What’s Really Destroying the American Way of Life

These days, a lot of Americans are scared.  Our entire system of society and culture seems much less stable than it has since the Cold War ended.  Since the anarchic alternative would be far less comfortable for almost everyone, increasing numbers of people are willing to fight others if necessary in order to preserve our way of life.  The problem, as I see it, is that almost everyone is wrong about what the real threat is.

Many conservatives think the threat is immigrants, but in fact immigrants are generally very law-abiding and harvest much of the food that feeds our country, when they’re not serving as medical professionals or in other practically beneficial ways.  Many liberals think the threat is rural white Americans, but in fact they also tend to be law-abiding as a group, and they plant much of the food that feeds our country.  Other conservatives think the threat is socialism, but in reality there is no danger of any significant amount of socialism being adopted on a large scale, and on a small enough scale socialism in fact can work.  Other liberals think the threat is religion, when in fact religion in general and Christianity in particular have been forces for stability in society (sometimes positively, sometimes excessively, such as when Christians prioritize stability over justice).  Other conservatives blame the so-called “deep state” (stealing a page from Turkey’s conspiracy-theory propaganda), but in fact there is abundant evidence that most professionals in government continue to be professional and follow laws and policies (including physically protecting the president).  Other liberals think the threat is simply Trump himself, but while I’m no admirer of the president, Donald J. Trump lived seventy years of his life without destabilizing American society.  No, all of these are the wrong diagnosis.  The real threats to our peace and prosperity are found elsewhere, but are all too present. (more…)

The Burden of Inheriting Stolen Property

Imagine for a moment that you inherited something from a distant relative.  It wasn’t much, and you didn’t know him very well, but hey, it turned out to be a bit useful.  Perhaps it made the difference between being able to buy a car or not, or part of a down-payment on a house.  We might even be grateful to our predecessors for helping us out through a timely inheritance.

But what if you learned that what you inherited was in fact stolen?  And what if you learned that the theft meant that the rightful owners had not been able to buy a car, or had not been able to pull together a down-payment on a house? (more…)

When “an Honest Question” isn’t Innocent

I like questions.  A lot.  I tell that to all my students.  While I don’t assert that there are no stupid questions, I have been known to assert that the only stupid question is the one that doesn’t want an answer.  And I am basically fearless in my questioning: my job as a humanities scholar is to try to understand some of the messiest and most self-contradictory phenomena in the universe, humans.  I really enjoy asking hard questions trying to discern the truth.  And I’ve experienced enough of human ignorance to know that it is deep and wide, and yet people can hardly be held responsible for what they’ve never been told.  So I’ve learned not to assume what people already know, if I can help it.  People often have honest questions about the central assumptions of my worldview, the things which I’ve long grown accustomed to take for granted.  So I’m happy to answer honest questions, even about things that are very dear to my heart.  (I had a friend in graduate school who once greeted me with the question, “Why are Christians so disgusting?”  It took me a bit to learn what she was talking about…)

But not all questions are innocent.  Of course the questions that are really slanderous innuendo in disguise are sinful (e.g. “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?”).  But, while not very common, even “honest questions” that the speaker does not know the answer to can be harmful, and potentially sinful.  Out of love for our neighbors, we should learn to identify and refrain from questions when asking them will not benefit anyone, but will harm people. (more…)

The Real Problem with “The Economy”: Adventures in Missing the Point

As US states and cities started to impose “stay-home” orders in mid-March, and various jurisdictions ordered certain varieties of businesses to close, an outcry arose that we were making much ado about nothing: only 65 people had died due to covid-19 across the country by March 15, and the number of cases stood at less than 4,000, far less than a flu season in any one of the fifty states alone.  Six weeks later, the underestimate of known cases puts the US total today at over 1.1 million cases (over 0.3% of the total US population), and more Americans died from covid-19 in April alone (~60,000 known) than died in Vietnam over the course of over a decade of warfare.  Yet due to the shuttering of businesses, unemployment has surged to the highest raw number of unemployed Americans ever, and as a percentage of the population the highest proportion since the Great Depression ended in WW2.  The “hottest ECONOMY on earth,” as President Trump called it, turned out to be too fragile to withstand the pandemic, and substantial segments of the American population face hunger and lack of medical care, as those were tied to paychecks which are no longer coming.  The United Nations’ World Food Program is warning that this year’s global famine could reach “biblical proportions,” and more could die of starvation worldwide than die from the disease itself.  This is the contest between lives and livelihoods, and is the reason given for several states to reopen businesses despite around 2000 Americans still dying of covid-19 every single day, and despite the continued lack of any known effective treatment for the disease which continues to infect almost 30,000 more Americans per day, at least.  This is situation that leads some, such as Texas Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick to suggest repeatedly that grandparents should be willing to die in order to save “the economy” for their grandchildren.

This discussion, which dominates our news and opinion pages, is the wrong way to think about the current situation, and it is driving the needless endangerment of most of the population.  Thinking about our situation wrongly increases the number of people dying. (more…)

#MeToo vs. #DumpTrump? Joe Biden’s Unwonted Opportunity

I do not generally blog on current events, because I have a hard enough time finishing a blog post within months (or even years!) of starting it, much less within hours of reading something for which it might be relevant.  So for practical reasons, I aim for “timeless truths” which will not go stale in the drafting process.  I also don’t usually blog about politicians’ upcoming decisions, because they aren’t listening to me.  But reading today’s news about the sexual assault allegations against Joe Biden, I had a different take on the situation than I think is likely to be found in media outlets, whether liberal or conservative.  This is no dispute that this is the biggest crisis of Joe Biden’s presidential candidacy, and could derail it entirely, which some people consider cause for mourning and others cause for celebration.  But I think this could be an opportunity for Biden to demonstrate his character, highlight his difference from President Trump, uphold the values of the MeToo movement, and still probably clinch the Democratic nomination if not the presidency.  How might this miracle be worked?  By repentance. (more…)

The Resurrection of the Molecules?

A while ago I had a discussion about the resurrection of the body with a bunch of serious Christians, and the question arose whether the body which is raised is “the same body” or “entirely different body” from that which died.  What struck me was the widespread presumption that, for it to be the same, the body had to have exactly the same molecules.   Since most Christians in the room thought this was impossible, the conclusion was that the resurrection body would be completely different from our current bodies.  I think this is a non sequitur, and not a useful way of thinking about the resurrection. (more…)

“He descended into hell, er… to the dead, er…”: Reflections on the Apostles’ Creed for Holy Saturday

In honor of Holy Saturday, I thought I would post here a response to a question I was posed last week.  Some churches recite the Apostles’ Creed with the line “He descended into hell,” but other churches recite the line as “He descended to the dead.”  What’s going on here?  I also had to do a bit of checking first, and the answer turned out not to be what I suspected! (more…)

Jeremiah’s Aramaic Pun?

One of the more mystifying elements of the book of Jeremiah is that, in the midst of a book otherwise entirely in Hebrew, he drops in one verse in Aramaic.  Portions of the books of Daniel and Ezra were composed in Aramaic, and introduced as Aramaic, initially to represent non-Jewish voices, but Jeremiah without introduction includes one sentence in God’s voice, but in Aramaic.  It reads: “Thus you will say to them: ‘The gods that did not make the skies and the land will perish from the land and from under these skies'” (Jer. 10:11).  Then he returns to Hebrew for the rest of the book.  This has always confused me.  There is nothing in the sentence that needs to be said in Aramaic; you could say that sentence in Hebrew perfectly easily.  And since the rest of the book of Jeremiah is in Hebrew, it seems clear that Hebrew was an acceptable language of revelation.  So why did Jeremiah shift into Aramaic for just that sentence?  I may have a guess. (more…)

“Perfect Love Drives Out Fear,” but Whose, of What?

1 John may win the prize for the most quotable single letter in the New Testament.  “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:6);If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1:9); “But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (2:1); “But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth” (2:20); “No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also” (2:23); “But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (3:2); “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (4:1); “We love, because he first loved us” (4:19); “everyone born of God overcomes the world” (5:4), are just a few of the often-quoted verses.  You could almost read the letter as the “greatest hits” of pastoral maxims developed over a lifetime.

And among these quotable quotes is the simple phrase, “Perfect love drives out fear” (4:18).  I have quoted this myself many times, and often heard it quoted.  But it occurred to me recently to ask, for the first time, whose love?  Love of what, or whom?  And for that matter, fear of what, or whom? (more…)

Zephaniah 3:1: Modern vs. Ancient Translations?

By God’s grace, English translations of the Bible are generally of very high quality, far higher than the translations of any other ancient text.  More effort is put into securing just the right sense and nuance when translating the Bible than anything else, because so much is at stake.  Due to my over-education, I have the rare privilege of reading English translations not only alongside the original Hebrew, but alongside other translations used by the earliest Christians in Greek (the Septuagint), Syriac (the Peshitta), and Latin (the Vulgate).  And when I came to Zephaniah 3:1, I noticed something strange: unusually, all the English translations I looked at disagreed with all the early versions.  What’s going on here? (more…)