Monday, August 19, 2013

book response: Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan (2011)

During my Haiti trip I brought my Kindle and read in transit and in down time. After finishing Tom Sawyer, I read a book I bought on sale at Amazon, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God by Paul Copan, a Christian philospher and apologist who teaches in Florida. He uses the criticisms of the Bible by the Four Horsemen of New Atheism as the topics for his chapters. I found the book helpful but uneven. Some things were really good, but not everything. I have many highlights which I will be interacting with in this book response.

The following assertion is an example of the "not-so good" because it is reductionist.
The Theme of the Pentateuch: Abraham’s Faith and Moses’s Unbelief Biblical scholars have pointed out that the theme of faith holds the Pentateuch (Genesis–Deuteronomy) together at its seams. The two major players are Abraham and Moses. Abraham is the positive example of faith, while Moses is the negative example. Abraham had faith without the law of Moses, which was given at Mount Sinai. Despite his wavering, he trusted God’s promise, and so he was declared righteous by God (Gen. 15:6). By contrast, Moses actually failed in his faith—even though he lived under the law given at Sinai. p.43
The footnote points to the work of John H. Sailhamer who is certainly a respectable source, yet if I can rattle off a few examples of Abraham's lack of faith easily, I think Copan leaves himself open to readers' doubts. This theme is attractive yet needs more development than provided in the couple pages he devotes to it.

In contrast, I am powerfully attracted to his summary statement about the crucifixion of Jesus. "God’s glory is revealed in God’s self-humiliation." p. 53 I'm guilty of being fickle. However, my reading background in theology allows me to receive some things with ease and remain skeptical of others. Your own reading mileage will vary as well.

Copan looks squarely in the eye of the ugliness of the Old Testament.
Instead of glossing over some of the inferior moral attitudes and practices we encounter in the Old Testament, we should freely acknowledge them. We can point out that they fall short of the ideals of Genesis 1–2 and affirm with our critics that we don’t have to advocate such practices for all societies. We can also show that any of the objectionable practices we find in the Old Testament have a contrary witness in the Old Testament as well. p.62
For Copan, these aren't contradictions, but accommodations of God for the warped humanity he seeks to save, the very line of reasoning Jesus used when asked about divorce laws. Jesus says divorce was explicitly permitted in the Torah because of the hardness of our hearts.

The laws are not only concerned with restricting the wickedness within but also with distinguishing their culture from those without. For example, the kosher food laws that forbid God's gift to humanity, bacon, to Jews. Why such hardship? "Every meal was to remind them of their redemption. Their diet, which was limited to certain meats, imitated the action of God, who limited himself to Israel from among the nations, choosing them as the means of blessing the world." p.81 There was to be no distinction between secular and sacred or church and state in the Mosaic culture. Everything was sacred.

But some legislation was over the top. Although many parents can sympathize with such extreme laws such as stoning rebellious adolescents, we can't actually endorse them. It's lunacy. Copan offers a posssibility, though it doesn't hold much water for me. "Especially in exemplary or first-time cases, God seems especially heavy-handed. God isn’t to be trifled with. He takes sin seriously, and he is often setting a precedent with first-time offenses." p.90 My difficulty is what this implies about God. Is God consistent or not? In my reading, such laws seem much more human than divine in their origin which leads to questions on how inspired are these scriptures. In later topics, I suspect Copan might have the same questions.

When Copan contrasts the Mosaic laws with contemporary legislation from other Ancient Near Eastern societies, the Israelites look like progressives. However, the slavery laws, which are atrocious are given a pass for being on an incrementalist path by God. 
This was also the type of incremental strategy taken by President Abraham Lincoln. Though he despised slavery and talked freely about this degrading institution, his first priority was to hold the Union together rather than try to abolish slavery immediately. Being an exceptional student of human nature, he recognized that political realities and predictable reactions required an incremental approach. The radical abolitionist route of John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison would (and did!) simply create a social backlash against hard-core abolitionists and make emancipation all the more difficult. p. 153
I could work with this if there wasn't so much non-incrementalist laws as well, e.g. so many offenses requiring the death penalty.

The main reason I bought this book was to learn how Copan handles the genocidal passages in Deuteronomy and Joshua. He notes that within the Biblical texts, the claims of complete extermination, were contradicted by later appearances of those tribes in later history. Also, the exemptions for Canaanites such as Rahab and the village of Gibeon demonstrate God's permission for incomplete destruction. Using examples of hyperbolic language from other ancient near eastern documents, Copan shows that hyperbole is normal for battle campaign descriptions. The question arises in my head, did God speak in hyperbole through Moses to Joshua and the Israelites? Copan seems to anticipate this question but cheats on his solution. He blames Moses for using colloquial hyperbole.
Joshua carried out what Moses commanded (Deut. 7 and 20), which means that Moses’s language is also an example of ancient Near Eastern exaggeration. He did not intend a literal, all-encompassing extermination of the Canaanites. p. 185
Do you see what he does there? He is not acting like a dedicated inerrantist. He is saying God's message got muddled when it came through Moses. He could also be saying Moses communicated in person God's hyperbole with a wink of the eye, but it was lost in the transmission to us today. In that case, he was accurately communicating God's words to his immediate audience, but not to us, today's readers. Maybe some of us did read into the text the hyperbole, but the church has been guilty of using these texts to justify her own acts of terror. Jesus also used hyperbole. Most believers throughout the church's history get that, which is why most of us retain both our hands and eyes. This is a big deal. What God says is not the entirety of what he means. Proof texting is a deadly game. Context is so important. The most important context is that Jesus reveals God. The most important revelation of God's character is that He is Love. This information from the New Testament needs to color everything we read in the Old Testament.

But wait, say my atheist and skeptical friends. Even if the Israelites didn't commit genocide, they did rack up a body count. Their ferocity seemed to be spiritually fueled by God's wrath. What is to be made of God's wrath? Isn't it embarrassing for the modern believer? It's not when one considers the atrocities practiced by the Canaanites and atrocities in general. He quotes Miroslav Volf who lived through the Balkan war.
Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandfatherly fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love. p. 192
Copan comments, "The apostle Paul brings these features together: 'Behold then the kindness and severity of God' (Rom. 11:22)." p. 192

The last objection he considers is hell. Why shouldn't God bring everybody to heaven. Again he looks to Volf.
Why doesn’t God show absolute hospitality to all without exclusion? Isn’t this the truly peaceful alternative?” Miroslav Volf astutely observes that “absolute hospitality” becomes difficult when the unrepentant perpetrators sit down with their unhealed, violated victims. Such a perverse view of hospitality would actually “enthrone violence because it would leave the violators unchanged and the consequences of violence unremedied.” p. 201
I have to concede this is a strong argument.

I learned much from this book. I think Copan's arguments may concede more than he intends. The argument at-large is a good one, even when individual arguments can be weak. His explanation of ancient near eastern culture, based on current archaeology is excellent. This book, however, is not the final word for me on the genocidal passages, but it does contribute to mute the alarm when I read these passages. Other books that have helped are The Joshua Delusion by Earl and Divine Presence amid Violence: Contextualizing the Book of Joshua by Brueggemann. I talked about them last year, here on the blog.
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Monday, August 12, 2013

my spiritual lessons from Haiti July 2013

We arrived in Haiti on Saturday, July 13th, and went to church on Sunday, July 14th. I took a brief video clip in church so I could remember it. Here it is.

Before the earthquake, there was a concrete block building here, that was also a school. It partially collapsed and killed a few people. Although the church leases the property, they took care of it, and removed all that concrete and rebar down to the cement pad, and they built this 2x4, tarp, and tin roof structure. They have met here for three and a half years since the quake. However, the property owner decided that he no longer wanted to rent to the church. Our team had to dismantle the church. Every piece of lumber and tin was saved. We pulled so many nails out of the lumber. No matter how bent, they were all saved to use again, when a new property becomes available.

This was service of closure. The congregation worshiped God out of gratefulness for what he has done and in anticipation for what he will do. This is a congregation that started with the pastor and his family. Nearly every person in this congregation is a convert. A significant proportion converted from voodoo. This village of Cassagne in the city of Leogane is the voodoo center of the voodoo center city of the voodoo center country. People worship spirits here, and invite spirits into themselves, to control them and empower them and give them success. When Pastor Bazille planted his flag here, a local voodoo priest pronounced a curse on him, that he would be dead within a year. This did not happen. In fact, one of the orphans Pastor Bazille rescued was the daughter of a voodoo priest and a rising acolyte in voodoo. The priest who cursed him, as he lay dying, several years after his failed curse, asked for Pastor Bazille to come and pray with him, converting to Jesus before he died.

There were many testimonies and special songs given during this closing service. Most of the service was untranslated. I only got a summary later on. One of the testifiers shared his story then sang a song. I'm a wicked, judgmental man, so I confess, I thought it was some of the worst singing I have ever heard. I could not wait for this guy to stop singing. I tried to be spiritually mature and appreciate that the church was so generous that it let anybody worship God to their best ability. But this guy was hindering me, the selfish American, from my worship. Later, God humbled me, when I heard a translated summary. This guy had been a mute. But recently, by much prayer, he had been healed of his muteness, and he was so excited that he could now worship the Lord out loud. I was so ashamed and excited at the same time. I still am excited. My day to day world here in America is so far removed from the world Jesus and the gospels portray. How does Jesus keep running into demoniacs? Who is mute anymore? Isn't it nice to have the ability of medicine today? Where we were, in Haiti, the world of spirits is close and accessible medicine is rarely cutting edge (read this story about access). Often medical needs are sought from the spiritual world. Sometimes through Jesus and his church, and sometimes through voodoo. When the Christians are injured or sick and can't get medical attention, the church will gather around them and pray for them, for hours, even through the night, and sing over them. Maybe life is shorter, but the companionship is so much more intense than the sterility of modernity. My faith was stirred in Haiti. It's like Jesus told his cousin John the Baptist, stuck in jail and discouraged,
Then he told John’s disciples, “Go back to John and tell him what you have seen and heard—the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor. Luke 7:22 
That Jesus stuff is still happening. Despite all my Biblical knowledge, I was a spiritual dwarf among the Haitians. When the only security one has is Jesus, that strengthens faith.

Before this trip, I was extremely stressed out over the cost of this trip. The airfare is ridiculous. Money has been hard to save this year, and I'm a saver. When we signed up for the trip, the airfare seemed to be a fourth of the price I actually paid. I like to budget and the budget was blown to bits. I was ready to back out of the trip over the price. But this was initiated by my daughter, something she wanted to do, before she headed off to college. Sending her alone was not an option. If she stayed home, she could have taken a better paying job as well. There were birds in the hand that seemed much better than what might be in the bush. I let that bird go. I risked the lifestyle of faith. We asked for help. God provided for most of the cost of the trip, probably three-fourths of it, through family, friends, and our church. As with the lesson from the mute guy, I was ashamed and excited at the same time. I'm ashamed because Jesus tells us, in his sermon on the mount, God is a good father.
“You parents—if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him. Matthew 7:9-11
I am so grateful for the generosity of those who helped us. I'm so grateful to have a generous loving Father. I live in doubt of that. It's another critical aspect of theology where I'm stunted and weak and looked up to many of those around me, Haitians and Americans. A pair of those American's was Pastor Ron Hall and his wife. He had story after story about God's provision for them, enabling to foster dozens of children, visit missions around the world, and share the love of God out of a small church that meets in a school in Loyalton, California. Here is part of his story. A short video of his testimony can be seen here. He lived life recklessly out of his confidence in his loving Father who demonstrated his faithfulness over and over again. This life of faith is not a life of luxury and ease, but one of excitement and danger. The green pastures are so much more delightful after coming out of the valleys of the shadow of death, Psalm 23. The better roller coasters, and I like the better ones, have more g's, more plunging dives and vertical climbs.  Pastor Ron's ride makes me envious, but I don't know if spiritual envy is a sin or not.

Later on, that first Sunday night, we went to church in Gran Goave, at a bi-lingual service, at Mission of Hope International. This is the same group that hosted our team, although the church and lodge are about 20 minutes apart. Pictures of this tin roof, cinder block and blue tarp church can be seen towards the bottom of their newsletter from July 21. They are building an earthquake hardened, three story church and school into a steep slope right off the main road. We were overheated and had moved our seats to catch the breeze from the one fan in the room. I was worried that my daughter was going to have a terrible experience in Haiti. So I prayed. And my prayer was weak. But I asked God to do something special in her, to speak to her on this trip, to encourage her faith. By the middle of that service, during the singing, God was doing something in me. We were singing familiar North American songs. They were too familiar for me. They had become empty to me in my normal life. But in the context of Haiti, in the context of how God enabled us to get to Haiti, I had ears to hear these songs. It's far different to sing about God's power and might and greatness when sung in a place where those issues are far more visceral. It's not that those attributes of God are hidden back here in the U.S., but in my life, in my prayers, God's answers can take much longer. In Haiti, though, where I was vulnerable among vulnerable brothers and sisters, where the edge of mortality is so much closer, these worship songs stood in much more contrast to normal life. I'm acutely aware that I was a guest in Haiti, that my security, in earthly terms, was much greater than most of the Haitian around me. Yet, when I worshiped with them, I glimpsed God through their eyes. I am not saying everyone needs to go to Haiti to experience God in a fresh way. I am saying God used that environment to do something in me. Suddenly, my problems at home and in Haiti, were small, because they were God's problems.

One of my problems in Haiti was this pile of gravel.
My assignment was to move move this pile down a narrow path ...
and spread them between the orphanage house and a guest house.
I wasn't doing this alone. My daughter helped as well as the little boys who lived there.
It was hot and humid. I felt old. But I felt I had the spiritual gift of perseverance. I am able to keep doing the same thing for a long time. I had another teammate, also a parent of a teenager on the trip, who also had the perseverance gift. She was able to keep shoveling gravel into the empty wheelbarrows I brought back. All that space around my daughter did not have stones when we started, but we used that entire pile of gravel and another one after that to completely cover that space. That pile of stones was God's pile. I viewed myself as a participant in God's work. He didn't need me. It was his pile. He would get it done, with or without me. For the rest of the week, and since I've been back, I've viewed all my obstacles and difficulties as God's piles. When we were mixing and pouring a foundation one bucket at a time, it was God's job that I participated in.

When I got home, I pulled out a notebook, and wrote at the top of the first page, "God's problems." I then wrote out the things I've been worried about and stressing out over. I haven't made a prayer list in ages. This is a prayer list. Every morning since I've been home, I've talked to God about his problems. Some of those problems he has taken care of. Some of those problems are ongoing. They can still stress me out. When they do, I try to remember whose problems they are. Back here, at home, I don't hear those songs with fresh ears anymore. I'm still trying to remember that my Father loves me beyond my limited comprehension, that he cares about these problems, that he's faithful, that for every dark valley, there's a meadow above it - which he is leading me to.

These things I am learning. These things were jump started in Haiti. I'm very glad I went and I saw God at work, on earth, as in heaven.

Thanks to Dave, who asked me at church yesterday when I was going to write this piece promised in Part 1. It's nice to hear that people actually read this blog and are able to persevere through my difficult, long-winded writing.