Monday, December 27, 2010

Is Jesus just a fictional character?

James Hannam:
The thesis that Jesus never existed has hovered around the fringes of research into the New Testament for at least a century but it has never been accepted as a mainstream theory. This is for good reason. It is simply a bad hypothesis based on arguments from silence, special pleading, and an awful lot of wishful thinking. It is ironic that certain atheists will buy into this idea and leave all their pretensions of critical thinking behind.

A huge amount has been written on the internet and elsewhere about the "Christ Myth." The only in-depth refutation in print is Shattering the Christ Myth (2008), which goes into great detail. However, some academic historians have taken the time to rubbish the idea that Jesus never existed and a few other books on the subject have appeared over the years.

In this four-part series, it is not my intention to study the minutiae of the various arguments. Instead, I will focus on three central contentions often advanced in discussions about Jesus. These are 1) the lack of secular references, which I cover in this installment; 2) the alleged similarities to paganism, which I deal with next; and 3) the silence of St. Paul. Finally, in the fourth part, I will bring all these arguments together to show how ideas similar to those that deny Jesus' existence can be used on practically any ancient historical figure. With this in mind I set out to "prove" that Hannibal never existed.
Part one is here, part two is here.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

What sort of star did the wise men follow?

A fascinating analysis of just what was the star that led the wise men to Bethlehem is given at I talked about this in the service this morning. I urge you to read the whole thing at the site, but here is my summary.

After Jesus was born, wise men, or Magi, from the east made their way to Judea. Being astronomers, they had read the stars and concluded that a new king had been born to the Jews. This is related in Matthew chapter 2.

No historian today claims that there nothing happened in the sky that corresponds to what the wise men saw. Just what it was has been a scientific quest for about 400 years, since Johannes Kepler developed the first mathematical description of how the heavens worked. Kepler, whose equations are still used by NASA and astronomers around the world, himself spent may laborious hours trying to calculate the position of the planets and stars above the ancient Near East in the year of Jesus’ presumed birth, 6 BC. But he found nothing.

Since Kepler, many others have suggested that the star Matthew describes might have been a comet or a supernova, but there are no records of such events at this time anywhere in the ancient world, especially in China, whose astronomers were detailed and meticulous record keepers.

Jesus was presumed to have been born in 6 BC based on a book by the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, whose book, Antiquities, says that Herod died in 4 BC. Since clearly Jesus was born in the time of Herod, Jesus had to have been born before 4 BC, a year or two before.

But in fact, Herod did not die until 1 BC. This date is in fact what Josephus wrote, and is stated in manuscripts of his book relate dated earlier than 1544. It was in 1544 that Antiquities was first set to the printing press. In that first edition, the typesetter erroneously set the wrong year of Herod’s birth, and this edition became the standard from which all subsequent editions were made, including the one Kepler used.

Computers today solve Kepler’s equations in a snap. And what astronomers now know is that in September, 3 BC, the planet Jupiter came into conjunction with the star Regulus. That is, when viewed from the earth, Jupiter and Regulus appeared to touch or come very close together.

Jupiter is the largest planet. The ancients called it the king of planets. Regulus was called by the Romans, Rex, Latin for king. In Persian its name was Sharu, which also meant king. To an ancient astronomer, for the king of planets and the king of stars to come together would have been weighted with portents. But Jupiter and Regulus did this not merely once, but three times over the course of the next year.

After appearing to touch Regulus, Jupiter’s path moved beyond. But after a few months, earth caught up with and passed Jupiter in its orbit. Jupiter then appeared to move backwards in the sky. This movement is called retrograde. All planets’ paths retrograde when seen from earth, that’s why they are called planets, which is Greek for “wanderer.” So Jupiter went back and touched Regulus again. Then the earth moved on and by September of 2 BC, Jupiter had retrograded once more and had touched Regulus a third time.

To astronomers as skilled as those of Babylonia heritage and learning, which the wise men almost certainly were, this three-time conjunction of the king of planets with the king of stars would have started them packing. But why did they decide that the Jews had anything to do with it?

All three conjunctions took place within the backdrop of the constellation Leo, the lion. The lion is the symbol of the Jewish tribe of Judah, which takes it name from a son of Jacob named Judah. In Genesis chapter 49, Jacob gives his son, Judah, the lion as his symbol and then dictates that only Judah’s descendants shall provide the rulers for subsequent generations. King David was a member of the tribe of Judah and so was Jesus’ father, Joseph, according to Matthew chapter one.

The wise men were obviously conversant with the relationship of lions with the tribe of Judah and Judah’s parentage of all the kings of Israel. The wise men may well have been (though probably weren't) Jews themselves, since a thriving Jewish colony remained in Iraq until a generation ago even though the Jews’ captivity in Babylon was ended in 538 BC. The kingly conjunctions of Jupiter and Regulus within the constellation of the lion were all the wise men needed to start heading toward the Roman province of Judea, which we know as Israel.

But what they did not know was just where the new king was to be born. So they stopped at the palace of the Roman vassal, King Herod, to inquire. Herod’s counselors quoted a prophecy from Micah that said the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

At Herod’s deceitful urging, the wise men went to Bethlehem, only five miles from Jerusalem. In the sky, Jupiter had just begun a third retrograde, this one, however, not to be followed by a conjunction. The thing about planetary retrogrades is this: just as a planet appears to reverse direction, it seems to stand still in the sky.

Here is what computers using Kepler’s equations show. Jupiter’s full stop for this retrograde took place on December 25, 2 BC. If you had been in Jerusalem on that evening, you would have seen the kingly planet Jupiter motionless in the sky almost due south, directly above Bethlehem.

Why is Christmas on Dec. 25?

The urban legend that many Christians think is true is that early Christians appropriated the pagan, Roman Feast Of Saturnalia of Dec. 25 and converted it into the Christian holy day.

Nope. Saturnalia was not established by the Roman emperor until AD 274, when the date of Jesus' birth had already been set (though not widely celebrated) for three-quarter century.

It is the Western church that celebrates Christmas on Dec. 25. The Eastern church does so on Jan. 6, the date of Epiphany in the West. But curiously, the reason the West celebrates Christmas on Dec. 25 is the same reason the East does so on Jan. 6.

And that reason is (most likely) actually the dating of Easter, not Saturnalia.

Read it all here: "How December 25 Became Christmas," by Andrew McGowan.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Jesus' other father

He was faced with a detestable duty. He was a man of compassion, even of tenderness. But he was also a man honor, of a stern code. His obedience to the Law was unwavering. The moment he learned that his fiancé was pregnant he knew that it was the end. The end, certainly, of their engagement, and perhaps even the end of her life.

It was two millennia ago in the Roman-occupied land of Judea. The man was named Joseph. His fiancé was Mary. She was going to have a baby and it sure wasn't his. Compassion, honor and duty dueled within Joseph.

He could not pretend there was no problem. She had obviously betrayed him. The whole town of Nazareth was watching.

Finally, Joseph decided Mary would have to pay the price for infidelity as his honor and the Law required, but on terms formed by Joseph's compassion. He would break his engagement to her and send her away without fanfare, leaving her to fend for herself. It would clear the slate, restore his honor and was least hurtful to the young woman.

What the outcome would have been by Joseph’s plan we don’t know, because God revealed to him what was really going on, and Joseph changed his mind.

Joseph dreamed of an angel, who informed Joseph that Mary’s unborn child was of the Holy Spirit. The angel gave Joseph instructions: take Mary home as his wife and adopt Mary’s child as his own, giving him the name Jesus, a common and undistinguished name then, meaning,“God helps.”

These things came to pass. In Joseph’s day, when a Jewish man gave a name to the child born to his wife, it confirmed the child as his own. Maybe others knew that Joseph was not the baby’s natural father, maybe they didn’t. It didn’t matter. When Joseph named the baby Jesus, he was also giving to Jesus his own identity, his own lineage. That is why Jesus could truly be said to be of the line of David, because Joseph was of David’s line and Joseph adopted Jesus as his own son. “This child belongs to me, this child is my child, ” is what Joseph proclaimed when he named the child Jesus.

In the Gospels, Joseph is treated somewhat cursorily. Mary gets a lot more play. Joseph never speaks. Joseph hears, Joseph dreams, Joseph acts and Joseph obeys, but not even one syllable he ever uttered is related. Mary is the one with the speaking part. Her role is the most sought after in Christmas pageants.

Another pastor told me of one afternoon before the annual Christmas program, when a mother phoned the church office to say that her son, who was to play Joseph in the children's play, was sick and wouldn't be able to be there. “It's too late now to get another Joseph,” the director of the play said. “We'll just have to write him out of the script.” And they did. Joseph is easy to overlook and leave out.

In 1993, my wife played Mary in the Christmas pageant at our church. She got the part really because they needed our newborn daughter play the baby Jesus, there being no other small infant in the congregation. Mom and baby, Mary and Jesus, were a package deal, couldn’t get one without the other. But any guy off the street could have played Joseph. In fact, the pastor asked me, “Don, did you want to play Joseph or should we get a man from the choir to play him?” I said I would, but talk about feeling like a fifth wheel ... .

But more is going on with Joseph than is first apparent. A recurring theme of St. Paul is that Jesus' followers are adopted by God and made children of God, brothers and sisters of Christ. This should make us reconsider the significance of where Joseph fits in with God’s work. Joseph’s adoption of Jesus is highly significant.

What if Joseph had said no to the angel and had sent Mary away anyway. Can we imagine Jesus growing up in the home of an unwed, single mother, both Mary and Jesus outcast from society? How would Jesus have conceived of God as his heavenly Father if Joseph had never taken on the role of Jesus’ earthly father? It took courage for Joseph to claim Jesus as his own.

Before God adopts us into the family of Christ, God sent his son to be adopted by Joseph into the family of humankind. Joseph affirmed on behalf of all humanity that God belongs with us, "God with us."

Joseph adopted the Son of God as the child of humankind, and through Christ God adopts human beings as children of God. There seems to be a symmetry of salvation and relationship at work. We see in Joseph’s story that we and God belong to each other in the one whom Joseph named Jesus, “God helps.”

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Bethlehem Today: Hamas Central

I am 55 years old. When I was born, Christians in Bethlehem numbered almost 90 percent of the people living there. Now it is less than 10 percent and falling. Christians in Bethlehem and the rest of the West Bank are ruthlessly oppressed by Islamists. Most Westerners are unaware that Hamas controls the town, with the Palestinian Authority of little influence. During the week I traveled there in autumn of 2007, 100 Christian families were physically kicked out of their houses by Muslim Palestinians while the PA police literally stood by and watched. I did not see it. I learned it from non-Israeli Westerners living in Jerusalem, one of whom I spoke with having personally assisted some of the families in their new refugee status.

Hamas might (or might not) intend to leave just enough Christians in Bethlehem to make sure the thriving tourism business of Western Christians stays profitable. By New Year's, almost 1.5 million tourists will have visited Bethlehem this year, a record. They bring an enormous monetary inflow into the West Bank. More Eastern European and Near East Christian pilgrims visit than Americans, but Americans are very numerous and tend to spend more money each. The gift shops are clean and well stocked (I bought my home's Nativity set in one) and are operated by Christian Palestinians, but they own the businesses in name only. They stay in business only by the forbearance of the PA, who taxes them heavily. Any Christian business operator and all Christian tour guides must be politically vetted by Hamas PA in order to operate. These Christians will unfailingly assure you that relationships among Christians and Muslims in the West Bank are simply superb. And then they will quickly move on to another topic.

The Israeli security fence, erected because of the Second Intifada's bombing campaign against Israel, separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem. Traversing means passing through a military-grade checkpoint. Driving from Israeli-controlled Jerusalem into Hamas-controlled Bethlehem was unencumbered. Vehicles pretty much breezed right through. The Palestinians have no fear of Israeli suicide bombers coming to devastate their buses or restaurants. After all, there are no Israeli suicide bombers.

I took the photo above from the Palestinian side of the checkpoint. As the backed-up traffic shows, there is no breezing through from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. Vehicles and pedestrians are inspected. Tour buses generally get through pretty quickly since not even Hamas is dumb enough (well, yet) to try to plant a bomb or terrorist aboard one, which would end tourists and pilgrim coming to the West Bank, a far too expensive outcome for them to accept.

Near the checkpoint proper there are instructions in Hebrew, Arabic and English. All street sings in Israel are in those three languages.

The Palestinians put up propaganda on their side of the security fence.

Another example:

The Israelis put up propaganda on their side, too, but of a definitely peaceful sort:

I found the mural ironic, since whatever they Israelis and Palestinians have, "love and peace" ain't it, on either side.

Most of the entire West Bank is enclosed by a security fence, about 700 kilometers. About six percent of the distance is a wall rather than a fence because of the density of the buildings present. The fence generally follows the "Green Line," but the Green Line is ill defined in some places. The Green Line, btw, is the ceasefire line agreed to in 1949, at the close of Irael's war for independence. It is not actually a border of any kind. It is called the Green Line because it was drawn on the negotiators' map with a green pencil. Really.

This shot of the security wall was taken near the unused Jerusalem airport. Rock throwers shut the airport down some years ago. They threw rocks over the wall above at airliners landing or just onto the runway, the horizontal, flat gray feature just below the wall. Any pilot who may be reading can imagine how eager airline pilots were to land on runways covered in rocks.

Despite the international controversy about the fence/wall, it would be very hard to find an Israeli of any political stripe who would call for its removal. The fence was erected by a government very reluctant to do so, and was opposed by both Labor and Likud. But the bombings of the Second Intifada, begun in 2000, became so severe that the people demanded the barrier go up. Since it went up, terrorist violence inside Israel has fallen by 80-95 percent, depending the on the region of the country.

The barrier has made life harder for the Palestinians, who complain that it has degraded their quality of life. The typical Israeli responds, "Our lives come before your quality of life." Hard to argue with that.

Yossi Klein Halevi, a prominent Israeli journalist, said the barrier should be named the "Yasser Arafat Memorial Wall."

But back to Bethlehem. During the 4th century Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire. His mother, Queen Helena, traveled across the Holy Land and managed to identify many of the precise locations of significance in Jesus' life. ("Why yes, your Highness, you're right: this is the place where Jesus fed the multitude!") One of those places was the birthplace of Jesus. Since that day, Christian shrines have been been successively erected atop it and other identified sites. Most of the present Church of the Nativity dates from the Crusades. This is the interior of the Crusader section.

The traditional birth site of Jesus is well below this level, the site of a (presumed) small cave in the rocky hillside.

During my time here, a large group of Eastern-church pilgrims came through. They were clearly overwhelmed with emotion. Most of them knelt on both knees and kissed the star embedded in the floor and left to the left, crying. I confess to have been stricken emotionally at two sites I visited, but this was not one of them (neither was the Church of the Resurrection).

Bethlehem is in economic boom times now, but Islam is overwhelmingly powerful there, with Hamas' brand on the rise. Hamas' candidates in fact won a majority of municipal elections in Bethlehem. Since 1995, only Christians are permitted to be the town's mayor, but present Mayor Victor Batarseh was hand-picked for the office by Hamas. Batarseh previously was known for his atheism, militant Marxism and very active membership in the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The PFLP assassinated Israeli Cabinet Minister Rehavam Ze’evi in Jerusalem in 2002. Bartarseh has since held that the assassination “was legitimate retaliation for Israeli state terror.”

Occupying the majority of city council seats and with Batarseh as mayor, Hamas, whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel, is in iron control of the birthplace of the Prince of Peace. His followers there subsist at leave of the Islamists or, if they are able or compelled, move out of the West Bank. It is too dangerous to remain, just as it was for Jesus 2,000 years ago.

Related: "Bethlehem belongs to Hamas," in Israel Today.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Belief in nothing, or no thing?

Paul Wallace at Religion Dispatches uncovers the fundamentalism of New Atheism, personified by the truly elementary atheism of Richard Dawkins, who for some reason is taken seriously by pop culture as a serious thinker.

Wallace cites Denys Turner, a professor of theology at Yale:
“Atheists reject too little,” Turner writes, “This is why their atheisms lack theological interest. The routine principled atheist has but tinkered with religion.” This statement, with which I agree, will be unpacked in the remainder of this essay. In order to speak more specifically about this, I decided to investigate a single atheist’s stated beliefs. Since I have a few Richard Dawkins books on my living room shelf, and because his point of view is known to many, I decided on him....

In The God Delusion, Dawkins presents his central argument against the existence of God in the fourth chapter. His thinking goes something like this: The universe is a complex thing. Therefore the God of the Christians, who, Christians say, made the universe, must be at least as complex as the universe God made. Therefore we are left with an even bigger problem than before: Who made this ultra-complex God? A hyper-complex megaGod? It makes plain sense, according to Occam’s razor, to stop before we get to the first God. The complex universe is enough. Ergo, in all likelihood, God does not exist.

This argument, which boils down to Well, who made God, then?, assumes that God is a thing like any other thing. It assumes that God must exist in the same way the moon exists, in the same way Dawkins himself exists. As Terry Eagleton wrote in his now-infamous review of The God Delusion, Dawkins seems to think that God is “a celestial super-object or divine UFO,” a creature like other creatures, only bigger and smarter: a kind of uberthing, but a thing nonetheless.

If God is a thing like any other thing, then his argument is really good: Any thing-making machine, which is itself a thing like any other thing, must be at least as complex as the thing it makes. In the case of God, the problem is worse, because of the standard Christian claim that God not only created the universe, but sustains it as well. So, if God is a thing like other things then Dawkins’ point is well made.

But nowhere does Dawkins get outside of himself and ask, Is my assumption that God is a thing like any other thing really necessary? On what is this assumption grounded? Where did it come from?

The problem is that God is not a thing. One problem for New Atheists is that they have literally never proceeded past an understanding of God that is more mature than childlike. Their so-called atheism is literally childish.

Another problem for New Atheists is not so much that they reject certain attributes of God, but that...
Most atheists reject far too little. They only have to be one kind of atheist: The atheist who stands against some kind of ridiculous super-object in the sky, who stands against a child’s theology. Christians, who, like Jews, are commanded to have no gods before God, do not have the luxury of disbelieving in so few things. In Turner’s words, "In order to deny every kind of idolatry possible, a Christian must be every kind of atheist possible." We are required to have faith in no thing at all; only then will our faith have any chance of finding its true home in God.
We can and should have faith in no thing while making sure not to believe in nothing.

Instant MBA - or lesson therefrom

"INSTANT MBA: Find Out What Employees Are Good At And Assign Tasks Accordingly."
Today's lesson comes from Geoff Vuleta, C.E.O. of Fahrenheit 212, an innovation consulting firm in Manhattan:

"I try to uncover what people are really good at doing and then give them a [snip] of a lot of that to do. I really, truly believe in that.

I am the sort of person who’s never really believed in obsessing over trying to get people to do things that they are no good at anyway."
What are you good at? Are you doing a lot of it? One of the most damaging things to individual productivity is trying to take care of many different things. Remember the saying about the hedgehog: "The hedgehog knows how to do only one thing, but he does it extremely well."

Christian discipleship's full flower is found in exactly the principle that Mr. Vuleta explained. While there are general obligations of discipleship that rest upon all those who want to follow Christ, the New Testament makes it abundantly clear that, to borrow Paul's analogy, some of us in the body of Christ are eyes, others are hands, some are feet. None do everything the body needs, but all are necessary.

What are you good at in Christian discipleship? Unless we follow the Bible's teaching of how to discover it, we won't. The central key is to discover your spiritual gifts. You can even do this online now at the UMC's web site page:

Spiritual gifts are:

* Christian vocations given by the Holy Spirit to believers to shape and form their living as disciples of Jesus Christ

* Vocational capabilities that may be, but are not necessarily, related to skills, abilities or knowledge a believer already has

* The decision of our Lord in which person receives which gift - the Spirit knows us better than we do!

* Incredibly liberating and spiritually rewarding - they are the primary means by which we find our place in the Kingdom of God!

Remember: God does not call the qualified, God qualifies the called. How is God trying to "qualify" you? Through the spiritual gifts. Find out what you gifted for and do a lot of it!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

But it wasn't "incest" incest!

There is a straight line to be drawn from July, 1961 to the arrest of Columbia University Professor David Epstein this month for charges of an incestuous affair with his own daughter.

The daughter, we are told, was 20 when the alleged affair began. The 1961 connection is not with the deed, but with the nature of how some people are dismissing the allegations as trivial.

A commenter on Columbia's newspaper site wrote, "Wait, why is consensual incest a crime? It might not be appealing to everyone, but if they're adults and they consent, who cares what they do?"

A commenter at Huffington Post wrote that a "four year prison sentence is extreme -- considering they are both consenting adults."

Salon writer Tracy Clark-Flory observed that there "are no allegations" that the daughter didn't give consent. "It isn't a clear-cut case of child abuse," Tracy wrote.

Whoopi Goldberg defended Roman Polanski's rape of a minor girl by claiming, "It wasn't rape rape." So I guess that this wasn't incest incest. Or something. That mere consent should determine the legality of a sexual act is a direct outgrowth of July 1961.

It was then that Enovid was first marketed as an oral contraceptive. From then on, it was known simply as The Pill. The Pill was the first contraceptive both to approach 100 percent effectiveness and to be entirely under control of women. We are only beginning to see the enormous changes that have been wrought by its invention and widespread use.

Of course pregnancies occurred prior to marriage before The Pill, but compared to today very few births did. Weddings "back in the day" legitimated the sexual union of a particular man and woman under the guidance of the greater community. In granting this license, society also promised structures beneficial to children arising from the marriage and ensuring their well-being.

Society's stake in marriage as an institution is the perpetuation of the society itself, a matter of much greater than merely private concern. Yet society cannot compel men and women to bring forth their replacements. Because of The Pill, the causal relationships between sex, pregnancy and marriage have been severed in a fundamental way. Since 1961, the marriage rate has plummeted while cohabitation and out-of-wedlock births have skyrocketed. (Almost every couple of the dozens of weddings I have officiated were already openly cohabiting.)

Today, weddings are much more symbolic than substantive, having become for most couples mainly a shortcut way to make the legal compact regarding property rights, inheritance and certain other regulatory benefits. But what weddings do not do any more is give to a man and a woman society's permission to have sex and procreate.

A direct outcome of these changes was greater acceptance of homosexuality followed by the move toward homosexual "marriage." Because The Pill enabled men and women to have sex without sex's usual result of pregnancy, the arguments against homosexual consanguinity began to wilt. If unrelated men and women can decide on their own whether to have sex outside society's interests or control, why can't gays? This is exactly the reasoning of the Supreme Court's 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision, which struck down state laws against sodomy. As R.S. McCain explained,
Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion described "an emerging awareness that liberty gives substantial protection to adult persons in deciding how to conduct their private lives in matters pertaining to sex." The court overturned its own precedent in the 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick case. In Bowers, which had upheld Georgia's anti-sodomy law, then-Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote that there had been laws against homosexual behavior "throughout the history of Western civilization" and that such laws were "firmly rooted in Judeo-Christian moral and ethical standards." In Lawrence, Kennedy cited that statement by Burger and rejected it as dubious, contending that the Bowers precedent "demeans the lives of homosexual persons."

And so seven years later the question is seriously asked: if both unrelated straights and gays can on their own decide about sex, why not an adult father and adult daughter? Genetic danger? That answer's been laughable since, well, July 1961.

How Prof. Epsteins' case will resolve legally I won't predict. Under New York's law, consent is irrelevant. The act itself is illegal. But I will predict that if it goes to trial his defense will rest strongly on Lawrence v. Texas, claiming that incest's prohibition is based on religious texts and traditions of precisely the sort that the Supreme Court set aside in 2003. While this might not prevail in state court, who can deny that it might prevail in a federal appeal?

As a society we are coming to believe in nothing except our own personal autonomy. The problem (that is, if we can still assume there really is a problem) is simply one of preference: "Incest," wrote that Columbia commenter, "might not be appealing to everyone." The standard is only what one likes or not. Therefore we may decide for ourselves what is morally right or wrong, and in nothing more so than sexual conduct. So the fracturing of America continues.

Endnote: The Pill did not alone engender the changes in socio-sexual mores of the last 50 years. There were two other lethal arrows into the heart of traditional marriage. One was socio-commercial feminism, which encouraged women on the one hand to postpone or pass up marriage and childbearing in order to have careers outside the home, and on the other hand to be as sexually active as they imagined men to be.

The other arrow was the rise to pre-eminence in academia of post-liberal Christian theology and Bible scholarship, which has intentionally sought to free society from the Bible rather than help lead it to follow it. Massive numbers of papers and books have been written since the mid-twentieth century attempting to show that the Jewish and Christian Scriptures are patriarchal, oppressive documents that tell less the story of humanity's struggle with the divine, than they record proto-Marxist class and gender struggles of power, exploitation and domination. So today, anyone who expects a biblically-based argument for certain sexual mores to be taken seriously is living in dreamland.

(Some of this essay is drawn from an op-ed I wrote for the Wall Street Journal in 2004, which you may read here.)

Update: "Switzerland considers repealing incest laws." I'm glad I don't try to write humor; it's almost impossible to write satire now because real life outdistances the imagination.

The upper house of the Swiss parliament has drafted a law decriminalising sex between consenting family members which must now be considered by the government. ...

Daniel Vischer, a Green party MP, said he saw nothing wrong with two consenting adults having sex, even if they were related.

"Incest is a difficult moral question, but not one that is answered by penal law," he said.

And just how "difficult," really, can it be? One wonders whether Daniel Vischer has a little secret.

Update: Well, that didn't take long: Epstein's lawyer, Matthew Galluzzo, told ABC News,
"Academically, we are obviously all morally opposed to incest and rightfully so," he told "At the same time, there is an argument to be made in the Swiss case to let go what goes on privately in bedrooms."

"It's OK for homosexuals to do whatever they want in their own home," he said. "How is this so different? We have to figure out why some behavior is tolerated and some is not."

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Ditch the Fed? Not so fast!

True or false: the United States did not have a central bank before 1913, the year the Federal Reserve system was established.

Answer to follow. First, there are growing numbers of voices these days urging either to dis-establish the Fed or to revise its charter (which would not be the first time). Gerald O'Driscoll, writing in the Wall Street Journal, belongs in the former camp. He points out that that the Fed's financial record since 1913 has been far from admirable. Wartime inflation followed almost immediately, then a depression in the early 1920s. The rest of the decade's prosperity is credited to Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon (and rightly so, I believe), but the Fed's performance during the Great Depression was simply disastrous. Since then, the Fed has hardly covered itself in glory since its charter is to provide price stability and full employment. These are "dueling mandates," say some economists, that set the Fed up to fail one or the other (such as nowadays).

But before we return to the halcyon days before the Fed, let's remember that they were the years of the "Panics" - of 1873-1879, 1893-1897, of 1907. And in fact, the US did have a central bank before 1913. His name was J.P. Morgan.

A severe depression that began in 1893 resulted in a run on gold until the Treasury could not redeem more gold because of statutory limits on reserve holdings. In 1895, Morgan loaned the Treasury Dept. $65 million in gold to stabilize the supply and the dollar, which was at the time linked to both gold and silver.

Another crisis, the Panic of 1907, was caused by a collapse of the stock market when the country was already in a recession. Brokerages and banks found their capitalization, based on the values of stock they held, to be worthless. Faced with impending bankruptcy of the nation's large banks and trusts, Morgan coordinated a plan among New York's bankers and the Treasury department to deposit tens of millions of dollars into still-healthy banks (letting the insolvent ones go under). Morgan and John D. Rockefeller put up many millions of their own money. They also set controls of the money supply among banks, solidified lines of credit and bought out stocks that were sharply falling in price. In other words, a TARP.

Morgan owned U.S. Steel. Before the Panic ended, he had taken over his chief competitor. He sailed right around the antitrust issues by getting President Theodore Roosevelt to guarantee immunity. Morgan bought the company, which saved the brokerage firm Moore and Schley from going under - had it done so, brokerages would have fallen like dominoes across all Wall Street. The Panic then ended almost immediately.

Although Morgan had saved the country from a sure and serious depression, the whole affair repelled Progressives. (Roosevelt, who had at least skirted with collusion to break the law, was himself the leading Progressive of the day).

Movement to create a federal central bank began almost right away, based on making sure that the US financial system would not again be subject to the power of an individual and all the under-the-table dealing that had gone on. Moreover, Morgan was already elderly in 1907 by standards of the day. Members of government realized neither he nor someone both as astute and wealthy as he was likely to be around the next time there was a crisis.

Coincidentally, Morgan died the same year the Fed was created, 1913.

None of this is to toot the Fed's horn or defend it. It is only to show that saying the US didn't have a central bank until 1913 is simply in error. We just didn't have a federal central bank until then.

(The Second Bank of the United States, a private bank whose cozy charter with the federal government expired in 1836, had been something of a hybrid between what Morgan did and what the Fed does now. But its history was not part of the move to establish the Fed.)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Healthier, wealthier, but no wiser

Poor Richard tells us, "Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise."

Well, two out of three ain't bad, I guess.

Over the past 200 years, people around the globe have grown healthier and wealthier. Sadly, we are no wiser.

A fascinating live chart:

Back to Poor Richard to close:
If what most men admire, they would despise,
’Twould look as if mankind were growing wise.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Iron Harvest of World War One

Came across this information whilst surfing around. There is a place in Belgium called Houthulst where a lot of combat took place during the Great War. It was near there that poisonj gas was first used in warfare, April 22, 1915. German troops opened dispersant cannisters at their own lines. The wind carried the gas across Allied trenches. Before the day was out, 5,000 Allied soldiers were dead, many thousands more injured.

Still coping with munitions from World War One. Enormous numbers of duds are turned up every year. Many of them are still filled with deadly poison gas.

Today Houthulst has Belgium's largest collection area of unexploded gas munitions. The amount is staggering. There are 18,000 unexploded gas shells, totaling at least 300,000 kilos. It has been estimated that for every square meter of terrain along the old entrenchments, reaching from Belgium's coast through the country and France to the Swiss border, a metric tonne of artillery projectiles fell.

With the dud rate ranging from 25-33 percent of fired shells, Houthulst's still mostly-lethal stockpile grows daily as more ordnance comes to the surface across the region. Only a minority of duds are gas shells. Belgian farmers turn up or discover more shells so frequently that the Belgian army's collection patrol makes two trips daily through the region.

The thousands of shells at Houthulst are stacked in rows upon the ground. Many of the shells at Houthulst are leaking. They are placed in concrete bins, but there are no bunkers to enclose them. A disposal processor nearby x-rays the shells to see whether they contain explosive or gas. The ones that contain gas are drilled and vacuum evacuated into sealed containers. These are taken to Antwerp where the gas in burned at super-high temperatures.

But there is another site in Belgium that may contain a hundred times as much gas shells. It lies on the sea bed near the port of Zeebrugge, only a few hundred meters from the shoreline. This site threatens Holland also because of tidal currents. Millions of tons of munitions were dumped there after the Great War. The dumping went on for six months at a rate of about 340 tomes per day. The government classified all the details and the site was forgotten about.

The location was accidentally again brought to light in 1971 by dredging and is now well known but unmarked; the Belgian government has classified all information about the site. A researcher at the Belgian Free University has calculated that more than 1,000,000 liters of pure poison gas lies there, most of it mustard gas. Mustard gas is not degraded by seawater. If mustard shells start cracking, the hazards will be immense.

World War One, it is feared, has yet to claim its final victims.


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Faith and death in North Korea

Christianity is a summary-sentence capital offense in North Korea.
"While Interviewee 17 was in the North Korean Army, his unit was dispatched to widen the highway between Pyongyang and the nearby port city of Nampo. They were demolishing a vacated house in Yongkang county, Yongkang district town, when in a basement between two bricks they found a Bible and a small notebook that contained 25 names, one identified as pastor, two as chon-do-sa (assistant pastors), two as elders, and 20 other names, apparently parishioners, identified by their occupations. The soldiers turned the Bible and notebook over to the local branch of Department 15 of the Korean Workers Party (KWP), but the Party officials said it was up to the military police unit, Bowisaryungbu gigwanwon, to investigate.

Tracked down at their place of work through the listing of occupation in the notebook, the 25 persons were picked up without formal arrest by the military bowibu. The interviewee was not aware of any judicial procedures for those seized. In November 1996, the 25 were brought to the road construction site. Four concentric rectangular rows of spectators were assembled to watch the execution. Interviewee 17 was in the first row. The five leaders to be executed - the pastor, two assistant pastors, and two elders - were bound hand and foot and made to lie down in front of a steamroller. This steamroller was a large construction vehicle imported from Japan with a heavy, huge, and wide steel roller mounted on the front to crush and level the roadway prior to pouring concrete. The other twenty persons were held just to the side.

The condemned were accused of being Kiddokyo (Protestant Christian) spies and conspiring to engage in subversive activities. Nevertheless, they were told, “If you abandon religion and serve only Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, you will not be killed.” None of the five said a word. Some of the fellow parishioners assembled to watch the execution cried, screamed out, or fainted when the skulls made a popping sound as they were crushed beneath the steamroller. Interviewee 17 thought, at the time, that these church people were crazy. He thought then that religion was an “opiate,” and it was stupid for them to give up their lives for religion. He heard from the soldiers who took away the other twenty prisoners that they were being sent to a prison camp. He sketched from memory a diagram of the execution scene."
Even the appearance of Christian faith is deadly.
"A young woman, in her twenties, was washing clothes in a tributary to the Tumen River (the border between China and North Korea). When packing up the clothes, she dropped what was believed to be a small Bible. The actual words used by the North Korean authorities were “Christianity book” (kiddokyo chaek). Another washer woman reported the girl to the police. According to Interviewee 4, the informer may not have known that the book was a Bible, but all suspicious activity had to be reported to the police.
The woman and her father were tried and condemned practically in the same sentence, then immediately shot several times at close range with rifles.

Christians are hardly the only people persecuted to death in North Korea. Really, the whole country is. One presumes as well that adherents of other religions, say Islam, would likewise be killed. There is an official state religion, juche, which is not called religion, of course, but includes the deification of the late Kim Il-Sung and his psychopathic son, Kim Jong-Il.

North Koreans are obligated to make what amounts to a hajj to Pyongyang to lay flowers at the foot of Kim Il Sung's enormous statue.

Consider two of the "11 Reasons Why North Korea Is The Most Bizarre Nation On Earth."
#1 The first "Great Leader" of North Korea, Kim Il-Sung, is deeply revered in North Korea. In fact, there are over 500 statues of Kim Il-sung scattered throughout the country. Many Koreans apparently believe that Kim Il-Sung actually created the world.

#2 It is said that hanging up pictures of Kim Il-Sung is compulsory for every household in North Korea.
These are some of the reasons that trying to explain the North's recent shelling of the South Korean Yeonpyeong island is a fool's errand. There is really no basis to suppose that there was a reason for the attack at all. Of course the shelling was approved at the pinnacle of the North's government - though not necessarily by Kim John-Il personally, who just may be nutty as a fruitcake anyway - but for what reason? Well, because, that's what, which may be as good a reason as we'll ever discern.

(What does make sense, though, is that the North's disclosure of its heretofore secret uranium-enrichment plant and the shelling are a single, the message being: Yes, we have a nuke program and you don't know what else we have that's still hidden. By the way, we're shelling Yeonpyeong to make sure you understand not to assume we are being put on the defensive.)

David Warren writes, however, that saying Kim Jong-Il is crazy avails of nothing:
The conventional explanation for these and the many other incidents (including many minor ones that hardly make world news), is that the North Korean Great Leader of the moment, is crazy. I fall into this myself, sometimes -- one foot -- but then have to explain the difference between medical and moral insanity.

The "completely crazy guy" theory of history explains nothing, and is useless. Hitler was a crazy guy; Stalin was a crazy guy; Pol Pot was a crazy guy -- but mad only north-northwest. Often from a desperate position, they played brilliantly, cheated brilliantly. ...

The current North Korean position is perhaps as desperate as it has ever been. Such indications as we have are of a prison camp in which the people are quite literally starving, and the whole totalitarian infrastructure might be cracking from withdrawal of some foreign aid. The Great Leader of the moment is thought to be ill, and there could be a "succession crisis." Alternatively, this crisis is being staged, in order to sucker the West into renewing aid, in the belief that a more reasonable leadership may soon emerge.
Of which there is practically no chance.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Thriving and declining churches

Below are notes I took at a Tennessee Conference sponsored workshop at Gallatin 1st UMC in April 2008. These points are penetrating and thought provoking! Whether one agrees with them or not, they certainly call for some serious self examination on churches' part. They also tie in with Session 7 of my series, "Why I don't want to come to your church."

You may view the document online here.

Why I don't want to come to your church, session 7

Index at bottom of this post.

Here are the slides for the third session of this series. You can also view the slides full screen.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

"And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed"

During the last week of September, Cathy and I were shopping in the Lowes in Dickson where we saw that the store was already putting up Christmas displays. (Thankfully, as a society we have apparently have moved beyond calling them, “holiday displays.)

I don’t think I have ever seen Christmas displays go up so early. But as we all know, the Christmas season is the major revenue season for almost every business. With the economy as it is, I suppose that businesses want the shopping season the begin as early as possible.

Have you ever wanted to get a “jump” on Christmas? Do you remember being a child and thinking that Christmas Day would just never get here?

Christmas Day was not celebrated by the early church. Easter was (and remains) the foremost Christian holy day, and two millennia ago, no one really knew what time of year Jesus was born. Almost certainly it was not in December since shepherds would not have been in the fields with their flocks in that month. The Eastern Church and the Coptics celebrate Christmas on different days than we do.

The most important thing about Christmas is not when it is, but what it is and what it means.

Christmas means “Immanuel,” God With Us. This is a name ascribed to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. When we affirm our faith that the baby born in Bethlehem’s manger was God in the flesh, then we easily see why Jesus is truly God With Us. This is Good News, indeed!

And yet we should not rush too quickly, like the shepherds, to the manger. For while the Gospel is Good News, it is good only because of the bad news that preceded it.

Jesus came to deliver us from our bondage to sin and death. That’s Good News! But the bad news is that we needed saving to begin with. Unless we confront the gravity of the human condition into which we are born we do not grasp the life ring God casts to us in the person and work of Christ.

That is why, in the passages for Advent, getting ready for Christmas is not the point. The point of the season is to prepare for the coming of Christ, not of Christmas. The passages of Advent present the imminent presence of God in the flesh as both awful (that is, “awe-full,” not bad) and wonderful.

"For the glory of the Lord shall be revealed," promised the Scriptures, and the glory of God can hardly be beheld impassively. One either runs to embrace the Lord or runs from him. Neutrality is not even possible.

So the passages for Advent typically include reminders that, absent God’s gracing presence, we mortals are lost in our sins. We are reminded that, “Christ has come, Christ will come again.” And his next advent will not be so innocently or unthreateningly accomplished.

Yet Advent also shows that by being born the baby in the manger God was not going on the offensive against us. He joins us an our ally. In fact, God’s kingly, overwhelming power is found there literally to be defenseless, so much so that Joseph and Mary had to flee the town to save Jesus’ life.

Is there power in such weakness? No, not in weakness per se. Jesus’ Godly power, or our own, is found neither in human in weakness nor in strength, but in faithfulness. It is God who is strong, not we mortals. Compared to the God’s strength, human weakness is inevitable but it is also inconsequential. God knows this, so he did not shrink from being born of woman, just as we are, nor from enduring the travails of human life in all its triumphs and disappointments, its joys and frustrations.

And at the end, death on a cross. But death could not hold Jesus because God is stronger than death.

Manger scenes became a popular artistic motif during the Renaissance. In almost all such paintings, the artists included the cross somewhere in the scenery. Sometimes it was on the horizon outside the manger. One artist, Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1556), painted a cross on a shelf on the manger’s wall, such as many homes would have had (left, click image for larger view).

Let us take a cue from those theologically-trained artists. They knew the connection between the manger and Calvary. So did Jesus. As his last trip to Jerusalem loomed, knowing what it portended, Jesus told the disciples, “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour” (Jn 12:27).

What is the meaning of Christmas? The meaning of Christmas is the cross.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Top Muslim Jurist to speak in Nashville

Anyone who wants to learn about Islam from a highly-accomplished and respected Muslim scholar should make a point of attending a presentation by Mr. Sam Solomon on Oct. 19, 7-9 p.m., at the Gordon Jewish Center's Pargh Auditorium. The address is 801 Percy Warner Blvd, Nashville.

Here is an image of the flyer sent me:

The text reads,
Sam Solomon is an expert in Shari'ah Law - that's Islamic jurisprudence. He spent 15 years studying Shari'ah Law to become an Islamic jurist, and after reading the New Testament converted to Christianity. He is the author of The Trojan Horse (about the threat of Islamic immigration), The Mosque Exposed, The Common Word (about Islamic undermining of the church), and Al-Yahood: Eternal Islamic Enmity and The Jews. One of the leading experts on Islam and Shariah law in the western world, Mr. Solomon has testifed before congress, is a consultant to the British parliament, and has been called to brief world leaders in several nations on matters regarding
See bottom of this post for a Google map to Gordon JCC with directions from the church.

Here is an interview (audio only) with Dr. Solomon at another venue.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Related as to topic, see my post, "Why jihad is central to Muslim faith."

Here is a Google map to the presentation. Click on the link at bottom for detailed directions.

View Larger Map

Why jihad is central to Muslim faith

If this is your idea of what jihad is, you're not alone. This is "lesser jihad," and should be of lesser concern to us than "greater jihad," which, though nonviolent, is far more pernicious

What exactly is jihad and where does it fit into Muslim theology?

The root of "jihad" is judh, Arabic for striving. Jihad in Muslim theology is striving to defend or advance Islam or increase one's faithfulness to Islam. Jihad is not peripheral to Islam. It stands at its very center. Jihad is central to Muslim soteriology, its theology of salvation. Jihad is theologically joined at the hip to sharia, Islamic law, for it is sharia that both commands jihad and justifies jihad.

Muslim scholars and jurists distinguish between "greater jihad" and "lesser jihad," a distinction going back to Muhammad himself. Jihad, says, has been conceptually corrupted in modern years both by Western usage to mean only holy war and by numerous Islamic groups, contending for power and influence, who have also overemphasized its military component.

According to Farida Khanam, the Arabic word jihad, by itself,
... does not connote the sense of reward or worship in the religious sense of the word. But when the word jihad became a part of Islamic terminology, the sense of reward or worship came to be associated with it, that is to say, if struggle is struggle in the simple sense of word, jihad means a struggle which is an act of worship, the engagement of which earns reward to the person concerned. As the Quran says: "Strive for the cause of God as you ought to strive" (22:78).
Jihad certainly can mean warfare waged to defend or advance Islam. But not just any war Muslims wage is jihad. Unless a war has been declared jihad by recognized clerical authority, it's just warfare, not jihad.

However, in historic Muslim theology, jihad more generally means striving toward equilibrium of Islamic character both within individuals and among the Muslim umma (the people of a Muslim society). Says al-Islam,
Muslims as both individuals and members of Islamic society must carry out jihad, that is they must exert themselves at all moments of life to fight a battle both inward and outward against those forces that if not combatted will destroy that equilibrium which is the necessary condition for the spiritual life of the person and the functioning of human society. This fact is especially true if society is seen as a collectivity which bears the imprint of the Divine Norm rather than an antheap of contending and opposing units and forces.
So how did jihad come to be associated with Islamic warfare?
[F]or Muslims to wield weapons in a war in which Islam itself is defended - as the [Saudi 1979] anti-Soviet fatwa declared - is literally an act of worship. The Muslim jihadi has the right to expect reward proportionate to his sacrificial worship. In military jihad, the ultimate sacrifice is to die, which deserves the ultimate reward, immediate entry by the slain jihadi's soul into Paradise. This doctrine springs from the words of Mohammed himself, who during the battle of Badr told his soldiers, "I swear by the One in whose hand Mohammad's soul is, any man who fights them today and is killed while he is patient in the ordeal and seeks the pleasure of Allah, going forward and not backing off, Allah will enter him into Paradise." (The Battle of Badr," by Tajuddin B. Shu`aib,
Jihad, then is actual worship in Islam. As we shall see below, it is not simply part of worship. Jihad forms the very core of Muslim worship. But military jihad is traditionally called "lesser jihad" in distinction to nonviolent "greater jihad." Why this distinction? explains,
In its most outward sense jihad came to mean the defence of dar al-islam, that is, the Islamic world, from invasion and intrusion by non-Islamic forces. The earliest wars of Islamic history which threatened the very existence of the young community came to be known as jihad par excellence in this outward sense of 'holy war'. But it was upon returning from one of these early wars, which was of paramount importance in the survival of the newly established religious community and therefore of cosmic significance, that the Prophet nevertheless said to his companions that they had returned from the lesser holy war to the greater holy war, the greater jihad being the inner battle against all the forces which would prevent man from living according to the theomorphic norm which is his primordial and God given nature.
Greater jihad is explained by the Quran along this line of thought:
[H]umans have been created with a sound nature and provided by God with a true religion that enables them to have fullness of life through close communion with God in this world and the next. Each human is a religiously grounded person, created and endowed with a fitra, a ‘sound constitution’ that acts as a kind of internal guidance system and way to God.
But this "close communion with God" can take place only within the Muslim community, the umma. From inception, Islam's commandments have been held to be so difficult that "loners" can't keep them. Islam is "not a personal faith," according to Muslim jurist Sam Solomon. It is a communal faith only. Muslims require the support and encouragement of a broader Islamic community living together just to be Muslim at all. That is exactly the basis on which my Muslim friend at Fort Sill, Okla., Egyptian Lt. Col. Solomon, justified his nightclubbing, drinking and womanizing. "This is not a Muslim country," he told me, and only later I learned his was a serious answer, not a dodge.

What is it that orders the life of the umma? It is sharia, Islamic law dictated by Allah. The keeping of Islam's commandments and preservation of the social order concretized in the Quran and the Hadith (traditions about Muhammad) are made official, legal and coercive by Islamic law.

Sharia is not just religious law, not just social law (what we would call domestic law) and not just political law. It is all of the above and more. Islam formally declares that no aspect of human affairs is excluded from Allah's concern and commandments. So there is not, and never has been, "separation of mosque and state" in Islam (though over the centuries, rulers exercising offices more political than religious have often shed their religious yokes to some degree).

The reason is,
Islam is a din-religion. Din means a complete system of life consisting of beliefs and laws. To know the Islamic attitude of the Muslims towards the laws of the shari'ah, we have to study the Qur'an and hadith. In the Qur'an and hadith we find two different attitudes towards two different aspects of din. These two aspects of din are: a) the fundamental beliefs known as usu-lu'd-din - the roots of religion; b) the laws of the shari'ah known in general as furu'd-din - the branches of religion. ...

In Islamic beliefs, a Muslim is expected to believe only after reflection; and in Islamic laws, he is expected to follow them without any reservations [italics added].
Sharia is therefore inarguable, not subject to intellectual reflection by the ordinary Muslim. Prof. Mark Gould explains,
Certain customs in ritual and law were established as sacred; derivative from the Koran and from the Sunna, they constitute the shari’ah that regulates virtually all aspects of a Muslim’s life. In the words of Islamist Sayyid Qutb, “The basis of the Islamic message is that one should accept the shari’ah without any question and reject all other laws, whatever their shape or form. This is Islam. There is no other meaning of Islam.”

This point of view is also articulated by the moderate, Khaled Abou El Fadl: “I must confess that I adopt the intellectual presumption that Islamic jurisprudence (Shariah) is core to the Islamic experience throughout all ages and places. To me, Shariah and Islam are inseparable, and one cannot be without the other. I also confess that my primary loyalty, after God, is to the Shariah, and not to any particular organization.”
This is an absolutely key point for those seeking to understand the Muslim push against the institutions and democracies of the West: Greater jihad cannot be accomplished in the slightest apart from the dictates of sharia. It is only through the structure of sharia that "close communion" with Allah can be achieved. Absent sharia, striving within oneself to overcome sin and to keep Islam's commandments is not possible.

Only through jihad can a Muslim work his or her way to salvation because it is only through jihad that unnatural tendencies to sin can be suppressed and the natural-born (but sinfully corrupted) innate Islamic character of the human being flower. And jihad can be done only under the rule of sharia. Whether this jihad is greater jihad (non-warring) or lesser jihad (violence against Islam's enemies) is irrelevant to the salvation of Muslim believers; either one will suffice. But salvation through jihad is the basic soteriology of Islam and sharia is its means.

Unlike Christianity, Islam has no concept of original sin - a stain of sin innate to human beings, present in each person even at birth. That means that salvation can be attained only by the believer's deeds in submission to Allah through Islam and Islamic law. If a Muslim believer carries out Islam's commandments, then judgment day will be lightly born. If not, disaster.

A Muslim professor of Islamic studies at The George Washington University explained it to me this way 17 years ago. On the day of judgment, each person will have to cross a bridge from earth to paradise. The bridge spans a chasm so deep its bottom cannot be seen. To fall into the chasm is to fall into Hell forever. If one has faithfully kept Islam's commandments and done well, then one's individual bridge will be so wide it will stretch from horizon to horizon. But if one has stayed in sin, the bridge will be only as wide as a human hair.

While millions of Muslims in the world are mostly secular in outlook, those who take Islam's teaching seriously know that their eternal destiny is always in doubt at every moment. This may seem quaint to North Americans, who are so confidently (and unjustifiably) self-assured of their salvation (if they even believe it conceptually at all) that we hardly ever think about it. But for devout Muslims, earning salvation and avoiding Hell's very real torments is the actual purpose of living this life. It is what gives life focus and meaning.

However, one's eternal destiny is always in doubt. Even considering the bridge to heaven as an allegory, a Muslim can never know how wide his bridge is on any given day. But he does know that waging jihad is the most meritorious act a Muslim can do, and if one's greater jihad expands or further establishes Islam in the world then all the better.

All of this is why Muslims who immigrate to Western countries either self-segregate into Muslim neighborhoods (in old Europe, we would call them Muslim ghettos; modern France has many) or attempt to expand the reach of sharia law into society at large. Salvation is not possible without being surrounded by the umma, living together under the governance and guidance of sharia. More than that, sharia simply is Allah's inarguable command for the ordering of human society. A Muslim, truly to be Muslim, has no choice but to submit to its dictates. After all, "submission" is what "Islam" actually means. To activist jihadis, it matters not whether one has uttered the shahada and become Muslim or has remained infidel. One must either submit to Allah within Islam or submit to Islam itself if a non-Muslim.

And that is why Western Muslims are so intent on making sharia law normative in the West.

Muslim cleric Anjem Choudary is the spokesman for the British group Islam4UK. He told ABC’s “This Week” host Christiane Amanpour on Oct. 3 that it is certain that one day the flag of Islam will fly over the White House and that sharia law will be the law of the land.

Choudary's goal is the same as millions of "moderate" Muslims in the West, whom we term moderate for apparently no reason except they don't set off truck bombs or fly planes into buildings. But this is not a moderate position. It is imperialistic and triumphalist. And it is in fact mainstream among Western Muslims.

As the old liberal bumper sticker used to say, "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention."