Friday, December 8, 2006

Business as Usual

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Columnist Robert Novak, perhaps best known these days for his involvement in revealing the identity of Valerie Plame (Wilson) as a CIA operative, has uncovered another fetid example of "business as usual" in the halls of Congress. As he writes in his "Evans-Novak Political Report" for December 6, 2006, his latest exposé concerns, "a patent measure that looks like a technical change to an obscure section of the U.S. Code . . ., but it is an illustration of how Washington works at its worst."

The measure involves giving a solitary business, the Medicines Company, the ability to extend its patent retroactively. This hardly seems important. The firm's lawyers were one day too late in 2001 in filing the patent extension paperwork for its heart drug, AngioMax, so what? However, the error could end up costing the company $500 million in profits after the original patent expires in 2010. The extension, if granted, would allow the Medicines Company to monopolize the manufacture and sale of AngioMax until 2014 or 2015. Once the patent expires, whether earlier or later, other drug companies will be able to produce a cheaper, generic version.

One would think that the Medicines Company would sue its lawyers for their delinquency in filing the paperwork, but instead, it has hired high-priced Washington lobbyists to get Congress to grant them a retroactive, five-day extension of the deadline by adding it as a measure to another bill. As Novak writes, "But the blatant wheeling and dealing in order to get special treatment offers a rare window into the disturbing bipartisan self-dealing that goes on in Washignton [sic]."

The measure is being sponsored by two Republicans from Tennessee and two Democrats from Massachusetts, a wondrous bipartisan achievement in itself. On September 14, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet, and Intellectual Property held a hearing on this measure, which one objector snidely named the "Sorry-I'm-Late-the-Dog-Ate-My-Homework Act." Testimony clearly revealed that the bill was designed to benefit only one company—and solely because this company had the good fortune of hiring the best lobbyists money could buy. Nevertheless, the measure was not blocked.

Presently, its backers want to attach the measure to a bill concerning designs for ship hulls, one authored by Texas Senator John Cornyn, a Republican. The lobbyists and sponsors have chosen Cornyn's bill because he is one of only a handful of senators that would likely object to the patent measure, and he would not want to hold up his bill just to stymie the passage of the one provision. Thus, it will probably pass into American law.

Except in terms of the dollar amounts involved, how is the Medicines Company's lawyers' error any different from Joe Citizen's failure to postmark his tax return before midnight on April 15? What right does he have to lobby Congress to erase his delinquency? None. He is required by law to pay whatever fine or interest that accrues due to his error. Why should this business, though it undoubtedly generates millions of dollars of commerce each year, be able to both rectify and profit from its own error?

But despite what our founding documents might say, there is no equality under the law in the United States of America. Using plenty of money, connections, and power as lubricants, a corporation can slip its preferences into the law to the exclusion of all others. This is nothing new. It has been happening in this country since its earliest days, but it is disheartening to see such pandering and peddling of influence being done so brazenly and matter-of-factly.

Such a thing is a fulfillment of the prophecies of Amos, which deal largely with matters of social injustice and corruption. The prophet rails against the wealthy and powerful "sell[ing] the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals" (Amos 2:6), and "afflicting the just and taking bribes; diverting the poor from justice at the gate" (Amos 5:12). He paints a picture of a people groaning under the oppression and corruption of its own leaders, "notable persons in the chief nation" (Amos 6:1). The leadership lives luxuriously, seemingly unaware and unconcerned that the nation is disintegrating under them and that the common people are suffering. Why should they worry? They have everything they want, and no calamity can touch them.

Yet, they leave God out of the picture because they have forgotten Him. Seeing how they afflict and take advantage of their own people, He promises:

For behold, the LORD gives a command: He will break the great house into bits, and the little house into pieces. . . . "I will raise up a nation against you, O house of Israel," says the LORD God of hosts; "and they will afflict you from the entrance of Hamath to the Valley of the Arabah [from north to south]" (Amos 6:11, 14).

Notice that He promises to "break . . . the little house into pieces" too, which might seem unfair to the oppressed and afflicted who lived in those little houses. However, God is just, and He sees the hearts of all. Evidently, He discerns that the sins of both high and low, wealthy and poor, are merely matters of degree. Were the poor and downtrodden in the same positions as the wealthy and powerful, they would commit the same sins and crimes. As Isaiah puts it, the whole nation is sick—full of sin—from head to toe (Isaiah 1:5-6).

Would we do the same as the Medicines Company if we were in its place? Psalm 15 says that a person who will be allowed to dwell in God's holy hill "swears to his own hurt and does not change" (verse 4). This is a principle of godly character, applicable in this situation. In other words, a Christian takes his lumps, as it were, when he makes a mistake, even if it hurts. He does not try to work against or around the law to benefit himself at the expense of others. This is an attitude that imitates that of Jesus, who "when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously" (I Peter 2:23).

In Washington, it will unfortunately continue to be business as usual. What will it be in our house?

Friday, December 1, 2006

A Day of Inconvenient Truths

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Former presidential candidate and senator from Tennessee, Albert Gore, Jr., spent the first half of 2006 jet setting throughout the United States and Europe to tout his new documentary,
An Inconvenient Truth. In it, he proclaimed the end of the world as we know it, but despite his Bible Belt origins, his apocalyptic vision does not include even a whiff of biblical prophecy. He is a proponent of sudden, disastrous, worldwide climate change due to global warming, the kind imagined in another recent movie, The Day After Tomorrow. So, any day now—perhaps even as soon as this coming Sunday—everyone north of the Tropic of Cancer or thereabouts will either be frozen solid or huddled, shivering and blue, in their own custom igloos.

The irony of the Gore movie's title is delicious, right alongside Bill "The Gambler" Bennett's Book of Virtues and the late Sam Walton's Made in America. An Inconvenient Truth purports to marshal the facts on global warming and predicts the dire consequences of ignoring them. Yet, the movie itself turns a blind eye to the mounds of scientific evidence that contradict its premise. They are themselves rather inconvenient.

For instance, the Cato Institute's Patrick Michaels has written two well-documented books, The Satanic Gases and Meltdown, both of which conclusively explain that, while there has been some increase in global temperatures over the past few decades, the warming trend has been quite gradual and natural—and certainly will not produce catastrophic results. In fact, temperatures rose much more rapidly in the decades before 1940, and there were no adverse effects then. Michaels' offerings are just a few of the many books and studies published in the last few years to balance the environmentalist left's Chicken Little scenario.

That is exactly what it is: a fake crisis, based loosely on debatable science, promoted to advance a political agenda. As Michael Crichton explained in his book, State of Fear, movers and shakers of all stripes have learned that manufacturing crises, producing doubt and fear in the populace, opens the electorate to suggestion and manipulation. Although these influential members of society and advocacy groups assert the truth is on their side, they really care little about it. Their first rule is "the ends justify the means."

In the past few weeks, another issue has moved forward in the face of inconvenient facts. New York Congressman Charlie Rangel, a Democrat and soon-to-be powerful House Ways and Means Committee Chairman, has pledged to introduce a bill to reinstate involuntary conscription to the U.S. military—the draft. The crisis he has created, along with willing abettors in the mainstream media, is that of class warfare. He claims that the poor and disadvantaged comprise a disproportional percentage of the armed forces. In other words, the wealthy and elite in this country do not contribute their fair share to the nation's defense in terms of manpower.

What are the inconvenient truths that Rangel ignores? The Heritage Foundation's Dr. Tim Kane has engaged in an exhaustive study of the composition of U.S. military recruits since 1999. He and his associates have found that Representative Rangel has reached the exact opposite conclusion to the facts. For instance, Kane's "Who Are the Recruits? The Demographic Characteristics of U.S. Military Enlistment, 2003–2005" relates:

The current findings show that the demographic characteristics of volunteers have continued to show signs of higher, not lower, quality. . . . Those who have been so quick to suggest that today's wartime recruits represent lesser quality, lower standards, or lower class should be expected [to] make an airtight case. Instead, they have cited selective evidence, which is balanced by a much clearer set of evidence showing improving troop quality.

. . . For example, it is commonly claimed that the military relies on recruits from poorer neighborhoods because the wealthy will not risk death in war. This claim has been advanced without any rigorous evidence. Our review of Pentagon enlistee data shows that the only group that is lowering its participation in the military is the poor. The percentage of recruits from the poorest American neighborhoods (with one-fifth of the U.S. population) declined from 18 percent in 1999 to 14.6 percent in 2003, 14.1 percent in 2004, and 13.7 percent in 2005. . . .

In summary, the additional years of recruit data (2004–2005) support the previous finding that U.S. military recruits are more similar than dissimilar to the American youth population. The slight differences are that wartime U.S. military enlistees are better educated, wealthier, and more rural on average than their civilian peers. (Emphasis ours.)

What is Representative Rangel up to? How can he ignore such obvious facts? He is advancing a political agenda to punish the wealthy and privileged, as he imagines them, and to extort money and benefits for his poor and downtrodden constituents, as they are only in his own mind. Stripped of all its rhetoric, his proposal is sheer socialism, arbitrarily redistributing wealth and advantage to those who have shown no inclination to earn it for themselves. But then, socialists have never let the truth weigh them down.

As Christians, as keepers of the Ten Commandments, we are bound to the truth. Whatever kind of truth it is—religious, scientific, political, social, financial—we must give it its due regard. Yet, we live in a nation—in a world—in which the pursuit and respect for truth is waning and almost gone. God says through Jeremiah: "'And like their bow they have bent their tongues for lies. They are not valiant for the truth on the earth. For they proceed from evil to evil, and they do not know Me,' says the LORD" (Jeremiah 9:3).

But we do know Him, and we have a responsibility to "buy the truth, and sell it not" (Proverbs 23:23, KJV). As liars and deceivers increase (II Timothy 3:13), we must be on the lookout for those who press on with their agendas despite the inconvenient truths of reality. No good end will come on those whose lives are built on lies.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Sacred Cows

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Even though we live in a world deluged by knowledge—after all, our day is known as the "Information Age"—we often rely heavily on our preconceived ideas about many things. On the other hand, if what we believe about a thing is not a preconception, it is often a misconception because we do not take the time or effort to find out the
truth. In other words, some of what we believe is the result of ignorance, rather than true knowledge, while other beliefs are the result of prejudice, rather than true judgment. It is to be hoped that true Christians are whittling away at—or better yet, carving out big chunks of—both of these.

Some of these preconceptions or misconceptions become so dear that they turn into "sacred cows." According to the dictionary, a sacred cow is something "that is often unreasonably immune from criticism or opposition." This term was coined from the Hindu practice of worshipping cows. If any non-Hindu suggested that the cow, as a dumb animal, should not be allowed the run of the country, a Hindu would take great offense. This subject is immune to reason, criticism, or opposition.

A few of our ideas about biblical events or people are sacred cows. To some people, Herbert Armstrong is a sacred cow. They mistakenly venerate him so highly that they brook no criticism of him at all, forgetting that he, like all the rest of us, was human and made mistakes. Too many jump to the other extreme, saying that he did nothing right! Moreover, we have had skewered the sacred cow of an exclusive body of the true church in one corporate organization. Other sacred cows are, for some, church government, a Monday Pentecost, the new moons, postponements, conspiracy theories, etc.

One sacred cow is that the ten northern tribes of Israel were taken into Assyrian captivity, and nearly 150 years later, Judah was taken to Babylon. Generally, this is historically accurate, but it is not the whole story. A few years after Israel's fall to Assyria, a major segment of Judah's population was also taken captive by Assyria! Suddenly, the sacred cow of the Ten Lost Tribes becomes inaccurate. Not only the ten northern tribes were "lost," but even a large portion of Levi, Benjamin, and Judah lost their identities too! Now, in reality, we have thirteen remnant lost tribes! This is one reason why later Bible writers call the Jews "the of Judah."

Most people are ignorant of this because the Bible does not directly mention it. However, the Bible agrees with the historic record: "And in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them" (II Kings 18:13). This occurred only about eight years after Israel fell to Sargon. What did Sennacherib do upon taking all these cities? He boasts in his inscriptions that he took 46 fenced cities of Judah and deported 200,150 captives to the same areas to which Sargon had transported Israel. He says he left Hezekiah confined in Jerusalem "like a bird in a cage." In the end, only Jerusalem escaped intact. In essence, this means that only those few of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi who had taken refuge in Jerusalem were not deported or killed! How is that for skewering a sacred cow?

Another sacred cow is the occupation of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What did they do for a living? How did they become so wealthy? The movies made about the patriarchs usually depict them as nomadic shepherds. Even though the Bible describes Abraham as immensely rich in livestock, silver, and gold (Genesis 13:2), moviemakers usually make him seem just on the verge of poverty, dressing him in dirty brown robes, giving him a hangdog expression, and surrounding him with a few sheep and goats. How much wealth could a landless shepherd amass? Let us notice a few biblical facts:

Genesis 14:13-16 tells the story of an escaped captive coming to Abraham to tell him about the attack upon Sodom and about Lot's capture. Why did the man come to Abraham? Abraham had 318 trained and armed men, which he quickly marshaled and led into battle, successfully routing the forces of the four kings of Mesopotamia. Suddenly, Abraham starts taking on another dimension.

In Genesis 23, the Hittite elders address Abraham as "my lord" and "a mighty prince among us." They then proceed to negotiate ruthlessly with him for Sarah's burial cave, finally agreeing on the price of 400 shekels, a lot of money at the time. The Hittites ruled a vast empire centered in Asia Minor, and they had built it primarily on trade rather than conquest. They haggle with him as a sign of their respect for—not a dirty, poor shepherd—but a successful and incredibly wealthy merchant! It appears that Abraham was a businessman of great skill, intelligence, and power!

If the Egyptians considered shepherds to be an abomination (Genesis 46:34), why did Pharaoh and the princes of Egypt accept Abram and Sarai so readily in Genesis 12:14-16? Simple—Abram was not a shepherd but a wealthy merchant! The patriarchs were shepherds, in a sense, only because vast flocks and herds were necessary to their main occupation: trade! In that society, livestock acted as a form of currency just like silver and gold. Coins had not yet been invented, and some found it easier to trade in livestock rather than in heavy gold and silver. In a way, we carry on this practice by calling our trading centers "stock markets."

We tend to forget Abraham's origins. He was born in Ur, a large, commercial city of Mesopotamia, and he lived there into his seventies. He then moved with Terah, his father, to Haran, a major stop on the caravan route that ran between Babylon and Egypt. Trading seems to have been the patriarchs' business for several generations. Genesis 34:10 shows Jacob and his sons allying with the Hivites to carry on the family trade.

Another proof of their occupation as traders can been seen by mapping the patriarchs' dwelling places in Canaan. The resulting map shows that all of their activities took place at the junctions of major trading routes. The patriarchs lived where their business could profit them the most!

How does skewering this sacred cow benefit us? It is definitely not knowledge necessary for salvation, but it is the truth. It is not a preconception or a misconception. It is a small piece of knowledge that may help us understand more important things. For instance, God certainly has nothing against His children being in business and making money. In addition, we can better relate to some of the problems the patriarchs had to overcome.

It should certainly make us more careful in our Bible study to avoid relying on preconceptions. Proverbs 15:14 tells us, "The heart of him who has understanding seeks knowledge, but the mouth of fools feeds on foolishness." We should be seeking the knowledge that will help us to understand the truth and shun the foolishness of sacred cows. This will help to show God that, rather than believing the lie, we have received the love of the truth (II Thessalonians 2:10).

Friday, November 10, 2006

What If ... ?

Over the past year I have read three books by science fiction author Harry Turtledove. He is well known in science fiction circles as the current master of the alternate history novel. For example, in one book, Gunpowder Empire, he tells the story, set in our modern world, of life under a Roman Empire that never declined and fell. In another, Ruled Britannia, he sets out a scenario for Elizabethan England conquered by the Spanish Armada. In a third, The Guns of the South, he ponders just what might have happened if the Confederacy had been victorious in the Civil War. They make for interesting, if not escapist, reading.

As we watch historic events take place, it is easy to fall into the habit of wondering, "What if. . . ?" What if the Soviet Union had invaded Western Europe after Berlin fell during World War II? What if Douglas MacArthur had gotten his way in Korea? What if John F. Kennedy had not been struck down by an assassin's bullet? What if Richard Nixon had played things square and fair? What if American forces had won in Vietnam? What if Jimmy Carter's botched rescue attempt during the Iranian Hostage Crisis had instead been successful? What if Ronald Reagan had been killed by John Hinckley? What if Gorbachev had not torn down the Berlin Wall? What if Bill Clinton had responded with force to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center? What if Al Gore's chads had given him the presidency in 2000? What if Iraq's Republican Guard had put up a real fight against the Coalition of the Willing? What if, what if, what if!

The mainstream media is portraying the 2006 midterm elections as a historical event of like proportions to those just mentioned. They are treating it as a world-changing event, the likes of which we have never experienced in our lifetimes. It is the second American Revolution! It means sweeping change for America! The Iraq quagmire will be solved! The world will love the United States again!

Does it mean these things? Hardly. Let's not be oversold. But what if the Republicans had not lost?

Most of us have heard the expression, "There's not a dime's worth of difference between the parties." This is not really true. There is a great deal of difference between the parties, as one covers the vast expanse of the far-left to the center of the political spectrum, while the other holds the equally vast far-right to the center. In other words, the parties are two very large tents, within which are wide-ranging differences in ideology and approach. For instance, the Republican tent includes not just anti-sodomy evangelicals, but also Log Cabin Republicans, a group of homosexuals who support the party's fiscal policies. In the same way, the Democrat party houses both patriotic American soldiers and anti-war zealots. Looked at this way, it is a too general statement to say that Democrats are liberal and Republicans are conservative.

However, each party has a solid base, and it is here that the labels "liberal" and "conservative" can be applied to Democrats and Republicans respectively. On the Democrat side, the liberal base supplies the party with its bread-and-butter issues: minority rights, entitlements, increasing taxes, multiculturalism, cutting military spending, and the like. For Republicans, the conservative base calls for a strong military, reining in federal spending, smaller government, reducing taxes, privatization of Social Security and health care, strong foreign policy, etc. These general aims bob to the surface in just about every election.

One would think that, all things being equal, if a politician would support all the major ideals of his party's base, he would garner plenty of votes to win whatever office he desired. The problem is that not all things are equal. Essentially, each party's base matches the other party's base, but the great mass of people on either side of those bases is large enough to swing an election either way. Ergo, a politician will have difficulty winning, especially a national election, by clinging to the principles of his party's base. In other words, he must campaign as a moderate, a centrist, while giving lip-service to his base. This strategy has worked splendidly for every winning Presidential candidate since the 1988 election.

So, what if the Republican party had managed to hold on to both the House and the Senate on Tuesday? From this perspective, very little would have changed. Only a few true conservative Congressmen and women were voted out of office, and very few truly liberal ones were voted in. In essence, there was an exchange of moderates in our nation's most august chambers, the only difference being a few more blue jerseys than red ones. At least one pundit at a major news organization has speculated that in order to win, Democrats had to run more conservative candidates to beat sitting Republicans, thus Congress may actually be more conservative now than before! However, the Congressional leadership is almost entirely liberal, so the legislation that will come up before both Houses will likely reflect liberal ideology.

In effect, the American people voted for the status quo but with a liberal lean, whereas before it was canted conservatively. Unless a major crisis ensues, this should not produce too great of an effect on American culture and morality over the next two years due to the almost certain gridlock that will overcome Washington under a narrow Democratic majority and lame duck George W. Bush.

The real prize, the 2008 Presidential election, will more clearly indicate America's course. We can expect the winning candidate to run as a moderate, castigating his or her opponent for extreme ideas that will spell the ruin of this great nation. The electorate will vote for the candidate who promises them more of the center of the road—in other words, not a leader but a place-holder after what they consider to have been a reckless, controversial "cowboy" regime. While that may seem to be the safe way to go, they will not consider that a person sitting in the middle of the road is in danger of being hit from either or both sides.

Bible prophecy, of course, says nothing specific about American political events. However, it does say that, as the day of the Lord looms, "the remnant of Joseph" (Amos 5:15) has a terrible problem with seeking false religion, injustice, corruption, over-taxation, and "mighty sins." God's advice is, "Seek the LORD and live" (verse 6), a call to return to godliness and truth. He does not say, "Vote Republican!" or "Vote Democrat!" but "Repair your relationship with Me!" Elections mean nothing but decline and ruin if the people of this land neglect their obligations to the One who made them and rules them from heaven.

What if Americans actually took God's advice . . . ?

Friday, November 3, 2006

A Polluted National Landscape

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Midterm elections will take place across America next Tuesday. Democrats are licking their chops, confident that they will win back the House of Representatives (most analysts are saying they will win twenty seats from Republicans) and perhaps the Senate (it will probably be close). History shows us that the party in
power often loses midterm elections in a sitting president's second term. Only Franklin Roosevelt held serve, yet that event occurred when Democrats dominated the Senate, holding more than eighty seats.

Church of the Great God is strictly apolitical. We do not endorse any party or any candidates, and we teach that those whom God has called do not have authority to vote. Christians, whom the Bible describes as "the called" or "the elect," have their citizenship in heaven (Philippians 3:20), so they are strangers and foreigners even in the land of their birth. Just as illegal aliens have no right to vote in U.S. elections, so are true Christians banned from casting a ballot. "No one," says our Lord and Savior, "can serve two masters" (Matthew 6:24). It is a matter of loyalty.

Nevertheless, our apolitical stance does not restrict us from commenting on the political scene, especially when the government and its representatives cross the lines of morality and justice. Unfortunately, these lines are crossed all the time, giving us plenty of fodder for crying aloud and sparing not (Isaiah 58:1), a responsibility of God's ministers. Like the prophets of old, it is part of the duty of the ministry to point out where this nation has left the true path and offer godly suggestions for restoring Christian values to public and private life.

The scene today, just days before the nation goes to the polls, contains a plethora of targets for criticism. From mistakes in handling the war in Iraq to foot-dragging on solving the illegal immigrant crisis, from sex scandals to campaign finance violations, from poorly worded "jokes" to biting negative campaign ads, the national political landscape is strewn with controversy, immorality, and foolishness. We can blame these black marks on politicians, who indeed carry a large part of the blame, but that is missing the point. The political landscape is marred because our society at large is sick, from top to bottom, or as Isaiah puts it so much more eloquently: "The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faints. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but wounds and putrefying sores" (Isaiah 1:5-6).

Isaiah is not speaking, of course, of physical bruises and disease but of spiritual and thus of cultural decay at work. He sees the nation as a body made up of many individuals (much as Paul describes Christ's body, the church, in I Corinthians 12), but because so many of the individuals are spiritually weak and sick, the nation itself is diseased throughout. The head, which he describes as "sick," represents the leadership, while the heart represents the patriots, those who work for the good of the country—and even it is "faint" or weak and faltering. Beyond these two critical areas, every part of the body from sole to pate is unsound. The prophet describes a sorry, almost hopeless condition.

So the old adage is true: "People get the leaders they deserve." While the politicians may be constantly in the public eye, and their indiscretions thus become front page news, they are not altogether unlike their constituents. Can we claim that no voter has ever had a homosexual tryst? Is it possible that no voter ever took some money under the table to smooth the way for a deal? Certainly, no voter has ever hired an illegal alien to sweeten his bottom line! Or evaded paying his taxes. Or smoked pot or snorted cocaine. Or voiced an ethnic slur. Or dumped some engine oil down the sewer, etc. No, even beyond the all-important issues, politicians reflect those who back them.

The liberals are fond of another saying: "Think globally. Act locally." It is a common mantra of environmentalists, who urge individuals to clean up their own acts, their own properties, as the best place to start to reform the whole world. The saying contains a true principle: A person can only change himself, and if we desire a large-scale transformation of behavior for the better, many individuals will have to resolve to change. Right now, the momentum of societal behavior runs steeply downhill toward degeneration and immorality. To shift that momentum back toward morality and Christian values will take a massive effort, one that may be beyond America's ability to achieve.

But it will certainly never even get started if Christians themselves do not live for all their worth according to God's standards (Matthew 19:17). We cannot rely on being joined by thousands of fellow citizens, let alone millions of conservative Americans, in a counter-cultural revolution. We cannot expect media pundits and political leaders to lead the charge back up the hill toward decency and civility. We cannot hope that the fight to return justice, honor, and true freedom to the American character will be swift and easy—in fact, it may well be hopeless. Yet, despite the lack of expectation for society in general, the effort itself is noble and worthwhile to each individual who undertakes it because of the personal transformation it effects (Romans 12:2; II Corinthians 3:18).

Politics is dirty, and because it involves the quest for temporal power, it has always been a nasty business. A moral society can keep this distasteful institution in check by sheer weight of influence, but when society itself is rolling in the gutter, politics has free rein to run roughshod over anyone and anything in its way. As Solomon says, "By the blessing of the upright the city is exalted, but it is overthrown by the mouth of the wicked" (Proverbs 11:11). The next few years will prove whether the upright or the wicked will prevail.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Sorry, I Forgot

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Many readers of this column know that Church of the Great God teaches that the Anglosphere (as columnist Mark Steyn phrases it)—Britain, America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand—is composed of descendants of the biblical patriarch, Joseph. We go further by teaching that America derives its population from Joseph's firstborn,
Manasseh, and the other nations mentioned above descend from his second son, Ephraim. This belief is called by many "British-Israelism."

In simple terms, Jacob's prophecy in Genesis 48:19 foresees two major world powers, one of which—Manasseh—is a single great nation while the other—Ephraim—is "a multitude of nations." The United States of America is without doubt the greatest single nation in terms of both wealth and power that the world has ever seen. Similarly, the British Empire, upon which the sun never set, it was once said, was in its time even greater, especially in terms of its scope and control of the world politically and economically. These brother nations, bound by more than just a common language but also a common ancestry, have worked together for nearly two centuries to dominate world affairs.

God weaves clues to the character of these nations in His Word. One of the Bible's most consistent hints concerning peoples and nations arises from the meaning of their names. Genesis contains numerous references to the births of progenitors of nations and—interestingly—their parents' reasons for naming them as they did. Joseph's sons' births are mentioned in Genesis 41:50-52, along with their father's explanations of their names:

And to Joseph were born two sons before the years of famine came, whom Asenath, the daughter of Poti-Pherah priest of On, bore to him. Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh: "For God has made me forget all my toil and all my father's house." And the name of the second he called Ephraim: "For God has caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction."

Thus, Manasseh means "forgetful" or "making forgetful," while Ephraim means "fruitful" or "productive." Joseph, by the way, means "He [the LORD] will add," implying blessing from God (see Genesis 30:22-24). Joseph, through Jacob's blessing of his sons, received the firstborn's portion of Israel's inheritance, and it was mainly upon Joseph that God's physical promises of wealth and power that he made to Abraham were fulfilled. God certainly added to Joseph by blessing his descendants.

The people of Ephraim have certainly been fruitful and productive, far out of proportion to their numbers and the size of their homeland. From the little isle of England, they sent ships and armies that seized and governed far-flung lands and peoples for generations. They used the resources of those lands to build a vast trade and industrial empire that is the envy of nations and would-be empires. They are a people who lived up to their prophetic naming.

In this way, Manasseh does not disappoint either. From its founding in early colonial days, its people have tended, if not desired, to forget the past and plunge into the future. Its first colonists left Europe to put behind them both religious and governmental persecution and economic disadvantage. Leaving behind family and fatherland, they came to these shores to exorcise the old ways and to forge a new life in the wilderness of America. What had happened before and in other lands was of little concern to them; what was important was what lay ahead. What Joseph said in naming Manasseh could have been said by many of those colonists: "For God has made me forget all my toil and all my father's house."

That America was removed from Europe by a wide and often tempestuous ocean encouraged the formation and solidification of forgetfulness in our national character. By the time the colonists decided to rebel against their British overlords in London, most Americans had little interest in the goings-on in Europe to the point that, though they were just a generation or so removed from the Continent, Americans considered themselves a distinct and unique people. "American" was its own brand, having left its European origins behind.

American forgetfulness is enshrined in its founding documents, in which European forms of government are rejected and a totally new form, American republicanism, is adopted. George Washington advised America not to become involved in foreign disputes and wars, fearing that the fledgling nation would be swallowed up in the perennial game of nations in Europe. Later, ideas like the Monroe Doctrine—written by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams during President James Monroe's administration, warning other nations, particularly European ones, that America would not stand by should they attempt to interfere in the Western Hemisphere—isolated the U.S. even further. As this self-enforced isolation continued, America readily forgot the old ways and became famous for "can do" ingenuity, inventiveness, and innovation.

But Manassite forgetfulness has a downside: It tends to repeat the same lessons because it refuses to remember what previous generations learned through rough experience. Thus, American history tends to progress in very similar cycles, in which one generation repeats the mistakes of former ones and succeeding generations must make the best of the pieces that remain and move on. So it appears that the American government never seems to make any progress in its various "wars": on poverty, on drugs, on crime, on illegitimacy, on terrorism, on illiteracy, etc. All of the same old programs keep being tried time and again, and we wonder why the nation's problems never get solved! As wise Solomon said, "There is nothing new under the sun"—and certainly not in forgetful America!

Please keep Manassite forgetfulness in mind while watching events unfold toward the crisis at the close of the age. Truly did Moses and Jesus tell us to live by every word of God (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4; Luke 4:4)!

Sunday, October 1, 2006

What Is the Pope Up To?

Pope Benedict XVI, the German-born former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, is the leader of over a billion Catholics worldwide and presides over a multi-billion dollar empire of land holdings, churches and cathedrals, companies, universities, institutions, hospitals, etc. His representatives, official and otherwise, are in every nation on the globe, influencing policy to the advantage of the Roman Catholic Church. He has hundreds of advisors and assistants, many of whom are among the most learned men on earth. He sits atop an organization that wields power and influence far beyond the confines of tiny Vatican City in Rome.

If he has all this wealth, knowledge, and authority behind him, why did he make such a colossal blunder in his comments at Regensburg University in Germany on September 12? Did he not know that even quoting a fourteenth-century Christian emperor's anti-Islamic remark would ignite protests and perhaps violence as well across the Muslim world?

Without a doubt.

The Pope, who turned 79 in April 2006, has observed the world long enough to be able to predict accurately just how his audiences will react to his ideas. The Vatican, long steeped in both politics and cultural sensitivity, understands the hair-trigger reactions of Islamic fundamentalists to anything even remotely offensive to "the religion of peace" or its prophet, Muhammad—remember that the furor over the Danish cartoons erupted just months ago. If his words, then, were not a thoughtless blunder, what were they designed to do? Why did he intentionally make them? What is the Pope up to?

There are probably at least two answers to these questions. The first is contained in the public response to Muslim demands of the Pope to apologize to the faithful for his "outrageous slander" of Muhammad. In his remarks to invitees to a meeting at his summer residence near Rome on September 25, the Pope regretted that his comments offended Muslims, yet he went on to explain briefly that Christians and Muslims "must learn to work together . . . to guard against all forms of intolerance and to oppose all manifestations of violence."

A reading of his Regensburg speech makes it plain that this was his intention all along. Notice this passage:

The [Byzantine Emperor Manuel Paleologos II, a Christian] must have known that Sura 2,256 reads: "There is no compulsion in religion." . . . But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Quran, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, . . . he addresses his interlocutor . . . on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. "To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death. . . ."

Here he introduces his real subject, the relationship of reason and faith in religion. Muslim extremists—and frankly most Muslims period—have abandoned reason in their wholehearted devotion to Islam, and the result has been conflict, destruction, and death. On the other side, Western Christianity has rejected faith in favor of rationalism, producing cultural relativism and an essentially godless society. Benedict's speech was designed to steer a course toward the future between the two extremes.

At this point, the second answer to the why of the Pope's intentions comes to the fore. Upon ascending to the pontificate, Benedict dedicated himself to returning Europe to fundamental Christian values in response to increasing secularization. In a May 1996 address titled "Relativism: The Central Problem for Faith Today," he noted, presaging his papal theme:

Today, a particularly insidious obstacle to the task of education is the massive presence in our society and culture of that relativism which, recognizing nothing as definitive, leaves as the ultimate criterion only the self with its desires. And under the semblance of freedom it becomes a prison for each one, for it separates people from one another, locking each person into his or her own ego.

To counter this creeping narcissism, he recommends Europe's re-Christianization, urging Europeans "to open ourselves to this friendship with God . . . speaking to him as to a friend, the only One who can make the world both good and happy. . ." ("St. Josemaría: God Is Very Much at Work in Our World Today," L'Osservatore Romano, October 9, 2002). In early 2006, this theme still on his mind, he reiterated, "It is time to reaffirm the importance of prayer in the face of the activism and the growing secularism of many Christians . . ." ("Friendship with God," Zenit News, February 7, 2006).

In this light, his remarks at Regensburg were a rallying cry to Europe to reject the fanatical, violent faith of its burgeoning Muslim minority as well as the sterile, empty secularism of modern society—and to embrace the reasonable, traditional, and beneficial faith of Christianity. By doing so, he sets up himself and the Roman Catholic Church as sound-minded bastions of European solidarity and strength.

Despite the violence his remarks caused, he has calculated that they were worth the turmoil so that he could gauge, not the Muslim reaction, which was predictable, but the European response. He is hoping to see a shift in attitudes toward the Catholic Church and the papacy to defend Christendom from the ongoing Islamic assault. So far—and granted, his remarks still echo across the Continent—he has seen nothing from secular Europe to give him hope.

Friday, September 15, 2006

'Dangerous' Speakers of Truth

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Just this Tuesday, speaking at Regensburg University in Germany, Pope Benedict XVI quoted fourteenth-century Byzantine Emperor Manuel Paleologos II, a Christian: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." Of course, as we have unfortunately begun to expect when someone speaks the truth about Islam, his remarks have been met with the usual firestorm of protest from the Muslim world. From the growing Muslim enclaves of Europe to the more traditional Middle and Far Eastern Islamic nations, the Pope is being burned in effigy and lambasted as a bigot and a racist intent on promoting a modern Christian crusade against Muslims.

The Byzantine Emperor's observation predates by about five centuries a lengthier and more detailed one from a young Winston Churchill, which he included in his book, The River War, published in 1899:

How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity. The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property, either as a child, a wife, or a concubine, must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men. Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities—but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilisation of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilisation of ancient Rome.

Intrepid radio talk-show hosts, columnists, and a handful of politicians have made similar remarks to their respective audiences since September 11, 2001, only to be castigated for intolerance, mendacity, and bigotry. In fact, here in America, one Muslim group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (maybe better known by its acronym, CAIR), headquartered in Washington, spends nearly all of its time and energy protesting truthful statements about Islam in the media. They have been successful in causing radio stations to fire talk-show hosts and squeezing newspapers and magazines to offer apologies to the "Muslim community." Perhaps they have been most successful in intimidating politicians to tone down their rhetoric and to treat American Muslims with kid gloves.

So great is the fear of offending adherents of Islam that it is the official policy of the Bush Administration that "Islam is a religion of peace." To assuage Muslim voters, the President repeats this ironic statement every time there is an "incident" involving Islamic violence and terror. Watchwords of our time are "Islamic terrorism" and "Muslim extremists," and nearly every point of conflict on the planet involves Muslim aggression, yet the American government—and frankly, most other Western governments—continues to insist, "Islam is a religion of peace."

Any objective history of Islam will show that "the religion of peace" expanded primarily at the point of the sword. The concept of jihad, whether or not the Koran's original intent included aggressive warfare, came to mean "holy war" early in Islamic history, and millions of Muslims have sworn to advance jihad, no matter the cost, until the entire earth lays under the banner of Islam. The so-called "moderate Muslim," if such a person exists, is either 1) a secularist in reality, or 2) a moderate because he has calculated that it is presently in his best interest (for example, the governments of "moderate" Arabian Peninsula states like Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar fall into one or the other of these categories).

More broadly, the Pope's statement and the Muslim world's reaction to it highlight a confounding reality of this world: Those who speak the truth are considered dangerous and must be silenced. Usually, the silencing of those who dare to say what is right takes the form of ridiculing or discrediting them, branding them as intolerant, or stridently calling for them to apologize or resign. If this fails, Islamists are not above intimidation, threats, violence, and murder. In the Netherlands, Theo van Gogh and Pim Fortuyn both paid the ultimate price for daring to speak the truth about Islam and Islamic fundamentalism.

But this goes beyond Islam. It can reach into every facet of life on earth, but it is especially virulent when the subject is religion, lifestyle, or morality. Anyone who speaks authoritative truth wears a target in these days of tolerance and liberal humanism. Should a preacher, backed by the authority of God's Word, condemn homosexuality, he could in some places not only expect persecution, but also find himself jailed or heavily fined for his "hate speech." Were a missionary to enter America's urban neighborhoods and preach abstinence, non-violence, and respect for law and authority, he would likely be laughed down, roughed up, and perhaps even killed for his "insolence." Even college campuses, supposedly bastions of free speech, are no longer safe for preachers, pundits, and politicians who stray beyond a narrow, politically correct viewpoint.

The prophet Amos foretells of such a time: "They hate the one who rebukes in the gate [where city elders made judgments in ancient Israel], and they abhor the one who speaks uprightly" (Amos 5:13). Isaiah, too, speaks of those "who make a man an offender by a word, and lay a snare for him who reproves in the gate, and turn aside the just for a thing of naught" (Isaiah 29:21). Jesus concurs: "[Yes], the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service" (John 16:2).

It seems that the whole world—the nations of modern Israel in particular—has come to such a point. The time of the end is fast approaching as we see these activities of evil men increasing. From here on out, it will become increasingly dangerous to speak the truth to a "hear no evil" world.

Friday, August 25, 2006

A World Upside-Down

God thunders in Isaiah 5:20, "Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!" In this verse, He pronounces a curse on those who judge a matter exactly opposite to reality, and its connection to the surrounding verses suggests that such people do this knowingly to deceive others. The two immediately preceding verses condemn those who sin blatantly and then taunt God to come and punish them, and the following verse censures "those who are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight" (verse 21). The subjects of these three "woes" hang together as facets of humanity in rebellion against God: the brazen sinner, the cunning spinmeister, and the self-righteous know-it-all.

Most people have little difficulty spotting the brash sinner and the puffed-up know-it-all, but the crafty spinmeister can easily fool us into thinking along the lines on which he leads us. Millions of Americans and others around the world are still twisted like pretzels after the Clinton administration's eight years of spin—to the point that his sixtieth birthday has been marked here and abroad as a watershed event for the Baby Boomer generation. Perhaps there is no clearer example of turning matters upside-down than Bill Clinton's infamous line of defense during the 1998 Monica Lewinsky scandal: "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is." To him, even the meaning of English's most basic word of existence could be manipulated to obfuscate.

We live in a world of spin. From celebrities to corporations to nations, everyone is engaged in a fierce public relations battle for the loyalty and affection of as much of the population as possible. The objective of their efforts is not one of the nobler virtues—peace, truth, freedom, service, and justice, among others, although these words may be used in their rhetoric—but simply allegiance at any cost. A celebrity puts on a public persona to gain fans who will pay for his entertainment offerings, and his "people" ensure his foibles never make the evening news—and if they do, they are paid good money to cast them in a positive light. Companies do this with their operations and products, and nations do this with their policies and practices.

Now even non-state actors—read, terrorist organizations—busily attempt to shape world opinion in their favor by controlling the news. In the case of the recent Israeli-Hezbollah conflict, Hezbollah has managed to convince most of the world that it won the month-long war in total opposition to the facts on the ground. In reality, their stronghold, southern Lebanon, lies in ruins, devastated by weeks of nearly constant bombing and mortar fire, besides the ground actions of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Hundreds of its fighters are dead, its medium-range missile inventory has been destroyed, and much of its physical infrastructure lies as rubble. Because it provoked the Israelis into retaliating, Hezbollah has lost huge numbers of its dwindling supply of supporters both to death in the war and to disaffection; only a few hundred citizens showed up at its most popular victory march in south Beirut. It is desperately trying to win them back with gifts of $12,000 per household to pay for destroyed homes and lives (ironically, they are paying in U.S. dollars, most likely counterfeited in Iran and funneled through militants in Syria).

Hezbollah has been successful in this public-relations coup because it set Israel up under a set of parameters for victory that no nation could accomplish. According to the terrorists and their co-conspirators in the media, victory for Israel was possible only by completely rooting out and destroying every last member of Hezbollah anywhere in the world. If only one member of Hezbollah had been able to wave a flag of victory after the IDF had ground Lebanon to dust, Israel would have been seen as failing in its mission. A terrorist organization would have faced and stood up to the military behemoth of the region and remained viable. And this is what happened.

This has been taken to such an extent that the Israelis themselves believe it! Strategic Forecasting reports today:

About 63 percent of Israelis think Prime Minister Ehud Olmert should resign as a result of failings in Israel's conflict with Hezbollah, according to a poll published Aug. 25 in the newspaper Yediot Aharonot. The poll also revealed that 74 percent want Defense Minister Amir Peretz to step aside and 54 percent want military chief Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz to resign.

Militarily, Israel's action in Lebanon compares favorably with other historic victories since its founding in 1948. Geopolitically, the situation in the Middle East favors its continued dominance over the divided and weak Arab/Muslim states around it. Yet, the perception of matters, framed by both the subtle and the blatant use of deceitful images and opinion in the media, is that Israel is vulnerable, weakened, and ripe for destruction. God prophesies in Zechariah 12:2, "Behold, I will make Jerusalem a cup of drunkenness to all the surrounding peoples, when they lay siege against Judah and Jerusalem." The Arab/Muslim nations, in saying that up is down and down is up, are behaving in such a drunken, unrealistic manner.

God pronounces a curse upon those who purposefully turn matters inside-out. In this regard, Zechariah 12:3 relates, "And it shall happen in that day that I will make Jerusalem a very heavy stone for all peoples; all who would heave it away will surely be cut in pieces, though all nations of the earth are gathered against it." God has a reason for the descendants of Judah being in possession of the Holy Land at the end time, and Israel will not be dislodged until His purposes are fulfilled. No matter what its enemies perceive, the reality is that Israel is considerably stronger than they are, and God promises to look out for the house of Judah in its troubles with its neighbors (verses 4-6).

The truth is that God is on His throne and maneuvering affairs in anticipation of the end of the age. Are we willing to recognize reality?

Friday, July 28, 2006

The Importance of Parenting

I enjoy reading the contributions of National Review Online writers posted at "The Corner." Most of the time, when they are not being facetious or mischievous, their comments on the news of the day are not only interesting but insightful, and decidedly from a conservative outlook. Yet, because they are a mix of characters and viewpoints, they comprise a spectrum of philosophical viewpoints. All may be conservative but they are of all stripes within that broad label.

Over the past few days, columnist John Derbyshire has been on his high horse on the subject of parenting. The 30-year-old daughter of a friend of his committed suicide, apparently as a result of her beyond-stressful relationship with her "ne’er-do-well" husband, a drug addict. Derbyshire opined that another friend's advice—never let your daughter date, much less marry, a loser—is of paramount importance to a parent to help her to avoid a hard and bitter life. So far, so good.

Evidently, this situation started Derbyshire thinking about the influence parents actually have over their children—specifically, how significant parenting practices are in determining the success of children in later life. He concluded in a later post, ". . . parental influence is less than we all think, or wish." As proof, he cites social statistics he has discovered in his research:

Your life outcomes are determined 45-50 percent by genetics, 45-50 percent by outside-the-home socialization (which is affected by parental decisions about housing, schooling, etc.), 0-10 percent by in-home socialization (=parenting). That's what the evidence tells us, as I read it. Parenting has been WAY over-sold.

He particularly excoriates Freudian psychology for overselling parenting, as Freud thought that all psychoses could ultimately be traced back to the patient's relationships with his parents. Derbyshire posits that Freud's ideas have evolved into our present-day hyper-parenting, in which parents hover over their children, exhaustively schedule their lives, and go above-and-beyond to provide them with their hearts' desires. In this, he is probably correct.

Later, when criticized by another Corner pundit for his apparently contradictory parenting practices, Derbyshire responded: "Since I've made it clear that I'm working hard at parenting myself, why am I, if it makes so little difference? Possibly no difference at all? Well, because in a competitive society, even a little difference counts, and I want my kids to do well." In other words, since his influence will amount anywhere from zero to a paltry ten percent, he will make the best use of his meager slice of the pie.

Before considering his argument any further, one vital piece of information must be brought forward: John Derbyshire is a diehard evolutionist and at least an agnostic, perhaps an atheist. As the psalmist writes, "God is in none of his thoughts" (Psalm 10:4). Any advice from mankind's Creator would not necessarily be welcome. I can almost hear him say, "Let's not drag the Bible into this. I'm talking about the real world."

For the rest of us who do believe in a loving Father in heaven, what is the truth about the importance of parents and their doing as good a job as possible in fulfilling their responsibilities? The Bible devotes a great deal of space to the parent-child relationship, both in terms of examples and instruction. In fact, we could assert that the entire Bible, being God's instruction manual for mankind, is all about God rearing His children! He gives good examples (Abraham, Joseph and Mary) and bad examples (too many to mention) among humans; offers sage advice through Solomon, Paul, and others; and patiently illustrates and explains His own methods "in bringing many sons to glory" (Hebrews 2:10; see Romans 8:29). The Bible is this era's "This is the way; walk in it" (Isaiah 30:21) for rearing godly offspring to God (II Corinthians 6:18).

Therefore, it is obvious that God places a high priority on parenting. Of course, He is most interested in how a parent affects the spiritual outcome of a child's life, and is not as much concerned with how a parent shapes the child's material and economic fortunes, as is Derbyshire. While proper, godly parenting does not guarantee financial success in life, it does promote lifelong principles that can lead to wealth, position, and prestige. God, we can see, puts first things first, while Derbyshire skips straight to secondary matters, imperiling the whole program.

Of course, this points straight to Proverbs 22:6: "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it." This verse has been sliced and diced every which way by preachers and parents for three thousand years, but no matter how it is viewed, the simplest meaning provides the foundation of a parent's responsibility: 1) A child must be actively trained. 2) The parent must aim his training toward a specific, desired result. 3) His early training will remain with him throughout his life. This verse, as simple as it is, exerts a great amount of pressure on the parent to be diligent, thoughtful, farsighted, and godly. Parenting is no walk in the park!

In the New Testament, Paul's concise instruction in Ephesians 6:4 perhaps acts as the foundation of Christian childrearing: "And you, fathers [parents], do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord." In its essentials, the apostle's advice centers on understanding the child and his limits, particularly emotional ones, and on using God's wise instruction as a guide. Paul's teaching neatly complements Solomon's proverb, placing gentle boundaries on the parent's zeal and providing the substance for "the way he should go."

I am sorry to have to say it, but on this, John Derbyshire has fallen victim to the godless and dead-wrong ideas of this world. Sadly, it could not have happened on a more important subject for a person who seems to look no higher than humanity. At least he is trying to make the most of his ten percent.

Friday, July 21, 2006

What's in It for Us?

While in college, I took a yearlong course in International Relations under Gene Hogberg, news editor of The Plain Truth magazine. One of the primary ideas he hammered into his students is that an observer of the world scene must always remember that nations act out of self-interest. In other words, nations only do what will benefit them. It is a rare—indeed, almost unknown—thing for a nation to sacrifice its own well-being to help another nation. On the surface, the American interventions in the first two World Wars seem to be exceptions to this rule, but in both cases, America's entry into those conflicts occurred after careful calculus. The United States sacrificed a great deal in men and materiel in those wars but gained so much in international power and prestige that these sacrifices were considered by its leaders to be well worth it.

If a person has a firm grasp on this principle of self-interest and what a nation considers to be good for it, he can forecast with a fair degree of accuracy what a nation will do. For instance, had the Soviets been more astute in this area, they might have been able to hold out longer against the U.S., and perhaps against Ronald Reagan in particular, during the Cold War. Though the Kremlin may have had intelligence that Reagan was of a different stripe than his predecessors, it did not believe that he was considerably different. Specifically, he was different in that he was not satisfied with détente or containment but desired to defeat the U.S.S.R. so soundly that it could never recover. In short, America's national interests shifted once Reagan became President, and the Soviets missed it. Once they did, they had lost the Cold War.

In coming to understand the U.S. position in the latest Israeli-Hezbollah conflict, this principle of self-interest must hold a prominent position. Just what is America's interest in this war? What are its interests in the region? What does America hope to gain among its "peers" (Britain, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Russia, China, Japan, etc.) by its stance? These are not easy questions to answer, but considering them helps to clarify matters. Let us begin with a few corollary principles:

First, in determining national interests, actions speak louder than words. A raw, historical example of this is Adolf Hitler's 1938 "peace in our time!" agreement with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. The agreement had come about as a result of Hitler's aggressive annexation of the Sudetenland, and any impartial observer should have seen that the German Chancellor would not be satisfied with just a small part of Czechoslovakia. It was well known—even on Downing Street and in Whitehall—that one of his chief aims for Germany was lebensraum: "living space." Nevertheless, Chamberlain believed Hitler's smooth promises, and Europe was plunged into World War II in 1939. Thus, smart observers of the world scene remember that diplomatic language is, frankly, 1) vague, polite speech designed to say nothing, or 2) bald-faced, but courteous deception.

Second, follow the money. National power cannot be maintained except by mass infusions of wealth. All wars—and probably just about all other national decisions—have economic justifications. Thomas Jefferson has a reputation, as the writer of the Declaration of Independence, as being a foremost defender of the U.S. Constitution and an advocate of limited federal government and states' rights. However, he was willing to throw his reputation to the winds to buy the territory of Louisiana from Napoleon for what was then a huge sum that the strained national treasury could not handle. His unilateral decision was made on almost purely economic grounds, as the Louisiana Purchase doubled U.S. territory and increased its potential wealth exponentially. It was in America's interests, the Constitution be hanged. Today, oil plays a premier role in Middle Eastern geopolitics, as the whole world runs on the stuff.

Third, a balance of powers provides more advantages than unequal powers. As an interested geographically contiguous nation, Britain played this game in Europe for centuries. If the French became stronger than its neighbors, the British would ally themselves to the weaker nations to keep France in check. If the Spanish gained hegemony, Britain would align itself with Spain's enemies. If Germany ascended to greatness, Britain supported those opposed to the Germans. Though it appears complex diplomatically and militarily, this balancing act provided Europe with a fair amount of stability—at least enough to keep one power from becoming dominant and thus imposing its will on the others. For Britain, it opened marketplaces to its businessmen and helped it become a world-spanning empire. The U.S. is playing similar games today as the world's lone superpower. In this vein, remember the old axiom: War is just politics by other means.

So, then, what is America interested in vis-à-vis the current crisis in the Middle East?

My take is that the White House welcomes this war and supports Israel for several reasons:

  1. It does not mind if Hezbollah, an arm of Iran, is mauled, as this is a way to strike back at the ayatollahs for their recent belligerence.
  2. It wants Israel to be slightly dominant in the region to counter the nearby Arab nations, taking some of the weight off America's military.
  3. It actually welcomes the instability this conflict causes because it takes pressure off its operations in Iraq and some of its domestic problems.
  4. It knows that because the region's turbulence continues, its presence will be necessary for many years, ensuring America's access to Middle Eastern oil.

Internationally, it is willing to take some diplomatic heat for being slow to intervene in order to drive the point home that the Bush administration's methods of handling situations like these (methods that the Israelis also employ) work. Put negatively, the U.S. is sticking its finger in the international community's eye (specifically, the UN's).

This analysis may be all wet, but it is considered under these principles. What God may have in mind may be altogether different (Psalm 2:4-5; Isaiah 40:15-17, 22-23; 48:3).

Friday, July 14, 2006

Why We Homeschool

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Back in the early years of the homeschooling phenomenon, its advocates were largely tie-dyed, granola-munching, back-to-nature, hippie types whose primary goal was to disassociate from just about everything manmade, and certainly from Establishment institutions like the public schools. They fought running battles with local and state governments for the right to teach their children themselves, and—to give them credit where it is due—they had patchy success, especially in more progressive states like California. It is no wonder that homeschooling has the reputation, even today in some quarters, as being a far-out, counter-cultural movement.

However, somewhere about the time of the Reagan Revolution, homeschooling dramatically switched its poles, shifting from a leftist movement to a rightist one. A growing number of religious and social conservatives, frustrated with both the iron grip of liberals (read: teachers' unions and school district administrations) on the country's educational system and the cultural mayhem rising in the public schools, opted to take on the additional burden of teaching their children at home. The movement has grown far beyond anything its pioneers ever imagined.

And a burden it can be. Homeschool parents pay the same taxes for the public schools as everyone else, plus they take on the additional expenses of books, fees, supplies, and miscellaneous costs associated with education. This amounts to hundreds or even thousands of dollars each year, depending on how ambitious they decide to be. A math, science, or history textbook may cost upwards of $50, and the family must still buy teacher's guides and answer keys, and for science, microscopes, test tubes, specimens, etc. There are further outlays of cash if the child desires to participate in any extracurricular activities: art, music, or sports, activities that are usually subsidized in public schools. In addition, foreign language classes—or for that matter, any outside instruction beyond the abilities of the parents—can cost the proverbial arm and/or leg. It must also be factored in that homeschool families must function on only one salary, since one of the parents must stay at home to teach.

Beyond these expenses, it is a burden of time and energy. Homeschooling is a full-time occupation in itself. Not only is there one-on-one instruction, but there are additional activities like lesson-planning, reviewing, testing, grading, experimenting (science again), reading (lots of reading—to stay ahead of the kids!), and taking the students to this, that, and the other class. It is a blessing that, as the student ages, he is able to do a great deal more on his own and with only minimal oversight. Otherwise, the homeschool parent would simply burn out.

At this point, many a reader is probably saying to himself, "Why do it, then?" Despite the fact that homeschooling is not for the faint of heart, its rewards far outweigh the efforts.

Homeschoolers benefit both by what they avoid and by what they receive. Because they are able to assemble their own curriculum, they can steer clear of distasteful and objectionable subjects. For instance, they can (or not) study the theory of evolution in a more balanced way, comparing it with biblical creation and Intelligent Design and emphasizing their preferred understanding. Further, they can replace the oftentimes horribly inappropriate sex-education teaching with a better alternative. They can also avoid humanistic, socialistic, multicultural, and postmodern ideas that have been integrated into textbooks, teaching aids, and lesson plans by teachers, teachers' unions, and school districts. Besides these, they do not have to deal with power-obsessed administrators, holier-than-thou counselors, know-it-all teachers, and scores of undisciplined, Ritalin-candidate students—not to mention a load of perverse cultural influences.

On the flipside, those who homeschool are compensated, though not monetarily, far more than most people who have never tried it realize:

  • For starters, the family becomes very close. This may seem paradoxical to those who think spending several hours each day in the near vicinity of their children would drive them to drink. Yet, the time and the shared activities and understanding bind parents and children tightly together, bridging the "generation gap" to a great degree.
  • Done well, homeschooling teaches children more thoroughly than public schools do. This comes as a result of more one-on-one instruction and the ability to study a subject in depth. Public school children waste a great deal of time in meaningless activities during school hours (and in their commute to and from school), but at home, a well-organized, disciplined child uses this extra time to read or to pursue an interest spurred by his study. What is more, he still usually finishes his school day earlier than his neighbor who attends a local school!
  • A homeschooled child also has a wider variety of subject fields to study than his public-school counterpart. While the public school has a set curriculum and a handful of elective courses, homeschoolers are limited only by time, money, and their communities' offerings. However, with the Internet and easy, fast transportation, they can pursue even exotic topics relatively effortlessly. Whether it is learning Sanskrit, investigating Central American archeology, or studying Australia's marsupials, homeschoolers have the freedom to explore these individual interests.

Nevertheless, homeschooling is not for everyone. Some parents just do not have the inclination or the patience required to do it well. However, it is worth serious consideration for all Christians who desire to minimize the world's influence on their children. God gives to parents the primary responsibility for educating their children, not to worldly schools: "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it" (Proverbs 22:6), and ". . . bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4). Homeschooling is a way to be far more involved in our children's growth into godly, mature adults.

Friday, July 7, 2006

Evaluating Culture

Listen (RealAudio)

In listening to a series of 48 lectures by University of California at Berkeley Professor Robert Greenberg titled "How to Listen to and Understand Great Music" (one of the Great Courses offered by The Teaching Company), I have come to a greater realization of the evolving tastes among consumers of Western music. We ignorantly call all orchestral music "classical," when in fact there are a handful of long periods in which such music took quite different forms, for instance, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, etc. It does not take a specially trained ear to distinguish the differences between works from these periods. A Bach fugue sounds nothing like a Chopin mazurka.

As one would expect, between eras were transition periods of varying lengths due to the fact that audiences took time to accept new forms. Younger composers, feeling constrained by the strictures of their elders, experimented with new, then-cutting-edge musical styles, and when their works premiered, the critics and most of their audiences were aghast at their progressive, offensive music. Such was the reaction to what are now much-loved favorites as Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, Berlioz's First Symphony (Fantastíque), and Brahms' First Symphony. These three masters were criticized roundly for their "grotesque" and "incomprehensible" themes. Even the universally admired Haydn incurred the wrath of the public and critics when his "Surprise" Symphony was too startling for his audience. To us, the "surprise" is just a loud, sudden chord, but to the audience of his day, it was as shocking as the jarring clatter of a jackhammer.

We would probably have a similar reaction at the cinema if we had bought a ticket to see Bambi, were comfortably ensconced in our seats, bag of popcorn and drink in hand, and suddenly were assaulted by the opening blare of a Star Wars movie. If our tastes had been trained to enjoy benign, pastoral, gentle films like Benji or Black Beauty, the dynamics and themes of a dramatic space adventure—not to mention the brassy music—would be jolting and uncomfortable. We might learn to enjoy it over time, but our initial reaction would be negative.

Literature has suffered similar periods of great change, in which venerable authors—from our point of view—broke new ground and faced vilification for it. Even today, Mark Twain is excoriated for his realistic portrayal of relations between whites and blacks in Huckleberry Finn. William Wordsworth's poetry was considered by some to be essentially unreadable when first published. Edgar Allen Poe's works, most of them macabre, were—in some cases, literally—on the bleeding-edge of acceptability during his lifetime. Several great works of literature (by esteemed authors like Geoffrey Chaucer, James Joyce, Daniel Defoe, Thomas Hardy, Voltaire—even Hans Christian Andersen!), thought to be tame by modern standards, were condemned as obscene when they first went on sale.

However, things changed drastically in the twentieth century, especially after World War I. Artistic standards began to stretch beyond the suggestive to the explicit, and not just in sexual terms. While there had always been composers, authors, and graphic artists who strayed into pornographic, occult, or other taboo areas, their works had remained essentially private, for society as a whole maintained respectable limits on what it considered to be proper. Yet, after the First World War, these limits began to crumble in one area after another until today, when anything goes. While society still uses ratings of one sort or another to inform the public about artistic content, there are few societal impediments to restrict either their creation or consumption. Really, how vigilant is the local theater in keeping young teens from seeing R-rated movies? Or the local merchant in keeping them from buying M-rated video games?

In the end, the answer to this problem of down-spiraling artistic and cultural standards is a spiritual one, of course. The prevalent philosophy in the Western world—one that has been dominant since at least the Enlightenment—is humanistic liberalism. This is the intersection of two major ideas: 1) that man is the center and height of all that is, and 2) all men should be free to do as their conscience dictates. From this, it is easy to trace a direct line to today's general consensus that there are no real absolutes, so each person is free to believe and do whatever satisfies him.

This obviously flies in the face of biblical morality. These two philosophies are incompatible, and thus the more pleasing to mankind's nature has become dominant, leaving God's standards behind as "outmoded," "archaic," and "unrealistic." Under humanistic liberalism, cultural standards exist on a sliding scale, depending on the tastes of the individual. In the end, this means that there are no standards.

To Christians, however, the exact opposite is true: We have a set of absolute, eternal standards, which are provided to us in the form of principles in God's Word. By them, we can judge artistic achievements on their true merits. In music, we can judge more accurately if a piece is uplifting, hopeful, harmonious, helpful, etc., applying the principles of the fruit of God's Spirit. We can judge literature by these same principles, plus those found in God's commandments. (And by the way, just because a piece of literature contains, say, a murder does not mean that it is immoral. We have to go beyond this to see how the work resolves the sinful act and the circumstances it causes. If we were to do otherwise, we would have to condemn the Bible itself, as it contains murders, adulteries, incest, lying, stealing, coveting—you name it!) These same standards can be applied to the graphic arts too.

Learning godly judgment is no easy thing. It is an acquired skill. But God has called us to learn how to judge righteously. As our Savior commands, "Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment" (John 7:24). How do we do this? Jesus answers, "My judgment is righteous, because I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me" (John 5:30). As we strengthen and deepen our relationship with God, our judgment of these cultural phenomena will improve—we will be able to discern what is truly classic.