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Saturday, January 03, 2004  

"What we've got here is failure to communicate."  Alas, one of my favorite lines, Strother Martin's great staccato-delivered comment in the movie Cool Hand Luke, didn't make the Top 10 list of the best speeches in cinema history. According to a BBC News story yesterday, the number one line in a Blockbuster UK survey of 6,500 film buffs was Robert Duvall's line, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning," from Apocalypse Now. Jack Nicholson's "You can't handle the truth" came in at number two.

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 3:00 AM |

Update on the AOL CD collection.  My recent post on the Neistat brothers' revenge movie against Apple's iPod battery policy got me to wondering about how my friends at are doing with their effort to collect a million AOL CDs and mail them all back to the Apple Corporation.

I have ranted before about the AOL CD, and in my most recent post on the subject the guys had collected a little under 200,000 CDs. Well, now they've broken the 250,000 barrier and so are at 25% of their goal. They only have 746,865 more to go. They were aided by a big gift of 38,000 AOL CDs sent in by (whose worthwhile objective is to post on its image gallery "a picture of every Post Office in the United States").

I'm going to make it a point to stop at the post office in New Hartford and also in Herkimer and (a) take a digital picture of each for the gallery and (b) see about collecting the unwanted boxes of AOL 9.0 CDs there for the campaign at

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 2:15 AM |

Friday, January 02, 2004  

A truth told slant among evangelical Christian philosophers.  It's another year and I still can't bring myself to make a formal connection with other Christian philosophers. Two reasons: Reason one is that it costs money and I think the membership money might be better spent on charity, which usually doesn't involve me in sometimes quark-splitting disputations. Reason two is that the one group that seems most attractive to me would force me to affirm something I think no Christian philosopher ought to affirm.

The Evangelical Philosophy Society is an elite collection of about 800 Christian philosophers who meet and debate annually and publish the important journal Philosophia Christi. Most are professional scholars "devoted to pursuing philosophical excellence in both the church and the academy." You can get the journal alone for $30, but for the same price you get both membership and the journal. In order to get the membership, though, I would have to affix my signature to the following declaration:

"The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and therefore inerrant in the originals. God is a Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory."

Now my concern is really with the declaration's principle of sola scriptura ("The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God"). This is a controversy that has been with us at least since the Reformation, but in its most fundamental formula it rests on a simple confusion over the "Word of God." I don't mean to trivialize the debate—which involves a myriad of other issues, such as inerrancy of the Scripture, formation of canon, detecting false prophecy, authority of oral traditions, etc.—but merely to focus attention on the living fact that Christians effectively hide themselves from the Holy Spirit when they put on the cloak of sola scriptura. The Word of God is not a written book: it is the second person of the Trinity [John 1:1].

If it were a matter of accepting the Bible as the authoritative Word of God in a less technical sense, meaning, as Paul meant it, that "All Scripture is God­breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" [2 Tim 3:16], then of course I can't dispute the statement. But that's not what is said, nor what is implied, in their declaration of sola scriptura. It effectively sets up the Bible as an idol to be worshipped, placing before the evangelical philosopher an impediment to his appreciating the words of our Lord when he said, "But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you" [John 14:26].

Asking me to sign a declaration committing me to the principle of sola scriptura is really like asking me to confess to a heresy.

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 11:11 PM |

Thursday, January 01, 2004  

More notes on the secular state of Israel.  Anyone questioning whether or not the state of Israel is a secular creation should read The Conversion Crisis: Preserving the Jewish Character of the Jewish State[.pdf], a new publication of Jewish Action, the magazine of the Orthodox Union. In part lamenting Ariel Sharon's definition of a Jew—"whoever comes, sees himself as part of the Jewish people, serves in the army, and fights"—the publication's articles tackle a subject that tormented the orthodox Jewish establishment long before waves of Jewish immigration transformed the historic Biblical landscape into both a modern, fractured nation. The subject is not the usual "What is a Jew?" (which itself is complex), but rather the whole matter of "Who is an Israeli citizen?" The Orthodox community continues to struggle for a single religious purity, but in the face of a government that is moving in an entirely different direction:

"Israelis are no longer shocked by the sight of soldiers in Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) uniforms sporting large crosses around their necks.  Twenty percent of new immigrants in a recent cohort of draftees demanded to be sworn in on the New Testament.  Churches and pork shops have also become staples of the Israeli landscape.  Ironically, Israel, which was supposed to be the answer to anti-Semitism, has become an importer of Jew hatred.  Damir, a group of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, has documented—over a period of two years—over 500 instances of synagogues and cemeteries being vandalized by non-Jewish immigrants, as well as verbal and physical assaults on Russian-speaking Jews. Arbat, a national chain of Russian-language bookstores, sells such titles as The Holocaust Myth and Jewish Fascism in Russia.  Israel even boasts a neo-Nazi Russian-language web site."

Could this mean that Israel's Russian immigrants will also be getting their own walled-in area? Those used to be called ghettos.

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 5:04 PM |

New Hampshire Shrugged.  Christians should not overlook the next open field for evanglism in the US: the state of New Hampshire. This may be the site of a mass influx of Libertarians into a state that already prides itself on the American ideal of rugged individualism. As of December 21, there are already 5,229 members signed up for the Free State Project; pledge updates are available on its website and via the Project's monthly publication, The Quill. It's logo is a porcupine—they hurt when you step on them, but aren't as scary as the "Don't Tread on Me" snake in the Gadsden flag.

The Free State Project is a plan to get 20,000 liberty-minded people to move to the state of New Hampshire and work within its political system to reduce both size and scope of government, as a new model and signpost of freedom in the US.  Signers of the pledge signal their "commitment to move to the chosen free state, New Hampshire, within five years of obtaining 20,000 members who also promise to move." Wyoming was the runner-up state of choice in the October vote by Project members, but lost out to New Hampshire by 10 percentage points. The drive is led predominantly by fed-up anarcho-capitalists and Libertarians who have been frustrated too many times in the past few decades to stay put and watch the political status quo saunter forward wearing the fashion du jour.

How many Christians are or will be involved in this move is not known, but evangelical Christians should make this plan a lively consideration, especially since the Project has already attracted the interest of competing secular interests. In late November the Objectivist Center, the rugged egoism organization, itself legacy of Ayn Rand's philosophy, endorsed the Project.  And, well, let's also not forget the Episcopal Church there.

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 3:38 PM |

Wednesday, December 31, 2003  

Let's end the year with a laugh.  May this never happen to you.

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 4:56 AM |

Man is the only animal that marries.  When my oldest daughter was about 6, she married her dolls Barbie and Ken in a pleasant ceremony that consisted mainly in her pronouncement that they were "married." Fast forward to 1998 and she herself is getting married, this time on a nature trail in Covington, Louisiana. A single mother, her child born out of wedlock, my daughter has flowers in her hair and the young man who is to be her "husband" is dressed in a kilt, leather sporran, with a broadsword at his side. They stand in a circle of friends—girls with small, colorful flowers woven in their hair, in gossamer gowns like fairy sprites, supportive friends and some family—in a shaded gazebo in the woods. A Celtic shaman is standing before them offering a blessing from the gods of the elements, earth, water, air, and fire, as he traverses the circle four times. Then with a hemp cord he binds the hands of the betrothed to signify their commitment to each other; "bride" and "groom" take turns speaking a statement of commitment to each other; the shaman declares them "married" in this modern version of the hand fasting ceremony. This ceremony did not yield a legally binding matrimonial bond, but for them they were "married." Alas, their hand fasting ceremony also did not yield a lasting relationship. Years later, as I ask how different the Celtic-shamanic ceremony is from the Quaker wedding, I can say that what was missing from the former, what's not lacking in the latter, is God's spiritual presence.

In the pagan wedding ceremony, two people commit themselves to each other before humans and specters. In the Quaker wedding ceremony, two people commit themselves before God; humans are there as witnesses to involve the community in what might otherwise be a totally private occasion. Just as there is a difference between marriage and wedding, there is a difference between a marriage that God recognizes and one that is nothing more than a civil contract between two human beings. The wedding is a ceremony; marriage is a commitment. Barbie and Ken can be participants in their wedding, but never in a marriage, no matter how often one pronounces them "married." Fornication, copulation, adultery, casual sex—these too are different from the sexual union of man and woman in a loving, committed relationship.

God's vision for us always included monogamous marriage of a man and a woman: for "male and female he created them" [Gen 1:27], and "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh" [Gen 2:24]. It is a special sexual communion of a man and a woman. God blessed this relationship and said: "Be fruitful and increase in number" [Gen 1:28]. He made male-female complementarity and procreation for his specific, divine purpose.

While monogamy is and has been the ideal, it was often not practiced. The first historical reference to polygamous marriage comes in Genesis 4:19, when Lamech, seventh from Adam in the line of Cain, takes two wives. Abraham also practiced polygamy [Gen 25], as did Jacob. Intending to marry Rachel, Jacob is tricked into marrying her older sister Leah, but he ends up married both to Leah and to Rachel; during periods of infertility, Leah and Rachel each arrange for their servant girls to marry Jacob. From these polygamous unions the children of Israel were created. [See Gen 29-30, 35] Most of these polygamous unions involved "marriage" without much ceremony, or at least nothing much beyond the public recognition of a husband-wife relationship and the consummation of that relationship in sexual union.

What, then, are we to make of a homosexual "marriage"? This is going to be a political issue in 2004, both before and after the presidential election, because the gay and lesbian communities are pressuring for both legal and social acceptance of the homosexual marriage. In May 2003, Texas Governor Rick Perry signed into law the state's own "Defense of Marriage Act," preventing Texas from legally recognizing same-sex unions that are formed in other states and joining 36 other states that have enacted such laws in support of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by President Clinton in 1996. Only Vermont recognizes civil unions of same-sex couples; California registers and recognizes "domestic partnerships" and Massachusetts is currently working through its own legislative issues in its state constitution.  At the American Family Association website, you can vote in its poll on whether you:

  • Oppose legalization of homosexual marriage and "civil unions"

  • Favor legalization of homosexual marriage

  • Favor a "civil union" with the full benefits of marriage except for the name

At the website (owned by American Family Association), you can take the Pastor's Pledge to defend marriage as between one man and one woman: "I oppose 'homosexual marriage.' I believe that marriage should be between one man and one woman only. In addition, I oppose giving the benefits of marriage to 'civil unions' between members of the same sex. I pledge to defend the Biblical concept of marriage as between one man and one woman only." From there you can go to the website (another one owned by American Family Association) and send the following petition to your representatives in Congress: "Traditional marriage between a man and woman is the God-ordained building block of the family and bedrock of a civil society. Therefore, I urge your support of a federal marriage amendment to protect traditional marriage between one woman and one man."

So much of the battle will focus on terminology—is it "marriage" or isn't it?—but this is only going to fog the spectacles, blurring our sight of the real issue in the debate. Like my six-year-old daughter, you can proclaim anything "married": animals, two men, two women, plastic toys, anything you want. So too you can put anything in a wedding ceremony and squeeze out of it two married things—this isn't the issue at all. What is at issue is our ability to anchor ourselves on the ideal, God's ideal for us, never letting it go, and not sacrificing it for a surrogate. Paul's prescription, which we ought still to heed, is this: "Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing, and perfect will." [Rom 12:1-2]

My point is that we need to tend our own garden before taking to hoeing our neighbor's. We need to honor our own ideal of marriage as a complementary relationship between a man and a woman in a sexual commitment before God, and to be sincere in our testimony about this. Everything else is play-acting.

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 3:18 AM |

Tuesday, December 30, 2003  

Oops!  You would think that at some point witchcraft would lose its charm (so to speak).  TLC at has reported that a patient in Nigeria inadvertently killed his doctor after the herbalist insisted he test the potency of his "anti-bullet" charm on him first. ("Of course my anti-bullet charm works! Here, shoot me in the head—you'll see.") The confident witch doctor tied the charm around his neck and his patient shattered his skull with a single gunshot.

This is not strictly an African thing, either. There is now a resurgence of witchcraft in New Orleans, driven both by the local tourist industry and by a historical interest in Voodoo and its dead queen Marie Laveau, whose grave at St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery has become one of the most-visited in the US, actually doubling in visitors over the last 10 years. [Source: New York Times, November 30, 2003, and ABC Tasmania.]  Besides, Harry Potter still sells books, and earlier today I noticed a line at the convenience store for a chance at the $155 million jackpot in the Mega Millions lottery.

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 10:46 PM |

Monday, December 29, 2003  

Holidays for the rest of us.  On January 1, we will have six holiday celebrations behind us—Thanksgiving, Festivus, Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, and the New Year—and not a single one of them is mandated by God or by Scripture.  Two of them were made by men in our lifetime. What they all have in common is that each is able to satisfy a human spiritual need, to provide a cohesiveness or inclusiveness within a community, and to give continuity of past and present within traditions. My point here is that we should cease to cry out against the paganism of Christmas, stop fighting the commercialism of the holiday, and recognize that, while it exists at many social-spiritual levels, it is not in effect a religious festival at all: it is a time of giving (and, yes, of receiving) and the birth of Christ is really just a pretense for another party.

Like celebrations of the New Year, Thanksgiving never was a religious festival: it is a pure American invention that uses the encounter between Native American Indians and European settlers as a reason for a dinner party every year. Festivus, well, that was a holiday invented by Seinfeld character Frank Castanza ("Festivus for the rest of us!") as a complete, purposeful alternative to Christmas. Falling on December 23rd every year, Festivus requires a bare aluminum pole, a "Festivus pole" rather than a tree, and includes among its mandated activities the "airing of grievances" (where you get to tell family and friends how they have disappointed you during the year) and "feats of strength" (the holiday doesn't get to end until the head of the family has been pinned down). Chanukah, or the Festival of Lights, is a Jewish memorial that celebrates both the victory of the Maccabees over Seleucid occupation of the Jerusalem Temple in 164 BC and the miracle of a cruse of oil that burned for an entire 8-day period. Kwanzaa, which runs from December 26 to January 1, was invented in the mid-1960s by Maulana Karenga as a cultural holiday—it has never pretended to be a religious festival—in celebration of seven principles found in the aggregate of black African culture: black unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.

Festivus looks like the only standout as a totally made-up holiday, but there really is no cultural difference between Festivus and any of the others. At some point its genesis becomes irrelevant to the celebration and participation becomes more important than point of origin. Paul reminds us that our reality "is found in Christ" alone [Col 2:17]. "Therefore," he says, "do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration, or a Sabbath day" [Col 2:16]. The keeping of days is nothing more than a human invention, a mere "shadow" of man's longing for what God requires, and points not to substantive spiritual issues but rather to the black holes in culture, engendered by psychological emptiness and phantasms of the human mind.

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 8:37 PM |

Sunday, December 28, 2003  

The real cause of "mad cow disease" is greed on the part of beef producers to create fattened beef by increasing the caloric content of the animal's feed.  This artificially but metabolically creates in the animal a high-density fat that marbles in the red meat of the cattle, thereby increasing its weight—and thus its price at auction. Free-range beef (like the original North American bison) is typically lean, with subcutaneous fat but without marbled fat.

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 3:56 AM |
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