Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Politics in the Church and the IRS

July 29, 2014

I was reading a post at Political Outcast on the possibility that the IRS might begin to monitor sermons for political content thanks to a settlement with the Freedom from Religion Foundation. I might be tempted to regard this as exaggerated or alarmist but it happens that I had already read the FfRF’s statement on the lawsuit. While I do not think the IRS is likely to start sending agents into churches to monitor sermons, this ruling clearly allows groups like the FfRF to harass religious groups that dare to make any public statement on any political issue. Since the left politicizes everything, this means that any preacher that preaches on any subject in a politically correct way, abortion, say or homosexuality, could find have his church’s tax exemption revoked.

Here is the FfRF’s statement.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Internal Revenue Service reached an agreement today (July 17) that resolves for the time being an ongoing federal lawsuit over non-enforcement of restrictions on political activity by tax-exempt religious organizations and churches.

“This is a victory, and we’re pleased with this development in which the IRS has proved to our satisfaction that it now has in place a protocol to enforce its own anti-electioneering provisions,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

“Of course, we have the complication of a moratorium currently in place on any IRS investigations of any tax-exempt entities, church or otherwise, due to the congressional probe of the IRS. FFRF could refile the suit if anti-electioneering provisions are not enforced in the future against rogue political churches.”

FFRF filed suit against the IRS shortly after the presidential election in 2012, based on the agency’s reported enforcement moratorium, as evidenced by open and notorious politicking by churches. Pulpit Freedom Sunday, in fact, has become an annual occasion for churches to violate the law with impunity. The IRS, meanwhile, admittedly was not enforcing the restrictions against churches. A prior lawsuit in 2009 required the IRS to designate an appropriate high-ranking official to initiate church tax examinations, but it had apparently failed to do so.

The IRS has now resolved the signature authority issue necessary to initiate church examinations. The IRS also has adopted procedures for reviewing, evaluating and determining whether to initiate church investigations. While the IRS retains “prosecutorial” discretion with regard to any individual case, the IRS no longer has a blanket policy or practice of non-enforcement of political activity restrictions as to churches.

In addition to FFRF’s lawsuit, IRS enforcement procedures with respect to political activity by tax-exempt organizations have been the subject of intense scrutiny by Congress. As a result, the IRS is reviewing and implementing safeguards to ensure evenhanded enforcement across the board with respect to all tax exempt organizations.

Until that process is completed, the IRS has suspended all examinations of tax-exempt organizations for alleged political activities. The current suspension, however, is not limited to church tax inquiries.

Until the IRS has satisfied congressional overseers that objective procedures are firmly in place with regard to political activities by all tax-exempt organizations, the judge in FFRF’s pending suit would not currently be able to order any immediate or effective relief.

As a result, FFRF has reached a point where no further immediate changes realistically can be accomplished through continued litigation. The dismissal of the pending action, however, is expected to be without prejudice, which means that further legal action by FFRF to enforce anti-electioneering provisions is not precluded in the future if necessary.

Why shouldn’t churches be involved in politics? The IRS explains it.

The ban on political campaign activity by charities and churches was created by Congress more than a half century ago. The Internal Revenue Service administers the tax laws written by Congress and has enforcement authority over tax-exempt organizations. Here is some background information on the political campaign activity ban and the latest IRS enforcement statistics regarding its administration of this congressional ban.

In 1954, Congress approved an amendment by Sen. Lyndon Johnson to prohibit 501(c)(3) organizations, which includes charities and churches, from engaging in any political campaign activity. To the extent Congress has revisited the ban over the years, it has in fact strengthened the ban. The most recent change came in 1987 when Congress amended the language to clarify that the prohibition also applies to statements opposing candidates.

Currently, the law prohibits political campaign activity by charities and churches by defining a 501(c)(3) organization as one “which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

I really do not see how this is constitutional, nor do I understand why churches must remain silent in order to qualify for tax exemptions. Frankly, I would prefer that churches not be exempt from taxes because I am not comfortable with the IRS deciding what is and isn’t a legitimate religion.

The reason for the FfRF”s concern is the movement called “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” headed by a pastor named Jim Garlow. Mr. Garlow believes that preachers should not be restricted in their choice of subject matter for their sermons but must be free to speak out on any issue that concerns their audience, including who should be elected to office. As a result of this belief he has begun a movement of more than a thousand pastors to deliberately challenge the IRS’s ban on politicking.

Again, I don’t understand why the restriction isn’t unconstitutional. Preachers ought to have the freedom to preach whatever they want to preach. Whether they should preach on political subjects is another matter. In general, I do not believe they should. The mission of the church is to get souls to Heaven and not to try to make Earth into Heaven. When the church gets involved with politics, it does not improve the political scene. Politics tends to corrupt the church.

This is no reason for the government to demand that churches stay out of politics. The idea behind the Johnson amendment seems to be that if a tax exempt church interferes in politics that is equivalent to the government establishing a church by funding it. But why? If the government reduces taxes, it is not giving people money, contrary to what progressives believe. It is allowing them to keep more of their own money. If the government chooses not to tax religious institutions,  it is not funding the institutions, it is refraining from taking their money. It seems to me that the demand that churches stay out of politics is a violation of their freedom of expression as well as their free exercise of religion. Perhaps it is time this law is changed in favor of freedom.

Hobby Lobby Hullabaloo

July 6, 2014

 

The Democrats are milking the recent Supreme Court decision on Hobby Lobby for all it’s worth. Here is another e-mail from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Friend — The Supreme Court just RIPPED away women’s rights:

Five conservative men on our Supreme Court ruled that women must get their bosses’ permission to access birth control.

It is truly an outrage! Women should make their own health care decisions — NOT THEIR BOSSES!

If you support women’s access to health care, ADD YOUR NAME and denounce this disgusting Supreme Court decision.

Your Action History
Supporter Record: VN96C28FDA1
Last Petition Signed: October 24, 2013
Hobby Lobby Decision:Signature Pending >>

This is outrageous: Republicans are GLOATING in the wake of this revolting Supreme Court decision.

Their Tea Party candidates are fighting for EVEN MORE radical policies — a COMPLETE ban on some forms of birth control and EXTREME abortion restrictions.

We can’t stand by as the Republicans rip apart women’s rights. Let’s get 100,000 Democrats on board to oppose them!

Thanks for your support,
DSCC Action Alert

And Organizing for Action.

Friend –

When the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling came down on Monday, I was speechless.

All I could think about was what this ruling means for American families across the country whose employers now have a say in whether their birth control is covered by their insurance.

We’ve heard from countless OFA supporters who are fired up about it — if you’re angry, that’s because you should be. No one’s boss should be able to dictate their health care.

Right now, folks at the White House are working with champions in Congress to look for a solution to fix what this ruling broke. (There’s more to come on that soon.) The most important thing we can do right now is to keep making our voices heard — on social media, with friends at cookouts this weekend, everywhere.

What became crystal clear this week is exactly who’s willing to stand up for a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions — like Senate Majority Leader Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — who came forward to say they’re going to work to find a solution for the women affected.

It also painted a clear picture of who really couldn’t care less.

Contraception isn’t just a women’s issue — it’s part of millions of American families’ lives.

The court effectively said that some companies can choose which forms of birth control it wants to cover based on no other criteria than what the company’s owners personally feel is acceptable.

If you’re like me, this is pretty straightforward: No one should have their boss deciding which prescriptions are right for them.

Right now, it’s up to the people who are outraged to say so, and keep on doing it.

Thanks,

Kelly

Kelly Byrne
National Issue Campaigns Manager
Organizing for Action

I don’t know which is the more depressing possibility, that these people really believe this nonsense or that they are dishonest and cynical enough to take advantage of people’s ignorance to lie to them in order to raise funds and distract their base supporters from the disasters their policies have caused.

No, the Supreme Court decision does not rip away women’s rights. No, it does not limit access to contraception in any way. Neither Hobby Lobby nor any other employer is preparing to monitor their employees’ personal lives or prevent them from buying any form of contraceptive they wish to purchase with their own money. What the Supreme Court did say was that the owners of Hobby Lobby could not be forced to pay for a product or service that they have religious objections to. Hobby Lobby is not denying their employees all forms of contraceptives, just four out of twenty that could be considered abortifacients. If you do not believe your boss should decide on your health care decisions, then you should not ask him to pay for them. If it is his money, than he certainly ought to have some say on how it is spent.

Why is any of this even controversial? Well, it would hardly be controversial at all if the matter were stated honestly. Should a private company be required to purchase products or services they have a religious objection to, or should the government be permitted to override the religious scruples of private individuals and companies? The obvious answer is no. Few people would be willing to argue that government dictates should override religious beliefs. This is why the progressives are not putting the matter in that way. Instead, they are going into hysterics about employers preventing their employees from getting contraceptives and forcing their religion on their employees. One way to win an argument is to frame the issue in a way that favors your side, even if  this means emphasizing irrelevant side issues or outright lying about the true nature of the argument. Name calling and questioning your opponent’s motives is also useful. Thus abortion becomes women’s health and only sexist bigots would want to restrict it. Changing the fundamental nature of one of the most important institutions of human society by allowing members of the same sex to marry becomes marriage equality and only a homophobe would oppose it. Confiscating firearms is a sensible measure to reduce gun violence which only a right wing gun nut and the NRA would possibly be against. Placing crippling burdens on our economy by regulating carbon dioxide becomes reducing carbon pollution in order to prevent climate change, which only a science denier would oppose, and so on and on.

This is something the left has gotten to be very good at, and unfortunately, it is something the right isn’t very good with at all. I am not advising arguing dishonestly, but it would be better if conservatives knew better what was going on and not take for granted the left’s framing of the issues. As it is, too many times conservatives lose the argument before it starts by fighting on the opposition’s ground and defending themselves against the opposition’s attacks rather than going on the offensive. Let’s stop letting them change the subject. If they want to oppose freedom, hold them to it and don’t let them get away with adjusting the facts with clever wording.

 

Hobby Lobby Outrage

June 30, 2014

Today, the Supreme Court  ruled that a company need not cover contraceptives if it is against their religious convictions. This is a victory for religious freedom in this country, and really for freedom generally. If Hobby Lobby does not wish to pay for their employees’ contraceptives, they shouldn’t have to. If someone wishes to have their employer pay for their contraceptives, they should consider working for a company that does cover them.

Naturally the Democrats don’t see it that way. I have already received fund raising e-mails telling of their disgust and outrage over this decision and asking for money to elect Democrats to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Either they are quick writers, or they had already pre-written their appeals in the event of this decision.

Here is one from Stop the GOP.

Friend — It’s outrageous: Just hours ago, the Supreme Court handed corporations the power to deny women birth control coverage. It’s a sad day for America.

Mitch McConnell’s reaction? He’s gloating, and he just vowed to vote on “limiting abortions if Republicans take control of the Senate in November,” according to Rachel Maddow.

But mark our words: If we let the GOP steal the momentum in the wake of this decision and take the Senate, we will DEEPLY regret it. You MUST stop McConnell and the GOP.

With just 12 hours to go before the most critical FEC deadline of this election, please pitch in to stop a GOP Senate takeover. Your gift will be triple-matched.

Supporter Record: VN96C28FDA1
Mid-year Deadline: 12 hours

If you’ve saved your payment information with ActBlue Express, your contribution will automatically be processed when you click the links below:

EXPRESS DONATE: $3

EXPRESS DONATE: $8

EXPRESS DONATE: $17

EXPRESS DONATE: $25

EXPRESS DONATE: $35

Or donate another amount.

Republicans are ALREADY seizing on this ruling to push even more extreme policies.

Their Tea Party candidates are fighting for EVEN MORE radical policies — a COMPLETE ban on some forms of birth control and EXTREME abortion restrictions.

Don’t let them take the momentum and deliver a crushing blow to women’s rights.

Pitch in immediately to fight back against extreme Republicans before the deadline hits in 12 hours.

Thanks for your support,
Stop the GOP

But the Supreme Court didn’t vote to allow corporations to deny women birth control nor was this a crushing blow to women’s rights. They simply said a corporation could not be forced to pay for something that is against its religious convictions. There is nothing to stop a woman, or man for that matter, from paying for their own contraceptives. Hobby Lobby is not preventing them from doing  whatever they want with their own money. Why should Hobby Lobby, or any other company, pay for contraceptives if they don’t want to? Where did these people get the idea that if I choose not to pay for something someone else wants, I am preventing them from getting it?

Here is another, this one from the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.

Friend — It’s disgusting: The Supreme Court just ruled that corporations can deny women insurance coverage for birth control.

It’s a shameful day for our country. But we CAN’T let the GOP use this to steal the momentum, erase our lead, and take over the Senate. The consequences would be dire.

With just 14 hours to go before the most critical FEC deadline of this election, please pitch in to stop a GOP Senate takeover. Your gift will be triple-matched.

If you’ve saved your payment information with ActBlue Express, your contribution will automatically be processed when you click the links below:

EXPRESS DONATE: $3

EXPRESS DONATE: $8

EXPRESS DONATE: $17

EXPRESS DONATE: $25

EXPRESS DONATE: $35

Or donate another amount.

This outrageous decision shows that some Supreme Court justices are just politicians in robes. They’re simply another wing of the Republican Party.

It’s revolting — but if we let the Republicans take the Senate because of this, we’ll never forgive ourselves. PItch in immediately — before the most crucial deadline of the election.

Thanks for your support,
DSCC Breaking News

I am getting just a little tired of the phony outrage these people are always writing about. They seem to be eternally outraged and disgusted by the latest foul deeds and extreme positions of the Republicans, conservatives, the Tea Party, or the Koch Brothers. It has a little of the 1984 Hate Week mentality behind it.

As for what happens next with Hobby Lobby, they have dared to oppose the State and Leader and have resisted the process of Gleichschaltung. I am sure they will be punished for it. I would guess that next year the IRS will find all sorts of irregularities in their taxes. Meanwhile, attempts to drive Hobby Lobby out of business, threats of boycotts, etc. Now might be a good time to shop there.

The Christian Dark Ages II: The Early Middle Ages

June 28, 2014

In the previous post, I wrote against the all too widely held belief that the Middle Ages, that period of time between around AD 500-1500 was a Dark Age of ignorance, poverty, and religious fanaticism. No historian has held such a view for more than a century or longer, yet the idea of the Dark Ages still has many followers, mostly, it seems by anti-Christian polemicists eager to revive the outdated trope of an eternal war between science and religion. Since the Middle Ages were a very religious period of time, there could have been no scientific advances. Thus, there are quotes like the ones I copied from an atheist.

I am sure you have heard of the Dark Ages, but if not I’ll help you out. This was when, basically, science was outlawed, to the extent that if you were doing something that the church deemed blasphemous you were killed. This is when we hunted for witches because the bible says to kill witches, homosexuals, those who commit adultery, and the list goes on. If you were not a believer in god you were killed.

In addition this was also the time when the Crusades were going on. So we were killing both our own people and the people of other nations in the name of god. Following god’s laws was one of the worst times in history (IMO).

And Ayn Rand.

The infamous times you call the Dark Ages were an era of intelligence on strike, when men of ability went underground and lived undiscovered, studying in secret, and died, destroying the works of their mind, when only a few of the bravest martyrs remained to keep the human race alive. Every period ruled by mystics was an era of stagnation and want, when most men were on strike against existence, working for less than their barest survival, leaving nothing but scraps for their rulers to loot, refusing to think, to venture, to produce, when the ultimate collector of their profits and the final authority on truth or error was the whim of some gilded degenerate sanctioned as superior to reason by divine right and by grace of a club.

Along with this picture

darkages

In my previous post, I hope I showed that the High Middle Ages, from AD 1000-1350, were far from being a dark age. The High Middle Ages were, in fact, among the most dynamic and brilliant in human history. What of the period before the High Middle Ages, the Early Middle Ages from around 500-1000?

The Early Middle Ages could more justly be called the Dark Ages. This was a prolonged period relative economic and cultural stagnation. There were immense dislocations during the fifth century, when the Western half of the Roman Empire collapsed after the invasions and migrations of the Germans tribes and the Huns. Trade and urbanization declined as did education and literacy. It proved to be very difficult to maintain a high level of civilization in the face of incessant war. Still, when the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Franks, and others settled down in the kingdoms they carved out of the Roman Empire, their kings invariably tried to restore Roman civilization with varying degrees of success. Then, when things began to get better, new waves of invaders, the Avars, Bulgars, Moors would disrupt things once more.

Europe, after the "fall" of the Roman Empire

Europe, after the “fall” of the Roman Empire

Under the Merovingian and Carolingian kings, the Franks conquered most of Western Europe. Their greatest king, Charlemagne, even tried, with partial success, to restore the Roman Empire in the West. He realized how far civilization had declined and set about trying to improve education and culture in his vast realm. This is the period known as the Carolingian Renaissance and it is thanks to efforts of Charlemagne’s scribes that many Latin texts survived from antiquity.  Unfortunately, Charlemagne’s empire broke up within a century of his death due to quarrels among his grandchildren and more invaders, this time the Viking, the Magyars and the Saracens.

In the East, the Roman Empire remained intact for two centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. They were hard beset by the Arab invasions of the eighth century. For a century, the Roman or Byzantine Empire, as it is often called in its Medieval incarnation, fought for its life against the Arabs fired with enthusiasm for their new faith of Islam and during this century, even Byzantium suffered from a relatively dark age. The Byzantines withstood the attacks, and incidentally saved Western Civilization just as it was beginning and after their borders were secure, around 800, the Byzantine Empire quickly recovered to become the most powerful and advanced state in Europe.

The history of the Dark Ages, then,was not the history of ignorant religious fanatics wantonly destroying knowledge and suppressing science. It was not a era of intelligence on strike. Rather, the Early Middle Ages were an era in which men worked valiantly in the face of seemingly insuperable difficulties to maintain some level of civilization. Christianity, far from suppressing knowledge and science, played a key role in the preservation of culture. Christianity is a religion of the book and therefore requires, at least in theory, a literate clergy. To meet this need, the Church established cathedral and monastic schools, which kept literacy alive even through the darkest periods. The expansion of Christianity into northern and eastern Europe spread literacy to hitherto illiterate peoples. Western Catholic missionaries taught the Latin alphabet to the Irish, Germans, Anglo-Saxons, and eventually the Northmen. Eastern Orthodox missionaries introduced the adapted Greek letters that we call the Cyrillic alphabet to the Slavs.

In western Europe, knowledge of the ancient Greek scholars was lost and few people could read any Greek.  In that sense the Early Middle Ages might be considered a dark age, yet there was a continuing Latin literary tradition. Contrary to what is still widely believed, there was no general decline in technology during the Early Middle Ages. In most respects there was a steady progress in technological innovation including some important inventions.  Such inventions included the moldboard plow, the horse collar, stirrups and horse shoes, the Carolingian miniscule, the three field crop rotation as well as increased use of legumes to replenish the soil. Better iron smelting techniques were developed and there was wider use of watermills. There was a decline in some areas, especially in architecture, mostly because the various successor states to the Roman Empire lacked the resources to erect large buildings or maintain extensive networks of roads.

To put the matter simply, there was no such thing as the Christian Dark Ages. Christianity did not cause a thousand-year dark age of ignorance and squalor. If it had not been for the advances made during the Middle Ages, it is likely that modern science would never have developed and it was not a coincidence that modern science developed in Christian Europe. Had it not been for the Christian Dark Ages, we would not be exploring the galaxy by now. Perhaps we would only be starting to explore the Earth.

The Christian Dark Ages I:The High Middle Ages

June 26, 2014

I have seen this graphic here and there on the Internet.

darkages

The atheist blog where I stole that particular image provides an explanation of the Christian Dark Ages.

I am sure you have heard of the Dark Ages, but if not I’ll help you out. This was when, basically, science was outlawed, to the extent that if you were doing something that the church deemed blasphemous you were killed. This is when we hunted for witches because the bible says to kill witches, homosexuals, those who commit adultery, and the list goes on. If you were not a believer in god you were killed.

In addition this was also the time when the Crusades were going on. So we were killing both our own people and the people of other nations in the name of god. Following god’s laws was one of the worst times in history (IMO).

Ayn Rand described the Dark Ages by having John Galt, the protagonist of her book, “Atlas Shrugged” saying,

The infamous times you call the Dark Ages were an era of intelligence on strike, when men of ability went underground and lived undiscovered, studying in secret, and died, destroying the works of their mind, when only a few of the bravest martyrs remained to keep the human race alive. Every period ruled by mystics was an era of stagnation and want, when most men were on strike against existence, working for less than their barest survival, leaving nothing but scraps for their rulers to loot, refusing to think, to venture, to produce, when the ultimate collector of their profits and the final authority on truth or error was the whim of some gilded degenerate sanctioned as superior to reason by divine right and by grace of a club.

Is any of this true? Were the Middle Ages a period of Darkness in which religious fanatics ran amok,  science was a crime punishable by death, and men of intelligence went on strike? Well, no. The idea that there was a thousand-year period of poverty, ignorance and stagnation caused by fanatic Christians who were opposed to any sort of intellectual endeavor is the result of a dramatic oversimplification of Medieval history and anti-Christian bigotry. It is simply not the truth.

There are not many historians nowadays who would fell comfortable labeling any period of the Middle Ages as the Dark Ages. This is not simply due to political correctness, but an acknowledgement that the period from around AD 500-1500 in European  history was too complex and diverse to be so simply labeled. There were indeed times and places in that period of history that were very dark, but there were also very bright times and places which attained a very highly developed civilization. Any two word phrase simply cannot do justice to the vast sweep of Medieval European History.

In general, historians divide the Middle Ages into the Early Middle Ages, from around 500-1000, the High Middle Ages, from around 1000-1350, and the Late Middle Ages, from around 1350-1500. I will ignore the Late Middle Ages since that period of time is usually referred to as the Renaissance, except to say that there was a sort of mini-dark age in the wake of the Black Death of 1349 and the general breakdown of Medieval institutions throughout the fourteenth fifteenth century.

Europe in 1190

Europe in 1190

I have already dealt with the Scholastic philosopher-theologians of the High Middle Ages and the important role they played in paving the way for the development of modern science. The High Middle Ages were the period in which the university was developed. European scholars gained access to ancient texts in Greek, and Arabic.  The population throughout Europe increased dramatically. More lands were cleared for settlement. Long distance trade expanded and modern banking and capitalism began to develop. Politically, this was the age in which nationalism began to develop and European states began to be more centralized and more efficiently governed. This was also an age in which the city states of Italy and norther Europe could flourish. Culturally, new movements in art and architecture began and literature began to be written in vernacular languages. The High Middle Ages saw an increase in religious devotion, along with the intellectual ferment, which should put to rest the idea that Christian piety and science are forever at odds. The Dominican and Franciscan monastic orders were introduced and there was an increase in religious activity among the laity which foreshadowed the Protestant Reformation. Among the new technologies either invented by Europeans or introduced to Europe were paper making, the magnetic compass, eyeglasses, the wind mill, the spinning wheel, the first mechanical clock, gunpowder and Arabic numerals, along with the re-introduction of the abacus.

Even the Crusades were a positive development.  As we will see, the Early Middle Ages was a period in which Europe was continually invaded from without. The Crusades were not just the result of mindless religious fanaticism, in which Christian barbarians slaughtered anyone who worshiped the wrong god. The Crusades were an attempt by the nations of Christendom to go on the offensive against enemies who had been threatening them for centuries. Transporting armies across a continent and defeating the Moslims on their own ground took a considerable amount of wealth and preparation. The fact that the Crusaders were victorious in the First Crusade is an early indication that the Europeans were beginning to pull ahead in technology.

The High Middle Ages were not a Dark  Age by any means. Instead, the High Middle Ages must be counted among the most brilliant and dynamic in human history. We would not be where we are today if the High Middle Ages had really been the Christian Dark Ages.

I had intended to take up the subject of the Early Middle Ages which could more justly be called a Dark Age but this post is getting long so I think the Early Middle Ages will have to have a post of its own.

 

 

 

That Hideous Strength

June 23, 2014

That Hideous Strength, the third book in C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy is not much like the previous two books, Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra. It is about twice as long, the story is set entirely on Earth, though the angelic Oyarses, the rulers of the planets, make an appearance at the climax. Elwin Ransom is not the protagonist of That Hideous Strength but he appears midway in the story and plays an important role in it. The supernatural plays a far greater role in That Hideous Strength than in the previous two books and it might be classified as more in the realm of fantasy than properly science fiction.

First edition cover

First edition cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The story of That Hideous Strength centers on Mark and Jane Studdock, a recently, though somewhat unhappily married couple. Mark Studdock is a professor of Sociology at Bracton College, part of the University of Edgestow. He is ambitious, desiring most of all to be in the inner circle. He is delighted to be part of the “Progressive Element” at Bracton and supports their intrigues to sell some of the college’s land to the National Instituted for Co-ordinated Experiments. Mark is excited to meet Lord Feverstone, aka Dick Devine one of the antagonists from Out of the Silent Planet. Feverstone is both a senior fellow of Bracton and a leading figure at the NICE and when he offers to take Mark to the institute at Belbury for a possible job, Mark eagerly agrees to go.

At the NICE, Mark meets a variety of strange characters including John Wither, the Deputy Director who seems only vaguely aware of his surroundings, Dr. Filostrato, a physiologist who has managed to keep the severed head of an executed murderer alive, and Major “Fairy” Hardcastle, the sadistic, lesbian head of security. At first, Mark is not sure what his new job is supposed to be, or even if he actually has a new job. He falls in and out of favor with the authorities at The NICE seemingly at random and is never sure where he stands. This is gradually revealed as a method to bring him further into the mysteries surrounding NICE. It turns out that the leaders of the NICE have been in contact with demons or fallen eldilla, though they are not aware of their true nature, believing them to be superior beings called “macrobes”.

Meanwhile, Jane Studdock while supposedly working on her dissertation on John Donne is dismayed to find that she has become merely a housewife. She has begun to have clairvoyant dreams. When she confides in the wife of her tutor, Mrs. Dimble, she is taken to a manor at St Anne’s where she meets Mr. Fisher-King, Elwin Ransom. Ransom has been much changed by his travels to Malacandra and Perelandra and is no longer the simple philologist he was at the beginning of the Space Trilogy. Because he has lived in Paradise on Venus, Ransom appears younger and no longer ages, though still bears a wound on his heel inflicted by Weston during their fight. Ransom has become the Pendragon, the heir of King Arthur and has gathered around him a small group of people dedicated to fighting the evil represented at the NICE.

Jane’s clairvoyant dreams indicated that the NICE is attempting to disinter the body of Merlin from his resting place in the land they purchased from Bracton College. Merlin is not dead but in a suspended state and the leaders of the NICE hope to make use of his knowledge of the ancient lore of Numinor to effect a union between modern science and ancient magic. Merlin, however has his own ideas.

In his review of That Hideous Strength, George Orwell said that the introduction of the supernatural weakened the story and that one always knew who would win in any fight between God and the Devil. I don’t agree. Leaving aside the fact that Lewis would not have written any fiction that was not infused with his worldview that contains the possibility of miracles, I did not find that the supernatural elements of the story in any way lessened the suspense. In fact, I can honestly say that That Hideous Strength was one of the few books that I couldn’t bear to put down, since I was desperate to know just what the villains at the NICE were up to. There is something of a deus ex machina effect at the climax in which the ruling oyarses of the various planets, identified with the Roman gods the planets are named after, descend to Earth to upset the plans of the NICE, but Lewis skillfully builds up to the climax. The repentance of Mark Studdock is also well handled as he realizes that everything he had been working toward isn’t really what he thought he wanted. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I think it is the best of C. S. Lewis’s fiction I have yet read.

 

 

Presbyterians Abandon Christianity

June 22, 2014

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has voted to approve of same sex marriage as Christian.

The top legislative body of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has voted by large margins to recognize same-sex marriage as Christian in the church constitution, adding language that marriage can be the union of “two people,” not just “a man and a woman.”

The amendment approved Thursday by the Presbyterian General Assembly requires approval from a majority of the 172 regional presbyteries, which will vote on the change over the next year. But in a separate policy change that takes effect at the end of this week’s meeting, delegates voted to allow ministers to preside at gay weddings in states where the unions are legal and local congregational leaders approve. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriage.

In doing so, this denomination has fallen into heresy and apostasy. I do not say this simply because of this particular decision and if it were an isolated measure in a church body that has otherwise held firm to Christian doctrine and teachings, I wouldn’t feel the need to write anything about it. Unfortunately, this decision to recognize same sex marriage is part of a decades long trend in which the Presbyterians and the other “mainline” Protestant denominations have abandoned Christian teachings.

No longer Christian

No longer Christian

Christians ultimately derive their doctrines on beliefs and practices from the Bible, the Old and New Testaments. In the Protestant tradition Scripture Alone is considered to be the sole source for doctrine, while in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions Scripture along with sacred tradition and the teaching authority of the Church is the source of doctrine. In these branches of Christianity tradition and scripture cannot, or at least ought not to contradict one another and tradition must ultimately be based on scripture. Tradition supplements or amplifies scripture. It does not replace scripture.

Every Christian sect or denomination has some sort of body whose job is to apply the doctrines taught by scripture. They may not change the doctrines taught be scripture. No priest, minister, preacher, pastor, elder, bishop, council, assembly, or Pope has the authority to alter the basic teachings of Christianity. No one has the authority add or detract from the Bible or to change a single word. In fact, Christians are strictly forbidden to do so. . It is the duty of the Church to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. No authority at any level may substitute their own opinions or agenda for the Gospel nor may they preach a different gospel. The Pope may be infallible in proclaiming the teachings of the Catholic Church. He cannot singlehandedly change those teachings. He cannot announce that Jesus is not the son of God or that all religions are equally true.

The teachings of Christianity concerning marriage are quite clear and unambiguous. Marriage consists of a man and a woman united together as one flesh. Christian marriage must be monogamous and for life. Any sexual relation outside of marriage is a sin. No doubt this is a hard teaching and perhaps given the fallen nature of humankind, it is unrealistic to expect everyone to abide by such teaching in its full rigor. As a matter of charity and practicality, concessions must often be made because of the hardness of our hearts, but such concessions must not be mistaken for the ideal which ought to be upheld by the church.

By abandoning Christian teachings on marriage, as well as  many other subjects, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has substituted the gospel of left-wing political correctness for the Gospel of Christ. They are failing to do their job of proclaiming the Gospel and saving souls. At this point it would be more honest if the Presbyterian Church (USA) would abandon any pretense of being a Christian organization of any sort and to re-invent themselves as a social group or a political party.

And then there is this:

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on Friday became the most prominent religious group in the United States to endorse divestment as a protest against Israeli policies toward Palestinians, voting to sell church stock in three companies whose products Israel uses in the occupied territories.

The General Assembly voted by a razor-thin margin – 310-303 – to sell stock in Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions. Two years ago, the General Assembly rejected a similar divestment proposal by two votes.

 

Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of the BDS movement, praised the vote as a “sweet victory for human rights.”

He said Presbyterian supporters of Palestinian rights have introduced divestment into the U.S. mainstream and have given Palestinians “real hope in the face of the relentless and intensifying cruelty of Israel’s regime of occupation, settler colonialism and apartheid.”

The top Presbyterian legislative body has been considering divestment for a decade. Representatives of the Presbyterian socially responsible investment arm told the national meeting in Detroit that their efforts to lobby the three companies for change had failed. Carol Hylkema of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, a Presbyterian group that advocates for Palestinians and spearheaded the drive for divestment, said their action was modeled on the divestment movement to end apartheid in South Africa. The 2012 assembly had endorsed a boycott of Israeli products made in the Palestinian territories.

“Because we are a historical peacemaking church, what we have done is, we have stood up for nonviolent means of resistance to oppression and we have sent a clear message to a struggling society that we support their efforts to resist in a nonviolent way the oppression being thrust upon them,” said the Rev. Jeffrey DeYoe, of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network.

This is not a matter of Christian doctrine or teaching but it does show an astonishing lack of moral clarity on the part of this formerly Christian denomination, as well as a singular ignorance of the history and politics of the region. If the Palestinians wanted a separate state alongside Israel, that is democratic and respects human rights, and if  they were willing to work nonviolently in order to establish such a state, they would have achieved their goal many years ago. That is not, however, what the Palestinians seem to want. They want the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state. As long as that is their goal, there will be no peace in the region, since the Israelis are not willing to destroy themselves. By voting to divest in Israel, the Presbyterian General Assembly is not striking a blow for peace and human rights in the Middle East. They are giving hope to the terrorists and jihadists that Israel will be forced to make concessions that will weaken it and ultimately lead to its destruction. They are showing support to the enemies of both the Jews and the Christians. They are a disgrace.

 

A Bug or a Feature?

May 24, 2014

Some recent events in Africa, the death sentence for a young woman from Sudan for being a Christian, and Boko Haram‘s kidnapping of more than two hundred schoolgirls has elicited condemnations from people around the world, including some in the West who believe that any criticism of Islam counts as islamophobia. I suppose that would be too much to hope that these people will finally make the connection and realize that we, the civilized world, really do have a problem with Islam. No doubt they will mouth the usual platitudes about Islam being a religion of peace and explain that these detestable deeds are the actions of ‘extremists’ such that are found in any religion. Well, people of virtually every religion have committed atrocious deed in the name of their gods, yet somehow these days, this seems to happen far more often among the practitioners of one particular religion, Islam. The question that needs to be answered is whether violence , terrorism and intolerance are bugs, problems with misunderstanding the teachings of religion, or features, understanding the teachings of the religion all too well.

Before going any further, I would like to deal with a particular idea that I have seen in various places, the idea that Islam is where Christianity was several centuries ago. This notion has more to do with vague ideas about moral progress than with any serious study of the comparative histories of the two faiths. The idea seems to be that there is a definite direction to history in continuing moral improvement. This seems true enough. We no longer have slavery or burn witches. Still, I am not convinced that there has been any real change in human nature. We do not have slaves because we have machines. If our machines were to fail us, slavery, or some form of unfree labor would make a swift comeback. The history of the doctrines of every religions alternate between periods of comparative laxity and rigor. The more rigorous periods do not necessarily coincide with violence and intolerance. It is difficult to imagine a religious revival among the Jains or the Quakers producing suicide bombers. The idea that Islam is somehow behind Christianity and less morally developed is condescending and doesn’t really explain why Islamic rigor is more associated with violence than Buddhist or Christian rigor.

This idea also ignores the very real differences in the teachings of the two faiths. Jesus said that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Mohammed agreed and added that dying by the sword in the cause of Allah was the greatest fate any man could hope for. Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world”. Mohammed was a political and military leader as well as a prophet. A Christian who commits an act of terror is acting against the teachings of his Savior. A Muslim who commits an act of terrorism is following the instructions of his prophet.

I don’t recommend that you take my word for this. Consider that Sudanese woman. She has been sentenced to death for apostasy, leaving Islam. Almost everyone in the West finds any punishment at all for apostasy to be an infringement of religious liberty. In the Middle East, the death penalty for apostasy enjoys wide support.  Here is a defense of the death penalty for apostasy from what seems to be a fairly reasonably religious authority. Read the Koran. It is full of incitements to violence, especially Sura 9.

Consider these stories about Mohammed and his companions.

The apostle said, “Kill any Jew that falls into your power.”  Thereupon Muhayyisa leapt upon Ibn Sunayna, a Jewish merchant with whom they had social and business relations, and killed him.  Huwayyisa was not a Muslim at the time, though he was the elder brother.  When Muhayyisa killed [the Jew] Huwayyisa began to beat him, saying, “You enemy of God, did you kill him when much of the fat on your belly comes from his wealth?”  Muhayyisa answered, “Had the one who ordered me to kill him ordered me to kill you I would have cut your head off.”  This was the beginning of Huwayyisa’s acceptance of Islam… [Huwayyisa] replied exclaimed, “By God, a religion which can bring you to this is marvelous!” and he became a Muslim. (Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 554)

When he asked who I was I told him that I was one of the [Muslims].  Then he laid down beside me and lifting up his voice began to sing: “I won’t be a Muslim as long as I live, nor heed to their religion give.”

I said (to myself) ‘you will soon know’ and as soon as the badu was asleep and snoring I got up and killed him in a more horrible way than any man has been killed.  I put the end of my bow in his sound eye, then I bore down on it until I it out at the back of his neck. (al-Tabari 1440)

When he [Muhammad] asked him about the rest he refused to produce it, so the apostle gave orders to al-Zubayr bin al-Awwam, “Torture him until you extract what he has.” So he kindled a fire with flint and steel on his chest until he was nearly dead. Then the apostle delivered him to Muhammad bin Maslama and he struck off his head.” (Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 764)

Allah’s Apostle said, “Who is willing to kill Ka’b bin Al-Ashraf who has hurt Allah and His Apostle?” Thereupon Muhammad bin Maslama got up saying, “O Allah’s Apostle! Would you like that I kill him?” The Prophet said, “Yes,” Muhammad bin Maslama said, “Then allow me to say a (false) thing (i.e. to deceive Ka’b). “The Prophet said, “You may say it.” (Bukhari 59:369)

There are man, many more. These stories are from the hadiths, anecdotes about Mohammed’s sayings and deeds. These stories were transmitted orally for over a hundred years before Muslim scholars began to write them down. There is no way to know if any one of these anecdotes is a true account, if the story has become corrupt after numerous retellings, or if it has simply been fabricated. The scholars who collected these hadiths were aware of this problem and rejected many that they believed to be spurious. Even the ones that they collected were felt to have varying degrees of reliability. It doesn’t matter, though. The important point here is that these were actions that the first generations of Muslims believed to be worthy of approval and imitation. Violence in the name of Islam was something approved of and even part of the attraction of the faith. Read that first story again. Huwayyisa was so impressed by the willingness of his brother to kill a family friend that he immediately converted. (Either that or he was afraid his brother would kill him if he didn’t convert.) To the early Muslims, fighting was a way to get plunder in this life and paradise in the hereafter. Mohammed approved of violence and since he is considered to be the ideal for every Muslim to emulate, his followers ought also to approve of violence.

To answer the question then, violence and intolerance are features of Islam, not bugs.

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The Pale of Settlement

May 19, 2014

A little while back, I wrote about the English Pale, the system of English fortifications in Ireland which gave rise to the expression, “beyond the pale”. That word, pale, as been used in several other historical contexts, one notable example being the Pale of Settlement in Eastern Europe. The Pale of Settlement was not any sort of fortification of defense system, but it was a policy of the Russian Empire designed to keep an undesirable people, the Jews, out. Since Vladimir the Great, Prince of Kiev, converted to Christianity along with his entire kingdom, the Russians have been proud of their Orthodox Christian heritage. After the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453 and went on to conquer most of Orthodox Eastern Europe, Russia stood strong as the last remaining bastion of the true Christian faith. (The Catholics of Western Europe didn’t count since they were vile heretics hardly better than the heathen Turks.)

Naturally the Czars of Russia did not want the sacred soil of  Mother Russia to be polluted by the footsteps of the Christ-killing Jews, so they made sure to keep the Jews out of the Empire. The problem was that beginning in the seventeenth and and eighteenth centuries, Russia started to expand westwards into Eastern Europe, mostly taking territories from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which formerly ruled over much of what is now western Russia, Belorussian, and the Ukraine. These territories, especially Poland had large numbers of Jews because earlier Polish kings had encouraged them to emigrate to Poland  in order to alleviate a shortage of skilled labor and merchants in the kingdom. Now,  most advanced, modern nations faced with a large population of undesirables would simply exterminate them. Russia, however, was somewhat backward and primitive so the Czars decided to simply exclude the detestable Jews from Russia proper while still permitting them to live in the conquered lands. It was Catherine the Great who first created the Pale of Settlement in 1791. In 1793, Poland was partitioned among Russia, Austria, and Prussia, bringing more Jews into the Pale.

English: Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1772

English: Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1772 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Within the Pale, Jews were excluded from small agricultural settlements and villages, while their access to major cities was also limited. Most Jews lived in shtetls, Jewish communities in small towns. There were rare exceptions in which privileged Jews, mostly those with needed skills or large amounts of money were permitted to live outside the Pale, sometimes even in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Such permission was always conditional and could be revoked at any time. The boundaries of the Pale of Settlement could also be changed without warning and without consulting the Jews. The Russian government could also change the locations where Jews could reside within the Pale, again without warning or consultation. Life in the shtetls, then was precarious and impoverished. The Jews were subject to relocations and pogroms were not uncommon. There were quotas limiting the number of Jews who could attend Russian universities. Before 1827, Jews could not serve in the Russian army but were subject to double taxation to compensate. They were forbidden to hire Christian servants and often could not own land. The Czars often encouraged the persecution of the Jews to distract attention away from their own oppressive rule.

English: Map showing the percentage of Jews in...

English: Map showing the percentage of Jews in the and , c. 1905. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Despite the restrictions and discrimination, a rich cultural life flourished in the shtetls of the Pale. The Jews lived separately from their Gentile neighbors, speaking their own language, Yiddish, observing their own customs and largely governing themselves. The Jews formed social welfare organizations to help the more impoverished members of their community, especially students of the Yeshivas or religious schools. The Rabbis of the Pale of Settlement created new theological systems, particularly Hasidic Judaism. A literature in the Yiddish language flourished. One notable author was the humorist Sholem Aleichem, whose stories of shtetl life formed the basis for the musical Fiddler on the Roof.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the Russian Empire was beginning to change and life in the Pale was also changing. Many young Jews were no longer content to live in a world apart. They began to speak the Russian language and adopt Russian customs. Many Jews, frustrated by the limitations of Czarist Russia emigrated to the Holy Land or to the United States. Those that remained behind tended to join radical groups such as the Bolsheviks and Jews played a prominent role in both the 1905 and 1917 revolutions. World War I was the beginning of the end of the Pale of Settlement. Many Jews fled from the Pale into Russian proper in order to escape the fighting. Under the stresses of a losing war, the Czar’s government could no longer maintain any control over its subjects and the old restrictions on the Jews were increasingly ignored. Antisemitism also increased dramatically and throughout the World War and the Russian Civil War that followed, Jews were repeatedly massacred by those who blamed them for the disorders. The Provisional Government abolished the Pale of Settlement after the abdication of Czar Nicholas II, while Poland became an independent nation once more. The Jews, and the other minorities of the Russian Empire were granted equality with the Russians.

It is something of a sad irony that the end of the Czars who oppressed the Jews also meant the end of the distinctive culture of Russian Judaism. Many Jews had joined the various organizations that were devoted to ending the rule of the Czars. Jews were over represented in such radical groups as the Bolsheviks, yet the militant atheist Communist government proved to be more cruelly oppressive than the worst of the Czars. With the horrors of the Civil War, the hatred of the Communists toward any religious expression and the destruction of the Jews throughout Europe, little now remains of the formerly vibrant communities. Those Jews who remain in Russia are mostly secular and assimilated. Their numbers are shrinking rather than growing. The Yiddish language is rarely used today.  Yet, a remnant of this culture remains in the Russian Jewish communities of Israel and the United States. So, the glory of the world becomes less than it was.

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Perelandra

May 18, 2014

Since Out of the Silent Planet, the first book of C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, told the story of Elwin Ransom’s journey to Malacandra, the planet we call Mars, it is fitting that the second book, Perelandra, is the story of Ransom’s voyage to the planet Perelandra, which we name Venus. The two trips could not be more unlike, however. Instead of being kidnapped and taken into space, this time Ransom is given a mission by the Oyarsa, the angelic ruler of Malacandra. He is taken to Perelandra by the eldili in a coffin made of ice.

Cover of "Perelandra (Space Trilogy, Book...

Cover of Perelandra (Space Trilogy, Book 2)

When Ransom arrives, he discovers (in accordance with the science fiction tropes of the time) that while Malacandra is an older and dying world, Perelandra is a younger planet with a worldwide ocean. In fact, the first two people, the Perelandran Adam and Eve, had just been created. Ransom soon meets the Perelandran Eve, a green-skinned humanoid that he calls the Queen. She has been separated from her husband, the King. The King and Queen are unfallen and live in Paradise, like Adam and Eve, and like Adam and Eve, they have been given a commandment. In their case, they have been forbidden to leave the reed mat islands, which are their home and live on the only solid land on Perelandra.

Ransom is soon joined by his old enemy Professor Weston who comes to Perelandra in a spaceship similar to the one he used to take Ransom to Malacandra. Weston is not the same man Ransom knew on Earth and Malacandra. After speaking to him, Ransom realizes that Weston has been possessed by a devil, or perhaps even the Devil and he has come to tempt the Queen into disobeying the eldill and Maleldil, just as he had done with Earth’s Adam and Eve. Ransom calls this creature the Unman Ransom’s mission, then, is to prevent the Queen from falling. If he cannot persuade her, he must engage the Unman in physical combat, even at the expense of his own life.

Perelandra is more spiritually or supernaturally oriented than Out of the Silent Planet, and Lewis presents more of his theology in it, especially his thoughts on the nature of evil. Lewis does not make the mistake, as some writers do, of portraying evil as exciting or interesting or intelligent. In Out of the Silent Planet, evil is described as “bent”, some quality or thing not acting or being used according to its proper function or role. In Perelandra, as well as some of his other writings, evil is shown to be a lessening of a person or thing. The person who turns to evil becomes less of an individual. Weston as the Unman is less than he was as the scientist who discovered how to travel through space. The Unman is clever and charming while he is tempting the Queen, but when off duty, so to speak, he lapses into imbecility and childish taunting of Ransom. Towards the end of their struggle, Weston seems to temporarily regain control of himself and tells Ransom of his experience dying and coming back to life. Ransom is never sure whether Weston actually was speaking or the demon was trying to trick him. In the end, Ransom decides that it simply doesn’t make any difference. When Weston and the demon turned to evil, they began to lose the qualities that made them individuals. Eventually all that is evil becomes indistinguishable.

Lewis will also have nothing to do with the idea of a fortunate fall, the idea that Adam and Eve were ignorant of evil in their innocence and that at least they gained knowledge. The Unman does tempt the Queen with the knowledge of good and evil, yet she and the King gain more knowledge of good and evil by rejecting temptation than by falling. The King and Queen inform Ransom, at the end of the book, that the people of Thulcandra, our Earth, are more ignorant of evil than they are, because of the Fall and our own evil deeds.

Perelandra is, if anything, even more entertaining than Out of the Silent Planet and is a worthy sequel to that book, although like all of C. S. Lewis’s fiction, it is as much a work of apologetics as story, and Perelandra is, as I have said more theologically oriented than that earlier work. The reader who does not agree with Lewis’s religious beliefs may like Perelandra less well, but I can recommend it.

 

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