Tuesday, August 30, 2016

A Reorientation of the Heart

At church last week, the pastor was preaching about James 5:1-6.  In that passage, James criticizes the rich people who hoarded their wealth, lived in luxury while depriving their workers of pay, and condemned the just one to death.

The pastor addressed a lot of issues, but I want to focus on one.  In the course of his sermon, the pastor was criticizing companies that shipped jobs overseas for the bottom line.  The pastor was beginning to sound like Bernie Sanders when he lamented the decline of America’s middle class!

This church is an interesting mix, politically-speaking.  Of course, the pastor and the church do not endorse or oppose candidates, but the pastor does voice his opinions about the issues of the day.  The church started out as an African-American church, but it became more multi-ethnic over the years; my guess, based on my observation when there, is that more than half of those who attend this particular church are African-American.  Plus, the pastor himself is African-American.  The church is rather conservative on social and cultural issues, such as school prayer and abortion.  This is not too much of a surprise to me.  What is more of a surprise to me is that the pastor is critical of the “Black Lives Matters” movement, as he says that “All lives matter.”  And last Sunday, and on other Sundays, the pastor criticized companies that ship jobs overseas.

The pastor was saying that, when we go to work on Monday, we should not tell our company that our pastor was criticizing its policies!  The pastor said that our greatest weapon is prayer.

I identified with this, but I would like to explain when and why that sort of spiel has turned me off in the past.  A lot of times, I have seen Christian conservatives say that we should pray that more people become Christians, and that will take care of the country’s problems, or at least improve the country’s situation.  The idea is that, if more people have new and changed hearts, then they will be less prone to commit the sins that harm other people.

My understanding is that this spiel was often used against the social Gospel, or any idea that the government should take a proactive role in tackling poverty.  Such a spiel was also used against the Civil Rights movement: you can’t legislate morality from the top down, some Christians said, but we should pray that more people will be converted, and then the different races will get along.  Ironically, many Christian conservatives still support using government power when it accords with their own religious, cultural, or moral agenda: on what marriages to recognize, on pornography, or on the promotion of religion in public schools.  Sometimes they want to legislate morality, and sometimes they do not.

This spiel has been abused, and yet there is some wisdom and merit to it, which is not to endorse all of the baggage that has accompanied this sentiment throughout history.  Legislation or decrees from the top down are not sufficient to tackle the country’s problems.  That is not to say that legislation or just enforcement of the law should not exist.  But it is to say that, as long as greed is a paramount factor in the decisions that people make, legislation will not cut it.  Health insurance companies will leave the Obamacare exchanges.  Corporations will pass on higher taxes to their consumers, resulting in higher prices.

What I believe I should pray is that people will become less greedy, that people will have a social conscience and concern for other people rather than thinking solely about their profits, and that they will repent over the damage that they are doing.  Does this entail praying that they will become Christians?  Well, perhaps a changed heart would be an asset.  A heart that is more like Christ will coincide with love of neighbor, concern for the poor, and trust in God, which may obviate whatever feelings of financial insecurity drive their greed.

But I am less-than-optimistic that them becoming Christians will necessarily make them less greedy or increase their social conscience, for there are plenty of Christians who compartmentalize their religion, or whose religion does not lead them to be less greedy.  Churches and religious people have managed to co-exist with societies that have massive problems, and there have been many times when they have ignored or even perpetuated these problems.

I will pray that people will have changed hearts in this area, either flowing from a Christian commitment or from good moral sense, or even a practical recognition that the current path is unsustainable.  In praying, I am assuming that God can bring this about, that God can enlighten people by changing their heart through God’s Spirit, or through experiences.  A re-orientation within people’s hearts is important for things to improve in this country.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Book Write-Up: The Touchpoint, by Bob Santos

Bob Santos.  The Touchpoint: Connecting with God Through the Bible.  Indiana, PA: Search for Me Ministries, Inc., 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

I read and reviewed Bob Santos’ The Divine Progression of Grace over a year ago and found it to be a thoughtful and edifying book.  When I learned about Santos’ new book, The Touchpoint, I wanted to read it.

The Touchpoint is essentially about the Bible.  Why is the Bible important for the Christian life?  How can believers have confidence that the Bible is credible?  How can Christians read and study the Bible, and make time to do so?  In the course of these discussions, Santos addresses hot-button issues, such as whether the Bible is inerrant, the historicity of the creation accounts in Genesis 1-2, and Christian abuses of Scripture.

The things that I liked about The Divine Progression of Grace are the things that I like about The Touchpoint.  Santos is honest about his personal and spiritual journey.  The Touchpoint seemed to have even more personal anecdotes than The Divine Progression of Grace, and this humanized Santos and enabled him to make a connection with me as a reader.  The prose of the book was easy to understand, and yet it was not the sort of book that I could binge read.  I read fifty pages a day and let that digest, for the book was rich and weighty.  And, overall, Santos attempts to be fair and balanced towards different perspective and to understand people’s struggles and challenges when it comes to making time and effort to study the Bible.

There were passages in the book that I especially appreciated.  I could identify with Santos’ statement that he was a good student but that he struggled in making life decisions, and that this was why he relied on God and the Bible.  On page 247, Santos said that he has to prove himself in his vocation by working “at speaking with meaning and clarity,” but “when it comes to my personal identity, I don’t need to prove anything to anybody,” for “My ‘work’ is simply to believe.”  Santos’ use of the analogy of skin and bones to highlight the roles of objective truth and subjective experience in the Christian life was effective, and his discussion of how the Gospel humbles peoples so that they will have humility in heaven was illuminating.

There was one area in which Santos’ point provoked a new insight within me, even though that new insight may go beyond what Santos intended.  I have long been skeptical of Christians who claim that they receive their interpretation of Scripture from the Holy Spirit.  In my opinion, such a stance implies that their interpretation has a certitude that it actually lacks.  Plus, some of these interpretations contradict each other, so do we want to say that God gives contradictory interpretations of Scripture?  Santos himself contends that people should ask God for guidance when reading Scripture, for spiritual truths are spiritually ascertained.  At the same time, Santos states that people should ask God to help them see what God wants them to see, to learn what God wants them to learn.  That, in my mind, is different from the notion that God gives believers divinely-sanctioned interpretations of Scripture.  God can guide people and use the Bible and other media to do so, even if God does not provide people with the final, unassailable interpretation of a biblical verse.

In terms of critiques, Santos at times seemed to contradict himself, sometimes in his attempts to balance out certain perspectives.  He proposed that the contradictions between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 may indicate that the creation accounts were not intended to be scientific, yet later he treats Adam and Eve as historical figures, although many scientists dispute that all of humanity descended from two people who lived six thousand years ago.  In one place, Santos said that fulfilled prophecy attests to the truth of the Bible, and he trotted out the usual texts in the Hebrew Bible that many Christians believe predict Jesus.  I wondered if Santos was aware that these passages appear to mean something different in their original contexts.  He later indicated that he was aware of this issue, for he said that Christians should not necessarily approach the Old Testament as the New Testament authors did.  Such contradictions did leave an unevenness in the book; at the same time, Santos may have been attempting to offer food for thought rather than giving the final comprehensive answer to these complex questions.

Overall, the apologetics parts of the book were all right, albeit subject to critique.  There was a lot of emphasis in the book on text criticism, but Santos did not really engage Bart Ehrman, who argues that ancient Christians did alter New Testament texts to accord with their religious views.  Santos was rather dismissive of higher critics, when their insights demonstrate that there is another side to the story besides what Santos presents.  Santos provided an actual argument that the creed in I Corinthians 15:3-7 originated within a decade after the death of Jesus, whereas many apologists simply assert that.  Santos’ reference to Sir William Ramsay, who in the nineteenth century converted from being a skeptic about the Book of Acts to accepting its historicity, was intriguing.

In my opinion, Santos’ personal or anecdotal arguments for Christianity were more appealing than his apologetic arguments.  Santos contends that people are looking for love, hope, and something to believe in, and he believes that the God of the Bible can meet these needs.  Santos also states that he has seen the life-transforming power of God in his own and other people’s lives.

This book is not comprehensive, but it is a Christian man sharing his experiences and insights in studying the Bible.  Seeing how another person does this can be helpful.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through Bookcrash, in exchange for an honest review.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Derek Leman on "No Other Name" (Acts 4:12)

Derek Leman was a Messianic rabbi, and I have been subscribing to his Daily D’var for years.  Now it is called the “Daily Portion.”

In his August 27, 2016 Daily Portion, Derek addresses Acts 4:12.  Acts 4:12 is a famous passage, in which Peter tells Jewish leaders after healing a lame man that there is no other name under heaven given among men by which one can be saved.  A number of Christians interpret that to mean that people who believe in Jesus in this life will go to heaven after they die, while those who do not believe in Jesus in this life will go to hell.

Derek offers an alternative interpretation: that the salvation in Acts 4:12 concerns Israel’s national salvation rather than going to heaven or hell after death.  For Derek, part of the issue is Israel avoiding a catastrophic collision with Rome.  Derek believes that this interpretation is consistent with the content of Peter’s speech in Acts 3:17-24, and also the meaning of salvation in the Hebrew Bible.

Questions remain in my mind.  For example, in the Book of Acts, there are places in which salvation applies to Gentiles, not just Jews (Acts 11:14; 15:1, 11; 16:30-31).  When Paul exhorted the Philippian jailer to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and he shall be saved, what did that have to do with national Israel repenting and avoiding collision with Rome?

Still, Derek raises important points that deserve consideration.  Does salvation in the New Testament relate, in any way, to the Israel-focused salvation in the Hebrew Bible?

Here are Acts 3 and Acts 4, in case you want to read them before reading Derek’s comments.

Derek’s comments:

NOTES: Johnson says that Acts is developing the theme of Israel’s true leadership, the apostles as the leaders of the remnant within Israel that follows Messiah Yeshua. In keeping with this theme, the Sanhedrin is powerless against the apostles in this story. They cannot punish them because the people have all seen the signs they performed. Peter instead preaches to the council! They come up with a weak judgment, to order them to silence. Peter refuses the order of the council and still he and John are let go. In every sense, the apostles thwart the power of the Sanhedrin and have the favor of the people. This position of the apostles is, of course, temporary, but Luke shows us a foretaste of the coming age when Israel will be governed by Yeshua and the apostles will sit on thrones (Luke 22:30). The chapter contains a number of interesting sayings. Vs. 2 could be translated either in or through Yeshua, so that they were saying the resurrection of the dead is in Yeshua or through him. This could mean that the foretaste of the resurrection has happened in Yeshua, so that Peter can point to the event of Yeshua’s raising as a sign to help his generation believe. Or he may mean more: that the only way to know we are included in the coming resurrection is if we locate ourselves in Yeshua. In vs. 10 he says the lame beggar was healed “in the name of Yeshua,” indicating that power to see miracles happens because of Yeshua’s coming and his authority given to the apostles as his agents. Finally, in vs. 12 he says salvation can be found in no one else. What is meant here by “salvation”? Some Christian traditions assume the word always means inclusion in the blessed afterlife. This is rarely if ever the meaning in the Bible. In Peter’s time the nation of Israel needs to be saved from its present course in a collision with Rome in which the people are headed for major destruction. The nation needs to find its salvation in the resurrected, ascended Messiah. Calling upon him as a nation would bring rescue to Israel, what Peter has also called a “time of refreshing” (Acts 3:20). In other words, the Messianic era can come down to earth, bringing peace and plenty to everyone. Compare this reading of Peter’s words with the more common individualistic salvation message: “if you will personally believe in Yeshua God will not punish you in the afterlife.” The individualized afterlife message, with its notion that God is waiting for each person to pass a test, fails to explain the long history of the word salvation as national deliverance and does not match well the plural nature of the words Peter has been using (“This Yeshua is the stone that was zejected by you, the builders”). He is calling on the collective nation to welcome Yeshua, not just individuals.

Book Write-Up: An Amish Harvest

An Amish Harvest: Four Novellas.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

As the title indicates, this book has four novellas.  Each is by a well-known author in the field of Amish fiction.  In this review, I will list each novella then offer my thoughts about it.

Beth Wiseman, “Under the Harvest Moon.”

This story deals with domestic violence, for the main character, Naomi, was physically abused by her late husband.  The novella’s interaction with this issue is effective.  It talks about the fear that Naomi experienced, her rationalizations of the violence, how her husband came across as a decent fellow to others, and the impact of the violence on at least one of her children.

A noteworthy plot device in the story involved Brock, Naomi’s love interest after her husband’s death.  Brock was English and was doing chores at Naomi’s place.  Unbeknownst to Naomi and her family, Brock has an Amish background and can understand them when they are discussing him as a romantic prospect for Naomi!

The novella also discusses powwowing, which is somewhat like witchcraft.  Amish culture largely disapproves of it, yet there are Amish people who secretly consult practitioners.  This was new to me.

The romance was rather rushed and a bit underdeveloped, but that may have been due to limitations in space.  The story did have some good characters, such as Naomi’s daughter,  who was intelligent beyond her years.

Amy Clipston, “Love and Buggy Rides.”

This story intersects, somewhat, with Amy Clipston’s “Amish Heirloom” series, but one can understand this story without having read the series.

This novella is about an accident involving an automobile and an Amish buggy.  An Amish young woman develops an attraction towards the driver of the buggy.  The story goes into the trouble that the driver was in, in terms of his job.

This story was not my favorite in the book, but it was all right.  There was not much in this story that was eventful.  Perhaps my reaction is due to my having already read an Amish novel (Kathleen Fuller’s An Unbroken Heart) involving an accident; fortunately, in Clipston’s novella, nobody is killed.

Kathleen Fuller, “A Quiet Love.”

In this novella, there is Amos, who is in his twenties.  Amos may be on the autistic spectrum, or he may be developmentally-delayed.  He is slow in processing things, and he is rather blunt when he speaks.  At the same time, he is very talented at drawing.

Dinah is also in her twenties.  She stutters, and she has been a recluse on account of that, even though her mother pressures her to go out, meet people, and get married.  She meets Amos because a relative of hers married a relative of his.

A romance develops between Amos and Dinah.  Amos thinks that Dinah is beautiful, and he likes that Dinah does not talk down to him or take offense at what he says; he feels comfortable around her, in short.  Dinah is drawn to Amos’ innocence.  She also notices his insight when she is teaching him to read poetry.  And there is the physical attraction.

This is a beautiful story, and it interacts thoughtfully with certain issues, such as the extent to which Amos understands romantic love, and his growth into adult responsibilities after he gets married.  It is moving when two “odd ducks” find each other and make a life together.  The appropriateness of such a relationship would probably be debated, though.

Vannetta Chapman, “Mischief in the Autumn Air.”

This story is a mystery, which is not surprising, since Vannetta Chapman writes Amish mysteries.  A map involving U.S. history is involved.  So is an auction.

I read this story in its entirety, but I had difficulty getting into it.  It could have used more pathos, which would have allowed me to connect more with the characters.  At the same time, the story’s distance did coincide with intelligent insights about God’s work in bringing people together to meet each other’s needs.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Humility and Limitations

At church last Sunday, the pastor preached about humility.  He has been going through the Book of James, and his text last Sunday was James 4:13-15.  In that passage, James criticizes people who have grandiose plans about what they are going to do tomorrow.  James points out that they do not know what will happen tomorrow, plus their life is a vapor.  They should say that, if the Lord wills, they will do those things tomorrow.

The pastor was telling us the customary points about how we can die at any time, so we should not take our lives for granted.  He exhorted us to consider how we are using the time that we have.

The pastor also told the story of a professional football player he knows.  The football player was moving to another location to play for another team.  The pastor asked him whether he was loyal to his current team, and the football player replied that it’s about money.  The football player said that he only had a limited time to play this sport, since he will not be young and fit forever.  During that time, he needs to make as much money as he can to provide for his family.  Plus, money has to be set aside for his family in case he is injured and cannot play the sport anymore.

That story about the football player calls to my mind how humbling life is.  That football player was probably confident—-the sort of person who exudes confidence in a room, and who has confidence in his abilities.  One has to be confident to do a lot of things.  Yet, reality makes him humble.  He knows that, due to human limitations, there will come a time when he will be unable to play this sport.  I would add that athletes are also humble when they train: they discipline themselves and they practice, for they realize that they need to prepare to play the game.  They cannot simply rest on their laurels and expect for their natural talent to carry them through.

I am far from being an athlete, yet I, too, am humbled by life, a lot of times.  Unfortunately, I can also get a pompous attitude, thinking that I’m morally better than certain people in certain areas.  That’s one, but not the only, reason that I need to go to God in prayer: to draw closer to God amidst my imperfections.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Book Write-Up: Between Pain and Grace

Gerald W. Peterman and Andrew J. Schmutzer.  Between Pain & Grace: A Biblical Theology of Suffering.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

Gerald W. Peterman and Andrew J. Schmutzer teach Bible at the Moody Bible Institute.  They contribute chapters to this book, Between Pain & Grace: A Biblical Theology of Suffering.  Some of the book’s chapters are by Peterman, some are by Schmutzer, and the final chapter is by both.

This book is rather thin in terms of discussing why God allows suffering.  The book blames the Fall, while also positing that God usually chooses not to intervene when God's image-bearers can do so.

The book is more substantive in discussing how Christians should view and respond to suffering, both their own and the suffering of others.  It presents God and Jesus as beings who have suffered, against ancient Christian views that attempted to distance God from emotion.  It is critical of Christians who maintain that Christians should never be sad because they have hope.  It advocates lament.  It talks about sexual abuse and mental illness.  It contends that Christians should be sensitive to where people are when they admonish, encourage, or help, a la I Thessalonians 5:14.

The book has its share of positives.  It is thoughtful and sophisticated, yet accessible to lay-readers.  It does not use big words, but its expression is still deep and weighty.  It tries to understand where people are coming from: why people may choose to leave the Christian faith in response to suffering, for example.

The book offered thought-provoking insights, some of which were new to me.  For instance, one of the essays notes that people forgiving others is not exactly a major theme or command in the Old Testament, whereas it is in the New, and it says that this is because of God’s forgiveness of people through Christ.  There are problems with this view.  Leviticus 19:18 forbids revenge or carrying a grudge.  Even before Christ came to earth, Ben Sira 28:2-7 exhorted people to forgive and even stated that God would not forgive those who withhold forgiveness from others; the New Testament commands on forgiveness may be continuing prior Jewish tradition, rather than just being based on atonement through Christ.  The synoptic Gospels, which talk frequently about forgiveness, do not really stress atonement through Christ.  Still, the essay in the book may be on to something.  Revenge did occur in the Old Testament, and God did not always express explicit disapproval of that; also, there are not too many explicit commands in the Old Testament to forgive and reconcile with others.

(UPDATE: This is not to suggest that the book argues that God permitted revenge in the Old Testament, for it does not argue this.  It is my impression, though, that the Old Testament at times allows for revenge.  That could be consistent with this book's argument that the Old Testament did not stress interpersonal forgiveness on the same level that the New Testament did, even though this book's authors would disagree with this application of the argument.)

Another essay in the book contrasted Old Testament anthropology with New Testament anthropology.  According to this essay, New Testament anthropology believed that humans consisted of body and soul, whereas Old Testament anthropology lacked that dualistic division.  The essay chalks that difference up to progressive revelation.  That discussion perhaps could have been developed some more, but the book’s notation of biblical diversity is one of its assets.

An edifying insight in the book concerned the family dysfunction in the Book of Genesis. One of the book’s authors said that, even though there was dysfunction, it was not the end of the world.  God was still at work, bringing forth good out of bad.  On the issue of forgiveness, there were times when what the book said may be uncomfortable for people struggling to forgive; in other cases, however, it offered a realistic view of forgiveness, one that empathizes with victims and upholds justice.

In terms of negatives, the book at first was like a laundry-list, as it looked at what the Bible said about the various kinds of suffering.  It listed a lot of things but did not really integrate them into a larger picture.  The book was also rather short in terms of solutions: for instance, it is critical of happy-clappy worship where people come and pretend to be happy, even if they are not, but it does not talk much about how worship can be structured to allow for lament.

Notwithstanding any shortcomings, the book is still an edifying read.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Book Write-Up: Genesis Revisited

Donald Arlo Jennings.  Genesis Revisited: The Creation.  Bloomington: WestBow Press, 2013.  See here to buy the book.

Donald Arlo Jennings has a Ph.D. in Management Information Systems and has written about healthcare technology.  In Genesis Revisited, Jennings attempts to answer questions about the Book of Genesis.

Jennings asks a variety of questions as he reads Genesis.  There is the famous question of where Cain got his wife.  Jennings wonders if the vast multitude of the people on earth truly could have descended from just eight people on the Ark.  He asks where the races came from: the Tower of Babel story talks about God creating different languages, but how did God create different races?

The answer that Jennings proposes involves aliens.  For Jennings, God could have created human-like creatures in outer space and populated the earth with them.  That would explain where Cain got his wife, the multitude of people after the Flood, and perhaps even the different races: there are more people on earth than those descended from Adam and Eve and Noah.  Jennings also speculates that God may also have sent renegade aliens to the earth as prisoners.  The wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah may have been from outer space, Jennings states.  But Jennings also wonders if Adam himself may have been created in outer space, or if the Garden of Eden was necessarily on the planet earth.

Jennings biblical arguments have a lot of “What ifs?”  Jennings often speculates, without much basis for his speculation.  Occasionally, Jennings does appeal to phenomena in the Bible.  He relies some on the work of Erich von Daniken.  Jennings refers to the shiny divine chariot in Ezekiel 1 as a possible UFO phenomenon, and he relates the sons of God mating with the daughters of men in Genesis 6 to aliens having sexual intercourse with humans.  Oddly, Jennings interprets the light coming into the world in John 1 in reference to UFOs, when the vast majority of interpreters would rightly interpret that in reference to Jesus coming to earth.

Jennings also relates stories about UFO sightings and abductions, perhaps in an attempt to demonstrate that what he is arguing is possible, even plausible.

Here are some critiques of the book:

A.  The book could have been better organized.  It was rambling, and Jennings often repeated points that he had made earlier.  He should have organized the chapters by topic.

B.  The book could have been better written.  The grammar and the spelling were all right, but the prose could have been a lot tighter and more formal.  Jennings comes across as someone meandering around, guessing this and guessing that.  He uses “I” a lot, and that is not necessarily bad, but narrating more in the third person could have added a tone of formality to the book.

C.  The book could have offered more substantive arguments.  Jennings would dismiss evolution and say that he believes in the Bible, for example, as if that by itself were an argument against evolution.  He should have mentioned arguments in support for evolution and said why he found them implausible, or at least referred to creationist or Intelligent Design resources that did so.  At times, Jennings indicated some familiarity with debates, but this book had a lot of unsupported assertions.

D.  The book could have been better had Jennings imitated an episode of Ancient Aliens, while adding his own questions and thoughts.  Many scholars, probably correctly, disagree with what Ancient Aliens says.  Yet, Ancient Aliens can be entertaining because it gets into mythology throughout cultures and compares it with supposed UFO and alien phenomena.  The people on the show offer arguments and base what they are claiming on at least something.  After watching Ancient Aliens, I often rush to the Internet to find how mainstream scholars explain the phenomena that Ancient Aliens discusses.  With the exception of Jennings’ discussion about Noah’s Ark supposedly being found, there was nothing in Jennings book that I wanted to fact-check.  Why would anyone want to fact-check a bunch of unsupported guesses?

E.  Jennings’ theological framework was rather unclear.  Of course, he is a Christian and believes in the Bible.  But how would he reconcile that with seeing God’s chariot in Ezekiel 1 as a UFO?  Jennings should have explained how he holds all that together.

I give this book one star.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book through BookLook Bloggers, in exchange for an honest review.

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