Saturday, September 19, 2015

"Jesus is the Answer" -- even on the SAT.

You may remember the old slogan, "Jesus is the answer."  Maybe it comes from a song by Larry Norman.  The usual response was, "to what question?"  But perhaps that misses the point.  Maybe one thing that makes Jesus uniquely the answer, is the plurality of questions to which his life, teachings and works provide the best answer.  

I was thinking about this the other day when I was teaching my students how to take the written part of the SAT test.  I ask them to develop a number of stories, especially true stories and histories, that they can draw on to support their answers to the SAT prompt.   Normally, I good SAT essay is 400 words or more, providing a clear intro, two or so supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion, in 25 minutes -- pretty hard for Chinese young people to write, so they need help in preparation.  So I told them I'd limit myself to just two or three supporting examples -- "Jesus, contemporary Chinese or American society" -- and try to write full essays in half the time.   And they could choose the question for me to answer at the last moment.  

I found it easy to support almost ANY point from the gospels, without force or distortion, consequentially and substantively.  For instance: 

"Are there benefits to be gained from avoiding the use of modern technology, even when using it would make life easier?"

Sure there are.  Picture Jesus wandering Galilee with his closest friends, camping out, telling stories, training a coterie of future world-changers.  (And one member of a de facto ISIS sleeper cell.)  How much we lose by depending on modern technology for communications, for entertainment, for life!  How much Jesus accomplished by using those "low-tech" methods!  

"Should we care as much about people outside our communities as we do about people within them?"
Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan, and his actual practice, reveals how wrongly framed this question is.  We should care about those whom Providence entrusts to us, whether foreigners or fellow countryman.  This is the truest meaning of the word "neighbor."   Of course, those within our community are more likely to cross our paths, and to belong to our circles of responsibility -- therefore love of family and nation make sense, but do not circumscribe, the sphere we must care for.  

"Do rules and limitations contribute to a person's happiness?"

The Sermon on the Mount.   All of Christian theology. 

On and on it goes.  Partly this is because the SAT essay tests the ability of a writer to access a broad extant of background material and draw lessons quickly, so older and widely-read readers practiced in expressing their views, who know a few stories well, and care about them deeply, have a natural advantage.  But I doubt any life story goes to the root of so many existential questions, as does the life of Jesus, so deeply.  (One of my students has taken to using Confucius in a similiar way -- he's not bad, either.)  

Anyway, here's one of the two essays I ended up actually writing, in about 12 minutes 40 seconds, using a computer, true.  I think I ended up writing nearing 700 words, and this little exercise actually made me think in a new way about the Gospels.  I wish I hadn't secularized it so much (with SAT readers in mind), and would have been more overt about the divine role in the gospels, if I'd taken time to revise.  But you might find it interesting.   Just one of many, many ways in which it remains true that "Jesus is the answer" -- the hints in the final paragraph showed that I was just beginning to think through the theological implications of looking at Jesus' life from this one perspective.   
"As geologists can tell you, many kinds of rock form best under high pressure: marble, for instance, which is simply limestone that has been heated far under earth for a long period of time. How about human beings? Do we similarly respond well to pressure? Can we become "precious stones" under the geological pressures of social expectation and even danger? I believe we can (though not that we always do). In what follows, I will offer two examples to support my opinion, one from ancient history, and the other from contemporary Chinese society. 

"My first example is Jesus Christ. Few people have been under more pressure than him. The leaders of his country had come to hate him, accuse him of lack of education, misleading the masses, endangering the Jewish nation, even being possessed by an evil spirit! The bit about endangering the nation was especially piquant, given that Israel was, at the time, ruled by the vicious Roman Empire, known to literally crucify those who dared defy their power. So did Jesus fold? Did he become a nonentity? On the contrary, it was precisely in the face of these challenges that he spoke some of the greatest moral teachings ever given. Furthermore, those teachings challenged the abuse of raw power at a deeper level than was the norm even for common Messiahs and political pretenders -- he challenged his followers to love their enemies, go the extra mile -- yet also to "speak truth to power" in a manner that continues to inspire political reformers like Gandhi, Aquino, Martin Luther King, the founders of the Bengali Reformation in India, and many reformers in East Asia. (Even Sun Yat-sen.) Would we have heard of Jesus (apart from religious considerations) had he not run afowl of the Jewish authorities and of Pontius Pilate? Probably not. 

 "My second example is my own students, who are studying for the SAT presently. If their parents did not expect great things from them, would they even get out of bed in the morning? Or would they spend the whole day playing with their little electronic gadgets and shopping for choudofu on-line? I strongly suspect the latter. 

 "Consider the various and sundry forms of pressure that they face. Not only are the adult figures who brought them into the world -- and can take them out, heh heh -- daily asking them about their progress. In addition, they are given frequent tests, which are publicly reported to their fellow students. That's why they call our school "Yali." (Note: a pun on the Chinese word for "pressure," also the school name.) Finally, if they do poorly on the SAT test next month, they know they will have to spend their lives working as teacher's assistants, like the bedraggled canine who serves them as a daily example of the worst fate that can befall a lazy student, Pipi. (Note: The stuffed dog I use as a teaching example.)

"In summary, these two examples demonstrate that pressure can help mold us into great human beings who can change the world for the better.   Of course, it is true that pressure does not always have this effect -- nor are all metamorphic rocks good enough to be used on the floors of mansions.  Some people are, in fact, broken by pressure, and we should pity them and try to help them.  But even there, might it not be the case that someone like Jesus reached out to those on the margins precisely because he had the experience of being marginalized in so forceful and difficult a set of circumstances?   So while pressure can hurt, even evolution tells us that as a species, we evolve and progress through the trials that we face collectively.   It is our unique genius to recognize that "no man is an island," and therefore, once we have endured and learned from these pressures, we are then called to help others endure and thrive in the difficult circumstances in which they also will inevitably be placed."


Patrick said...

I have read numerous times how Jesus was great for people and in regards to social reforms but he told Jews to obey the Roman authorities, he never talked about how women were equal to men or about women's rights, and he spoke in favor of slavery. Can you describe why you think that Jesus was a great social reformer?

Talon said...

Patrick, I can't speak for David Marshall but might be able to help you, the contributors there argue Christ's teachings were a force for social progress and equality in his lifetime, and utterly subversive in the eyes of Roman and traditional Jewish authorities of the era.

Chavoux said...

Patrick, something else, maybe.... it is not what Jesus said or did not say about women's rights, it is how He actually treated women that is important. His teaching was meant to supplement a way of living that He demonstrated daily. And I would not go as far as saying that He spoke in favour of slavery; rather He painted pictures of the way things were (and are) in order to teach (e.g."Truly truly I say to you, whoever does sin is a slave to sin"). In addition, the slavery laws of the Law (Torah) was well-known, including the one that stealing people (kidnapping in order to sell into slavery) was punishable by death and that you were not allowed to return a slave to the former owner if the slave had run away.

David B Marshall said...

Look around the site. There's tons of evidence right here. Read the How Jesus Liberates Women series, the Abolition of Slavery articles, the bibliography of 123 books on How Jesus Liberates the World.

Someone (was it you?) foolishly claimed recently that I don't offer much or any evidence to support my claim on "How Jesus Liberates Women." Nonsense. I go through UN data on the status of women in 99 countries around the world, constituting 97% of the world's population, which has been sorted into some twenty categories for each country. I deal with a feminist Muslim interpretation of the same data. I discuss, and mostly cite, every single relevant verse in the Gospels. I go through every relevant verse in the Koran, the Rammayana, and much in the Rig Veda. (More to follow.) I describe movements that have influenced billions of women, started by hard-core believers in prayer and seeking God's will.

Patrick said...

Hello, David. It is always good to hear from you. I did start to read your series on how Jesus liberated women. It seems to only discuss the status of women now. In 1893 New Zealand, for example, was one of the first, if not the first, European country (settled by Europeans) to give women the right to vote. If we look at the period of 1893 to 2015 as hours on a 24-hour clock this means that women started receiving the right to vote at around 11PM. What happened to all that time from 00:00 (midnight) to 11 PM? If Jesus liberated women then why did he wait until 11PM to do it?

Patrick said...

Perhaps you mention it elsewhere but your argument for Jesus liberating women in Europe does not take into consideration other reasons besides Jesus. One reason is that in the 1700's and 1800's the industrial age swept into European culture and economy. As a result more people were moving to the large cities for work and a better future, thus more and more people including women were becoming literate and more educated than in prior centuries. Once many of them became educated it was only a matter of time before they were able to liberate themselves.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

David B Marshall said...

Patrick: Hi again. I think you overlooked a few posts, or something. One of the first, a long one, is mostly historical. And others are about the Gospels and NT. And I start in the First Century.

I don't define liberation as "getting the right to vote." I really think you missed a lot. For instance, billions of women in China have been liberated from having their feet smashed at the age of 6, so they won't waddle off. Millions in India have been liberated from being burnt at the stake. Billions around the world have been given an education, healed, and so forth. Voting is the froth on the cream on the top layer of the capucino. And while industrialization was no doubt part of it, the beginnings of the liberation actually preceded the industrialization here in China, and was fomented by missionaries. Meanwhile, in rich Saudi Arabia . . .

Patrick said...

Hello, David.

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my comments.

There are a couple of problems that I am having that you may be able to help with. I read post 1 and 3 of your series on the liberation of women by Jesus so that is where my comments started. The main problem I am having is that there is a great deal of vague terms being tossed around.

I don't define liberation as "getting the right to vote."

What do you mean by 'liberation'? I didn't see any definition listed so it is difficult to tell what is or isn't a good example of women being liberated outside of the examples you presented. When you discuss a woman who is liberated what would her status be in that society with family and the society around her once she is liberated? What was life like for women before Christianity came into the countries in question? You discuss foot-binding, for example, but is that it? Did they also achieve liberation in other areas of life, also?

Exactly what did Christians do to help achieve this liberation? Your premise, at least in the title is that Jesus helped women achieve this liberation. How, specifically, did Jesus do this? Are women there now truly liberated? Part 3 discusses the status of women around the world and you point out that women in Europe enjoy an overall better status than those in non-christian third world countries. The right to vote was one of several events that helped women achieve their liberation in European and American society.

You also talk in vague numbers - billions of women throughout history, billions of women now - but you haven't supplied any specific numbers. China has 1.3 billion people according to the CIA World Fact book of which about half (or 500 million) are women. Where do you get your figures from? What sources did you use to determine that billions of women (how many billions) have been liberated from having their feet smashed? According to Wikipedia, which cites their sources, gives a different account, namely: The Manchu Kangxi Emperor tried to ban foot binding in 1664 but failed. In the later part of the 19th century, Chinese reformers challenged the practice but it was not until the early 20th century that foot binding began to die out as a result of anti-foot binding campaigns. Foot-binding resulted in lifelong disabilities for most of its subjects, and a few elderly Chinese women still survive today with disabilities related to their bound feet. Not Jesus or even Christian missionaries are being given credit here.

I look forward to your response.