Monday, March 27, 2017

Book Write-Up: Achaia, by Ronald Beckham

Ronald Beckham.  Achaia: The Days of Noah.  WestBow Press, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

Achaia is largely set in antediluvian times, but it ends with the Flood.  Ronald Beckham depicts the antediluvian period as one of technological advancement.  In Beckham’s telling, there were radios, bombs, and missiles that were launched into outer space back in those days.  There was also aircraft, some of which consisted of flying dinosaurs.

This aspect of the book intrigued me, though I think that it went too far.  I remember listening to a sermon a while back, and the preacher speculated that God destroyed the animals in the Flood because people had been cross-breeding them.  Some—-not experts, mind you, but armchair interpreters of the Bible—-have speculated that the antediluvian period may have been more advanced than people think.  There may be nothing whatsoever to that idea, but it can provide fodder for the imagination.  I wonder if Beckham could have explored that idea, without going as far as he did.

Portraying the antediluvian period as technologically advanced—-as advanced as today—-is not very realistic.  If people were so advanced back then, why couldn’t they survive the Flood?  To his credit, Beckham actually addresses this question.  Elihu, of Book of Job fame, invents his own craft to survive the Flood, just in case Noah is right.  But meteors are falling from the sky, after people of earth destroy the planet Ariel in fear that there was life there, and Elihu’s craft gets destroyed.  Okay, fine, then why was Noah’s Ark safe from all that?  I suppose the answer would be divine protection!

The book depicts conflicts among Sethites, Cainites, and Nephiliim.  Their conflicts with each other were bloody, since Genesis 6 depicts the antediluvian time as a time of violence.  But, in Beckham’s telling, they also had their own ideological approaches to religion, history, and their own identity, as they took the Adamic religion in their own directions.  Meanwhile, there were Cainites who were trying to get back into the Garden of Eden.  And not all of the Cainites were bad people.  All of this was intriguing, but there could have been more of this sort of thing in the book.  Elihu was a character in this book, for example, and I don’t recall reading any of his theological reflections, though he shared a lot of them in the Book of Job!

Regarding the Nephiliim, Beckham went the route of portraying them as the offspring of the Sethites and the Cainites.  For some reason, the Nephiliim thought they were superior to others.  This would have made more sense, had Beckham portrayed them as the offspring of divine beings and human women!

The prose of the book was fine, but the organization of the book had its pluses and minuses.  The book was organized rather episodically.  There would be a short section about a character, and the section would share his or her reflections.  On the one hand, this allowed the book to present a variety of perspectives.  On the other hand, it hindered the book from flowing smoothly.

One part of the book that I particularly liked was when Noah brought sources onto the Ark: Adam’s creation hymn (presumably Genesis 1), the Book of the Generations of Adam (which is in Genesis), and the Book of Job.  Some conservative scholars say that Moses used sources in writing the Book of Genesis, which advocates of the Documentary Hypothesis would dispute.  Beckham obviously went with the former view.

Beckham’s book is a good idea, even if it could have been better.

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

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Book Write-Up: Treasured Grace, by Tracie Peterson

Tracie Peterson.  Treasured Grace.  Bethany House, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

Treasured Grace is set in the mid- to late-1800s.  Grace Martindale’s husband, a harsh pastor, has recently died.  Grace and her sisters Hope and Mercy travel west, to the area that is now Oregon.  They stay at Dr. Marcus Whitman’s mission, and Grace upsets Dr. Whitman because she tries to help the sick with natural healing remedies.

Grace meets Alex Armistead, a fur-trapper who is dealing with guilt and anger due to events in his past.  The two clash somewhat, since Alex is opinionated, and Grace has a rather patronizing attitude towards the Native Americans, which Alex does not share.  Meanwhile, Grace is being pursued by Nigel, a nice man, but she does not love him.

A measles epidemic is breaking out, and many in the nearby Cayuse tribe are blaming the whites for giving it to them.  Alex’s friend Sam, who has Cayuse background, has a more balanced perspective.  The Cayuse raid, and others get hurt or killed in the process.  Victims struggle with their faith in God, after having such experiences.

There are many assets to this book.  The contrast between Native Americans’ interactions with Catholics and their interactions with Protestants was interesting, as was the detail that some of the white settlers married Native American women.  Tracie Peterson put research into this book and painted a picture of that complex historical setting.

The spiritual element was good, too.  Alex had to deal with his own guilt and alienation from God.  Alex and Grace also have discussions about the problem of evil.  God’s activity is acknowledged as a hopeful possibility, and yet the salient theme is that this is a fallen world, in which Satan is active.  One of the characters takes comfort in a sermon in which the preacher highlights the biblical characters who suffered, as God was with them.

I do not feel attached enough to the characters to rush to read the next book of the series.  But I am at least open to reading the sequel, or the many other Tracie Peterson books that have been written.  The prose is somewhat dry, but there is enough reflection on the part of the characters to make the book interesting.

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

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Church Write-Up: The Imperfect and the Stunted

I have two items for my Church Write-Up this week.

A.  Last Sunday, I visited a Missouri Synod Lutheran church.  The theme of the service was lament.  Preaching about Psalm 31:9-16, the pastor said that the Psalmist offers to God his sadness.  The pastor remarked that this is odd: Are we not supposed to offer God our best?  Why is God willing, even eager, to take the Psalmist’s sadness?  The answer is that it’s because God loves us.

The Psalms are raw and honest.  The Psalmist does not always manifest a joyful, forgiving attitude!  And this is ironic, considering that God in the Book of Leviticus desires pure, unblemished sacrifices.  Moreover, Jesus in Mark 11:25 tells his disciples to forgive as they stand praying, and God will forgive their trespasses.  Does this imply that God needs to forgive us to hear our prayers, and God will forgive us only if we forgive others?  On that note, see Tim Challies’ Six Ways to Hinder Your Prayers.

Is there tension within the Bible, on this issue?  On the one hand, God hears imperfect people, with imperfect attitudes.  On the other hand, God desires perfection.

Christians may respond to these questions in a variety of ways.  One way is to say that God hears the prayers of sinners when they are covered with the blood of Christ.  We are imperfect, but Christ our sacrifice is perfect, and that is how God hears the prayers of sinful people.  Another way is to say that God will hear us if we are on the right track, or at least try to be on the right track.  To refer to the Challies post, many Christians will find that they fall short on that list.  Their obedience is partial and imperfect.  Their forgiveness falls short.  They cannot eradicate every trace of doubt.  They fail in being perfectly kind to others.  But are they at least trying to do the right thing?  Are they growing in doing the right thing?  For many Christians, God honors such an attitude and hears the prayers of those who hold it.

Speaking for myself personally, I know that I fall short, even in trying to have the right attitude and to do the right thing!  I am grateful for God’s law because it challenges me and upholds a righteous standard, but I know that I need God’s mercy.  I do not know if my attitude is good enough for God to hear my prayer, but my policy is to pray, and whether God listens to me or not is in God’s court.

B.  I also listened to a sermon delivered at the church that I normally attend.  The pastor was continuing a series on prayer.  He was baffled that a person can be a Christian and yet not pray.
I have actually thought about this issue before.  Years ago, I read a blog post by a woman who had been a Christian for decades, and yet she confessed that years went by in which she did not pray or read the Bible.  That baffled me.  How can one be a Christian without cultivating one’s relationship with God in prayer, or deriving nourishment from the Scriptures?

I can ask that question, and yet other Christians can look at me and find my Christian practice deficient.  Prayer and Bible study come easy to me because I can do those things by myself: they do not necessarily involve interpersonal interaction.  But I struggle with the practices that involve interpersonal interaction.  Consequently, Christians can ask: How can James be a Christian and not reach out to others with love?  How can James be a Christian and not be motivated to serve?

I learned a while back that there are plenty of Christians who struggle with prayer.  They do not know what to say to God.  It is awkward for them.  They may excel at serving or reaching out to others or witnessing, but personal prayer is a challenge to them.  That Christian woman who went years without prayer may have felt that she was practicing her faith in other ways: by being a kind, loving person, and by basing the way that she lives her life on the love of Christ.

I am reading a book called The Teaching of the Buddha.  On page 178, we read: “Therefore, to believe in the Dharma and to cherish the Brotherhood is to have faith in the Buddha, and to have faith in the Buddha is to believe in the Dharma and to cherish the Brotherhood.”

The Dharma is the path that the Buddha commands, and the Brotherhood is a group of people who are committed to following those commands.

That passage reminds me of certain Scriptures.  Love for God entails love for one’s brother or sister (I John 4:21).  Jesus in John 14:23 says that those who love him will obey his teaching.

It sounds automatic, doesn’t it?  And, on some level, that makes sense.  If I love God, I will value those God loves, God’s people.  If I am secure in God’s love for me, that will enable me to love others, even if they hurt me.  In Buddhist terms, if one walks the Buddhist path and becomes clean of greed and covetous desires, one will get along better with those in the Brotherhood.  The human flaws that hinder relationships will not be a problem.

But this is easier said than done, and people, in their own lives, may not find that B naturally follows A, assuming one can even get A right in the first place!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Resurrection Fact

John J. Bombaro and Adam S. Francisco.  The Resurrection Fact: Responding to Modern Critics.  New Reformation Publications, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

Allow me to quote the description of the book on Amazon, before I offer my thoughts about it.  The description says who wrote the book, the book’s general perspective, and the book’s intended audience.

“As this team did with the book, ‘Making The Case For Christianity’ (CPH), Drs. Bombaro and Francisco bring together a variety of contemporary Lutheran apologists to respond to a wide array of challenges to the heart of the Christian Faith. Each chapter addresses a specific argument from a popular, non-Christian author and offer a clear and concise rebuttal and argument for the resurrection. The editors have found able representatives from the disciplines of biblical studies, history, philosophy, and the legal profession to write each chapter. The book is accessible, written for a broad audience, and is ultimately designed to equip its readers for the apologetics task.”

Now for my thoughts:

A.  Whenever I see a book like this, I wonder if it will contribute anything new to the discussion.  So many Christian apologetic books have already been written defending the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection.  Does this book contribute anything new?  I will later detail what I learned from this book, but, in response to the question of whether it contributes anything earth-shakingly new to the debate, I would say that it does not.  It responds to skeptics with the usual apologetic spiel, even though many of those skeptics have already raised objections to that spiel.  How about responding to their objections to the spiel, rather than regurgitating the spiel itself?  I will address how they could have done this in the next item.

B.  I have heard that, in writing a book review, I should avoid talking about the book that I wish the authors had written and instead focus on the book as it is.  I am going to depart from that rule in this item because I do believe that there are things that the authors could have done to make this book better.  This book could have responded to skeptics without regurgitating the usual apologetic spiel, while still being accessible to a broad audience who would not want to get lost in scholarly minutiae.  It could have done so by interacting with specific topics.  For example, there is the debate about whether Jesus’ resurrection in Paul’s writings was an exchange of a physical body for a spiritual body (while the physical body remains in the grave) or a resuscitation and transformation of a body: the latter option implies the empty tomb, which apologists deem to be physical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, whereas the former does not.  There is debate about whether Second Temple Judaism had a conception of resurrection that was a bodily exchange rather than a bodily transformation; this is significant because apologists in this book assert that Second Temple Judaism only conceived of resurrection as physical transformation of a dead body into a living body.  On that basis, they argue that Jesus’ resurrection was physical, meaning early Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection arose from Jesus’ resurrection itself and not from seeing a ghost.  Another debate is whether there are parallels between the Gospels’ resurrection stories and themes in Greco-Roman literature; one author in the book briefly touches on this, but more discussion would have been helpful.  And, if one wants to respond to Bart Ehrman’s textual critical arguments, how about engaging some of the texts that he cites—-the texts that he believes reflect theological revision on the part of the proto-orthodox scribes—-rather than casually dismissing Ehrman’s argument by saying that most of the differences among New Testament versions are theologically insignificant?  Such discussions would have responded to skeptics in a fruitful, engaging, fairer, and more interesting manner.  It also would have brought these debates to a broader audience.

C.  The description of the book highlighted that the apologists were Lutheran, and that made me wonder if they would add a distinct Lutheran perspective to the debate.  I saw that in this book occasionally.  The author of the introduction lists among his pieces of evidence for Jesus’ resurrection “the continual assertion by the disciples and apostles that the living Christ was with them in the Eucharist and governing them by his Spirit…”  I vaguely recall a reference to baptismal regeneration.  There was also a discussion of Martin Luther’s conception of faith.  Overall, though, the distinctly Lutheran references were  rare.  Much of the book was the usual apologetic spiel!

D.  I did learn things from this book.  A few of the authors referred to scholar Craig Evans’ scholarship on Jewish burial.  They argued that the Sanhedrin ensured that crucified Jewish bodies were disposed of properly, and that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus may have been commissioned by the Sanhedrin to ensure Jesus’ burial.  That may differ from seeing Joseph and Nicodemus as nobly stepping forward out of devotion to Jesus (see John 19:38-39), but it does coincide with Acts 13:28-29’s statement that the Jewish leaders as a whole buried Jesus.
Mark Pierson refers to a scholarly source that disagrees with the idea that Papias was historically unreliable.  Papias is a significant figure in debates about whether the Gospels are based on eyewitness testimony.

Another author referred to a book about rabbinic views on Jesus’ resurrection, and another author mentioned Christian writings as early as the sixteenth century (maybe earlier) that tried to harmonize the Gospels’ resurrection stories.

C.J. Armstrong and Andrew DeLoach explore the nuances of mystery religions, including the question of whether they focused on the afterlife.  They also discussed the difficulty in ascertaining what the Mithra cult actually believed.  Their essay was probably the best in the book, even though it could have been more consistent.  (Was Jesus myth entering historical reality, or was Jesus different from other mythical figures?  The authors claimed both.)

E.  Back to the issue of Jewish burial practices, John Bombaro states in the book that “Scholarly opinion agrees with Craig that the Jews of Jesus’s day fastidiously observed Torah burial mandates regardless of the deceased’s economic status and circumstances.”  Relying on the synoptic Gospels, however, a number of Christians believe that the Jewish authorities transgressed a lot of Passover laws in trying Jesus (Craig Parton refers to this issue in an endnote).  Were the Jewish authorities fastidious in their Torah observance or not?

F.  I think that the book based some of its prominent arguments on certain assumptions.  More than one author said that the disciples could not have stolen Jesus’ corpse from the tomb because guards were at the tomb site, as the Gospel of Matthew states.  That assumes that the Gospel of Matthew was historically accurate on this detail.  The Gospel of Mark, which many scholars believe is earlier, does not say there were guards at Jesus’ tomb.  More than one author said that the Roman and Jewish authorities would have presented Jesus’ corpse to the public to refute the emerging Christian movement, had Jesus’ tomb not been empty.  That assumes that the Roman and Jewish authorities were preoccupied with Christianity.  A few authors said that early Christian eyewitnesses would have prevented historically-inaccurate details from getting into the Gospels, but were things really that neat?

G.  A few authors attempted to refute the skeptical idea that people in the first century were especially gullible, and thus we cannot trust the early Christian claim that Jesus rose from the dead.  They did not engage the examples that Richard Carrier has cited of this.  And yet, one of the authors did well to observe that the disciples in the Gospels were initially skeptical after hearing that Jesus rose from the dead.  Granted, Jesus seems to rebuke their skepticism (Luke 24:25; John 20:29), but the Gospels present the disciples as the opposite of gullible, perhaps showing some respect for critical thought.

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

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Book Write-Up: Reclaiming Hope, by Michael Wear

Michael Wear.  Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House about the Future of Faith in America.  Nelson Books, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Michael Wear was a staffer in the Obama Administration.  The inside flap of the cover states that Wear was “Appointed by the president in 2008 to the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and later directed faith outreach for the president’s 2012 election campaign…”

If there is a theme in this book, it is that Wear was initially drawn to Barack Obama because Obama was reaching out to evangelicals and was seeking common ground with social and cultural conservatives (i.e., pro-lifers).  Over time, however, Wear became disillusioned with the Obama Administration, as it embraced polarization rather than seeking common ground.

Here are some of my thoughts about this book:

A.  Barack Obama in this book is somewhat like the man behind the curtain.  On the one hand, Wear seems to defend Barack Obama as a man of genuine Christian faith.  On the other hand, Wear appears rather cynical: if Obama sincerely embraced same-sex marriage as early as 2007, for example, why did Obama appeal to his religious beliefs in his public rejection of it for so many years?  Isn’t that shamefully and insincerely exploiting religion for political purposes?  Wear himself seems to wonder what exactly made Barack Obama tick.  There was an occasional glimpse into Barack Obama, though: I think of Wear’s account of Obama expressing openness to an abstinence-only program, which may have shown that Barack Obama at one point sincerely sought to transcend polarization.

B.  This book only goes so far in being a behind-the-scenes account.  I do not recall too many accounts in the book of discussions that occurred inside the Oval Office.  Wear’s contribution was significant and valued, but my impression is that he mostly advised President Obama from a distance.  Wear said that Vice-President Biden was pushing for a stronger religious freedom exemption in the contraception mandate, and that is somewhat of a behind-the-scenes story, but that was briefly mentioned, without a whole lot of development.  In short, if you are looking for something juicy, or an inside account of the machinations of power, then this book is not for you.  Regarding political narrative, I did not find much in this book that was not also in the newspapers at the time.  At the same time, the book was rather eye-opening in describing how clueless some of the Obama staffers were about faith.  One of them had no idea what “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40) meant!

C.  Some of Wear’s policy discussions were better than others.  Wear offered a decent defense of the Affordable Care Act and weighed the positives and negatives of President Obama’s foreign policy.  His discussion of the effectiveness of faith-based initiatives and adoption reform was insightful and even beautiful.  But he did not really justify his apparent opposition to federal funding of abortion (or so I interpreted his position).

D.  Regarding Wear’s justification for his policy positions, my impression is that Wear believes it is better to bring people together rather than to tear them apart.  At one point, Wear seems to offer a political justification for such a stance, but then he has to admit that Barack Obama won in 2012 by being polarizing, so being polarizing did not hurt Barack Obama electorally!  But there are important things besides winning elections, as far as Wear is concerned.  Conservative evangelicals do a lot to serve people, and, in Wear’s opinion, it is better to seek common ground with them rather than to reject them out of ideological absolutism.  Moreover, political polarization has encouraged rancor and animosity.

E.  Wear does well to seek common ground, but he should have made more of an effort in the book to empathize with people on the other side.  What about a poor woman who cannot get an abortion because the federal government refuses to fund it?  What if the pregnancy takes time away from her job or hurts her health?  What about an LGBT person who is fired in the name of religious freedom?

F.  Wear probably is more conservative than I am on certain issues, but I did appreciate the times when he transcended the left-right dichotomy.  I liked something he said on page 225: “Christians cannot protest for their religious freedom one day and protest against a mosque opening up down the street the next.”

G.  Wear made an interesting point on page 222, in justifying government funding of religious organizations that embrace a conservative approach towards sexuality: “…to categorically deny federal funding and recognition to any group is to say to them and their fellow citizens that they are not a part of the American family.  That they are somehow beneath the nation, unfit to serve their neighbor in partnership with their government.  There may be circumstances in which as a nation we might want to send this message, but we should be careful when we do, and keep in mind the social ramifications of this position.”  Speaking for myself personally, I think it is problematic, on a practical level, when Catholic hospitals refuse to provide contraception.  On the other hand, I am also uncomfortable with saying that receiving government assistance means they have to surrender their religious freedom.  Wear on page 222 provided food for thought on such issues.

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

Monday, March 20, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Beloved Hope Chest

Amy Clipston.  The Beloved Hope Chest.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

The Beloved Hope Chest is Book 4 of Amy Clipston’s Amish Heirloom series.

Each of the previous three books ended with some sort of unresolved mystery.  In Book 4, those mysteries are resolved.  I cannot say that there were any surprises in Book 4, or that Book 4 was particularly eventful.  Yet, Book 4 tied up the series beautifully.  We got to see why Mattie was able to empathize with what her daughters went through in Books 1-3: because she had similar experiences.  One can understand Book 4 without having read the previous books, though.

Like many other Amy Clipston books that I have read, this one could get repetitive and drag on, a bit.  But it was slightly more variegated in its treatment of issues than other Amy Clipston books.  An asset to the book is that Clipston communicated the characters’ emotions well.  Mattie has just lost her husband Isaac and is nervous in her newfound marriage to Leroy: it is difficult for her to adjust to her new life, and she is unsure if she can be a good wife to Leroy.  Leroy has always loved Mattie and wishes that she would love him in return.  Clipston vividly conveyed Mattie’s sense of loss and worry, and Leroy’s sadness as a person with unrequited love.

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

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Articles: How Democrats Killed Their Populist Soul; Reading Little House as an Adult

I don't feel like doing an extensive Current Events Write-Up today, so I will just link to two articles that I found interesting.

This is a lengthy article, so I read it over the course of a month.  According to the article, a prominent plank among 1930's New Deal Democrats was a commitment to anti-trust policies: smaller business is better than big business.  In the 1960's, however, economist and Kennedy advisor John Kenneth Galbraith expressed hope that monopolies could promote social justice.  During the 1970's, when Democrats were elected to Congress in the aftermath of Watergate, many of these Democrats rejected the populist anti-trust beliefs of the 1930's Democrats.  Bill Clinton would amplify this 1970's non-populist stance as President.  

I've been watching the Little House TV series lately.  I was wondering if I would enjoy the books.  From this post, the impression that I get is that the books are not like the TV series!  I'd still like to read them for myself, sometime. 

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