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Prepared for the Wilderness

Just before Jesus went into the desert, he was baptized by John the Baptist, at which time the Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove and a voice out of heaven said, “This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). This event must have been on Jesus’ mind when he went into the desert.

The Gospel of Matthew contains a description of Jesus’ temptations by the devil at the end of Jesus’ stay in the desert. Much has been written about this incident, but a particular aspect of Matthew’s account is intriguing. I cannot help but wonder what Jesus was doing for the forty days that he spent in the desert before he was tempted. Since the account does not tell us what he was doing, we can only speculate. Several clues, however, suggest a probable answer.

At the end of Jesus’ forty-day stay in the desert, the devil made three attempts to coax Jesus into sinning. Jesus responded to each temptation by quoting an Old Testament passage—all from just a few chapters in the book of Deuteronomy. This suggests that Jesus had a fresh recollection of this small section of text, that he had spent at least some of his time in the desert reflecting on the meaning and significance of these few chapters.

What did Jesus learn from his reflection on the book of Deuteronomy? His answers to the devil are from the first section of the book that encourages the people of Israel to obey God’s commandments.

The encouragement to obey God is anchored in God’s history with the people of Israel as they made their way through the wilderness. Throughout their forty years of wandering, God was looking after his people. He guided them, provided them with food and water. But theirs was not an easy or carefree life. The hard times were designed to test and develop their faith. By learning to cling to God in good times and bad, they would learn to rely on God as the only firm anchor-point in life. Through this process, the Israelites were to learn that a meaningful and fulfilling life can only come through obedience to and faith in God. This is what Jesus learned by reading Deuteronomy, and this instruction served him well.

[This edited excerpt is from “What Would Jesus Read?” by David Crabtree. To read the original article, click here. More about Gutenberg College here. Or check us out on Facebook.]


Humility in the Study of History

Just before Thanksgiving one year, I received an email from a mother whose daughter had been disturbed by her teacher’s negative comments about the way the Puritans had related to the Native Americans. The teacher had recently become aware of information that prompted his comments. The mother voiced her concerns to the teacher, and the teacher cited a couple of websites to justify his statements.

Now American history is not my field, but I have long had an interest in the history of Native Americans, which continued into my college years. As a freshman, I took a course about Puritan society in New England. When I read the mother’s email, I consulted the only course book I had saved: New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians 1620-1675 by Alden T. Vaughan. I read the information that the teacher had consulted and compared the websites’ perspectives with those expressed in my book. The websites contained information by multiple authors, but the views of the Puritans’ relations with the Native Americans ranged from extremely critical to moderately critical. My course book, while making clear that the record was not pristine, generally approved the Puritans’ dealings with the Native Americans. How can historical assessments differ so dramatically?

The generalizations we reach as we look at the world around us, including historical data, are largely based on what we think likely. And what we think likely depends largely on our worldview. For example, any historian will embark on a study of the Puritans with some preconceived notion of what the Puritans are like and what kinds of things they are likely to do and why they are likely to do them. This creates an obvious problem. Any historian has a sense of what is likely before he examines his first piece of evidence. And given that much of the work of a historian is the formation of generalizations, any piece of evidence contrary to the historian’s preconceived sense of the likely can be dismissed as exception. But, as counter-information mounts, the historian needs to be willing to abandon his preconceptions and make the necessary adjustments in his thinking. A willingness to give up even our treasured preconceptions, if the data warrants it, is the hallmark of integrity. In order to have integrity, one must have humility (a willingness to change perspectives when called for) and one must know oneself, including one’s inner drives.

In our time, it is not uncommon to find historical accounts written in advocacy of an agenda. These are instances where the historian is so intent on furthering his agenda that he ceases to be evenhanded in his assessment of the historical data. The critical accounts of the Puritans’ relationship with the Native Americans that I read on the websites had all the earmarks of being agenda-driven. Certainly, the Puritans were not faultless in their dealings with Native Americans, but my reading has lead me to conclude that in comparison with the way the whites related to Native Americans in other places and in other times, the Puritans were remarkably humane.


[This edited excerpt is from “History Lesson” by David Crabtree. To read the original article, click here. More about Gutenberg College here. Or check us out on Facebook.]


The First Liberal Arts College in Israel

Shalem College, the first liberal arts college in Israel, will open its doors this coming fall. The plan is to begin recruiting students immediately with hopes of having an initial class of 50 students. They hope to eventually expand the student body to 1,000. The college will offer a four-year bachelor’s degree program consisting of a broad education in humanities and philosophy.

One might wonder what could possibly be the impetus for founding a liberal arts college at this point in history in a country with no tradition of such an educational format. I will cite an extensive quote from the president of the college as reported in the Jerusalem Post on January 13, 2013:

“The world is changing very fast, and the things we need to know now may be different in five or 10 or 20 years,” said Martin Kramer, the president-designate.

“A liberal arts degree is not training; it prepares you for change. Liberal arts schools are opening up from China to the West Bank; Al-Quds University has a partnership with Bard [College near Albany, New York]. If you’re narrowly trained, you’re likely to become superseded by changes in market and changes in technology. It is crucial to have skills of critical thinking and to have the skills to speak and to write,” said Kramer.

“The [education] system as it exists doesn’t produce versatile people; it produces specialized people,” he continued.

“Every economy needs specialized people, but a changing society is better addressed by people with a broader education.”

This is very forward thinking. We are rapidly approaching a time when the world will be in desperate need of well-trained liberal artists.

Whose Stone Tablets?

8/19/2012 update: In an effort to minimize the amount of misinformation racing around the world wide web, I ask that if you read the following post, please also read Michael Pruitt’s response which follows immediately.

I have been a subscriber to Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) for several decades now. I don’t read every issue from cover to cover, but I always leaf through each issue, and, when I have the time, I read those articles that strike me as particularly interesting. I was flipping through the pages of the most recent edition (September/October 2012), and I found something extremely curious. Hershel Shanks, the founder of the Biblical Archaeology Society, wrote an editorial explaining how difficult it is to determine to which country any given ancient artifact belongs. For instance, does an ancient artifact belong to the culture that produced it? Does it more appropriately belong to the people who currently occupy the land where it was found? Does it belong to the culture that found it? Does it belong to the people who currently possess it? Obviously these are difficult questions.

The issue that gave rise to the editorial concerned a find made in the Sinai desert in 1969, just two years after the Six-Day War. A team of Israeli archaeologists was exploring one of the proposed locations of the biblical Mt. Sinai. While digging, they found a stone inscribed with a Hebrew letter. They continued to dig and eventually were able to find all of the pieces of two tablets except for a few pieces on the edge that contained no writing. Paleographers examined the writing and concluded that it dated to about 1200 BC.

When all pieced together, the text on the tablets was easily legible. It was the text of the Ten Commandments. Interestingly, it matched the text as recorded in Deuteronomy 5, which is slightly different from the text in Exodus 20. The scholars reached the obvious conclusion that these tablets were the ones Moses broke when he came down from the mountain and found the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf. The scholars who found the tablets decided to stick them in a vault at the university and keep quiet.

The new Egyptian government found out about this discovery and sent a request to the Israeli government that the tablets be given to Egypt since they were found on land that is currently part of Egypt.

I find this very curious. In my thinking, the discovery of the original tablets of the Ten Commandments is a very significant find. But to my knowledge there have been no major news articles about this find; I have never seen anything else about it in BAR. So to see the story pop up in an editorial was very surprising, and I don’t know what to make of it. If this find is legitimate, it is a very amazing development.


Economic Implications of Technological and Cultural Changes

In a previous post, I argued that the economy is constantly in a state of flux and, in the modern world, will continue to change rapidly. This makes economic policy decisions very difficult because something that worked in the past will not necessarily work now. Even if one can identify some of the changes in the economy that have happened since the last time a remedy was applied, no one could identify all of the changes that have happened and the new dynamics that may have developed.

In my adult lifetime, I can remember two occasions when I heard economic experts proclaim that we had entered into a “new economy.” One time was leading up to the dot-com bubble, and the other time was leading up to the current recession. In both instances, these experts were claiming that our economy had become so stable and prosperous and our understanding of its workings so good that we would never again experience a major downturn. In retrospect, such proclamations were clearly wishful thinking.

I would argue that such proclamations will always be wishful thinking. The economy is always changing, but it will never become perfect because that would require the perfection of mankind. Economic relationships are just a subset of all interpersonal relationships. And just as interpersonal relationships are plagued by our sinfulness, economic relationships will always be tainted with selfishness, greed, and mistrust.

Charley Dewberry, a tutor at Gutenberg College, has suggested that the economy is analogous to an ecological system. An ecological system has a natural (albeit dynamic) equilibrium. If it gets out of balance, natural mechanisms kick into action bringing it back to balance. But that balance is a delicate one. When a big change gets it way out of balance, it can take a long time to find a new equilibrium. Human activity is so powerful that it can get an ecological system way out of balance, and continuing human activity can get in the way of the recovery.

An economic system is similar in that there seems to be a natural (also dynamic) equilibrium in economics. This was what Adam Smith found so amazing and is the subject of his book, the Wealth of Nations. He recognized that if a society’s economy is adequately decentralized and well governed, then it functions amazingly well. The result is a measure of general prosperity that improves the lives of all and is significantly greater than in societies where these conditions do not exist. Classical economics has sought to delineate the principles that enable a society to be adequately decentralized and well governed.

One of the valued principles of classical economics is competition in an economic system. A healthy economy, like a healthy ecological system, is brought about by a competitive environment. Competition instills a discipline that forces people to be productive and attentive to the demands of the marketplace. But in order for that competition to foster economic health, it needs to be fair. It is the good and proper role of government to make sure that the competition is fair. Friedrick Von Hayek, in his book the Road to Serfdom, describes what constitutes the proper role of government in the economy. He describes economic activity in a society as being similar to a game. In order for the game to work, there need to be rules. Those rules need to set the parameters of the game but not be partial to any person or group of people. Those rules also need to be enforced, justly and consistently. So the proper role of government is to be a referee who keeps the players faithful to the established rules.

In any competitive game, there will always be a huge temptation to gain an unfair advantage. All players are to one degree or another inclined to cheat. This is no less true in a competitive economy. Some of the biggest opponents of an even economic playing field are well established, prosperous economic entities. These may be corporations; they may be unions; they may be associations. What they share in common is that they have gained a place in the economy and don’t want their position challenged by upstarts. So they use their power and influence to get the government to violate its role as impartial referee and act in their favor. They are in favor of regulations that make it hard for their competition, but they oppose regulations that impinge on their activities, even when those activities are harmful to society.

The other main opponents of an even economic playing field are everyone else. We all want the government to act in a way that benefits us, even if it is to the detriment of the economic environment as a whole. We want entitlements; we want collective bargaining; we want minimum wage laws; we want government subsidies; we want economic security. So we elect representatives who will deliver, and we put pressure on the government to act in a way that will benefit us. After all, it is government’s duty to serve us!

Consequently, there is huge pressure on the government to act not as a fair referee but rather as a grantor of favors. To the extent that the government gives into this pressure, it ceases to be a referee and becomes a player. This transformation is doubly dangerous. Firstly, it is dangerous because society loses its referee, and there is no other entity capable of fulfilling that role in the government’s stead. Secondly, it is dangerous because the government is not just any player; it has resources that make its participation in the economy unique. Like a whale in a swimming pool, its slightest move generates huge waves.

If we return now to the analogy of the economy being like an ecological system, the government’s impact on the economy has the potential of throwing it way out of balance. The more the government is involved, the greater that potential. So we are in a very dangerous situation. We, the members of our society, are naturally inclined to constantly urge the government to become a player in the economy. To the extent that we are successful in this, we mess up the natural economic equilibrium. To the extent that the government messes up the economic equilibrium, the economy becomes less and less functional. To the extent that the economy becomes less functional, we increase the pressure on the government to “fix” it. All of this gets us further and further from any kind of healthy equilibrium. I don’t know if an economy can be ruined beyond repair, but I would prefer to not find out.

This analysis, if correct, suggests two important implications for economic policy.

First, everyone in our society needs to respect the economy and to encourage government to play its proper role. There has been an emphasis in professional sports in recent years that I find very interesting. Leagues are working to clean up their sports. They seem to be working to curtail serious injury and acts of disrespect for referees and members of the opposing teams. If teams are allowed to pursue winning at all costs and are not kept within reasonable parameters, they will destroy the sport for everyone. For example, if teams are allowed to intentionally injure the opposing quarterback, they will quickly find themselves in a situation where everyone who has the ability to play quarterback well will be carried off the field. We all know that that would make the game far less interesting. So leagues are realizing that if they don’t maintain the integrity of their sport, everyone involved in the sport will suffer. Hence the emphasis on “respecting the game.” Similarly, we need to recognize the need for all of us “to respect the economy.”

Second, we need to recognize that the economy is so complex that no one knows what the cumulative impact of new enactments will be. We also need to recognize that the government is a huge factor in the economy, even when it is just playing its proper role as referee. When government becomes a player in the economy, its impact is even greater. So whenever the government acts, its impact on the economy is magnified. Since the economy is so big and complex, we don’t know what the repercussions of any given act will be. Good intentions are not enough to assure good policy. History is filled with examples of well-intended policies leading to extremely bad results. Nevertheless, since the economy is constantly changing, the rules of the game need to be constantly adjusted. But this analysis suggests that it would be prudent to change economic policy incrementally so as to allow policy makers time to observe the impact of the first incremental change before they institute the next incremental change. Incremental change would require patience on the part of the populace, and such patience would only be possible if the populace understood clearly the reason and the importance for the patience.

Both of these implications are especially difficult in a democracy because political power ultimately rests in the hands of the people as a whole, and abiding by these principles requires a great deal of understanding, discipline, and patience from the populace. I don’t know if we, as a society, have this kind of maturity. I guess we will see.


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