Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

11/14/2008 (2:04 pm)

What Happened To America

6 Observe the commands of the LORD your God, walking in his ways and revering him. 7 For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land—a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills; 8 a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; 9 a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills.

10 When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the LORD your God for the good land he has given you. 11 Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. 12 Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, 13 and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 15 He led you through the vast and dreadful desert, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. 16 He gave you manna to eat in the desert, something your fathers had never known, to humble and to test you so that in the end it might go well with you. 17 You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” 18 But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today.

19 If you ever forget the LORD your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed. 20 Like the nations the LORD destroyed before you, so you will be destroyed for not obeying the LORD your God.

Moses, Deuteronomy 8:6-20, New International Version.

Peter Hitchens a few days ago pegged the US as beginning “… like Britain before it … the long slow descent into the Third World.” Ironically, the British Empire saw its own fortunes decline for similar reasons, which were captured accurately by Rudyard Kipling on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. Kipling, himself not an orthodox Christian, nonetheless captured the sense of the British that their power and fortune rested on the grace of God, and that if they became arrogant and forgot, they would lose it all. History records that they did, in fact, lose it all. I suspect our own decline may be somewhat faster than theirs.

by Rudyard Kipling

God of our fathers, known of old–
Lord of our far-flung battle line–
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine–
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget–lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies–
The Captains and the Kings depart–
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget–lest we forget!

Far-called our navies melt away–
On dune and headland sinks the fire–
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget–lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe–
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law–
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget–lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard–
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding calls not Thee to guard.
For frantic boast and foolish word,
Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!

There’s an odd irony to this understanding. We heard in the recent election some noise about an ebullient black preacher named Wright, who was famously captured on video chanting “God Damn America.” The context of that rant was his notion that America had committed acts sufficiently evil to earn God’s judgement, and that Hurricane Katrina was an instance of that judgement, “America’s chickens coming home to roost.” Theologically, what he was saying was identical to something Rev. Jerry Falwell said about Hurricane Katrina, only Rev. Falwell had different sins in mind when he made the claim — and Falwell took an enormous public scolding for daring to suggest that God judges nations at all.

Falwell said it was due to abortion and homosexuality. Wright said it was because of racial injustice, militarism, and the US government concocting the AIDS virus to eliminate the black race. I say it’s simply because we forgot Who gave us the ability to get wealth and grow strong.

Theologically, I’m in their camp; God is, in fact, capable of such judgements, and all nations stand or fall with His permission. Clearly, there are unjust nations on earth that God permits to exist, for whatever reason; and yet, those who claim the name of Christ, who rules the nations, have both a special blessing and a special responsibility attached to the use of His name. If we prosper because of His favor, then forget and imagine we prospered because of our own strength, we will inevitably perish. This is the righteous and just end of the proud.

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, lest we forget… lest we forget.

08/21/2008 (8:56 am)

That Mean Old Testament God

I’ve been dividing my attention the last few days because I’m devoting myself to studying Christian apologetics while at the same time attempting to maintain a political blog. This morning, I surrender. I’ve been reading Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, and I’ve been reading a discussion by philosophy professor Paul Copan about the Old Testament God entitled “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?”. Both address the charge that the Old Testament God is a narcissistic, querulous old goat. You get to hear my thoughts — because I’m a narcissistic, querulous old goat.

The complaint about how angry the Old Testament God seems usually comes from people who don’t read the OT regularly. I’ve been studying the OT on and off for 35 years, and I can attest that this view is a mistake. The OT God is a good parent but a real softy; He’s got a powerful touch, but he’s patient almost to a fault. If you want to see what He’s like when He decides enough is enough, you have to visit the Apocalypse of John in the New Testament.

Dawkins in his book fills an entire paragraph with negative adjectives to describe the Old Testament God. Christopher Hitchens, in his rant god Is Not Great, fills the book with them (Frank Turek pointed out that Hitchens’ entire thesis is “God does not exist, and I really hate Him.”) Neither has the excuse that they don’t read the Old Testament enough to understand it, the way most other people do; theirs is a more deliberate obtuseness, I’m afraid. But they’re making pretty much the same errors everybody else makes.

The three basic errors one makes when calling Yahweh a monster (there are more, but I’m limiting myself) are anthropomorphism, parochialism, and the assumption of finality. In English, please: people tend to imagine that God is a man, people tend to judge other cultures as though their own culture is perfect, and people seem to think Old Testament law was supposed to be the ultimate in human law.

Anthropomorphism first. God is not a man, and it’s never proper to apply God’s laws to God as though He had to obey them. They emanate from His character, but the laws are really for us, and it’s not even possible for God to break them. God cannot steal, for example, because everything already belongs to Him. God cannot bear false witness because to speak falsehood violates the nature of God. God cannot commit murder because God already takes all lives — God is the one who controls who lives and who dies, and at what age. God is going to take every one of our lives someday. The thing that makes murder wrong for us is that we’re not God, but we’re taking for ourselves a decision that belongs to God, the decision regarding the length of another person’s life; murder is thus actually a form of blasphemy. Furthermore, where death seems to us to be final, God knows the dead as well as He does the living. To God, taking a person’s life is like moving that person from the Cincinnati office to the Philadelphia office; they haven’t gone away, they’ve just changed states(1).

We do well to remember that God is not a man whenever the Old Testament prophets offer us God using the language of human emotions, as well. God is “jealous,” and regards the worship of idols as “adultery,” according to the prophet Hosea. Skeptics jeer at what they call God’s narcissism, but they’re being silly. To infer that God is narcissistic because He’s using the language of a human lover is about as sensible as to infer, when the Psalmist says “God will enfold you under His wings,” that God is a great, big hen. It’s a metaphor. It communicates something about eternal, infinitely loving Deity that goes beyond the ability of human language to describe, so He defers to our limitations and offers it in terms that have a similar emotional force to us. We understand marital intimacy and the feelings that attach to it; He wants us to understand that breaking intimacy with Him is more egregious than that, and egregious along the same lines.

Next, parochialism. It’s also an error to judge the Ancient Near East as though they were responsible to observe modern laws. Parochialism is the tendency of humans to assume that their own way of doing things is the right way. We all tend to do it, and it’s always a mistake. We need to judge them by their own standards, not by ours. It’s not that there are no absolute moral standards — there are, and they don’t change — but that their responses to those absolute standards were shaped by their culture, not by ours.

I can’t see any good reason to assert that 21st century sensibilities are necessarily better than those of the 2nd millennium BC in all areas, especially if we’re talking about 21st century, post-modern, Marxist-influenced, multicultural utopianism, which is less a system of moral thinking than it is a social disease, IMHO. Ours is a grotesquely immoral culture. There were more murders in the 20th century by governments killing their own citizens than there were murders of all sorts by all people of all prior ages, combined. And if you think that’s just because of modern technology, think again; the Soviets managed to off perhaps 70 million people mostly by withholding proper food and medical attention, and the Rwandans did in half a million people in 3 weeks using machetes and spears. And that’s just murders; let’s talk about the sexual incontinence that’s killing an entire continent(2), and has unleashed an epidemic of venereal diseases here in America (80 million suffering from HPV or genital herpes infection — and no, condoms don’t stop the spread of viral diseases. Birth control is not disease control.) And then we can talk about consumerism, shallowness, greed, narcissism, cowardice… My immediate, internal reaction to anybody accusing God of immorality is usually “Look who’s talking.” The point is not that our immorality excuses God’s, but rather that the likelihood that our assessment of God is lucid, given our own moral distortion, is zero. If we even have a shred of ability to judge what’s moral, it comes from God Himself, and reflects His character; to judge Him as though we were sufficiently moral to do so is logically absurd.

But even granting that modern sensibilities show more compassion and restraint than ancient ones, it’s senseless to think God should have imposed our morality on the Ancient Near East culture and made them act like us. This is the third major error, supposing that it would have been appropriate for God to just tell them, “Stop acting like Ancient Near Easterners, and start acting like 21st century citizens.” That would never have worked.

We’ve just endured 5 years of the Bush administration attempting to impose Jeffersonian democracy on a modern middle eastern culture in Iraq. Jeffersonian egalitarianism and natural rights are Enlightenment concepts; they took hold in the West, not in the Middle East. Making those concepts work in a middle eastern military force, let alone a middle eastern government, was hair-pulling, crazy hard. Attempting to impose the whole of 21st century sensibility on the Ancient Near East would have been many orders of magnitude harder.

So, what’s a God to do? What He did was offer them a set of laws that looks pretty much like Ancient Near East laws at first blush, but on reflection, contains all sorts of concepts that bend the laws in a better direction. We know what Ancient Near East laws look like; we have several other codes outside the Hebrew code. In Hittite culture, for one example, men could rape female slaves without penalty. The Hebrew code acknowledged this — but made it the responsibility of the man to care for the slave her entire life, adding “You can’t divorce her, ever; you have to protect her thereafter.” And it offered an object lesson: “…for you were slaves yourself, in the land of Egypt. Remember what that was like?” In addition to creating an incentive not to blithely satisfy one’s immediate sexual craving, God humanized slaves for the first time. God did not expect the Ancient Near East to change overnight, but He introduced corrective concepts that reflect a better way. He added similar concepts to the laws of property rights, marital relations, punishments for crimes, etc. In every case, it was “You’re Ancient Near East folks, but there are concepts we need to add;” concepts which, if taken to their logical conclusion, will eventually have the effect of obliterating the Ancient Near East practice and replacing it with something more humane.

The added concepts provided cues that later civilization could notice and respond to. Thus, 12th century Dominicans, observing that God modified Old Testament slavery practice on the basis that humans carried inherent dignity as His creation, decided that it was simply wrong to own slaves at all, and abolished slavery in their monasteries — the first time in human history that slavery was actually outlawed.(3) This eventually became the law of the West, as Westerners gradually adopted the morality inherent in the Old Testament concepts that tempered the Old Testament laws, rather than mindlessly apply the laws themselves.

The point is that Moses’ laws were never intended to be the ultimate in human law, they were intended to be a marginal improvement in Ancient Near East law that could eventually lead to a more humane ethic. For this reason, the correct answer to the question, “Why didn’t God’s law require them to act humanely, like we do,” is “It did — it just took about 3000 years to produce the desired effect.” Did you imagine that we arrived at a more humane ethic because we’re inherently more humane, ourselves? Of course, we’re not. God instructed us, and eventually we got the message.

I hope that this little talk makes it possible to at least read the Old Testament without completely getting lost in your reactions. Comparing our own culture to the Ancient Near East is not like comparing apples to oranges, it’s like comparing apples to kangaroos. They were completely different in every imaginable way. And yet, viewing how God treated them gives us good instruction to understand how God treats us — so long as we’re humble enough to recognize that we’re as backward in our own way as they were in theirs.

(1) Yes, I see the pun. I, myself, recently moved from the state of Pennsylvania to the state of marital bliss. Please be assured that by this, I do not mean “Massachusetts.”

(2) Yes, I see the pun. Can you have sexual incontinence in continents?

(3) There were actually earlier civilizations that did not practice slavery; they replaced human slavery with human sacrifice, though. Both answer the question, “what do we do with those people we just conquered?” It took the progressive revelation of God’s character to suggest to later civilizations that perhaps they could solve the dilemma better by refraining from conquering peoples altogether.

12/30/2007 (1:53 pm)

In Defense of Fearing God

Every now and then, some Christian pops up on a political blog site and says something about the fear of God. And every time they do, some theological or political liberal pipes up with the same, over-rehearsed quip: “Some of us think God is a pretty nice guy, not scary at all.”

It’s culturally approved to speak of God, if one speaks of Him at all, as a source of non-stop, unconditional love, and that’s fine, as far as it goes. If your picture of God doesn’t include this, I’d say you’ve never met Him. Likewise, it’s culturally deprecated to speak of Him as fearsome, and again, if your picture of God is nothing but this, I’d say you’ve never met Him.

But is that jibe earned, and is it accurate? I say not. If it’s Christian at all, it’s the babbling of a Christian infant.

A person who only knows of God that “He’s a pretty nice guy,” but cannot grasp the feeling of standing naked and unconcealed before The Righteous Judge, with one’s sins fully exposed, has not yet made even the first, small step toward becoming righteous himself. In fact, it’s this sense of having fallen immeasurably short that usually begins the penitent’s journey toward knowing and loving God.

If you’ve never experienced it yourself, you can think of it as how a son feels when confronted in the act of stealing candy by a stern but loving father. You feel His love, but also the shame of having disappointed Him, and the knowledge that you’ve lost something immeasurably valuable that, despite His love and forgiveness, you can never have back. Spanking, if it comes, is cathartic; and if it doesn’t come, you’ll wish it had.

There is a place to which mature believers eventually arrive when they’re in real, deep fellowship with the Father, and know His love without any fear. However, a person who has arrived there would never, even for a millisecond, chide someone who’s genuinely feeling the fear. The fear is part of how you get there.

So the jibe imitates mature believers, but could actually only come from infants who have barely even begun Christian growth. It’s much more likely, in my estimation, that those who say such things are not Christian at all, and are instead merely fools criticizing something of which they know not even the first elemental steps.