The Sign of Jonah: lessons from my father (pt. 1)

My father says God spoke to him.

Over two months ago, my father was in a car accident from which he is only now about to leave the hospital.  He was trapped in his car for an hour before anyone found him; then he had to be extracted from his vehicle, taken to the local hospital, which put him on a plane to nearest regional hospital (Georgetown, Grand Cayman) which passed him on in turn to a hospital in the United States, where he has been for two months.  For a long time he thought he was going to die.  And during that time, he says God spoke to him and told him to preach a sermon about Jonah. He says that for 65 years, he thought Jonah was a meaningless fairy tale.  Now, he believes it is the most important book in the Hebrew Bible, which we Christians refer to as “The Old Testament.”  Here I am going to try to argue that this is true.

“Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amitai, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out agains tit; for their wickedness has come up before me.’ But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.”  Jonah 1:1-3

One of the first things my father pointed out, when they finally took the breathing tube out and he could talk through his wired-shut jaws, was that Jonah was totally unsuited to the task to which God called him.  He finds this reassuring, since he himself has no theological or pastoral training and feels he is unsuited to the task given him.  This may be even more true than Dad realizes.  We actually have mention of Jonah in 2 Kings 14:25.  He was a prophet during the days of Jeroboam II, son of Joash, King of Israel in Samaria for 41 years.  Different scholars have slightly different dates for his reign, ranging from the 786-746 BCE.  This was a long and successful reign, particularly considering the politics of the Northern Kingdom of Israel; the Bible records economic tension and injustice, political intrigue and assassinations, and external threats from powerful empires.  Of these, the most rapacious was Assyria, whose capital was Nineveh.  Assyria had already extracted tribute from Israel, as recorded in 2 Kings 15, and had then withdrawn.  Eventually, Assyria destroyed Israel utterly, deporting most of the people.  Assyrian policies were little short of genocide, so the conquest must have been horrific.  But in the days of Jonah, Assyria was a thriving, threatening but still distant foe.  Jonah prophesied that the LORD would give Israel victory over its foes, and would extend the nation’s boundaries to the limits first promised to Moses and Joshua.  Under Jeroboam, this was done.  Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai, telling him to go to Nineveh, the capital of his nation’s greatest enemy, the nation most seeking to undo all that King Jeroboam had accomplished, and to warn Nineveh that it was to be judged for its sins. Jonah was the wrong man for the job, not because he was unqualified; he was a professional, successful prophet with influence reaching the royal palace.  Jonah was the wrong man because his life was dedicated to Israel, and his message had been peace for Israel but war for its foes.  Now he was being sent to possibly help one of those foes avoid God’s wrath.  No wonder he fled!

To be continued

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13 Responses to “The Sign of Jonah: lessons from my father (pt. 1)”

  1. Nemo Says:

    It must have been most difficult two months for your family. Glad to know your Dad is recovering.
    “Prisons of the Lord”. is that a Freudian slip?

  2. philosophicalscraps Says:

    Thank you for your kind words. And keep up the good work yourself!

    I think that may have been some sort of autocorrect gremlin; I’m not sure. I had to look three times to find what you were referring to. As humorous and perhaps theological as it may have been, I had to correct it to “presence of the LORD.” Thanks for pointing that out.

  3. Nemo Says:

    I think readers of your post would appreciate a short bio of your father.

    • philosophicalscraps Says:

      My father is a very private man, and I think if I said enough to identify him he’d be hurt. I will say he is about 80 years old, and he was a successful physician for many years in the United States. He has attended church pretty much his entire life, and has worshipped in a number of different religious traditions at least once; but by his own admission he was not particularly spiritual, so this new conviction is a great change for him. His first wife, my mother, passed away in 1975; he has been remarried for twenty years. He had five children from his first marriage; one is deceased.

      • Nemo Says:

        In my extremely limited experience, religion runs in the family. So you cannot be the only one in your family who has a profession in religion. Where did that interest come from, if your Dad was not spiritual? (Pardon my curiosity)

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        Actually, teaching religion, my experience is that often an interest in religion comes from a family that has not been interested in it. There is a Jewish saying that “What the son wishes to forget, the grandson wishes to remember.” The idea is that the traditionally religious immigrant is an embarrassment to his children, who want to assimilate; but the grandson, raised in an assimilated and largely secular and liberal family, might go back, pull the old family menorah out of storage, watch Bubbe lighting the Sabbath candles, and want to bring that spirituality into his life. More broadly, I see that fairly often in my students. A noticeable number volunteer that they were raised in secular households without any religion, and now in college they take a general survey course partly out of curiosity and partly trying to find a path for themselves.

        In my case, I would say that I was raised among church goers, but in the 1960s it was more common than it is now to have families of social Christians who attended out of family tradition and social conformity. My mother was active in giving charity, and my father had visited many different faiths before settling in the Presbyterianism of his family; but he lived his life more in other categories, more what Kierkegaard would probably identify as the ethical sphere. I would say my spirituality began by growing up in an affluent environment and noticing how many people were unhappy, not just with this or that but apparently fundamentally dissatisfied. I had a sense that there had to be more to life than just being prosperous and respected. Other events intensified and channeled that interest, but I think that was the initial impulse. Maybe it came more specifically from reading Walden at thirteen. I didn’t finish it, but I read the first several chapters, and one thing still rings true: The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation. I think I was still pretty aesthetic in my spirituality through college, and I’m still not sure if I’ve become what Kierkegaard would say was truly Christian, but I think I was moving on a different path at least that far back.

      • Nemo Says:

        Speaking of a different path, Richard Dawkins was raised as an Anglican, but is now crusading against Christianity. I’ve wondered what is it that drives him (I was raised in a strict atheist environment, but the thought of blasting religion never occurred to me. We simply ignored it.)

        Did you do a comparative religion study as your father did, before settling on Christianity?

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        First, I would say that the god Dawkins and most atheists I have heard reject is not any god I would believe in, either. Dawkins seems to be engaging in a Straw Man argument: he takes the silliest or most repugnant version of God available, the shallowest and most childish, and then refutes it easily, and wonders why those who have read Kant, or Kierkegaard, or even Lewis are so unmoved.

        I do share Kierkegaard’s suspicion of thought without presuppositions. We all start from somewhere, and I started as a Presbyterian. I judge things relative to the standards set by that starting point; what meets or exceeds those standards I judge favorably. When I find the faith self-contradictory, I work out how to reconcile or prioritize. One reason I have stayed with Christianity and with the version I was born into is that it actually does have self-critical tools; even Calvin recognized that some passages of Scripture are “obscure” and need to be interpreted in the light of the rest of Scripture. The Presbyterian polity is a system of checks and balances, much like the American Constitution (there’s good reason the British referred to the 1776 revolution as “The Presbyterian Revolt”). I haven’t visited as many worship services as my father has. I’ve been to a variety of Christian services, and Jewish. Most of my knowledge of other faiths comes from study. I’ve read at least large portions of the Qu’ran, various Buddhist sutras, Hindu writings, some Taoist and Confucian writings, and of course a lot of atheist philosophy from various traditions. I know at least a little about Wicca, Scientology, and a few other faiths. I’ve met students and faculty from many of these traditions, so I have that first-hand knowledge; polls show that most Americans have never met a real live Muslim, although many think they know all about it because someone who also never met a Muslim told them about Islam on the radio. I wouldn’t say that I studied comparative religion before “settling on Christianity.” I would say I have learned a lot from many religions and philosophies, learned about others that perhaps I didn’t consciously borrow from, and decided to stay with Christianity (perhaps an expanded Christianity).

      • Nemo Says:

        One criticism of Christianity I’ve heard most often from “militant” atheists and some Buddhists is that it is exclusive and judgmental. They ask, “How can a loving God punish people just because they don’t think in a certain way?” And other rhetorical and emotionally charged questions that don’t allow civil dialogues.

        You must be very humble and mature to be able to not only live in peace with people of other faiths, but also learn from them.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        one must be humble and mature. I am trying. I can’t say how far I succeed. Actually, though, universalism has been a minor but persistent strain in Christianity almost since its beginning (ex. Origen), hearkening back to Paul’s claim that all Creation was waiting redemption. That does rather conflict with the more apocalyptic dualism that is so strong in early Christianity and in times of crisis in general. Today, the Evangelical tradition, born in the revivals of the Great Awakening, is the most vigorous strain within Protestantism. Since revivalism stresses choosing, it tends to push the idea that you either “get saved” or are damned to Hell; but as early as the late 1700s in America John Murray was leading the first Universalist church in America. So for more than 200 years the faiths of John Murray and Jonathan Edwards have competed with each other.

        As a student of Kierkegaard, you would know some of the history of this debate. Hegel, with his idea that everything was moving towards Absolute Spirit, probably is closer to Origen. Kierkegaard says pseudonymously in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript that there is a certain sadness in Christianity, because the Christian knows that one can only know the Truth by encountering it through a relationship to the Incarnation; therefore, it seems that most people are cut off from the Truth and in a vital sense the Christian cannot have real community with them. On the other hand, Kierkegaard/Climacus also suggests that people who have not had the chance to learn of the Incarnation before might be able to be saved after death by encountering Christ directly. So Kierkegaard seems to lean away from universalism though he leaves the door cracked open; and in any case, he isn’t nasty or intolerant towards non-Christians or non-Protestants (Kierkegaard reserves his harshest words for coreligionists, the “good” and “wise” elite, such as Martensen and Grundtvig).

      • Nemo Says:

        I think Kierkegaard’s action speaks the loudest. If the beliefs and actions of individuals don’t affect their “eternal happiness”, why bother spending all his life gadflying (for lack of a better word) the Christendom? After all, all the rivers run into the sea.

        I’m reminded of 1 Peter 4:17, “For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God?”

  4. Nemo Says:

    Hello,

    I just thought of you and your Dad the other day and am wondering how you folks are doing.

    • philosophicalscraps Says:

      It is delightful to hear from you! My father is doing much better. He did eventually write and deliver his sermon at the Stake Bay Baptist Church on Cayman Brac, BWI. He later returned to the States for further surgery, which has greatly improved his vision. He is now back in the Cayman Islands.

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