"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Prosperity's Importance Over Morality & Conflict with Muslims

From reading books and seeing the news I often get the impression that Muslims take very seriously any attacks on "their brothers" especially when it is outsiders who do it. Perhaps it's not such a big deal if it's sectarian fighting (e.g. Shia Muslims vs. Sunni Muslims), but when it's the "Christian" West (and I use that term Christian extremely loosely) then it's for sure the Crusade days all over again. 

Again, this is my impression.  I could be completely wrong.

So I was wondering when is it ever okay for Westerners to fight people in Muslim countries?  It seems many Muslims are fine with our bombing in Libya since Gaddafi isn't a favored Muslim with his silly Green Book, inflated ego and love of power.  But one of the things I hesitated on from the beginning of this imposed no-fly zone was that it would be turned into some propaganda of the Christians again hurting the Muslims.  Seems perfect recruiting material for Al Qaeda.  I think even Gaddafi tried to use it to his advantage.

I mentioned I was reading Islam Today: A Short Introduction to the Muslim World by Akbar S. Ahmed and in the preface he talked about former United States President Bill Clinton.  The author was giving an example of Muslim perspective on the West and - like it or not - the USA often represents "the West" to the Muslim world.  So what about Clinton?

In August 1998 he admitted to an affair with Monica Lewinsky and followed this by bombing on two continents, in Muslim countries.  Mr. Ahmed said this confirmed "what Muslims widely believed...about American society: that it has little to offer the world except sex and violence."

Also President Clinton demonstrated his lack of honor: "a man caught telling lies to his nation, his supporters and colleagues, and above all to his family.  A man who had no honor was not a worthy man and could not be trusted." 

He continues: "Interestingly the fact that most Americans, through the polls, continued to support Clinton despite his lying and deceiving convinced the Muslim world that economic prosperity was more important than honor and morality to the Americans. The polls were showing that separation of Clinton's private morals from his public office.  This was a division that could not be accepted in a society which cherished honor."   (pg. xiii)

So do you agree that we value economic prosperity more than demanding morality in our leaders and in ourselves? Do you? Is this a good thing according to your perspective or not?  I must say that I heard plenty of people here argue about the value of demanding moral behavior from our President so while the wider American opinion may have been "who cares what people do in their private lives?", I know many people did have huge problems with our Commander in Chief doing such things.

Also since I brought up the topic, when is it permissible for the United States and other Western countries to fight in Muslim countries? Honestly I hate the distinctions that we are fighting Muslims as if our fight is always about a religion and not criminals who happen to call themselves Muslim, ya know? But it seems many enjoy labeling it such and I wonder if it has roots in that Dar al-Islam stuff which pits Muslims against the rest of the world.

Sadly there are times when secular nations and those with more Christians than Muslims have conflict with nations where the majority are Muslims. What should the criteria be? We can only fight against predominantly Muslim countries when the Arab League and the UN Security Council give their thumbs up to it?

I wish there were no reasons to fight. I'm getting very weary of it and wish we could all just

"Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor." 
(ESV, Romans 12:10)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

March Books

I can't believe nearly 1/4 of the year is over!  Here is the list of books I finished in March. 

Hard To Believe by John MacArthur-- this is a book my brother had and thought I might like to read. It's subtitle is "the high cost and infinite value of following Jesus."

I liked the chapter where he talked about Luke 4 when Jesus spoke in his hometown synagogue.  He concludes by asking if we see ourselves among the poor, prisoners, blind and oppressed who need Jesus (see pg. 68-69)

"Many people hear, but if you examine your life and it's all hearing and no doing, don't deceive yourself into thinking you're a Christian."  (pg. 109)

I Shall Not Hate by Izzeldin Abuelaish -- I absolutely loved this book although it made me cry!  Dr. Abuelaish describes his life growing up in Gaza, raising a family (and losing his wife and three daughters) and practicing medicine and how he has worked to bridge the divide between Palestinians and Israelis. I admire his attitude incredibly much! My Facebook friend Aisha recommended this book after hearing him speak in the Seattle area. I put the book on my Amazon wishlist and got it for Valentine's Day.  Many good things worth sharing, but I really loved this from one of the final chapters. He spoke against the disease of hatred and urged people to get over their ignorance by asking questions, learning from others and perhaps discovering we are more alike than we are different. (see pg. 229)

To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian by Stephen E.Ambrose has just under twenty chapters and each deals with a different topic of American history or the author's life in his writing of American history.  Mr. Ambrose shares areas where he maybe was taught one thing and taught it in his own history classes as a university professor yet how over the years of reading and studying and researching and writing,he has at times changed his mind on a variety of topics.  In the book he often referred to other books he'd written so a critic could say this book was an advertisement for his other books whereas I chose to look at it as "if you like this topic and want to read about it much more thoroughly, you should check out the book I wrote on this topic."  And I was fine with that. 

For instance, he shared a chapter on our founding fathers - how impressivie Thomas Jefferson's writings were, how high his IQ yet how George Washington, to him, was the best US President.  He didn't have the writing skills or IQ of Jefferson, but he had something that rallied the people behind him yet didn't let it go to his head. Washington rejected being made the King of America and set the precedent for our limit of 2 consecutive terms in the Presidency.  Ambrose noted how much he admired Eisenhower and was chosen by Eisenhower himself to write about his papers. Instead Ambrose wrote the former President's biography.  He recalls how much he despised President Nixon. Not just for Watergate, but because Nixon always felt very self-serving to Ambrose. Yet when he was asked by a publisher to write the biography of Nixon- and declined immediately - he was challenged by the one who asked him to write it, so he dedicated a full decade and wrote 3 volumes on the man. And the books weren't 300-pages each. More like 750-plus pages each!  

I was especially interested in his thoughts on the American Indians because he and his family lived among them and became friends with many of them. He told a couple of stories about those times and Indian culture that fascinated me.  I now want to read his book on this topic to learn more about the Plains tribes.  He wrote a chapter on the transcontinental railroad and the hard work and teamwork involved by those men who built it.  I was enthralled by facts of the Pacific fight of World World II and how hated the Japanese were, how "dirty" they played even in war.  Since I've been alive, Japanese goods have been so outstanding and I've always thought of them as friends that hearing how they fought to the last man and were willing to die for their Emperor (whom they thought was a god) amazed me!  It reminded me a bit of some radicals today who won't surrender because they believe dying in the cause of God (which God's cause miraculously happens to be their cause no matter how hateful and despicable) will give them instant paradise. Another example is that in the European war, medics wearing a cross on their arms were rarely targets of enemy fire. In Japan, they learned quickly that that made them more of a target to the enemy.   

I was thankful for the efforts Theodore Roosevelt made to conserving some areas of the US for the future generations to enjoy. Otherwise we may not have many of the national and state parks because people would have stripped them of trees and probably had a strip mall or parking lot there by now.  The chapter on the D-Day Museum in New Orleans touched me as well as the talks Mr. Ambrose would have with WW II soldiers both here and abroad. He even made friends with a German soldier (from WW II) after a British soldier introduced him and assured Ambrose they were friends.  I also liked the chapter on Vietnam.

The Year of Living Biblically by AJ Jacobs -- great book; see previous posts for more details

Lilla's Feast by Frances Osborne -- A library book that says it's "a true story of food, love, and war in the Orient." The author shares the life of her great-great grandmother who was born to British parents in China and later married and lived in India, Kashmir and Britain. After her husband, a British officer, died in a shipwreck, she remarried and went back to live in China where she was a prisoner when the Japanese invaded China during World War 2.  I enjoyed learning how British people thought and acted back then!

Loved this quote:  "the past is another country, people do things differently there."  -- L.P. Harley  (pg. 116)  The author was talking about children of British parents during this time (early 1900s).  It was very common for parents living in various parts of the British Empire to send their children home for schooling. Many children rarely saw their parents from the ages of 5 until their schooling ended. Wow.

Rabbi Jesus by Bruce Chilton is a library book promising "an intimate biography" and "the Jewish life and teaching that inspired Christianity" from the cover. Eh, I wasn't enthralled though I vacillate on congratulating myself for having finished it and condemning myself for having wasted part of my life reading it.  On the plus side, I enjoyed some of the cultural tidbits shared.  It's always interesting to learn of ancient times.  On the downside, am I wrong for feeling blue when an Anglican priest believes Joseph to be Jesus' biological father after having met Mary, hitting it off so well with her that they sleep together and have a baby?  A priest who talks of Jesus being a follower of John the Baptist - learning from John in the desert - and being so obsessed with purity that when the woman with the issue of blood touches him, it's with horror that he cries out "who touched me?!" A priest who declares that Jesus put hardship on his family with all his feasting and that his family could hardly keep up and reciprocate on all these meals.  That Jesus brought shame to his family - with all that eating with questionable people.  Jesus was made out to be embittered by society's rejection of him for his questionable paternity.  The author even makes note of his "bipolar tendency."  Oh, and Jesus led a group of zealots in overturning the business going on at the Temple. He gave the agreed-upon signal and the followers let loose. Remember the murderer Barabbas?  He was one of the followers who went a little too far. 

Christianity According to the Bible -- Ron Rhodes seeks to "separate cultural religion from biblical truth." I've had this book for a while and started it nearly 18 months ago and finished the last bit this month so I could finally say it was finished.  The author speaks of creation, God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, angels, the Bible, Satan, prophecies and end times among other topics.

The Good Daughter by Jasmin Darznik is a memoir of her Iranian mother's "hidden life."  I found this at the public library and enjoyed reading about her mother and grandmother's lives in Iran leading up to the revolution which brought Jasmin and her parents to California.  It was very interesting reading about another country through the lives of ordinary people.

Where God Was Born by Bruce Feiler -- In this book the author takes "a journey by land to the roots of religion."  He uses mostly the Exile and Prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible and goes to Israel, Iraq and Iran. I enjoyed learning about these countries including the section on Zoroastrianism and the previous people groups who lived in these places centuries ago.

Inside Islam -- compiled chapters by about 15 different authors; see previous post

As for politics, the gulf governments offered their people a bargain: We will bribe you with wealth, but in return let us stay in power.  It was the inverse slogan of the American revolution -- no taxation, but no representation either.

Baghdad Without a Map and Other Misadventures in Arabia by Tony Horwitz -- a collection of anecdotes from this journalist; I've come to realize I really enjoy these types of books because I learn quite a lot about various cultures and odd experiences or maybe not so odd, but things that seem odd through western eyes; this book was published 20 years ago so it was interesting to compare Tony's experiences to what I know about these countries today.

Some things I liked: Tony's adventures in Yemen; buying a shrub of qat and joining some guys for a chewing party - made him feel part of the group amongst a country who was surprisingly indifferent to foreigners (unlike Egypt); seeing all the weapons available for sale in Yemen; meeting Yemeni Jews and reading Hebrew to them to "prove" his own Jewishness; the hospital cases in Yemen were crazy; the Tamil guy on the boat ride in the Persian Gulf curious about the truthfulness of American men and women living together before marriage "how are they then virgins when they marry?" ; travels in Iraq during Saddam's rule to report on the Iran/Iraq war and later during the invading of Kuwait; travels in Iran; the sad situation in Sudan; the visit to the science museum and seeing all the dead animals due to lack of funds for their food; much more

India and the Awakening East by Eleanor Roosevelt a memoir of her travels published in 1953.  About half the book deals with India with the remainder touching on her brief stops in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Pakistan, Nepal, the Philippines, Indonesia and the Khyber Pass.-  see previous post

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

India's Untouchables & Islam's Universalism and Leadership Role

Today I finished reading India and the Awakening East a memoir relating some of Eleanor Roosevelt's travels.  Roughly half the book is about India with the remainder touching on her brief stops in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Pakistan, Nepal, the Philippines, Indonesia and the Khyber Pass.  It was interesting to hear "Moslems" discussed rather favorably since back then Communism was the big threat. Indeed Mrs. Roosevelt speaks often of how we can encourage these emerging nations to choose democracy over Communism.  It's kind of funny to read this nearly 60 years later and compare it with what has happened since this book was published in 1953.  India and China each had fewer than a half a billion people and talk of the problems of exploding populations (e.g. lack of food and water) was mentioned more than once. 

In the section about India, Mrs. Roosevelt mentioned the Untouchables whom Gandhi called "Harijans" or "children of God."  She said the new Indian constitution abolished "Untouchability and guarantees all people rights before the law.  But, as we know in our own country, it is one thing to abolish discrimination in the Constitution and another to put it into nation-wide practice."  She said in many Indian villages it would probably be a while before caste distinctions disappeared.   Is anyone familiar enough with India to say how things are now - nearly sixty years later?  Have things improved greatly for the Untouchables? Is the caste system still widely practiced within society?


Also - since it was a lovely afternoon outdoors - I started reading Islam Today: A Short Introduction to the Muslim World by Akbar S. Ahmed.  It was published in 1999 so it's a bit old, but I think it will be interesting to read how he portrays Islam to see if it's similar to what we observe over ten years later.  I noticed how he said on the very first page "Islam has become all things to all people" and later how "Muslims believe there are many paths to God" and although Islam may be the religion they believe is most favored, "others may be valid." (pg. 25)  He speaks of the "universalism of Islam" being "reflected in its attitude towards matter of statehood.  Throughout history Muslim rulers have been tolerant of other religions when their empires have been secure and stable -- Ottomans, Mughals, the Umayyads in Spain. One reason for this is in "contrast to both Christianity and Judaism, from its early days Islam emerged as the dominant ruling religion of the area. This gave Muslims confidence in their religion, allowing them to act with generosity and wisdom."  (pg. 26)

Some thoughts:  I found the universalism tie to Islam of great interest because I can think of several bloggers who are former Muslims or have dabbled in Islam and some who almost converted or are Muslims but are very universalistic in their outlook. So I got to wondering if Islam leads to Universalism.  Contrast this with more conservative Christians who believe Jesus is the only way to God.  Much more narrow-minded, right?

Since Muslims as secure rulers tend to be generous and wise would the world then be better off if Muslims had higher places in society? bigger roles in government? Maybe our wish for worldwide peace would be achieved if we allowed Muslims to find their voices instead of suppressing parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood.  Perhaps the terrorism and intolerance comes from their being held down and it's just part of their fight for justice that makes some into the terrorists we find distasteful.   Would we gush about Islamic thoughtfulness and tolerance instead of treating Muslims with suspicion, fear or dislike if they were at the top of societies around the world?  Or has that era passed?  What do you think?

Thoughts on any of this?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Is Fatalism Catchy?

"Egyptians undergo an odd personality change behind the wheel of a car."

Insert paragraphs where the author describes a taxi ride through Cairo and out to visit the Pyramids.  He also mentioned how Egyptians are fond of driving at night without headlights then...

"Not surprisingly, Egyptian drivers are the most homicidal in the world, killing themselves and others at a rate twenty-five times that of drivers in America (and without the aid of alcohol). Motorists in other Arab countries are almost as driving-impaired. The only insight I ever gained into this suicidal abandon came from a speeding Kurdish driver, after he'd recklessly run over a bird.

'Allah wanted it dead,' he said. The same fatalism applies to passengers."


"Modern Egypt inherited many things from the pharaohs -- regal good looks, papyrus, bureaucracy -- but a talent for building isn't among them. Egyptians have the opposite of a Midas touch; everything they set their hands on turns to dust.  Even spanking-new skyscrapers seem, after a year or two, fragile and filthy lean-tos.  It isn't just a question of money or expertise; fatigue and fatalism have so corroded the culture that Egyptians have simply stopped caring.  Buildings collapse for lack of basic maintenance. Sewer lines explode, flooding whole neighborhoods. Dead horses lie rotting on the beach at Alexandria. And Egyptians muddle on, as they have for millennia, muttering malesh - never mind - and gazing toward Mecca in prayer."
  (pg. 85)


Tony and his wife, Geraldine Brooks who wrote Nine Parts of Desire (which I read and posted about here), received a report from the supervisor of their building. Although it was one of the nicest in the area, it had some fairly major problems. Yet ...

"None of this was news to us, except the fact that the building had a supervisor at all. Still, that someone had bothered to catalogue the building's woes was in itself remarkable.The response was not. Nothing happened.  What was worse, I found myself not caring.  The water main burst?  Malesh, I'll shower with bottled water. There are eleven tenants trapped in the elevator again? Malesh, I'll walk the twenty floors.  The mail's been tossed in a forgotten storeroom filled with dust and spiders? Malesh, I doubt there was anything important. And I'd been in Cairo only a few months. In another year, I feared, Egyptian inertia would so overwhelm me that I'd be clambering over mummified residents as I scrambled through the unlit stairwell."  (pg. 86)

So is fatalism catchy?  Do you tend towards being fatalistic? Is it healthy and good or something we should avoid?  Just this evening I was telling a friend that too many people I know come across as afraid of the unknown. OK, I was talking about Islam, about Muslims.  We just don't have many in my area and sometimes the impression I get is that we should be suspicious of "those people" because they are following that religion that wants to take over America and make us believe like they do.  But I was telling Friend that I want to not be fearful. Jesus told us not to be afraid.  I want to boldly love people and reach out to them and not fear them doing something to me. Basically I want to just love and leave the results of that to God.  Is this fatalism? 

Any thoughts on Tony's observations re: Egypt?

Notes from Baghdad Without a Map and Other Misadventures in Arabia by Tony Horwitz; please note this book was published twenty years ago (1991) so Egypt may have changed a wee bit since the author noted his own experiences there

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Keep Islam Healthy and Strong

Last week when I went to the library I got 8 books and one of them was Inside Islam which is a collection of essays by more than a dozen people - Muslims and nonMuslims - discussing "the faith, the people, and the conflicts of the world's fastest-growing religion."  While the book was published in 2002 some of the chapters are from earlier works because one author mentions the Soviet Union if that tells you anything!  I especially enjoyed the chapter about Islam in Afghanistan. I am not sure why, but I find myself fascinated over and over again by this country and the variety of souls living there.

"The Conflicts" section has excerpts from a Karen Armstrong book and a Bernard Lewis article. I found both of these rather fascinating as Armstrong discussed Muslims and the West and Lewis, The Roots of Muslim Rage.  It's like by reading their words I can see my people, my culture, my faith through Muslims' eyes.  Of course Armstrong and Lewis aren't Muslims so I'm not positive that they have accurately represented the situation, but I like to think these historians know of what they write. Several things were interesting, but for now I wanted to share this.  Read them and let me know your initial reaction to these words. Do you agree? Disagree?  See any contradictions or things that may be problematic? 

First this:

"It is better for the West that Muslims should be religious," Qaradawi argues, "hold to their religion, and try to be moral."  He raises an important point.  Many Western people are also becoming uncomfortable about the absence of spirituality in their lives. They do not necessarily want to return to premodern religious lifestyles or to conventionally institutional faith. But there is a growing appreciation that, at its best, religion has helped human beings to cultivate decent values. Islam kept the notions of social justice, equality, tolerance, and practical compassion in the forefront of the Muslim conscience for centuries. Muslims did not always live up to these ideals and frequently found difficulty in incarnating them in their social and political institutions.  But the struggle to achieve this was for centuries the mainspring of Islamic spirituality.  Western people must become aware that it is in their interests too that Islam remains healthy and strong. The West has not been wholly responsible for the extreme forms of Islam, which have cultivated a violence that violates the most sacred canons of religion. But the West has certainly contributed to this development and, to assuage the fear and despair that lie at the root of all fundamentalist vision, should cultivate a more accurate appreciation of Islam in the third Christian millennium.   (pg. 190, Karen Armstrong)

And then this:

There is something in the religious culture of Islam which inspired, in even the humblest peasant or peddler, a dignity and a courtesy toward others never exceeded and rarely equalled in other civilizations. And yet, in moments of upheaval and disruption, when the deeper passions are stirred, this dignity and courtesy toward others can give way to an explosive mixture of rage and hatred which impels even the government of an ancient and civilized country -- even the spokesman of a great spiritual and ethical religion -- to espouse kidnapping and assassination, and try to find, in the life of their Prophet, approval and indeed precedent for such actions.  (pg. 208, Bernard Lewis)

The Karen Armstrong bit I understood to the degree that ideally religions make us do right.  They inspire us to live moral lives, to be compassionate, to help the weak, to be kind and all that.  However, I think many people in the United States do not want Islam to be "healthy and strong."  This is why you often hear a "whew!" sigh of relief when you find a liberal Muslim as opposed to a conservative one.  Whereas we may be fine being conservative in our own faith, we certainly don't want Muslims to be the same.  This is because we often feel taking Islam seriously and literally means they hate us and try to take over the world imposing their ideas and way of life upon us.  Is this messed up?  Is this too much stereotyping and taking what television shows and movies have shown us "true Islam" is and, therefore, it's making us fearful? Ohhhhh, real Muslims shout "Allahu akbar!" and then blow things up!  So says the media quite often.

What do you think about the West being responsible somewhat for the development of fundamentalism?  In what ways can you see this being true?  How can Westerners "cultivate a more accurate appreciation of Islam"?

What most stuck out to you from this post?  Anything you want to address? Please feel free to share your thoughts!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

God likes diversity not unity!

A few thoughts from Where God Was Born: A Journey By Land to the Roots of Religion by Bruce Feiler ...

Yair Zokovitch, dean of humanities at Hebrew University and a biographer of David to Bruce and his archaeologist friend Avner:

"Biblical historiography is unique in many ways because it goes from one character to another, presenting our history through people. And that history is the story of the failure of our leaders. God is our blessing; our leaders are our punishment." pg. 85

Do you reckon this applies to us as well?  

When visiting Iran and learning about Zoroastrianism:

"In the battle of good and evil, Zoroastrians view death as a temporary triumph of evil, so any contact with a dead object can taint the forces of good.  As a result, humans were not cremated, because burning the body would defile the fire.  Bodies were not buried, because they would defile the earth. Bodies were left exposed in the open air, where they could be decomposed by the sun and devoured by vultures. This public exposure had the added benefit of reinforcing the religion's egalitarian principles, as rich and poor were disposed of in the same manner." pg. 292

Guess that would put an end to the cremation vs. burial debate, huh?  


Bruce's thoughts after rereading this story while in Iraq amongst the ziggurats:

In the episode that precedes Babel, the Flood, God is so angry at humans' lawlessness that he opts to wipe out all of humanity, "to put an end to all the flesh."  Five chapters later, after humans build the Tower of Babel, God no longer seeks to annihilate humans; he merely scatters them over the face of the earth. His leniency is telling. God is not threatened by humans' industry; he is threatened by their unity. Specifically, he worries that if humans put aside their differences and act as one, they will think of themselves as more powerful than God. To reinforce his view, God's response to homogeneity is instructive: He re-creates humans in heterogeneous groups, forcing them to live as distinct cultures, speaking multiple languages.

The message here is unexpected but powerfully relevant today.  When humans try to create one language -- when one group of people tries to impose an artificial order on the world -- God views this as a hubristic attempt to usurp his powers and slaps down the arrogation.  God insists on diversity. He demands that humans accept their differences. In rejecting the Tower of Babel, God rejects fundamentalism, the idea that one way of speaking is the only way of speaking and can be imposed on others at will.

God's solution is a cacophony of voices, living side by side.
pg. 261

United we stand and become more like God, and divided we're scattered enough to never reach God's level?  Hmmm

Why do you think God scattered the people into the variety of cultures and languages? Do you like how Bruce applied the Tower of Babel story making it relevant for today?  I very much appreciate the thought of no one group imposing its will on everyone else. This is why I increasingly reject the United States having its hand in every world situation and on a more minor scale, why I think no one religious group should make the laws that apply to everyone living in a certain land.  I don't think most people want others to impose their interpretations of religion on everyone else. Thus why I hear talk of Americans who will fight militant Islam's global caliphate plans (if there truly are any...maybe this is just conspiracy talk.) 

Please share your thoughts on any of this!

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Bible On Our Struggles

After speaking of Creation in the Bible and claiming "the earliest verses of the Bible introduce the notion that order is not the natural state of the world; chaos is," author Bruce Feiler writes:

The rest of the Hebrew Bible seems to support the idea that God is constantly struggling against forces of chaos, disorder, and disrespect.  He boots Adam and Eve from his garden after they disobey his order; he destroys the world with a flood after the people act sinfully; he lashes out at his freshly liberated people after they build a golden calf at Mount Sinai; he summons Nebuchadnezzar to wipe out Jerusalem after the people despoil the Promised Land with debauchery.   His chosen people, too, struggle against waves of evil enemies -- the Egyptians, Philistines, Assyrians, Babylonians.  The idea that the Bible represents some halcyon time that if we only get back to we could all live happily ever after is absurd. The Bible suggests there never were good ole days. Every day is a struggle. The Bible is neither conservative, in that it recommends returning to a better time, nor is it optimistic that a better time lies ahead.  The Bible is redemptive, in that it gives humans the ability to save themselves.

What do you think? Do you tend to agree that chaos is the natural state of the world? that we are working toward redeeming ourselves from it? that there is no ideal state or time to go back to? that "good ole days" never existed? that every day is a struggle? there is no optimism that better days are coming? why or why not? Please share your thoughts on this passage.

pg. 236-237  Where God Was Born: A Journey By Land to the Roots of Religion by Bruce Feiler

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

TYOLB - Last Notes & Questions for you

So, my last post on The Year of Living Biblically did not include all the notes I had written from AJ Jacobs' book. I'd actually copied a bit more that I figured I'd put on my March Books post at month's end, but since I've not posted much lately I figured "eh, why not post these few things for now?"  Thus, my final notes. And I do mean final this time for sure since I am planning to return the book to the library tomorrow.  :) 

Reading the Bible without the benefit of commentary or tradition, AJ notes one would likely come away thinking Jacob was the awful twin and Esau was taken advantage of. What brother wouldn't give his brother a bowl of soup if he were hungry? Why demand such a high price? This is where rabbinical tradition comes into play.  One thing AJ learned from it: Esau was "a slave to his urges, pure id, and an exaggerator to boot. He'd do anything for a snack, including selling the sacred birthright; he showed no respect for what God had given him."  (pg. 239)

After reading through "rabbinically tinted lenses" AJ could see Esau's flaws more, but added: "Still, I don't want to whitewash Jacob. I love the complexity of the patriarchs, that their flaws are as numerous as the stars in the sky and, in some cases, come close to eclipsing their righteousness.  And I am awed by the profound and extraordinary fact that the entire Judeo-Christian heritage hinged on a bowl of soup."  (pg. 240)

I have to admit that I've always seen Jacob as quite the, er, well, let's just say I'd never hope to have a child like him!  But I do appreciate AJ's thoughts on the "complexity of the patriarchs" and his being okay with their being flawed individuals.  It demonstrates for me again how God can use sinful humans to accomplish His purposes.

AJ met Jews from different perspectives.  Some like Mr. Berkowitz liked that religion told him exactly what to do, what types of materials to wear, what to eat for meals, even how to put on his shoes! Yet, Mr. Greenberg told him, "'Never blame a text from the Bible for your behavior. It's irresponsible.  Anybody who says X,Y, and Z is in the Bible -- it's as if one says, 'I have no role in evaluating this.'"  Whereas Berkowitz celebrated religion giving him freedom from choice (which reminded me of Amber's recent post, Abdicating Responsibility) Greenberg "grappled" with the Bible.  (pg. 268)

Which do you prefer? Which do you think is more accurate?  Religion giving you freedom from choice because it spells every.single.thing.out. for you? Or religion making you wrestle with the texts
and not excusing you for your actions?  Or maybe you prefer something in between those two views?

Remember the story Jesus told about the prodigal son?  Here is what AJ thought upon reading it:

When I first read the parable of the prodigal son, I was perplexed.  I felt terrible for the older brother.  The poor man put in all these years of loyal service, and his brother skips town, has a wild good time, then returns, and gets a huge feast? It seems outrageously unfair.

But that's if you're thinking quantitatively. If you're looking at life as a balance sheet. There's a beauty to forgiveness, especially forgiveness that goes beyond rationality.  Unconditional love is an illogical notion, such a great and powerful one. (pg. 275)

Do you tend to look at life issues in terms of a balance sheet, something rational where rewards can be given out in a fair manner? Or do you see life as wild and messy and with "illogical notions" such as unconditional love and forgiveness coming into play?  Which do you prefer?  Why?

AJ admitted that he had a foul mouth, but after reading the Bible's warnings about cursing and not having bad communication, he fought both gossiping and using bad words.  At one point his wife laughed at his attempts...

"She can mock me, but the weird thing is, I think my G-rated language is making me a less angry person.  Because here's the way it works:

I'll get to the subway platform just as the downtown train is pulling away and I'll start to say the F-word, I'll remember to censor myself. So I'll turn it into 'fudge' at the last second.  When I hear myself say 'fudge' out loud, it sounds so folksy, so Jimmy Stewart-ish and amusingly dorky, that I can't  help but smile. My anger recedes. Once again, behavior shapes emotions."  (pg. 282)


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Lessons Learned from "The Year of Living Biblically"

In this final post about The Year of Living Biblically I want to record a few lessons that either the author pointed out while writing about his year-long project or lessons I learned from his experiences.  Joni recommended that I read this book because her husband was reading it, had read parts of it to her and she thought it would be of interest to me.  As I said in my initial post, it was different than what I expected. I thought it would be more serious.  A man who worked at soup kitchens and washed people's feet and AJ Jacobs did do the former, but - again - this book was much more humorous than I imagined. (It even has a "HUMOR" label on the back cover.) 

So here are some final things about this book.

I recall that AJ would admit how difficult it was for him to pray. Other parts of his project - wearing certain clothes, eating kosher foods - were fine, but as an agnostic, worshiping God when he didn't know if God existed felt weird.  Yet the more he did it, the more he felt OK with it.  As he gave thanks for food and drink and the fact that he made it to and from work safely, he realized how many things went right every day, how many good things there were in life. By giving thanks, AJ developed a more grateful attitude.

And I like this!  When we focus on being thankful, we aren't moping about how bad life is and complaining and gossiping. So that's a good lesson!


One day as AJ was admiring an article he'd written for his work, he suddenly stopped short...

Here I am being prideful about creating an article in a midsize American magazine. But God -- if He exists -- He created the world.  He created flamingos and supernovas and geysers and beetles and the stones for these steps I'm sitting on.

"Praise the Lord," I say out loud.

I'd always found the praising-God parts of the Bible and my prayer books awkward.  The sentences about the all-powerful, almighty, all-knowing, the host of hosts, He who has greatness beyond our comprehension.  I'm not used to talking like that. It's so over the top. I'm used to understatement and hedging and irony. And why would God need to be praised in the first place?  God shouldn't be insecure. He's the ultimate being.

Now I can sort of see why. It's not for him. It's for us.  It takes you out of yourself and your prideful little brain.  (pg. 220)

And I like this!  When we start focusing on God, we stop being proud and self-centered. We realize how insignificant the things we "create" really are so why should we go about thinking we are "all that" compared to the neighbor next door or someone in another culture?

Another ...

During his year-long project AJ gets input from groups who follow the Bible - some more literally than others. He visits the Amish, Orthodox Jews, evangelical Christians, serpent handlers in Tennessee and a creationist museum in Kentucky.  Even though he admits that he could never believe the creationist point of view since it's not based on science, he admits they did teach him that life isn't random and that we do have a place in this universe.  Later in the book he notes, "My existence is not a meaningless collection of actions, so I should take seriously every decision." (pg. 275)

And I like this! The Bible says we are fearfully and wonderfully made!  We aren't products of chance who have no purpose in life.  While we should never have inflated pride in thinking we are better than others, we should realize our lives have meaning and we are here for a reason. Our decisions matter.

Lastly and most importantly...

On day 336 AJ mentioned that he'd had a "bit of a mental breakdown" the week before about his Bible project.

"In the final stretch, I've been frantically trying to read every single book on religion, trying to interview every religious leader, trying to figure out how to obey every rule.  What if I miss an insight? What if I overlook a potential translation?  I haven't paid God five shekels to redeem my first-born son. I haven't talked to a Seventh-day Adventist yet. What if they have the secret?  I've barely made a dent in the Bible."  (pg. 313)

I remember when I mentioned on Facebook that I was reading this book. I'd only read maybe 50 or 75 pages (out of more than 350) and my friend said that her husband was a bit frustrated with the author's fearfulness. At the time nothing had bothered me this way, but I said I'd look out for it.  AJ had admitted he was a germophobe so I thought maybe that would come into play in an annoying way, but nothing like that bothered me.  Then as I read further I realized maybe AJ's fear that bothered Josh was his inability to keep every rule, his list of 700-plus biblical rules were too many to keep up with!  If he focused on food laws and eating kosher, he couldn't focus on praising God or avoiding lying so much.  Not gossiping. Not lusting.  Those were super-tough and AJ was honest in admitting this.  Rather than this frustrating me, it made me note this Monday night as I finished the book:  "his wanting to keep all the rules, striving, yet he cannot: that is THE POINT."

AJ (rather, using him as a metaphor for all those who take God seriously) was trying to earn God's favor by keeping every rule. By wearing his hair a certain way, by growing a beard, by not mixing fabrics, by eating certain foods and avoiding others, by not lying, by not coveting or lusting or stealing or murdering, by keeping no record of wrongs, by forgiving, by doing good just for the sake of doing good, by giving a tithe, by feeding the poor.

He realized it was exhausting. It caused a "bit of a mental breakdown"! 

This is what is great about grace. The Law was there to show us we could never measure up to God.  It was a tutor, a school teacher if you will.  It taught us, there is no way I can keep myself pure.  Even if I keep these rules, I still have to worry about ritual impurities almost constantly.

This is why Jesus is important.  He made a way where we don't have to keep 700-plus rules in order to reach God.  He is the bridge.  We can rest in the work he did for us on the cross and fall on the mercy and grace of God.

"God, I can't keep all these rules!  Trying to do everything right is driving me nuts!  I cry out for your mercy in dealing with me. God, be merciful to me a sinner!" 

And the wonderful thing is, God is merciful. God is full of grace.  He abundantly pardons. He is the Savior.

And I love this! Enough said.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Food Laws & AJ's TED Talk

 Here are some more tidbits from AJ Jacobs in The Year of Living Biblically.  Also I found a TED talk he did a few years back which mentions some experiences from this book including one of my favorites concerning what his wife did so he'd have to buy his own fold-up chair ...or remain standing within his own house!  :)

About the religious food laws: they sharpen your discipline. 

"The famous twelfth-century philosopher Maimonides says this is precisely their purpose: '[They] train us to master our appetites; to accustom us to restrain our desires; and to avoid considering the pleasure of eating and drinking as the goal of man's existence.'"
  (pg. 171)

Although we don't know that this is the true reason, I actually appreciate the thought behind it. Living in a culture that indulges quite often in food, drink and even materialism, I can see the wisdom in teaching humans to master their appetites and realize that there are more important things in the world than whether or not your cheeseburger is cooked right. Like why do we yell at waitresses as if our food is more important to us than they are?  (Sorry. I fell into one of my pastor's pet peeves.) 

Many of us know the Mosaic Law's prohibitions against eating pork or shellfish or birds of prey, but there is also a biblical rule concerning fruit. You may not eat of a tree fewer than five years old. So AJ researched which trees produced fruit fast and avoided them. Peach trees, for example, can produce fruit within two years.  Cherry trees, on the other hand, take at least five years before producing fruit so he felt safe eating them.   He noted: "The fruit taboo made me more aware of the whole cherry process, the seed, the soil, the five years of watering and waiting. That's the paradox: I thought religion would make me live with my head in the clouds, but as often as not, it grounds me in this world."  (pg. 172)

Not many insects are kosher, but locusts, crickets and grasshoppers are.  AJ's secular mind mulls the logic here. Why would God deem these bugs as permissible to eat? 

"One book I read --
The Unauthorized Version by Robin Lane Fox -- had a theory.  It said that in biblical times, swarming locusts would often devour the crops and cause famines. The only way for the poor to survive was by eating the locusts themselves. So if the Bible didn't approve of locust eating, the poorest Israelites would have died of starvation. This I like.  More and more, I feel it's important to look at the Bible with an open heart. If you roll up your sleeves, even the oddest passages -- and the one about edible bugs qualifies -- can be seen as a sign of God's mercy and compassion."  (pg. 176)

What do you think of AJ lessons from food laws?  Thoughts on the video or anything else shared?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Community vs. Individualism; More from "The Year of Living Biblically"

So last evening I introduced The Year of Living Biblically and today I wanted to share a bit more from author AJ Jacobs.  This topic was especially interesting to me because I also have been reading a history book by Stephen Ambrose and I noticed how tribes and soldiers were parts of groups working for common goals.

As I've become more interested in other cultures during the past few years, I've compared and contrasted them with my own. Why do these people stress community over individuality? Why does a daughter's honor matter so much to this extended family that they would kill for her sexual purity? Why does everyone have to toe the line in order to be accepted? Why does it matter that much if a child apostasizes from the religion of his family?

I've also noted the community emphasis of religion. The Bible says not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together because we are to encourage and exhort each other.  I guess the Lone Ranger Believer is not how God designed it.  Even from Genesis, God noted it's not good for man to be alone. We are to belong to families and communities. Relationships are important to God.  Perhaps it's too bad I tend to fall on the individualistic, loner side of life quite often. 

Enough chitchat, read about AJ's experience . . .

While visiting Jerusalem AJ noticed the groups of Christians, Jews and Muslims and felt oddly out of place, a stranger in a strange land, alone where everyone else "belongs to his or her own gated spiritual community."  He notes: "It drives home a disturbing point: My quest is a paradoxical one. I'm trying to fly solo on a route that was specifically designed for a crowd.  As one of my spiritual advisers, David Bossman, a religious professor at Seton Hall University, told me: 'The people of the Bible were "groupies." You did what the group did, you observed the customs of your group. Only the crazy Europeans came up with the idea of individualism. So what you're doing is modern phenomenon.'" 

He then notes how much he likes individualism, how it's been part of his life.  Yet ...

This year I've tried to worship alone and find meaning alone.  The solitary approach has its advantages -- I like trying to figure it out myself.  I like reading the holy words unfiltered by layers of interpretation. But going it alone also has limits, and big ones.  I miss out on the feeling of belonging, which is a key part of religion. I experienced this most keenly once before, during the biblical holidays of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah back in October. I tried to do them alone. I fasted. I ate sweets. I sent portions to the poor. But I was doing it cluelessly and by myself, and it felt empty.  I couldn't even bring myself to write a chapter about the holidays, because I failed to wring anything approaching the proper level of meaning from them.  And many of my more profound experiences have come when I've joined a group, even momentarily....

Maybe I had to dial back my fetishizing of individualism. It'd be a good thing to do; the age of radical individualism is on the wane anyway. My guess is, the world is going the way of the Wikipedia. Everything will be collaborative.  My next book will have 258 coauthors.

(I love his sense of humor which is sprinkled - or poured - liberally throughout the book.)

What do you think of AJ's musings? Mine?  Do you think there is a time and place for individualism or does stressing it cause societal problems such as the breakdown of the family? Can doing things for the good of the community go too far? When is it important to stand against societal pressure - if ever?  Why is being community oriented better than being individualistic?  Or if you believe it's not, why?  Thoughts? Comments? Questions?

(quotes from pages 213-214)

Saturday, March 5, 2011

"Life is a jigsaw puzzle"

Recently a friend of mine told me that her husband was reading The Year of Living Biblically by AJ Jacobs and suggested that I might like it as well. I looked it up, found it at my local library and put it on my list of books to check out which I did Thursday night soon after I published my last post.  I thought it would be something quite different than it's turned out to be so far. I was expecting a much more serious book filled with -- what? Um, something different than this. But, hey, I like it very much actually!

Growing a beard was part of AJ's living the Bible project.

So AJ decides to live the Bible as literally as possible.  The book is quite funny in many parts, but also it's "serious" in that AJ, an agnostic who grew up in a secular Jewish family, comes to discover some appreciable aspects of living the Bible.  Frequently he gives a spiritual report and declares "I'm still agnostic but..." and will talk about how something - prayer or giving to charity or realizing discipline is important for his child - makes him feel better.

Anyway, I still have over half the book to read, but I thought I'd share one scenario.  On Day 80 AJ is at a family gathering. Most of the family is not religious, however, one aunt is an Orthodox Jew. Her name is Kate.  So AJ's grandfather asks about the strangest rule AJ has to follow. 

"I mentally scan my list of Five Most Perplexing Rules. I choose one at random.  'Probably the one about how if you're in a fistfight, and the wife of your opponent grabs your private parts, you must cut off her hand.'"

Kate hears this and her face falls.  Maybe she didn't realize her beloved Torah had such a strange command. But there it is in Deuteronomy 25:11-12.

11 If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, 12 you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.

The next day AJ gets a phone call from Kate. She'd talked to her rabbi who said, yes, it was in the Torah,

"But...it's supposed to represent something broader: Do not embarrass others.  The wife here is embarrassing her husband by assuming he needs help. And the wife is embarrassing the husband's opponent by, well, grabbing his privates.  Plus, adds Kate, you didn't actually chop off the wife's hand. That's metaphorical. The woman was required only to pay a fine."

AJ admits this sounds more rational interpreted this way, but questions why didn't the Bible just come out and say not to embarrass others? "Why the mysterious code?"

He asked his Jewish advisers and the best answer he received was from Rabbi Noah Weinberg:  "Life is a jigsaw puzzle, he told me. The joy and challenge of life -- and the Bible -- is figuring things out.  'If a jigsaw puzzle came numbered, you'd return it to the store.' Same with life." 

I've heard people say before that part of the joy of life and the goodness of God is that He left things for us to discover.  Wouldn't life be different and less satisfying if everything were already figured out? If there were no mountains to climb on the hunt for that thrilling view from the top, no waterfalls to discover hidden on a trail, no medicinal or scientific or oceanic discoveries to make? No gems to dig for, no birds to watch and learn their habits - how that mothering instinct is present. Isn't it fun to watch young children discover their toes or noses or ears?  Isn't it exciting to go to the zoo or circus or even Walmart and see a little one's face light up as he discovers new things?  On a related note, I've heard people say heaven will still be full of discoveries.  Not sure how they deduced that, but it makes sense to me that God would want to see the pleasure on our faces when we discover wondrous things He has created.  Maybe He has new things for us to discover throughout eternity.  Who knows?

By the way AJ said this explanation wasn't totally satisfying, but did somewhat and vowed to keep on learning.

What do you think of the rabbi's explanation about God not spelling out the rules and the whole jigsaw puzzle bit?  Do you think it's gift from God that we are able to discover or do you wish things were discovered already as they could be beneficial to humanity?  How would you interpret the Deuteronomy passage above?  Thoughts or questions?

quotes from pg. 111-112

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Hey, what's up?

Wow, I can hardly believe how not chatty I've been here lately. I guess nothing has really stood out to me to share although I have read some interesting things.  Just today I finished I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor's Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity by Izzeldin Abuelaish.    A Facebook friend recommended it a few weeks back after her family had the opportunity to hear Dr. Abuelaish speak somewhere near their home,I guess.  Anyway, I put it on my Amazon wishlist and it was one of the two books I received for Valentine's Day.  I cried during parts of it, but was encouraged by his attitude. I really admire this guy!

Yesterday we went to the Natural Science Museum in a neighboring city.  My brother, sister, nephew, dad and I went so it was quite a fun "field trip."  It's not so often that this particular crew gets to go out together for a day.  You can see a few pictures here if you'd like.  There is a llama with some crazy hair!  And also a couple of snakes that I touched though that was not photographed since I was holding the camera. Instead you can see Michael touching the snakes!  I also made friends with a cockatoo.

Here is a video about Freedom's Call in Syria. It's about dissidents working in that country and the struggle they face in this oppressive regime.

Here is a short video of the most typical face on the planet.  It also has some interesting facts of what is typical in various parts of the world. Like in some countries residents spend eight hours a day collecting water!  Can you imagine?! Wow!

I am heading out now. Going to meet some high school friends in a couple of hours, but I wanted to run an errand or two first.  The library is calling my name!  Anyone want to guess how many books jump into my arms and what topics they are about?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

My "Enlightened Viewpoint" re: Israel

So here is another in my "stepping out of my box and changing my mind" series that I first discussed here.

Last month E and I were still talking on that same thread where he asked me about my views on Islamic jihad and sharia, (I shared my views on that here) and he could tell I wasn't fawning over Israel as much as I should have been.  I mean we grew up in churches and households that strongly supported God's Chosen People. And even if we didn't support them on religious grounds, how about the fact that they are our strongest ally and "the only democracy in the Middle East" surrounded by those angry Arabs and Persians who hate them so much they want to wipe them off the map?  For all its superpower status which puts us in some ways at the top of the heap, Americans tend to love a worthy underdog. And poor little Israel with its persecuted Jews fit the bill in a region of the world full of strife and multitudes of non-Jews who hated these people for daring to reclaim their ancestral lands.

OK, let's leave the land stuff alone and even who has rightful dibs on it.  I say the land belongs to God and I am extremely sorry to see what people do to each other for the sake of land.

Anyway, E noticed my replies weren't adding up to what should be 'normal' for me.  I think I had mentioned how awful life was for the Palestinians which prompted this:

Susanne, that's just not true. UN reports say that food, medicine, and humanitarian supplies are uninterrupted. Weapons, on the other hand are being stopped.

I can understand why they do what they do. The god of this world has blinded their eyes. The hatred of the Jewish people began where you say it did. From that time, they have been suffering persecution. Slavery in Egypt, Herod, attacks from all sides, Hitler, more attacks from all sides.

I believe that the persecution will never end until God puts an end to it; and despite what Daniel says, I know you know what the Bible says about that.

Forget what others believe, what do you believe? Do you believe the Bible account of the end days? I do, or do you have a more "enlightened viewpoint"?

So I decided to share

My "enlightened" view just for E: :-)

E, I'm not denying there has been hatred of the Jews since ancient times. I believe Satan would like for this ethnic group to have been destroyed in order for the Messiah (whom I consider the Savior of the world) to never come. Of course he failed. God always preserved a remnant and even when Israel went "whoring after other gods", He was always faithful to His promise to Abraham. Not because of the Jews' innate goodness, but because of God's.

I think many American Christians have taken Genesis 12:3 as their way for dealing with the current Israel which was established by mostly secular Zionists such as Hertzl who mocked the OT as a book of fables. He used it to his advantage, however, and knew when to use it as "Thus saith the Lord" when appealing to religious folks.

Genesis 12 talks about God blessing those who bless Abraham's descendants and cursing those who curse them, correct? I am fine with that. I believe the Bible. But I ask now what does blessing someone mean? Does it mean being OK with them mistreating others or does it mean encouraging them to do right in God's sight? God dispersed the Jews into other nations because of their unfaithfulness to Him. The OT Prophets often scolded Israel for injustice, lack of mercy and their arrogance. How is this different from today? Do we suddenly wink at their sins because we want to "bless them" (which being interpreted is: do whatever evil, sinful thing you want and we will pat you on the back and give you more money because WE ARE STANDING WITH YOU, O ISRAEL!)? You don't bless a drug addicted child by giving him drug money and okaying his lifestyle. You get him help. You show him the forgiveness and life changing power of God.

I'm not arguing about End Times happenings. I'm talking about the here and now and treating people as God wanted the Israelites of old to treat those living with them.

"The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God." (Lev. 19:34)

I have Christian missionary friends living in the West Bank and they have seen the situation first hand unlike most of us. I'm not saying everything is Israel's fault, but neither do I give them a blanket endorsement. Many of their policies perpetuate the cycle of hatred. This is what I want us to understand better. I'm not debating or trying to change minds on your interpretation of the end times. I'm simply saying we need to remember Jesus' words about loving our enemies and the reminders in Scripture.

"If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink."

We can't expect Jews to follow Jesus' commands, but I surely can expect my fellow Christians to obey their Lord if they truly claim to follow Him. Why do we not take Jesus seriously?

We can leave all the end time stuff to God. We can't bring it to pass any earlier or later by trying to finagle things in the region so everything is right for Jesus to return. But we can take Jesus seriously and love all people -- even our enemies. Leave the vengeance stuff to God. Let's be faithful in sharing -and living- the good news of Jesus with a world that needs Him. That is what will change things in the region.

I hope that helps explain where I am coming from. Thanks for your questions. I'm glad I had a chance to share my thoughts on this topic.

Any thoughts, corrections,questions or details to add?  Do you think I'm silly for expecting followers of Jesus to see Palestinians with love and compassion instead of solely as enemies because they hate Israel?  What do you think?