Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Book Write-Up: Moving from Broken to Beautiful Through Grief

Yvonne Ortega.  Moving from Broken to Beautiful Through Grief.  EA Books Publishing, 2017.  See here or here to purchase the book.

According to the “About the Author” page of the book, “Yvonne Ortega is a licensed professional counselor, a licensed substance abuse treatment practitioner, and a clinically certified domestic violence counselor.”

In this book, Ortega talks about ways to cope with grief after the loss of a loved one.  She tells a lot of people’s stories, but she also tells her own, as she has coped with the loss of her mother and her only son.  The book covers a lot of territory: dealing with people’s inappropriate comments, ways to help someone who is grieving, coping with the holidays, fading faith, regret, the dangers of self-medication, and more.

There are similarities between this book and another book of hers that I read, Moving from Broken to Beautiful Through Forgiveness.  Both open the chapters with a thought-provoking quote.  Both share poignant and relevant Scriptures.  Both display an understanding, empathetic tone, which appreciates where people are.  And both discuss the importance of music in personal healing.  In Moving from Broken to Beautiful Through Grief, Ortega shares songs, both contemporary and traditional, that can help people as they journey through grief.  She also highlights the importance of journaling as a way to express one’s feelings.

Moving from Broken to Beautiful Through Grief strikes me as more detailed than the book on forgiveness.  The book on grief seems to share more of Ortega’s feelings and has more anecdotes.
One critique that I have: Ortega tells the story about a man who did not want to join a grief support group because he was introverted.  I think that she should have discussed more how people who are uncomfortable with groups can cope with their grief.  She did say that he saw a grief counselor, and maybe that is a solution: talk with someone one-on-one.  But what if he is still uncomfortable expressing his feelings?

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

Monday, December 11, 2017

Church Write-Up: Snakes with Legs; Luke's Census; Shepherds; Dominion; Healing Atonement; Advent; "Let Me Out"; the Way to Repentance

Here are some items from the church services that I attended last Sunday.  I visited the “Word of Faith” church and the Missouri Synod Lutheran church.

A.  The pastor of the “Word of Faith” church was saying that snakes used to have legs, on the basis of Genesis 3:14, where God tells the serpent that the serpent will crawl on his belly as punishment for his deed.  The implication, according to the pastor, is that the serpent did not crawl on his belly before that curse.  I wondered if snakes used to have legs, according to a scientific or evolutionist perspective.  Blue whales, after all, used to be land creatures.  I found this NPR article: How Snakes Lost Their Legs.

B.  The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church mentioned a discussion that he had with a skeptical friend.  The friend was saying that Luke 2:1-5 was wrong about the date of Caesar Augustus’ census: that it occurred later than Mary’s pregnancy with Jesus, in 6 C.E., rather than during it, as Luke narrates.  The pastor seemed open to the possibility that Luke was not accurate about the exact date of the census.  This somewhat surprised me, since he appears to treat the Gospel nativity accounts as historical.  He did not elaborate too much on his view here, but he asked why Luke mentions the census, rather than simply telling the nativity story as Matthew did.  The pastor said that Luke-Acts was part of Paul’s defense before the emperor, and Luke 2:1-5 was arguing that God can work through corrupt political systems, such as that of Caesar Augustus, whose census brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, where Mary gave birth to Jesus.  The pastor also said that Luke 2:1-5 had in mind Augustus’ claim to be the Son of God and the inaugurator of a new era: in Luke 2:1-5, Augustus plays a role in the inauguration of a new era, but the Son of God and actual inaugurator would be Jesus.

I have encountered that idea about Luke-Acts before.  Some have claimed that the reason that the death of Paul is not narrated in Acts is that it was written before Paul died, and this would be consistent with the claim that it was composed by Luke as part of Paul’s defense.  Several scholars do not share this idea, though.

I wrote about the census of Luke 2:1-5 here, detailing problems scholars have had with Luke’s historical placement of the census.  But I briefly mention in that post a scholarly attempt to defend Luke’s historical placement of the census as accurate.

I find something that Richard Carrier said about Luke’s historical placement of the census to be interesting.  In this article, Carrier argues that Luke relied heavily on Josephus.  But that raises a question: how could Luke be relying on Josephus, when Luke appears to place the Augustan census at a different time in history than does Josephus, who places it in 6 C.E.?  Carrier argues that Luke is being deliberate here:

“Josephus uses the census as a key linchpin in his story, the beginning of the wicked faction of Jews that would bring down Judaea (and the temple), whereas Luke transvalues this message by making this census the linchpin for God’s salvation for the world, namely the birth of Christ (which also would result in destruction of the temple)…”

For both Josephus and Luke, according to Carrier, the Augustan census instigated a highly significant series of events.  For Josephus, it marked the rise of the Jewish insurrectionists who later would contribute to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the main event that Josephus discusses in Jewish Wars.   For Luke, it marked the birth of the Savior of the world.  Luke also believed that the census related to the destruction of Jerusalem, albeit differently from Josephus.  The census marked the birth of Jesus, and, for Luke, the destruction of Jerusalem was due to Jerusalem’s rejection of Jesus (Luke 13:34).

C.  The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church said that shepherds were “church-skippers”: they did not go to synagogue or the Temple because they were busy watching their sheep, and they were not considered particularly trustworthy.  Yet, in Luke 2:8-20, the shepherds are the ones to whom the angels appear, and whom the angels tell about the birth of Jesus.  The angels tell them about the significance of Jesus’ birth: to bring peace to those on whom God’s favor rests.  They go to see the infant Jesus, praising God.

I wrote about this view about shepherds here.  I have questions about that view, as I write there.  Still, the pastor’s interpretation is consistent with the message of Luke’s Gospel: that Jesus came to save the unrighteous and the outsiders, those who may not even have thought much about God.  God still honored the “church-attenders” when Jesus was an infant: in Luke 2:25-36, Simeon and Anna, who were devout worshipers at the Temple, got to see the Christ child and appreciated his significance.  But, according to the pastor’s interpretation, God reached out to the “church-skippers” as well.

D.  The “Word of Faith” pastor said that the Gospel is about Christians, as God’s new creation, having dominion over creation, a la Genesis 1:28.  He said that dominion belongs to humans, not to gazelles.  But humans have exercised that dominion poorly.  That is why God recreated humanity.  There may be something to this, when it comes to a Christian reading of the Bible.  I wondered if the pastor was leaning towards political dominionism, and that would be surprising because, ordinarily, he is politically neutral when it comes to Left-Right distinctions.  I remember hearing Pat Robertson say on TV that a person who is not ruled by the Spirit of God has no business ruling in government.  I am not so optimistic, though, considering the damage that religious people have inflicted when they had political authority.  I am not saying that secular authorities are that much better—-there are plenty of secular authorities that have inflicted damage—-but why are there so many cases in which Christians in governing positions fail to bring about peace and justice, and, in some cases, even work against them?

E.  The “Word of Faith” pastor also said that Jesus came to heal humanity’s hatred of God.  We hate God, he said, in that we do not care for God’s command that we place God first, and also in that some things about the God of the Bible rub us the wrong way.  But God healed this division, and we see that God is a loving Father.  This sounded like a subjective view of the atonement—-like the moral influence view—-or he may believe that God through the Holy Spirit heals people’s personal alienation from God.

F.  The pastor at the Missouri Synod church said that “advent” means coming in strength or with enthusiasm.  He said that “ad” in the Latin meant “strength,” while “vent” refers to “coming.”  I knew that “vent” meant coming.  I thought that “ad,” however, meant “to” or “toward.”  I was right.

According to this author, though, “advent” was often used for to refer to military arrival, or the arrival of royalty.  Maybe the pastor was correct on his main point, but not on the basis of his analysis of the word “advent.”  I admit that I have not done a search of the term, though.  This and this dictionary on antiquities state that it was used for the Roman emperor’s arrival, which was commemorated in coins, so it makes sense that it would come to be used for the arrival of Christ.

G.  The Missouri Synod pastor relayed a story that was told by Paul Harvey about a chimpanzee who was taught sign language, and the first thing that the chimpanzee said was, “Let me out!”, meaning out of his cage.  Here is the story.  The pastor employed that story to make a homiletical point, but I felt sorry for the chimpanzee.

H.  Using personal and chimpanzee-related anecdotes, the Missouri Synod pastor addressed the question of how we can possibly repent, when many of us are locked into certain mindsets.  That is a good question.  I wonder the same thing myself so many times.  How can I “turn” from sin, when sin is ingrained within me?  I have a “confession” part of my prayer times, and I often give my flaws to God rather than making a vain promise that I will, by the strength of my own will, cease having those flaws.  In some areas, though, I make a sincere attempt to avoid making the same mistakes, since they can be hurtful to others.

The youth pastor talked about Luke 3:10-14, where John the Baptist gave practical advice about how to repent: share what you have with those who lack; tax collectors should collect only what they are authorized; soldiers should be content with their wages rather than forcibly extorting money from people.  That was a point that also stood out to me in a book that I read over a decade ago: Pastor Gerald Mann’s When the Bad Times Are Over for Good.  I did not particularly care for that book, but two chapters, the one on grace and the one on practical repentance and obedience, have stayed with me for almost twenty years.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Book Write-Up: Mark Through Old Testament Eyes

Andrew T. Le Peau.  Mark Through Old Testament Eyes.  Kregel Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Andrew T. Le Peau is an editor and a writer.  He has taught inductive Bible studies of the Gospel of Mark for over a decade at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.  Le Peau is also the series editor of Kregel’s Through Old Testament Eyes commentaries.

Mark Through Old Testament Eyes goes through the Gospel of Mark verse-by-verse, but it differs from many other commentaries in a certain respect: it cites Old Testament parallels to elements that are in the Gospel of Mark.

In some cases, this approach illuminates the Markan passage.  For example, Mark 1:13 states that Jesus was with wild beasts in the wilderness, and Le Peau refers to Old Testament passages that refer to wild beasts in an attempt to interpret the passage.  Le Peau interprets “Son of God” in the Gospel of Mark in light of Old Testament usage of that term, to refer to Israel and the Davidic Messiah (though he maintains that Mark’s Gospel has a high Christology).  There are cases in which Le Peau argues that Mark presents Jesus acting similarly to or differently from an Old Testament character, in order to highlight something about Jesus: for instance, Jesus, unlike Jonah, actually goes to the Gentiles after sleeping on a boat rather than seeking to avoid that task.  On occasion, Le Peau offers a fresh insight, as when he interprets Herod’s statement that Jesus was the resurrected John the Baptist (Mark 6:14) in light of the spirit of Elijah falling onto Elisha.  Le Peau’s interpretation of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and Jesus’ statement about cutting off one’s right hand or plucking out one’s offending eye were also helpful, as he looked at Old Testament references to intentional and unintentional sin and how the hand and the eye can offend.

These are examples of where Le Peau’s approach illuminates Mark’s Gospel (and there are many more), but Le Peau also maintains that Mark’s indirect allusions to the Old Testament paint a sweeping picture of Jesus’ mission: as a new Moses, conducting a new Exodus.

In some cases, Le Peau cited Old Testament passages, and it was unclear how exactly they were illuminating a Markan passage.  For instance, in discussing the leper who did not obey Jesus’ command to go to the priest after being healed (Mark 1:45), Le Peau referred to Saul’s incomplete obedience in I Samuel 13.  Does the story of Saul somehow inform the story in Mark, though?  At times, Le Peau perhaps should have attempted to explain the purpose behind an element in a verse, rather than just citing parallels; he did so a number of times, but not always.  There were cases in which Le Peau seemed to be throwing everything in but the kitchen sink.  Often, this provided a comprehensive range of interpretive possibilities; sometimes, he appeared to be citing parallels simply for the sake of citing parallels, without the parallels really illuminating the Markan text.

In one case, Le Peau offered an intriguing parallel, but his explanation of the parallel was incomplete.  On pages 208-209, Le Peau addresses Jesus’ statement that his disciples will be able to move this mountain, if they have faith the size of a grain of mustard seed (Mark 11:23).  Le Peau interprets “this mountain” as the Temple mount, and he mentions Zechariah 4:6-7, in which “the temple mount ‘will become level ground’ and be replaced with another temple” (Le Peau’s words).  Le Peau seemed to interpret Mark 11:23 to concern God’s judgment on the Temple in 70 C.E., but he should have further clarified how that related to the disciples moving the mountain.

At times, Le Peau cites parallels within the Gospel of Mark itself, as when he proposed that there were parallels between Jesus’ predictions in Mark 13 and his passion.

Interspersed throughout the book are gray sections, in which Le Peau goes more deeply into an issue in the Gospel of Mark or makes homiletical points.  Some of these were convicting: the part about counting the cost of following Jesus certainly highlighted where I fall short!  Some were infuriating: I think of his statement that a Christian’s church family should take precedence over his or her biological family.  Some softened the draconian statements of Jesus through interpretation; often, this was reasonable.  With Jesus’ statement that the parables were intended to confuse, however, Le Peau’s explanation was rather unconvincing, as he seemed to be concluding the opposite from what the Markan passage was saying.  Some sections had anecdotes, personal or otherwise, which were instructive, inspiring, or thought-provoking.  Le Peau’s discussion of lament in prayer was not earth-shakingly new, but it was helpful to me when I read it, as Le Peau highlighted the importance of being honest with God.

The notes in the back were good.  For example, Le Peau offered arguments that Mark 1:41 says that Jesus was compassionate before healing a leper, rather than angry.  Bart Ehrman argues that “angry” was the original reading and that later scribes changed that to “compassionate” because they had issues with Jesus being angry before healing a leper. But, as Le Peau notes, the texts of the Gospel of Mark that present Jesus as compassionate in Mark 1:41 are not afraid to acknowledge Jesus’ anger elsewhere.

The book is helpful in offering an interpretation of the Gospel of Mark that is rooted in Old Testament texts.  One should remember, however, that time passed between the Old Testament and the Gospel of Mark, so intertestamental literature may be relevant to what is in the Gospel of Mark.  There is hardly any reference to intertestamental literature in Le Peau’s book.

There is also the question of the implications of Le Peau’s approach.  Some scholars, who are more liberal than Le Peau, have argued that Gospel stories that echo the Old Testament are not historically-accurate: that they are midrash, or they were crafted from the Old Testament stories rather than reflecting history.  Is this conclusion avoidable?  Le Peau should have addressed that.

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

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Church Write-Up: Creation Praises God; If God Forgives, So Will I?; New Beginnings?

On Wednesday, I went to a Missouri Synod Lutheran church’s Advent service.  It will have a Wednesday Advent service every week until Christmas (I think).

The pastor was referring to J.B. Phillips’ 1952 book, Your God Is Too Small.  The pastor said that, over sixty years after that book came out, many people’s God is still too small.  How so?  He gave two examples.  For one, we set limitations on what God can or will do on account of our negative experiences.  Second, we bring God down to our level.  The pastor shared about his own past difficulty in forgiving his brother after they had a falling out.  The pastor officiated at his brother’s wedding and was pronouncing blessing on his brother, when inside of his mind was lingering anger at what his brother had done.  The pastor said that we say to ourselves that God does not forgive someone who has hurt or angered us, because, if God forgives that person, that means that we have to forgive him or her, too.

Somewhere in the course of the sermon, the pastor talked about how creation praises God.  A Psalm we had read, Psalm 96, presents seas, fields, and trees rejoicing at God’s reign.  The pastor also referred to Jesus’ response in Luke 19:40 to the Pharisees’ criticism of the disciples of Jesus who were enthusiastically praising Jesus: if the disciples are silent, the very stones will cry out!  And when did a stone cry out?  At the resurrection of Jesus, when the stone of Jesus’ tomb was moved away.  The pastor presented that as the solution to the reluctance to praise God that he earlier discussed.

The pastor also talked about how creation is magnificent—-he mentioned the Grand Canyon.  Yet, he also observed that creation is fallen, with its earthquakes.

Here are some of my reflections:

A.  At the “Word of Faith” church that I attended on Sunday morning, we sang a hymn that was completely new to me.  It was called “So Will I (100 Billion X).”  It starts out by discussing how nature reflects God’s glory, praises God, and obeys God’s instructions.  If creation does this, so will I, the song goes!  Later, the song focuses on what Jesus did: Jesus left his grave behind, surrendered to God, and died out of love for people to save them.  If Jesus did those things, so will I, the song went.  What the pastor said about creation praising God reminded me of that song.  (BTW, I see from an Internet search that the song is controversial because it says that creatures are “Evolving in pursuit of what You said,” implying, to critics, an endorsement of the theory of evolution.)

B.  How does nature glorify God?  In a sense, it does so through its order and beauty.  Psalm 91 talks about this when it affirms that the heavens declare the glory of God.  God in the Hebrew Bible is also said to have created in wisdom and understanding (Proverbs 3:19; 8:22; Jeremiah 10:12).  But, according to Romans 8:18-22, creation groans, in its state of decay, as it eagerly awaits the glory that will be revealed in the children of God, presumably in the eschaton.  Could Psalm 96 relate to that?  Many relate the seas, fields, and trees rejoicing as creation’s current praise of God, but could Psalm 96 be describing how creation will rejoice when God renews it in the eschaton?  (There have been different scholarly views about whether some of the Psalms conveyed an eschatological message.)  And could Jesus’ reference to the stones crying out be conveying a similar theme?  Then there is Jesus’ resurrection, which inaugurates a new creation.

C.  I have questions about some of the pastor’s points, and I am not saying this to nitpick, but rather to think through issues.  The Grand Canyon is beautiful, but God did not directly create it in the beginning: rather, it came about over time.  And earthquakes: are they an indication of a fallen creation?  Did they originate after Adam and Eve sinned?  I have difficulty believing that God created fault lines after the sin of Adam and Eve: they seem to be integral to how the earth is.  Plus, some have argued that at least some natural disasters perform a function of stabilizing the planet.  There are Christians who say this and then blame humans whose homes are destroyed in the natural disasters: why did humans build their homes there?  Tess actually made that point in an episode of Touched by an Angel, the one about the tornado-chaser.  I do not go that far, since where exactly could a person in the U.S. build his or her home and be safe?  You build on the coasts, and there are hurricanes.  You build in the far west, and there are earthquakes.  You build in the midwest, and there are tornadoes.

D.  Related to (C.), even if the Grand Canyon is not the best example of God’s handiwork, since God did not directly make it (unless you want to say that, for some reason, God providentially made it come into being in the course of time), I can understand the view that the earth has a wise order, which is beneficial to human beings.  Yes, our planet is just the right distance from the sun, and, yes, one can argue that, in a vast universe, there would be at least one planet that would support life.  But this planet does not just have life: it has so many things that can help human beings, in terms of their health.

E.  Also related to (C.), maybe God created the cosmos in a state of decay, and that does not contradict Scripture.  When Romans 8:20 states that God subjected creation to decay, does that necessarily mean that God did so after Adam and Eve sinned?  Could God have created it in a state of decay in order to redeem it, as the blind man of John 9 was blind so that the works of God might be manifest?  One can argue the opposite: God pronounced creation “very good” in Genesis 1, and Romans 5:12-21 presents death entering the world through the sin of Adam.  Still, many scientists have said that entropy has existed since the origin of the universe, is integral to it, and actually enabled order to come into being in sections of it.

F.  I appreciated the pastor sharing his story about his struggle to forgive.  I am sometimes baffled that pastors would struggle with this, but they are human, like everyone else.  And maybe his struggle has made him understanding.  I remember calling in to a Christian program, and the host of the show seemed baffled that anyone struggles with forgiveness.  From his impatient tone, I wondered who he was to judge other people.

G.  The pastor said that we feel that, if God forgives someone, we have to forgive that person, too, so we tell ourselves that God does not forgive him or her.  The two do not obviously go together, in my mindset (which may be flawed).  Just because God likes a person, does that mean I have to do so?  Not everyone like the same people!  In addition, I would hope that even my worse enemy would find a relationship with God.  That does not mean that I want to have anything to do with that person.  Let that person connect with God and leave me alone!  But where people may connect the concepts is here: we should love those God loves, and grudges hinder that from taking place.

H.  The pastor’s point about how we set limitations on God due to our past experiences resonated with me.  I had been to the doctor that morning, and, in going through my medical history, I talked with the doctor about my depression and anxiety: why I am depressed and anxious.  She recommended a behavioral therapist, who could offer me a different perspective.  I asked for the person’s card, leaving that option open.  Maybe the therapist can offer me alternative ways to look at life.  But there are lingering doubts.  Can I really change?  And is there any way that the therapist would make me look at the world differently from how I see it now?  A lot of people are not particularly nice!  That is not all in my head!  And what if the therapist asks me to do something that I do not want to do?  Anyway, this is tangentially related to what the pastor talked about: it’s the question of whether new beginnings are possible for everyone.

I will leave the comments open, in case anyone wants to add insights or respond to what I say.  Feel free to disagree.  I most likely will not get into debates, though.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Church Write-Up: Mary Escapes Stoning?; the Postponed Magnificat?; Hope in What Exactly?

For church last Sunday, I went to an evangelical church that I last visited over a year ago.  Then, I went to what I call the “Word of Faith” church.

Here are some items.  I will be linking to past blog posts and discussions for the first two items.

A.  At the “Word of Faith” church, the pastor’s daughter (who is an associate pastor) was preaching about the story of Mary in Luke 1:26-38 and the Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55.

In Luke 1:26-38, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will give birth to Jesus, the Davidic king and the Son of God, even though she is a virgin.  Mary replied: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (KJV).

The pastor’s daughter was saying that Mary was actually signing up for suffering when she agreed to this, as glorious as it was that she would give birth to the Son of God.  Mary was betrothed to Joseph (Matthew 1:18).  In those days, betrothal was considered the same as being married.  By being pregnant before she had sexual relations with Joseph, she appeared to others to be an adulteress, even though she was not.  Not only was this placing her own life at risk, since the penalty for adultery was death by stoning (Deuteronomy 22:23-24), but Jesus would also receive the stigma of being one who was considered a child through adultery.  (My note: Bruce Chilton in his book Rabbi Jesus speculates that Jesus was considered a mamzer under the law in Deuteronomy 23:2, and thus lacked full citizenship rights as a Jew.)  The pastor’s daughter said that suspected adulteresses were tried by the priest, and they were given bitter water to drink.  The water would cause them to suffer and to lose the ability to have children if they were guilty (Numbers 5:11-21).

The pastor’s daughter said that she knows Christians who are shocked when they experience disappointment and misfortune in life, especially after they have been faithful to God.  She said that there is no promise that Christians will be exempt from suffering.  What they can do, though, is confidently stare down their enemies and say, “Be it unto me according to thy word.”  I think she was comparing the sufferings of Mary with the sufferings that Christians experience.

I will leave that point as it is, without comment or critique, except to say that this morning’s service was not exactly prosperity-Gospelish.  (As I have said before, it is not always accurate for me to call that church the “Word of Faith” church.)  What went through my mind was a question that I have had before.  Joseph, when he learned that Mary was pregnant, decided to put her away privately, without fanfare (Matthew 1:19).  I have wondered, though, how that would have helped Mary to avoid execution.  Would not people have still seen her pregnancy and concluded that she was pregnant as a result of adultery?

I have also wondered how some of the laws about adultery in the Torah fit together.  Of course, Deuteronomy 22:13-24 prescribes stoning as the penalty for adultery.  Numbers 5:11-21, as far as I can see, says nothing about the adulteress being executed through stoning.  Then there is Deuteronomy 24, which states that a man can put away a woman if she is unclean in his eyes, and one interpretation is that the uncleanness is the wife’s infidelity.  But why would divorce be necessary in that case, if the wife would be stoned for adultery?

I wrestled with some of these questions here.  See also the comments under the post.  I am not entirely sure how all of the laws about adultery in the Torah fit together.  That may be a topic to research.  I had an idea, though, about how Mary could have avoided stoning, had Joseph gone through with his plan to divorce her: Joseph would put Mary away so that she would no longer be married to him, and she was early enough along in her pregnancy that people might think that she became pregnant after she was divorced.  Becoming pregnant when single is not a capital offense (Deuteronomy 22:28-30).  The rumors would still fly around that she was an adulteress and that Jesus was conceived illegitimately, but there would be no solid proof of that.  Of course, Mary stayed married to Joseph.  The rumors still flew around that she had committed adultery (according, perhaps, to John 8:41), but there was no proof: people could not prove that Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father.

There is also the question of when the Jewish authorities had the authority to execute people.  It varied during the lifetime of Jesus.  See my post here.

B.  In the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), Mary celebrates that God has elevated the lowly while debasing the rich and the proud, and that God has been merciful and has remembered God’s promises towards God’s people Israel.

Did Mary expect her son to do soon the things that many Jews believed the Messiah would accomplish: defeat Israel’s enemies, inaugurate justice, etc.?  Why else would she be excited?  Many scholars have compared the Magnificat to Hannah’s song of praise in I Samuel 1:1-10.  The thing is, the coming social upheaval that Hannah celebrated actually came to pass when Samuel was alive, as Samuel was instrumental in defeating Israel’s oppressors, the Philistines (i.e., I Samuel 7).  Would Mary get excited about something that would take place two thousand years after her lifetime, and not even then?

I have wrestled with that, and similar questions, on this blog before:

Here, I talk about how Luke, in contrast with Mark, seems to believe that Jesus will restore Israel in the far off future; W.D. Davies thinks that Luke 1-2 is not Lukan but is from an earlier source, one that presumably expected Jesus to restore Israel soon.

Here and here, I ask if perhaps the concern of the early church for the poor was a fulfillment of the Magnificat.

Here is a post from a couple years ago.  I wonder if the the Magnificat and Zechariah’s prophecies in Luke 1 could have been conditional on Israel’s repentance, according to Luke-Acts.  See the comments under the post, and also Steve Hays’ post on Triablogue.

C.  A theme in both services that I attended was having hope.  Both preachers had valuable insights on that.  The preacher at the first service said that we need to reaffirm continually our hope in God, for we are leaky faucets.  The pastor’s daughter talked about how her parents have praised God for years, even when they have experienced trials, being stabbed in the back, and friends forsaking them.  What was a little unclear to me was what the preachers believed that Christians should hope for.  Do they hope that God will make things right in this life?  That God will make things right in the afterlife?  Both?

I’ll leave the comments on in case someone wants to offer insights on these topics.  Please don’t leave embarrassing comments saying that Mary was an adulteress, though.  I won’t publish those comments.  Also, it will take me a while to publish comments: I will get to them in the evening, Pacific Time.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Book Write-Up: Pascal's Pensees

I read Blaise Pascal’s Pensees over the past month.  Specifically, I read the Penguin Classics edition, for which A.J. Krailsheimer wrote the introduction and translated.  Blaise Pascal was a seventeenth century mathematician.  His Pensees contain his reflections, primarily about religion, but occasionally about other subjects, such as the difference between deductive and intuitive thought.
Here are some cursory notes:

A.  Pascal is known for his Wager.  In his Wager, he asks people to consider believing in God.  If they believe in God and follow God’s ways and God turns out to exist, then they gain happiness in this life and eternal bliss in the hereafter.  If they believe in God and follow God’s ways and God does not exist, then at least they have happiness in this life.  If they do not believe in God and God exists, then they will go to hell.  The point of this Wager is to shake people out of their complacency about spiritual things so that they take belief in God seriously.  Pascal believes that indifference about eternal and spiritual matters is abominable.

A criticism of Pascal’s Wager is that it does not factor other religions into the equation.  It assumes that there are only two choices on which people can make a wager: belief in the Christian God, and non-belief in the Christian God.  But there are other religious options, too, and does that not muddy up the choice, a bit?  What if one chooses the wrong God in selecting the Christian God?

What is interesting about the Pensees is that Pascal actually spends pages defending his belief that Christianity is superior to and truer than other religions.  That brings me to the next item.

B.  What are some reasons to believe in Christianity, according to Pascal?  One reason is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy.  Pascal believes that the Gentiles’ acceptance of the biblical God is a fulfillment of biblical prophecy.  He also thinks that the continued survival of the Jewish people—-and their cursed state after they rejected Jesus—-attests to the the truth of Christianity.  (I am not endorsing this view but simply relaying what he says.)  Second, Pascal maintains that miracles demonstrate the truth of Christianity.  We will discuss this more in the following item.  Third, Pascal holds that the Old Testament appears to prefigure or set the stage for a more spiritual kind of religion, which is what Christianity offers; for instance, the Old Testament’s criticism of sacrifices prefigures Christ’s abolition of the sacrificial system.  Fourth, Pascal believes that Christianity, better than any other religion, acknowledges what he observes about the human condition: that it is fallen.  It has a sense of some glory from which it fell, but it is in a moral and spiritual mire and needs God to rescue it.  (At the same time, Pascal argues that rabbinic Judaism has a tradition of original sin.)

Pascal is rather critical of the cosmological and teleological arguments for the existence of God.  He finds them to be too abstract and disconnected from human experience.  He also thinks that reason has its limitations because it can be used to support all sorts of conclusions, even radical skepticism.  More importantly, he believes that such arguments detract from Christ, whom he sees as the mediator between God and humanity, the revelation of God, and the redeemer.  What he says on page 121 would make Karl Barth proud:

“Not only do we only know God through Jesus Christ, but we only know ourselves through Jesus Christ; we only know life and death through Jesus Christ.  Apart from Jesus Christ we cannot know the meaning of our life or of our death, of God or of ourselves.  Thus without Scripture, whose only object is Christ, we know nothing, and can see nothing but obscurity and confusion in the nature of God and in nature itself.”

Pascal does not hold that there is absolute proof for the truth of Christianity, but rather that there is enough light to guide those who sincerely desire to know the truth, and enough darkness to blind those who are not open to the truth.  (This is the source for the title of Laura’s blog, Enough Light.)

C.  The Pensees has a chapter about miracles.  Essentially, Pascal addresses the question of whether miracles can serve to demonstrate the truth of Christianity, when the Bible appears to acknowledge that false prophets can perform miracles, too (see, for example, Exodus 7:22; Deuteronomy 13:1-3; Mark 13:22; II Thessalonians 2:9).  Pascal responds to this question in a variety of ways.  First, he questions whether those other miracles truly are miracles.  Second, he states that God and the truth trump those false wonders.  Pharaoh’s magicians could turn their staffs into serpents, just like Moses’ brother Aaron did, but Aaron’ serpent ate their serpents (Exodus 7:11-12).  Pascal also deems Christ’s foretelling of the false prophets’ lying wonders to be significant, in that it demonstrates Christ’s superiority over them.

Pascal engages a variety of positions about miracles.  Some believe that doctrine trumps miracles.  Others contend that miracles authenticate doctrines.  Pascal argues against both positions, while also embracing them, in certain respects.  Pascal notes that Paul did not come with strength but came proclaiming Christ and him crucified, as if his message was sufficient (I Corinthians 2:2).  At the same time, Pascal believes that miracles attest to the truth of Christianity, and even continue to demonstrate the truth of Roman Catholicism, over all heresies.

D.  Pascal is critical of the passions.  He states on one occasion that cleansing oneself of passion may help one to have a better spiritual perception.  Pascal also criticizes the human tendency to become bored and to seek diversion.  In a particularly poignant passage, Pascal talks about how humans love to be flattered.  I thought to myself how much I benefit from the slogan “What other people think about me is none of my business,” but Pascal appears to think that humans should be strong enough to hear people’s honest opinions about them, rather than swimming in a sea of phony flattery.

E.  Pascal is ambivalent about the Catholic church.  On the one hand, he himself is a Catholic, and he believes that the church upholds the truth and even participates in God’s act of forgiving sins, which is how he interprets its authority to bind and to loose (Matthew 16:18-19; 18:18-19).  Pascal could be quite snarky in his comments on Martin Luther and even the Calvinists (though he shared common ground with Calvinism).  On the other hand, Pascal laments that popes have often been authoritarian rather than being the servants that Christ commanded his disciples to be (Matthew 23:11).  Pascal is also livid against the Jesuits, who are opponents of the Jansenists, a sect with which he sympathizes, and he laments when the church authorities side with the Jesuits.  Pascal can be rather wry in his analysis of the Jesuits, though.  For example, on page 328, he states: “They enjoy enough credit to get a chapel built or preach a jubilee, but not to secure appointments or bishoprics or governorships.”

There is a lot more that he says.  More than once, I put a “?” beside a passage, as it was elliptical.  Sometimes, what he said became clearer after some thought; at other times, not so much.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Book Write-Up: A Reader's Guide to the Bible

John Goldingay.  A Reader’s Guide to the Bible.  IVP Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

John Goldingay teaches Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary.  This book is an introduction to the Bible, both the Hebrew Bible and also the New Testament.  Goldingay attempts to be empathetic towards the perspectives that are within the Bible.  He briefly covers the biblical stories, but he also comments on the possible identity of the authors, their backgrounds, and how their works spoke to their own and subsequent historical contexts.

Imagine a spectrum.  On the far right, you have an ultra-fundamentalist perspective on the Bible, which sees the Bible as divinely-dictated and as historically-accurate in every detail.  On the far left, you have a liberal perspective, which regards the biblical writings as solely human in origin, as reflecting ancient prejudices, and as containing historical errors, contradictions, and diverse theological, religious, and political perspectives.  On this spectrum, Goldingay is probably center-right.  He accepts the historicity of key events in the Bible, such as the Exodus and the Conquest.  He does not seem to acknowledge any major contradictions within the biblical writings (though he does come fairly close to saying that Paul and James contradict each other on justification).  Yet, he is open to the idea that different versions of biblical stories developed.  He accepts the standard scholarly division of the Book of Isaiah.  He believes that the personal, political, and geographical background of biblical authors influenced what they wrote, in distinct and diverse ways.  Although he never explicitly engages the subject of how God inspired the Bible (as far as I can recall), his perspective may be consistent with the evangelical view that states that God providentially arranged the personalities, lives, and backgrounds of the biblical authors, such that they wrote what God wanted them to write, even as their own distinct personalities remained intact in their writing.

The book tries to be a solid introduction: it talks about the history and geography of Israel in the first chapter, which would be logical in an introductory book about the Bible, as the story of ancient Israel is the subject of it.  At the same time, the book may also be of interest to seasoned, and even academic, readers of the Bible, especially when Goldingay offers his insights on the meaning of biblical passages and speculates about why the Bible is as it is.  For example, Goldingay offers an explanation for why Elijah and Elisha lack biblical books that bear their names, whereas later prophets have books that are attributed to them.  And both new and seasoned readers of the Bible can appreciate Goldingay’s vivid description of how the biblical writings (i.e., the Pentateuch, Joshua, etc.) could have spoken to different historical contexts, such as the time of the Davidic monarchy and the exile.

The book is deep, yet it is short and rather cursory.  Some ideas could have been developed further, yet one should remember that this is an introductory book about the Bible, and also that Goldingay has written volumes on Old Testament theology, where he explores issues in greater depth.  In this particular book, Goldingay does not answer every question one might have, but he gives readers something on which to chew.

Some mild critiques or questions:

—-On page 39, Goldingay differentiates between Israel’s creation story and other creation stories of the ancient Near East: “No other nation’s history starts from the creation of the world, but this history of Israel does.  Other ancient religions had stories about creation, but they did not go on to link the story of creation to their own history in this way.”  Goldingay’s comparison of the Hebrew Bible with the ancient Near East on creation and law was fascinating, and there may be something to what he is saying: that Israel employs what other nations have, but in a distinct and perhaps even a unique way.  But my impression is that at least some of the prominent ancient Near Eastern creation stories were attempts to explain the present in light of the past and to account for the structure of society: Enuma Elish ends with the foundation of Babylon, Atrahasis presents the gods creating humans to be their servants, etc.  Can we say, then, that they divorced their understanding of their history from their creation story?

—-Goldingay states on page 116 that “Ezekiel emphasizes that his message relates to the people he is ministering to, and it is hard to see why God would be showing Ezekiel events to take place millennia after his time and their time.”  Goldingay employs a similar approach to the Book of Daniel, saying that it primarily concerns the Antiochian persecution in the second century B.C.E.  With the Book of Revelation, by contrast, he attempts to see it as more trans-historical (but also historical).  Saying that Ezekiel and Daniel are primarily about their own historical contexts poses a theological problem because a number of prominent eschatological events that they predicted (i.e., peace, etc.) did not find fulfillment in their own historical contexts.  Goldingay tries to address this problem: he talks about how the New Testament believes that Ezekiel was fulfilled, and, in the last chapter, he discusses how we keep looking for these eschatological hopes to be realized, since they were not realized in the past.  Goldingay does not come up with a satisfactory answer to the problem, but, again, he offers insights on which to chew.

—-On pages 164-165, Goldingay states that Qoheleth addresses two mistaken responses to the problem of death.  One response is escapism in pleasure.  The other response is “the pie-in-the-sky solution that asserts, hopefully, that all will be put right after death.”  Goldingay then goes on to quote Ecclesiastes 3:19-21, which states that humans and animals both go to the dust and asks how anyone can know that the human spirit goes upward.  Goldingay was making an intriguing argument, and it piqued my interest because I have wondered about what Qoheleth believes about the afterlife.  Unfortunately, Goldingay was not clear about how Ecclesiastes 3:19-21 connected with the “pie-in-the-sky solution” he said Qoheleth opposed.

—-Goldingay seemed to be saying that Jesus’ teaching against divorce is for an ideal world.  Yet, he also says that Jesus thought that divorce could lead to serial adultery, implying that Jesus was serious about his prohibition.  Does Jesus expect people in this far-from-ideal world to obey his teachings on divorce?  Goldingay was not clear about this.  Still, his discussion of how the Bible presents an ideal yet condescends to where people are was thoughtful.

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

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