like in the afterlife-like scene in King's Cross toward the end of the final book. He destroys himself by using magic in this way.

Then there's the moral evaluation of the Deathly Hallows. It's clear by the end of the book that Rowling wants us to see the invisibility cloak as the only Hallow of continuing value to Harry. The elder wand is most appropriately acquired and used by someone who never wanted it. The resurrection stone is most appropriately used so Harry could get moral support in his preparation for giving up his life, not holding on to it. He ends up leaving it out in the forest where it had fallen. There's a clear sense of the illegitimacy of trying to hold on to your loved ones who have died, and the idea of acquiring power just to have more power leads her to write of the elder wand's history with one owner after another, each losing their prize and their life from the continued pursuit and acquisition of the wand by the next possessor. Harry uses it to repair his broken wand and then buries it with Dumbledore.

Rowling's "deep magic" based on love, a magic Voldemort never understands, is a clear tribute to Lewis. A voluntary sacrifice on behalf of someone else provides magical protection. She has Harry protected from Voldemort's magic in this way in his very body, until Voldemort takes Harry's blood into himself in a perverse use of magic that comes to backfire on him (because he in effect made himself serve as something like a horcrux for Harry, preventing Harry from dying when he finally could deliver a killing curse to Harry, which in the end only destroyed the scar that served as a horcrux for Voldemort. But Harry's mother's sacrifice continued in an extended way in the protection of the home of Harry's mother's sister as long as he officially lived there, and Harry's own voluntary sacrifice on behalf of all those who opposed Voldemort, together with the fact that he was using a wand whose loyalty was to Harry, ended up preventing his curses from doing anything after he and Harry returned to the world of the living from the King's Cross scene.

The contrast between these kinds of magic is one of Rowling's major themes, and the idea that she has nothing of a theological-ethical framework for the use of magic just flies in the face of all the work she does to present exactly such a framework. It's true that she's nowhere near as theological as either Lewis or Tolkien, but you have to have a pretty superficial reading (if you read the books at all) to suggest that she's treating magic is purely mundane, with no serious consequences, no sense of when it might be misused. There's quite a lot of reflection in her series about the ethics of magic, and her reflections strike me as thoughtful and morally mature, with few exceptions.

A cursory reading of the biblical account of King Hezekiah's near-death experience and subsequent actions in his final days (found in II Kings 20, Isaiah 38-39, and II Chronicles 32) might seem to be a description of a missed opportunity. God tells Hezekiah he's going to die. Hezekiah whines and complains, and God shows mercy and gives him more time. When he's given more time but told that it will come eventually, he's relieved that at least it won't come in his lifetime. He uses his extra time to parade all of Judah's possessions, including everything in the temple, in front of its future conquerors, who managed to carry away all those valuables when they destroyed Jerusalem and God's temple. Hezekiah basically sets up the nation of Judah's ultimate destruction and exile at the hands of Babylon. He was given a great mercy, and he blew it.

While I'm not going to say that this cursory reading is wrong, I'm beginning to wonder if there's more going on here. The leadup to the exile began with Hezekiah's refusal to abide by God's will and have his life cut short. Is the narrator suggesting that the exile was brought about by means of a king refusing to acknowledge that his time was up? Is the suggestion that Hezekiah's life wasn't going to be cut short but was in fact exactly ready to be done, and the extra time he whined and complained to get was beyond Hezekiah's rightful time? Perhaps Hezekiah should have accepted God's prophetic message that it was his time. Perhaps there's even a reason why it was for Hezekiah's own good that he die then rather than later. Perhaps it was to spare him the moral corruption that would have come had he continued on, and his refusal to accept it then led to God to give him over to that moral corruption that God would have graciously spared him from. If your life is going to end in a way that seems cut short, it might well be because of what you would do if you were to live longer. It might be a mercy.

I'm not going to stake everything on interpreting this passage this way. Perhaps I'll change my mind on it when we cover the Kings account of these events in a few months in our sermons. But it strikes me as a plausible way to read what's going on. Where things end up is some grounds for thinking maybe God would have spared him that but did not, in part to teach a lesson through the scriptures' recording of the incident (three times!) for posterity. It's not clear to me exactly which bits in the Isaiah and Kings versions are meant when II Chronicles 32 refers to Hezekiah being prideful and then humbling himself and Judah, and it's unclear to me when chronologically that's taking place in comparison to the Babylonian incident, during which Hezekiah both declares God's pronouncement of the exile good and grounds that judgment on the fact that it won't happen in his lifetime. So I say this with some hesitation. But it nonetheless strikes me as a plausible explanation of these three texts.

I have a friend whose older brother died in high school, and I remember him telling me at some point that he wondered if it was to prevent him from heading down a certain path that he seemed headed toward. I can think of at least two Christian celebrities that I suspect the same thing of. It's even occurred to me that my own brother's seemingly premature death at 21 could have been to prevent him from heading down a path that would have been bad, perhaps even bad for him and his moral character. I have a sense of a several other things God might have been doing by providentially setting the bound of his life at that point. One member of my extended family came to understand the gospel because of his funeral and soon after began the path of Christian discipleship, and I believe I heard of a couple other stories along those lines from the same funeral (but I forget any details now; it's been more than thirteen years). His life did show much promise, and as far as most people knew it seemed very tragic that God had allowed a life that seemed headed for doing much good for the kingdom of God to be cut short without much in the way of obvious explanations. But it's possible (and I know of one fact that increases my sense of its likelihood) that at least part of it was for his own sake and for the sake of avoiding some bad results that could have come about had things continued as they were headed or had he faced whatever scenarios would have come up down the line.

We tend to think that extended life is always a good thing. In terms of intrinsic value, I would insist that that's so. A shortening of the life is, other things being equal, intrinsically bad. Death is an evil, even if Christians will insist that it isn't a genuine end to conscious existence. But it may well be that some people's time comes in a way and at a time that seems premature to us, when it's purely at God's mercy that he takes them at precisely that point. It isn't premature. It's to spare them from a much worse evil than dying at a younger age than we'd like. I imagine that any right-minded Christian should be glad to accept death at a younger age if the alternative is to destroy one's family and ministry because of a serious sin that God knows they would engage in if they continue on their current path. I'm not suggesting that this would be a death to punish that sin but that it would be a merciful sparing of person from ending up in a very bad state of moral corruption that harms God's purposes in the long run. God certainly doesn't spare every such person who might have such a thing happen, since we know full well of such cases, but perhaps God spares people from a lot more of those cases than we know would happen.

If being evil is worse than being dead, as Socrates rightly insisted at his trial, then we should prefer to avoid such an end and gladly accept death over moral corruption if that's the choice. It may well be that God was giving Hezekiah that choice, and Hezekiah chose the wrong option, with disastrous consequences both for God's people and for Hezekiah's own inner state. If so, then rather than his earlier death being premature, we might call his later death post-mature. His time had been right, and he whined and complained about it, so God "spared" him from the lesser evil in order to allow the greater evil to befall him. He gave him over to his sin, in effect, without it being explicitly said that that's what he was doing.

I wrote a little a couple weeks ago about the early 1960s Supreme Court cases Abington School District v. Schempp and Murray v. Curlett (and perhaps to a lesser degree Engel v. Vitale). I said at the time that I have two further posts planned, one on substantive issues that weren't central to the cases and another on the central questions the Court dealt with. This post is the first of those two. Here are four relatively independent observations from the oral arguments I listened to that affect the main argument to some degree but aren't very closely about the central issue. I have some more thoughts on the fundamental issue to come at some point.

More or Less Sectarian to Comment?

There's an interesting argument among the various lawyers and justices during the oral arguments for these cases, about whether it's more sectarian or less sectarian to read from the Bible without comment or with comment. One argument is that reading without comment is more like studying the Bible as literature, since it doesn't involve endorsement or criticism, whereas commenting on it expresses a viewpoint. On the other hand, some argued that simply reading it seems more like endorsement, since there's no room for critiquing anything in the text or showing room for interpreting in different ways, whereas commenting on it allows for critical discussion or demonstration of different interpretations. I suspect the two views have something different in mind for what the commenting would be like, but I thought it was an interesting debate. The two lawyers defending two different Bible-reading laws were making these opposite claims. One law explicitly disallowed comment, and the other allowed for it. But the justices seemed to disagree among themselves about which claim was more correct.

Absolute or Potentially-Conflicting Rights?

Two lawyers on the same side on the general questions disagreed about whether the Constitution is vague (in the following sense, anyway). One insisted that any particular policy (1) either is or is not an establishment of religion and (2) either is or is not a violation of someone's free exercise of religion. Another countered that whether something falls into either category comes in degrees. Justice Stewart joined in on this, also pointing out that the free exercise clause and the establishment clause are sometimes at odds with each other, presumably implying that it's the job of the Supreme Court to figure out which applies more strongly in a particular case. (This, I think, is a sign of what later came to be seen as his moderate approach as a swing voter on key cases in the more ideologically-diverse Supreme Court to come. But he comes across as a hard-line conservative in this case, given where everyone else on the Court was. I'm not sure Justices Thomas and Scalia differ from Justice Stewart on these questions very much.)

The lawyer for the Unitarians who were suing the school, on the other hand, refused to call these prohibitions absolute but thought both clauses are as close to absolute as possible. He allows for some cases to be so insignificantly establishing or so insignificantly diminishing of free exercise that they're not worth enforcing. For example, he says this of "In God we trust" on coins, which he doesn't think anyone would have standing to sue about. But he also insisted that it isn't a genuine violation in such cases. It's not an infringement of a right, on his   view, unless it's enforceable in court. So that's how he gets the near-absolute. Smaller violations are defined away as not violations. Such is the magic of legal positivism.

He admitted to three examples to show that he's not strictly an absolutist on this. Military and prison chaplaincies are one example. We infringe on rights to free expression of religion to remove someone from their religious outlet without providing an alternative, so the clear establishment in chaplaincies is allowed despite being an establishment of religion. The other issue has to do with taxation, perhaps tax exceptions for religious institutions, but I didn't get a good sense of the argument there. It might have something to do with religions being infringed in their free expression if some of their money is taken for government use, and that's why it's ok for governments to establish them in some sense by exempting them from taxes. I find the latter case much less convincing as an establishment, but I'm not sure what it is if the argument is something else.


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"Faith, to hear most people talk about it, and certainly in a religious context, is the permission that people give one another to believe things for bad reasons, and when they have good reasons they immediately rely on the good reasons." -- Sam Harris on NPR's Talk of the Nation Science Friday a few weeks ago

On one level, this is complete nonsense. My faith is not my giving anyone permission to believe things. If I have faith, that's trust in God, not permission for others to believe things. I'm not sure why Harris thinks it has to do with your attitude toward others' beliefs. No one really believes that, and I would include Harris in that.

But what he's saying reflects a common attitude toward what faith is. Perhaps he's even right that in most contexts the English word turns out to mean something to do with believing things without good reasons (which isn't the same as believing things for bad reasons, I would insist). That's at least how many people have used the term since Kierkegaard's corruption of the concept of faith.

This is not, however, how faith has historically been thought of. Augustine saw it as a kind of knowledge, just not one based in the usual sources. Its grounding comes from God and his role in giving us the faith. Thomas Aquinas distinguished it from knowledge but saw it as equally well-grounded as knowledge, just from a different source. Both of them, in fact, took the Bible to be God's word, and thus they took it to be a reliable source to get the information God wanted to convey. God is, in fact, the most reliable source of any information, and thus believing what God says is a pretty good method to get beliefs. Those who don't accept the Bible as God's word would not accept that conclusion, but what they say follows from accepting that about the Bible. The Bible itself takes faith to be simply trust in God and what God says, and it does not treat faith as some irrational acceptance of things we probably shouldn't believe.

There are plenty of debates about whether religious beliefs can be justified or warranted and how they could be if they can. I certainly have my views on that. But there's a problem before you even get to that point. There seems to be a huge discrepancy between what a lot of religious people mean when they talk about faith and what most people mean when they talk about faith. Several recent Bible translations pick up on this and use only terms of the belief-family and trust-family for the biblical words usually translated into the faith-family of English words. I think there's something to that. But might this not be a fight worth having? Sometimes it's worth giving up a term because of the confusion about what it might mean. Do we want to give up on the faith-family of terms?

We probably don't need the term, but if we give up on it there's at least one unfortunate consequence. People will completely misunderstand much of the tradition, including Bible translations that use it in the traditional way. So I'm not ready to give up on it. It's a bit of work to explain ourselves when we use the term, and it will take work to convince those who are out of touch on this point that they actually need to do that, but it's work worth engaging in, in my view.

Rant About Worship Songs

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Here are some of the things I really hate in a worship song.

1. Too simplistic, banal, lacking in depth, shallow, doctrineless: Consider that one that just talks about unity among brothers that only mentions God in passing at the very end.

2. It's so repetitive. I mean, come on, how many times can you repeat "His steadfast love endures forever" before you start thinking the song is going to go on forever? Examples: here and here

3. For some songs, the focus is too much on instruments, and the sheer volume leads to its seeming more like a performance than worship and prevents quiet contemplation.

4. There might be too much emphasis on too intimate a relationship with God, using first-person singular pronouns like "me" and "I" or second-person pronouns like "you" instead of words like "we" and "God". This fosters a spirit of individualism, and it generates an atmosphere of religious euphoria rather than actual worship of God. Worship should be about God, not about us. Or what about the ones that use physical language to describe God and our relationship with him? Can you really stomach the idea of tasting God?

5. Some songs have way too many words for anyone to learn.

6. It patterns its worship on experiences that not everyone in the congregation will be able to identify with. If you're not in the frame of mind or don't have the emotional state in question (e.g. a desperate longing for God. Then what are you doing lying and singing it? Worship leaders who encourage that sort of thing are making their congregations sing falsehoods.

7. Then there's that song with the line asking God not to take the Holy Spirit away, as if God would ever do that to a genuine believer.

8. Then there's that song that basically says nothing except expressing negative emotions.

At this point I'm so outraged that people would pass this sort of thing off as worship that I'm almost inclined to give in to the people who think we shouldn't sing anything but the psalms. Oh, wait...

[cross-posted at Evangel]

Sons and Slaves

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It's rare that I post on something I encounter that I have almost nothing to say about, but I was just catching up on Mark Heath's blog, and this post struck me as brilliant. Mark notices all the slave language and son language in the New Testament for believers and wonders what's going on with followers of Jesus being adopted into God's family but then called slaves of Christ. How can believers be both adopted members of the family and slaves to the master?

Mark wonders which is more fundamental or which is the way we should more strongly think of ourselves. But then he notices something that makes such a question seem completely in the wrong direction. He observes that the primary way God is addressed is as Father, and the primary way Jesus is addressed is as Lord. He thus suggests that we should think of ourselves primarily as sons* with respect to the Father and slaves with respect to the Son.

What's striking to me about this is that I think most Christians think of the Father as sort of a more distant figure to respect and pray more formally to, whereas the Son is more down-to-earth (literally; pun intended) and brotherly. The way the first two persons of the Trinity are addressed in the scriptures, however, is backwards from that. Now of course the very fact that we are told to address the Father as Father is a lot more significant than most of us reflect on. The immense privilege implicit in the first two words of the Lord's Prayer means we've been told outright how we should see God the Father, at least in terms of our praying, and it's not so much as a master as as a parent*. That tells us something about God and his attitude toward us.

OK, so I didn't have nothing to say about this. That's something. But I think Mark's observation is pretty interesting, and I didn't intend to have anything to add myself.

[*Note on inclusive language: I deliberately use the masculine here, because "sons" in NT usage would culturally have included far more in terms of inheritance and status than "daughters" or "children". That this term is applied, in my view, suggests that women who are children of the Father are treated fully as sons would have been expected to be treated, and I think something gets lost if it is translated more inclusively, at least for readers who understand this about the ancient Hebrew and Greco-Roman cultures. So I prefer to keep the gender-inclusive "sons" that is jarring in contemporary English if meant inclusively, since pretty much no one talks that way outside uber-traditionalist hyper-formal-equivalence translation circles.]

[Note on apparent typo: Yes, I know there's an extra "as" there, but it's actually correct with it and incorrect without it. I couldn't resist.]

[cross-posted at Evangel]

LOST Finale

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The series finale of the six-year show LOST aired on Sunday night. Judging by comments I've seen on Facebook and other places online, it was a love-or-hate-it kind of finale. Like Battlestar Galactica, a lot of how I evaluate the whole show was going to hang on whether they pulled it off in the finale. I thought Galactica was successful. I left the LOST finale thinking we may have a candidate for a worse finale-to-show ratio than Enterprise, whose final season was among the best Star Trek and final episode was among the worst moments of Star Trek (and the worst moments of Star Trek include Star Trek V, so that's really saying something).

One of the interesting questions for me was the new storytelling device of season 6. The first three seasons included flashbacks, with a different character focus each episode, detailing the backstory of characters now stranded on the island. In the third season finale, the producers pulled a fast one on the audience, because the flashback sequence interspersed throughout the episode ended up at the very end revealing that we weren't seeing previous events but ones that didn't happen. Somehow some characters get off the island, and they're not having a good time of it.

Season 4 then implements a flash-forward dramatic device showing the lives of these characters after they leave the island, with the on-island events eventually catching up to their departure from the island in the season 4 finale alongside the science fiction device of the Frozen Donkey Wheel, which (a) moves the island, (b) sends the guy who turned it himself off the island, and (c) sends the characters who remain flashing through time to various significant moments in the history of the island. 

Season 5 focuses on getting those who left back to the island and getting the flashes through time to stop, which happens when another character leaves the island by turning the Frozen Donkey Wheel, which traps everyone in 1974. Meanwhile, those who return mostly end up in 1977, three years after their friends arrived in the 70s and became part of the until-then mysterious Dharma Initiative, which was exploring the unusual properties of the island. All during Season 5, the character keep reiterating that they can't change the past. Whatever happened happened. Whatever they're about to do already happened in terms of the past of the time they originally came from, and they will now witness it from the perspective of its being present, but anything they know to be true about what will happen is going to happen. Everything that does happen seems to confirm this. But some characters decide to try to change the past anyway by blowing up a nuke near a major outlet of the electromagnetic properties of the island where the Dharma Initiative is drilling.

From that point on, it's unclear whether they changed the past or merely fulfilled what they already knew took place. Season 6 begins with the characters on their original flight, and it doesn't crash. Then the camera zooms underwater, and we see key locations on the island. Did their plan work? Did they blow up the island and sink it? But then we flash to 2007 on the island, thirty years after the bomb blew up, and our characters appear to be still on the island. Their adventures continue as if they changed nothing. They merely fulfilled the past by causing the Incident, an event they'd heard about happening during the Dharma Initiative. That event caused Dharma to build a setup where electromagnetic energy needed to be siphoned off every 108 minutes, and they needed someone to push a button that often. The survivors ended up taking on that task for a year but only after the guy assigned to the task before them forgot to push it and crashed their plane. So their bomb basically caused their own crash. Instead of preventing it, they caused it.

Then what was going on with the plane that landed in Los Angeles? The producers called that a flash-sideways, which suggests an alternate universe. But they denied that it was an alternate universe, leaving it mysterious what was going on. Over the course of the season, flash-sideways characters began to remember events on the island. It wasn't until the finale, though, that we discovered what it was. It's what happened after they all died. Some of them died during the show, some early and some only at the end. Some survived the island-storyline and presumably died much later. But everyone dies sometime. The flash-sideways turned out to be a place they somehow created for themselves to meet up before moving on to whatever is next.

I'd been looking forward to an explanation of this flash-sideways, because it's especially important to the time travel stuff I've been working on. It turns out not. The original "whatever happened happened" line seems simply to be true. The sideways isn't an alternate timeline caused by the bomb blowing up. It's nothing but an illusion for the gathering of all the characters deemed appropriate by the writers to have their as they awaited their walk through the door of glowing light.

It's an understatement to say that I was disappointed. It makes my time travel stuff easier to write, and it confirms that they weren't messing with their originally-stated explanation of how time travel works. But it seemed like pseudo-religious mumbo-jumbo that made the whole flash-sideways elements of the season seem irrelevant. There is no sideways reality. It's a fakeity created as an illusion so they can work out their issues with their lives before going on to whatever is next, and the writers left it open what's next. The suggestion seems to be that it's a good afterlife together with their buddies, but it's possible they all step into the light and go on to a miserable eternity in hell for all the show has to say.

So I thought much of the finale was dumb. Even in the island part of the story, which I mostly liked, one main character sacrificed his life needlessly, because another character could have done what he did that killed him but survived. That was truly dumb, because it invalidates the sacrificial death the writers wanted to give him. But most of the island story was all right. I watched it again, fast-forwarding through the sideways except for the last ten minutes, and I enjoyed the episode a lot more.

I should also say that someone convinced me in between watchings that there is a redeeming quality of the overall point of the episode, at least from a Christian perspective. While the show suggests a number of things that I'd disagree with about the religious perspective of the writers, some of it that even seems pretty lame to me, I at first didn't recognize that the writers were recognizing the value of eternity and relationships with people as more important than temporal things, and no Christian should see that as a bad message, even if it's mixed with other things we might disagree with. This is a work of fiction, and I think Christians should see this episode as containing one or two important seeds of the Christian gospel (while also undermining one or two others).

Has that changed my opinion of the finale? Well, watching it a second time without the flash-sideways portion (except the very end) was a lot more enjoyable. I do think I would have preferred removing that whole storyline except the very end if they wanted to insist on that and replacing it with something that would have delved more into the history of the island and the mysteries of the island than the time travel of season 5 was able to do. But I think I can say now that I don't think this was as bad as the Enterprise finale. It was more like the mixed bag that was the Stargate SG-1 finale, which had some fun and interesting moments but didn't at all do what I thought a series finale for that show needed to do.

When we were about to leave for church on Sunday, we had to turn the TV off in the middle of an episode of something Ethan was watching. I told him I'd record the West Coast version when it played three hours later, but it's hard for him to pull away from anything he's started.

As we rounded the corner, instead of doing a usual temper tantrum he closed his eyes, bowed his head, and said in his fully frustrated about-to-lose-it voice, "God, please rewind the day!"

I don't know if he was seriously bringing his problem before God or if this was an autistic scripting incident substituting his concern for one in whatever TV show script he was acting out. This is the first time he's done this rather than just crying out to the sun to go back (to give him more time before bedtime) or to the rain to stop.

But it was no use trying to explain to him that it wouldn't work. If God rewound the day, the part of the show Ethan had already watched would be playing, and then he'd be watching it again and stopping at the same point so we could go to church, all without remembering that he'd watched it already, and then he'd say the same thing, "God, please rewind the day!"

What we think we want isn't always what we want, and if we got it we'd discover that it wasn't really what we had wanted. The kind of impossibility involved in his desire is on a level he can't understand. But why should we think something similar isn't true with some of the things we want, even demand, or some of the things that we'd expect should happen if an all-powerful, omniscient God has a plan for how events in our lives will unfold?

Holy Vestments

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In Sartorial Eye for the Clerical Guy, Christopher Benson points to the Mosaic law's requirements for dazzlingly beautiful uniforms for priests as a reason for Christian ministers to wear nice clothing today, with an emphasis on the majestic robes of the more liturgical denominations as compared with the three-piece suits of the congregations I grew up in.

In the comments, someone made the argument that Paul doesn't exactly say anything to Timothy, repeating such provisions for New Testament times. I suppose that's true, but it doesn't go far enough, because Paul did discuss vestments at one point:

likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire,but with what is proper for women who profess godliness--with good works.[I Tim 2:9-10]

as did Peter:

Do not let your adorning be external--the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear-- but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious. [I Pet 3:2-4]

This is of a piece with the holy expanding to all things [edit: see my Scripture and Worship for the biblical theology of worship I'm working with here], as opposed to the holy/common divide of the Mosaic law. If all vestment can be holy, as all food, all containers, all buildings, and all days are now holy, then the principle of wearing clothing to glorify God becomes more about the inner than what it looks like. So a biblical theology that recognizes this isn't going to apply the levitical dress in a way that requires uniforms for the so-called professional ministers (on the ground that they are the replacements for priests at least in the sense of being the ones paid for ministry) or for the ordinary believer (on the principle of equality). It requires recognizing what Rick Warren wears as being just as capable of holiness and glory to God as what N.T. Wright wears.

When I raised this issue in the comments (I actually just lifted my comment verbatim above), Christopher responded:

Thank you for invoking relevant New Testament passages on clothing. Those passages deepen our conversation. I am wrestling with your contention that "the holy/common divide of the Mosaic law" is gone under the New Covenant, so that the holy is expanded to "all things." All things? Holiness can be conceived in different ways. One way is "a condition of being set apart." What is set apart about a minister who wears the same clothing at the pulpit that he wore for the Super Bowl party or neighborhood BBQ? What is set apart about going to a building on Sunday morning that resembles the bar I visited on Friday night or the mall I strolled through on Monday afternoon? Holiness quickly begins to loses its set-apartness and becomes quotidian and pedestrian.

If we think of holiness as being set apart, then it is a little strange to say that all things are holy, since then there would be nothing to be set apart from. But I think what I said is still true (and what follows is repeated from a comment I left in response). I meant that the holy/common divide of seeing the priestly/tabernacle things and the ordinary life things breaks down in the NT. Every day is equally holy, not just special festival days or sabbaths, as Paul says in several places. Every location is holy and suitable for worship rather than just a centralized temple or tabernacle, as Jesus says to the Samaritan woman in John 4. All food is clean, as Jesus declares and Peter and Paul reiterate. There are no special holy silverware items for use in a special holy building (e.g. what some people wrongly call a church) used for special fellowship meals. There are no special seats that have to be used (e.g. pews). Why should we retain the idea that some clothes are special?

That doesn't mean there's no purpose for clothing. We should still be clothed, for example, and it shouldn't be too revealing. But I don't see why a T-shirt, even one with a rip in the sleeve, or a bright Hawaiian shirt pattern should be any less appropriate for worship than a three-piece suit or dress. There's something special about worship that takes place corporately, yes. But it's not as if that's the only time we worship, and the principle that we should care about our appearance should apply as much during the week when we worship with our lives as it does when we happen to be worshiping corporately with other believers.

I'm enjoying reading Christopher Wright's commentary on Deuteronomy. He's especially insightful on ethical matters, and he's been excellent at defending against positions that I think have needed some careful argument to address (such as the claim that the Mosaic law treats women as property). But the following quote is puzzling.

It is not surprising, then, conversely, that a whole culture that systematically denies the transcendent by excluding the reality of God from the public domain, as Western societies have been doing for generations, also turns covetous self-interest into a socioeconomic ideology, rationalized, euphemized, and idolized. Knowing full well that you cannot serve God and mammon, we have deliberately chosen mammon and declared that a person's life does consist in the abundance of things possessed. [p.86]

I'm not interested in ignoring the role that covetous self-interest plays among those whose lifestyle is all about accumulating material wealth or the fact that such self-interest might attract someone to political views that they might expect to serve that self-interest. But he's talking about a systematic denial of God that turns covetous self-interest into an ideology, so it's got to be much more thoroughgoing than just the fact that people for self-interested reasons might like views that they see as serving their self-interest. It's as if the ideology itself is caused by self-interest and would have no existence otherwise. So what ideology does he mean? Capitalism? Libertarianism? Mainstream economic conservatism? Randianism?

If any of the first three, I think he's simply mistaken. The arguments in favor of those are not selfish pursuit of mammon, at least not in the ideal case, and the view itself is not the same thing as declaring that a person's life amounts just to the abundance of things possessed. Such views are at work in our culture, but what Wright says here is confusing two separate things. It would be more on the mark if he's targeting Ayn Rand, because she explicitly did ground her view in ethical egoism, but even she wouldn't treat human nature as if it's just about material possessions, and her view isn't exactly the mainstream socioeconomic view on the right.

Kerry Livgren's Stroke

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Kerry Livgren has put up a Christmas Eve letter about his recent, very severe stroke and significant but still-only-partial recovery.

For those who don't know, Kerry Livgren was a founding member of Kansas and chief songwriter until the mid-80s. He became an evangelical Christian near the end of his time with the band and had a Christian band called AD in the 80s, after which he has spent much of his time running a farm and producing solo albums, while occasionally appearing with Kansas and contributing some new material for them to record (even contributing an entire album that reunited the original members of the famous 1972-on version of Kansas in 2000). Most recently, he reunited with some members of Kansas from before the band was famous in a group called Proto-Kaw ("Kaw" is another name for the Kanza people, from who the state got its name). He appeared on Kansas' new DVD There's Know Place Like Home and former Kansas vocalist John Elefante's new Mastedon project Revolution of Mind, and he's been reworking some of his solo album, writing a cantata about the death and resurrection of Jesus' friend Lazarus in John 11, and updating his autobiography.

As I was thinking through the following prayer of Paul last week, several things occurred to me:

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. [Phil 1:9-11, ESV]

The logical order here is almost the reverse of the order Paul writes it in. He prays for these believers in Philippi that their love would increase so that they'll approve what's excellent. He prays that they'll approve what's excellent so that they will be pure and blameless for the day of Christ. He prays that they'll be pure and blameless so that it will be to the glory and praise of God.

One thing to notice is that he prayed for their love to overflow in knowledge and all discernment. It doesn't serve the goal of approving what's excellent for them to love if they don't love in knowledge and all discernment, because love wrongly applied might lead to approving of what's not excellent. So I can understand why Paul would include that.

But I wondered what grammatical structure was really going on here. In which of the following ways is the prepositional phrase "in knowledge and all discernment" functioning?

1. The pool overflowed in the backyard.
2. The pool overflowed with water.

If it's the former, then he's praying that their love would overflow in the context of having knowledge and all discernment, so that the knowledge and all discernment can aid their love in serving to develop their approval of all that's excellent.

If it's the latter, then he's praying that their love would overflow with the knowledge and all discernment that their love someone is producing out of itself.

I first read it as the latter, but it seems unlikely that he thought love would be the generating force for knowledge and all discernment for the sake of approving of what's excellent. It seems more likely that he thinks love overflowing in an environment where there's knowledge and all discernment would serve approval of what's excellent. Love uses knowledge and all discernment to produce approval of what's excellent. It doesn't generate the knowledge and all discernment.

If this is right, then it provides an interesting motivation for seeking knowledge and understanding. Philosophers tend to approve of what we do because we think pursuit of knowledge is intrinsically good. It's good in itself to have a better understanding of what's going on in the world or of how various truths interact and explain other truths. Thinking through the nature of what's true is simply worth doing, even if it never leads to any good consequences besides a better understanding of things.

I don't see anything here to deny that, but I do see something here that might serve as a guide to a more important reason for caring about getting a good understanding of things. If knowledge is intrinsically good, that doesn't mean that there's no more important good that knowledge also serves. Paul seems to be taking the approval of what is excellent as a good that love together with knowledge and discernment can produce. I wonder if he'd even go as far as seeing that approval of what is excellent as a higher good. It is further along in his progress toward the goal that he says the whole succession leads to, which is God's glory. But that's compatible with every step of the succession being intrinsically good (contra John Piper, who on my reading reduces all other purposes to serving the glory of God).

If that's right, then the pursuit of knowledge might best be guided by a higher motive of trying to pursue and acknowledge what is excellent, which in turn should be pursued in significant part because it can be an aid toward more excellent living. If this is a higher purpose than mere understanding, then it might change which things we spend more time on thinking about and might focus our efforts to arrive at the truth in a direction that serves thinking about what's excellent for the sake of becoming a more excellent person. I'm not sure if many Christian philosophers spend a lot of time evaluating which things they think about in such ways, but it seems to me that it could have a major impact on Christians in the discipline if they did.

One final observation: the fact that the series ends in God's glory might give pause to those who strongly resist the idea that God's glory can be an ultimate goal that love can serve. As I've already indicated, I don't agree with John Piper's view that everything God does, including the entirety of God's love, is purely for the sake of increasing God's glory. Such a view doesn't allow recognizing God's love as intrinsically good or recognizing the objects of God's love as intrinsically good. But it's just as bad, I would say, to try to resist Piper by denying that God can love people in part because it gives him more glory. If Paul can pray that our love would grow, with the eventual goal of bringing glory to God, then surely love doesn't rule out the possibility that it has a purpose of bringing such glory to God, and then God's love itself also must not be mutually exclusive of the purpose of bringing glory to himself.

It may well be that Piper is right in saying that everything God does he does to bring glory to himself. What I would deny is that that's God's only purpose in everything he does. I think Piper is wrong to give a reductionist account of God's motives, where everything reduces to his pursuit of his glory. But I wonder if those of us who question Piper on this can go too far if we insist that there are things that God does not do for his glory in any way. I think maybe the proper middle ground is to say that God does do everything he does for his own glory, as long as we also say that there are other motives God has for all the things he does that aren't merely reducible to his pursuit of his own glory. They're goals that have intrinsic worth of their own, and love is one of those.

[cross-posted at Evangel]

Signs of Forgiveness

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In a conversation this evening about the call to forgive in such passages as Matthew 5:21-26; 6:14-15; 18:21-35, one of the participants raised some good questions about what exactly forgiveness requires. My initial thought was to make a bunch of distinctions between things in the neighborhood of forgiveness that might be easily confused with it and then make it clear that not all of them are presumed under the command to forgive. See, for example, my post on the Bob Jones University policy changes on race for a fuller account of the distinctions between forgiving, excusing, justifying, showing mercy, finding mitigating factors, reconciling, showing moral deference, and explaining how an action came about. Some of these are less than forgiveness, and some go beyond it. Some are compatible with it and often go together with it but not required for forgiveness, while others are necessary for forgiveness, and others are quite distinct from forgiveness.

A number of things came out of the discussion, but one thing that I think was very helpful was along completely different lines. Instead of separating all these different concepts and figuring out which are required for forgiveness, someone suggested looking to other biblical commands that are in the neighborhood of forgiveness to see if those are present. It doesn't matter so much (a) which particular things we're going to call forgiveness as (b) whether we actually do those things. If I have not forgiven someone, I won't be likely to turn the other cheek or go the extra mile for the person. Philosophical distinctions can be important, and we do need to think wisely about different categories of action or states of mind, but the more important think is not to let someone's offense against me, however legitimate, to prevent me from seeking the other person's good. If this person is hungry, will I feed them, entirely at my own cost. If they need something, will I provide it? This is a radical lifestyle, but it's what Christian teaching requires.

So if we have a test like that, some of the questions that might arise can be answered pretty easily. Someone might have broken some promises to me. Have I forgiven them? It's not necessarily a good test of it to ask whether I believe they're going to do something they tell me they're going to do. They do have a track record of dishonesty in their promises, or at least unwillingness to follow through on what they said they'd do. But am I willing to take the loss by helping them out when they really need it? Even if I know the person is unlikely to return the money they ask for, the issue isn't whether I trust them to return it. It's whether I'm willing to seek the person's best, and that might (in a particular case) involve giving them the money they want to borrow. On the other hand, it might (in a different case) involve telling them that they can't take my money.

What it depends on is whether I can carefully conclude what's in their best interests and make my decision on those grounds, not on whether I can trust them to return the money and make my decision on those grounds. That's a test of whether genuine reconciliation has occurred, and even if we want to distinguish forgiveness and reconciliation as two separate states it's hard for me to see genuine forgiveness in a case where there's no attempt to reconcile and restore some kind of relationship, at least of the sort where the wronged person is willing to put aside the wrong to the degree required for wanting what's best for the other person rather than wanting what's bad for the person or even simply not caring what happens to the other person, even if not everything goes back to the way it was before.

I think the short way to think of this is that it's probably not Christian forgiveness if there are significant violations of other Christian commands about interacting with other people. Christians are called to love others with a self-sacrificial love, and if someone else's wrongdoing prevents you from doing that then you probably haven't forgiven them. Christians are expected to treat everyone according to a higher standard, including enemies. So if a fellow believer or friend doesn't even get that treatment, then surely something's wrong, and it's not just the original wrong that needs to be forgiven. It's also a wrong attitude on the part of the wronged party. It's easy to try to hide behind a component of forgiveness, perhaps a putting aside of some resentment or a somewhat more tolerant attitude toward the person, while not fully bringing yourself to a position where you're following the radical call of placing the other person's interests before your own.

I've been accused by some Christians of having skewed judgments because I've drunk deeply from the well of academia. I've also been accused by atheists of having skewed judgments because I'm too willing to let my religious views shape how I think about issues where an unbiased person would come to an obvious conclusion opposite my own. So maybe I'm just suspect from both ends, but I wonder if in some ways I'm in a more ideal position to be able to see through ways people in both sides have allowed their preferences, value judgments, and assumptions to shape their thinking in non-rational and perhaps even irrational ways.

I spent a good deal of time last summer in commentaries on Proverbs, and my daily Bible reading has taken me back to Proverbs again, so I've been thinking about the secular basis of this fairly large biblical book. Scholars have found similar collections of proverbial material in Babylon and Egypt, and it's pretty clear that both wisdom traditions predate the biblical proverbs. Some of these proverbial collections include material that's extremely close to particular proverbs in the biblical book. The biblical narratives about Solomon, one of the few places outside Proverbs to discuss the content of the book, seem to indicate that had access to the wisdom traditions of other nations.

Daniel reports the righteous behavior of Daniel and his three Hebrew friends who were exiled to Babylon. They refused to worship other gods and insisted on keeping Torah dietary restrictions as much as possible, even to the point of eating no meat at all since they couldn't guarantee any of it had been killed properly. One thing they didn't do is refuse to learn the Babylonian wisdom traditions.

On the other hand, the prophets roundly condemn pagan prophets as unedifying and full of lies about false gods. They're not worth listening to. Paul speaks of the philosophy that the Colossians had been listening to as empty and something to avoid (though it's not clear that he says this of philosophy as a discipline or field of study, as most translations wrongly convey). Pagans like Ruth are perfectly kosher for intermarriage when they convert but completely forbidden when they don't, as the concluding evaluation of Solomon in Kings makes clear. Rahab seems to be another example.

What should we conclude? There's a spiritual threat from listening to false statements that have a bearing on important spiritual matters. But the biblical picture is not to avoid that at all costs. There are certain settings where avoiding it is the only thing to do, but those settings involve marriage and worship. There are other settings where learning it and considering it, as long as it's with discretion, are presented as entirely unproblematic. There are even strong indications that an entire book of the Bible derives from material that includes a significant amount of secular reflections on life.

As with many things in Christian life, there's a tension here between two principles that are both morally important. God created humans with the ability to reason and to arrive at truths about life and reality, and fallen humanity has found ways to corrupt and avoid using that capacity, in some cases leading to an ability to see the truth at all. One case that's especially so is our ability to come to understand the good news of the salvation God offers to us in Jesus the Messiah. But even with an inability to appreciate the gospel message apart from the Holy Spirit, that doesn't mean we're incapable of coming to understand true things that are related to that issue, and we're also talking about Christians who do have the Holy Spirit, who can indeed and according to Jesus' teaching are in fact guided into truth by the Spirit.

So why the absolute prohibition on drinking from the well of academia, whose secular assumptions and goals can certainly be obstacles to the truth but whose God-given abilities and resources for understanding the truth are nonetheless present? Why even the extremely strong resistance, even if not absolute, that many Christians have? Surely there's a need for discernment, and for some people that discernment might require staying away entirely from certain kinds of things, as with anything. But it seems to me that a lot of the resistance I see is highly unbiblical, despite its appearance of piety.

Minority Thinker asks, "How Can Parents of Young Children Observe a Day of Rest?" If sabbatarian principles mean we have a moral responsibility to take a day of rest, then what does that mean for a full-time parent whose work is to care for a family? For that matter, what about someone who has a full-time job who then comes home and has a family also to care for? Is it rest from one's job if that rest time is spent doing household tasks and doing a different sort of work? This post is adapted from a comment I left on that post.

I've spent some time reflecting on how Christians should see the Sabbath (and see also this followup). I'm assuming that background here, although some of this might reflect small developments in how I've thought about this since then.

A close look at the biblical passages on the Sabbath reveals that there are certain aspects of farming that they did do and others that they didn't. They wouldn't do any planting or harvesting on the Sabbath, but they would feed their animals, and they would rescue animals if they fell in a ditch. Similarly, for household living they wouldn't gather food on the Sabbath, and they wouldn't do something to bring in income to provide for food if it wasn't something that had to be done every day, but in the ancient world they couldn't prepare a meal and then put it in the fridge to be microwaved the next day, so they prepared food on the Sabbath.

The theological principle behind the Sabbath is less rest and more completion and wholeness or peace with God. God created, and then God allowed his creation to stand. It was complete. His work was done. Of course, it wasn't really done. God still maintains his creation and providentially orders it. But there's a sense in which its completion is celebrated in the seventh-day principle. In Christ we enter God's rest, meaning we are complete and not in need of further work to be in God's family. Christ's work is done at the cross. It doesn't mean we're perfected yet, but of course we're not ever done yet experientially in this life. The Sabbath principle is to recognize what is complete in Christ and to rest in that. In this sense all time since Christ is Sabbath time. It's not that the work week has expanded to include the seventh day. It's that the Sabbath has expanded to include the rest of the week, the same way the holiness of the temple has expanded to include all believers as the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.

Now there is a secondary principle of observing regular rest as a simple wisdom teaching in the sense of the wisdom of Proverbs, but do we have to do that in the 6-on 1-off pattern of the Sabbath ritual in the Mosaic covenant? I'm not sure why we would. The opponents Paul is dealing with in both Galatians and Colossians are too tied up with observing special days and seeing them as special, and Romans 14 and Philippians 3 allow for the weaker Christians to maintain such customs if they can't bring themselves to be mature enough to recognize the principles in other ways, but Paul's preference is for them to mature and apply the principles in other ways when circumstances warrant it.

I think it's important to notice that different percentages are given for different things in the old covenant, with one-seventh for rest and completion on a weekly basis, one-seventh for resting the land over seven years, one-tenth for tithes of produce, or the firstborn (whose percentage may be as much as 100% or may be much less) for animals and children. I think that signals that the percentage of time isn't really the issue. It all belongs to God, and we symbolize that by giving him the best and by recognizing that it's not from us but a gift from God. This is true with our work in any sense of the term, including parental responsibilities. Finding ways to take breaks, especially when others are willing to handle those ongoing responsibilities for short times, is indeed an application of this general principle. It's a recognition that it's God who enables, and we're stewards of our children just as much as we're stewards of our possessions. With high-needs kids who need close attention, it's impossible to get a lot of time away from them, so it's important to try to find those opportunities, not just for rest but to demonstrate our recognition that we're only doing a task God has given us. Some people don't want to relinquish control, and being extremely possessive of your kids, including caring for their basic needs (and I would say this includes how they're educated) may show a sign that the principle of stewardship isn't full operative.

"Of Course"

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One problem any teacher encounters is how to present material that many in the class will be familiar with but others will not. It's one thing to refer back to earlier material in the course, which students should but often won't remember by the time you get back to it when you encounter the same issue from a different point of view. But other background information might not have been covered earlier in the class. When I teach 300-level ethics classes, all my students should have taken the two-semester historical introduction to philosophy classes. But so many people teach those and do them so differently that there isn't any content that I can assume they've covered. It's also taught in such different styles that there isn't any basic philosophical framework that I can assume every member of the class has had.

The same problem arises in preaching. Some people hearing a sermon might know the Bible wel enough that you can refer to the sin of Achan or David's conflict with Absalom without any further information, and they'll know what you're talking about. You can mention a particular, relatively well-known chapter or section such as Romans 8, the Sermon on the Mount, or Ezeiel's vision of the temple, and some people will need no further information to be reminded of the full sense of what occurs in the section in question. At the other end of the spectrum are the biblically-illiterate who don't know that Jesus was betrayed by Judas Iscariot, aren't familiar with the biblical concept of a covenant, and would hear the expression "whore of Babylon" and think there must be some biblical character who was a prostitute in Baghdad.

One solution I've seen is to give the hearers the benefit of the doubt. I'll sometimes hear a preacher saying "of course" as an unconscious transitional marker in the middle of explaining something that only some of the people present will probably get without the explanation. It serves to signal to those who don't need the explanation that the preacher isn't treating them as if they don't already know this. The problem is that it makes those who don't know this feel sub-par for not knowing this thing that the preacher says "of course" about, as if anyone should know this. Another way of putting it would be to say, "as you know" before saying something that some people in the room do not have any knowledge of at all.

I find myself cringing inwardly at this kind of language. There's a sense of not treating those who are less-informed as important when you treat them as if the basic common denominator is higher in understanding than they are. There are certainly ways of being dismissive of someone that are worse than this, but there is a kind of insult behind this kind of language, even if it's not intended. Little things like this can have an effect on people, and this is such an unconscious habit that someone can get into when developing public speaking skills that it's easy not to think about what you're actually saying when you say this kind of thing.

In writing philosophical essays for a popular audience, I've had to think very hard about how someone with no philosophy background is going to read something I say. I hear my philosophical colleagues talking to their students with vocabulary and concepts that I can't imagine most undergraduate students understanding. Spending time in places where English isn't the native language and having to have serious conversations about Christianity and philosophy via a translator has certainly influenced my abilities to try to explain things more simply than I would if talking to a graduate student in philosophy.

So I'm at least sensitive to the fact that this is a problem, and I do know a fair number of places where it could arise that I tend to avoid it. But that isn't a solution to the problem, since it doesn't mean it won't occur where I'm not going to notice it, since I won't know sometimes that the terms I'm using have no meaning to the person I'm talking to. It also doesn't solve the problem of how to avoid giving those who do understand more the sense that they're being treated like children. But I do think this is something worth thinking through that I doubt very many people spend much time thinking about.

In Colossians 3:5, Paul lists a bunch of things to put to death in oneself, ending with "covetousness, which is idolatry". He also links the two in a similar way in a parallel passage in Ephesians 5:5. The usual explanation for how covetousness is idolatry is to find elements of idolatry in covetousness. At root, idolatry in the Hebrew scriptures is the placing of anything above God or in the place of God. Having your priorities in the wrong order can be idolatry if it involves moving God to any place lower than the top. So if you're longing after something that's not yours, to the point where you place your desire for it above your desire for God, including the desire to be righteous and to be content with what God has given you, then you are in effect practicing a sort of idolatry.

I was reading John Oswalt's commentary on Isaiah recently (p.499 of his second volume, to be exact), and I discovered that he conceives of the relationship in the other direction, drawing on the self-centered features of pagan idolatry that seek to use religious ritual to get a god's attention for benefit to the person engaging in those rituals:

In what way is acquisitiveness the sum of all sins? Perhaps it is as an expression of all the others. The proud, unbridled self wishes to make the universe center on itself, to draw all things inward to itself, confident that it can amass enough of the power, comfort, security, and pleasure that money and possessions signify it will be secure. Idolatry exists to satisfy these desires, so it is not surprising that Paul should identify covetousness as idolatry (Col 3:5). This may also explain why the prohibition of covetousness is the last of the Ten Commandments. To break this commandment is to break the first, in effect.

So it's not just that covetousness is idolatry because covetousness has features of idolatry. Covetousness is idolatry because idolatry itself stems from covetousness to begin with. My first thought on reading Oswalt is that he had it backwards, but I wonder if what he's put his finger on is actually the more fundamental relation of the two.

It's Not About You

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I had a friend who used to conclude from his conviction of God's sovereignty and the fact that a young woman he was attracted to happened to cross his path that day that God was sending him a message about his future with that young woman. It was hard to convince him that just because it was part of God's plan that he run across her path that doesn't mean it was for the reason he might think God had them cross paths. It could be because his running into her reminded her of something she needed to be reminded of that day. It could have been because of something unrelated to the two of them, though, for instance maybe because God wanted them each to be at separate locations shortly after that, and the best way to achieve that at the precise times he wanted them to arrive was for them to walk right by each other. It could have even been so that he could have this conversation with me and be reminded that it's not always about him and what he wants.

I Kings 20 is an interesting case study in a chapter we don't look at all that often. Ahab, the King of Israel, engages in continual conflict with Ben-Hadad, King of Syria. It goes on for a while until Ben-Hadad decides he can get the better of Ahab's forces by fighting in the valleys, claiming that the gods of Israel are gods of the hills, and the gods of Syria are gods of the valleys.

At that point God sends a prophet to Ahab to tell him that Ben-Hadad's statement is the reason he's going to hand him over to Ahab. Interestingly, he quotes it as a statement that God is a god just of the hills, where Ben-Hadad seems to have used a plural verb, indicating plural gods (the noun, I believe is the same in either case, so I believe you have to go by the verb to know which it is, because 'Elohim' is a plural name for God; someone who knows some Hebrew should correct me here if I'm wrong, but that's what I think is going on here). If that's right, then Ben-Hadad was referring to God even though he thought he was referring to several gods of Israel (and the evidence of the surrounding chapters is that Ahab did worship other gods), because there is only one God for Israel even if they pretend otherwise.

The result is sobering. Ahab is handed this amazing victory, basically because God thought it was a good time to bring Ben-Hadad down. It's not about Ahab at all. I think it's a natural human tendency to take things going well for us as a sign that God approves of what we're doing, but here's a clear counterexample to that. This has nothing to do with Ahab, and it's clear from the surrounding chapters that God absolutely disapproves of the defining characteristics of Ahab's life. This is about judging Ben-Hadad. Just as Rehoboam was judged by God via Jeroboam's rebellion and subsequent separation of more than half the kingdom, so here we have Ahab benefiting from God's judgment on Ben-Hadad, when it has nothing at all to do with Ahab.

In both these cases, the King of Israel was judged for something else later, Jeroboam for how he ruled once he had his own kingdom and Ahab most immediately for not completing the task and letting Ben-Hadad go, just as Saul had done with Agag and the Amalekites at the very beginning of the Israelite monarchy. Something similar occurs in Isaiah 10, where we see judgment on the God's for doing it for the wrong reason (in that case the king of Assyria gets judged for how he caries out judgment on Israel, since he does it for his own glory and while thinking it's his own power that achieves it).

One interesting part of all this is that God delivers a real blessing to Ahab, one of the wickedest of Israel's many wicked kings. God chose to give him victory with serious odds stacked up against him -- but the reasons God gives for this choice were very clearly nothing to do with Ahab. It's a nice instance of the general principle given to Israel at its founding. They were chosen not because they were large or strong but because God wanted to demonstrate something.

A passage in Thomas Aquinas' discussion of predestination often reminds me of this biblical principle. Aquinas wonders what basis God might use to single out particular people to be predestined for salvation or damned. He can't imagine God does it by something akin to flipping a coin or some such arbitrary method, because God isn't arbitrary, despite how a lot of Calvinists sometimes want to think of God. At the same time, it can't be based on the actions people do to deserve salvation, because everyone at the most basic level does not deserve grace, or it wouldn't be grace. It has to be an unearned gift. [For those stumbling over how a Catholic can say this, see the footnote. This is the official Roman Catholic doctrine, even if it doesn't sound like it to Protestant ears.] So whatever leads God to choose particular individuals to be saved must have nothing to do with their earning it in any sense. It must have to do with other things. In effect, he concludes that God's reasons for choosing certain people to be saved or damned would be for something like artistic reasons. It makes for a greater providential plan to choose someone like Paul, coming out of his Pharisaical training and resistance to the gospel and having his skills to be used in developing the canonical epistles. It makes for greater spread of the gospel for God to work through certain people. It shows God's mercy and grace in special ways. There's plenty of room for God to have purposes that aren't arbitrary that are in some sense about you but not in the sense of the title of this post. It's not about you in that sense.

It should catch our attention that this same pattern recurs in scripture. It's not just Saul, Jeroboam, and Ahab. You see it in different ways with Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson in the book of Judges, to name three other examples. People receive God's grace because of reasons having nothing to do with their own deserving, and in some of these cases having nothing to do with the person at all. They then proceed to take God's grace as a sign of God's favor, or at the very least they aren't grateful enough for God's blessing that they proceed to live in a way that honors the God whose blessing they've received without deserving it. In some of these cases, that vastly understates how significantly they slight God and insult his gracious bestowal of favor. It must be particularly fearsome to receive such blessing only to end up in a place of severe judgment, as Ahab certainly did.

But isn't this the story of the whole Bible? Humanity as a whole has continually rejected God's favor and spat in his face, and his patience and love is shown all the more for his willingness to pursue those he is bringing to salvation even amidst their constant rejection of many of the opportunities God gives to pursue holiness and reject inferior substitutes for God. We would do well to remember the lessons of these figures, because God will bring to completion the good work he started, and he calls us to participate in his transformation of our hearts and wills to serve him as we work out the salvation he's working out in us.

[Footnote: Aquinas does not hold the caricature of Roman Catholic theology that has Christians straightforwardly earning their salvation. Salvation is a gift of grace and totally unearned initially. He does think God, at the end of your life, evaluates the actions you did through the Holy Spirit as being righteous actions, and only in that sense is your salvation merited because the God-produced works you did do match up to what God wants of you in that they were produced by the Holy Spirit. But even this isn't meant to cancel his claim that you don't earn the initial grace that puts you in a position to be transformed by the Spirit to do good.]

Rash Vows

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There are several cases of vows with strange conditions in the Bible. Many of these are rash vows, often morally negligent or suspect. In Joshua 9, the Israelites make a covenant with Gibeon under the false pretense that they were from far away, when they had a command from God to wipe out any of the peoples of the land. Once they made the vow, they honored the covenant with Gibeon and didn't kill them rather than keeping the command of God to wipe them out. In Judges 11, Jephthah vows to sacrifice the first thing to come through his gate, expecting it to be an animal, and it turns out to be his daughter. In a very tragic move, he ends up fulfilling his vow and sacrificing her.

King Saul makes a similarly rash vow in I Samuel 14. He says that if any of his soldiers eat during their attack, they would be put to death. His son Jonathan wasn't present for that vow, and when he found honey in the woods he ate some. In this case, however, Saul's soldiers convince him not to keep the vow. You get the sense that he only did it because his men were able to calm him down and talk some reason into him.

In I Kings 2, Solomon makes a promise to Bathsheba to grant her a favor but then refuses once he finds out that the favor was to do something that would in effect give his older half-brother Adonijah a foothold toward claiming the throne that David had passed on to Solomon. Adonijah flees Solomon's wrath and in fact has him killed. Adonijah had already been spared once when he grabbed the horns of the altar, and Solomon had let him go on the condition that he shows himself to be worthy; otherwise, he'd die. His request to Bathsheba showed Solomon the latter.

In the gospels, King Herod makes a promise to his step-daughter that he'd give her anything, up to half his kingdom, and is shocked when she asks for the head of John the Baptist. He complies to save face but perhaps only for that reason.

It's worth thinking through the conflicting moral principles that arise in these cases. The most fundamental is the third commandment the third commandment (not to take God's name in vain), which Jesus interprets simply as a command to let your "yes" be "yes" and your "no" be "no". The third commandment says not to use God's name in a way that doesn't take into full account who God is and our place in God's universe. The most fundamental way that we can take God's name in vain is simply to ignore God, thus living in a way that ignores God is the most serious violation of the third commandment. This is especially important for a people called to represent God as his ambassadors to the world, since the representation is a fact, and thus representing God badly takes his name in vain and drags it through the mud. But uttering God's name when you don't have any intention of referring to God, particularly in a sinful act of verbal outrage over something not all that important. So the common view that using a name that normally refers to God in a sort of curse is indeed correct. It's a violation of the third commandment. It's just not the most fundamental way to do so.

SciFi Samson

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Warner Brothers has announced a science fiction retelling of the Samson story in a futuristic context. SciFi Wire's description of Samson catches my interest:

Samson gives a futuristic twist to the story of the biblical strongman who was invincible until he was betrayed by Delilah, to whom he entrusted the secret that his strength came from his long hair.

I have no idea if they're just repeated something WB had given them or are going by their understanding of what the Samson story is about, but it strikes me as relying on a popular misconception of Samson, one that I've seen gotten right in pop culture only once that I can think of (and that was Veggie Tales' Minnesota Cuke: the Search for Samson's Hairbrush).

Samson's strength in the book of Judges doesn't derive from his hair at all. His hair is only mentioned twice. The first time is God's command to Samson's parents that he would be a Nazirite from birth, an exceptional situation given that a Nazirite vow was usually voluntary and temporary. Those who took the vow wouldn't cut their hair, among other restrictions, for the duration of their vow. Nothing is said there to tie the strength to the hair. His hair is simply part of his being a Nazarite. Nowhere else in the Samson narrative is his strength mentioned in the context of his hair until the Delilah account. His strength is simply something God gives him for use in judging those who are evil toward God's people. When Delilah presses him for an explanation, and he mentions his hair, with every reason to believe that she'd have it cut (given her past responses to his lies about the source of his strength), he in effect sets himself up to violate his vow. So God takes his strength away. But the narrative itself never endorses the view that his strength really did come from his hair.

Now it's possible that Samson himself really did think the hair was the source of the power, in which case the fact that he's willing to boil it down to his hair is a sign that he doesn't get it himself. That theme appears throughout Judges and the Samson narratives in particular. The judges get progressively less faithful and more mixed in motivation, culminating in Samson, who frequently shows little care for the Torah's stipulations, up to the point of putting himself in a position where his Nazirite status gets prematurely cut off (pun intended). But it's not clear that he really thought this, as far as I can tell, and the narrator never tells us this.

I can see how a scifi version of it can get some basic plot similarities, but it certainly loses the main point of the whole thing unless it's not replacing the religious elements with scifi ones but simply tells the story with that side intact but in a different context. I have a feeling they won't do that, though, since the point of doing a futuristic version of it is probably to have some science fiction explanation of how hair can contain within it the explanation for super-strength.

I've been reading through Joshua lately. When I got to the Gibeonite episode in chapter 9, I noticed something that I don't think had ever registered with me before. Several other examples have since occurred to me.

In Joshua, Israel had a divine mandate to carry out: God's judgment on the Amorites declared all the way back in Genesis 15. I think most Biblical scholars take the Genesis 15 reference to include all the people living in the land, not just ethnic Amorites, just as later texts use the term 'Canaanites' to refer to all of the people, even though several lists include Amorites and/or Canaanites among lots of other names (Hivites, Girgashites, Jebusites, Hittites, Perizzites; no list actually has exactly the same combination in the same order).

The Gibeonites were part of that mandate, but they deceived Israel into thinking they were from a far-away land and had come to Canaan to make a covenant with Israel to protect them. Israel bought the deception and made the covenant.

What I hadn't noticed before is that the text seems to assume Israel's responsibility to keep that covenant, even given the deception. It's common nowadays to assume that a promise is void if it's made under false pretenses, because your words didn't apply to exactly the thing you thought you were agreeing to. If I promise to pay off a debt you have that you tell me you accrued due to an oppressive landlord's cruel policies, and then I later discover that you have the debt merely because of gambling, the idea is that I don't have any obligation to pay the debt for you, because I didn't agree to pay off a gambling debt. I only agreed to pay off a debt caused by an unjust landlord. I know of one philosophical paper on the subject of consent that argues that someone hasn't given voluntary, informed consent to sex if they've given explicit consent but the person had been hiding the fact that the two were close relatives, because giving consent to sex doesn't amount to giving consent to incest if you don't know the person is a close relative and the other person does.

I'm seeing a several biblical accounts that seem to assume a contrary position. The Gibeonite case is just one instance among a few that have occurred to me, but it's a particularly vivid example of how fully in force this covenant is, even generations later, even to a king who had no idea that it was being violated until he inquired of God. By II Samuel 21, Israel's failure to keep that covenant in Saul's time (Saul had tried to wipe the Gibeonites out) had led to God causing a three-year famine as judgment. David, in his ignorance, was facing the famine in the kingdom as a consequence of not keeping that covenant. The covenant was made in ignorance, and it was continuing to be broken in ignorance, but that did not exempt Israel from their obligation to it. David was even ignorant of the cause of the famine, but he still bore responsibility for dealing with it. David remedied the problem and honored the covenant.

I can think of several other instances just in the book of Genesis. In Genesis 12, Abram visits Egypt and says that his wife Sarai is his sister (which he later says is technically true; see Gen 20:12, but it's still deception). Pharaoh gets upset when he discovers the deception, because he could have married her and thus married another man's wife. Even if he had done so in ignorance, the reason he gives for his outrage is that Abram could have caused him to sin ignorantly. A similar circumstance occurs later in Abraham's life in Genesis 20 but with Abimelek the king of Gerar instead of Pharaoh. A third instance of the same fault occurs with Abraham's son Isaac in Genesis 26, who also faces a similar situation with someone called Abimelek the king of Gerar (not necessarily the same figure, since it could be a title like 'Pharaoh'). It's possible in these cases that it's just an ethical framework shared by the Hebrews, Egyptians, and Gerarites. If so, it doesn't mean someone holding to the authority of scripture would have to say that God endorses it. It's the words of the Pharaoh or Abimelek that assume the principle.

But in Joshua and the subsequent Samuel text, it seems harder to say that. I think the narrator more clearly endorses the principle there. That also seems to me to be true of a couple more cases in Genesis, involving Jacob. First, In Genesis 27, Jacob deceives his father Isaac into giving his blessing to him rather than to his older twin brother Esau, who would normally have received it. Since this was not just a father's blessing but a passing on of the blessing bestowed on Isaac via the covenant with Abraham, there was only one blessing of this sort to give, and Isaac recognized that once the blessing was given, he'd passed on what had been entrusted to him by God. He couldn't undo it. That sacred trust had been given to Jacob now. The narrator seems to assume that as much as Isaac does when he explains to Esau that he can't now give his blessing to him also.

As I was responding to this comment from Neil, I realized that I was getting into a bunch of issues that I don't think I've ever discussed comprehensively on this blog before, and I thought it might as well be its own post. Neil raises some questions about Christians reading (and presumably watching) science fiction and fantasy, questions that are more general (and more legitimate) than the common complaint about magic in fantasy. He wonders whether certain writers or stories (he has in mind a series by Stephen Donaldson that I'm not familiar with) can be dangerous in leaving behind what he calls an amoral residue. There's also the worry that spending time in fictional worlds is escaping from reality and might even be an addiction. It also might be a waste of time when there are more important things to do. He suggests that God might speak through such literature, but hasn't God spoken much more clearly in other ways already, so why should we need this kind of thing?

I think there can be a number of different healthy motivations for a Christian to read or watch science fiction or fantasy, many of them no different from the motivations for any other kind of fiction. One is simply entertainment. The idea that entertainment is just escape from reality seems wrong to me. I know people who think of it that way, but I don't think that's what they're actually doing when they see themselves as escaping. They might be distracting themselves from things they don't want to think about, but the things they're thinking about, while fictional, are based on reality in some way, or they couldn't think about them. It's just a rearrangement of real things, and those are good things that God created. It's also an engagement with the process of creation, an ability that I think God has given to us as part of being made in his image. The use of the imagination develops abilities God wants us to develop. Thinking about fictional worlds is one way to develop intellectual virtue. It's also simply good to enjoy good storytelling and to appreciate people using their God-given abilities to produce something enjoyable.

There are also moral themes in literature, and fiction of any kind helps us evaluate our lives in many ways. If the story in question only motivates moral evaluation of fictional cases, and those cases could never come up in real life, then at least it allows us to practice our ethical thinking in hard and strange cases, which is still a good skill to develop, because we will confront new situations that require such skills, especially as technology develops and social relations become further changed from what we see as the norm. But many ethical issues in fiction, even in fantasy and science fiction, are also going to come up in real life. Sometimes the author wants to make certain moral points, and sometimes we need to develop the ability to think for ourselves about those questions and not just accept what the author wants us to take away from it. But that's not a reason not to read or watch it except in cases where someone has a problem doing that. Maybe in Neil's case the Donaldson series was like that, and for all I know it might have that effect on me too (I know little about the series in question, so I have no idea). It's certainly worth being vigilant about how things affect you, but that's true of any fiction, and it's true of a lot of things besides fiction. It's true of observing how your friends live, and Paul tells us not to isolate ourselves from those who aren't Christians, even if he also says that Christians ought to live differently from the world.

I like fantasy and science fiction in particular because they help illustrate philosophical questions in ways that real life sometimes can't. One way to show that a sophisticated hedonism is wrong is to point out that with Harry Potter's invisibility cloak or Sauron's ring you could get away with almost anything you want, and it would still be wrong to do so. A sophisticated hedonism says it's only wrong to do certain things because it's against your self-interest (given that people will be mad at you for doing it and want to stop you and punish you). But these cases show that the real reason it's wrong isn't because it's against your self-interest, because you can achieve the self-interested goal in such cases, and it's still wrong. Scenarios like the Matrix or science fiction or fantasy worlds with very different social relations raise interesting questions about the moral principles that we assume as fundamental, because they lead us to wonder if they would apply in a very different situation. If I spent ten minutes coming up with a list, I could probably name off at least a dozen examples from science fiction and fantasy that I use regularly in my philosophy classes to illustrate points that are a lot harder to make clear or vivid without the aid of such examples.

So you don't need to think of fiction as revelation in any important sense to think that it provides an occasion for something that can be productive. It's bad if it distracts from more important things, as is true of any kind of enjoyable activity. At the same time, a little rest and relaxation, especially if it engages aspects of our thinking that we don't otherwise use, is part of being productive in the long run. So there has to be a balance, but I think this kind of imaginative fiction can contribute a lot of good toward our moral development and to our lives as well-rounded human beings, even if there are also risks and dangers, as there are with most pursuits in life.

Bush's Faith

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There's been some attention of late to a recent interview President Bush did with Cynthia McFadden of ABC news. Some of what he's had to say has surprised a lot of people. See links at Daniel Pulliam's GetReligion post for some of that. I have to say that most of what he had to say doesn't surprise me very much. You might be surprised and perhaps skeptical of what he says in this interview if you come with the assumption that Bush is an arrogant, self-absorbed fundamentalist with theologically conservative positions on every religious question, who thinks he can discern God's will obviously and with no hesitation, and who thinks everything he's done is God's will. You'd have to think he's lying about his views and his attitude toward his faith in this interview if you went into it with those assumptions about what he must think. But there was never much evidence to think anything of the sort about him, even though it's a pretty dominant meme on the left (and among some on the right).

Pulliam's post seems a little strange to me, because he talks about how this is true in Europe but doesn't seem to think it's quite as bad in the U.S. Maybe I'm underestimating how bad the coverage in Europe has been, but I'm pretty sure that the coverage in the U.S. has been pretty downright awful. The suggestion that Bush initiated the Iraq war because he heard God tell him to do it is pretty common, even though he never said anything remotely like that. I'm not sure I've seen it asserted in a news story, but opinion journalists trot it out as if it's verified fact, and the quickness of the mainstream media to jump to the idea that Sarah Palin thought such a thing from a sentence that didn't remotely mean that suggests that they were already thinking along such lines with Bush.

Bush all along has given moral reasons for the Iraq invasion and for his opposition to abortion and the killing of embryos for stem cells. He's given secularly-available reasons for his support of the teaching of intelligent design arguments alongside the teaching of standard evolutionary theory. He's given traditional conservative reasoning for the public expression of religious beliefs and public support for faith-based programs and hasn't based it in any claim to special revelation. His resistance to draconian measures to protect the environment and to ward off global warming has largely been because his moderately conservative economic principles oppose such draconian pressure from the government, not because he thinks the Bible says not to care about the environment due to an imminent return of Christ. Yet I've heard some pretty smart people attribute exactly those motivations to him. I do think they'd be surprised by this interview, but I'm not sure it's rational to be surprised by it given that there was never any evidence to attribute the views they attribute to him to begin with.

One genuinely new thing in this interview, as far as I know, is Bush's willingness to say that he doesn't take the Bible literally. As I've discussed before (and see the comments on Pulliam's post for others recognizing the same problem), this is a very unhelpful way to describe things, since there's no one who really takes the Bible entirely literally. When Jesus says he's a vine, he doesn't mean he's a plant rather than an animal. He's speaking metaphorically and thus not literally. When he tells a parable, on the other hand, he's not implying the existence of the characters and events in the parable just because the expressions in the parable are all used literally. I suspect most people who say they don't take the Bible literally are open to seeing some parts of it more like parables. They're not sure Adam and Eve refers to an actual couple when there were no other peopel but might see them as metaphorical for an entire generation of people who rejected God. Or they accept Adam and Eve as a real couple of the first humans, but they don't accept the six-day creation structure as referring to six 24-hour days but rather accomplishing some theological purpose to indicate that God structured creation in certain ways.

Bob Jones and Race

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Update: Joseph Celucien has posted this at Christ, My Righteousness as part of a series on racial reconciliation, so it might be worth looking at the comments there as well.

Bob Jones University, founded in 1927 in the nexus of racial segregationism and the religious separatism of the early fundamentalist movement, took until 2000 to revoke their ban on interracial dating. Eight years later, they've issued a Statement about Race at Bob Jones University that reflects a fairly healthy view of race, admits to having based their policies on the surrounding cultural norms rather than the Bible, and admits to the wrongness of their institutional policies on race. I was glad in 2000 when they revoked their ban on interracial dating, and I'm glad to see this statement today.

Not everyone is happy about it, though, and I'm not talking about white supremacists. There are some people who simply refuse to accept this as genuine repentance. See the comments at Justin Taylor's post on this for some examples.

The reactions in that comment thread led me to think about a set of related concepts that people often don't distinguish, sometimes to the point of philosophical confusion on important issues. I've sometimes used a paper by Jeffrie Murphy on forgiveness that draws a four-fold distinction between justification, excuse, mercy, and reconciliation. I would now add to the list mitigating factors, explanations, and what Laurence Thomas calls moral deference. Justification is an an explanation why an action isn't wrong (presumably when someone is assuming or arguing that it is). A justification for killing someone, which is normally wrong, might be that I'm defending my son from a vicious murderer. It's a defense of the rightness of something that would otherwise be wrong. An excuse is an explanation of why we shouldn't blame someone who did something wrong. Someone who does something that's wrong but couldn't understand the relevant moral issues because of a diminished capacity to engage in moral reasoning would be excused. Mercy is the removal or diminishment of punishment. If a judge reduces a sentence or a governor or president commutes a sentence, it's mercy. Reconciliation is the restoration of normal relations, for instance if a divorced couple reinstated their marriage or two estranged friends resumed a relationship of friendship. Murphy distinguishes all of these from forgiveness, which is the willingness to put aside one's resentment.

Two related but yet distinct concepts that occurred to me in reading this discussion are mitigating factors, explanations, and moral deference. Mitigating factors can be the basis for some of the original list. A mitigating factor may explain why something normal wrong is right, or it might explain why someone shouldn't be held responsible for doing the wrong thing. It might make it right to reduce a sentence, or it could be the grounds for forgiveness. But the mitigating factor itself is just a condition that makes it worth considering a situation as more complex than the straightforward case of wrongdoing that deserves a certain simple response. An explanation of someone's behavior is simply an account of what led to it. Sometimes it's helpful to understand what led someone to do something wrong. Sometimes the explanation includes mitigating factors. Sometimes it provides some level of justification or excuse. Sometimes it's an attempt to justify or excuse but one that's not entirely successful. But sometimes when someone offers an explanation all they want is for you to understand how they could have ended up in that position, and it might be useful to know about in order to help prevent the person being in the situation that occasioned their wrong act. So I think this is a distinct category, and it's good to be able to think of it as separate. Someone can offer an explanation without necessarily seeing that explanation as an excuse, justification, or call for mercy. Finally, moral deference is when you admit that you don't have a good grasp of what it's like to be in someone else's situation, which leads you therefore to extend them some level of mercy, forgiveness, excuse, justification, or reconciliation. It's a particular reason for doing one of those things, namely that you can't put yourself in a position to judge as easily because you haven't experienced what they've experienced.

Peter Kirk takes Obama's conversion experience as evangelical (but see his comment below resisting the seemingly-uncontroversial inference from having an evangelical conversion experience to being an evangelical). The interview Peter links to in support actually leads me to conclude that he's definitely not an evangelical, and a case can even be made that there's nothing distinctively Christian in his personal faith. Let me first outline what I think the boundaries of evangelicalism can include, and then I'll look at some of the things Obama says that make me think he's outside the realm of evangelicalism and perhaps even not very specifically Christian. Much of the content here is adapted from comments in my conversation with Peter in the comments.

Theologically liberal views (at least compared to the status quo in evangelicalism) would include people who reject the substitutionary element of the atonement but retain a penal element (e.g. my co-blogger Wink), who support open theism but insist that God has a plan and will win in the end (e.g. philosophers Dean Zimmerman and Dale Tuggy), who are universalists of the sort that they're convinced everyone who goes to hell will eventually repent and follow Christ once they see the consequences of not doing so, and thus evangelism is still urgent, and hell is still real but just not eternally populated (e.g. Keith DeRose), who are inclusivists of the sort where Christ's sacrifice in fact atones for some in other religions because general revelation teaches them that God must provide a solution to the sin problem and trust him to do so (e.g. the C.S. Lewis view), that a homosexual lifestyle is morally ok but who feel the need to reinterpret scripture to defend such a view (e.g. I have a friend who holds such a view and is clearly an evangelical) rather than saying the Bible includes an immoral prohibition.

There are some who deny inerrancy (but really affirm it and just deny a straw man that they think inerrancy is), but I think actual denial of inerrancy is harder to maintain while being an evangelical. The Fuller Theological Seminary model makes an effort by still insisting that scripture is infallible on any moral teaching or theology within its pages. (Some at Fuller don't actually follow this. I know of one who thinks Paul was a complementarian but insists that we shouldn't be, and I think that moves out of the range of evangelicalism.) But I think you can say that there are errors in dates and place names in the Bible and still count as being within evangelicalism, just on the fringes. Once you start explicitly questioning the plain moral and theological teaching of scripture without trying to reinterpret it so that you at least believe scripture teaches your view, it's hard for me to see that as even on the fringes of evangelicalism. That's just theological liberalism in its most plain form.

So I'm certainly open to finding liberalizing tendencies within evangelicalism, even if one is on the fringes for holding certain views. Some of these are closer to the fringes than others (e.g. Wink's view of the atonement doesn't seem very extreme to me, just extreme-sounding to those unwilling to think very hard about what they've been taught). Those who combine several of these are more on the fringes than others. But one can be an evangelical and hold such views. It's a separate matter whether someone is a Christian but not an evangelical. I'm not saying here that one must be an evangelical to be a Christian. I know plenty of people whom I would not consider evangelicals but who do lay claim to being more broadly Christian. Very few Catholics are evangelicals, in my view, although I personally know a handful who I think are evangelical Catholics. I do think pious Catholics are Christian in a perfectly normal English usage of that term. I know a number of people who I think are Christians in mainline denominations who aren't evangelicals by the criteria I've outlined above. Some evangelicals want to restrict the term 'Christian' so that it only applies to evangelicals, but it's linguistically inappropriate to do that given what the term has come to mean.

But suppose someone denies the reality of hell and then expresses skepticism even about the existence of an afterlife in heaven. What if you say you pray, but then when you go on to explain what you do when praying it becomes clear that you're just maintaining an internal dialogue evaluating your life? What if you talk about a power that goes out of you when you speak the truth (rather than inflating your ego or playing rhetorical games), and then when your interviewer asks you if that's the Holy Spirit, you prefer to speak instead of just seeing a common recognition of truth outside of you? What if you're willing to talk of Jesus as your personal means of bridging the human-God gap but think of that in terms of reaching something higher rather than as the solution to a problem of sin? Speaking of sin, what if you admit to believing that there is such a thing but then define it entirely in terms of going against your own convictions, as if hypocrisy is the only sin? In the above-linked interview, Barack Obama did all these things.

Voting and Calvinist Prayer

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A lot of people think it's irrational to vote if your vote isn't going to have an effect on the outcome. I live in an extremely blue district of a slightly red county in a very blue state. In local and statewide elections, my vote has so little an effect that it's not worth voting if the only point of voting is for my one vote to have an effect on the outcome. New York is overwhelmingly going to continue to support Senators Schumer and Clinton, and they tend to vote Democratic in governor elections except when there's a very moderate Republican like George Pataki on the ballot. County-wide races are closer, and so is the U.S. House district, which was almost a toss-up in 2006. Things were even more one-sided when I lived in Rhode Island.

But it simply isn't true that voting is only worth doing if you're going to be the deciding vote. There are other reasons people give for voting, some better than others. One that often occurs to me when it seems hopeless for my candidate is that if everyone voting for the other side thought it wasn't worth voting because the outcome is assured then my candidate might have a chance. Other reasons include that it helps you psychologically to feel like you're contributing and that it's simply your obligation to do what you can to influence things for the better even if what you can isn't by itself going to make the difference in who wins the election.

Any of those responses would be sufficient by itself, except perhaps the psychological benefit one (at least if that involves self-deception, and if it doesn't then it's not a distinct reason but depends on one of the others). I think there's an even better reason to vote, and I think it might actually be what motivates me most, but I hadn't actually thought about it in these terms until today. It takes a page from Calvinist responses to the objection that if the future is already determined then there's no point in praying.

Calvinists come in several varieties, but the most common sort of Calvinist (which isn't the same as being the most noticed kind on the internet) is compatibilist about human freedom and divine predetermination. If God has a plan that includes everything I'm going to do, everything every other person is going to do, and an outcome for every prayer I ever pray, then is it worth praying? My prayer isn't going to change anything, after all. Of course, my prayer would also be in this plan, and if I didn't pray then a different outcome may well have been in the works. Compatibilists about divine predetermination and human action are going to insist that God works through our choices and doesn't just force things outside our control. Our prayers are part of how God's plan works itself out as history unfolds.

One thing Calvinist sometimes say is that praying is not so much for the outcome but for us. God wants us to pray because of what God will do in us because we pray. I don't want to deny that, but it's certainly not the emphasis in scripture on reasons to pray. The emphasis seems to be on two things. One is that prayer does affect things. It doesn't change them, because the future can't be changed anymore than the past or present can. If the future is a certain way then it can't be changed. Even open theists don't think the future can be changed. Why should someone who thinks there's a definite future think it can be changed? But for the reasons in the previous paragraph, the future can be influenced. It can be caused by things in the present, and I can be part of that process of bringing it about. A compatibilist should have no trouble saying that sort of thing.

But there's another reason in scripture for why we should pray, even though God has worked out the end from the beginning, and this one (unlike the previous one) does have some relevance for voting. God wants us to communicate our dependence on him and to express our desires to him. He wants us to see him as the Father who cares for us and meets our needs and our wishes, provided that our wishes are righteous and as long as there isn't some other reason beyond our ken for why God wouldn't grant a particular wish (as there may well be). As Jesus points out, what father when presented with a request from a child for bread or fish will give a snake? God wants to bestow good things on his children and delights when we come to him with requests, for the same reasons a giving parent delights in such things. Given that, it's a privilege to call him Father, which is why it's a big deal that Jesus starts out the Lord's prayer with "our Father". Those who don't avail themselves of that title in addressing him are missing out on something great. Those who don't address him at all are missing out on even more.

The same dynamic plays out in a smaller way with voting. I'm privilege to live in a country that seeks my opinion on who should occupy certain offices. Even if my vote doesn't have an effect in putting someone in office, it's a privilege to be able to contribute my thoughts in the process of the communal decision that an election involves. I don't believe voting is a moral right. But I think I'd be wasting an opportunity to express my opinion if I didn't vote, and wasting a privilege is at least unfortunate (and I would even argue that it's immoral). This seems to me to be a much better reason to vote than any of the more common ones that I hear, even if most of them are good enough reasons.

Palin and God's Will

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One of the smear memes about Sarah Palin has been that she claimed the invasion of Iraq was God's will. She did no such thing. She prayed that our leaders would do whatever God's will would be:

Pray for our military. He's [Palin's son Trask] going to be deployed in September to Iraq. Pray for our military men and women who are striving to do also what is right for this country - that our leaders, our national leaders are sending them out on a task that is from God. That's what we have to make sure we are praying for, that there is a plan and that that plan is God's plan.

Charles Gibson got this wrong in his interview with Palin:

GIBSON: You said recently, in your old church, "Our national leaders are sending U.S. soldiers on a task that is from God." Are we fighting a holy war?

PALIN: You know, I don't know if that was my exact quote.

GIBSON: Exact words.

PALIN: But the reference there is a repeat of Abraham Lincoln's words when he said -- first, he suggested never presume to know what God's will is, and I would never presume to know God's will or to speak God's words.

But what Abraham Lincoln had said, and that's a repeat in my comments, was let us not pray that God is on our side in a war or any other time, but let us pray that we are on God's side.

That's what that comment was all about, Charlie. And I do believe, though, that this war against extreme Islamic terrorists is the right thing. It's an unfortunate thing, because war is hell and I hate war, and, Charlie, today is the day that I send my first born, my son, my teenage son overseas with his Stryker brigade, 4,000 other wonderful American men and women, to fight for our country, for democracy, for our freedoms.

Charlie, those are freedoms that too many of us just take for granted. I hate war and I want to see war ended. We end war when we see victory, and we do see victory in sight in Iraq.

GIBSON: I take your point about Lincoln's words, but you went on and said, "There is a plan and it is God's plan."

PALIN: I believe that there is a plan for this world and that plan for this world is for good. I believe that there is great hope and great potential for every country to be able to live and be protected with inalienable rights that I believe are God-given, Charlie, and I believe that those are the rights to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

That, in my world view, is a grand -- the grand plan.

GIBSON: But then are you sending your son on a task that is from God?

PALIN: I don't know if the task is from God, Charlie. What I know is that my son has made a decision. I am so proud of his independent and strong decision he has made, what he decided to do and serving for the right reasons and serving something greater than himself and not choosing a real easy path where he could be more comfortable and certainly safer.

Molly Hemingway notes (at the end of the post) that ABC edited the clips down to his misrepresentation and her response, without any indication that he'd misquoted her, which makes it look as if she's changing her tune. Nice. Take awful journalism and cover it up by making it look as if the interviewer caught her in a gotcha moment of historical revisionism.

Steve Waldman of Beliefnet gets it right:

Palin asked members of the church to pray "that our leaders, our national leaders, are sending [U.S. soldiers] out on a task that is from God. That's what we have to make sure that we're praying for, that there is a plan and that that plan is God's plan." That's very different. She's asking them to help insure that the war is part of God's plan, not declaring that it was.

Unfortunately, Waldman goes on to make exactly the same mistake immediately afterward, saying Gibson "should have asked her about her comment that it's "God's will" that Alaska have a great big natural gas pipeline."

I'm not going to dignify this enough to give it a further link beyond all the attention it's getting, but I can't resist commenting on the idea of desecrating the Eucharist in an internet stunt. In case you haven't heard of the events this is about, there are two posts about it in the latest Christian Carnival. You'll have to follow the links there.

This is one of the lamest things I've ever heard of, and the fact that people are insulted is extremely unfortunate, because they shouldn't be.

Consider the Catholic view. According to transsubstantiation, this action takes something that isn't a piece of bread but is literally Jesus, the same Jesus who was pierced by swords, spears, and rusty nails on the cross. So someone pierces Jesus with a rusty nail and attaching some pages from the Qur'an and Richard Dawkins' diatribe against theism. I'm not sure what the fuss is. He didn't do anything that hasn't already been done, if to the Catholic view is correct. In fact, the person performing this act (along with the rest of humanity) was already the cause of Jesus' death, and thus he'd already done the thing that he so proudly did. He'd already killed Jesus, never mind poked a hole in him with a rusty nail.

Of course, if the Catholic view is wrong, then this action is of little significance except as the immoral act of deliberately trying to cause offense to a large group of people, most of whom are very peace-loving. That's nothing at all to proud of, but why should I as a Protestant be offended that someone seeks to offend Christians? Isn't that what Jesus said to expect? Didn't he announce that lots of idiots will come along and say all sorts of nasty things about his followers? So someone from an anti-theist site decides to offend Christians, and he does so publicly. It's ok to recognize the immorality of his motivations, but I don't understand why people are up in arms about this.

In the latest Christian Carnival, I found a post at Got Bible? about the term 'Reverend' for people we also call pastors or ministers. I remembered posting about the same issue a few years ago, but as I was reading this post a new idea occurred to me. At least I thought it was a new idea. Here's the idea. Wouldn't it be interesting to start calling every Christian 'Reverend' the way everyone is a brother or sister in a lot of congregations? After all, Paul calls everyone saints as a reminder that we're all made holy in Christ. Doesn't 'Reverend' pretty much mean the same thing?

The problem with the term is that it makes some people seem more holy just because they hold a certain position in the church, and that's completely opposed to biblical teaching. But if you called everyone by that term, it would removed the problem. I thought about doing this after church on Sunday, but I didn't get around to it with anyone.

So I went to go find my previous post, and here it is. Check out the last paragraph especially. Am I really that out of it that I can't remember the punchline of a post that I can nevertheless remember writing? I mean, I can remember the content of the punchline enough to come up with it again, but I can't remember that it's not new and that it was part of the original post that I was thinking about all along, and I somehow end up thinking it's a new idea that I've never thought of before.

I've often heard passages of music that sound similar enough to another one and wondered if the writer might have taken it from that without noticing. There's a beautiful Spock's Beard song that has a line that sounds an awful lot like John Williams' Jurassic Park theme, which came out the year before. I've long thought some pieces by Trevor Rabin of Yes had some similarities to the Princess Bride theme by Mark Knopfler. There's a repeated short bridge section in Carry on Wayward Son that sounds similar to a Journey song that was never released (but I think might be on their boxed set). That song had been played on a tour the previous year when Kansas had opened for them. The guys in Journey have several times publicly accused Kerry Livgren of deliberate plagiarism. If I can steal an idea from myself without even knowing it, surely these musicians (and all of them are good writers) can unknowingly come up with a melody that's similar to one they've heard before but don't happen to remember hearing.

In our sermons, we just finished Matthew 1-7 followed by the Ten Commandments. Matthew 5-7 contains the Sermon on the Mount, and doing that right next to the Ten Commandments is pretty convicting. It's hard to imagine anyone who has carefully read and studied the Sermon on the Mount coming away from it thinking that it's easy to follow Jesus' teaching there. In the light of the full teaching of Jesus, anyone who does so is like the Pharisee who thanks God that he's not like those sinners, someone Jesus roundly condemns. The person is indeed a hypocrite of one of the worst kinds. In one of the last few sermons in the series, one of our elders pointed out exactly this response as one of the many ways people have responded to the Sermon on the Mount that miss the point, in this case violating several other major teachings of Jesus in the process.

I've been trying to find a good interpretation of Barack Obama's 2006 words that have recently gotten a lot of attention. (I first saw the complete quote in context here. although I won't endorse everything in that post, which also seems to me to be focused in the wrong direction.) I'm not having an easy time being charitable.

And even if we did have only Christians within our borders, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? James Dobson's, or Al Sharpton's? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount - a passage so radical that it's doubtful that our Defense Department would survive its application?

There's a lot in there that worries me, quite deeply in fact. I've seen a lot of comment about these words, and a lot of it isn't entirely fair, which amazes me given how many things could be fairly criticized. I do think it reveals some lack of understanding about the New Testament's presentation of how Christians should see the Old Testament, but some very smart biblical scholars make those same mistakes, and in the theologically liberal churches whose well Obama drinks from, I'm sure he gets most of his understanding of the Bible from such people (probably very indirectly).

I've deliberately put off commenting on it, but I still haven't seen anyone point out the aspect of this statement that most disturbs me. (The closest is Collin Hansen's Christianity Today article, but that only gets to the beginning of my worry.) This isn't the only time I've seen Obama try to use the Sermon on the Mount as a method of sticking it to someone whose sins he doesn't happen to commit (or at least not in the way they do). It's very strange to use the Sermon on the Mount that way, though. The Sermon on the Mount sets some pretty tough standards, ones that no one really could meet.

Bible Meme

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Kevin Sam tagged me with this meme. I don't always get around to following up on these things, but this seemed like less work than the post I'm working on that I'd otherwise be completing right now.

1. What translation of the Bible do you like best?

I probably use the ESV more than anything else.

2. Old or New Testament?

Uh ... they're both the Bible. I spend more time in the Old Testament just because it's bigger and takes longer to get through.

3. Favorite Book of the Bible?

I can't name a favorite, but some favorites are (in one particular order) Philippians, Isaiah, Deuteronomy, Ecclesiastes, II Peter, and Habakkuk.

4. Favorite Chapter?

Again, I have to list several, but near the top would be Psalm 139, Philippians 2, II Peter 1, Genesis 50, Isaiah 10, John 17, Acts 17, Zechariah 14, and Genesis 5 (I'm not kidding about the last one, either; it's the key to a major theme of the book and of the entire Bible).

5. Favorite Verse?

Phil 3:12-14 isn't one verse, but it's one sentence that would be hard to break up.

6. Bible character you think you're most like?


7. One thing from the Bible that confuses you?

I don't know if it's really confusion, but one recent wondering that comes to mind is how the Ithamarites ended up with the high priesthood by the time Samuel was born given that the descendants of Phinehas the son of Eleazar should have had the high-priestly role.

8. Moses or Paul?

After my answer to #6, I can't resist saying Paul.

9. A teaching from the Bible that you struggle with or don't get?

I'm currently working on the fact that Paul can see the unknown God in Acts 17 as God, but he doesn't think someone believing a different gospel believes in the same Jesus as he does. He's got to be working with two different senses of "the same as", but I need to figure out what those two senses might be exactly. What's worse is finding the same phenomenon going on within one text in II Kings 17 with the syncretistic practices of the resettled peoples in the former northern kingdom counting as both fearing and not fearing YHWH.

10. Coolest name in the Bible?

Melchizedek is one of my favorites, but it's hard to resist mentioning Maher-shalal-hash-baz. I'm sure there are a few that I might like even more, but I won't be able to remember them now. Or is this a trick question, and it's supposed to be the tetragrammaton?

I have to tag five people, so here they are: Mike, Danny, Mark, Sam, and Nobody.

In a comment on this post, Kenny Pearce directed me to Robert Adams' paper "Christian Liberty", which appears in Philosophy and the Christian Faith, ed. Thomas V. Morris, a book I happen to have. I had been making the claim that a Christian ethical theory that fits with the biblical texts requires us to be perfect, as God is perfect. It thus allows for no actions that are what philosophers call supererogatory. A supererogatory act is supposed to be something that would be a wonderful thing to do but is far beyond what you can be expected to do. As I'd been saying in the post I linked to, I don't think Jesus believed in such acts. The Sermon on the Mount seems to me to preclude such a category. Since I think the Sermon on the Mount accurately captures moral truth, I reject the notion of supererogation.

Adams says that a Christian ethical view needs to allow for supererogation to capture the sense of options in Christian life. There's no other way to account for Paul's insistence that Christians are free in Christ and no longer slaves, that Christians are friends of God and no longer in servitude. I have two responses, one exegetical and the other philosophical.

The exegetical point is that I think he misconstrues Paul's point. Paul isn't saying that we are free from God's command. The freedom is first of all a freedom from sin. It's a freedom to serve God, which is put in slavery language. Christians are no longer enslaved to sin but are instead enslaved to God. This picks up on the language of Exodus. The people of Israel were freedom from slavery to Pharoah to become slaves of God. The Hebrew term in question is often translated as "worship", and so translations often say that Israel is freed from slavery to Pharoah to go worship God. But the verb is the same. It's a movement from slavery to Pharaoh to slavery to God. God is the master. It's just that God is a master who loves his people and wants what's best for them, while Pharaoh is just taking advantage of them.

The parallel language in Paul's epistles about Christians being freed slavery from sin to become enslaved to God should be no surprise given the old covenant antecedent. Freedom in Christ is slavery to God. So I don't see how the movement from slavery to freedom involves moral permissibility to do as we wish provided that we meet some minimal moral threshold. It in fact binds Christians to serve God fully and completely, to surrender any self-directed goal in favor of becoming like God, having a heart that values what God values, having motivations that line up with God's will, and acting in a way that a morally perfect being would act. This is in fact what the Sermon on the Mount enjoins. "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect", an echo of Leviticus 18, which says "Be holy, as I am holy."

Now this doesn't mean that there aren't options in Christian living. As Adams points out, there are two ways of generating options. One way is supererogation, which allows for the less-than-perfect to be morally permissible. That's what I don't see Jesus allowing for. The other way is what Adams calls indifferent actions. These are things that are equally good, and so we have the option of choosing whichever of the equally good things we will do. If there really are equally good things, all things considered, then I have no problem with those.

I'm not sure they will easily occur, though, and Adams seems to agree. He just says it's because of nuances in ethical importance that may play a role. I can imagine he has in mind things like the fact that two actions might be equally good but that one of them involves going against my natural tendency and thus allows me to develop a trait that I ought to work on. He might have in mind two actions that, other things being equal, are equally good, but one of them involves a better fit with my special obligations to my family. In such cases, it's pretty clear to me that the one that is better, all things considered, is morally obligatory. So these aren't options after all. But there is room for all considerations to work out equally. It just doesn't seem likely that they will be exactly equal. What seems more likely is that they will be so close to equal that I won't be able to discern the moral difference or the balancing out of moral considerations in the right direction. There is always the problem of figuring out what is the best option when various possible courses of action appear in front of me.

This difficulty suggests to me a philosophical distinction that I think lies behind my disagreement with Adams. He wants a moral theory that allows for options in order to explain the difference between legalism and Christian freedom. But he is locating that difference in moral obligation. There can't be moral obligations that I ought to do, or I am not free in some sense. I am not morally free to do what I want. I think this is the wrong place to locate Christian freedom, because I think we do have an obligation to do what is best. It is a moral obligation, not some other kind of constraint. What Christian freedom amounts to is not freedom from moral obligation. Paul even says so. He says there's the law of Christ.

What we don't have are very specific laws that are to be followed absolutely, without room for reflection on whether those laws apply in our case or whether those laws conflict with other laws and what we should then do. Christian freedom, on my view, consists of not being bound by laws to be followed without reflection. It consists of being bound by general moral principles that require careful thought about what we ought to do, what we ought to be motivated by, what attitudes we ought to have, what character traits we ought to be developing, and so on. Adams seems to want freedom from obligation, but I think Christian freedom is rather freedom from rigid rules. Morality isn't about rules. It's about conformity to a standard, a standard who is a person. Christian morality has to do with being conformed to the image of Christ, being transformed to becoming perfect. It is much more complete than simply an ethics of action. There is something morally wrong about us if we are not perfect, and our moral obligation is to pursue perfection. This is the thrust of the ethical teaching of Jesus and Paul both (along with the rest of the Bible, I might add).

I was struck by the HCSB translation of Matthew 5:

But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. And whoever says to his brother, 'Fool!' will be subject to the  Sanhedrin. But whoever says, 'You moron!' will be subject to  hellfire.

There's a footnote after "Fool!" that says:

Lit Raca, an Aram term of abuse similar to "airhead"

On the one hand, I don't generally approve of translating words that in the Greek are foreign (in this case Aramaic) into English translations as English. It's not a Greek word, so translating it into English should involve keeping the foreign word as a foreign word, other things being equal. But Matthew's readers would have know the word, or he wouldn't have used it. English-speakers generally don't. So other things might not be equal in this case.

That issue aside, I think the HCSB has it right with "moron" and "airhead". Those words have much more force than the typical "fool" used in this passage. The downside is that Jesus may well have intended a connection with the fool of Proverbs, who usually is called a fool in English translations. But the English "fool" doesn't exactly capture that either. The term "moron" really does capture the anger element Jesus is getting at, and "airhead" isn't bad for "Raca".

It would be fun to ask people where the word "moron" is in the Bible and see what they come up with. It would be interesting seeing how certain people respond to Jesus saying that calling someone a moron is sufficient for deserving to burn in hell (I'm thinking of people who see Jesus as all mercy as a revision from the wrath of God in the Old Testament). All it takes is calling someone a moron. I know the Sermon on the Mount has pretty high standards, but think about that for a little bit.

Radical Life Extension

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Ilya Somin takes on Daniel Callahan on an issue we don't hear about all that much: radical life extension. Callahan argues against any technology that could extend the human lifespan to double its length. His reason? It's not tragic that people die, at least if they've lived a relatively long life. Somin seems to take this approach as indicative of social conservatism. There are so many things wrong with this that I'm not sure where to begin. I'll start somewhere though, and I hope I'll get to it all.

1. If this is supposed to be an argument against life-extending technology, it fails hopelessly. Suppose it isn't tragic if someone dies at age 86. Does that make it wrong to extend the person's life to 145, say? I don't see how that follows.

2. The fact that dying at age 86 is relatively better than dying at age 2 does not mean dying at age 86 is not tragic.

3. Similarly, the fact that we can alleviate our existential agony at confronting death at 86 by saying "oh, it's all right; she lived a good life" also does not mean dying at age 86 is not tragic. It's simply a sign that we seek to find coping mechanisms by comparing lives that are relatively not as bad as others. That doesn't make death ok, and it doesn't mean death isn't tragic even with a relatively long life. It certainly doesn't mean a longer life wouldn't be better.

4. There is good reason to think all death is unfortunate. Why wouldn't it be better to extend our lives indefinitely? Even if an 86-year life is better than a 23-year life, it doesn't mean 86 years is the best there can be. There are people (I know a number of them) who claim that they wouldn't want to live too long a life, but that's at least partly because we're used to shorter lives and partly because this existence in a fallen world involves a lot of grief. There come points in life when we wish for more but don't have it. That doesn't make a 200-year life bad, though. It just means a 200-year life might well have lots of bad things in it, just as a 100-year life can, and just as a 50-year life can. The fact that there will likely be twice as much bad might drive people from wanting the possibility, but there will just as likely be twice as much good. I suspect the real desire not to see a 200-year life as good is that we've become too used to not wanting what we can't have.

5. I don't know if Callahan is a Christian, but most social conservatives in the U.S. are. If Somin thinks this is typical of social conservatives, I'd be extremely surprised if he's correct. Christians tend to think of eternal life as intrinsically good. It's true that longer life in this life isn't the goal for Christians, but the extended life itself is intrinsically good according to Christians, even if the more important goals are spiritual, including eternal life in the new heavens and new earth. So I have a hard time thinking Callahan's view should be typical of social conservatives.

6. What's worse for Callahan's view according to Christianity is that the current limit on life is actually a penalty. Death is intrinsically bad, and Christians can't deny that even if they seek to see extra years as not intrinsically good. It is at the very least a consequence of sin, and most Christians would see it as a penalty for sin. Even if animals would have died had humanity not sinned, human death is the result of sin according to Christianity. The only sense in which death can be an instrumental good is that it is a release from the fallenness of this world, but even that is only true of someone who will receive eternal life after this world.

This just leaves me bewildered that this view could be seen as representative of social conservatism, even aside from the reasoning that I've questioned. I'm not going to advocate putting lots of effort into extending our lives in order to put off something I consider every human being to deserve. It may be important to treat out bodies well because we're made in the image of God and represent him, and it may be good to see the intrinsic goodness of life as God has created it, but that doesn't mean it's good to put in a lot of effort to stave off what God has declared to be the end of every human being in this life. Christians do have reasons to try to resist expending a lot of resources on this sort of thing. But I don't think Callahan's opposition is well-grounded, and I hope it doesn't become the approach associated with social conservatism. It sounds to me more like resisting change for the sake of resisting change rather than having any real grounding for such opposition.

Consider the city of refuge law in Deuteronomy 19:

Here is the law concerning a case of someone who kills a person and flees there to save his life, having killed his neighbor accidentally without previously hating him: If he goes into the forest with his neighbor to cut timber, and his hand swings the ax to chop down a tree, but the blade flies off the handle and strikes his neighbor so that he dies, that person may flee to one of these cities and live. Otherwise, the avenger of blood in the heat of his anger might pursue the one who committed manslaughter, overtake him because the distance is great, and strike him dead. yet he did not deserve to die, since he did not previously hate his neighbor. [Deuteronomy 19:4-6, HCSB]

Compare Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount:

You have heard that it was said to our ancestorys, Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you, everyone who says to his brother, 'Fool!' will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, 'You moron!' will be subject to hellfire. [Matthew 6:21-22, HCSB]

Jesus' sequence of "You've heard that it is said" statements and their corresponding "But I say" statements are sometimes taken to be revisions of the Torah or at least revelations of the hidden meaning behind the Torah, which readers couldn't have seen very easily without his aid. Not so. When he refers to the spirit of the law, he doesn't mean just some hard-to-see intent. He means the basic fundamental principles that undergird the specific teachings, and these are usually explicitly taught clearly within the Torah, some of them over and over again.

I just noticed this particular statement yesterday, but it's pretty clear in the Deuteronomy passage that the difference between the murderer and the manslaughterer is that the murderer hates their neighbor. The reason the manslaughterer doesn't deserve death (and by implication the reason the murderer does) is that the manslaughterer doesn't hate (and the murderer does). So it's actually hate, in Deuteronomy 19, deserves death. When Jesus says that anyone who hates deserves hellfire and judgment, he's not going deeper than the Torah's own criterion, which is the heart attitude. There are probably lots of cases of this kind of thing, but this particular one struck me yesterday when reading Deuteronomy 19. I don't think I'd ever noticed it before.

Imprecatory Prayer

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Justin Taylor had some great posts not too long ago on imprecatory prayer (i.e. praying against someone). I was particularly impressed by Crying for Justice. The main difficulty is that these prayers occur throughout the psalms (and elsewhere in the Bible), and yet they seem to offend modern moral sensibilities. Justin gives three approaches people have taken that minimize the role of imprecatory prayers in the Bible and why those views are misguided:
1. Imprecatory psalms express evil emotions that should be suppressed or confessed as sin (C. S. Lewis, Walter Brueggemann).

2. They are utterances consonant with old covenant morality but inconsistent with new covenant ethics (Roy Zuck, J. Carl Laney, Meredith Kline).

3. Such words may be appropriately spoken only by Christ in relation to his work on the cross and only by his followers through him (James Adams, Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

Justin gives a brief but good account of why all three views are unsatisfactory and offers a better approach that takes these psalms as legitimate prayers in certain contexts, even if such contexts are more rare in contemporary North American life. I won't repeat his reasoning, but I think he's right.

I think it's worth thinking through the possibility that love and hate are simultaneously possible and in fact even good in certain contexts. We assume that love and hate are opposites, and thus love for enemies requires not hating anyone. But there are clear biblical statements of hate for people, which Justin in an earlier post explains and defends in the context of loving enemies. Augustine's way of thinking through this issue has seemed to me to be the best way to work together these two seemingly contradictory themes. Love is our obligation, always, to any human being, whether we see the person as an enemy or not. With respect to the gospel, no one is our enemy. Everyone is a person in need of repentance. At the same time, we ought to hate evil, and people can be pretty evil. Everyone is evil in some significant ways, and we ought to hate what is evil in people.

This isn't just hating actions that are bad, since actions aren't all that makes us bad. Evil is within us, worked into the very fiber of our moral thinking, our character, our hearts and minds. We ought to hate that in anyone, and that does mean hating individual people with respect to the things in them that are evil. But what is redeemable, what will still be there if the person is transformed by God's grace, is always lovable, is always worthy of love. We aren't worthy in ourselves, without God, of any love, but what remains of God's original work (and something must, or regeneration would actually produce a new person, with the original ceasing to exist) is good. What God will do in transforming someone's mind and heart is good, and that is worth seeing as deserving of love. This is so even with the worst persecutors of Christians. Consider the example of the worst of such persecutors in ancient times, Saul of Tarsus, who was so transformed.

Pass the Port

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This is funny coming from a Baptist theologian and biblical scholar:

If I’m called to preach the gospel among a lot of people who are cultural teetotallers, I’ll give up alcohol for the sake of the gospel. But if they start saying, “You cannot be a Christian and drink alcohol,” I’ll reply, “Pass the port” or “I’ll think I’ll have a glass of Beaujolais with my meal.”

For context and explanation, see the whole quote. It's just funny seeing this from a committed Baptist like Carson, but then again there's only been one time I've seen anything in Carson's writings that I disagree with, and I've read a lot of Carson. In that case he did get it about as wrong as it could be gotten, but it really is the only time I remember thinking that something Carson was writing was surely wrong. (There have been things he's defended that I've had no view on, but that doesn't count as disagreeing with him. There have also been times he's said things I disagreed with, until I finished seeing his arguments, and then I was convinced. But I don't remain in disagreement with him in such cases.)

But there aren't that many Baptists, even Reformed Baptists, with absolutely no qualms about the fundamental morality of drinking alcohol. I'm a complete teetotaler myself, but my reasons for not drinking alcohol have nothing to do with thinking it's wrong to do so. I just think it smells so unappetizing that I've never wanted even to taste it, and so it isn't very tempting to try to develop a taste for something that, given my hypoglycemia, would be extremely unhealthy to drink regularly. I do find myself regularly purchasing 12-packs of Saranac or Sam Adams, however, because someone in the family does happen to have a fondness for those particular beers. I don't think I'd pull one out and start drinking it if I encountered someone claiming that not drinking was essential to being a Christian, but maybe I could pull one out and hand it to someone who would drink it.


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