Category Archives: Philosophy

PODCAST: Cantus Firmus At the Movies Ep. 3 – What Dreams May Come (w/ Chris Date)

what dreams may come

In this episode we talked about the 1998 film What Dreams May Come, which sparked some great discussion about heaven, hell, love, the physicality of human nature, mental illness, and how Christians should approach art. Audio can be downloaded below or found on iTunes if you search “Cantus Firmus.”

Chris Date was my special guest and can be found at http://www.theopologetics.com and http://rethinkinghell.com

Audio:
http://www.cantus-firmus.com/Audio/20170427-CFATM-Ep3-WhatDreamsMayCome(wChrisDate).mp3

Music:
“Octagon Pt 2” by Polyrhythmics. Licensed under CC BY 3.0
http://www.needledrop.co/wp/artists/polyrhythmics/

PODCAST: Cantus Firmus At the Movies Ep. 1 – Sin City (w/ Nick Quient)

promoimage

The first episode in a new series on theological and philosophical analysis of films looks at Sin City (2005)–the film adaptation of Frank Miller’s comic series–and discusses its portrayal of redemptive violence, patriarchy, power, and self-sacrificial love.

Nick Quient was my special guest and can be found at http://www.splitframeofreference.com and on Twitter @NickQuient

Audio:
http://www.cantus-firmus.com/Audio/20170401-CFATM-Ep1-SinCity(wNickQuient).mp3

Music:
“Octagon Pt 2” by Polyrhythmics. Licensed under CC BY 3.0
http://www.needledrop.co/wp/artists/polyrhythmics/

PODCAST: Make Christianity Weak Again – Toward a Biblical Worldview of Political Involvement

I examine biblical data on the origin and purpose of government and contrast it with the traditional right and left wing outlooks as classically formulated by Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine and carried on to this day, arguing that there is some validity in both approaches, but that the biblical worldview differs in some significant respects. I ultimately seize on the idea that Christians should prefer to live in something more akin to a libertarian society.

The histories of the Christian left and right are also briefly discussed.

Audio:
http://www.cantus-firmus.com/Audio/20170307MakeChristianityWeakAgain.mp3

Essay:
http://www.cantus-firmus.com/eBooks/MakeChristianityWeakAgain.pdf

Erasmus on the “Problem of the Turk”

I recently came across a small treatise by the 16th century Christian humanist Desiderius Erasmus–the same Erasmus who gave us the Textus Receptus (the New Testament in its Greek printed edition) and The Praise of Folly. The treatise is entitled Against War and I found in it a parallel to the attitude of much of western Christiantiy today. Erasmus speaks of those Christians who desired to blot out the Turks to stop the advancement of Islam upon Christian territories and proposes a different solution to the “problem of the Turk” which he found to be more Christlike:

“Nor to me truly it seemeth not so allowable, that we should so oft make war upon the Turks. Doubtless it were not well with the Christian religion, if the only safeguard thereof should depend on such succours. Nor it is not likely, that they should be good Christians, that by these means are brought thereto at the first. For that thing that is got by war, is again in another time lost by war. Will ye bring the Turks to the faith of Christ? Let us not make a show of our gay riches, nor of our great number of soldiers, nor of our great strength. Let them see in us none of these solemn titles, but the assured tokens of Christian men: a pure, innocent life; a fervent desire to do well, yea, to our very enemies; the despising of money, the neglecting of glory, a poor simple life. Let them hear the heavenly doctrine agreeable to such a manner of life. These are the best armours to subdue the Turks to Christ. . .

“Trow ye it is a good Christian man’s deed to slay a Turk? For be the Turks never so wicked, yet they are men, for whose salvation Christ suffered death. And killing Turks we offer to the devil most pleasant sacrifice, and with that one deed we please our enemy, the devil, twice: first because a man is slain, and again, because a Christian man slew him.”

-Desiderius Eramus, Against War

How Shall We Then Vote?

vote?

There seem to be two basic attitudes in the church in regard to the question of how Christians should vote. The first is that politics is a complicated issue and that each Christian should lean purely on his or her conscience to reach a conclusion. The other is that there is one particular party that strongly represents the Christian viewpoint and it belongs to whoever is speaking at the time.

I think that we can take a more thoughtful perspective. There are certain biblical principles that tell Christians which kind of state they should prefer and which issues are central to its proper functioning. And in a country like the United States where citizens can participate in guiding the direction of government, these principles might also inform us on how we should vote.

To begin with, we ought to distinguish ancient Israel from those physical nations which have not been chosen by God to issue laws based on theocratic principles. Though the laws of Israel might at times inform us as to how secular states should work, Jesus’ claim in John 18:36 that the Kingdom of God must be distinguished from geopolitical powers ought to give us pause when it comes to direct application of the laws of theocratic Israel to our present nation’s laws. However, the following principles seem to be applied to all nations universally when the Bible speaks about the role of the state:

1. The state should punish evildoers and reward those who do good.

“For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:3-4).

This passage raises a lot of questions about the relationship between church and state, following as it does after a passage wherein Paul tells Christians that they should not seek to punish the wicked but allow God to avenge either now (perhaps through the state) or in the age to come. Whether or not we assume that it forbids Christians from participation in the state, we must at least conclude that it tells us that a state which functions most properly will punish not those who do good, but those who are doing evil. Indeed, those who do good should have nothing to fear in a state which is living up to its purpose.

2. The state should allow for freedom on matters of conscience.

“I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-4).

Paul here encourages Christians living in a pagan state which did not allow open participation in directing its political aims to pray that those in power would allow for Christians to have the freedom to follow their Christians convictions. He follows this up by noting that Christianity can flourish in a state which allows for religious freedom to either accept or reject its doctrines and practices. Christians should therefore desire religious freedom for both Christians as well as non-Christians.

3. The state should be concerned that peace is pursued and justice is done, particularly for the poor and oppressed.

“For three transgressions of Edom, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because he pursued his brother with the sword and cast off all pity, and his anger tore perpetually, and he kept his wrath forever” (Amos 1:11).

In Amos we see the moral standards that God holds pagan nations–those who do not follow Him and perhaps have not even heard of Him–to. We find that God will execute judgment on nations that preferring war and taking advantage of the weak and poor as a means to become prosperous. This tells us that even a secular nation should prefer peace and justice for the oppressed and seek it out whenever possible.

How shall we then vote?

With these principles in mind, what should we expect the biblically minded Christian to do on election day? As many Christians find themselves unable to comfortably support either Trump or Clinton, we find ourselves in a trilemma: do we vote for the lesser of two evils, abstain from voting, or seek out a third party which more closely reflects the core Christians values as to the role of the state? If we choose the lesser of two evils, we have acted in support of evil. If we vote third party or abstain, we may be enabling the candidate which we fear could do the most evil to win the popular vote and perhaps the election itself.

For the Christian, obedience to God and to doing right should be our chief concern. The rest is up to God. However, there is still room for Christian conscience–do you believe that any one candidate is close enough to these core values to earn your support? Alternatively, do you feel that none of them do, or perhaps that the act of a Christian voting in and of itself conflicts with citizenship in the Kingdom of God. Then you must act on whichever conclusion–biblically and politically informed–that you reach.

Michael Sattler: Radical Christian

Though Protestants have in more recent years come around to the principle of separation of church and state, this was not so in the beginning. While petitioning for the freedom to challenge the church and follow scripture as their consciences dictated, they simultaneously believed that it was the duty of the state to inflict punishment upon those they saw as heretics. John Calvin supported the execution of the unitarian Michael Servetus, Ulrich Zwingli saw to it that Balthasar Hubmaier was tortured for his view of believer’s baptism, and Martin Luther will forever be connected to his advocacy of religiously motivated state violence towards Jews and those who took part in the Peasants’ Revolt. In this milieu it was the so-called “radical reformers”–the Anabaptists—alone who, after taking a close look at Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, made this idea central to their Christian belief and practice; and it was Michael Sattler who helped to codify this belief into an Anabaptist confession of faith.

John Howard Yoder gives the basic outline of Michael Sattler’s life up to this pivotal event:
“Michael Sattler was born sometime around 1490 at Staufen in the Breisgau. He entered the Benedictine Monastery of St. Peter’s, northeast of Freiburg, where he became — or was likely to become — prior. In the 1520s he came , by way of Lutheran and Zwinglian ideas, to forsake the monastery and to marry, and by March, 1525, had become a member of the Anabaptist movement which had just begun at Zürich two months before” (Yoder).

This summary accounts for all that is known of Sattler’s life save for the last two years in which he bursts onto the scene of history (though Snyder, one of Sattler’s biographers, views even this basic outline to be rather conjectural at a number of points). It was in these last two years that Sattler became “the most significant of the first-generation leaders of Anabaptism” (Yoder).

This significance is due in large part to his central role in framing the Schleitheim Articles, the aforementioned Anabaptist confession of faith which would cost him his life and underline the importance of the doctrine which he viewed as central to the Christian faith. The articles, which included confessions on Anabaptist principles such as believer’s baptism and oaths, also spoke very clearly on the distinct roles of church and state, noting that Jesus and the Apostles seemed to forbid those tools of violence which magistrates viewed as essential to executing their duties:
“the rule of the government is according to the flesh, that of the Christians according to the Spirit. Their houses and dwelling remain in this world, that of the Christians is in heaven. Their citizenship is in this world, that of the Christians is in heaven. The weapons of their battle and warfare are carnal and only against the flesh, but the weapons of Christians are spiritual, against the fortification of the devil. The worldly are armed with steel and iron, but Christians are armed with the armor of God, with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and with the Word of God” (Schleitheim).

Shortly after the confession was unanimously endorsed by a meeting of Swiss Anabaptists, Sattler, along with his wife Margaretha and other Anabaptists, was arrested for his alleged heresy. Snyder summarizes his fate briskly:
“The trial lasted two days, at the end of which Michael Sattler and his codefendants were found guilty. Sattler was sentenced to have his tongue cut off, to have his body torn seven times with glowing tongs, and finally to be burned to death. This verdict was carried out on May 20, 1527” (Snyder).

The Martyrs Mirror, a 17th century collection of the stories of martyrs (particularly Anabaptists), gives a more dramatic account. It begins with Sattler answering the charges against him with boldness. After being accused of taking the side of the enemies of the faith by not being willing to take up arms against the Turks, Sattler responded:
“If the Turks should come, we ought not to resist them; for it is written: Thou shalt not kill. We must not defend ourselves against the Turks and others of our persecutors, but are to beseech God with earnest prayer to repel and resist them. But that I said, that if warring were right, I would rather take the field against the so-called Christians, who persecute, apprehend and kill pious Christians, than against the Turks,was for this reason: The Turk is a true Turk, knows nothing of the Christian faith; and is a Turk after the flesh; but you, who would be Christians, and who make your boast of Christ, persecute the pious witnesses of Christ, and are Turks after the spirit” (Martyr’s Mirror).

As can be imagined, this response did not lead to his immediate acquittal. The town clerk, in attendance at the trial, responded to Sattler, “You desperate villain and archheretic, I tell you if there were no hangman here, I would hang you myself, and think that I had done God service” (Martyr’s Mirror). He seemed to be speaking for the judges as well. The sentence they passed read:
“In the case of the Governor of his Imperial Majesty versus Michael Sattler, judgment is passed, that Michael Sattler shall be delivered to ‘the executioner, who shall lead him to the place of execution, and cut out his tongue; then throw him upon a wagon, and there tear his body twice with red hot tongs; and after he has been brought without the gate, he shall be pinched five times in the same manner” (Martyr’s Mirror).

The men who were with him were later executed by the sword and the women, including his wife, were drowned. His chief crime was believing that Christ’s Kingdom was not of this earth, and that because it is not His disciples do not fight. In an age where Christians are exceedingly obsessed with gaining and maintaining power to protect our social interests, and where various religious radicals use violence to terrorize civilians and governments, Sattler’s approach stands out. It seeks to conquer not by violence or threats of violence, but by refusing to compromise on the non-violent, non-retaliatory faith that Christ once for all delivered unto the saints.

 

References

Martyr’s Mirror. Retrieved June 11, 2016, from
http://www.homecomers.org/mirror/martyrs057.htm

Schleitheim Confession. Retrieved June 12, 2016, from
http://www.anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php/Schleitheim_Confession_(source)

Snyder, C. A. (1984). The life and thought of Michael Sattler. Kindle edition.

Yoder, J. H., & Sattler, M. (1973). The legacy of Michael Sattler. Kindle edition.

The Gospel According to Batman V Superman

Fresh from the theater after having seen Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, I have been reflecting upon one particularly fascinating theme within it. In a far more thoughtful and sophisticated manner than the vast majority of overtly “Christian” movies, this film promotes a theology–even a gospel.

Warning: some spoilers ahead.

From the outset, I want to point out that this isn’t a theologian finding theology where it wasn’t intended. Indeed, Lex Luthor (of all people) reiterates explicitly and repeatedly that what transpires in this film points to something greater–the problem of evil and man’s relationship to God.

Luthor provides the viewpoint of the unrepentant cynic. Superman is odious because he resembles God and God cannot be trusted. If God couldn’t prevent the suffering of a young, abused Lex, better for God to die (or at least his proxy). Luthor therefore attempts to orchestrate deicide against Superman, first by the hands of man (Batman) and then by the hands of the devil (Doomsday).

The answer to Lex’s supposedly unsolvable problem of evil comes out of left field. How does a seemingly omnipotent and omnibenevolent God respond to evil, particularly when it results in free human beings who want to kill him despite His desire to save them? He identifies with their humanity and gives his life in order to defeat him who has the power of death (in this case, Doomsday). In doing so, he inspires conversion in men (represented here by Batman) who for the first time see God as loving–and pure love means being willing to suffer for the good of the beloved even though the lover doesn’t have to.

If God is willing to suffer with us, maybe our suffering isn’t as meaningless as we think it is. This seems to be the catharsis of Bruce Wayne. When Wayne sees Superman as powerful and alien, Superman (like God) seems quite dangerous. But when Wayne realizes that Superman has taken on humanity and even feels a love for his human mother as great as Wayne did, this changes him. Suddenly Wayne is overwhelmed with compassion–with empathy even–and helps Superman to rescue his mother from the clutches of Luthor. One can hear echoes of Jesus’ words to John on the cross to take care of Mary: “Behold, your mother!” (John 19:27).

This theology addresses what bothered so many fanboys about this movie–Batman’s willingness to kill. In this reading, it makes sense for Batman to kill for most of the movie–life is ultimately meaningless to him, so he creates his own purpose. It is Superman’s love and sacrifice that changes Batman, not a cold, deontological ethic grounded in passionless conviction. Despite what the enlightenment deists affirmed, it is not philosophy which makes us good but love. After seeing Superman’s self-identification and self-sacrifice to save humanity from death, Batman is determined to be a better man. This is the reason why he decides not to brand Luthor in prison, a brand which we are told sets inmates apart for death by the hands of fellow prisoners.

Though it has to be teased out, there is a rich theology in this film which is frankly unparalleled by what the Christian film industry is producing. It presents a gospel which is somehow more moving and more compelling despite not having to be spelled out.

The Syrian Refugee and the Good Samaritan


A recent article about John Kasich, the governor of my home state of  Ohio, noted his opposition to providing asylum to Syrian refugees. Kasich’s reasoning is also that of many of my conservative friends and family members, though admittedly more polished:
“‘The governor doesn’t believe the U.S. should accept additional Syrian refugees because security and safety issues cannot be adequately addressed,’ Kasich spokesman Jim Lynch said in a statement. ‘The governor is writing to the President to ask him to stop, and to ask him to stop resettling them in Ohio. We are also looking at what additional steps Ohio can take to stop resettlement of these refugees.'”

Kasich’s concern is that in seeking to take in Syrians whose lives are threatened by radical Muslims, some of the aggressors might tag along with them. In light of the attacks in Paris, this concern has come to the forefront of the minds of many.

Setting aside the fact that the 9/11 hijackers went through the proper legal channels to receive tourist and work visas, and that Islamic radicals have also come about  within our own country (see, for instance, John Walker Lindh), it must be admitted that we are far too unrealistic when it comes to the threat of death or violence. While we should always do our best to stave it off, Americans have a tendency to think that it can be quarantined in some place where it can’t reach us. As such, any risk of danger is not a risk worth taking, even if the payoff is extraordinary.

This is the American civil religion: America is a holy nation, set apart for its own works and meet for its own purposes. Our apostles proclaim the gospel of American exceptionalism to the American first, and secondly to the rest of the world, though ritual circumcision would be an easier obstacle to overcome to become part of the covenant community of God than the process of seeking asylum.

This attitude is America at its worst, though it would be unfair to deny that there are compassionate Americans who would love to  help Syrian refugees, but who also want to minimize the risk of spreading radical violence to their own nation where their families (the people they are most responsible for) would be in danger. There are practical concerns here which aren’t inappropriate to raise.

However, for American Christians, who often identify as conservatives, there ought to be more balance in how we talk about this issue. The Bible is not silent on this topic, and the Parable of the Good Samaritan provides us with at least one important moral teaching which ought to inform how Christians should think about this problem.

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

Luke 10:25-37 (ESV)

   The scene is a road beset by violent robbers. An innocent man falls to one of them and will surely die if no one intervenes. A priest and a Levite both walk by him, ignoring his plight. These are two men who view themselves as having a privileged position due to their nationality and their place within their own society. Why did they fail to stop to help someone so clearly in need? Apathy may be part of the reason, but perhaps the threat of violence was the greater concern. Jesus had already established that this was a dangerous road, and there may have been a genuine fear that the apparent victim was merely bait to draw them in so they could be more easy prey. Better to just walk on. This man wasn’t any of their business, really, and there’s no good in risking their lives for someone who might not really need their help after all.

   This is the same rationale that informs the anti-asylum/America first position, and according to Jesus it carries a great danger: you put yourself at risk of forfeiting eternal life because you shut yourself off from loving your neighbor as yourself.

   If other equally valid moral concerns eventually lead us to determine that we cannot take these refugees in ourselves, we must still do what we can so that we can say, with all sincerity, that we looked at the example of the good Samaritan and sought to go and do likewise. To do otherwise is to demonstrate that Christian America’s faith is one without works, and is therefore dead.

I looked, and behold! a spray tan horse (or, how the loss of literacy could spell the end for western civilization)

When Kim Kardashian tweeted, “Today marks the 100 year anniversary of Armenian Genocide!” as if she were giving a birth announcement, it predictably elicited some snickers. But not from John McWhorter. In his Daily Beast article appropriately titled “Why Kim Kardashian Can’t Write Good,” McWhorter argues that America is shifting from book-patterned thinking to more informal, verbal-based communication, and that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just an example of “times changing in ways that hurt no one.”

On the surface, he seems to agree with media theorist Neil Postman’s premise that the primary communication medium a society uses will necessarily shape how it communicates, and that each medium has its own structure and emphases. What he doesn’t claim (and what Postman does) is that not all mediums are appropriate for all messages, and that when a new medium becomes the predominant one in a culture, it can fundamentally change the public discourse. Writing, for instance, is linear and builds upon previous information. Television, in contrast, must be formatted to be consumed in bite size chunks where no previous knowledge can be assumed. This is why Postman argued that education, as traditionally defined, is better accomplished through writing than through television.

Although this concept of mediums shaping messages was given popular expression by media theorists like Postman and Marshall McLuhan, it has much older, deeper roots in Judeo-Christian thought. In the Old Testament, we find two mediums of communication privileged when it comes to facilitating theological education and worship: writing and speech. Writing seems to be the highest form of discourse given the place of primacy that the Ten Commandments, and indeed the whole Torah, had in the Jewish mind (see Deuteronomy 31:10-12). However, oral discourse also had a distinct religious importance since it was the primary mode of daily communication; thus the command to talk regularly about the law of God with one’s children (Deuteronomy 6:7).

In contrast, pictorial representations for the purpose of teaching and inspiring worship were not completely without merit (Exodus 25:22), but could not be used to facilitate worship proper, as the Hebrews learned all too well during the incident of the golden calf (Exodus 32). God could be represented in words, particularly those written words that He inspired, but not in images. The implication of this is that the medium in which a message is transmitted is not irrelevant to the content of the message. Pictorial representations of the God of Israel were not seen as capable of conveying the things about Himself which He wanted to disclose, but would instead lead the recipients of His self-disclosure astray.

The relationship of medium to message is implicitly disclosed in the New Testament as well. Jesus of Nazareth, the itinerant preacher, relied primarily on verbal modes of communication, and can therefore be contrasted with Paul, the writer. Jesus told memorable parables and stories which could be easily remembered and reinterpreted for different contexts. Paul wrote long letters that relied upon sustained linear argumentation. He communicated his points by building his case progressively and carefully arranging his data. He wasn’t interested in quickly grabbing the attention of a passerby and sharing a convicting aphorism for him to remember, but in demonstrating his thesis to someone who was willing to follow his train of thought from beginning to end. The result is that Jesus’ theology has to be constructed by the reader while Paul’s already is constructed. The listener trying to make sense of Jesus’ philosophy will miss quite a lot if he isn’t capable of laying it out systematically, as Paul did. That’s what makes Kim Kardashian’s tweet, symptomatic as it is of a larger trend, so terrifying. It represents a fundamental failure to think beyond 140 characters.

The danger we find ourselves in today, of casting aside the more literate Pauline approach, is that in doing so we will have lost the ability for sustained, developed, complex thought and be left instead with a worldview resembling a Twitter feed—a random arrangement of slogans and metaphors. Once we have given up literacy because it’s too difficult, we cannot be like those oral cultures which were shaped by Homer, the Mishnah, or Beowulf. We’ll be lucky if we can aspire to Lady Gaga.

Is Kim Kardashian the harbinger of the West’s doom, and proof that careful, structured thought is on its way out? Perhaps. But that is exactly why westerners should remain, as the Qur’an referred to Jews and Christians in an era of increasing illiteracy, a people of the book.