Thursday, August 16, 2018

Book Write-Up: Isaiah, by Alfred Martin

Alfred Martin.  Isaiah.  Moody Publishers, 1956, 2018.  See here to purchase the book.

This book is part of the Everyman Bible Commentary series.  It is a reprint of a book that was originally published in 1956.  The author, Alfred Martin, had a Th.D. from Dallas Theological Seminary.  He also served as Vice-President and Dean of Education at Moody Bible Institute and taught at Dallas Bible College.

Rather than serving as a comprehensive commentary, the book comments on highlights in the Book of Isaiah.  Its comments are largely homiletical, yet they focus on details of select texts.  Occasionally, Martin weighs in on a piece of scholarly minutiae, as when he disputes the scholarly view that Isaiah received his prophetic commission after the death of King Uzziah (Isaiah 6:1); for Martin, Isaiah received it before then.

Martin takes frequent swipes at liberal and non-Christian interpretations of Isaiah, as well as Christian interpretations that differ from his own.  Martin believes in one Isaiah who wrote before the exile rather than more than one author of the book who wrote during the pre-exilic, exilic, and post-exilic periods.  He thinks that the Book of Isaiah makes predictions that were directly relevant to Isaiah’s historical situation, but also prophecies concerning Jesus Christ and the time of the end.  Based on I Peter 1:10-11, Martin contends that Isaiah lacked a full understanding of how God’s prophecies to him would be fulfilled.  Martin disputes the liberal scholarly idea that ancient Israel was henotheistic and tribalistic, instead seeing its divinely-inspired religion as monotheistic and universalistic: it held that God was the only truly existing God and had sovereignty over and concern for all nations, not just Israel.  Martin interprets the Suffering Servant as the Messiah, Jesus Christ, not as the nation of Israel.  His approach is also literal and dispensational.  As far as Martin is concerned, Isaiah’s prophecies have been and will be fulfilled literally, meaning they are not allegorical; in addition, what is spoken about Israel is about Israel, not the church.  At the same time, Martin believes that believers can derive spiritual application from the Book of Isaiah.

There are times when Martin presents actual arguments in favor of these ideas.  He notes common themes throughout the Book of Isaiah (i.e., the highway), indicating, to him, that it is all the work of one author.  He observes that the Book of Isaiah discusses the outcome of nations other than Israel and affirms the God of Israel’s reality against the un-reality of other gods, showing that it is far from henotheistic and tribalistic.  For Martin, the Suffering Servant makes more sense as a righteous individual rather than the nation of Israel, which is far from righteous, throughout the Book of Isaiah.  Martin looks at how the New Testament approaches the Book of Isaiah and notices that it treats several of Isaiah’s prophecies as being literally about Jesus Christ, and as finding their literal fulfillment in the work of Jesus Christ.  Martin deems that to be evidence about the prophecies’ original meaning, and Martin thinks that liberal scholars’ disagreement with him on this is a spiritual more than an academic problem.  And, against Christians who interpret the prophecies as symbolic and as about the church, Martin argues that, if the prophecies are literal in describing Christ’s sufferings, then they must be literal in all other areas, as well.

One can critique Martin’s approach.  Martin makes a fairly decent argument that the Book of Isaiah is monotheistic and universalistic, but scholars have still had reasons for concluding that henotheism finds expression in certain biblical writings.  See Deuteronomy 32:8-9, where the Most High gives Israel to the LORD and other nations to other gods.  There are occasions in which the New Testament appears to apply Old Testament prophecies in a less-than-literal fashion.  Reading Old Testament prophecies about the Gentiles’ worship of God in a literal fashion, one would conclude that such worship would take place after Israel is restored and God establishes a paradise on earth, with physical Israel as the center.  The New Testament, however, seems to hold that such prophecies are finding fulfillment in the church age, as Gentiles join the Christian church (see Acts 15:14-18; Romans 15:7-12).  Contrary to the impression that Martin leaves, scholars who believe differently from him have actual reasons for their conclusions.

Martin’s Christological interpretation of Isaiah also leads to some awkward conclusions.  For example, Martin wants to interpret the Immanuel of Isaiah 7:14 as Jesus Christ, since Matthew 1:23 does so.  Yet, Isaiah 7 at least appears to treat Immanuel as a child in Isaiah’s time, as events in Immanuel’s life and experience serve as a sign regarding events in Isaiah’s day.  How does Martin handle this?  He says: “The thought seems to be that if the baby Immanuel was born in the immediate future, before He would be old enough to make known His distinction between good and evil, the two enemy kings would withdraw” (pages 43-44).  So Isaiah is presenting a hypothetical: Immanuel would be born centuries later, but Isaiah is saying that, if Immanuel were born in Isaiah’s lifetime, his life would serve as a timetable for events in Isaiah’s day.  That sounds like a stretch!  Martin wants to interpret the voice in the wilderness in Isaiah 40:3 as a literal prediction about John the Baptist, since the Gospels say that it is about John the Baptist (Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4-6; John 1:23).  But why would Isaiah talk about John the Baptist, within a larger discussion about the restoration of the exiled Jews from Babylonian exile?  How does John the Baptist relate to that?  Martin fails to explain.

There may be something to Martin’s method, however.  Jews and Christians did interpret Isaiah as concerning not only events in Isaiah’s day, but in reference to Israel’s larger story and place in God’s eschatological plan.  Martin does not endorse canonical criticism, but one could make the case that, within the Book of Isaiah itself, old prophecies are updated and applied to new situations, showing that even some of the writers, editors, and organizers of the book believed that it was about more than the eighth century B.C.E.  Martin’s book would have been better had it explained more fully why God would tell people of Isaiah’s day about events in the far-off future, but Martin occasionally offered something to chew on, as when he said that Isaiah presented Israel’s deliverance from Babylon as “a foretaste of an even greater deliverance” (page 127).

Martin offered intriguing interpretations.  He believes that the Gospel is in Isaiah 59: Israel is alienated from God, God notices the absence of an intercessor, so God sends a redeemer.  Martin’s interpretation of Isaiah 6:9-13 was faithful to what the chapter says: Isaiah would not gain many converts, but God would preserve a remnant.  Such a theme, as Martin observes, extends beyond Isaiah’s time and is cited in the New Testament (Romans 9).  The book is edifying, as it attempts to provide a justification for God’s ways, presenting them as righteous.  Martin can be mocking towards other perspectives, as when he disparages liberal Christians who speak with an exalted tone about the “lowly Nazarene” while rejecting the substitutionary atonement.  I roll my eyes at those types, too!  Still, the book has a certain gravitas, as Martin speaks with weight and seriousness.

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

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Book Write-Up: Wheels of Wisdom

Tim and Debbie Bishop.  Wheels of Wisdom: Life Lessons for the Restless Spirit.  Open Road Press, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

Tim and Debbie Bishop married each other when they were in their early fifties, and that was the first time that either of them was ever married.  Both of them have bicycled across the country together, and this book is a collection of spiritual insights that they have gained through this experience.  They also work for the Hope Line, which offers help to teens and young adults who are suicidal, addicts, or coping with other problems.  Their cross-country bicycling has promoted this cause.

There are fifty-two reflections in this book, some of them written by Tim, and some written by Debbie.  They are written from an evangelical Christian perspective, which maintains that one receives forgiveness of sins by accepting the free gift of salvation that was made possible through Jesus’ death on the cross.  Each reflection ends with a Bible verse and a series of questions to inspire reflection.  The substitutionary atonement appears twice in this book: once in a chapter about hell, and another time in the epilogue, which is a Gospel invitation.  Most of the book focuses on other themes of Christian living, such as God’s providence and provision and finding God’s calling on one’s life.  There are lessons in the book that can resonate with secular-minded people, about facing worry, getting along with people, and moving on from the past.  Debbie brings in her experience in twelve-step recovery.  In some cases, their bicycling journey serves as an allegory for a life or spiritual truth concerning life’s journey.  At other points, people they meet along the way inspire them to consider a spiritual lesson.

One can probably read or hear the sorts of reflections that the book presents elsewhere.  While the book is not incredibly deep, it is still edifying.  It is evangelical Christian, but it has a friendly, inviting tone towards those who may believe differently.  The book has a positive, uplifting quality, but it still acknowledges the challenges and struggles of life.  Both Tim and Debbie talk about their challenges in being married, in light of their different backgrounds and temperaments, and all of the previous years that they were single and did what they wanted.  They also discuss medical injuries that they faced on their itinerary.  The book gave a taste of the challenges that cross-country cycling can present, including the threat of inclement weather, hills, wild animals, and nightfall.

I received a complimentary copy of this book through Bookcrash.  My review is honest.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Church Write-Up: Despairing Elijah, Worship After Justice, Home for Unwed Mothers

Time for my weekly Church Write-Up.

A.  At the LCMS church, the pastor preached about I Kings 19, in which the prophet Elijah flees from the wicked queen Jezebel after the fiery demonstration of God’s divinity and might before Israel at Mount Carmel.  Elijah is despairing and lacks strength, and an angel strengthens and sustains Elijah with bread and water.  Dramatic phenomena—-a wind breaking the mountains, an earthquake, and fire—-pass before Elijah, but God in not in those things.  Rather, God speaks to Elijah in a still, small voice.

The pastor also referred to John 6, in which Jesus calls himself the bread of life.

The pastor told a story that he has told before, but he shared more details.  He went to the Grand Canyon to hike, and he got up at 3 A.M. to beat the heat.  He only ate two pop-tarts.  He did not manage to beat the heat, however, and the pop-tarts did not last that long in terms of giving him energy.  He sat down because he was tired and could not give any more.  Another hiker came by and gave him some bread, and that strengthened him enough to finish the hike and to make his way to the nearest McDonald’s.

The pastor told another story about a woman who was cutting his hair in St. Louis.  They got to discussing the pastor’s occupation, and the pastor told her that he was a Lutheran pastor.  The lady responded that she has always wanted to be a Lutheran, and the pastor asked why.  She replied that it is because Lutherans do not think that they have to be happy all of the time!

The spiritual lesson that the pastor derived is that we may find ourselves spent, and that is understandable because we are limited human creatures.  But Jesus meets us in our place of need, helping us through his presence in holy communion and in his word throughout the week.

B.  At the “Word of Faith” church, the pastor’s daughter was preaching about the Book of Revelation.  Her main text was Revelation 15:

“[1] And I saw another sign in heaven, great and marvellous, seven angels having the seven last plagues; for in them is filled up the wrath of God. [2] And I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire: and them that had gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name, stand on the sea of glass, having the harps of God. [3] And they sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, Great and marvellous are thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints. [4] Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify thy name? for thou only art holy: for all nations shall come and worship before thee; for thy judgments are made manifest.  [5] And after that I looked, and, behold, the temple of the tabernacle of the testimony in heaven was opened: [6] And the seven angels came out of the temple, having the seven plagues, clothed in pure and white linen, and having their breasts girded with golden girdles. [7] And one of the four beasts gave unto the seven angels seven golden vials full of the wrath of God, who liveth for ever and ever. [8] And the temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God, and from his power; and no man was able to enter into the temple, till the seven plagues of the seven angels were fulfilled.” (KJV)

The pastor’s daughter drew at least three conclusions from this text.

First, she observed that people were praising God after surviving the turmoil.  They were like the Israelites who praised God after crossing the Red Sea, becoming free from the Pharaoh’s oppression and threat (Exodus 14-15).  Similarly, we may find ourselves praising God after being delivered from turmoil or depression.  She called praise the soundtrack of her life, as she remembers songs that she sang during difficulties that she  experienced.  Here, she seemed to present praise as something bubbling out of relieved believers after they have been delivered.  At other points in the sermon, however, she was stressing the importance of discipline and obedience.  She says that she struggles to get up in the morning to do her devotions and to read Ezekiel, and that there have been times in her life when she has been frustrated with people in church, because people are people.  But she sees value in praising the God of the universe and fulfilling God’s call on her life, so she does not simply press the snooze button when it comes to her Christian life.

Second, she talked about how God is a God of justice, one who is upset, not at sinners, but at sin.  God’s abhorrence at, say, human trafficking flows out of God’s love.  God in Revelation is bringing justice to the world.  God is not pleased with pouring out wrath, though, which is why the text says that it is one of the four beasts, not God, who gives the angels the vials full of God’s wrath.  God is distancing Godself from wrath here.

Third, she observed that people were not running away from God, terrified, but that the nations will come and worship God, happy that justice has come to the earth.

Those last two points can be critiqued, of course, and I do not want to mount a comprehensive critique here.  I will cite something that has long interested me about Revelation, though.  On the one hand, you have Revelation 16:9, which depicts people blaspheming God and refusing to give God glory in response to one of the plagues.  On the other hand, you have Revelation 11:13, which presents God sending an earthquake that kills people, and those remaining give glory to the God of heaven.  Are most people happy or rebellious when Christ returns?  Some may say that my question here is based on a hyper-literal reading of the text.

C.  Related to (A.) and (B.), I would like to share a couple of my posts from the past.  I usually share their WordPress version, but here I am sharing my Blogger versions because they have interesting reader comments.

Here is a post about I Kings 19.

Here is a post about whether most people at Christ’s return will be happy or rebelling against God.

D.  At the LCMS Sunday School, representatives from a home for unwed mothers, as well as unwed mothers themselves (with their babies), came to speak to us.  August is mission month.  Some points that I want to highlight:

—-The home is not a fit for everyone, and some have had to leave.

—-About five people at a time stay there, and it is generally for a year.

—-Each resident has to do twenty hours a week of either school or paying employment.
—-Each resident has to cook dinner once a week.

—-That they got a house with seven rooms for the home for a relatively inexpensive price is a miracle, especially in this area.

—-Convincing corporations to donate is a challenge, since some corporations are reluctant to help faith-based groups.  That is interesting to me.  You would expect this from government, due to church-state issues.  But it is true of some corporations, too, perhaps because they see religion as divisive and do not want to offend people.

—-One of the residents gave her testimony about how she was abused by her step-father and later lost custody of her first child because she hit him when she was high.  She felt horrible about what she did.  Now, she gets to be a mentor to other women at the home.   She also talked about how a Bible verse and a song touched her heart years ago and planted a seed within her, which later blossomed into faith.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Current Events Write-Up: 8/11/2018

Time for this week’s Current Events Write-Up.

The Nation: “How Medicare Was Won,” by Natalie Shure

The subtitle says, “The history of the fight for single-payer health care for the elderly and poor should inform today’s movement to win for Medicare for All.”  Shure disputes the idea that Medicare passed because not many private insurance companies covered the elderly and thus did not mount a massive opposition to it.  On the contrary, about half of the elderly were covered by private health insurance, plus there was massive resistance to Medicare, from the AMA and the right-wing.  What led to Medicare’s passing was grassroots support for it, as people wondered what would happen to their elderly or aging relatives.  Organized labor was inclined to support it due to its own struggle to provide health insurance to the elderly.  Plus, it was a time of social change, with the Civil Rights Movement.  Is the time ripe for Medicare-for-All?

The Epoch Times: “Trump Administration Uses Competition to Drive Down Drug Prices for Millions on Medicare,” by Holly Kellum

You hear a lot about how Medicare should use its size and leveraging power to negotiate lower pharmaceutical prices, or how single-payer would enable the government to negotiate lower pharmaceutical prices.  What this article taught me (and I am sure this is obvious to many) is that private health care companies already do this, on some level.  You have, say, Kaiser Permanente, which covers a lot of people, using its size and large customer-base to negotiate pharmaceutical discounts.  Trump’s plan is for Medicare Advantage to do the same for Plan B drugs.  This article was saddening because it illustrates how there are seniors who skimp on necessary medication because of its financial cost.  Again, many people already know about this, but it was still sobering for me to read about it.

The Epoch Times: “Trade War Turns Out to Be a Boon for Some Companies,” by Emel Akin

Essentially, China is buying soybeans from South America as it puts high tariffs on American soybeans.  But that frees up others to buy soybeans from the U.S. (though the decreased demand from China initially resulted in plummeting soybean prices, to the consternation of American soybean farmers).  Plus, South America has a shortage, due to drought, so China may resume buying American soybeans.

Townhall: “Are Trump’s Tariffs Actually Increasing The Trade Deficit?”, by Veronique de Rugy

What happens is that other countries ramp up their production to make a killing before the tariffs take effect.  de Rugy also argues that, contrary to protectionist claims, trade deficits are not necessarily bad.  Other countries use the money that they make from American purchase of their goods to invest in the United States.

Mintpress News: “Is Oily Econo-Politics Behind Saudis’ Crude Canadian Diplomacy?”, by Whitney Webb

Canada and Saudi Arabia are having a spat.  What is really behind it?  Webb speculates.  The United States imports a lot of oil from Canada.  Is Saudi Arabia targeting Canada’s economy, so that Canada will use more of Canada’s oil domestically, influencing the U.S. to buy more oil from the Saudis?  According to Webb, the Saudis have used those sorts of shenanigans in the past.

LeftVoice: “No, Venezuela Was Never Socialist”

Marxist Milton D’Leon disputes the idea that Venezuela’s economic troubles are due to socialism.  He states: “In Venezuela, it isn’t ‘socialism’ that failed. What failed is a policy that kept Venezuela dependent on oil revenue, a policy that guaranteed the profits of bankers and businessmen, while the people suffer from hunger.”  Also: ” From the beginning, the Chávez government always had frictions with US imperialism because it wanted more elbow room in economic questions. But Chávez never broke with imperialism. The big oil multinationals have always been active here, and they repatriated their profits as they would in any other country. The international financial sector is active here as well.”  There are solid critiques in that article, but I am not sure what Venezuela, or Venezuelan social programs, would do without oil revenue.

Mintpress News: “An Interview with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega,” by Max Blumenthal

Some things I got from the interview: Ortega has helped the Nicaraguan people and the economy, but organized and violent insurgents and U.S. sanctions are undermining progress that has been made.  The result is illegal immigration from Nicaragua to the U.S.  Plus, according to Ortega, the U.S. is hypocritical when it comes to human rights.

Truthdig: “Three Reasons Why ‘Fire and Fury’ Won’t Work With Iran,” by Scott Ritter

According to Ritter, Trump’s playbook for North Korea (fire and fury followed by openness to negotiation) will not work with Iran.  This is an interesting (albeit brief) article on North Korean and Iranian motivations, and Iran’s religious democratic system.

ThinkProgress: “Republican Gerrymandering Wall Is Starting to Crumble,” by Ian Millhiser

State Supreme Courts and ballot initiatives have undermined Republican gerrymandering.  The question is, will that survive the U.S. Supreme Court, particularly if Kavanaugh gets on it?

Federalist Radio Hour: “Policy Impacts on Women and Families: Paid Leave, Housing, and Social Engineering”

Vanessa Brown Carder is a policy analyst with the Cato Institute.  She makes the usual conservative critiques of paid leave: it will discourage the hiring of women who use it, it will result in an entitlement that adds to the government debt.  At the same time, she offers ideas for reform: removing the requirement that child-care providers have high school diplomas, for example, can result in more child care providers, bringing the cost down.  I think libertarians have good ideas, here and with zoning reform to solve high housing costs.  But I question whether such reforms will pass.

Chicago Tribune: “Not Just a Feel-Good Step: Businesses Are Increasingly Hiring People with Disabilities, and It’s Helping the Bottom Line

This is good news, though more work remains to be done.  The article is uplifting because it talks about how people with disabilities are good workers when given the chance, and how their presence helps the workplace.  People with autism, for example, need clear directions, and that can benefit everybody, not just them.

Fox News: “Dem Revolt against Pelosi Grows, amid Fears her Shadow Could Cast Pall over Midterm Hopes”

And, like Hillary, Pelosi blames sexism.  I feel that I have to support Democrats for the sake of the vulnerable, but, honestly, I do not like Democratic leaders and politicians.

Fox News: Macaulay Culkin Reveals He Turned Down ‘Big Bang Theory’ 3 Times

I can’t picture him on it, but this article was informative about how grueling the acting business can be, and why one would want to retire from it.

Washington Post: “Five Myths about the Atomic Bomb,” by Gregg Herken

August 6 marked the anniversary of the U.S. dropping the atomic bomb on Japan.  Was it necessary?  There was the option of conditional surrender.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Book Write-Up: Theologygrams, by Rich Wyld

Rich Wyld.  Theologygrams: Theology Explained in Diagrams.  IVP Books, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

Theologygrams is a book that has charts, graphs, and illustrations explaining key concepts in the Old Testament, New Testament, and Christian theology.  It is based on the author’s popular blog of the same name.  The bio of the author states: “Rich Wyld is an Anglican priest and has a PhD from Durham University in theology.  The blog came into being during some of the more tedious days of study.”

There were times when I rolled my eyes in reading some of the charts, graphs, and illustrations because the jokes were corny or cheesy.  The book also would have done better with less self-deprecation.  It just makes me uncomfortable, maybe because I would like to be the sort of person who puts people at ease rather than making them overly defensive or apologetic.  (People may read that last line and think, “Then get more of a sense of humor,” or “Stop being so nitpicky!”  Fair point.  Now I’m being self-deprecating!)  But there were times when I chuckled after reading a chart, graph, or illustration and thought, “That’s cute.”  The pie chart, “Marks of Mission,” comes to mind: there are small slivers with lofty marks of mission, but over three-fourths of the pie chart is devoted to “Anxiety about talking to other people.”  Got that right!  Another illustration catering to introverts was about how much time introverts spend at fellowship hour before they’re out the door!  One cute pie chart, based on I Corinthians 2:2, dealt with what Paul knew when he came to Corinth.  The vast majority of the pie was for “Jesus Christ, crucified,” but a very small sliver was for “Directions to Corinth”!  There was another illustration that was both cute and informative, as it illustrated the challenges of finding a middle ground of translation between literal and free, using John 20:17 as an example.

At times, the charts, graphs, and illustrations were pretty obvious.  There was a chart about Jesus’ Parable of the Sower, and its point was that the good soil produced good fruit (Matthew 13).  Another chart showed that God’s ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:9).  Pretty straightforward!  At some points, I hoped for a little more exegesis of the biblical text.  Jesus’ Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-20) has long troubled me, since the master seems so hard on the unprofitable servant who buried his talent, sending him to hell (or some horrible place).   Wyld offers the helpful insight that “My own view is that Jesus is not talking about failure through fear or weakness, but about complacency.”  But the unprofitable servant in the parable seems to express fear and weakness!  How would Wyld account for that?  Plus, the discussion was somewhat spoiled by “But I’m getting too preachy so I’ll shut up.”  No, please go on!

There were charts, graphs, and illustrations that taught me something.  One was about Jesus’ parable in Matthew 7:24-27 about building one’s house on rock versus building one’s house on sand, and Wyld referred to some scholars who want to flip Jesus’ imagery around because there were areas in which building one’s house on sand was better.  Another one was about the Venerable Bede and his attitudes towards certain Christians, based on their spiritual character, their haircuts, and whether they kept the right date for Easter.  Some of these Christians got two out of three right, in Bede’s eyes!

While some charts, graphs, and illustrations were obvious, others required more thought.  It took me some time to get used to the overlapping circles, but they eventually made more sense.  There was one chart that was a “Just War Checklist.”  It listed traditional Christian criteria for a just war and graded Star Wars, Dr. Who, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Independence Day according to them.  That would require some thought: “Does the battle in this movie or book follow that criterion, or not?” I am a little confused by the “Apocalyptic Chess Puzzle.”  John the Revelator is a pawn, and the only place he can move is one block forward.  There are knights around, but John is out of their range, anyway, so what difference does his movement make?  Is the point that he’s safe because God is in control?

Some charts, graphs, and illustrations were particularly helpful because they clearly and simply explained a theological concept that I have encountered more than once, but I may not know it well enough to explain it at a dinner party.  Wyld’s charts on Barthian dialectic, models of ethics (i.e., deontological, utilitarian, etc.), and revelation-based vs. natural law-based ethics come to mind.  That last one was both educational and cute, as it showed how complex making ethical decisions can be!
Some of the commentary was spiritually edifying or challenging.  At one point, Wyld referred to a friend who said that many theologians can get caught up in talking about who others say Jesus is, but they should not forget the question, “Who do you say that I am?”  (Matthew 16:13-20)  On page 132, Wyld offers this edifying comment: “If theology seems like a very detached and academic discipline, Jeremiah might remind us that in a world of great suffering there is an urgent need to seek God for the sake of the world.”

Overall, this was a light yet informative and edifying read.

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

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Book Write-Up: The Broken Welcome Mat, by Helen Raleigh

Helen Raleigh.  The Broken Welcome Mat.  2016.  See here to purchase the book.

Helen Raleigh is an immigrant from China.  She holds two master’s degrees: one in business economics from the State University of New York, and the other in business administration from the University of Wyoming.  She has worked in the financial services industry and is the founder of Red Meadow Advisors, LLC, an investment advisory firm.  She is an immigration policy fellow at the Centennial Institute, a conservative think-tank at Colorado Christian University, and she has written for the Wall Street Journal, Townhall, and the Federalist.

The Broken Welcome Mat is about how the United States can fix its broken immigration system.  Raleigh provides a history of immigration to America, starting with the Jamestown settlement and the settlement of the Pilgrims and the Puritans.  She moves on to the immigration stances of America’s framers, who largely supported immigration as a way to bring in workers and increase America’s GDP, while wanting to keep out criminal immigrants.  Her story proceeds to the immigration of Germans, Irish, and Chinese people to the U.S.  They built America’s GDP, and the Chinese worked for low pay in extremely menial jobs that many Americans did not want to do.  In times of economic turmoil, however, they were scapegoats, as American workers considered them to be competitors who drove down wages.

Overall, Raleigh views immigration as beneficial to the United States.  There is a high demand yet a low supply of skilled workers, and immigrants have met that need.  While some immigrants in the short term may compete with native-born Americans for low-skilled jobs, they also free native-born Americans to take jobs that require more facility with English.  For example, when doctors immigrate to the United States and become specialists, that frees American doctors to enter general practice, and the greater supply of doctors has a positive effect on American health care costs.  Raleigh argues that a number of immigrants work and that few commit crimes (other than being here illegally, in the case of illegal immigrants).  Surveys indicate that many of them have positive attitudes towards the United States, indicating some desire to assimilate.

While Raleigh rejects the nativism of Donald Trump, she still believes that he is raising real issues.  Immigrants have not always been adequately vetted, leading to Islamic terror on American and European soil.  Raleigh notes that one such assailant actually left anti-American posts on Facebook, but the Department of Homeland Security did not check that out due to politically-correct sentiments and a desire to preserve civil liberties.  While illegal immigrants pay sales and income taxes, their consumption of government benefits outweighs the amount of money that they contribute to the system.  They are ineligible for a number of federal benefits, but some states are more generous in their welfare policies.  The children of illegal immigrants who were born in the U.S. are also eligible for housing and medical benefits as well as public education and school lunch programs, and even illegal immigrants receive emergency care.  Raleigh disagrees with building a wall, seeing that as a very expensive and slow-moving process.  At the same time, she acknowledges that there are gaps in the border that put America at risk and that can be addressed, through security and cameras.

Based on her own personal experience as well as her formal analysis, Raleigh concludes that the U.S. immigration system is grossly inefficient.  It can take decades to become a U.S. citizen, explaining why there are illegals who try to bypass that process altogether.  The American immigration system is backlogged, and the criteria is not always consistent: the lottery program, for instance, randomly lets people in without regard to their ability to support themselves and contribute, as other programs seek to bring in skilled immigrants.  There are categories (i.e., asylum, refugee) that can and should be consolidated.  Among Raleigh’s proposals are border security, tightening the welfare system, and admitting people who can support themselves or at least be supported by people other than the government.  She does not favor so much a single bill that would claim to fix immigration, as that could increase backlog, inefficient bureaucracy, and a host of new regulations.  Rather, she believes that adjustments and consolidations can be made, here and there.  Raleigh also cites the Canadian and Australian immigration systems as models to follow.

Raleigh also favors addressing the problems that lead immigrants to come to the U.S.  For instance, she supports safe zones for refugees in Syria, which would be militarily protected by the U.S., Europe (which would want to solve the refugee influx to her own area), and Arab countries.  These would be more than refugee camps, for they would include schools and businesses.  Raleigh also believes that the U.S. should encourage free-markets, democracy, and anti-corruption measures in other countries, in some cases making foreign aid contingent on that.

The book is written from a conservative perspective.  It has somewhat of a “pull yourself up by your own bootstrap” mentality.  In one place, Raleigh notes the irony of how the Colorado Supreme Court in 2015 ruled against school choice by appealing to the Blaine Amendment of the nineteenth century, which marginalized and discriminated against Catholic schools, reflecting Protestant xenophobia and nativism against Catholic immigrants.

The book was interesting to read, in areas.  Raleigh effectively told the tale of how the Puritans received financial support from British merchants to settle in America.  The Puritan immigrants wanted to practice their religion, and the British merchants wanted to profit from what was in America.  The British merchants required a huge payback from the Puritan settlers because the merchants were making a risky investment, as there were perils to coming to America and settling there.  Raleigh also tells the story of Squanto, the Native American who was crucial to the Pilgrim’s survival.  The Pilgrims were fortunate to meet someone who knew English, due to his unique background.

Raleigh’s policy proposals are understandable.  A problem that I have is that their “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” attitude does not seem to grasp the difficulty that some have in supporting themselves under the American system.  For example, the American health care system is expensive and daunting even for many native-born Americans, explaining why there are people who feel a need to receive Medicaid or Obamacare subsidies.  We do not want more a lot of newcomers overloading the system, but is depriving immigrants of a safety net a compassionate policy?  In addition, while Raleigh supports prioritizing the admission of skilled immigrants, she still wants to admit people seeking asylum, and not all of them are skilled.  How can American society give them the skills that they need?  That could have been explored more.  Raleigh’s discussion of how to address the problems that lead immigrants to come to the U.S. could have used more detail.  It seemed a little ginger—-yay, promote free markets!—-and it ignored the rationale that officials have had for pursuing an opposite path from what she recommended: the Obama administration, for instance, was skeptical about the effectiveness of safety zones in Syria because it doubted whether other countries would be willing to provide the ground troops for them.  A proposal of ways to help other countries to control crime and violence would also have enhanced Raleigh’s discussion.

I checked this book out from the library.  My review is honest!

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Derek Leman on the Divine Name/Presence and Deuteronomy

Derek Leman had interesting thoughts in his August 7 Daily Portion.  Deuteronomy frequently states that God has set God’s name to dwell in the sanctuary, rather than saying that God personally dwells there.  Derek, engaging Stephen Cook’s Reading Deuteronomy, offers possible reasons why.  Enjoy!

“God’s presence in Deuteronomy,” says Stephen Cook (Reading Deuteronomy), “. . . is mysterious.” The author here has a new way of describing the connection between God and the temple, between God and the people. Instead of insisting as the priestly texts of Torah do that God’s visible manifestation is always inside the shrine, Deuteronomy says his “name” is at the place. As Cook says, “The book emphasizes a striking presence and absence of God.”

Israel’s history up to that point has included many close encounters with God. God had brought Israel out “by his Presence,” in other words, in person in a tangible appearance (Deuteronomy 4:37). The people heard God speak out of the fire on Sinai (4:33). God went “before them” during the conquest in Joshua’s time (1:30; 9:3). God is said to be presently “in your midst” (7:30). God’s care and blessings will be over the land where the people live (11:12). As Stephen Cook observes, Deuteronomy even asks, “What other nation has a god so near to it?” (4:7).

But Deuteronomy also takes pains, says Cook, to emphasize absence or only partial presence. The people did not see any shape or semblance of God on Sinai, but heard only a “voice” (4:12). In the historical writings which are edited by the author of Deuteronomy, Elijah goes to Horeb (Sinai) and does not see God there, but hears only a voice (1 Kings 19:12). What the people will find at the temple is God’s “name.”

It is vague. God may or may not be actually present, but his name is always there. Cook says with an idol, a statue thought to concentrate the divine energy into a physical object, the god is forced to be there. Idols are objects used for trapping deities in a place, for making divine beings do the will of human beings.

But God is free. The relationship between human beings and God is subject to the will of the Omnipresent, the Transcendent One, who is always a mystery to us.

He may or may not be present in any tangible sense, but God is in the world, in the land of Israel, and in the place of the temple in varying degrees of potency. In one sense the whole earth is under his care. In a heightened sense, the land of Israel is a place God potentially will bless with supernatural conditions unlike anything experienced in any other place on earth. And at its most potent, the divine Presence is potentially at the site of the temple, the place where God chooses for his name to dwell.

People need not limit their worship to places and times when God appears in a visible manifestation. We can honor his “name” from anywhere at any time. In Judaism there is a longing for God’s actual presence and thus, like Daniel in Babylon, we face Jerusalem several times a day and pray in the direction of the temple site. As Solomon is represented as saying in his great prayer in 1 Kings 8, when the people of Israel find themselves thrown out of the land, living in exile in some far country, may “they pray to you in the direction of their land which you gave to their fathers . . . and of the house which I have built in your name” (1 Kings 8:48).

The idea of God’s “name” being with us is a fitting description for the situation we find ourselves in, where God’s proximity to us is a matter of mystery, where presence and absence both seem to be true.

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