Friday, December 26, 2014

Nativity Displays as Social Opportunity

I've never had much interest in the whole debate over allowing displays of things like Nativity scenes, or the Ten Commandments, on public property. As far as I can see, that sort of thing is little more than an empty gesture that only addresses a symptom, not the real problem. It also doesn't help much because once you render such things unto Caesar, Caesar will have his own ideas.

A case in point has to do with this account from here in Florida (link below) about how a group called the "Satanic Temple" has arranged to have a crude diorama placed in our Capitol rotunda as a sort of answer to a Nativity scene that was allowed to be placed there.

Now first of all, forget the "Satanic Temple" name. It's not a true Satanist group, but pretty clear some atheist group's idea of a joke. So are some other competing displays like one for the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Festivus pole. They're all nothing more than attempts to mock the religious displays (which also includes a menorah).

That said, although I still think public Nativity displays are pretty much useless, I do think the atheists have done us a public service with it in spite of themselves -- because they've made themselves out to be childish whiners who think any thrown-together hunk of junk is suitable to make a statement.

You can see for yourself that the "Satanic Temple" display looks like something a 5 year old would put together for a class project. The other displays aren't much better and certainly don't send a message that sounds anything like, "We care for what we do and believe." No, the message is more like, "Nyah nyah, we can do this too!"

I'll use that to segue into a point for a project that I put on the 2015 planning list, and which alludes to a post I made here some time ago (Link 2). On the one hand, we have groups like the ACLJ who go after groups like Barker's FFRF (Freedom from Religion Foundation) when they make a fuss over things like Nativity scenes. We also have apologists like me who go after FFRF and Barker for promoting garbage like, "Jesus didn't exist and was based on Mithra!"

Why aren't the two being connected? Wouldn't ACLJ do well to make use of that "Jesus didn't exist" stuff as part of a public relations war? In other words, since the atheists humiliate themselves with these childish public displays, why not make the most of the embarrassment?

That's a thought for the New Year.

Link 2

Friday, December 19, 2014

Evaluating the Evangelists: Billy Graham

From the November 2011 E-Block.
Evangelist Billy Graham is one of the most trusted figures in the world, and I am pleased to say that after surveying a sampling of his works below, I believe that trust is justified:
  • Ask Billy Graham (ABG)
  • Facing Death and the Life After (FDL)
  • The Key to Personal Peace (KPP)
  • Angels (A)
  • Answers to Life's Questions (ALQ)
What differentiates Graham from so many other popular Christian authors -- Joyce Meyer, Max Lucado, and so on -- is an overlay of cautionary humility that prevents Graham from (for the most part) overextending himself. (I know few people who, like Graham, will say that they do not like to be called "doctor" when what they have is an honorary degree -- ABG95). He does not allow excitement and emotion to let him say more than is warranted: For example, in A, he reports anecdotes of angelic interference in the world, but does so with a cautionary tone and occasional acknowledgments that he cannot absolutely vouch for a supernatural element, only suggesting that there may be one.

By his own account he consults others when his own expertise is not sufficient, and is also willing to change his views when more and better information comes to his attention. To that extent, I would say that Graham's works are overall good choices for a new Christian.

Is there an "on the other hand"? Yes, but I don't think Graham is to be blamed for it. As a trusted leader, Graham has either been called upon -- or felt a call -- to write many books on subjects that one would not ordinarily expect an evangelist to write about. His book on death (FDL) is mostly common sense advice and commentary on death-related issues (euthanasia, wills, etc). But why should Graham have written such a book, and why would anyone read it, rather than a book by, saying, an attorney specializing in such matters? And in ABG819, why would anyone write to Graham asking for his views on public debt? One can only suppose that it is precisely because Graham has a sterling reputation of trust -- for that reason, he becomes like a trusted father figure to whom one may turn for any perceived need.

On that account, it is on the one hand a very good thing that Graham does not overextend himself. Indeed, in ALQ, we see him frequently telling readers to seek someone qualified to counsel them. This leaves me with only two significant reservations.

First, Graham also sometimes tries to segue some concern into an evangelistic message; the artificiality of his appeal is too often transparent, and may do more harm than good. In ALQ240-1, for example, he has a question from a reader about organ donation, which, after his answer, he turns into a reminder that Jesus gave the gift of life through the cross. That seems rather too much of a stretch. But such "stretchy" instances are rare that I found.

(In this respect, I am reminded as well of Franklin Graham, who during CNN interview answered every question by appending the same rote mini-sermon each time. I also reminded of a Wittenburg Door parody I once saw, titled "Dear Abbott," in which an advice columnist did the same thing to every letter. I now know that ALQ, a compilation of Graham's answers to readers in what was apparently an Ann Landers style column, is what they were parodying!)

The second reservation is more serious. Although Graham indeed does wisely not overextend himself, he has been put into an awkward position in which people expect him to have answers he does not have. Graham indicates, for example, that he won't get into issues like the reliability of the Bible; he gets results by just saying, "the Bible says" (ABG481) . He also refuses to discuss theological issues like inerrancy (ABG105). Now this is not problematic in itself; Graham is an evangelist, and explaining such things is not his job. However, he has been put in an awkward position in which he will be expected to give answers to a wide array of such questions, which end up being inadequate. For example:
  • KPP: In this he does well to emphasize the essential historicity of the Resurrection; but he has one of his rare overextensions and says that there is more evidence for it than there is for Alexander the Great dying at age at 33! In a sense I agree, but to make such a statement requires much more than a few sentences of affirmation.
  • ALQ103: Asked about Sabbath observance, Graham offers sound -- but vague -- warnings against legalism, then advises the reader to make up their own mind to honor God as they think should be done.
  • ALQ108-9: Graham is asked about a religious group that came to someone's door (it is not specified what group), and his advice is to ask: What does this group think of the Bible, Christ, and salvation? Do they have books or Bible translations not recommended by scholars? That's actually spot on advice, but it comes at the end of what should be a much longer string of argumentation. (It would have been sufficient had he offered at least a short list for further reading.)
  • ALQ284: Asked if Jesus claimed to be God, Graham, offers only 3 passages from John's Gospel, with no explanation.
Beyond this, Graham's attitude towards scholarship is, thankfully, overall positive. He indicates that he wishes his education had been more complete at times. On the one hand, though he says (ALQ291) in response to a request for a book or commentary to explain the Bible that the Bible "is its own best commentary," he also (294) says that some Biblical scholarship has helped in understanding the Bible better. We may be thankful that Graham was at least somewhat positive in this regard rather than sharing the offer of many modern writers towards scholarship.

In sum: It is a pleasure to offer an overall positive assessment of Billy Graham as an author, one who handles his material, in general, responsibly.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Ghosts of End Times Present: Jack van Impe's Eschatological Fruitcake

From the November 2011 E-Block.
Under ordinary circumstances, I might read at least 4 books by an author before I think I have a sufficient sample for evaluation. In the case of Jack van Impe, the patent absurdity of his material was such that I was able to stop after only two books:
  • 2001: On the Edge of Eternity (2E)
  • Final Mysteries Revealed (FM)
Now to be sure, there was much of the standard dispensational eschatology; in that van Impe offered little new. He did seem to think the Six-Day War (1967) and the retaking of Jerusalem was a greater hinge point than the founding of Israel (1948), at least in the latter book. He was also looking not for a 10 nation group, but a 13 nation group (which he found in the EU, once Austria joined as the 13th member...about 14 members ago). He also has some rather strained ideas about portions of Jesus' "signs in the skies" being fulfilled by way of warfare in space between the USA and Russia. That's weird, but no weirder than Grant Jeffrey or Hal Lindsey in principle.

But beyond the typical dispensational normalcies, much of what van Impe offers seems more like clinical insanity than Biblical exegesis -- which is made worse by the fact that, like so many prophecy teachers, he specializes in refusing to document his claims.

Consider the following samples, none of which van Impe documents, but which exemplify his irrationality (from 2E):
  • 4: Rabbis of the Lubavitch movement thought the bombardment of Jupiter by the Shoemaker-Levy comet signaled return of Messiah "as described in the Zohar and Talmud." Aside from the lack of citations from that latter documents – and that the Zohar is a late, medieval, and worthless forgery --- van Impe fails to explain why such interpretations ought to be given any credence, especially since the Lubavitch movement does not exactly have a sterling record at selecting Messianic candidates (e.g., Menachem Mendel Schneerson).
  • 24: The city of San Jose spent a half million dollars on a statue of Quetzalcoatl, the pagan deity. Van Impe takes this as some sort of antichrist signal. It turns out there is such a statue, and that the figure is correct, but it’s hard to take van Impe seriously beyond this. The statue was apparently intended to honor Mexican heritage, and has become something of a joke: As some critics have noted, the sculpture has the shape of a pile of canine excrement, and some even say that the sculptor shaped it that way as revenge after being given a hassle by the city. There wasn’t any intention to honor pagan religion, though it seems van Impe was not the only fringe Christian claiming so. Beyond this it is hard to see the Antichrist gaining any honor from a sculpture with such a laughable reputation.
  • 148-9: van Impe cites various uses of the number 666 – ranging from their use on shoes in Italy, to Arab license plates in Jerusalem, to their use in a floor tile catalog – as evidence of a “brainwashing movement” to gain the number acceptance. It goes so far that even a children’s book on algebra titled 666 Jellybeans is rounded up into the conspiracy. In this I am reminded of superstitious builders who label buildings without a 13th floor. Does van Impe except us to skip direct from 665 to 667 to avoid problems?
Insanity like this was sufficient for me to cease reading van Impe after just these two books. The other book (FM) was not quite so bad; it has some odd moments where van Impe runs off into tangents -- e.g., Belshazzar’s drunkenness in Daniel is used as a springboard for a sermon against alcoholism (84-5!), and there is one weird idea of the Biblical “third heaven” as being trillions of light years in the sky (72). Nevertheless, it is enough: Not even Grant Jeffrey was this far out in left field, though Harold Camping certainly was.

Jack van Impe does not appear to be the major name he used to be – but that he got off the ground at all is a testimony to how badly the church needs to adopt serious educational programs.

Friday, December 5, 2014

A Ride in the Reconstruction Zone, Part 4

From the October 2011 E-Block.
It turns out this will be our last item in the series on the writings of R. J. Rushdoony; although a monster of a book, Institutes of Biblical law (IBL) turned out to be a much less demanding read than his prior works we evaluated, and I was able to finish all of it (save some 100 pages written by Gary North, which I consider outside our scope). 

As before, though, the major reservation about what Rushdoony offers is not what he says, but what he does not say. IBL is a comprehensive and overall worthy evaluation of the Ten Commandments and their meaning, followed by a few chapters of commentary; in all of this I found very little disagreeable or in detectable error within my purview. But as before, Rushdoony says little to nothing about to what extent, and in what way, the law of the OT ought to be applied to today. I have seen Rushdoony accused by atheists of wanting to re-institute stoning as a punishment. Though Rushdoony does support capital punishment, I saw no direct statement of the means to be used in IBL, but I can see why someone might argue such a thing of Rushdoony: His adamance about imposing Biblical law does not, where I have found so far (obviously, he may do so in yet some other work not available to me), doesn't often take the step of explaining depth and mode of application, and sometimes leaves it unclear what he supposes application ought to be. 

One of the few cases where Rushdoony is explicit on such matters is in regards to such things as the Sabbath observance and various forms of dress (Num. 15:38), which he sees as "superseded by the signs of the new covenant" like baptism and circumcision. But this is the exception rather than the rule. There are several cases where Rushdoony compares modern judicial malpractice to Biblical law, obviously (and often rightly) criticizing the former for its inadequacies, but he never explicitly states (at least not in IBL) something like, "The modern judicial system needs to adopt this biblical law to this or that extent." Given Rushdoony's boldness otherwise, I cannot help but ask why not. 

The closest we come to a specific program is this: "The education which breeds Amalekites [Rushdoony's designation for enemies of God in this part of the book] must be replaced with Christian education....The state must become Christian and apply Biblical law to every area of life, and apply the full measure of God's law. The permissive family must give way to the Christian family." [323] It's bold, it's broad, and it's thoroughly lacking in specifics.

I need not make much of places where Rushdoony and I disagree theologically or exegetically. I find his treatments and views on matters like Calvinism, tithing, and a few other points to be wrong, but I could say the same of any other writer in terms of finding things to disagree with. Perhaps his oddest arguments are his attempts to link profanity (even when it does not mention God) to Biblical prohibitions against swearing (in the sense of oaths -- 109); and his attempts to argue that the prohibition on tattoos applies as well today (223); his argument that the law against Lev. 19:19 forbids the production of modern genetic hybrids because hybrids are sterile and cannot reproduce (255 -- and later says that hybridization leads to "futile experimentation, such as organ transplants" [!]-- 262 ). In these Rushdoony goes much farther than the texts and their contexts allow. I also find to be strained Rushdoony's argument that the Deuteronomic covenant "circumscribes all men without exception" [655] and is in some way continued in the New Testament covenant, though this is more of a legalist technicality if one recognizes that principles inherent in the law will be a basis for judgement anyway; it need not be doubted that disobedience will still lead to judgment, as he says further.

That said, Rushdoony also offers a number of judicious insights, and makes it quite clear that he thinks that while certain details of OT law are not applicable to our times, it is the principles that matter today -- a position we agree with [293; and, 301, where Rushdoony discusses the dietary laws and deems them applicable not in detail, but in principle; though he adheres to a questionable view that the laws had some relevance to health]. So arguably the above oddities are cases in which he took false steps regarding what were details and what were principles. That being so I turn now to other criticisms from other sources.

One reader asked me to be particularly on the lookout for any place where Rushdoony implied that Christians were bound to pursue holy war, as it were, against the heathen. Up til now I found nothing of the sort, but at IBL 93 there is an expression that comes tantalizingly (if again, incompletely) close. Speaking of Israel's war against Canaan, Rushdoony remarks: "In brief, every law-order is a state of war against the enemies of that order, and all law is a form of warfare....Law is a state of war." In between the ellipsis he makes clear that penalties are made in accord with severity of an offense. But in light of his declarations concerning Christians asserting Jesus' Lordship over all creation, the reader may rightly wonder how far Rushdoony supposes this should go. Are we called to be Crusaders? Is it the responsibility of Christians to get themselves into public office, impose Biblical law, invade foreign countries that are not Christian and impose the same rule there? Rushdoony and the Reconstruction movement have been accused of this by critics I have encountered over the years, and while I have yet to see explicit statements where they demand this (they may be apparent in other writings!) I can see why someone might reach that conclusion.

Another such statement is found at IBL 308. Rushdoony uses the image of the Amalekites to illustrate evil and disorder in the world, and says, "...the covenant people must wage war against the enemies of God, because this war is unto death. The deliberate, refined, and obscene violence of the anti-God forces permits no quarter...this warfare must continue until the Amalekites of the world are blotted out, until God's law-order prevails and His justice reigns." A little later Rushdoony also makes it clear that evangelism is part of this program. [321] But does he mean the war imagery literally? if so, to what extent? It is not made clear.

So now for a closing commentary, which reflects one significant purpose of this examination. One of the things I was on the lookout for was what was related in a rather heated blog entry by a Skeptic, in which it became clear that the lack of clarity I noted was indeed being taken, in many cases, to enable an interpretation beyond what was explicitly said. Some of the more offensive quotes offered were in sources not available to me, and so could not be checked. Others were indeed found in the sources, such as one in IBL: “"inter-religious, inter-racial, and inter-cultural marriages, in that they normally go against the very community which marriage is designed to establish." – which a defender of Rushdoony tried to explain as being a misunderstanding of how Rushdoony defined “race” (the explanation seemed rather contrived, though). Others were not. For example, these quotes were said to be from IBL, though no page number was given:

The move from Africa to America was a vast increase of freedom for the Negro, materially and spiritually.

Lazy slaves were “an albatross that hung the South, that bled it.”

The University of Timbuktu never existed. The only thing that existed in Timbuktu was a small mud hut.

The false witness borne during World War II with respect to Germany (i.e., the death camps) is especially notable and revealing…. the number of Jews who died after deportation is approximately 1,200,000 ....very many of these people died of epidemics.

This has become especially important now as apparently one of our Republican Presidential candidates (Bachmann) has declared Rushdoony an influence, and some of these quotes are being plastered all over the Internet. I saw none of these above in reading IBL, however; indeed I saw no chapter where they would have been contextually appropriate to the contents. It also happens that IBL is searchable on Google Books, and none of these quotes turned up. I have a past record of discovering bogus quotes, so I am naturally suspicious when this sort of thing happens. If critics wish to identify Rushdoony as a racist, or an anti-Semite, they will have to provide more definitive verification than this.

One quote that did turn up genuine, on page 203, was as follows:

The matriarchal society is thus decadent and broken... matriarchal character of Negro life is due to the moral failure of Negro men, their failure provide authority. The same is true of American Indian tribes which are also matriarchal.

The ellipsis, however, obscure some additional words, and the quote is not exact; for the sake of completeness:

The matriarchal society is thus the decadent and broken. The strongly matriarchal character of Negro life is due to the moral failure of Negro men, their failure to be responsible, to support the family, or to provide authority. The same is true of American Indian tribes which are also matriarchal today.

Are these the words of a racist? Perhaps, for they can easily be envisioned as being so used. On the other hand, having read a good deal of literature by African-American commentators, and having spoken to many African-American men who were prison inmates, I have found similar sentiments expressed therein about the failures of African-American men to be responsible as well. 

Just offhand, for example, Black Families by Harriette Pipes McAdoo reports that findings matching those described by Rushdoony were found in the words of serious scholars of the late 60s and early 70s -- at the time when IBL was published (while also noting disagreement on those findings). Were all those authors racist? Or, could an scholarly author's poignant (if arguably incorrect) social commentary be Rushdoony's racist claptrap? Conceivably, yes. But by itself, that isn't clear.

Suffice to say that there are enough genuine quotes of this type to be suspicious of Rushdoony, given how often he does not qualify or explain himself, but also enough quotes of this sort that I did not find that one may be suspicious of the critics as well. Were some of these quotes just made up? Or do we have sanitized versions of IBL on the market? Without more documentation, or reaching into sources not available to me, it is impossible to say.

The critics are also adamant that other Reconstructionist authors (like Gary North) offer even more explicit statements about such things as re-instituting stoning. In later E-Blocks we may well investigate these claims. In close for this series on Rushdoony, I can only say that at the very least, his reticence indicates a warrant of due caution for anyone who appeals to his work as authoritative.