The Great Depression had a stranglehold on the American people in the early 1930s, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, a member of the so-called Lost Generation and chronicler of the Jazz Age, was struggling to make ends meet and to keep his marriage to his increasingly troubled wife intact by writing mediocre short stories to keep the money flowing. In 1934, he published his last completed novel, Tender is the Night, dealing with a brilliant psychiatrist who struggles with an increasingly meaningless career and an emotionally troubled wife and finally declines into drunkenness and dissipation. The goals the protagonist established for himself – fame, money, a beautiful wife, and social influence – were at the heart of his understanding of the American Dream. Fitzgerald had discovered, however, that such achievements are both empty and transitory at best, as anyone who knows the Scriptures can readily attest. The novel is a classic illustration of Jesus’ question to His disciples, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” This is a question that we must always keep before us in this materialistic age.
In the 140 years since its initial performance, Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, the latest addition to my literature website, has been viewed as a proto-feminist document by advocates and critics alike. Ibsen, however, denied that he was a feminist and insisted that he wrote instead of all humanity, portraying the forces in society that kept people from becoming the free individuals they ought to be. The play pictures a late nineteenth-century middle-class household that is completely dominated by the husband, who treats his wife like a child. She is pampered and spoiled and has no idea that life can be lived in any other way. By the end of the play, she insists that she must leave her husband and children in order to achieve self-realization. which Ibsen believed was essential for all people. From a Christian pespective, however, Ibsen’s approach to men and women, marriage, and society is deeply flawed. The relationship between Torvald and Nora Helmer at both the beginning and the end of the story is far from the biblical ideal and demonstrates innate selfishness, even when they try to give of themselves for the benefit of the other. The play is worth reading, both as a way of understanding some of the roots of modern humanism and feminism and as a basis for discussing how both fall far short of what God wants people to be, both in their individual lives and in their relationship to one another.
The reality of suffering is perhaps the greatest stumblingblock that keeps people from accepting Christianity. Whether a person experiences suffering in his or her own life, grieves over the suffering of a loved one, wonders at all the pain that exists in the world as a result of disease, natural disasters, or man’s inhumanity to man, or questions the Christian doctrine of eternal punishment in Hell, many struggle to believe in a God who would allow such things to happen. How many people do you know who have experienced unbearable physical or emotional pain and have even prayed to God for deliverance, but have found no relief? How many have been deprived of children through senseless accidents or incurable diseases? All too often people who suffer these things wind up questioning the love of God, and rather than continuing to believe in a God who would appear to be so callous, they reject belief in God altogether. Others struggle with the massive scale of suffering in the world at large. Why do millions die of starvation or the AIDS virus in Africa? How can someone who believes in a loving God explain the thousands whose lives are snuffed out in earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters? Could God not have prevented such monstrous examples of human cruelty as the Holocaust or the massacres under dictators like Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, or Pol Pot? What kind of God would allow such things to happen if He had the power to prevent them? Worse yet, how can Christians argue that their God is a God of love if He ultimately consigns the vast majority of His human creatures to an eternity of torture in Hell? Such a God seems more like the devil than like a loving Father. For some, these questions cause them to turn away from the Christian faith in which they were raised. As children grow older and become more aware of the extent of evil in the world, they begin to ask questions, and when they find that their parents, teachers, and pastors are unable to give what they think are satisfactory answers, they reject the faith and turn to a naturalistic view of the universe that explains suffering as the result of “nature red in tooth and claw” and “the survival of the fittest.” Others turn away from the faith as a result of personal suffering, feeling as if God has deserted them. In many cases, the problem of suffering in this world and the next becomes a justification for unbelievers to reject Christianity. The classic argument is that the existence of evil in the world proves that the Christian God cannot exist; either He wants to eradicate evil and cannot, in which case He is not omnipotent, or else He is able to eliminate the suffering in the world but chooses not to do so, in which case He obviously cannot be a loving God. If suffering in this world becomes the basis for an anti-Christian apologetic, how much more is this the case when one considers the eternal torments of Hell? Any all-powerful being who would consign His own creatures to such horrors clearly is not good at all, and is unworthy of belief by any reasonable and moral person. These are the questions that this book is designed to address. It looks first at five fundamental truths that underlie any reasonable discussion of the problem of human suffering – the existence of God, the fact that He has revealed Himself in the Bible, and what the Bible teaches about His love, power, and the reality of evil. After dealing with these issues, it turns specifically to the problem of evil in its many aspects as it has been used to attack the Christian faith. What does the Bible tell us about the problem of evil, and perhaps more importantly, what does it not tell us? It then moves on to the question of eternal punishment, considering what the Bible teaches about Hell, common objections to the idea, attempts by some Christians to provide alternative explanations to this doctrine, and finally how to harmonize it with what Scripture tells us about God’s character.
Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit, the latest addition to the literature page, is a long, rambling novel that, unlike most of the author’s works, was written with a clearly stated goal in mind. Dickens wrote that he intended the novel “to exhibit in a variety of aspects, the commonest of all the vices; to show how Selfishness propagates itself; and to what a grim giant it may grow.” Near the end of the novel, the title character mourns that his own selfish behavior had ruined everyone and everything he had touched, wrecking his family in the process. Such a description may lead to the conclusion that the novel is essentially bleak, but Dickens also includes admirable characters whose selflessness contrasts with the prevailing attitudes and behavior of those around them, and some of the selfish characters repent and experience a form of redemption, though with Dickens such redemption is always on the human level rather than eternal in nature. Also worth noting is the fact that the author took a short break in the process of writing the book to pen a novelette called A Christmas Carol, which, like the longer book, deals with a selfish man who finds redemption at the end of the story.
The latest addition to our Sunday School curriculum is an adult course entitled the Ministry Training Seminar. It is designed for believers who are serious about ministering the Gospel in a world that has alienated itself from Christian truth. The course is divided into three modules of six lessons each; when I taught it originally we met in three separate six-week periods in the evenings. The first module deals with the heart of the Christan; after all, we can’t hope to minister to others unless our hearts are right with God. The second module deals with the state of contemporary culture, tracing its devolution from a general Christian consensus in the Western world to an overt rejection of biblical principles and practices. Understanding these things is important, because someone who seeks to speak truth to the unbelieving world must understand how non-Christians think and what motivates them. The third module addresses the challenge of ministering to that unbelieving world. How are we to present the Gospel to those who in many cases are incapable of understanding what we are talking about? I trust that this course will be as challenging to you as it was to the members of our congregation when I taught it years ago.
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.
Racism involves assaults against the image of God in man, often to the point of denying the full humanity of those of another race. In modern American society, racism is decidedly unpopular. Politicians try to gain advantage over others by playing the “race card,” accusing the other side of racism whenever a slip of the tongue occurs or whenever anyone says anything that can be misinterpreted as racist language. Too often, however, politically-correct language masks what is in the heart rather than revealing it; what people say in unguarded moments often indicates attitudes quite different from those displayed for public consumption. Despite significant progress in the last fifty years, no one could seriously argue that America is now a post-racial country.
The issue is an important one for Christians, not only because of the biblical mandate to love one’s neighbor, but also because of the sad track record of the church on the issue in American history. The segregation of the American church remains in many ways a scandal. But the worst part of the problem is that Christians have all too often been defenders of racial bigotry. While today such attitudes are written off as the province of ignorant rednecks, in the nineteenth century many moral and upright Christians seriously attempted to argue from Scripture that blacks, in particular, were inferior to whites. Thus we should note that the arguments below were not simply advocated by crackpots from the lunatic fringe, but have been seriously advanced by competent biblical scholars in the past. We will approach this subject by focusing on arguments used by Christians and taken from the Bible on both sides of the issue.
BIBLICAL ARGUMENTS FOR RACIAL DISCRIMINATION
• The Curse of Ham (Genesis 9:20-27) – Probably the best-known passage used to support racism, it has been directed explicitly against blacks, and thus became a defense, first of slavery, and later of segregation. The incident itself is a peculiar one. Noah plants a vineyard and partakes of the fruit thereof, getting himself thoroughly drunk in the process, so much so that he lies down naked in his tent and dozes off. Ham sees his father’s condition and tells his brothers, who back into the tent with a cloak and cover Noah with it. When Noah recovers from his hangover, he becomes furious when he finds out what Ham did and issues a horrible curse, condemning Ham’s descendants to perpetual servitude to the descendants of his brothers. This raises all kinds of questions.
• How is this passage used to justify racial discrimination? According to Genesis 10, the Table of Nations, which describes the regions of the world where the descendants of Noah settled, the children of Shem settled in the Middle East, those of Japheth settled in Europe, while the children of Ham settled in Africa. Thus, the conclusion goes, Africans are the descendants of Ham and have been cursed by God, through Noah, to perpetual servitude, thus justifying the enslavement of millions of Africans by Arabs, Europeans and Americans. This interpretation encounters several significant problems, however.
• Who is cursed? Strangely, Noah’s fury at the behavior of Ham leads him to curse, not Ham, but Ham’s son Canaan. Note that, of the sons of Ham, Canaan was the only one who did not settle in Africa. Thus the curse has nothing to do with Africans at all, but sets the stage for the later wrath of God against the Canaanites when He ordered Joshua to exterminate them during the Conquest.
• What did Ham do that was so bad anyway? The whole situation seems rather innocuous, and critics have struggled to explain the precise nature of Ham’s sin. Some have suggested that he ridiculed his father before his brothers, not showing him proper respect, or criticize him for not covering Noah up himself. One of many explanations I have encountered over the years proposes an interesting solution, though it does not by any means answer all the questions in this difficult passage. This commentator pointed out that the phrase translated “saw the nakedness of his father” is a Hebrew euphemism for sexual intercourse (cf. Leviticus 18:6-19; 20:17-21). If this is indeed what Genesis 9 is saying, Ham was actually guilty of the homosexual rape of his father while he was in his drunken stupor, and thus Noah’s rage and the resulting curse were totally understandable.
• If this is true, why did Noah curse Canaan rather than Ham, who had been the perpetrator of the nefarious deed? The only possible suggestion I can make here is that Canaan, alone among the sons of Ham, shared his father’s perverted proclivities, and thus Noah did not want the curse to fall on the innocent sons. One possible substantiation for this interpretation is the later history of the Canaanites, who were surely among the most sexually perverse civilizations ever to leave their blot upon the earth. They openly practiced male and female ritual prostitution in their worship, along with child sacrifice and other abominations. In any case, however, the so-called “Curse of Ham” cannot be used to support racial discrimination against Africans.
• The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) – This became an argument to justify segregation after the end of slavery in America. The gist of the argument is that, as a judgment against man’s arrogance, God separated the different peoples of earth by confusing their tongues (resulting in the population distribution recorded in Genesis 10). Unlike the marriage ceremony, which uses the words of Jesus in saying, “What God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6), racists here argued, “What God has separated, let not man join together.” If God intended man to live in separate groups (Acts 17:26), is it not rebellion against God to try to bring them together again? Did He not intend for them to live apart so they would no longer become arrogant and rebel against Him? Note the following:
• If God thought separating people into distinct groups would prevent rebellion, He was sadly mistaken. Clearly this is not the case, and one might even argue that segregation is just one more pathetic example of man’s infinite creativity in rebelling against God.
• Pay attention to the basis on which people were separated – it was language, not race. In fact, one might easily argue that races arose following this division of peoples as certain groups lived in geographic isolation and recessive genetic traits emerged and became dominant, producing what we know today as secondary racial characteristics (which occupy only a very few of the myriad genes in human DNA). Have you ever heard anyone argue that an English-speaking man should not marry a French woman because the mixing of language groups would involve rebellion against the judgment of God?
• Besides, the judgment of Babel was reversed at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13). Here, instead of confusing the tongues of a linguistically-uniform people, God took a linguistically diverse people and brought them together so that they could all hear and understand the same speech. God’s redemptive work overcomes the consequences of His judgment of human sin.
• The Segregation of Israel (Exodus 34:11-16; Deuteronomy 7:1-4) – In these passages, God clearly orders the Israelites not to marry people from the surrounding nations. These passages have often been used not only to justify segregation, but also to support the prohibition of miscegenation – the intermarriage of people from different races. Yet several highly-visible interracial marriages are clearly blessed by God in Scripture. Joseph married an Egyptian princess (Genesis 41:45); when Moses married a Cushite woman (Numbers 12:1-2), Aaron and Miriam put up strong objections, but God silenced them, even to the point of punishing Miriam with leprosy; Rahab was a cursed Canaanite from Jericho, but she married an Israelite man, became the mother of Boaz, and is found in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:5); Boaz, in turn, married a Moabite girl named Ruth, who was the great-grandmother of David and also appears in the Messianic line (Ruth 4:18-22; Matthew 1:5). What is the answer to this apparent contradiction between the commandments of the Old Testament and the actual practice of God in dealing with His people? The obvious solution is that the prohibition of marriage with the surrounding nations had no racial intent at all, but rather a religious one; God was not prohibiting interracial marriages, but interreligious ones (cf. II Corinthians 6:14-18). As long as someone like Rahab or Ruth became a worshiper of the true God, she could be readily accepted into the nation.
BIBLICAL ARGUMENTS AGAINST RACIAL DISCRIMINATION
Here we will look at three common arguments that make absolutely clear God’s hatred of discrimination based on race.
• The Unity of the Human Race – Human beings are ultimately one, both on the basis of common descent (Genesis 3:20) and common plight. All people are alike in being created in God’s image and being lost in sin. If you go back far enough, we are all related.
• Jesus’ Treatment of the Samaritans – Perhaps the most notorious example of racism in the Bible is the relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans. The Samaritans originated following the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC. The policy of the Assyrian conquerors was to prevent rebellion by mixing populations; they thus took many people from the Northern Kingdom and scattered them throughout their various conquered territories and brought in people from those places and forcibly settled them in Israel. The eventual result was intermarriage, along with a mingling of languages and religions, i.e., the Samaritans. The Jews looked down on and despised the Samaritans as ethnic half-breeds and followers of a mongrel religion (they worshiped in a temple on Mount Gerazim in Samaria – see John 4:20 – and practiced religious rites that combined Jewish and pagan elements), while Samaritans hated Jews because they were despised by them. Animosity was so great that Jews going from Judea to Galilee and back again would walk forty miles out of their way to avoid going through Samaria, which was located between the two.
Jesus, however, pointedly ignored this common prejudice and did everything He could to oppose it. In His encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in Sychar (John 4:1-39), He took the road through Samaria, asked an immoral Samaritan woman for a cup of water, and preached the Gospel to her and her neighbors; when He was asked what it meant to love one’s neighbor, He told a parable about a Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) – surely an oxymoron in the minds of His listeners; when Jesus healed ten lepers, Luke goes out of his way to point out that the only one who returned to thank the Lord was a Samaritan (Luke 17:11-19); even when Jesus was rejected by a Samaritan village He visited, He responded with mercy while His disciples were quite eager to call down fire and brimstone upon them (Luke 9:51-56). Later, when the Gospel spread beyond the Jews in the region of Jerusalem, the Samaritans were among the first to be evangelized (Acts 8:4-8), as Jesus intended (Acts 1:8).
• The Universality of the Gospel – We have already noted that Pentecost broke down the barriers between people resulting from the sin of man and God’s judgment of that sin. The Church is intended to bear witness to this removal of sin-caused barriers – Ephesians 2:11-18 speaks of Christ breaking down the wall between Jews and Gentiles, while Galatians 3:28 speaks of other artificial barriers as well that no longer exist in the Kingdom of God. The Church should thus be a place where prejudice and favoritism are unknown (James 2:1-9). This was a difficult task for the early church, as Peter’s vision of the sheet lowered from heaven in Acts 10:9-16 illustrates and Paul’s later confrontation with the same apostle in Galatians 2:11-14 confirms, as it is for the modern church. Progress has unquestionably been made in recent decades, but much remains to be done even though most barriers now are based more on cultural differences than on racial prejudice. The only difference that is of any importance at all for the child of God is that which divides the sheep from the goats, the Children of Light from the Sons of Darkness.
[This blog is excerpted from my Eternal Values for a Valueless Age]
I decided to celebrate the two hundredth literature study guide on the website by redoing the guide for my all-time favorite novel, Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. I have read the book at least a half-dozen times since I was in junior high school, but always in Lowell Bair’s excellent abridged translation (I discovered that, although it is a thousand pages shorter than the unabridged Modern Library version, it omits very little essential to the plot). I had always wanted to read the unabridged version, so this time I tackled it – all 1462 pages. I enjoyed it thoroughly and found that the themes of redemption, resurrection, and the futilityof revenge still struck a chord. Not surprisingly, the new study guide is more than three times longer than the old one. Though you may not be prepared to tackle the unabridged version in all its glory, I would heartily recommend taking the time to read Bair’s abridgement. By the way, this is not a good candidate for viewing the movie instead. The 2002 version starring Jim Caviezel does not come close to doing justice to the complexity of the plot, and even the 1998 French miniseries version starring Gerard Depardieu, which is generally quite good, deviates from the plot of the novel in a few ways that will disappoint the true fan of Dumas’ original.