On Genocide in Scripture: A Letter to a Friend Leaving the Faith

This is a letter that I wrote to a friend who is leaving behind the Christian faith.  I hope to begin a dialog with her, and may post excerpts from as we progress.

First, let me say that you’re asking a lot of really good questions.  These are the sort of questions that all Christians should be asking.  But I should point out that how we ask questions determines a lot of whether we actually find answers.  So, for instance, if I ask you something like, “When are you going to quit beating your wife?” I’ve boxed you in to a particular corner that there’s no escaping from.  Either way, to answer the question is to admit to beating your wife.

To be more precise, there are questions that come from a posture of faith that are earnest questions. They recognize that the problems are hard, but because they are approaching the question from a prior commitment to a set of beliefs, they may accept a certain amount of ambiguity–or better, wait longer for a clear answer–than someone who is asking without that prior belief. For example, because I believe that Jesus Christ is Lord, I am able to recognize and inquire about the problem of genocide in the Old Testament. But because I believe that and have lots of good reasons for believing that, I might be less affected by my lack of an immediately obvious rebuttal to the problem than someone who doesn’t have the prior commitment to the Lordship of Jesus.

All that to say, questions simply aren’t neutral. How we ask them matters considerably.

There’s one other implication of this: I take a long view of faith and unbelief. I didn’t wake up one morning and begin to believe that Jesus died for my sins. There were lots of factors, lots of experiences, lots of reading and searching that led me to that conclusion. I would expect something similar for going in the other direction. There is a lot at stake on the questions that you are asking: patience and diligence can be helpful tool.

That said, let’s do this: rather than address all the questions you have raised here, let’s just take on one, attempt to treat it with the depth it deserves, and then move on. I suspect many of the questions are overlapping, but that means as we get deep into one we’ll get deeper into the others. I envision a long conversation here–weeks, months, doesn’t matter. The advantage of email is that the conversation exists over long periods, so long as the Lord gives us both many years.

Let’s start with the question of God’s relationship to war in the Old Testament, as it clearly has ramifications for the unity of the Old and New Testaments.

First, I think that there is a question as to how we describe what happens (and here I think primarily of the book of Joshua). Is it genocide, or corporate capital punishment? It’s important to read the text closely here: the Lord doesn’t just command Israel to wipe out a people group. He is, it seems, executing a sort of corporal capital punishment on the Canaanites for their sins.

Consider: in Genesis 15:6, it is suggested that their sin “is not yet filled up.” The book of Joshua happens some 400 years later, which is a considerable amount of time to put up with the sort of rank wickedness we barely have words for–child sacrifice, incest, bestiality, etc.

Second, Deuteronomy 9:4-5 suggests that it is precisely because of their wickedness that the Lord drives them out–not because he has “played favorites.” Indeed, when Israel failed to drive them out completely, it led to the prophetic judgments against them for their own (similar) acts of wickedness. So in Jeremiah 23:14, God will say that Israel is “like Sodom to me.” That’s pretty strong language, and suggests that what’s going on is not about war per se, but rather about sin and wickedness.

Now, this is only one component of the presentation of God in the Old Testament–and it’s worth comparing this record to the book of Jonah, where God specifically sends warning to Ninevah to repent, warning which is effective. But it suggests that there is a fundamental conflict between sin and purity, and that the two cannot ultimately dwell together.

Your question, I suspect, is whether this is maintained in the New Testament. The answer is yes–and no. Consider: in the Old Testament, there is no distinction between the religious functions of Israel and its police functions–or, we might say, between “church” and “state.” The New Testament, on the other hand, shifts the ground on this point by drawing a distinction between the state’s functions and the church’s. What does that mean for understanding the situation in Joshua?

Romans 15:4 suggests that what was written in the Old Testament is “for our instruction”–that is, for the instruction of the redeemed people of God who are constituted by the word of Jesus Christ. Under this rubric, Joshua seems like a foreshadowing of the eschaton–of the last days, when God will complete the work that Israel failed to do (eradicate evil and bring us into the promised land). That is, Joshua points us toward the final judgment.

Additionally, it might suggest that the state still has the role of pursuing justice within the temporal realm. Here again the distinction between church and state in the New Testament matters. The church doesn’t abrogate the functions of the state.

Either way, the popular notion that God capriciously kills a lot of people simply won’t stand up under a close reading of the actual text. There’s a lot more going on than that.

Mark Roberts’ Saintly Smackdown

I have been tempted to read Christopher Hitchens’ latest screed against religion, but have held off in favor of other projects and interests. My main question is whether the new atheists are really any different than the old atheists. I once started reading Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, only to stop a short while later due to his laughingly bad understanding of what Christianity actually teaches.

Mark Roberts, one of the most saintly men I’ve ever met, has read Hitchens’ work and discovered that he is not so different than his atheist predecessor Russell.

The bad news for Christopher Hitchens is that he gets a low mark for accuracy when it comes to his statements about the New Testament and New Testament scholarship. In fact, I found fifteen factual errors in this material. I also identified sixteen statements that show what I consider to be a substantial misunderstanding or distortion of the evidence, even though a few scholars might agree with Hitchens. That’s why I distinguish between factual errors and misunderstandings/distortions, in an effort to be clear and fair.

Roberts carefully details not only the inaccuracies of Hitchens’ work, but his inflammatory tone and oddly unscientific approach (given how much he loves science) to studying religion. What’s more impressive, he does so while still managing to be respectful in his approach. It is most impressive that he takes some of Hitchens’ claims as seriously as he does, rather than laughingly abusing them (as I and other lesser men might have done):

During my interview with Hitchens I said, more than once, that it seems like he and I inhabit alternative universes. I said that because, among other things, his view of what Christians believe and experience is so contrary to my view, and I’ve been a practicing Christian for 44 years. For example, in one place Hitchens writes that believers claim, “Not just to know, but to know everything” (p. 10). Now even allowing for a good bit of hyperbole, this statement reflects nothing of my experience as a believer. I do claim to know certain things, but I freely admit the fallible nature of my knowledge. Has Hitchens ever spent any time with thoughtful Christians (or other religious folk) who wrestle openly with matters of faith, who sometimes struggle with doubt, and who freely admit their own ignorance? If not, I could introduce him to dozens of such people. Moreover, I can’t even begin to think that I know more than a tiny percentage of what can be known. Know everything???? If Hitchens thinks this is what the average religious person claims, then he knows little about the average religious person, at least in my experience.

Thank you, Mark Roberts, for reading Hitchens’ work for the rest of us. It seems it was obviously a gruelling task.
Buy Mark Roberts’ new defense of the reliability of the Gospels here.

What is the Good News?

I spent my morning with a wonderful friend (who is now also my boss) inviting some high school-aged young people to attend Wheatstone Academy this summer. Our “marketing method” is simply to visit a classroom, in this case the Freshmen and Senior Bible classes at San Juan Capistrano Valley Christian School, and to engage in a lively dialectical discussion with them. In a free-ranging and impromptu style, we asked them to think about the pros and cons of modern technology, iPods, movies, the internet, etc., and we challenged them to discover ways to intelligently use these tools while avoiding the most common type of harm that can come from them. Those who are interested and engaged by such a conversation would probably enjoy the conference. Those who were bored and/or totally did not understand the question probably would not enjoy the conference, where we spend time with some wonderful scholars like JP Moreland and Fred Sanders, have small group discussions, and do higher-brow cultural outings.

It struck me, as we tried to interest and challenge this group of bright young people, that we were not trying to sell them on a product, and we were not even selling them on an idea. We were selling them on a way of life. Or better yet, on Life, with a capital L. We have come to believe, because of the influence of our mentors, the great books of Western Civilization, that life on this earth is first and foremost a dynamic thing. It is everchanging. The one thing that characterizes life is that it has no consistant characteristics. Death and taxes are perhaps inevitable, but what else is? Relationships change, points-of-view grow and change, where we live changes, how comfortable we are fluctuates endlessly, what we think is important in life morphs and develops dramatically, and on and on. The one constant is flux. So how are we to swim in the stormy tides of the human condition? By accepting the changing-ness, and taking responsibility for ourselves and our lives. By applying the free will God gave us to our lives in an effort to keep things changing in a direction, from good to better to great to heavenly, rather than from good to OK to not-so-good to horrible. The great challenge is to take a cold hard look at this life and our strange parodoxical identity as humans and to say, “I accept the challenge. I will find out what it means to succeed, and I will do whatever it takes to succeed.” We have the potential, as Giovanni Pica Della Mirandola so passionately argued, to become almost anything. Human beings can grow to be ecstatically happy, “little lower than the angels,” or horribly debase, much worse than the the most savage of wildlife.

The difference rests, primarily, I would argue, in the choices we make. The fact, therefore, that good choices are possible is good news. The possibility of living life, of living Eternal Life, in a community of excellent human beings under the leadership of the One who created us — this seems like not just good news, but the Good News.
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Whence the Atheist Sense of Humor?

Via John at Verum Serum, check out this video response by Pastor David Williams to the oh-so-charming “Rational Response” crew. The response was apparently flagged on YouTube for “inappropriate content.” (See the comments at John’s site, where one of the “Rational Responders” claims that the video was flagged for copywrite infringement.Even if that were true, it would be the equivalent of Christians decrying the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” for impinging on our “car logo,” the ubiquitous Jesus Fish. The phenomenon that is FSM is a real point for the philosophical naturalists camp in the publicity war, but it seems some don’t want to let the spoofs go both ways. Regardless, there’s good reason for everyone to be concerned that Pastor Williams’ video was removed.

Flirting with Christianity

Faith, it drives me away
But it turns me on
Like a strangers love

-Muse Who wouldn't want this man for a son?

With regard to a Jewish agnostic friend of ours, Matt Anderson once remarked that he is “flirting with Christianity.”

This friend of ours is a university professor, scholar, and gifted teacher who habitually spends long hours of his valuable time reading and trying to understand great Christian writers. He spends a greater amount of time, true, trying to understand the writings of Plato, but his passionate attention to Thomas Aquinas, Charles Williams, GK Chesterton, and, even, recently, the New Testament, is seemingly dissonant with his long-held distrust of and disbelief in the necessity of following the risen Jesus for living well.

In his conversations with us, he will often play the “devil’s advocate” with regard to our orthodox Christian beliefs, but he will just as convincingly and respectably play “God’s advocate” when the situation calls for it. He might solidly defend a high view of God, (his creative power, for instance, in Genesis) from our oftentimes dim, understated evangelical viewpoint, or he might repetitively force us to take Paul seriously when he says, in II Corinthians, that “knowledge will pass away.” (It is a strange occurance to be have an agnostic Jew defend Christian dogma to me, a lifelong evangelical, when it is being ignored or misunderstood.)

I think that this phrase, “flirting with Christianity,” is a clever and accurate description of our friend, and not only him, but of many people in the world, and of, perhaps, an archetypical attitude that humanity may  assume. It is an attitude of feigned indifference, of playful rejection followed immediately by playful solicitation, followed again by playful rejection. It is an attentive and examining attitude, while remaining a stand-offish one. It’s ceaseless demand is for “more time, more time.” More time to consider, more time to reflect, more time to research, all the while dabbling in the benefits to be enjoyed. With regard to people, flirtatious attitudes seek favors and company, but hope to avoid commitment and responsibility. With regard to worldviews, they seek to the interesting or insightful elements of a worldview, without the less-than-interesting implications or nasty behavioral modifications that must follow. But perhaps Christianity is less a worldview than a person, after all… regardless…
I’d like to do some exposition of the lyrics of my favorite rock band, Muse, to demonstrate that they, too, are flirting with Christianity. This exposition is entirely an eccentric interest of mine rooted in my love for the band’s music, but it should also serve as an instantiation of a more universal (and more useful) analysis of the mysterious movement of the soul towards grace, that is, the movement of the unregenerate, wayward son or daughter back to the loving and forgiving arms of the Father, whom Jesus revealed to us, and who eagerly desires that all men and women be reconciled to Him, now, and forever.

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We are the Meaning Makers

If I were Jason Kuznicki, I’d be irritated.

Here’s Jim’s explanation of his “puzzle”: It’s all about trying to find a pattern that isn’t real–when pathological, the condition is called apophenia–by relying on human design intuitions. All of the strategies are possible, even probable, modes of uncovering the structure of the puzzle–if the design is in fact designed.

It was, and it wasn’t. In the vague, meaningless sense of “design,” one often trumpeted by Salvador Cordova, an intelligent agent crafted the pseudopuzzle, first by noticing an instance of a possible pattern, then by combining words with similar endings, finally deceptively claiming a solution was possible. But the design was essentially random. Words were chosen using associations in memory (for all the -eese words, of which “Edwin Meese” is my favorite) and from a list of -ary words found here. There was no leitmotif other than “hmm, this word sounds nifty.”

In other words, if I understand him, Jim created a puzzle with the appearance of design that was, in fact, “essentially random,” leaving Jason to discern an order that wasn’t really there. Jim’s point is, as always, provocative: Pope Benedict XVI, soon to head a debate on the theological importance of intelligent design, has said, “We are not the accidental product, without meaning, of evolution.” Indeed, for even if evolution is an accident, it has birthed creatures that are meaning-makers, able to fashion order out of randomness, for better or worse. This requires tentativeness and skepticism, for we see meaning everywhere, even where it isn’t.

The notion that we can create meaning where it isn’t is itself fascinating. It demonstrates, I think, the connection between evolutionary theory and the agression of reader-response hermeneutics. After all, there is no meaning in Jim’s puzzle–it’s up to the reader to determine the meaning for himself. Which, thankfully, we’re hardwired to do.
But if that’s the case, then Kuznicki is right and Jim is wrong. If Jim is right, then he has unfortunately ceded his authority as author to determine the meaning of his own puzzle. He has given over the right to say that it has no meaning, since it is the brute facts of the world and Kuznicki is the meaning maker. The fact that Kuznicki failed to find meaning doesn’t matter at all–perhaps a greater genius (if there were such a thing) could have found a coherent meaning. Or a trivial meaning. If we are meaning makers, what does it matter?

But Jim’s puzzle still rests, if I may, on a theistic view of the world. Jim is the author, and he has intentionally created his puzzle to confuse. It is, then, a text with a meaning, but not the meaning Jim led us all to believe it had. As an author, Jim has played the Cartesian demon, “finally deceptively claiming a solution was possible.” The puzzle itself rests upon a theology that demands a malevolent God out to trick the reader.

In sum, Jim is caught in a contradiction. He tells us we are meaning makers (a la Kuznicki) but then rejects the meaning we might make out of this particular nonsense in favor of his authorial intent.
The post certainly teaches a lesson, but ironically not the lesson Jim wants.

Da Vinci Code Takedown and Send-up

Fred Sanders’ post on Middlebrow outing nine art errors in that atrocious, yet very popular and profitable novel, The Da Vinci Code is a gem. I had plenty of reason to disbelieve Dan Brown’s far-fetched historical claims, but I didn’t have much ammo about the art stuff. I thought there was something fishy about it! I really must remedy my ignorance about art.
Funny and informative is the post – which is also a decent way to describe Dr. Sanders. Check it out.

The Problem with Raising the Stakes in the Debate on Homosexuality in the Church

Over at the fantastic blog Mere Comments, Dante translator Anthony Esolen wrote a piece urging the church to “raise the stakes” in the debate on homosexuality in the church by “blistering and frank condemnations of fornication — based on a keen insight into what that sin can do to a human soul.” This would solve the problem by climbing back up the slippery slope the church has fallen into on sexual morality. It would also remove the oft-used argument in Christian-leaning homosexuals who say undue condemnationis brought on them by a finger-pointing church. The proverbial finger would still be pointed, but now broadened to take in all sexual sins.

Great idea, right? Well, I think so too, but there is one problem…

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Doubting the Principle

I have been somewhat involved in an interesting discussion over at Jon Rowe’s place about the possibility of being a Christian philosopher. My involvement included this response to an essay by DSH. Jon has featured DSH’s latest comment in its entirety here. In essence, DSH contends that being a “Biola philosopher” is a contradiction in terms. Though my philosophy training is relatively minimal, my Biola credentials are exemplary, which makes me as good a candidate as any to respond. I accept. Continue reading

Sodom & Gomorrah As They Relate to Christianity & Culture

On Sunday my church considered Genesis 18:16-19:38, the story of the destruction of the infamous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. A key character in the story is Lot, Abraham’s nephew, who decided to go down into the fertile valley of the cities. Apparently, Lot found himself in the midst of a horrendously wicked group of people and his reaction to that situation in the unfolding of this passage of Scripture tells us a great deal about how Christians ought to interact with the culture surrounding them – namely that one must either actively confront the culture or retreat, passivity is not a good strategy.

When the two angels of the Lord in human form come to Lot, we find him mingling amongst the people of the city. He graciously takes in the two men, but soon the whole of the men of  the city, both young and old, are banging at the door clamoring to rape the new guys. Lot steps outside his home in the middle of the city in an attempt to calm the crowd and calls them “brothers” or “friends” showing that he was intimately involved in the community.

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