Friday, November 28, 2014

Thinking of Revisiting the Love Comes Softly Series

A while back, when I got the Hallmark Channel, the channel would frequently play the movie versions of Janette Oke’s Love Comes Softly series.  Michael Landon, Jr. directed some of them, and Katherine Heigl was in the first two.  Sometimes, the Hallmark Channel would play the movies all day, one after the other!

I really liked the first movie.  In that, Heigl plays Marty, who lost her husband.  She stays with a Christian widower, who has a little girl, Missy.  Marty does not immediately fall in love with the widower, but the love comes softly as she gets to know him.

The second movie, I found to be so-so.  Missy is grown-up, and she has two suitors: a guy with lots of money, and a guy with not so much money.  Missy talks with her step-Mom Marty, who offers her some advice.  Later, when the guy with money tells Missy that she will never want for anything if she marries him, Missy recoils.  Missy realizes that marriage should be about two people getting through tough times, not trying to escape them.  I guess the rich guy said the wrong thing!

I struggled to get into some of the movies after that.  They just did not interest me.  I was also somewhat puzzled—-maybe unjustifiably so, but puzzled nonetheless.  These movies that I was seeing did not have much humor, a lighter side, if you will.  Michael Landon’s stuff had both serious, heavy material but also a bit of humor that gave the viewer a break, or that lightened the emotional load a little.  These Love Come Softly movies, some of them directed by Michael Landon, Jr., did not have that, as far as I could see.

I wrote about this complaint of mine on a Christian discussion board, and a lady informed me that Michael Landon, Jr. did not originate these stories, but the movies were based on Janette Oke’s series of books.  After that, the series did not come to my mind that much.

I’m thinking of revisiting them, though.  I’ll probably read the books rather than get the movies off Netflix.  I don’t have time to watch TV during the day on account of my dissertation work.  At nights, I watch TV with the family (while reading), and, when requesting a Netflix DVD, I try to get stuff that all three of us might enjoy.  I doubt that my Mom and step-Dad would particularly like the Love Comes Softly series.  In reading the books, I will probably be able to get into the stories more and become more attached to the characters.

Why am I interested in this?  Well, first of all, I am getting into Christian fiction.  Some of it is good, some of it is not-so-good, and some of it is in between these extremes.  There is a part of me that likes stories with a redemptive, inspiring message that I can carry through life, or a moral lesson.  There are many readers who do not like that, who prefer books that reflect messiness.  I have to admit that there is another part of me that identifies with them, that sees Christian fiction as a bit monochromatic.  While I like Christian fiction, I enjoy it even better when the characters are rounded and complexities are acknowledged.

Secondly, I miss watching Little House on the Prairie, and so perhaps inspirational books about the pioneer days can meet that desire that I have.

I seriously doubt that I’ll be reading Love Comes Softly anytime soon.  I have review books to read.  I am reading Catherine Marshall’s Christy.  I want to finish Lynn Austin’s books on Hezekiah and Manasseh, and perhaps read some of her other books, such as her Civil War trilogy.  But I may read the Love Comes Softly series sometime down the road.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Centurion's Wife

Janette Oke and Davis Bunn.  The Centurion’s Wife.  Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2009.

I know Janette Oke as the author of the Love Comes Softly series.  Michael Landon, Jr. made these books into movies for the Hallmark Channel.  Katherine Heigl starred in the first two.

The Centurion’s Wife is the first book of the Acts of Faith series.  I could not find the second book of the series in the library, but the third book is there.  It looks like the story in the third book can stand on its own, so I may read it sometime.

The Centurion’s Wife focuses on Leah and Alban, a centurion for Rome.  Leah is a relative of Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea.  Her father was a Gentile, and her mother was a Jew who forsook her heritage.  Leah’s father lost everything, bringing shame on the family and the enslavement of some of his daughters.  Leah is now a servant in Pilate’s residence.

Alban is a centurion for Rome, but he was originally from Gaul.  He is a fair-minded man, one who cares about the lives of his men.  Moreover, he is the centurion whose slave Jesus healed in the Gospels (Matthew 8; Luke 7).  While some have argued that the relationship between the centurion and his slave was homosexual, The Centurion’s Wife depicts it more as paternal: Alban learned to love from his slave, but Alban’s love for the slave is rather paternal.  Alban has a reputation as a God-fearer, one who believes in the God of Israel but does not fully embrace Judaism, but, actually, he does not know what he believes.  He wants to marry Leah, but she and others in Pilate’s family suspect that this is for his own professional advancement, since marrying into Pilate’s prominent family can lead to such advantages.

Pilate and Herod Antipas arrange a test for Alban and Leah: they are to gather information about a sect whose prophet was recently crucified, and whom the sect claims was risen from the dead.  This prophet, of course, is Jesus.  Pilate wonders if this sect desires political revolution against Rome, and intends to exploit the empty tomb to rally the Jewish people.  In the course of her investigation, Leah becomes close to some of the women in the Christian sect, who are fully aware of who she is and why she is there, yet welcome her anyway.  Meanwhile, Alban is questioning Joseph of Arimathea, Caiaphas the priest, and the Roman soldiers who guarded Jesus’ tomb.  While the empty tomb is one factor that influences Alban to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, Leah and Alban are also drawn to what Jesus represents: a kingdom of love.

Alban also has to deal with his share of political intrigue, as Herod Antipas secretly helps the Parthians, the enemies of Rome.

The book reminded me of The Robe, a book by Lloyd Douglas that was made into a movie.  In The Robe, a Roman tribune learns more about Jesus through interaction with people Jesus impacted.  Some have said that fans of The Robe will enjoy the Acts of Faith series.

In terms of historical accuracy—-and by this I am not asking if there was a historical Alban, but rather if the book coincides with what historians say about the time period—-I would say that the book is all right.  Bunn states that he received historical information from a rabbi while he was in Israel, and, while I would prefer for the reading of scholarly sources to supplement that, the book was all right, historically-speaking.  Skeptics may dispute that Christianity in the first century was significantly on the radar of people in power, as is depicted in the book, but I was interested in how the book actually presented the situation: those in power had vague knowledge about Jesus and the empty tomb, and, as far as they were concerned, Jesus’ disciples may very well have stolen Jesus’ body!  It was when Alban and Leah researched the issue and looked inside of the Jesus movement that they came to believe in Jesus.  One Amazon reviewer questioned whether someone who was Alban’s age—-in his twenties—-would have been a centurion, since the minimum age was supposedly thirty; however, some have questioned whether this requirement was iron-clad (see the discussion here, but, unfortunately, I do not see too many references to primary sources).  Something on page 127 caught my eye: I read there that Judea was originally under the control of the regional governor in Syria, but that Emperor Tiberius changed that and made Judea a full Roman province, with Pilate as its prelate, to avoid a revolt.  I do not know about every single detail there, but, after Judea’s ethnarch Herod Archelaus was banished, Quirinius, legate governor of Syria, was given authority over Judea, which could be why he is mentioned in Luke 2:2 (see here).

In The Centurion’s Wife, the Jesus movement is depicted as devoutly Jewish: it keeps the Sabbath and faithfully goes to the Temple.  This may resonate with seventh-day Sabbath keepers, Messianic Jews, or people who just like for the Jewish roots of Christianity to be acknowledged, even honored.  The book’s depiction of the Jewish people from the perspective of Alban is also noteworthy: they were under Roman political control, and yet they carried themselves with a princely dignity.  One part of the book may offend some readers: a slave flees to the Christian movement, becomes a Christian herself, and is told by the Christians to return to her master, since Christians are to spread the light of Christ until the Messiah returns.  In my opinion, there is a place for being a light for Christ wherever one is, for having a strength even in bad situations; I would not say that people should always remain in the same situation, though, especially if the situation is abusive.

Good read!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Book Write-Up: Herodotus and Religion in the Persian Wars

Jon D. Mikalson.  Herodotus and Religion in the Persian Wars.  Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Herodotus was a fifth century B.C.E. historian, and he wrote about fifth century wars between the Greeks and the Persians.  Herodotus and Religion in the Persian Wars is about Herodotus’ depiction of Greek religion.  In this portrayal, Greek religion had vows, tithes, hero cults, oracles about the future that had to be interpreted, and gods who highly regarded their sanctuaries, hated human hubris, and helped out the Greeks in order to make certain battles into fairer fights.  Moreover, according to Mikalson, Greek religion valued common sense and reason rather than faith.  In terms of the scholarly landscape regarding religion and Herodotus, Jon Mikalson disagrees with Thomas Harrison on the question of whether Herodotus depicted the Greek gods as just.  For Mikalson, Herodotus does not do so but rather presents the gods as jealous for their sanctuary, eager to exact revenge whenever it is defiled or disrespected.

Mikalson refers to Herodotus’ characterization of Persian religion as one that lacked statues, temples, and altars, and yet he points out examples in Herodotus’ work of Persians practicing religion in a Greek manner, and even respecting Greek oracles and sanctuaries.

Mikalson also addresses the question of Herodotus’ own religious beliefs.  Herodotus believed in the gods, and he even appeared to think that the gods helped the Greeks in battle.  While he was not always clear about how the gods did so, often it appeared to be through manipulation of nature: a fierce wind or trouble at sea could impact what happened in a battle.  Herodotus was rather skeptical, however, of some of the miracle stories that he heard, even from those purporting to be eyewitnesses.

The appendix to the book goes more deeply into Herodotus’ views about religion.  According to the appendix, Herodotus believed that there were gods, but he thought that the names for those gods were imported from Egyptian religion, and that Homer and Hesiod then constructed a genealogy for the gods.  In essence, Herodotus acknowledges a divine and a human element to religion and the conceptualization of the divine.  According to Mikalson, Herodotus does not explain how Egyptians and Greeks have different names for certain gods, if the Greeks imported the names of their gods (or most of them) from the Egyptians.  Still, I found the appendix to be fascinating, on account of my own questions about divine revelation and the Bible (i.e., what is human, and what is divine?).

The first third part of the book was rather slow, since it was mainly about vows and gods helping the Greeks in battle, and that did not strike me as earth-shakingly new when it came to religion.  I was interested to learn, however, that the Greeks had tithes, and I wonder how they compare and contrast with Israelite tithing.  The book really picked up when Mikalson discussed Herodotus’ depiction of Persian religion and interaction with miracle stories, as well as the question of whether the gods in Herodotus were just.  The appendix, in my opinion, was the best part of the book, since it addressed Herodotus’ own views about the divine in light of his conclusion as a historian that Greek religion had conceptualizations of the divine that were human in origin.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Book Write-Up: Your Life Still Counts

Tracie Miles.  Your Life Still Counts: How God Uses Your Past to Create a Beautiful Future.  Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2014.  See here for Bethany House’s page about the book.

Tracie Miles had an abortion.  Her book, Your Life Still Counts, is about how God has used her to reach out to women facing the same challenges that she faced.  Throughout the book, there are stories by women about how they experienced a significant problem (i.e., recovery from abuse, a disability), and how God used them to reach out to and to help people with similar problems.  The end of each chapter has questions to help women to figure out how, with God’s help, they can find healing and God’s calling for their lives.

What I particularly enjoyed about the book was its stories.  Some of them were from Tracie’s own experiences, which taught Tracie about her value to God, transparency, and perseverance.  My personal favorite was Tracie’s story about a young man at a ball game who was trying to get a wave going but did not have any success, yet he kept on trying.  According to Tracie, God used that experience to teach her about the value of perseverance.  The book also shared other anecdotes, such as the story of how Corrie Ten Bloom and her sister in a concentration camp learned to appreciate the fleas, for they were keeping Nazi guards away and allowing them to continue their Bible study.  She also describes the “death-crawl” scene in the Christian movie, Facing the Giants, which is my favorite scene of that movie.  Moreover, Tracie draws from stories in the Bible.

Tracie often talks about her resistance to God’s call, since she believed that God was asking her to leave an excellent job with good benefits so she could tell her story and reach out to women struggling over abortion.  She was very hesitant to do this, and she questioned whether she was able to fulfill God’s call.  At times in the book, she presented following God’s call as a leap of faith.  I personally would be very hesitant to take risks without knowing for sure that God was calling me to do so, or to be overly transparent with people I don’t know.  In my opinion, the book should have discussed discernment and wisdom more.  Still, I appreciated that Tracie said that there are a variety of ways to serve God: that, even if one does not choose to share her story, she can allow her story to shape who she is, such that she can reach people with the love of Christ.  Tracie also offered valuable insights about people allowing God to stretch them a bit, how serving God can build one’s faith, and yet how one’s salvation is not dependent on doing tasks for God, but rests in Christ (though Tracie does say that believing in Christ is transformative, and that impacts what believers do, on some level).

The book is specifically for women, so I was not its target audience.  Still, I appreciated Tracie’s stories and insights.

The publisher sent me a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Book Write-Up: Samuel Rutherford

Richard M. Hannula.  Samuel Rutherford.  Grand Rapids: EP Books, 2014.

Samuel Rutherford was a seventeenth century Presbyterian minister in Scotland.  In Samuel Rutherford, which is part of the series Bitesize Biographies, Richard Hannula tells the story of Rutherford’s life, devotions, and personal sufferings, as well as the persecution that Rutherford experienced for his beliefs, and even the morals charge that dramatically affected Rutherford’s early career.

Hannula not only provides insight into Samuel Rutherford the man, but his book is also an excellent window into the role of Scotland and Presbyterianism during the seventeenth century English Revolution, in which King Charles I was killed and then replaced by Puritan Lord Protectorate Oliver Cromwell.  Rutherford was persecuted by Charles I for resisting Charles’ attempts to impose on churches what Rutherford deemed to be non-Scriptural practices (i.e., kneeling before the Eucharist), and yet Rutherford also had clear differences from the Puritan Cromwell: Cromwell was a congregationalist who believed in independent congregations, whereas Rutherford was a Presbyterian who believed in governance of churches by a church board.  Rutherford was also critical of the beheading of Charles I.  Rutherford would contend against other schools of thought as well, such as one that proposed placing churches under the control of secular authorities.

The book provides a helpful timeline at the beginning.  In my opinion, however, it should have also included a glossary in the back of the book of personalities and political and religious movements, since that could help readers refresh their memories about which political or religious school believed or did what.  Moreover, while the book talked about Rutherford’s enthusiasm for Jesus Christ, I wish that it had explained what exactly it was about Jesus that Rutherford found so compelling.  I also was not entirely satisfied with the book’s definition of Arminianism, a belief that Rutherford criticized.  While Arminianism does emphasize human free will in coming to Christ, whereas Rutherford held that humans come to Christ solely by divine grace, I wish that Hannula mentioned that Arminianism holds that prevenient grace is what makes coming to Christ possible.  Hannula did say that “Arminius taught that salvation was not wholly a gift of God’s free grace” (page 53), and perhaps one can argue that Hannula acknowledges that Arminius granted some role to God’s grace in salvation.  He should, however, have mentioned the Arminian belief in prevenient grace.

Rutherford was a man who continually made lemonade when life handed him lemons.  When he was exiled and forbidden to preach, he still found a way to encourage people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  And he continually ascended, descended, and ascended again, with his faith as his companion wherever he was.  Hannula did well to write this lucid biography of Samuel Rutherford.

I received this book from the publisher through Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Honest Prayer

At church this morning, the pastor preached about Thanksgiving.  He told us about the 1965 movie Shenandoah, in which Jimmy Stewart played a farmer during the American Civil War.   Stewart’s character was named Charlie Anderson, and he was trying to protect his family from the war.  Charlie’s wife wanted Charlie to raise their kids to be Christians, so Charlie led the family in prayer at the dinner table.  He said in the prayer that he and his family were the ones who produced that food through their own sweat and toil, but he thanks God for it anyway!

The pastor asked us if that was a good prayer.  I told him after the service that I respected the prayer for its raw honesty.  Why should Charlie Anderson say things that he does not truly believe?  And yet, I thought that the prayer did not consider certain important details: the things that brought the food that were outside of Charlie’s control, such as rain.

I have to respect honesty when it comes to religion.  If someone has problems with religion, why pretend?  At the same time, there is a superstitious part of me.  We were watching Constantine on Friday night.   Constantine and Papa Midnite were doing a spell, and the spell was not working.  “It is because you do not respect the gods, and that keeps them away,” Papa Midnite told Constantine, who, yes, did not manifest a particularly respectful attitude towards these “gods,” probably because he’s been around the block in terms of the spirit world and just does not respect what he has seen!  But, anyway, I have a similar concern: does one keep God, God’s protection, and God’s blessing away by being disrespectful to him?  I don’t want to disrespect God.  If I have problems with him, I should express those to him respectfully.

And, yes, my superstition (if that is the right word) does lead me to ask myself how exactly I envision God: what kind of God do I believe God is?

Saturday, November 22, 2014

II Chronicles 8

I have two items for my blog post today about II Chronicles 8.

1.  II Chronicles 8:1-2 states in the NRSV: “At the end of twenty years, during which Solomon had built the house of the LORD and his own house, Solomon rebuilt the cities that Huram had given to him, and settled the people of Israel in them.”

In the KJV, we read: “And it came to pass at the end of twenty years, wherein Solomon had built the house of the LORD, and his own house, That the cities which Huram had restored to Solomon, Solomon built them, and caused the children of Israel to dwell there.”

Do you notice any significant difference between the two translations?  According to the NRSV, King Huram of Tyre gave Solomon cities.  According to the KJV, King Huram returned cities to Solomon, implying that Solomon had given Huram those cities earlier.

The Hebrew in this case is natan, which means “to give” (or literally, “he gave”).  If the writer had wanted to say that Huram returned the cities, he probably would have used some form of sh-w-v.  Why, then, did the King James Version translate natan as “restored”?  The reason is probably that it was trying to harmonize II Chronicles 8:2 with I Kings 9:11, which states that Solomon gave to Hiram twenty cities in Galilee.  Hiram in that chapter is displeased with those cities, however.  We have II Chronicles 8:2, which states that Hiram gave Solomon cities.  We have I Kings 9:11, which states that Solomon gave Hiram cities.  One way that people try to harmonize those two texts is to say that Solomon gave Hiram the cities, Hiram was displeased with them, and so Hiram returned them to Solomon, who rebuilt the cities and settled Israelites in them.

I tend to believe that there are two separate agendas in I Kings and II Chronicles.  I Kings is trying to explain why those cities came to be called Cabul, which is rather disparaging.  The reason, in I Kings 9, goes back to Hiram’s dissatisfaction with those cities.  II Chronicles 8, however, is presenting Huram as adoring and subordinating himself to Solomon, and thus giving Solomon cities.  And Solomon rebuilding the cities and settling Israelites in them occurs within the context of his projects of expansion and building, which we read about in the subsequent verses.

Of course, I have read in the Jewish Study Bible that I Kings presents Solomon and Hiram as equal parties making an agreement, whereas II Chronicles depicts Huram as subordinate to Solomon.  There is probably something to that, but it should not be taken in the direction of saying that Huram in II Chronicles lacked power in his own right.  II Chronicles 8:18 affirms that Huram sent Solomon ships and servants familiar with the sea, and so Huram had a lot of resources!

2.  II Chronicles 8:11 states (in the KJV): “And Solomon brought up the daughter of Pharaoh out of the city of David unto the house that he had built for her: for he said, My wife shall not dwell in the house of David king of Israel, because the places are holy, whereunto the ark of the LORD hath come.”

I Kings has a similar story, but II Chronicles adds a rationale for Solomon doing what he did: Solomon did not want his Egyptian wife to dwell in the holy city of Jerusalem.

Why not?  A common explanation is that she was a Gentile.  I heard more than one sermon saying that Solomon was sinning in being married to a Gentile, but he was somehow trying to be religious, too, by forbidding his wife to live in Jerusalem.  It would be like someone making money off of a shady business deal, and deciding to get on God’s good side by donating the money to the church.

Granted, there are places in the Hebrew Bible that are against Israelites intermarrying with Gentiles.  I Kings criticizes Solomon for intermarriage, since that was what turned him away from God, and Nehemiah 13:26 refers to him as an example in defending a policy against Jewish intermarriage.  But I have problems saying that II Chronicles had this sort of view.  For one, the genealogies in Chronicles refer to intermarriages, without any hint of criticism.  The genealogies present intermarriage as part of the history of Israel.  Second, the Chronicler (as far as I can remember) does not criticize Solomon for intermarriage.

Maybe the Chronicler still had problems with a Gentile dwelling in Jerusalem, or he was trying to depict Solomon in a positive way: yes, Solomon married a Gentile, but at least he did not let her live in Jerusalem.

Raymond Dillard, however, has another idea.  He wonders if II Chronicles 8:11 could be sanctioning the late Jewish practice of separating men and women in worship.  You see that in orthodox synagogues today: the men sit in one section, the women in another.  Could II Chronicles 8:11 be about this sort of practice?  I seriously doubt that there was a blanket prohibition on women living in Jerusalem, so I tend not to absolutize Dillard’s proposal.  But to see it as a stray verse sanctioning the separation of men and women in worship?  I am somewhat open to that being a function of the verse—-not that I am in favor of such a practice.

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