Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Escape From Camp 14 by Blaine Harden

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This book is a quick - but not light - read. Author Blaine Harden wrote the book based on his interviews of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only man known to have escaped from North Korea’s prison camps. 



The author admits that he is uncertain about the truth of every detail. After all, he can only rely on Shin’s account for most of the story, and he has to assume that Shin is being truthful with him, which is not exactly a guarantee. However, Harden did confirm everything he could, from geographical details to information about the process of escaping to China. The details that can be confirmed were found to be true, and thus Harden believes the rest of the story to be reasonably true. (I’m thinking a bit like a lawyer on this one. In many cases, there are as many “true” stories as their are witnesses, and even truthful witnesses perceive things differently.)

Shin was born in Camp 14, to two prisoners who were allowed to marry as a reward for good behavior. Shin grew up in the camp, knowing nothing of the outside world - even North Korea - until another prisoner who had lived on the outside convinced him to escape with him. Sadly, the other prisoner died in the attempt.

There are so many disturbing things in this book that it would be fruitless to try to discuss them all. At its heart, this book is a tale of how to dehumanize humans. Shin never knows anything that most of us would be considered “normal.” All he has the luxury of doing is fighting for his next meal and his survival. The prison camps - even more so than North Korea itself - are structured to reduce humans to mere animals - or machines. The system of reward and punishment is designed to encourage snitching, and discourage relationships between prisoners. Not only was sexual contact strictly forbidden (except for rape of prisoners by the guards) and pregnancy punished by death, friendship was severely punished as well, and gatherings of more than two prisoners were also forbidden.

In addition to the dehumanizing rules, the guards were encouraged to think of the prisoners as animals. As An Myeong Chul, a former guard who later defected put it, “It was normal to beat prisoners.” After all, they were taught to think of them as “pigs and dogs.”

[Side note: this is one reason why it was so telling that a certain police officer in Ferguson was on video screaming at the protesters, “Bring it, you fucking animals!” Once you dehumanize people to that level, violence against them is inevitable. And make no mistake: if an officer is willing to do that on camera, it is because he knows the entire culture of the department supports him. He is saying out loud what the others are thinking.]

The North Korean government isn’t stupid, though. They recognize that all it takes to break a totalitarian system is two or more that can become friends and realize that there is something better.

Another thing I found interesting about the system is that the prisoners were required to attend regular “confessional” meetings, where they would confess their “sins” against the state. It was striking how much the prison camp resembled a cult - but with more military force behind it. If further proof was needed that totalitarianism is a religion, this is should suffice. (I highly recommend Raymond Aron’s excellent book, The Opium of the Intellectuals, reviewed here, which makes the case that Communism and Fascism are both religions.) I am also reminded a bit of my own cult experience, where there was a strong pressure to confess socially acceptable sins. Pride, for example, was an “okay” sin, but “lust” was not, because it would result in discipline. Likewise, the prisoners wracked their brains to come up with relatively benign “sins” against the state, like laziness, rather than anything that would result in torture.

Another interesting part of the book was the description of the sorry state of North Korea in the aftermath of the famine in the 1990s. The “approved” economy was in shambles, but a combination of foreign aid and smuggling propped up what was left. After Shin escapes from the camp, he must find a way to China. He does this by entering into the economy, described by the author as “smuggling, trading, and petty bribery.” This is the reality of a totalitarian system. Despite all attempts to suppress it, a certain sort of free market will always bubble up, always on the hideout from the government, but nonetheless robust.

The story of Shin’s attempts to assimilate into a free society is heartbreaking. The very act of learning to relate to normal people, to learn to trust and love, is largely beyond his reach. The damage is too great. (To preserve his own life, Shin snitches on his mother, leading to her death, and he is tortured anyway. It’s hard to recover from that.) The normal things we take for granted are continually foreign to Shin, and even the basics of holding a job are difficult. I couldn’t help but think of the period of adjustment after the abolition of slavery in the United States. Suddenly, those who only knew a totalitarian system in which they were property were thrown out to fend for themselves. Shin at least finds himself in a world that wishes him to succeed. Former slaves largely entered a world determined that they would fail.

One more observation, on a lighter note: Shin came to California, and became a huge fan of In-N-Out. Good taste, that.

I highly recommend this book for anyone seeking to understand North Korea and totalitarianism in general. I also might offer it in defense of the concept of evil. Ultimately, even the rulers in North Korea are impoverished by world standards, and the continued enslavement and slaughter of their people makes no logical sense. It is this tendency of the human race, to gain joy from the misery and pain of others, that makes the strongest case for the existence of evil and the fallen nature of our race.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Mouse With The Question Mark Tail by Richard Peck

Source of book: Audiobook borrowed from the library.

Last year, we listened to another book by Peck, Secrets at Sea. Like that book, this one is a book about mice, set in the year of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. The former book was published in 2011, while this one followed immediately in 2013. Apparently Mr. Peck, now age 80, is enjoying writing whimsical rodent fiction after a long career writing more serious and contemporary books.

As I have mentioned previously, my second daughter is all about the mice, so these books have been chosen as a result of her love for rodents.

In my opinion, the previous book was almost as if Henry James had been a mouse and had written the counterpart to his human novels. This book, while it has obvious connections to the other, does not share any characters, and has a wholly British character (although Peck is quite American). Whereas the other book dwells extensively on the cultural differences between the Americans and the British, this book focuses more on the English class system.

The titular mouse has grown up in the mews (stables) at Buckingham palace, adopted by a seamstress. His origins are unknown, but will play a crucial role in the story. A victim of bullying due to his size, he flees his school, and finds himself on a dizzying journey from adventure to adventure within a short period of time. He spooks a horse carrying a young lady of the royal (human) family, finds himself enrolled in the palace guard (mouse edition), is transported by bats, lands in a bowl of punch, and has an interview with Queen Victoria herself. His birth and destiny carry him to a memorable denouement where his tale - and tail - come full circle. 

 One of Kelly Murphy's delightful illustrations.

I haven’t read enough Peck (indeed, none beyond these two books) to have any idea what the rest of his books are like. From these two, however, I can say that Peck can serve as a gateway drug, as it were, into the world of Victorian England and the literature about said era. I mentioned James, but I would also say that this book might be an introduction to any number of “adult” books about the aristocratic society of Europe past. Peck writes more in the vein of, say, Baroness Orczy, than of Dickens, with his love of the aristocracy. Commoners may be mentioned (in this case, in the oblique statement that field mice don’t get names), but their plight is hardly noted. I don’t find this to be a particular problem, for the simple reason that these books are meant to be a fun escape, not social commentary. Aristocratic foibles are gently mocked while the system is just assumed to exist. By transforming human society to a rodent society, some of the silliness becomes more apparent, but that isn’t Peck’s point.

In this book, the theme might be that of the classic underdog finding his way in the world. Or it might be the idea that speaking one’s mind might cause short term problems but could ultimately be a sign of a noble character. Or perhaps it was just a chance to put the Queen in a story and have a little fun with it.

There were a few lines that I found amusing. The first was one borrowed from the previous book. Mice are always conscious of “time running out.” Perhaps we humans ought to realize the same.

The other was a line that I think might have been in the previous book. “For everything a human is doing, somewhere there is a mouse doing the same thing, but better.” (I think I got that right. It’s hard to find a line on an audiobook…)

And then, there was the fact that the hero of the tale is a bit, um, “fun sized.” Throughout the book, he keeps getting asked if he is small, or if he is just not quite grown. As a short (and baby-faced) man myself, I have heard the equivalent of this far too often. (At age 20, I was mistaken for 12, which is the main reason I grew a beard…) Even at 38, I still get carded for wine and ammo. Even when I have the kids with me. So I sympathise a bit. (And the kids found this line hilarious.)

Bottom line: this is an amusing tale for children, but it also contains enough wit for the adults, including enough about the Victorian Era to spark some conversations about class and history. And if you, like me, have a child who loves mice, it will inevitably become part of the library one way or another.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Church (Part 1) by George Herbert

Source of book: I own a hardback edition of the complete English works of George Herbert

This last year has been a mixed one when it comes to reading. I kept up with my usual pace in reading fiction and non-fiction, although I read a few fewer works of 500 or more pages. I continued to read to the kids, and we listened to a lot of books while driving for our various camping and other vacation trips. (We put on about 5000 miles together.) While I didn’t read as many plays, I saw more live plays than I think I ever have in a year.

Where I didn’t come close to keeping up was on my poetry reading. I really did terribly, hardly reading anything in comparison to the two years prior. I really need to remedy that this year, as I do miss my poetry.

***


Herbert’s English poetry is really one big collection without division. Technically, there is an introductory poem, “The Church Porch” and two closing poems, labeled “The Church Militant.” The rest are all grouped together as “The Church,” and comprise 163 pages in my edition. Since reading the complete works of any one poet in one swoop is a bit boring, I arbitrarily stopped after about 45 pages. I figure I can come back and finish the rest later, perhaps several years down the road.

My knowledge of Herbert stems primarily from my high school days. As part of my English Lit class in 12th grade, I read some of his better known stuff, including at least one of the “Easter Wings” poems, written to form a pattern on the page. I probably read one or two of his better sonnets as part of a collection sometime later as well.

I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, coming back to Herbert after another half-lifetime. My original impression was that he was okay, but not my favorite poet. However, time changes impressions, and a writer that may have seemed dull or difficult can turn out to be full of depth. On the other hand, a cherished favorite can age poorly.

For what it is worth, my prior impression of Herbert was partially confirmed, and partially disappointed. He was, once again, okay, but not my favorite kind of poet. I felt a little disappointed that his writing didn’t seem any deeper after I matured.

I was trying to figure out exactly why I was disappointed, and I think I finally figured it out. Many of his poems felt like reading a catechism rather than a poem. Perhaps this stemmed from his profession as an Anglican priest, and his youth (he died at age 39, barely 3 years after taking orders.)

Now, don’t get me wrong. I actually do like some devotional poetry. Not the “hallmark Christianity” sort often found in church bulletins, but real, serious, genuine poetry from the depth of the heart of a skilled writer. John Donne, for example, wrote beautifully, as did Milton. Both of these are from (roughly) the same era as Herbert, so the style should be reasonably similar. However, Milton’s language is far superior, and his metaphors and allusions are creative. Donne has grown on me through the years, and the power of his emotion cuts through the often obscure language. Donne likewise is a master of the unexpected, and I feel like he surprises me every time. Another favorite who has aged well is Christina Rossetti. Even though, like Herbert, she tends to be pious and doctrinally focused, her poems always feel personal, almost as if one was eavesdropping on her private prayers. With some notable exceptions, I just didn’t feel the emotional or intellectual connection with Herbert that I had hoped.

That said, there were some poems that were worth remembering. Perhaps I should rephrase my impression. There were many poems which just felt uninspiring to me, like lesser efforts. There were others that were good, and a few that were excellent. Herbert is at his best when he worries less about getting the doctrine into the poem and when he lets his heart speak.

The Reprisal

      I have considered it, and find
There is no dealing with thy mighty passion:
For though I die for thee, I am behind;
       My sins deserve the condemnation.

       O make me innocent, that I
May give a disentangled state and free;
And yet thy wounds still my attempts defy,
       For by thy death I die for thee.

       Ah! was it not enough that thou
By thy eternal glory didst outgo me?
Could'st thou not grief's sad conquests me allow,
       But in all victories overthrow me?

       Yet by confession will I come
Into the conquest. Though I can do nought
Against thee, in thee I will overcome
       The man, who once against thee fought.

Herbert comes back often to the idea of the debt, and the utter inability he has to truly pay God back for what he has been given. For him personally, it means that all he can give is himself. When he turns to think of others, he is struck by the way that faith levels the man-made distinctions. I love these beautiful lines from “Faith”

If bliss had lien in art or strength,
None but the wise or strong had gained it:
Where now by Faith all arms are of a length;
One size doth all conditions fit.

A peasant may believe as much
As a great Clerk, and reach the highest stature.
Thus dost thou make proud knowledge bend and crouch
While grace fills up uneven nature.

Another poem that I really liked was “Prayer (1)” Herbert wrote numerous poems on the same topics, distinguished by their numbers only. This one is a sonnet wherein Herbert lays aside his love of doctrine and puts a startlingly modern stream of consciousness into the rigid sonnet form. (Technically, Herbert was a master, and this has to be one of his best.)

Prayer the church's banquet, angel's age,
        God's breath in man returning to his birth,
        The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth
Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tow'r,
        Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
        The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
        Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
        Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
        Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
        The land of spices; something understood.

“The soul in paraphrase” has to be one of the best analogies for prayer ever written. The communion of spirit and soul with the divine in a way that cannot be uttered. This poem comes close to catching the ecstasy of music and the wholeness found in a spiritual experience. I think this is my favorite poem (so far) in Herbert’s works.

Another one that I really liked for its imagery was “The Windows.” Despite his love for doctrine and his career as a preacher, Herbert recognized that the real preaching is done in real life.

                                       
Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word?
    He is a brittle crazy glass;
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
    This glorious and transcendent place,
    To be a window, through thy grace.

But when thou dost anneal in glass thy story,
    Making thy life to shine within
The holy preachers, then the light and glory
    More reverend grows, and more doth win;
    Which else shows waterish, bleak, and thin.

Doctrine and life, colors and light, in one
    When they combine and mingle, bring
A strong regard and awe; but speech alone
    Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
    And in the ear, not conscience, ring.
               
Keith Green would use the same metaphor in one of my favorite songs when I was a kid. (Perhaps he borrowed it from Herbert?) Green doesn’t have quite the knack for poetry, and he mixes the metaphor a bit, but the song still brings back memories. 



Speaking of music, Herbert wrote a few poems that are still sung as hymns today. Probably the best known (and the one that happened to be in the first 45 pages) is “Antiphon (1),” better known as “Let All The World In Ev’ry Corner Sing.”

Chorus: Let all the world in ev'ry corner sing
'My God and King.'

Verse: The heav'ns are not too high,
His praise may thither fly:
The earth is not too low,
His praises there may grow.

Chorus: Let all the world in ev'ry corner sing,
'My God and King.'

Verse: The church with psalms must shout
No door can keep them out:
But above all, the heart
Must bear the longest part.

Chorus: Let all the world in ev'ry corner sing
'My God and King.'

I believe there are many settings of the text, but the one I knew best was the “Luckington” tune, by Basil Harwood. (I probably am forgetting other well known versions too.) 


Probably my favorite musical setting, though, is by Ralph Vaughan Williams. I love the dissonances, unexpected chords, and the way the ostinato is tossed between the choir and organ.


Sunday, January 11, 2015

Why Abraham and Isaac Matter (A follow up to "Farewell")

Note: This post is a follow up to my post on “Farewelling.” I recommend you read that one first to understand the context of this discussion.

Let’s Talk About Abraham and Isaac

I speak for myself, but I also speak to a degree for others of my generation when I say that the story of Abraham and Isaac - and more specifically its interpretation within the Evangelical camp - troubles us.

There are plenty of stories - particularly in the Old Testament - that are disturbing for a variety of reasons, and one thing that my generation wants and needs is a way of engaging these stories without expecting us to conclude that what we see as immoral and unethical behavior is okay because God commanded it.

To give the most extreme example, there is the strong indication that God commanded genocide of women and children. For atheists like Richard Dawkins (not a fan, for what it’s worth), this was a deal breaker. And they have a point. We in our modern times would consider the slaughter of children to be immoral and unethical. I believe rightly so, and I believe that most of my Evangelical friends would as well. The problem arises when one reads the narratives and tries to explain why something was okay then but not now.

I hope eventually to address how I have approached the issues in a future post, but that is beyond the scope of this already lengthy post.

For the case of Abraham and Isaac, the central questions (as I see them) are as follows:

  1. Does God require Child Sacrifice?
  2. What is the ultimate meaning of the story?

    Abraham and Isaac, Rembrandt (1634)

Contrary to views of a number of the commenters on the Rachel Held Evans thread (see the previous post), I believe that the answer to these questions are VITAL. Not frivolous at all, but crucial to the Christian faith as it stands now. In fact, these questions have been debated for millennia, and I find it disturbing that many Evangelicals consider the issue settled, and that there is only one possible right answer.

That is why I am troubled by those who are quick to dismiss RHE’s questioning and dismiss her from the faith.

I have been ruminating on this for some time, and bring to the discussion my own experiences and that of my family. Let me expand on this.

Does God Require Child Sacrifice?

During the time in which Abraham lived, the answer was unequivocally “YES!!!”

There is some evidence that child sacrifice was an integral part of Ancient Near East religion. Children were property, and were sacrificed to the gods just like livestock and crops. This was necessary to appease the angry gods and also to show gratitude for blessings. (Since first-borns were the usual sacrifice, I would have been toast…)

And this was hardly limited to the time of Abraham. (Best estimates would be at least as early as the era of Hammurabi: 2300-2000 BCE.) Child sacrifice persisted (according to the Bible) well past the era of Moses. In fact, they are are mentioned in the prophets as occurring well over one thousand years later. As far as secular confirmations of this practice, one might cite the Greek myths about the historical Trojan War (roughly 1000 years after Abraham).

The idea of child sacrifice was endemic to the culture. It was (arguably) accepted, expected, and normal.

In fact, while it is not certain, it is entirely plausible that Abraham’s elder sibling was sacrificed. While we today would recoil at the thought, there is no reason to believe that Abraham thought the request to sacrifice his firstborn was anything unusual.

Except.

Except that God had promised that Isaac would be the source of Abraham’s descendents.

Just my opinion, but I think this is a key to the story.

But anyway, the big question persists. Did God ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? (Or did Abraham misunderstand?) Does God ever ask us to sacrifice our children?

Let me share a story from my parents. I’m not going to get too far into the specifics, because it is their story to tell, but I will give the outline.

Both of my parents were missionary children, born in the 1950s. As was standard protocol for missionaries back then, children were viewed as an impediment to ministry. They (missionary kids of the era) were therefore sent off to boarding school as young children, and essentially abandoned. I would say that many of them suffered at minimum neglect, and in some cases abuse as a result. My own parents expressed a lot of hurt and anger as a result of this, and I believe it colored their view of missions, to say nothing of their relationships with their parents.

I remember talking with my parents about this, and how they had to eventually conclude that their parents were, if not intentionally neglectful, at least wrong about this decision.

I am pretty sure it was my father who told me that he concluded that “God does NOT require child sacrifice.” Certainly, my parents made it their goal to avoid sacrificing us.

But this doesn’t end with the missionary question. Does God require us to sacrifice our children?

If one is a female, this is a particularly pertinent question. Should a parent sacrifice college for a female child? Does God ask that? Does God ask that for male children as well? (Bill Gothard believed the answer was yes…)

Or, at another level, does God require that we force our children to adopt the fashions of the past in clothing and music? Does God require us to use corporal punishment? How do we determine what sacrifices we force our children to make?

This is why it bothers me that RHE’s questions were just dismissed as heresy. They are important to me and my generation. (more on this later)

Does God ever require child sacrifice? If He did in the past, does He now?

What is the Meaning of This Story?

I’ve mentioned that music has been an integral part of my life experience, and this story is no exception. During my sojourn at Osborne Neighborhood Church, I used to play violin (with a dear older lady) for their choir musicals for Christmas and Easter. I particularly remember that we did Ray Boltz’ Easter musical, Watch The Lamb a few times. Sure, there is a bit of an '80s pop vibe to it, but it was poignant to me at the time, and I still feel an emotional connection to the music. (I might even admit that some of my improvisational technique - particularly my love of the 2nd in harmony and that pulsing quarter note pulse from the piano - comes from my formative years playing this stuff.)

When I was writing this post, my mind was drawn to this memory, and some lines from the lyrics.

In general, Christian thought has focused on the ultimate meaning of the story. In essence, it is a foreshadowing, a premonition, of the ultimate sacrifice of Christ. Many - perhaps most - of us have understood it this way. The ultimate meaning of the story is that God would someday sacrifice his son/himself on our behalf. Thus, the meaning wasn’t really one we were to take practical application from, but more inspiration and gratitude.

Here is the song that is the arrival point, the pinnacle of the musical, when everything is tied together.




The meaning of the story of Abraham and Isaac doesn’t become clear until the true Lamb is seen. The story isn’t really about what Abraham does but what God does later.

The problem came when the story was viewed as both literal and as instructive. Not a foreshadowing of God’s ultimate love, but as a reminder of what WE are expected to do.

What SHOULD one do if God asked one to do something that seemed immoral and unethical?

I really, truly, wish that this was a purely academic question, but it isn’t. A major thrust of modern Evangelical Christianity has in fact been that one must follow God’s commands (as we understand them - or as the best minds of our denomination tell us they are to be) even if we believe that they are immoral, unethical, and harmful to others. In other words, we are to disregard our brains and our conscience, because they are fallible, and instead follow the bible (as interpreted by, um, certain people). Period. No questions.

And thus, the meaning of the story of Abraham and Isaac is that one must OBEY even though obedience violates both intelligence and conscience.

I didn’t mention Watch The Lamb just because. In the musical, there is a “flashback” to Abraham and Isaac, and the Abraham character sings a song to Isaac called “God Will Provide The Lamb.” I can’t find a link, or I would place it here. It has been 25 years since I played this. I still remember the lyrics in great detail.

“God will provide the lamb. It’s time to obey, though we don’t understand. God will provide the lamb.”

At the time, this didn’t have quite the meaning to me that it does now.

This was before our Gothard years, before I fully realized that so many things would be considered to be a matter of “obedience.”

But when we started discussing Abraham and Isaac, it came back to me.

And I realized that for many Evangelicals, the moral of the story was not that God chose, for reasons obscure to us, to paint a foreshadowing picture of the Greatest Story Ever Told.

Rather, the moral of the story was that:

All of us NEED to be willing to do what we believe God commands even if it hurts, kills, or destroys others.

We must be willing to sacrifice our children, if necessary, because God commands it.

We need to OBEY, even when we don’t understand, and even when our brains and our consciences cry out with violence against it.

In the course of the discussion (which I detailed a bit more in the first post), a number of more “traditional” viewpoints from other bloggers were posted in the thread.

Even the more “balanced” ones, however, without fail, drew the lesson of “obedience” from the text. Every single one.

I believe this is a wrong and harmful interpretation.

And I believe this is what RHE was reacting against. Because it is what me and many of my generation are reacting against.

If you want to look at the passage in Hebrews 11 that commends Abraham for his faith, then look at what actually is said, not what we have been told it says. 

Abraham isn’t commended for his obedience. He is commended for his faith. Specifically, his faith in God’s promises. His faith was credited to him as righteousness. Not his obedience - that, is, his “righteousness” - doing the right thing, but his faith.

The point (in my admittedly fallible view) is that Abraham believed that God would accomplish his promise through Isaac. He trusted in God’s ultimate reliability and trustworthiness. The promise would hold, even if the dead had to be raised. “Abraham had faith and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

We are so quick to forget this, and focus on being so damn right. Abraham may very well have mistaken God’s voice, or he may have done the wrong thing (as he did elsewhere), but he was considered righteous because of his faith that ultimately God would do what he promised.

In this way, I believe that the “farewelling” misses the point. God does not depend on “perfect” doctrine about hell and creation and even sexuality to advance His kingdom. God does not count on our perfect, unquestioning obedience. We are not so much called to excommunicate from the faith, but to work out our faith in love toward others. Our focus shouldn’t be to kick out those who don’t have the same views, but to look to the fruit. If the fruit is a disregard for the oppressed, then we have a problem. And if our fruit is rotten, how do we know that we are actually following God?

I Don’t Trust My Parents’ Generation To Identify the Voice of God

This is a hard thing to say to my parents’ generation - and to a degree my own parents, and I know I will step on toes with this.

I do NOT trust you to correctly identify the voice of God.

And I do not think I am alone. The generation gap I have observed regarding the RHE issue and others is NOT a coincidence. We do NOT trust you. At all.

This is not to say that I feel we are better or that we are right. Instead, it is a belief that ALL of us need to show some humility. We don’t understand fully. On many issues. And dogmatic assertion that we are right - particularly where it concerns other people - isn’t helping at all.

If anything, my generation feels that - in a pinch - you would gladly sacrifice us to your god. Because you have, and continue to do so.

Want some proof?

Well, let’s go back to John MacArthur, who recently came out with a video wherein he advised parents of homosexual children to cut them off completely as if they were dead. This sure sounds to me as if this was a form of sacrifice. Since society doesn’t allow for the slaughter of gays, at least let’s act as if they were dead. (And, not coincidentally, gay children of religious and rejecting parents are substantially more likely to commit suicide. And those who are subjected to “repairative” counseling are even more likely to die by their own hands.)

Do I believe most parents will do this? No. In fact, even some of my friends who were into Gothardism have “failed” to cut off their gay children.

But this is sure as hell (according to Piper and MacArthur) the teaching.

Gothard had his own version of this that probably most of us who survived can recall - with a little residual terror, perhaps. Gothard taught that even adult children were bound to obey their parents in all things. The discussion of the principle of “authority” is beyond the scope of this post, but I can tell you that there were speakers at the conferences who spoke of the need for adult children to obey.

If they didn’t? Well, Gothard had a solution. Parents were to “turn their children over to Satan for the destruction of their flesh” until they either came around, or, well, something. Presumably bad things. They would die, or get horrible diseases or bad accidents and so on.

As I said, I suspect many of us felt the fear at the time, and maybe still do occasionally.

But what about the lesser sacrifices? Probably most Evangelical parents have been taught that corporal punishment is God’s will, and that failure to spank would be disobedience to God. (Not trying to make an argument one way or the other regarding corporal punishment, but just that the teaching is what it is - that one must spank or be disobedient to God.) Is failure to spank a sin? Really?

Gothard isn’t alone in his teachings on authority. A quick perusal of the popular trends within the Evangelical world reveal that the past 30+ years have been a never ending stream of parenting books teaching that the number one priority in child rearing is to teach them instant, unquestioning obedience.

Here are some names that come to mind: Gary Ezzo (Raising Kids God’s Way - isn’t the whole title the pinnacle of arrogance?), Michael and Debbie Pearl (To Train A Child. Some children have died as a result of their methods.) Even more mainstream authors like James Dobson of Focus on the Family got into the act with Dare to Discipline. The methods may differ, but the goal is the same: unquestioning obedience to parents leading to unquestioning obedience to God. (And by corollary, to a certain interpretation of God’s will.)

One could also fill in a number of secondary issues here where parents have in practice sacrificed for their god.

All of us who have been forced to sacrifice “small” things such as our musical preferences, halloween celebrations, pork and shellfish, and so many others, because some “prophet” decided they were “evil.”


I hope to address this in a future post, but most of us who have survived the Patriarchy culture can point to some area in which our parents have sacrificed their relationship with us on the altar of “God told me to.”

There is some issue that has caused a serious rift in the relationship that can be directly traced back to an interpretation of scripture or the teaching of some teacher. A child’s disagreement with that teaching has led to a breakdown of the relationship, because the parent believed that “God’s command” required them to sacrifice the relationship for the command.

So no, we don’t trust you to correctly understand the voice of God. You too were willing to sacrifice some part of us to your god. And the voice of your god more often than not sounded like the voice of your own fears and insecurities. I'm not saying you have bad intentions; quite the contrary. The problem is that this view of "obedience" has so poisoned our judgment that we no longer have the discernment to reject false teachers who call for human sacrifice. There will never be an end to the procession of Gothards until we learn to reject the teaching of unquestioning obedience.

And this is one reason why we react so strongly to your dismissal of RHE and her concerns about the Abraham and Isaac story.

When you talk about the story, and how it means obedience, we see you standing there with a knife. And we are on the altar. Or, more to the point now, we see our children there on the altar. 

How We Interpret Scripture Matters

I have wrestled with this for quite a few years, and I cannot say I have truly resolved the issue, but I strongly feel we Evangelicals have not learned the lessons of our past, and thus cannot really speak morally about this.

In the past, we have interpreted scripture to permit slavery, oppression of women, witch trials, and more. A “serious” view of scripture has NOT prevented injustice and error. Period. And we need to stop lying to ourselves and pretend that it has.

The false teachings of Gothard, Phillips, and others didn’t happen because they didn’t take scripture “seriously.” They didn’t error because they failed to acknowledge the “inspiration, inerrancy, and authority” of the scripture. Quite the contrary.

A literalist interpretation of scripture has led to much injustice and oppression. Perhaps that is why Christ himself castigated the religious leaders of his day for focusing on the detail of the law while neglecting the weightier matters of justice and mercy.

Perhaps, just perhaps, our decision to “farewell” others shouldn’t be based primarily on adherence to a detailed theological belief, but on our heart toward others.

A Few Alternative Views on the Meaning of the Abraham and Isaac Story

The Sacrifice of Isaac, Caravaggio (1603)
I like that Caravaggio doesn't shy away from Isaac's anguish.

It is problematic trying to come up with the one, definitive, meaning of any story, whether in the Old Testament or otherwise. There are a few options.

  1. What does the story mean in retrospect?

I already mentioned this one. From the New Testament perspective, Abraham and Isaac were forshadowings of Christ and the ultimate sacrifice. This one is pretty uncontroversial, and if it were the only interpretation advanced, most of us - including RHE - probably would not object.

2. What did the story mean back when it was written down?

This is a bit more difficult. Any follower of the US Supreme Court is familiar with “originalism,” which is the theory of interpreting the Constitution that seeks to find what the words meant to those who wrote them. Whatever your views on Originalism, one must at least admit that this is hardly an easy task, and ever worse is trying to apply that meaning to situations that would never have been imagined by the writers.

So what DID this story mean in the context of the Ancient Near East? There are a few theories, of course. One is that the “obedience” message is the prime one. Quite apart from the moral issues, though, I think this runs into the problem that Abraham and others in the Old Testament questioned and argued with God all the time. If anything, God seemed to welcome the debate, and sometimes “changed His mind,” however you might interpret that. So, at most, unquestioning obedience isn’t clearly taught if you look at the overall picture.

Another intriguing option is one that I ran across while researching this. Some believe that one key message of the story at the time it was written was that God was abolishing child sacrifice.  By providing a lamb, God was moving his people away from the common practice toward animal sacrifice, which would in turn be abolished with the New Covenant.

In some ways, this idea is very satisfying. The culture accepted child sacrifice (and would for a couple thousand more years), but God gently pushed Abraham in the right direction.

3. What has the story meant to others later on?

I noted the author of Hebrews, who took a different message. The so-called Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11 is all about people who believed. They sometimes overcame great odds and won victories. Sometimes they were killed for their faith. The point is, though, that they believed. And that they believed that God would ultimately bring his purposes to pass. The child of promise. The greater resurrection.

The Most Provably False Interpretation

I already argued that I think that taking a lesson of blind obedience from this story leads to evil. I think a second factor comes into play that makes this wrong lesson unbelievably cruel.

In the story, as everyone knows, Isaac isn’t actually sacrificed. God provides a substitute at the last minute, and Isaac lives.

This makes sense if you take the “foreshadowing” interpretation, or the “God abolished child sacrifice” interpretation. But it doesn’t really work for the “blind obedience” interpretation.

Here’s why:

That interpretation believes and expects that God will provide a substitute at the last minute if we would just obey.

This is provably false.

Let me mention another story later in the Bible, that is set about 800 years after Abraham. A dude named Jephthah won a victory and promised to sacrifice the first thing that greeted him when he came home. That “thing” turned out to be his young daughter. (I discussed this - and the way that Isaac and the unnamed daughter were believed to be chattel - in this post.

So Jephthah, believing that God commanded him to sacrifice his daughter prepared to do so, and then was saved at the last minute.

Oh. Wait. That didn’t happen.

No, Jephthah’s daughter was slaughtered. She died. She was murdered. And God never provided a substitute.

This is a profoundly disturbing story, particularly in light of the “sacrifice” of Isaac. Does it mean that girls aren’t valuable? That only the children of “promise” are exempt from being murdered in the name of God?

Or did Jephthah maybe not hear the voice of God correctly?

And see, this is the problem in how we interpret these stories now. If the lesson is “unquestioning obedience” and the expectation is that God will provide a substitute at the last minute, then why hasn’t he?

Those children beaten to death by those following the teachings of the Pearls are still dead. Those daughters denied an education haven’t magically traveled back in time to get it. Those gay children who committed suicide are still dead. And countless relationships will never really be restored (at least until eternity) because they were sacrificed on the altar of “God commanded.”

And no matter how hard you believe, there will be no miracle.

I believe it is because of this fundamental misunderstanding of this story. (And the way that it has been manipulated by leaders eager for unquestioning obedience to themselves.)

The message isn’t “It’s time to obey, though we don’t understand.”

Maybe the message is “Put down your knife. Do not sacrifice a child.”

***

Why I am optimistic for the future of the world, but pessimistic about the future of Evangelicalism:

Fortunately, I think many have come to the same conclusion and have decided to “put down their knives.” The same tendencies that have caused great pearl clutching among the older generations about how the “young people” are I think will ultimately be for the good. (Although it may cost the Evangelical church a generation or two of tithing members.)

Despite what John MacArthur teaches, I believe that many parents (as I noted, even older ones steeped in Gothardism) have decided to put down the knife when it comes to gay and lesbian children. Despite what Piper teaches, many have decided to put down the knife and stand with victims of domestic violence and help them leave and seek justice. (DV rates have gone down substantially in the last 60 years - and even more in the last 20.)

In my most optimistic moods, I hope that the cynicism of those of my generation and later will result in a reduction of predatory teachers selling poison in the name of Christ. The only thing that will prevent there from being another Gothard, another Doug Phillips, another Rushdoony, and more of their ilk is a generation that is willing to call bullshit on anyone who teaches that God requires one to ignore one’s brain, sear one’s conscience, and sacrifice others on the altar of “godliness.” Because until that happens, there will be no end to these predators. Because the “voice of God” so easily becomes synonymous with our fears and cultural insecurities. The sweet voice of those who promise that everything will work out fine if we just obey, and if we just do things this way, even though that nagging voice in the back of our heads and hearts says, “this is illogical and may hurt people.”

At some point, we need to stand up and say, “God does not require Child Sacrifice!”

I think that the younger generations get this. But because they do not hold the power in the Church, they are leaving. As a result, the voices that remain in Evangelicalism seem to be becoming ever more fundamentalist, quick and eager to purge the “impure” from the club. The more moderate voices are either shamed into silence, or forced out. This isn’t the case in all churches, obviously. I am blessed to be a part of one that is a haven of grace right now, but the overall trend is not encouraging.

Darn, I wish I could find this cartoon:

Sometime, during my formative years, a cartoon ran in the local paper (probably The Daily News (Los Angeles)). Sadly, I cannot find it. I think it was essentially a wannabe Far Side clone, but clearly not the real thing.

Anyway, a Neanderthal shaman is standing in front of the crowd, and says something like, “The gods are angry, and can only be satisfied by the sacrifice of someone other than me.”

Truer words were never spoken about the heart of religion. In fact, I think this is one of the things that bothered Christ so much about the religion of His day: “They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.” (Matthew 23:4 NASB)

This isn’t to say that those placing burdens on others don’t also place them on themselves. As one of George Bernard Shaw’s characters in Man and Superman puts it, “It is the self-sacrificing [people] that sacrifice others most recklessly.”

It may not have been the belief in ancient times, but in our modern times (for better or worse), we believe that some sacrifices must be made by the one sacrificed.

Millstones:

If there is any doubt about the difference between the “unquestioning obedience” paradigm and that of the teachings of Christ, I want to mention that He said that anyone that caused a little child to stumble would be better off if he had a millstone tied around his neck and he were cast into the sea.

If we truly believe this, then I think we have to at least question Abraham’s decision. I don’t think RHE is off base in this. Perhaps our first question when it comes to how we deal with our children shouldn’t be, “Am I obeying [my favorite preacher’s interpretation of] God’s commands?” but, “will this cause my child to stumble?” 

How Evil Happens:

I might expand this thought to a full post some day. My observation is that there are two basic scenarios in which religion is used to evil purposes.

First is when an unscrupulous person or persons cynically use religion to accomplish their own ends. These are the sociopaths, and many empire-building preachers fall in this category. I think of Constantine, and “By this cross, conquer.” These men (and occasionally women) have seen religion as a means of power and dominance. They gain power through the weakness and ignorance (and poor judgment) of good hearted believers led astray.

The second is - in my opinion - worse. It occurs when a person in good faith and with a pure heart believes that God is calling him to do great evil in His name. That is when one crosses the line from selfishness and greed into jihad.

Once you are willing to do anything that you believe God asks you to do, regardless of brain or conscience, there are no longer any limits. At that point, you spill your children’s blood in order to send others to hell and bring the Kingdom to earth.

Note on Watch The Lamb:

One of the things I don’t want to do is give a negative impression of Watch The Lamb. With the caveat of the one song - which may well have mirrored Abraham’s thoughts, as far as that goes - I found it a beautiful telling of the death and resurrection of Christ. In fact, playing that clip brought me back to those days in 9th grade, when so much of what I love about my faith became real to me. I can still see the notes on the page, the actors and singers on the stage, and feel everything so deeply.

At the time, Watch the Lamb was a strongly emotional experience, equal to anything I have experienced playing classical music. Okay, maybe except for “For Unto Us A Child Is Born” or “Worthy Is The Lamb” from Messiah. I still tear up for those every time. But I would still list Watch The Lamb as one of my top 10 peaks in my spiritual journey.

And still, the Greatest Story Ever Told is still that. And Ray Boltz told it well.

Oh, Ray Boltz. Hmm, that’s a hard nut to crack in retrospect, isn’t it? Boltz came out of the closet a few years ago, after faking it for 40+ years. Does that negate all the people he touched with his music all those years?

Some links for thought:

I eventually want to write about Theonomy and its damaging impact on the way we approach the Bible, but that is at least a series, not just one post, or a footnote to a post. Rachel Held Evans shares one epiphany with me, however. In Mark Twain’s outstanding book, Huckleberry Finn, which my mother read to us at a young age, has a scene in which the young Huck has the opportunity to turn in Jim, a runaway slave (and Huck’s friend). He agonizes over what to do, as he believes that the “godly” thing would be to turn him in. (This was, in fact, the position of most Southerners, and many Northerners.)

Huck concludes that he cannot violate his own conscience that way, and says to himself, “All right then, I’ll go to hell!”

And I have found that that is where I am at. If my “faith” means violating my own conscience, I’ll take my chances, thank you. If I must do evil because God commands it, then why would I want to serve Him? It is only in the belief that God does not command evil (such as child sacrifice) that one can serve such a god.

The problem, naturally, is how one distinguishes what God desires.

RHE has an amazing post, once again on the Civil War (which I firmly believe continues to haunt American Christianity - and which partially explains our continued poor decisions on moral and ethical matters.)

Her point is that it is pointless to simply conclude that the South was wrong (a concession some don’t make, by the way). We have to have empathy for the oppressors and understand that they weren’t monsters. They may have made horrific mistakes, but they made them largely in good faith.

The implication is profoundly uncomfortable, though. If good people trying their best to serve God could become the instruments of evil, so can we. If we persist in our arrogance that we know the mind of God, we too can be the hands and feet of rank evil to others.


Lest one think that I was exaggerating in my previous post in saying that this is mostly about how we respond to gay and lesbian children, let me offer another RHE post, which reflects the conversations I have heard and participated in over the last 25 years of my life. The story of Abraham and Isaac is usually offered as “proof” that one must sacrifice one’s children if they “come out.”
 
But it isn't just about this issue. The problem, as I stated above, is that any deviation from an increasingly rigid and detailed cultural view of the faith is seen as a reason to punish and control.
Just an interesting thought:

Just an interesting thought:

We become like the god we serve. 

(The old, “if horses had gods, they would look like horses,” or the line from Star Trek I: “we create God in our own image.”) If we believe our God is angry and obsessed with sexuality, that is how we will be.