Some of the most difficult ethical dilemmas occur when people are forced to decide between the demands of competing authorities. What happens when the state demands one thing and Scripture requires the opposite? Peter and John had no trouble making such a decision when the Sanhedrin told them to stop preaching in the name of Jesus; they boldly proclaimed, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). When any human authority requires the Christian to sin against God, this must be his answer. But what of those who are not Christians? How do they resolve such a dilemma? One of the classic treatments of this subject is Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone, the latest addition to the literature website. The play asks the reader to choose which is more important, loyalty to the government or loyalty to the gods, and the decision is complicated by the fact that both sides of the question involve responsibility to the family. The central characters in the play both stake out extreme positions – Creon, the king, insists that the good of the state must take priority, even if this necessitates violating the decrees of the gods, while Antigone maintains that any human demand must take a back seat to divine standards. The playwright provides an ambiguous ending – both extremists suffer for their choices, leaving the audience to decide what path is the right one. Unlike the situation in today’s society, where many are very willing to reject both the authority of God and that of the state, Sophocles assumes that both forms of authority are valid. An increasing number of people today are left with no real authority beyond their own feelings or popular opinion, but for the Christian, the authority must always be the Word of God, which does not change with the shifting winds of human thought and feeling.
Most Protestants have never read the Apocrypha – the books contained in the Catholic Bible but not found in ours. I certainly hadn’t, but a friend of mine did a study on these books in his church a number of years ago, and it made me curious. One of the first things I discovered is that the content of the Apocrypha is not easy to define because the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches include different books in addition to those to which we are accustomed. When I read through the books, my first thought was, “How could anyone possibly mistake these for the Word of God?” While some of the stories are interesting and the poetic works contain worthwhile wisdom, the significant number of historical and theological errors and contradictions clearly remove them from the realm of inerrancy. I purchased a good introduction to help me understand them better and proceeded to work through them. The result is a series of lessons that provide background, give an overview, discuss the extent to which the books have been influential in both Judaism and Christianity, and list reasons why they are clearly not the inspired Word of God. They are nonetheless worth studying for a number of reasons. They give considerable insight into the state of intertestamental Judaism – the Jewish thought contained in these books provided the thought environment within which first-century Christians lived and worked, and reading them helps us to understand why Jesus and Paul, in particular, were so critical of that mode of thinking and belief. Secondly, a knowledge of the Apocrypha helps us to understand Catholic thought as well. A number of key Catholic doctrines are first taught in the Apocrypha, including prayers for the dead, which is an essential foundation for the idea of Purgatory. Understanding these books can thus help us to communicate more fruitfully with Catholics in seeking to bear witness to the Gospel.
Many authors in the early part of the twentieth century dealt with the frustrated hopes created by the American Dream of prosperity for anyone willing to work hard enough to get it. John Steinbeck, most notably in The Grapes of Wrath, felt and generated sympathy for those who could never quite fulfill the desires created by the drive for wealth and social standing. Steinbeck’s last finished novel, The Winter of Our Discontent, illustrates how the pursuit of that dream could actually lead an honorable man to turn from a simple life of integrity to one where he was willing to do just about anything to get what his wife, children, and the larger society told him he ought to want and have. The result is a powerful demonstration of Paul’s maxim that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (I Timothy 6:10). In our materialistic society where many people think that they deserve all the material benefits that a culture driven by computerized gadgets has to offer, this novel is a significant cautionary tale, though Steinbeck lacks the Christian’s answers to the destructive power of materialism.