Monday, May 31, 2010

“Lifting Up What We Consider to be the Values”

Via Noam Chomsky, whose writings usually make me want to stab my eyes, I found this year-old quote from our president:

Justin Webb of the BBC: Do you regard President Mubarak as an authoritarian ruler?

THE PRESIDENT: No, I tend not to use labels for folks. I haven't met him; I've spoken to him on the phone. He has been a stalwart ally, in many respects, to the United States. He has sustained peace with Israel, which is a very difficult thing to do in that region, but he has never resorted to unnecessary demagoguing of the issue and has tried to maintain that relationship. So I think he has been a force for stability and good in the region. Obviously there have been criticisms of the manner in which politics operates in Egypt and, as I said before, you know, the United States’ job is not to lecture but to encourage, to lift up what we consider to be the values that ultimately will work not just for our country but for the aspirations of a lot of people.

What if we started giving Mubarak $1.3 billion a year in military aid? Could we “lecture” him then?

Oh wait.

Some detail on how “politics operates in Egypt":
• All media and universities are censored or directly run by the government.
• Egyptians can be arrested for insulting Mubarak or distributing leaflets and posters.
• Egyptian citizens are subject to detention without charge, and trial without legal protection.
• Torture and bribery are frequently practiced by police and security forces.
• Labor strikes are illegal.
• Egypt ranks 111 out of 180 countries in terms of political transparency.
• 16,000 people are currently detained in Egypt without charge.

But hey, there’s an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty to negotiate.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


Yes, it happened. I am now officially a BA. (Joke stolen from BrittaLisa Gess.)

What to say? It feels good. Not The Best Most Awesome Thing Ever, but pretty good.

I spent my last few days of college exactly the way I wanted to: hanging out with old and new friends, eating out at La Fiesta, Pizza Ranch and Pizza Hut, drinking beer (and sometimes coffee), watching South Park reruns, arguing about Marxism, reminiscing about freshman year, making impromptu trips to Sioux Falls, going to terrible movies (Iron Man 2), rooting through dumpsters, and trying to foist old food on other people. Now I'm at home, without any tests to study for, textbooks to read, meetings to go to, or papers to write. It's a beautiful thing. It really is.

When I first got home, I spent four days going through all the junk I brought back from college and all the junk I left at home, trying to get rid of all my unnecessary possessions, and organize what was left. A lot of that junk was old college assignments. I took my time going through those old papers and deciding which to save. It was an interesting journey through my academic life so far. I'm happy to report that both my writing and my belief system have improved noticeably since I was a freshman. I learned a ton at college. My worldview was stretched and pushed every which way, and completely shattered once or twice, but I am, I hope, much wiser for it. In that sense, I consider my college career a success.

A side effect of all that learning was a big dose of humility. I'm a lot less cocksure than I was as a freshman. (I like that word. "Cocksure." It works.) In the middle of finals week, Alvin, Shena, David K. and I got invited to be on President Zylstra's radio show "Conversations." Dr. Zylstra mentioned that college surveys show that a comparatively high percentage of Dordt College alumni say their beliefs were tested at school, but that an equally high percentage of Dordt alumni are very sure in their beliefs. Put me in the first box, but definitely not the second. At the beginning of my semester in the Middle East, a British ex-pat pastor told my group, "I know only two things for certain: Christ is Lord, and I am here to serve him." Wishy-washy liberal hogwash, freshman-Joel would say. Yeah, that's pretty much it, BA Joel says. "Decide what you believe now, while you have the luxury to spend time thinking about it," our fall convocation speaker advised us. Oops.

My college experience definitely did not equip me to offer answers. If anything, it equipped me to ask the right questions. Further study is required. Grad school? (Sigh).

So, that's that, I suppose. A big thank you to my parents, my relatives, my college friends and my professors. I probably would have gone crazy without you. Much love to you all.

"Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, 'This is the way; walk in it.'"
- Isaiah 30:21

الحمد لله

Praise be to God.

Friday, May 14, 2010

But they do not know the thoughts of the LORD.

My journey through the prophets continues.

And I’ve finally made it through the big boys. It took me the much better part of a year to work through Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. But since I posted some notable quotes from Hosea a few weeks ago, I’ve finished off Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, and I’m now halfway through Micah. I like reading the shorter prophets. I feel like I’m accomplishing more.

We’ll find our way back to the prophets later in this post. I just want to rhapsodize about the Bible for a second.

My appreciation for God’s word has been deepened by learning a little bit about the holy book of Islam, the Qur’an. (I hope to read all the way through the Qur’an this summer. More on that later.) The Qur’an is pretty scattered and difficult to read, but it’s delightfully united. It’s a no-nonsense kind of scripture. It was entirely recorded by one man in two cities over two decades. There are few contradictions or mysteries therein. Muslims proudly assert the unity and completeness of their revelation.

Comparatively, the Bible is a complete mess. Sixty-six books (or more, or less, depending on who you ask), all seemingly at cross-purposes, written by around forty different people over several thousand years, many of them officially anonymous, many of them obviously having been tampered with (See, e.g., Mark 16, John 8, Genesis 1-2, Ezekiel 1:2-3, etc., etc.) To top it all off, at some point in the Middle Ages, somebody divided all these books into chapters and verses, and did a truly terrible job of it. Supposedly, these stories, parables, letters and oracles are all held together by some master “plan of redemption.” I believe that, but even that plan is rarely explicitly spelled out; theologians are left to fill in a lot of holes. I’m reminded of the show Battlestar Galactica. In the show, the villainous Cylons are trying to wipe out the remnant of humanity, but forgo lots of obvious chances to do so, and none of their villainous schemes seem to make much sense. But at the beginning of every episode, the viewers are reassured by a title screen that “They [the Cylons] have a plan.” (By Season Four, the writers apparently decided that it was impossible to think up any “plan” that would explain everything the Cylons had done, and the show quietly dropped the title screen.)

Knowing that this is the book God chose to reveal himself through is a special comfort. Rather than a list of rules or a ten-point plan or “Four Spiritual Laws,” God gives us a poorly-edited spiritual anthology, sends us the Holy Spirit, and tells us, “Now watch what I’ll do with this.” It reminds us that our primary task is not to figure all this out, but to trust in God, his Spirit and his word. God is Lord and Judge, not us. He will make all things right in the end.

In addition, the Bible gives us the privilege of hearing the word of God as it was delivered to many different groups of people in many different contexts: from the first humans to the liberated Israelites to the Jewish exiles to Israel’s enemies to the early persecuted church. This means that not every word of scripture is directed at us, but that scripture as a whole gives us a richer insight into the nature and will of the God we serve.

Anyway. Back to the prophets.

In Jeremiah 18:7-10, God says,
If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.

I’ve encountered more than a few prophecies that don’t seem to have come even close to being fulfilled. Just about every prophet speaks of the reunification of the ten northern tribes with Judah. No one has heard from those tribes in 2700+ years. In Ezekiel 40-46, God sends Ezekiel a vision that details the plan for a new temple in exhaustive detail. Nothing like this temple was ever built, and since Christ has now done away with sacrifices for sins, it probably never will be. In Daniel 11, Daniel’s angelic visitor predicts the future reigns of the Ptolemies and Seleucids perfectly, until we get to verse 36. From then on, the prophetic narrative doesn’t match anything we know about Greek history. Ezekiel 29:12 says, “I will make the land of Egypt desolate among devastated lands, and her cities will lie desolate forty years among ruined cities. And I will disperse the Egyptians among the nations and scatter them through the countries.” As far as we know, this has never happened.

Evangelical Christianity’s use of the prophets has often been preoccupied by two pursuits: an attempt to “prove” the Bible’s truth through fulfilled prophecy, and the quest to map out the future history of the Middle East and the world based on the prophets’ words. For these two enterprises, the Bible’s unfulfilled prophecies are disastrous. But if we choose to view prophecy not solely as a crystal ball, but as a part of God’s relationship with the world, a relationship that includes warnings, judgment, and mercy, then the unfulfilled prophecies are less troubling. At one point in Ezekiel’s grand temple tour, an angel tells him, “Son of man, describe the temple to the people of Israel... Write these down before them so that they may be faithful to its design and follow all its regulations” (43:10-11). Perhaps this prophecy was not a prediction, but a prescription – a prescription that the Israelites clearly did not follow when they returned from Babylon. Perhaps the Maccabbees’ decision to revolt against the Seleucids, rather than await the aid of Michael (Daniel 12:1), postponed God’s judgment on the nations and the final resurrection described in Daniel 11:36-12:3. We could go on in this fashion.

This morning, I was reading Micah on a caffeine high, and the following passage blew me away (as otherwise-ordinary things are wont to do to me when I’m on a caffeine high):

You will go to Babylon; there you will be rescued. There the LORD will redeem you out of the hand of your enemies.

[So far, standard prophetic fare.]

But now many nations are gathered against you. They say, “Let her be defiled, let our eyes gloat over Zion!” But they do not know the thoughts of the LORD; they do not understand his plan, he who gathers them like sheaves to the threshing floor.

Rise and thresh, O Daughter of Zion, for I will give you horns of iron; I will give you hoofs of bronze and you will break to pieces many nations.

- Micah 4:10-13

The going-to-Babylon part is pretty straightforward. We all know that story. But the end of that story is: the Jews return, they are conquered by the tolerant Ptolemies and later the evil Seleucids, have a tiny kingdom of their own for about a hundred years, get conquered by the Romans, and later pulverized by them. Where does Zion breaking the nations to pieces come in?

The nearest thing I can think of is the modern State of Israel breaking the Arab armies to pieces three times in thirty years (1948, 1967, 1973). But what does that have to do with the redemption story?

Is this an uber-figurative description of the spread of the gospel throughout the nations, which broke the Roman empire (among others) to pieces? Is this a promise that was canceled on account of Israel’s perpetual disobedience? Is this a description of Christ’s victory over the nations at his Second Coming, still in the future? Is it all three?

“They do not know the thoughts of the LORD.”


Some excerpts from the other prophets I finished recently:

“Judah will be inhabited forever and Jerusalem through all generations. Their bloodguilt, which I have not pardoned, I will pardon.” The LORD dwells in Zion!

- Joel 3:20-21

This is what the Sovereign LORD showed me: He was preparing swarms of locusts after the king’s share had been harvested and just as the second crop was coming up. When they had stripped the land clean, I cried out, “Sovereign LORD, forgive! How can Jacob survive? He is so small!”

So the LORD relented. “This will not happen,” the LORD said.

This is what the Sovereign LORD showed me: The Sovereign LORD was calling for judgment by fire; it dried up the great deep and devoured the land. Then I cried out, “Sovereign LORD, I beg you, stop! How can Jacob survive? He is so small!”

So the LORD relented. “This will not happen either,” the Sovereign LORD said.

This is what he showed me: The Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to plumb, with a plumb line in his hand. And the LORD asked me, “What do you see, Amos?”

“A plumb line,” I replied.

Then the Lord said, “Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer. The high places of Isaac will be destroyed and the sanctuaries of Israel will be ruined; with my sword I will rise against the house of Jeroboam.”

- Amos 7:1-9

“The day of the LORD is near for all nations. As you have done, it will be done to you; your deeds will return upon your own head. Just as you drank on my holy hill, so all the nations will drink continually; they will drink and drink and be as if they had never been.

“But on Mount Zion will be deliverance; it will be holy, and the house of Jacob will possess its inheritance.”

- Obadiah 15-17

“Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the LORD.”

- Jonah 2:8-9

Saturday, May 1, 2010

My Media Intake - Analyzed

As usual, delivers.

There's been a lot of doomsaying lately about the effect of the internet on American politics. According to the doomsayers, Americans used to get most of their news from a single source, like Walter Cronkite. Now, in the internet age, people choose their news source. And because people are people, they tend to choose news sources that reinforce their beliefs. Thus, liberals go to liberal websites, and conservatives go to conservative websites, and the American political consciousness is irrevocably fragmented, until different political sects are living in totally different worlds.

Pretty scary, right? The good news is, that doesn't appear to be happening - at least not yet. A new study by Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro of the University of Chicago concludes that,

Many people go to sites whose readers don't share their politics. To use their terminology, they found a low degree of "media isolation" among Web surfers compared with the political isolation most Americans experience in their daily lives. Stacked against the networks in which we work, live, and socialize, the network we increasingly use to get our news—which is to say, the one you are using right now—is relatively integrated.

Of course, if that integrated news network serves to promote an imperialist neoliberal American hegemony, that might not be such a good thing. (I tell ya, once the critical theory gets in you, you can't get it out.)

In any case, if you'd like to see how "isolated" your news intake is, has devised a test to tell you. The test examines the news sites you visit, gives you the political breakdown of their readership, and gives you your own an index of political isolation.

My results?

Of the news sites I visit, an average of 52% of the readership is conservative, and 48% is liberal. (Moderates and independents are excluded from the data). Since more Americans identify as conservatives than as liberal, that result puts my news intake at 19 points to the left of the average reader.


The article also gives you a political breakdown of the readership of the most-visited political websites, all in a handy visual display. Yahoo! News is the biggest internet news source, with 55% conservative readers and 45% liberal readers. The smallest? Bill O'Reilly's website. 100% conservative.