Theology: July 2008 Archives

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.

A while ago (June 5, to be exact), NPR's All Things Considered had a piece on punishing kids in school by making them learn Robert Frost. It was intended partly as a way to make the kids learn more. They included several responses to the policy. One response caught my interest. It said that such a policy ends up agreeing with all the high school dropouts that education is bad. After all, it can't be a punishment unless it's bad. The problem with this punishment is that education isn't punishment.

This is a common enough view, and it has interesting implications for theories of punishment. In particular, it seems to undermine restorative, rehabilitative models of punishment. It doesn't undermine the view that we should seek to restore and rehabilitate criminals. It does undermine the view that we should call it punishment when we do so. It seems to me that the main assumption lying behind this slogan is that education isn't punishment, because education isn't retribution.

Given some of the stuff Wink is working on, I thought this was an interesting presentation of a popular intuition about punishment that runs counter to how he's trying to think about punishment.

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