Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Thoughts on Isaac

My friend Rachel wrote a powerful piece last week called “I Would Fail Abraham’s Test.” She refers to the mind-blowing story in Genesis 22 of God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son. If you’re not familiar with the story, you can read it here.

Rachel’s conclusion (dramatically over-shortened) is that obedience should be secondary to love, or more accurately that those who refuse to “disengage their emotions in the name of obedience” have done an admirable thing. Perhaps these commandments are not meant to be followed. Perhaps God wanted Abraham to refuse.
I am not yet a mother, and still I know, deep in my gut, that I would sooner turn my back on everything I know to be true than sacrifice my child on the altar of religion.

Maybe the real test isn't in whether you drive the knife through the heart.

Maybe the real test is in whether you refuse.
It’s an appealing reading of a difficult passage, neatly fitted to our modern sensibilities. But I don't think this reading works. While Rachel probably isn't often accused of whitewashing the Biblical text, there are actually far greater problems here than she lets on. The situation here is actually worse than she says. The passage ends in a way that brooks no argument:
The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
Abraham isn't castigated by God for “passing” the test... he is praised! How could this God have anything to teach us about morality? That’s a question better answered by Derek Rishmawy, who articulates an understanding very similar to my own. It’s worth reading that link fully, and maybe several times. It’s a piece I would have written if I were a better writer. And smarter. Derek does a great job explaining a position that’s difficult to explain, but he does a great job of clarifying and (mostly) simplifying it. I say mostly because he insists on dragging in a dead Danish philosopher to the discussion, which is the opposite of simplification (Love ya Derek). He concludes:
That doesn't mean we should stop questioning, thinking, reading, studying, and just settle for the first, obvious reading of any text we come to. No, all too often that will lead us astray and may even lead us to affirm things out of “deference” to God that he himself would never affirm.
So maybe that resolves the difficulty of the Genesis narrative. Or maybe you just scratch the whole thing and write it off as a primitive-but-unsuccessful attempt to understand God’s will. “The Old Testament God is so violent,” I hear people say all the time, “unlike the New Testament God who is so loving and kind.” I think this is a false dichotomy, but I hear it all the time.

Regardless of what you do with the Old Testament, though, the problem gets worse. Fast forward to the New Testament and check the book of Hebrews. Almost all of the New Testament is written by Jewish Christians, but this is the only book written exclusively to Jewish Christians. It’s the only book of the Bible ever speculated to have been written by a woman. The writer has vast sections of the Old Testament memorized and structures every argument in the book as an extension of the Hebrew Scriptures. This guy knew his stuff. And in Chapter 11, the author lists the great heroes of the faith. For some of them, it’s obvious why they’re in the list. For others, it’s harder. The first time you read it, you think “I see why Gideon and David made the list, but what’s the deal with Abraham and Jephthah?”
By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”
Again we see Abraham being praised for offering Isaac as a sacrifice. Derek’s “cultural distance” may work for the original story, but to the author of Hebrews child sacrifice has been forbidden for a thousand years. What gives?


Quick sidebar here. This may look like a terrible story, but I am seriously invested in it. After having kids, I wrestled with this passage for a long time. It’s changed my understanding of God and faith in some important ways. At this point, it’s fundamental to my faith. One of the many results of this wrestling is that we named our third child Isaac.

Crossed 20 pounds before hitting 4 months. We call him Goliath. And Shaquille.
I love each of my kids more than life itself. I’m quite serious about that: I’d die to save one of my children, and I certainly wouldn't sacrifice him on any altar. I’m convinced that Derek is correct: that God asked Abraham to do something that Abraham did not consider immoral. In fact, you can see this yourself in both Genesis and Hebrews. Abraham’s objections to sacrificing Isaac aren't moral or emotional ones, they’re logistical. Isaac is the Child of Promise, whose descendants will be like the stars. How can he have descendants if he dies?

There’s a hint in Hebrews.
He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.
Isn't this a revisionist reading? Where did the author get this idea? Child sacrifice is a pretty major no-no (i.e., Leviticus 20:2-5, Deuteronomy 18:10, Proverbs 6:17, Jeremiah 32:35, etc), so what is he commending Abraham for?

The author of Hebrews commends Abraham not for blind obedience, but for faith. Faith, he says, is “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” Faith isn't having the right set of beliefs or even rote obedience to a creed, it is believing in and acting on the promises and character of God, even when it’s difficult to understand how those things could be true. God promised Abraham that Isaac would have descendants. God will keep his promises.

And we see this in the story of Abraham, in a small detail that’s often overlooked. Abraham journeys toward the mountain with his son and with two servants. On the third day, he tells his servants “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

The obvious reading is that Abraham is lying to his servants. Yet why would he? As the patriarch and head of the house, they would sacrifice Isaac themselves if he told them to. As Derek points out, this was not in the least bit uncommon. Is Abraham lying to his son? There’s no reason. If he’s a heartless murderer, why not knock the kid out or just tie him up?

The obvious reading is wrong. Abraham wasn’t lying, he was demonstrating ultimate faith. God had stood in front of him, face to face, and promised that Isaac would live to have children. Therefore, whatever happened on the mountain, Isaac would live. Abraham is practically daring God here. “You promised,” I imagine him thinking. “You promised that my son would live. If you are true to your word, if your character can be trusted, then my son and I will walk up the mountain, and my son and I will walk back down.”

That is faith: believing that God is who he says he is, and that he will do what he has promised to do.

Stories in the Bible aren’t about the people in them, they’re about God. This story is no different. God accomplishes two things here: he begins to show the ways in which he is different from the tribal deities with which Abraham is familiar, and he shows that he can be trusted to keep his promises. The fullness of his will regarding child sacrifice (i.e., all the ways he’s against it) will be revealed in time. For now, it’s enough for Abraham to know that God can be trusted.

The writer of Hebrews calls Abraham "He who had embraced the promises."

Let it be said also of us.

Saturday, October 4, 2014


This is a really challenging piece, but it's the best long-form writing I've seen online in a while.


"I can tolerate anything except the outgroup." Relates well to the empathy stuff I posted a while back. Another time I'll write up my thoughts, but right now I've got to boogie and want to post this before I forget.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Rich Memories

This past week was the anniversary of Rich Mullins' death, but I was too busy to write anything. I'll save the exact reasons I still love Rich's music for another post; here I just wanted to record two memories I have from his concerts.

The first was from a show in the mid-90s. Rich talked more in his concerts than any musician I've ever seen. And he was fascinating. He was great at calibrating invitation and challenge: his songs and mini-sermons would comfort and convict in equal measure. He also had a lot of crowd interaction; he hated studio music and loved going back and forth with the audience. On this particular occasion, somebody yelled a political question and Rich hit a well-worn soapbox. Bill Clinton was in office and it was a few months away from the election.

"Why are you so hungry for a king?" Rich said to his (mostly) conservative evangelical Christian audience. "You're so focused on winning elections that you lose sight of what the Kingdom of God is all about. God doesn't need to get the right guy in office for his will to be done." That's a rough paraphrase (it was half my life ago) but Rich kept building up along the same vein. And the audience loved it and was building with him. Downgrading the political arena is always popular when "our guy" isn't in office.

"Our ultimate hope is in Jesus, not the government. Do you believe that?" Rich asked, and got loud "yeahs" in response. "Do you really believe it?" he asked again, and got even more response. "Well," Rich said, "I hope you remember that you once believed it when the Republicans take over in November." And the place went ballistic. People were yelling, cheering, and clapping. Rich had predicted a Republican takeover!

Rich just stood on the stage and watched the crowd. I watched him deflate as he realized that almost nobody had even understood what he said. Then he walked back to the piano and started his next song; he didn't say anything else the rest of the night.


I got to see Rich in concert three times the year before he died. There had been talk that he was done recording and done touring. He only traveled to raise support for Compassion International, and he'd been living on a Navajo reservation where he taught music classes in the local school. All of his record earnings had been placed in a trust, from which he drew a yearly stipend equal to the average working wage for an American blue-collar worker. So when he announced one more tour, I hit every location I could.

The last concert I saw, he played his normal songs but also a new one that would be on his upcoming Jesus album: You Did Not Have a Home. To introduce the album, he told a weird story. He talked about listening to an interview with Billy Graham, who had recently dropped out of all endeavors except preaching. He'd stopped counseling presidents, teaching students, writing books, and everything else. The interviewer asked him why, and Rich repeated Graham's words verbatim as he tuned his guitar.

"The things I was doing were good things. But I believe that my time here on earth is short, and with the little time I have left I intend to spend every moment possible preaching Christ crucified, so that when I stand before God I won't have left anything un-done." He said he was making his last album: The Jesus Record. Then he played the song and it sounded exactly like it did on that link. He never got a chance to make the Jesus Record; he was killed six weeks later when a semi hit his Jeep.

No conclusion from me; you can draw your own. But I imagine him singing this song on the way out. 

Friday, August 1, 2014

Thoughts on Ideological Empathy

I've been meaning to break out of my blog radio silence for a while now, but life has (surprisingly) remained somewhat complicated. I read a great piece tonight by my very close personal friend Derek Rishmawy1, though, that deserves comment. He begins:
We seem to live in an age that lacks intellectual imagination; at least when it comes to the thought processes of others.
It's worth reading Derek's post because this is a really, really important point. I, unfortunately, have absolutely nothing of my own to add to the discussion. However, I've read and thought about this topic quite a bit, so if nothing else I can at least tie in some helpful resources.

There's an actual technical term for this particular type of intellectual imagination: it's called "A Theory of Mind."2 According to El Wik:
Having a theory of mind allows one to attribute thoughts, desires, and intentions to others, to predict or explain their actions, and to posit their intentions. As originally defined, it enables one to understand that mental states can be the cause of—and thus be used to explain and predict—others' behavior.
This ability to understand the intentions of others can be especially difficult in online interactions, in part because nonverbal signals don't translate over the internet. Lacking these social cues, we sometimes attribute intent to others that they do not in fact hold. But Derek's not the only one who's been noticing this recently. On Snarkmarket, one of my favorite blogs, Robin Sloan talked about this very thing almost two years ago. He describes something called the Long Now debate format, which is at attempt at create "empathy and good faith."
Take two debaters, Alice and Bob. Alice goes first, presenting her argument. Then Bob stands up, and before he can present his counter-argument, he has to summarize Alice’s argument to her satisfaction. So it’s basically an exercise in empathy and good faith. If Alice agrees that he’s got it right, then Bob proceeds with his argument—and when he’s done, Alice has to recapitulate it to his satisfaction.
This is actually referred to, in many circles, as an "ideological turing test." I first heard the phrase here:
If someone can correctly explain a position but continue to disagree with it, that position is less likely to be correct.  And if ability to correctly explain a position leads almost automatically to agreement with it, that position is more likely to be correct.  It's not a perfect criterion, of course, especially for highly idiosyncratic views.  But the ability to pass ideological Turing tests - to state opposing views as clearly and persuasively as their proponents - is a genuine symptom of objectivity and wisdom.
I'd like to someday demonstrate symptoms of objectivity and wisdom, so the idea of being able to state opposing views as clearly and persuasively as their proponents is one that appeals to me. I'm not claiming I do it consistently, I'm just saying it's an appealing idea.


1 Not really. We've never met. We occasionally interact on social media, though.

2 I was originally made aware of ToM through the writings of Charlie Stross. Click here, then search the page for "theory of mind." Ironically, Charlie does not display a strong Theory of Mind when he writes about those with whom he disagrees, but as with the Krugman example, that's not so rare. Ironically, I once listened to a one-hour panel discussion between Stross and Krugman that was incredibly enlightening, but that's a story for another time.

Thursday, May 29, 2014