Monthly Archives: July 2014

Born Again vs. Born From Above

I wrote before about my puzzlement with “born again” versus “born from above”.

I was thinking about it more and it occurred to me the important part was about receiving the Holy Spirit. Jesus himself received the Spirit from above, so what he was talking about was an experience he himself had been through.

I found this from a Messianic Jew who explains what the idea of being “born again” meant in the cultural context. I have more understanding of why Nicodemus was confused- the concept of receiving the Spirit of God was limited in Hebrew thought to very high persons such as kings.

Jesus however was no one when he received the Spirit, and only became a miracle-working famous teacher after. The story of Jesus is a few different things. What we are commonly told is what he said- usually the Sermon on the Mount, and usually in an interpretation helpful to progressives. The less common version is about the miracles he performed, more popular among word of faith preachers and usually dismissed derisively by “sophisticates”.

Between the two I much prefer the version about the miracles, having the progressive version of the Sermon on the Mount pounded into my head for years. (It was pounded into my head I had to love the people pounding my head.) But there is another story here too- not what Jesus said, not what he did, but how he was transformed.

Can God be transformed? Can God transform himself? There are other explanations but I think the work of God required that Jesus be transformed from one kind of Son to another. Even the highest born son- since we are using human metaphors- must prove himself to his father, prove that he is fit to rule. He received the Spirit because he was obedient to his father. He became a famous, spell-binding preacher and miracle worker of peerless authority.

But this was not the end. He had to accept the ultimate condemnation and death to perform the work his father really wanted from him. He very much did not want this- he pleaded for any other alternative- but he was obedient to his father’s will, and was transformed, again, further, into he who would sit at the right hand of the father.

It’s a cliché of leadership to say you shouldn’t ask people to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself, but Jesus did it. When he said “Follow me” he meant it literally, not simply to do what he said to do, but to do the things he did.

To receive the Spirit involves I think to be receptive and obedient to God’s will for us, no matter how hard it may be.

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The Trouble With Job

I read Job again recently, in hope of gaining more insight. I found it disappointing. Job is supposed to cover, more or less, why bad things happen to good people, but it lacks a really satisfactory answer.

The story is well known. God turns over Job’s family and possessions to Satan on a bet. When that doesn’t get the result Satan was hoping for, he goes back and asks for Job’s person, and God allows Satan to do anything but kill him. Why God does this so easily is an important point I will talk about more later. Job’s reaction to the loss of his family and possessions is way more than one would normally expect. He mourns the loss, but understands all of this really belongs to God and not him, and he worships God and does not blame him.

Satan tells God Job is happy to have escaped with his life, so he still shouldn’t get any credit for being good. So God lets him go further, and Satan afflicts Job with a painful skin disease. (Skin diseases figure prominently in the Bible. I think partly because they were more common then, people lacking soap and disinfectants, and because people thought they had moral significance.

Job still doesn’t blame God, and rebukes his wife when she says he should. The trouble starts when his friends show up, and begin a long discussion about what Job did to offend God.

The friends are a real puzzle. Job was rich and probably had rich friends, but they don’t offer him food, shelter, or medical help. A little sympathy would have been nice as well. I guess you find out who your real friends are in a situation like this, and on top of everything else Job finds he has crappy friends.

The dialogue with the friends is inconclusive. The more they say he must have done something wrong the more he protests his innocence, and the more he protests his innocence the more they take that as proof he must have done something wrong.

The figure of Elihu then comes in. Elihu seems to be regarded by many as the true voice of righteousness, but he doesn’t really say anything the friends didn’t say and goes further by saying Job said things he didn’t, such as that he should behave badly since God had not rewarded his goodness. Elihu starts out by saying he’s young and didn’t want to interrupt his elders, but having waited he goes into full young punk mode.

Elihu to me is the face of organized religion. Let’s say you are the victim of some horrible crime and go to a religious person for spiritual advice. A Catholic, conservative Protestant and liberal Protestant will all tell you pretty much the same thing, even though they secretly regard each other as filthy heretics. They will tell you the most important thing you must do is forgive the perpetrator, because God demands this and you are no better than the criminal because of your original sin.

Job was on solid existential and spiritual ground until his friends showed up. His friends created the entire problem. God rebukes his friends, but not Elihu, God doesn’t even acknowledge Elihu so I’m not sure how he fits in. One can assume because God does not rebuke Elihu that Elihu was right, but since God doesn’t say anything you might also conclude that God did not think Elihu worthy of mentioning.

The trouble comes from assuming that prosperity and health are the normal human condition, and loss and suffering are abnormal and must be explained somehow. But we live in a fallen world. I think for that reason God doesn’t place much importance on Job’s material condition, and Job understands this as well.

Job just wants to know why, and he doesn’t even want to know this until his friends say he is guilty. Job asserts the innocent suffer. He is right. Elihu asserts suffering is not only punishment, but to force sinners to admit their wrong. But Job didn’t do anything wrong.

God’s answer that, “I’m God, you’re not, so don’t ask stupid questions” is correct as far as it goes, but is not a real answer. The Book of Job provides no real answers, not even God’s.

However, expecting it to is wrong, because the only answer to Job is Jesus. The Son of God did not come as a rich, powerful man, did not have riches, acclaim, or ease, and was not honored in his lifetime, but quite the opposite in every respect. The life of Jesus reflected the real human condition, which is to be born with nothing under difficult circumstances, be oppressed and pursued by evil tyrants, live under a crushing and abusive government, be harassed and condemned by wealthy religious hypocrites, have your wisdom responded to with witless sophistry and have your love responded to with hate. That’s normal life, and anything better is a swell bonus but unlikely to have and unlikely to last long if you do have it.

Any kind of suffering you have experienced Jesus also experienced, so he can sympathize with your situation. Poor? Hungry? Homeless? No spouse or children? Family thinks you’re crazy? Relatives murdered? Oppressive government supported by cossetted “good” people? Constant attempts to live well and be good thwarted? Physically abused, tortured, murdered? Friends bug out on you? You’re in good company.

The good and bad things in life are apportioned in ways we don’t understand. The evil really do prosper and the innocent really do suffer. Logically in an evil world the evil will be most in tune with the way things work and in a position to benefit from it, while the innocent will have a hard time understanding what’s going on. In a good world we could see enjoyment as the end of things, but in a bad world we can’t and in pursuing the good can’t assume we will be any better off than Jesus. Which is pretty depressing, as far as his life before his death is concerned. People who tell you you should be like Jesus are never anything like Jesus and would scream bloody murder if they had to experience anything like he did.

I don’t have any answer to human suffering except the tiny amount of sympathy and love one marginal human being can generate, and hope in the resurrection and the redeeming power of Jesus. If that’s real it’s far more than enough.

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Reading Genesis- WTF

I find a lot of the Bible rough going, but especially Genesis. I was reading it a little while ago, and my recall of its opacity was confirmed. A couple of things that stuck in my mind-

-In what is usually called “the Flood” it rains, which had not happened before, but God also unleashes the “fountains of the deep”. In ending, or reversing, the separation of the waters above from the waters below, he actually reverses creation until a fairly early point, when he originally did this. “The Flood” is a lot more than a flood, even a world-wide epic flood that covers everything.

-Melchizedek is the king of Jerusalem and a, or the, priest of the one God. Abraham honors him, he does not honor Abraham, and he completely pre-exists and is outside of the Hebrew religion. There is a lot of debate about who and what Melchizedek was, but his existence has huge implications about how we regard everything else that comes after.

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Gender Nonconformity and Christianity

We hear a lot about gender nonconformity and Christianity these days, in reference to gay issues usually. This also extends, more quietly to roles of men and women in the family and the church. What is appropriate gender behavior as seen by Christianity?

Progressive Christians believe gay sex, at least within “committed relationships” or gay marriages, should be regarded as normal and healthy. (And usually that not regarding it as normal and healthy, is not normal and healthy.) Women should have the same authority in all ways as men in the church and the family.

First, the social history of this. In traditional rural, agricultural societies, women were women and men were men. Agricultural production requires hard physical labor, so men do most of it. Tilling a field means you have to plow and remove rocks, which takes a lot of strength. (As Steve Sailer notes, in places where the ground is not plowed, such as Africa this means much different gender roles.) Herd animals are large and potentially dangerous; a woman might be able to herd sheep and goats, but having a woman alone in the field far from help could be dangerous if security is poor.

Furthermore most adult men would need to have some ability for military service. The average farmer would muster only occasionally; an aristocratic landowner would devote a lot of his time to military training and organizing. But only boys, old men and the handicapped would be completely exempt.

In a rural, agricultural society both food production and security depended on strong, aggressive men, so male domination of society was taken as a given. In an urban society, this would not be the case. An urban society does not need to be modern, or industrial, it only needs enough surplus food production so that a few people can do other things. There have been urban societies since, I guess, several thousand years BC. Still except for some large cities like Babylon most people’s mentality was rural. Most people in a city at any given time were just visiting for some legal or religious business, if you were wealthy you might have a residence in town but you would spend most of your time on the farm. Full-time urban residents would have been priests or workers at a temple or people who worked for the king.

However, as small or large as their numbers might be, city people are much different from rural people. Outside of construction and some rudimentary police force or palace guard, city work does not require physical strength or what is more subtle, the masculine mindset of getting things done. Trade, craft production and domestic work require patience and getting along with others, one might say servility. To some extent we think of the urban worker as a man doing hard work in a mill or factory, but in ancient times as in Manhattan today, urban work was mostly banking, politics and providing services to those engaged in banking and politics.

In a rural society you would see mostly traditional gender roles, and traditional sexual behavior. With low population density you rarely encounter people who aren’t your family or who you don’t know well, so opportunities for sex outside of approved relationships would be few. It doesn’t mean they didn’t happen, but they were unusual and looked down on- by formal condemnation and possibly worse, by gossip and jokes.

Family life was very important to these people, for the simple reason that for them the only way to live after death was through your descendants. Not to be able to have children was a great tragedy. If a married man died before his wife had children, his brother was supposed to marry her and then the children she had would be recognized as his brothers. Isaiah made an exception for eunuchs- that faithful eunuchs would have eternal remembrance, “better than sons or daughters.”

In the city however people of all kinds, unrelated and strangers, lived in close quarters. Large buildings, public and private, with multiple rooms and passages made privacy possible. The lack of physical labor and the availability of slaves and servants for domestic work reduced pressure for people to adhere to traditional gender roles. Men didn’t have to be physically strong, stoic, and focused, and women didn’t have to be caring, maternal or competent in household tasks. Ability to form alliances with others, ingratiate oneself to the powerful and dominate the weak were (and are) what counted, and these skills easily translate to pursuing deviant sexual relations.

Effeminate men and masculine women would not only not be disadvantaged, they might have an advantage. But in this environment, the opposite also occurs. Women with money and time on their hands can put a lot of effort into appearance, into looking as beautiful as possible. A wealthy urban woman might every day be as well dressed and groomed as a farm woman would have been one day in her life, her wedding day. Men with time could spend a lot of it on athletics and physical exercise- not much connected to military training and readiness, as these things had been, but mostly to physical appearance and social status.

Neither of these extremes- hypo- or hyper-masculinity, or hypo- or hyper-femininity- is normal or healthy. They can get mixed up, too- in ancient Greece, as today hyper-masculinity was associated with homosexuality. The Greeks made statues representing ideals of masculinity and femininity, and held athletic champions in the highest regard. But these are likely to be problems only in significantly urbanized societies. The society of the ancient Hebrews we see in the Old Testament was mostly rural. Homosexuality was prohibited, but it was not likely to be very common, it was probably very rare.

The Greco-Roman society and empire that pushed into the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East was very powerful militarily, and this dominance made its culture something the subject peoples adopted, especially the urban upper classes. Resistance to this was fairly strong among the Hebrews, and they negotiated a religious accommodation with the Romans.

On the whole, though, the sexual culture of the Greco-Roman upper classes- homosexuality, sexual use of anyone unable to resist, such as children, slaves, and poor people, and pretty much anything else you can think of, and plenty you probably can’t, became the pervasive ethos of the empire. The population, high and low, was deeply degraded by this. Family life was seriously harmed, and the birthrate dropped perilously low. Augustus found this so troubling he added additional penalties for adultery and a tax on bachelors. It didn’t make much difference.

Along came Christianity. In my mind Paul is best thought of not as a theologian, but as prophet bringing moral sanity and health to a degraded and ruined population. Restoring paternal authority to an urban population that had mostly forgotten it was not oppressive, it was a great relief from the freewheeling amorality of the age. Patriarchy doesn’t mean women and children have oppressors, it means they have protectors and guides. Christians survived, due to mutual care, and reproduced, due to family values, better than the rest of the population and their numbers increased rapidly.

People like to say Christianity was an effete religion until the Germans masculinized it, but from reading Paul it was anything but. Paul was big on patriarchy, strict discipline and military metaphors. What the Teutonic people did was make military service and war compatible with Christianity, which you first see in Beowulf- a hero who fights and sacrifices for others, not his own glory, and later in the code of chivalry.

The apotheosis of medieval society was the knight, a high-born nobleman, a warrior by profession and lifestyle, but a man who was dedicated to serving and protecting those weaker and poorer than himself. Knighthood was actually a religious order, the ceremony conferring it occurring not in a castle, but in a church.

The idea of a priest as a masculine figure seems strange to most modern people, Catholics as well as Protestants, but a man who rejected home and family for the disciplined asceticism of serving God was just that. Augustine was quite the ladies’ man before dedicating himself to God.

Something changed as the Middle Ages progressed, and the once masculine church gained a more feminine bent. Leon Podles, in “The Church Impotent” dates this to about 1200 and the establishment of mandatory priestly celibacy. I suspect that what had happened slowly over the centuries was that the church became a place to put men and women of the upper classes not suited for marriage- because they were gay or in the case of women, maybe just obnoxious, like Martin Luther’s wife- and eventually these people took over. The church probably attracted a lot of men for the opportunities for Machiavellian political manipulation- this was Italy after all- or because getting married would have interfered with having sex with lots of women. All in all, a not very savory cast of characters took over.

The Reformation was at least in part a reaction to this, and the reestablishment of more masculine authority. The Protestant religion came for a time to be more masculine, while the Catholic Church mostly continued on a feminizing trend, with some exceptions such as the Jesuits.

This was not to last, as the world was changing. Warriors, or people who were at least supposed to be warriors, had ruled for a long time. Firearms made war easy and democratic, and the age of the mounted knight as the protector and hero of society was gone. International trade made possible by voyages of discovery made merchants the richest, and thus the most powerful people in society. Along with merchants, bankers and the always crucial insurers prospered.

This didn’t happen all at once, because at the advent of this age- our age- most people were still farmers, and rich landowners were still at the top of society. But gradually, the values of country people- physical strength, stoicism, respect for hierarchy, and traditional gender roles- were replaced by the values of city people- facility with dealing with many people, restrained personal behavior, a wider range of emotional expression suited to the demands of the situation. Men spent most of their waking hours away in offices or factories, so women gained more influence in the family and the church.

To urban people, rural values are at best outmoded, and often regarded as an actual threat. The Victorian era was marked by the increasing feminization of society, through things like the Methodist church and the temperance movement. Urban capitalism doesn’t just narrow the differences between men and women, it seems to actually reverse them with time. We have seen the effect on the English upper classes over a period of around 400 years, but Jews have had the same process going for over 1000.

During the industrial period, factory work maintained some kind of a masculine ethos, but that has been gone for some time. Nobody in the western world farms any more, and nobody makes things any more. Almost everybody is some kind of a merchant, banker, servant, or priest, just like we might have been in Babylon. The priests are called by different names now- lawyers or diversity coordinators- but they fill the same function. The culture is much like it would have been then- palace intrigue, sexual excess, and a great deal of time devoted to gossip, clothes and parties.

The urban environment doesn’t support traditional gender roles, and we see a lot of poor gender conformity- effeminate men, masculine women, and hyper-masculinity and femininity. These represent different moral problems. Male effeminacy and female masculinity degrade the ability of people to form relationships and functional families. Hyper-masculinity and femininity allow people to form relationships, but only fleeting and hedonistic ones.

The People Who Run Things are the biological, but also the cultural and spiritual descendants of the Quakers, Transcendentalists and Victorian Methodists, along with secular Jews. For themselves they a kind of hypo-sexuality where gender differences are not pronounced, where men and women are close to equal and sometimes women are dominant. Among Jews, female dominance is close to the norm. This works for them in their culture as urban businesspeople, but it can’t be called entirely right and it’s certainly not for everybody. It has poor results for people outside this culture.

For non-whites and gays, they promote hyper-sexuality, but this also leads to female dominance and lacking stable marriage, matriarchy.

Neither of these things is biblical or functional, but it’s the official morality. What do we need to do about gender non-conformity in today’s world? Since this is a long topic in and of itself, I’m dividing this topic and leaving that for another post. I will close by saying it’s a real thing, not to be “celebrated” as the progressives like nor brushed aside as traditionalists tend to do. Some people are indeed born like that, others are damaged, others are poorly parented, others are led astray. But there is an answer for everyone.

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Robert Alton Harris

We are supposed to argue from the general to the particular, and yet our overall view and understanding of things comes from particular experiences and examples. This has given me the urge to argue from the particular to the general, but something I read yesterday has given me the desire to do both.

Alistair of Alistair’s Adversaria occasionally has an “open mike” thread for general discussion. The other day this got into the subject of violence in literature, a specific example being “Child of God” by Cormac McCarthy, in which the titular child of God is a serial killer and necrophiliac. I haven’t read the book, but from the summary it was written in 1973, set in the 1960’s and portrays its protagonist as a victim of society.

Commenter WhiteFrozen relates this then volunteers that this protagonist “A necrophilac/murderer/rapist is pretty high up on the list of ‘the least of these’, IMO.” My response was- “A necrophiliac/murderer/rapist is the exact opposite of the least of these, IMO.” Alistair agreed- “Yes, I really don’t think that they were the people that Jesus had in mind when speaking of the ‘least of these’.”

WhiteFrozen persisted- “Jesus seems to be referring to the lower parts of society – people in prison, strangers, the sick, the poor – and as far as lower parts of society go, Lester Ballard [the murderous hillbilly in question] is fairly low.”

I became a little curious about who this WhiteFrozen is, and clicking on his username leads to his blog, where he discusses theology. He has read and studied all the big names and a lot of minor ones, stuff I wouldn’t read in a million years. He is a well-read and sophisticated progressive, and takes the progressive line on criminals- that they are poor, helpless oppressed people for whom Jesus has special love and care. I take the non-progressive position that they are not. So, who’s right?

On some prima facie level, the progressive position seems plausible. Criminals, especially violent criminals, are usually poor, come from a lower-class background, and have little education, all typical markers of low social status and influence.

The specific I’m thinking of here is the case of Robert Alton Harris, a death row inmate in California who was much in the news from the time of his crime, the murder of two teenage boys in a kidnapping and carjacking in 1978 until the time of his execution in the gas chamber in 1992. The media attention was increased by the fact that Harris was (I think) the first person to get the death penalty in California after it was reinstated and the first person to be executed in California after the reinstatement, and by some other lurid factors- the investigating detective was the father of one of the victims, and began investigating before he knew his son was dead; Harris’s cruelty to the victims, including saying “Shut up and die like a man” and “Jesus can’t save you now, kid” while one was praying; and his frequent laughing and joking during the trial.

Being the first, or one of the first, of the post-ban death penalty cases, Harris got the full attention of progressive worthies. Much was made of Harris’s brutal childhood. Several nuns became advocates, including one who said “Pete Wilson [the California governor who denied clemency] dances with death.” Harris himself never took the whole thing too seriously, until the very end. A short time before the execution, when it looked like it was going to finally happen, prison officials got wind of a rumor he was going to kill himself with a heroin overdose and did a cell search. The final night of the execution, the local court kept sending appeals to the Supreme Court, until told to knock it off. One filing was something like 1500 pages, put in 15 minutes before the scheduled execution time. Harris was actually strapped in once, then taken out.

I actually sat up most of the night listening to all this on the radio. Around 6 in the morning, it finally happened. After being strapped in for the second time, Harris apparently realized this was it. At that point- he had never expressed any before- he seemed to have some remorse, and he mouthed the words “I’m sorry” to the investigating detective and father of one of the victims, who was there as a witness.

To understand Harris you have to ask why he did what he did. Had his abusive childhood caused him to lose all personal agency, or enough to make him a victim? I don’t think so. The explanation of his behavior, or that of almost any violent criminal, has simpler explanations.

In “The Seductions of Crime- The Moral and Sensual Attractions of Doing Evil” sociologist Jack Katz studies the phenomenon of the “hard man”, the kind of aggressive criminal who does armed robberies, murders, and organized crime. Katz explains the motivation of such men is simply the experience of power. In the commission of the crime, the criminal experiences an extreme level of power over the victim. This only lasts for a short period of time, by the clock, but for the victim the experience lasts a lifetime, if he survives, or eternity, if he dies. Katz points out that the hard man also wants to display power and dominance over other participants in the crime, to show his leadership or for the simple reason of getting a bigger share of the proceeds. Thus often the abuse meted out to the victim is also a message to other participants, or other criminals who may hear about it.

Criminals then, like everybody else, have different power relationships with different people. With the Hobbesian state, the criminal has a relationship of little power and low status. When the police arrive, and he goes to jail, the state has substantial, but not total power over him, and he is not abject. He is not free, but he is fed, housed and clothed and can expect to regain his freedom in some time, depending on the circumstances. A large part of the apparatus of the state will act as his advocate.

With most others- his family, neighbors, and especially his victims- the criminal has a relationship of very high power and status. He is treated deferentially, and punishes those who do not defer. People are afraid of him, and he likes that, he revels in it. To him, the life a law-abiding citizen is a joke. A man who follows the law, unless he is extremely rich or powerful will not get anything like the fear and respect he does. Henry Hill, at the end of his autobiography, “Wiseguy” relates that one of the worst things about losing his Mafia status was having to stand in line– “like a schmuck”.

The murders were not the first time Harris had killed. In another incident years earlier, he beat and tortured a man to death, and was convicted of manslaughter. Harris loved the power that killing gave him, he was intoxicated by it. He loved the attention that being a notorious murderer gave him, and all the fawning people it brought to the visiting room. Harris had power and loved power, the power of life and death, the power of God himself. Harris was not the least of these, he was a man after Satan’s own heart, a man who partook in the greatest evil there is.

The life of a violent criminal can be divided into three stages- early childhood, when he is helpless, the period of his criminal manhood- which could start at 10 or earlier- and the time when he is permanently incarcerated. During the first and last periods, he is under the control of others and his agency is limited. Progressives look at these periods, and ignore the middle. During this period he is no victim. He gains power over others, uses it and enjoys it. He denies the value and humanity of others and makes himself his own god. Such men are not lacking in moral sense. They have a finely developed moral sense, only of the evil kind.

To deny the reality of criminal behavior and culpability is in some way more evil than the thing itself. We create the Hobbesian state- “he who wields the sword” as Paul puts it- to deal with such people. To undermine this process in the name of God is deny a basic right of humanity.

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Love, that moves the Sun and other stars……..

I went to a baseball game recently. I don’t really like baseball, and don’t follow it, but I hadn’t been to a baseball game in years and my wife had never been to one, so I thought it would be a nice activity.

We had a wonderful time. Live baseball is good entertainment. I don’t think baseball translates well to TV at all. Other sports go largely back and forth on the court or field, albeit with movement across also, but in baseball it’s continuously at all angles across a square, and I think that is much harder to put on a screen.

In the nosebleed seats, we had a great view of the stadium and the city. It was all very beautiful. And it occurred to me, that all these beautiful things- the stadium, the city and its buildings, the game on the field, even the food at the concessions- was created not by the magical spirit of this age, Adam Smith’s “enlightened self-interest” or his “Invisible Hand” but by love.

Things being created by love is a bizarre concept to the modern mind, even the modern Christian mind. Things are created by human effort. Love is a feeling that may or may not motivate us, but it isn’t a power.

The title comes from Dante. The people of medieval times, lacking the concept of Newtonian physics, believed in love as an actual force that moved the universe, as modern people believe in the four fundamental forces.

We can certainly see how the laws of physics order the universe, but this doesn’t explain the creation of things by people. For all the people of the city and stadium- the laborers and craftsmen, the architects and engineers, the drivers, the cooks and dishwashers, the players and coaches, I believe they are moved essentially by love.

On some level, I believe that love is not just the true fundamental force, but the only thing that is real. All else will pass away, and only love will remain.

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