Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Actually, God was Always Good: a review of Is God a Moral Monster? by Paul Copan

          The Old Testament’s stories and laws have become a hay-day for all those cynical of God and His followers. In a society that strives for equality and peace, why would one consider the input of those who uphold a book that primarily tells stories of a God who seems to perpetrate, support, or at least allow barbarism, weird legalism, racism and genocide? Many would say such a God is a hypocrite, or he mellowed out between the Bible’s Testaments. From 20/20’s comparison of the Old Testament with Islamic terrorism, to the closing monologue of God on Trial, all the way to the arsenal of the New Atheist movement (including frequent quotes from the late Christopher Hitchens, who Copan mentioned we should pray for, due to Hitchens’s then-diagnosis of esophageal cancer), the pre-Christmas God is getting quite the bad rap. 
          And many Christians don’t know how to respond. Some Christians tend to ignore the Old Testament. Some act as if God did go through some type of change in personality or even the mode of salvation after Jesus’s birth. Some proudly confirm all the cynics’ allegations against God, painting Him as sadistic and power-happy and contradicting verses about His character in both Testaments. None of these approaches are biblical.
          But if you’re someone that takes on a lot of doubt about the character of the God of the Old Testament, whether it’s persecution or self-imposed, this book is for you. Paul Copan, in his book Is God a Moral Monster?, is very thorough, historic, and biblical in his effort to rightly portray God as the Sustainer and impartial Valuer of human life, as well as the Bearer of wisdom for righteousness and cultural flourishing.
          Copan, curiously, opened the book discussing the New Atheist movement, namely establishing the problem I mentioned in the first paragraph of this review. He explains his paradoxical friend/foe relationship to various of the four prominent New Atheists (he’s had and enjoyed Daniel Dennett’s company) and gives the reader a taste of their rhetoric. Copan rightly asserts that the issues of the Old Testament should not be “shoved under holy rugs” by uninformed Christians (20).
          Copan does well to slowly walk us deeper and deeper into the issues at hand like stepping a hot tub. He starts with the accusation of divine arrogance, and then he eventually addresses the alleged ethnic cleansing in the end of Part 3, which takes the biggest portion of the book. 
          The answers to most of the hostile inquiries of the Old Testament God’s character involve exegesis and require a better understanding of Ancient Near East history and literary style. As it turns out, some of the prominent New Atheists‘ arguments have a bit of what C.S. Lewis would call “chronological snobbery” and they lack the aforementioned understanding. I can’t go into detail here, but once rightful context is established, the purpose of the “weird” laws of the Torah look similar to the New Testament’s principles of discipleship and selfless cultural flourishing. And amid the barbarism and chaos that was the other Ancient Near East, understanding its history and literature, the armies of Israel look the most just, humane and, in some cases, virtually pacifist.
          When I read through Francis Chan’s Erasing Hell earlier this year, I positively reviewed it as a layman’s reference on the doctrine of damnation. Is God a Moral Monster? is also best used as a reference guide, but arguably removing “layman” from the description. This book took me a while. Copan is very meticulous and thorough (he probably referenced every Old Testament verse anybody ever had a problem with!) in the body of this book. He categorized them well, and some topics take up multiple chapters. 
          If there’s one thing that’s lacking in Is God a Moral Monster?, it’s Copan’s modern contextualization of divine national judgment (160-161). I wish he had further unpacked that a bit more, given the explicit expansion of the Gospel to the Gentiles, the diverse modern connotations of “nationality” and the increasing transience and individualism in Western society. Some more could have been shared, especially with Westboro Baptist on the prowl, proclaiming divine national judgment upon -well- almost every nation in the world.
          Otherwise, I am planning on keeping Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? on my shelf. It was a long but very encouraging read to understand the New Atheists’ misunderstandings of the biblical text and, more importantly, my God who was (and is) consistent and good.
Next: Lupton’s Toxic Charity or Piper’s Bloodlines

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Gilly’s Choral Christmas Playlist, trk. 2: “. . . which was the son of . . .” - Arvo Pärt

          Believe it or not, we’re still in the Old Testament. Well, kind of. We’re in the New Testament’s account of Jesus’s genealogy, specifically, in the book of Luke. The genealogy, however, mostly consists of Old Testament characters.
          I can’t remember where, exactly, I first found this choral work. Off the top of my head, I don’t know of any other genealogies put to music. The repetition of the text itself can provide many opportunities for minimalism, but that’s not the direction Pärt took. While a 20th century composer, he has an appreciation for some of the pre-Renaissance music that accompanied the ancient sacred liturgies he likes to write (e.g. the Magnificat).  
          I do appreciate the different chord textures and melodies Pärt gives to each member of the genealogy, giving honor to the genealogy and it’s ending member, Jesus Christ.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Two Memories of Christmas Giving

To Russia With Quacks
          I was a 3rd grader in a Christian grammar school. Everyone in our classroom had a pen pal from a 3rd grade classroom in Russia, which was regularly visited by one of our students’ missionary parents. Our class was thrilled to have these distant friends. After a few months and a several letters, we were excited when we got to see a videotape tour of the class.  
          My Russian pen pal was named Maxim. In the video, his desk was right by the window, so I could only see his silhouette against the snow outside. He slowly stammered his English as he stated his name and mentioned that he liked Donald Duck. When it came time to mail them again, I remembered that I had a small plastic Donald Duck figure that I didn’t play with anymore, so I sent it along, only hoping that it would make him happy.
          The next time my 3rd grade class heard from Russia, it was in the form of a big box of individual gifts to all of us from each of our respective pen pals. Apparently, they really liked the gifts we sent and wanted to give back. I received a small purple robotic figure and a knight on a horse, which I still have to this day. 
          But I remember what really stuck with me. As I panned across the room of my happy fellow 3rd graders, I saw their joy as, both simply and strangely put, creative and righteous. Our Christian grammar school had had costume parties with themes and Valentine’s Day parties where we gorge ourselves on candy and ice cream (also where giving cards to everyone was mandatory, lest someone feel left out), but this joy was different. It was the joy that came from an unexpected response to our act of charity. And it was a creative way to teach children the joys of giving while further introducing them to the world outside their own country.
          Lesson Learned: It was a good example of the truth of 2 Cor. 9:6-11.
Stomping Goombas with Dad
          One of the questions of empirical research that organizations like  Advent Conspiracy ask, in order to encourage more biblical Christmas giving, is what your favorite Christmas gift was . . . ever. Usually one has trouble answering because fads quickly die. For those who do answer, “favorite” gifts are remembered usually because of a significant memory that was given with them, or because the material gift was, at face/monetary value, much more timeless (or at least enduring) than any short fad.
          When I was asked that question during a Bible study, I thought about it for a short bit, and then said, “Super Mario Bros. 3.”
          Of course, most gamers (especially the remnant of loyal Nintendo fans) will affirm Super Mario Bros. 3 for the Nintendo’s original 8-bit, two-button system from the 80’s as a significant and even foundational milestone in the development of action/adventure gaming, the “Mario” franchise and video games in general. Its themes and approach are regularly used even today. In its original cartridge form, it’s still sought out. Super Mario Bros. 3 is arguably a “timeless” gift, judging by the aforementioned criteria.
          But, being in grade school, I didn’t understand all that. What I did understand, however, is that my adoptive father, who hadn’t even been married to my mom for even 18 months, was smiling and driving me to Toys ‘R Us to buy it. (As I recall, video games were a similar price back then, but the consoles were a lot cheaper). 
          So I had the gift of a loving relational investment from a member of my immediate family, and I had the coolest new video game. It was a good Christmas. If I only had the latter without the former, it wouldn’t be the same.
          Lesson Learned: Give what lasts. It won’t be forgotten.