Monday, June 24, 2019

Book Write-Up: The Character of God, by Jonathan G. East

Jonathan G. East. The Character of God: In His Own Words. WestBow, 2018. See here to buy the book.

In Exodus 34:6-7, God declares God’s attributes to Moses: “The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation” (KJV).

In The Character of God, Jonathan East goes through each of these attributes of God, in an attempt to discern God’s character.

Some thoughts about the book:

A. An asset to the book is that it is heavy on Scripture. East looks throughout the Bible to illustrate the meaning of God’s attributes, and the importance of God’s people imitating them.

B. The book is slender. It is only 22 pages on my mobi. After my first reading, I thought it was thin on content. I went through it a second time, though, and appreciated it more, due to its Scriptural content. East could have made his points more effectively, perhaps in a more sustained or prolonged way. Stories could have enhanced it.

C. The book does not get that much into difficult theological issues, but it did make a couple of intriguing points. First, East said that forgiveness means removing sin, but the sin has to go somewhere after it is removed. For East, the sin is placed on Jesus Christ. That raises a good question: where does the Hebrew Bible think that the sin goes after it is removed? In Leviticus 16, it is placed on the Azazel goat, who is taken to the wilderness, away from the Israelite camp. Isaiah 53:12 affirms that the Suffering Servant bears people’s sins. In Micah 7:19, Israel’s sins are taken to the bottom of the sea. The authors of the Hebrew Bible may not have consistently held that sin had to be placed on somebody for Israel to be forgiven—-sometimes they did think that, but sometimes that is not explicit. But, in these cases, they still thought that the sin had to go somewhere: it did not simply vanish. And yet, Isaiah 44:22 does depict Israel’s sin vanishing, as God likens it to a mist and promises to blot it out!

D. East attempts to reconcile biblical statements that each individual will be punished for his or her own sins, not the sins of parents, with statements about God visiting sin onto the third and fourth generations. East falls back on the conventional explanation that God does not punish the third and fourth generations for ancestral sins, yet they still suffer the consequences of ancestral sins. East appeals to biblical examples of this. And yet, the biblical passage itself suggests that God himself visits the sins on the third and fourth generation. The closest East gets to explaining this is to say that God permits the third and fourth generations to suffer the consequences of ancestral sins.

E. I cannot say that I learned anything earth-shakingly new from this book, but it inspired thoughts and questions, as I share in (C.). It amplifies my appreciation of God’s mercy and goodness, demonstrating that such a conception of God is indeed biblical. It is also well-written, in terms of prose.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through BookLook Bloggers. My review is honest.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Church Write-Up: Vocation, the Greatest Commandment, Love

Here are some items from this morning’s church activities.

A. The pastor told some of his personal story. After he received a master’s degree in history, he was wondering where to go from there. His dad suggested that he send his resume to two-hundred fortune 500 companies; he did so, and he received back two hundred rejections! He interviewed to work at a historical society, and that interview did not go well. He was frustrated with God, but he then thought that it would be a good idea to go into campus ministry. That way, he could mentor people who, like him, were lost. But, looking at the patterns of his life, he noticed that God continually called him to serve in urban and suburban ministries, so that is what he pursued. The pastor’s text was I Kings 19:1-15. Elijah was discouraged and frustrated with God, but God instructed him to fulfill his calling by doing the sorts of things that prophets do: appointing a king, and ensuring that the word of God was still proclaimed (in Elijah’s case, through a replacement). The pastor also told us that God is with us in our Elijah-like pits.

The sermon makes me think about the subject of vocation. It is good when people find their calling, when that is placed before them in neon lights for them to see. Many are not so fortunate, though. They may find themselves working lackluster jobs, the jobs out there do not accord with their passions, or they cannot find their niche. Often, when it comes to identifying one’s niche or spiritual gifts, the process can look rather artificial: I sort of like this, so maybe I will sort of enjoy serving in such-and-such a capacity.

I recently read this by Ryan Hauge:
“God’s will is found in the place where your passion and the world’s need collide.”

It’s actually much simpler and more freeing than this…God’s will and his pleasure are completely found in Jesus and those that are “in Him” are free to simply live their lives, most often in the mundane trivialities (in things we’re not particularly passionate about), with full confidence that we are doing God’s will and serving our neighbor’s needs.
What the pastor said this morning overlapped with some of that: we go into our everyday lives, as God is with us.

B. The Sunday school class talked about the passages in which Jesus addressed an inquiry about what the greatest commandment is. Those would be Matthew 22:35-40, Mark 12:28-41, and Luke 10:25-37. In the first two passages, the inquirer asks Jesus what the great, or greatest, commandment is. In Luke 10:25, however, the lawyer asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Are the two questions related? The teacher suggested that the questions are complementary: the lawyer was asking what commandments he should focus on, if he wants to inherit eternal life. The teacher was asking if Jesus’s hearers were satisfied with Jesus’s answer—-love God and love neighbor. Some in the class suggested that the Pharisees may have found Jesus’s response to be simplistic, for they felt that people needed to do a vast number of rules to please God and receive eternal life. Maybe, but at least one Jewish authority, the one in the story, is asking Jesus what the greatest commandment is. He was not thinking, “Well, you have to obey all of the laws to receive eternal life,” for, otherwise, he may not have asked his question. He must have figured that some laws take priority over others, even if all of the laws were important.

Jesus responds that there are two commandments: love God with your entire being, and love your neighbor as yourself. But if you love God with your entire being, is there room for you to love your neighbor? The teacher said that the two commandments are actually one commandment: we love God, in part, by loving our neighbors. The second commandment, love of neighbor, is the completion of the first one, love of God.

Someone in the class argued that the love Jesus promotes in the Parable of the Good Samaritan is self-sacrificing. The priest and the Levite did not help the injured man because they did not want to disqualify themselves from their religious duties. The Samaritan, by contrast, used his own time, money, and resources to help the injured man. The teacher seemed to be replying that love is not necessarily self-sacrificing, per se, as if it only exists if a person gives something up, but love goes towards others even if they do not reciprocate. The Samaritan could have been bitter about how Jews treated Samaritans and chosen not to help the injured Jew, but he chose instead to help.

The teacher said that the lawyer’s question of “Who is my neighbor?” was the wrong question, for he should have asked how he can be a neighbor to anyone with whom he comes into contact. That is tough. I doubt anyone pours love on everyone with whom he or she comes into contact. I question whether that is even possible. Plus, did Jesus even address that question about how to be a neighbor? Maybe, in a sense. The Samaritan showed love by having mercy towards someone in need and helping that person out. How that informs the way that I should treat everyone with whom I come into contact is a difficult question. It would be easy for me to say, “Well, the next time I see an injured person on the road, I will take care of him.” Or at least I hope I would.

I’ll stop here.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Book Write-Up: Emotional Intelligence, by Diane Weston

Diane Weston. Emotional Intelligence: Why EQ Is the Secret Ingredient to Connect with Others and Make Everyday Life Easier. 2019.

Diane Weston is a PR specialist at a Fortune 500 company. She is an introvert, sharing tips she has learned about how introverts can shed their shy exteriors and succeed in an extroverted world. She has studied the topic of communications, both informally and also formally.

This book, as the title indicates, is about Emotional Intelligence: getting in touch with one’s own emotions and the emotions of others. What are you feeling right now, and why do you think you are feeling that way? What is somebody else feeling right now, and how can you tell? What is more, how can you respond to what the other person is feeling?

Speaking for myself, I found this book to be worthwhile to read. The book offers a lot of what could be considered common sense, but I found myself hungry for what Weston had to say. I read a book by Gary Chapman a while back and one time attended a church seminar on handling conflict, and I found them to be shallow, very basic, and disappointing. My reaction to Weston’s book is much more positive.

I tend to be a reactive person, reacting without much thought, so Weston’s discussion on getting in touch with one’s feelings is helpful to me. Weston’s book is also helpful because it systematically explains why certain things are important: why, for example, eye contact can help a person guess what another person is feeling. Weston does not tell a  lot of personal anecdotes: I cannot recall any in this book. But, in her own way, she paints a picture of what she is talking about. She conveys an empathetic tone of meeting people where they are and helping them get out of the pit they are in.

Sometime in the future, I may read her other book on small talk. This is an issue with which I have long struggled, though I am a little better now at it than I used to be. I tried reading Deb Fine’s book on it over a year ago, and I found it difficult to read because it was a laundry list of questions to ask other people. That may be helpful, but it is also boring to read. I also recognized myself in some of the socially deficient types of people Fine was discussing: the FBI informant, who sounds nosy and peppers people with questions. Fine’s book was disappointing, though, because it did not walk people through how they can display a genuine interest in other people without coming across as FBI informants. Diane Weston’s book may do that better.

I received a complimentary copy of Emotional Intelligence from the author. My review is honest.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Church Write-Up: Jesus as Revelation, When the Disciples Became Cleansed, Initiative

Here are items from today’s church activities.

A. The pastor’s sermon revolved around the question of how one can know God. He talked about his own father and how he learned about a funny, mischievous, romantic side to his father that he rarely if ever saw when growing up, a time when he was at odds with his father. The pastor commented that many people’s picture of God is based on their own fathers: if their father was stern, they envision God as stern. Another story that the pastor mentioned was Kipling’s story of the blind men and the elephant: the blind men were unable to recognize the elephant as an elephant, for their experience was only partial, as they drew their conclusions after touching specific parts of the elephant. The pastor also referred to a statement, which he attributed to Schleiermacher, that, if there were no God, we would have to invent him. Perhaps we would be able to invent a supreme moral authority or a clockmaker, the pastor remarked, but that would fall short of who God is. That is why God did not leave us to our own devices but revealed himself through Jesus Christ, communicating his desire for a relationship with us. Jesus reveals the Father, as John 14:9 indicates, but Jesus also reveals the Spirit, for Jesus sent the Spirit (John 15:26; 16:7).

B. In Sunday school, one passage that we discussed was John 13. Jesus loves his disciples and knows he is about to leave. Before supper, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. This is an act of service and an example for Jesus’s disciples, and disciples are blessed if they do so: people in the class said this blessing is that they become closer to God and attain attributes of character (i.e., compassion). But the washing also represents something spiritual that Jesus is doing. People must be washed by Jesus to have any part of Jesus. But the disciples need not have their whole bodies cleansed but only their feet, for they are already clean, with the exception of Judas. A question in my mind concerns the point at which they became cleansed. They were apparently clean before they received the Holy Spirit (John 20:22). Were they cleansed at their water baptism, perhaps by Jesus himself (see John 4:2)? Did that baptism bring them, not only forgiveness of sins, but also a righteous orientation on the inside? If so, why did that baptism not “take” with Judas? Or perhaps what cleansed them was their faith in Jesus as the Son of God (Acts 15:9); Judas, in betraying Jesus but also in being a thief (John 12:6), may have indicated that he did not truly believe.

C. We got into a discussion about humility and ego. Someone in the class said that ego is important because it can give people drive; otherwise, they would be wimps and not do anything. Someone else commented that she herself is kind of a wimp: she prefers to sit on the sidelines rather than getting involved. When she does take initiative, people recognize that as the Spirit of God!

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Church Write-Up: Pentecost Sunday 2019

Here are some items from last Sunday’s church activities:

A. It was Pentecost Sunday, so the topic was the Holy Spirit. The youth pastor talked about caterpillars turning into butterflies. Once the caterpillars are butterflies, they are beautiful and go about pollinating, resulting in the creation of fruits and vegetables. Similarly, the disciples were by initially by themselves, being edified and fed by the words of Jesus. When the Holy Spirit came upon them, however, they were empowered to go out and produce fruit in the world. I still feel like a caterpillar.

B. The pastor said that the Holy Spirit is at work when Christians who went through a problematic experience are able to help those who have a similar experience: to assure them that they, too, can get through this, with God’s help. The pastor told a story about a woman whose husband left her, and she then got to help another women abandoned by her husband. When I have tried to do that, people usually respond: “Oh, you have no idea! What I go through is far worse than what you went through!” Consequently, I rarely worry so much about trying to please God by ministering to people whom I think are going through something that I went through. That said, I do hope that my experiences can build in me more empathy and motivate me at least to try to be supportive and helpful. I recoil somewhat from that “outreach” part of the Christian calling.

C. The pastor said that God scattered the nations at Babel, but, at Pentecost, God enabled that all sorts of people could hear the Gospel in a manner that they could understand. The pastor also commented that ethnic language differences are not the only thing that create misunderstandings between people. A wife can tell her husband to do something, and she means immediately, but he interprets her to mean sometime before the second coming of Christ. I identify with this, since I often have felt misunderstood.

D. At the Sunday school class, the teacher was engaging the question of why the disciples so often did not understand Jesus when he was on earth. An answer that people came up with was that Jesus was saying something that was new to them, and they were learning it during the mere three years that he was teaching them. They were getting something new to them, in the Cliff-notes version. The Gospel of Luke says a couple of times that the disciples did not understand Jesus’s statement that he would suffer and die because it was hidden from them (Luke 9:45; 18:34). At the same time, Jesus told his disciples that they see, whereas others do not (Matthew 13:16; 16:17).

E. Ephesians 4:1 exhorts Christians to live a life worthy of their calling. This being a Lutheran church, the teacher pointed out that Christians are called first by grace, then they try to live worthily: they do not live worthily first, then receive the calling as a reward. What does “worthy” mean? One person proposed “worthwhile”: we do things that are worthwhile, in light of our calling. That is one meaning that is listed in the various lexica on my BibleWorks. But other meanings include “fitting,” “keeping with,” and “consistent with.” In short, the passage is not necessarily saying that we have to somehow live a life that deserves God’s favor after we have been called; as many Christians point out, we all will continue to fall short until death.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Book Write-Up: The Book of Signs, by David Jeremiah

David Jeremiah. The Book of Signs: 31 Undeniable Prophecies of the Apocalypse. Thomas Nelson, 2019. See here to buy the book.

This book is 465 pages. The subject of the apocalypse frames it and recurs throughout, but it is not only about the apocalypse. Dr. David Jeremiah also covers such topics as worship and spiritual warfare.

The book comes from a pretribulational rapture, premillennial perspective. A lot of it overlaps with the scenarios of Hal Lindsey and Tim Lahaye (the latter receives a commemoration at the beginning of the book), with all the strengths and weaknesses that those entail. One can sympathize with Jeremiah’s literal interpretation of the Book of Revelation. Like his predecessors, Jeremiah tends to read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, which deserves caution because Christians have done that before, and Christ did not return as they expected. Jeremiah also holds that Gog in Ezekiel 38-39 will be the eschatological leader of Russia, even though many scholars see Gog as a leader in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), plus Jeremiah seems to fudge on a literal interpretation when Ezekiel describes Gog’s weaponry as ancient weapons rather than those of modern warfare.

A difference between Jeremiah and Lahaye is that, in the first Left Behind book, Lahaye presents Russia attacking Israel prior to the rapture. Jeremiah, however, thinks that it will occur after the rapture, after the Antichrist makes a peace treaty with Israel; the reason is that Ezekiel 38-39 depicts Israel as at peace when Gog attacks her. Hal Lindsey, if I am not mistaken, may overlap with Jeremiah on this, for Lindsey appears to place the Russian invasion of Israel at the Battle of Armageddon, which will occur after the rapture.

This book is a serious and meticulous treatment of the Book of Revelation and topics in Christian spirituality, and in that sense it is edifying. Jeremiah addresses various views about questions that people may have, such as where America will be in the end times. Some questions, however, remain unanswered: will Muslims worship the Antichrist, when they recoil from worshiping a human as God? Some points hit a little close to home: there is a quote about how people want to have a lot of money because then they would not have to depend on anybody. Jeremiah offers a compelling quotation by William Temple on worship, which presents it as feeding on God’s truth, appreciating God’s beauty, opening one’s heart to God’s love, and devoting oneself to God’s purposes.

The book contains a lot of anecdotes. Some of these effectively make his point: some of the ones about heavenly rewards stand out as an example of this, as people serve God in this present earthly life with little if any recognition. A lot of the anecdotes added a folksy tone to the book, or perhaps made the author look clever. For some, that may give the book an inviting, relatable feel. For others, it may trivialize the book’s message. Ultimately, I do not think that the book’s message was trivialized, for Jeremiah effectively presents what he believes will happen in the end times, showing it to be plausible, in terms of what is happening now. My negative reaction to the anecdotes may be due to how the book opened: in my opinion, it was overly romantic, chipper, and one-sided about the modern state of Israel.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through BookLook Bloggers. My review is honest.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Book Write-Up: Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins

Robert C. Bishop, Larry L. Funck, Raymond J. Lewis, Stephen O. Moshier, John H. Walton. Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins: Cosmology, Geology, and Biology in Christian Perspective. IVP Academic, 2018. See here to purchase the book.

This textbook runs over 600 pages and covers various topics concerning origins. These topics include the origin of the universe, the geological history of earth, the origin of life on earth, how species originated and became diverse, and the origins of humanity. These issues have been controversial within Christianity because scientists’ conclusions conflict with a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3. According to a number of Christians, a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3 suggests that the universe is less than 10,000 years old, that God created each kind of animal separately, that the creation of humans occurred separately from that of animals, that all of humanity descended from one man and one woman, and that death originated through the sin of Adam and Eve. Many Christians believe that the order of the universe can only be explained as the product of deliberate creation and design at the hands of a creator, not by chance. The prominent scientific narrative, by contrast, holds that the cosmos and earth are millions of years old, that all of life (animal and human) descended from a common ancestor, that death and disorder long preexisted humanity, and that life and natural order can be explained by appeal to natural causes, not necessarily a Creator.

This textbook is written from an evangelical Christian perspective, yet it largely embraces the prominent scientific narrative. It goes through the topics, demonstrating how and why scientists have arrived at the conclusions that they have. It also engages the topics theologically, as it contends that the scientific consensus is consistent with themes in Scripture, while also treating nature and Scripture as two books about God. Its perspective is a Biologos perspective, which many might label as “theistic evolution.” Among its theological conclusions are:

—-that God made nature to minister to nature, so natural order does not need to be from God’s direct hand but can have natural causes;

—-that science and the Bible both, in their own way, depict humanity and animals as having a common origin;

—-that Adam and Eve were not necessarily the first humans from whom all descended but were priestly representatives of humanity;

—-that the Holy Spirit is continually at work in creation; the implication seems to be that God did not create the universe in a state of pristine perfection, after which it fell due to the sin of Adam and Eve; rather, the Holy Spirit is continually active;

—-that the image of God is not so much a characteristic of humanity that God gave to humans that distinguishes them from the animals, as a divine mission that God gave to humans.

Here are some thoughts:

A. The book went over my head in a number of places. Those interested in a very basic, lucid introduction to scientific issues may be disappointed with this book. At the same time, this book is rich in information, and it has important insights. For instance, in addressing William Dembski’s argument that bacterial flagella needed a designer, the book offers an additional consideration: “Dembski’s estimate showing the improbability of the origin of bacterial flagella seems to be based on the assumption that the assemblage of proteins is completely random. It does not recognize the evidence of use, reuse, and co-option of components that is emerging from recent studies of genomes and the development that is resulting in an emerging extended synthesis of evolutionary theory” (page 541). I cannot say that I understand that, but it sounds like a relevant consideration!

B. There were plenty of cases in which the book actually engages the arguments of young earth creationists. It has charts laying out the different views on geological history, for example. In some cases, though, greater engagement with young earth creationist arguments may have been helpful. The book simply assumes that humans and chimpanzees have over ninety percent similary in their DNA, but young earth creationist Dr. Georgia Purdom argues that this figure is exaggerated, that evolutionists are only comparing a small amount of the DNA. Maybe she is wrong, but her argument does deserve to be addressed.

C. Later in the book, the book got rather dismissive of certain perspectives, calling them “concordist.” It practically became a buzz-word!

D. The book argues that a functional view of the image of God better accounts for how disabled people can still be in God’s image, even if they lack some or many of the characteristics that theologians may consider the “image of God.” Is the functional view any better, however? It seems to define the divine image according to people’s ability to serve and rule creation. The functional view is arguably as ableist as the view that the book criticizes. The functional view may have insights, but it can use development, showing that all people can contribute to the order and beauty of life.

E. The book acknowledges that the history of biblical interpretation has treated Adam and Eve as two historical individuals who are the ancestors of all of humanity. If I were to reconcile Genesis 1-3 with the prominent scientific narrative, I would probably accept John Walton’s scenario: that Adam and Eve were priestly representatives of humanity rather than the ancestors of all humanity. It has some things going for it: Cain in Genesis 4:14-16 seems to acknowledge the existence of people outside of the little circle of Adam, Eve, and Cain and Abel. But the history of biblical interpretation is a formidable challenge to Walton’s view.

F. The book contained some interesting details, such as details about Darwin’s religious journey, and the statement that evolution challenged Aristotle’s treatment of the species as fixed. The different scientific views on the origins of life from the primordial soup are also noteworthy.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.

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