Monday, August 11, 2008

Blog on Hiatus


Every now and then I take inventory of my life and ask myself tough questions. I examine what I do, why I do it, and what effect it has on my life. Recently, I have been in kind of a funk, so I am making some changes. One notable change that I am making is a fast from unnecessary online activity.

I have journaled off and on as a spiritual discipline. When I finished my last journal I thought I might join the 21st century and blog instead of journaling. Awaiting Redemption kind of started as a way of "journaling out loud" the things I was thinking about. The problem with blogging is that it is public and it never goes away. So, I have had to be careful about what I say and how I say it (of course, this hasn't kept me from saying things I regret). While I can scribble a thought in a journal, I have to proofread and rewrite a blog. While blogging about the books I have been reading is extremely helpful in retaining what I read, the time commitment involved in maintaining this blog and conversations elsewhere is too overwhelming. I want to do something different.

The fast will last for 3 months. I will reexamine my life on November 11. If all is well, Awaiting Redemption will probably be shut down. If things are not well, then I may conclude that the problem lies elsewhere. I may consider firing up the blog-o-matic once again.

Thanks for reading! Take care.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Original Sin: A Cultural History by Alan Jacobs (Chapter 5)

In chapter 5 of Original Sin, Alan Jacobs wrestles with the role that supernatural forces (read "Satan") play in our every day decision making. When we commit evil deeds, is it because "we simply chose," "we have a sinful nature," or because "the Devil made us do it"?

Jacobs meanders through Milton's Paradise Lost, J.R.R. Tokien's The Lord of the Rings, Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and and the Chamber of Secrets and the 2004 movie Hellboy (yes, that Hellboy) for various approaches to the question.

Jacobs shows the similarities between these works in showing that our own desires and the promptings of the Devil are often impossible to differentiate. Does Frodo grasp the ring because he wants it or because the ring has power over him? Tolkien is deliberately vague. Is Faustus corrupted because he chooses to listen to the "bad angel," or does he listen to the bad angel because he is corrupted? Marlowe is vague. In both cases, internal desires and external pressures are difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish.

Jacobs concludes:

"Do we sin because we heed the devilish voice in our ears? Or do we heed that voice because we have already sinned? Whatever answer we might give has little practical significance. The divided self is our inheritance no matter what, and in the pain and disorientation of that experience we may not even care whether we are torn from the inside out or the outside in." (Alan Jacobs, Original Sin: A Cultural History [New York: HarperOne, 2008], 95.)

Is Jacobs right? Can we discern between "devilish promptings" and our own desires? Does it matter?

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Original Sin: A Cultural History by Alan Jacobs (Chapter 4)

In chapter 4 of Original Sin, Alan Jacobs looks at The Feast of All Souls and it's significance to belief in original sin.

All Souls Day is on November 2, the day after All Saints Day. While All Saints Day celebrates the saints' intercession on behalf of the church militant, All Souls Day celebrates the church's intercession for the souls in Purgatory.

Jacobs notes how these two holidays are two sides of the same coin. On the first day, the church recognizes it's weakness and its need for intercession. On the second day, it recognizes its power and responsibility to pray for those who have gone before. Both days point to the same truth--we are all in this together, and judgment awaits both the high and the low.

Jacobs then goes to show how original sin is the great equalizer. It is usually the aristocracy that is appalled at the doctrine--they don't want to see themselves as just as deprived as the masses. Jacobs illustrates this point with a quote from the Duchess of Buckingham, commenting on the preaching of George Whitefield:

"I thank Your Ladyship for the information concerning the Methodist [sic] preachers . . . [but] the doctrines are most repulsive and strongly tinctured with the impertinence and disrespect towards their Superiors, in perpetually endeavoring to level all ranks and do away with all distinctions. It is monstrous to be told you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth. This is highly offensive and insulting; and I cannot but wonder if your ladyship should relish any sentiment so much at variance with high rank and good breeding."

Is original sin the great equalizer?

Why are the powerful powerful? Why are the "wretches" wretched? What would Pelagius say? Augustine?

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Worst Preacher Ever Contest

So, this is hilarious. Scotteriology has a tournament bracket of the worst preachers ever. (HT to The Boar's Head Tavern)

The first days of voting are for John Crowder (#1 seed) vs. Pat Robertson (#16) and Joel Osteen (#8) vs. Kenneth Copeland (#9).

I don't want to influence your voting, but I chose Robertson and Copeland. John Crowder is new on the scene--he's your typical kooky ultra-charismatic. He compares the work of the Holy Spirit to drugs and alcohol and is famous for preaching while "drunk in the Spirit." He coined the term "jehovajauna." On the other hand, Pat Robertson has said more offensive things in the name of Christ than anyone else in history (there is a link on the bracket to the top 10). I vote for the upset!

Joel Osteen is super famous and he preaches a prosperity gospel. But, I read his book, and it's not that bad. I wouldn't recommend it, but I didn't burn it either. IMO, he is a moderate prosperity preacher, or "prosperity lite," as some like to call him. Copeland, on the other hand, preaches nothing that resembles the Gospel. He is the archetypal prosperity preacher, complete with the $20 million jet.

Visit Scotteriology and vote!

Monday, August 4, 2008

Original Sin: A Cultural History by Alan Jacobs (Chapter 3)

In chapter 3 of Original Sin: A Cultural History, Alan Jacobs investigates the biblical narrative of Adam and Eve, and then describes how the events were interpreted by Pelagius, Augustine, Julian, and (briefly) the Eastern church.

Jacobs notes that the Adam and Eve narrative is remarkably simple. Adam is told not to eat the fruit. Eve eats. Adam eats. Both are expelled from the garden and cursed (as is the serpent). That’s all there is—there is not theological explanation for the significance of the story.

In fact, the story raises more questions than it answers. How did Adam and Eve know what death was if they had never seen it? How did Adam and Eve contemplate rebellion if they had no sin nature? What does it mean that the fruit was “good for food and pleasing to the eye”? Does this imply that they were envious of forbidden fruit before the fall? Isn’t envy evidence of sin?

Jacobs’ point in illuminating the problems in the Eden narrative is to point out that most of the ink spilt on this issue relates more to Paul’s interpretation of the story (specifically Romans 5) than it does to comment on the actual story.

The most famous debate over the interpretation of Romans 5 was between Augustine and Pelagius. Pelagius was a monk and an extremely pious man. He felt that too many people blamed a “sin nature” for decisions that they willed. He felt that the will was free from the influence of any kind of sin nature so that people were free to choose what they wanted. Thus his critique of his fellow Christians was that they just needed to will to be better.

Much good could be said about Pelagius. He was a pious man. He did a lot of good, and he valued the life lived for God. However, because he denied any external influences on the will, Pelagius offered no hope for growth. At all points of a person’s life, he has the capacity to walk away. There is no such thing as “discipline,” “transformation,” or “character.” Thus, Pelagians live in constant fear of Hell. They may have lived a good life up to the present, but the next 10 minutes could be different.

Augustine spent much of his life refuting the widely popular Pelagius, arguing that people inherited a sin nature from their father, Adam. He successfully had Pelagianism condemned as a heresy at the Council of Carthage.

Augustine’s more successful nemesis, however, was Julian—a family friend born around the time of Augustine’s conversion. Julian was a brilliant young man and a supporter of Pelagius who was exiled after the Council of Carthage. Unlike Pelagius, Julian was not a monk. He was more like a spoiled brat—an aristocrat and landowner who spent all of his time writing scathing books against Augustine.

Julian’s main criticism of Augustine was the way in which his theology of original sin portrayed God. Because the church adopted Augustine’s view of original sin, they believed that all un-baptized infants who died went immediately to Hell. Further, Augustine had some strange views on sexual ethics, which Julian exploited.

Augustine believed that part of the curse on man was that his sexual organs rebelled against him much in the way he had rebelled against God. Thus, involuntary erections are symptoms of the fall. Further, Augustine identified the root of sin in man as concupiscence, which often exerted itself in lust. Since lust is sin, sex between married couples necessarily involved an element of sin.

Augustine wrote On Marriage and Concupiscence to defend the institution of marriage, and he reformed his views on the destination of un-baptized babies, but the damage was done. To this day, Augustine’s notion of original sin is often compared to his strange views on sex and un-baptized babies. Augustine died before they could settle the argument. Found on his desk after his death was an unfinished work called Contra Julianum

In my opinion, Pelagius’ interpretation of the nature of people runs contrary to the biblical notion. This doesn’t mean that Augustine is right, but I think that there is evidence that sin is more than just a behavior—it is a force that influences the decisions we make. The fact that Pelagianism was condemned as a heresy doesn’t help his case, either.

On the other hand, Augustine’s views raise some serious questions. If people are conceived sinners, what do we do with the death of the unborn or the death of babies? We often punt to “age of accountability” answers, but is there biblical support for this?

Further, the “age of accountability” leads to some troubling conclusions. One of the reasons that Andrea Yates gave for drowning her five kids in the bathtub was that she was a bad mom and that her kids were going to turn out bad. She wanted to kill them so that they would go to heaven before they reached the age of accountability.

Augustine’s answer to the problem was that perhaps God had something else in mind for babies. He believed that God’s justice demanded such a case. I don’t know what biblical support he had for this, but you could make a case for it based on reason and Isa 55:8, which is spoken in the context of God forgiving people whom we might not expect to receive forgiveness.

I find the case for original sin compelling. I find the objections raised by Julian disturbing. I find the solutions to the problem confusing. I think I have to punt on this one and say, “God is too good to be unkind and too wise to make mistakes.”

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Psalm 21

Psalm 21 (NET) reads:

For the music director; a psalm of David.

O LORD, the king rejoices in the strength you give;
he takes great delight in the deliverance you provide.

2 You grant him his heart's desire;
you do not refuse his request. (Selah)

3 For you bring him rich blessings;
you place a golden crown on his head.

4 He asked you to sustain his life,
and you have granted him long life and an enduring dynasty.

5 Your deliverance brings him great honor;
you give him majestic splendor.

6 For you grant him lasting blessings;
you give him great joy by allowing him into your presence.

7 For the king trusts in the LORD,
and because of the Sovereign LORD's faithfulness he is not upended.

8 You prevail over all your enemies;
your power is too great for those who hate you.

9 You burn them up like a fiery furnace when you appear;
the LORD angrily devours them;
the fire consumes them.

10 You destroy their offspring from the earth,
their descendants from among the human race.

11 Yes, they intend to do you harm;
they dream up a scheme, but they do not succeed.

12 For you make them retreat
when you shoot your arrows at them.

13 Rise up, O LORD, in strength!
We will sing and praise your power!

This psalm praises the Lord for his preservation of the Israelite king. The first six verses describe what the Lord has done for the king, and the basis for this blessing is in verse 7—“For the king trusts in the LORD, and because of the Sovereign LORD's faithfulness he is not upended.”

The psalm presents the king and the Lord in a covenant relationship. The king upholds his end by “trusting” in the Lord, i.e. following the law and not worshipping other gods, and the Lord stays faithful to the covenant by defeating the king’s enemies.

To me, this is a reminder of the faithfulness and power of God to complete the work He has begun in the church. It’s easy to get discouraged and think that this thing called Christianity is a meaningless dead-end, but psalms like this remind us that God is in control and that nothing is going to thwart His plans. We may not always understand His plans, but we can trust that He knows what is going on.

“Father, I confess my lack of faith in many situations. I am too easily discouraged; too simply disheartened. I thank you for the words of this psalm and I pray for the confidence of its writer. I confess that You are in control of history; that You have a plan; and that everything is happening according to that plan. We look forward to the day when you bring history to its consummation and put sin and death into submission to Christ. You are good. Amen.”

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Psalm 20

Psalm 20 (NET) reads:

For the music director; a psalm of David.

May the LORD answer you when you are in trouble;
may the God of Jacob make you secure!

2 May he send you help from his temple;
from Zion may he give you support!

3 May he take notice of your offerings;
may he accept your burnt sacrifice! (Selah)

4 May he grant your heart's desire;
may he bring all your plans to pass!

5 Then we will shout for joy over your victory;
we will rejoice in the name of our God!
May the LORD grant all your requests!

6 Now I am sure that the LORD will deliver his chosen king;
he will intervene for him from his holy heavenly temple,
and display his mighty ability to deliver.

7 Some trust in chariots and others in horses,
but we depend on the LORD our God.

8 They will fall down,
but we will stand firm.

9 The LORD will deliver the king;
he will answer us when we call to him for help!

The key verse to this psalm is verse 7, “Some trust in chariots and others in horses, but we depend on the LORD our God.” What a tough way to live. I feel that phrases like this are kind of thrown around flippantly in Christian circles, but how many of us would have been willing to go into battle without horses or chariots, depending on the Lord for victory? I think that is what the psalmist is getting at. Time after time in the Old Testament the Lord helped Israel defeat armies that on paper were more powerful than them. This led them to say, “The horses? The chariots? They don’t matter. The Lord gives the victory.”

Today, we are scared to death to rely on God for “victory.” It is far easier to show up with our horses and chariots. After all, we can control the horses and chariots. We know what they can do. We can bridle the horses. We can steer the chariots. But God? He’s different. He doesn’t tell us what He’s going to do. He doesn’t tell us how our life is going to end up. He doesn’t tell us how we’re going to make it with no horses and no chariots.

That’s scary.

That’s faith.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Original Sin: A Cultural History by Alan Jacobs (Chapter 2)

In chapter 2 of Original Sin, Alan Jacobs discusses the life and thought of Aurelius Augustinus--St. Augustine of Hippo.

Augustine is widely considered one of the most brilliant minds in western history--certainly the most brilliant of his day. Although his mother was a Christian, Augustine thought little of Christianity and left home to study the philosophies of his day. He was drawn to Manichaeism, a dualistic faith that saw life as an endless tension between the powers of good and evil. When the top Manichaean minds were unable to answer his remaining objections to their faith, he left, discouraged.

Plagued by the question, “What is wrong with us?”, Augustine eventually turned to the faith of his mother. While wrestling with his thoughts one day, he heard a child singing “Tolle, lege,” “Take it and read.” He opened the Scriptures to Romans 13 in which Paul wrote, “Let us live decently as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in discord and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to arouse its desires.” In Christianity he found the answer to his questions.

Jacobs writes that Augustine has been inaccurately portrayed as sexually promiscuous in his youth. Augustine says that he struggled with “lusts of the flesh” and “carnal” desires, but Augustine uses these terms in a general sense of “desires that make us do what we don’t want to.” Augustine may have been frustrated with his sexual indiscretions, but a straightforward reading of his works doesn’t demand that. (Augustine says that he lived with a concubine for twelve years before his engagement, at which time he dismissed his mistress according to the customs of his day. Unable to live chastely, he took another mistress in the time between his engagement and marriage. One of the reasons why Augustine was unable to completely cut off ties with his mistress was that he loved her and only sent her away to honor the marriage that his parents had arranged for him. Although Augustine was frustrated with his lack of self-control, he doesn’t say that he lived an unbridled sexual life.)

Jacobs argues that Augustine’s question was not, “Why was I so bad as a youth?” but “Why am I unable to live the way I want to live?” He saw the answer to this question in Romans 5, according to the interpretation now called “the Augustinian view” (as described here).

Jacobs’ discussion of Augustine reminds me of an online conversation I had with some folks on I think the discussion started with Tim Keller’s book The Reason for God and whether our sense of justice was evidence for the existence of God. Some commenters argued that it was not, saying that altruism could be the result of evolution (i.e. it is beneficial to the group that we treat each other justly, so those with a sense of justice survive natural selection). Others argued, like Kant, that justice was “reasonable,” so that someone with an evolved sense of reason would naturally be just.

I offered a response to these ideas that, while nobody seemed to find it convincing, was not refuted. Until someone shows me where I am wrong, I am sticking to this as a modified version of the argument for God from justice.

It is not so much our belief in justice that “proves” God, but the combination of our belief in justice and our inability to carry it out. Why is it that everybody believes that things should be just and fair, and yet nobody is just or fair? Evolution cannot answer this question. It is not the gazelles that think they should be faster than the lions who survive, it’s the ones who actually are faster than the lions. In the same way, belief that things should be just doesn’t help a group unless people actually are just.

In the same way, justice may be reasonable, but why are so many reasonable people unjust? Is it just because they can’t make the logical connection between their actions, or is there something else at play?

In my opinion, it is tough to explain our desire for justice and our inability to carry it out from evolution or from reason. It is better explained with theism. Augustine asked the right question: “What is wrong with us?” Like Augustine, I think that Christianity provides the most satisfactory answer to this question—sin.