Friday, May 27, 2016

Book Write-Up: Knowing Yourself Knowing God

Dr. John F. Shackelford.  Knowing Yourself Knowing God: From an Ego-Run-Life to a God-Run-Life.  2015.  See here to buy the book.

John F. Shackelford is a licensed psychologist.  He has a degree from the Rosemead School of Psychology at Biola University.

As the title of the book suggests, Knowing Yourself Knowing God is about how people can know themselves and God better.

The part of the book about knowing oneself discusses different parts of the ego, the false self, and various personality types.  Freud, Jung, Myers-Briggs, and the Enneagram feature in this section of the book.  Shackelford talks about the challenges that different personality types can have in relationships.  He also includes links to online tests that one can take to learn about one’s personality type, and he shares personal anecdotes and anecdotes about others.

The part of the book about knowing God is largely about taking a breather, resting, and being receptive to God’s voice.

The third section of the books has stories about people who have come to know God.  They chronicle their journeys and describe their approach to knowing God and hearing God’s voice.  Occasionally, they say where they are on the Enneagram and how that affects their spiritual life.

The book ends with a chart about ego functions. It draws from Freud, and it describes the ego functions and how people can constructively respond to them.

Overall, this is a very informative book.  There is a scholarly element to it, and the stories add a personal element.  The book sensitized me to how early experiences in life can stifle one’s creativity, if one allows that to happen.  In short, what parents or adults say to their kids can have long-term effects, down the road.

The book also talked about being open about one’s anger and concerns, and the problems that can come from internalizing anger.  This is a struggle for me.  I can easily put people on the defensive when I express my concerns, so I often end up not saying anything.  Finding a way to express my concerns constructively is a challenge.  Overall, though, I find that refraining from complaining and not rocking the boat is a fairly workable policy.

Identifying my own personality type was somewhat difficult for me.  Obviously, I fit into the “introvert” category, but am I an INTJ, an INTP, an ISTP, or an ISFP?  I do like abstract ideas, but part of me likes to be concrete.  I think that I both perceive and judge.  I am not entirely cold and methodical, as some introvert-types are characterized as being (i.e., you’re not efficient, so you’re fired).  Maybe I can take the tests, but, even there, I may have problems definitively putting myself into a single category.  Consulting others about how they see me may be helpful, provided I am not overly sensitive about their feedback.

The book could have been better organized, and the various parts could have been better integrated with each other.  The part about knowing oneself and the part about knowing God are largely independent of each other, though occasionally there are bridges: Shackelford talks about how knowing God through meditation on Scripture and listening to God can enlarge one’s soul; how listening to God can temper one’s listening to one’s ego; and how one can respond, as a Christian, to one’s Enneagram.  Largely, though, the book shied away from talking about how the various personality types can honor God, within their own personalities.  The book could also be rather meandering.

There was one line in the book that I especially did not like, but I am not surprised to find it in a Christian book.  On page 115, Shackelford is telling his own story, and he is contrasting the “drivenness and worry” that he felt with the relaxation and hospitality that he observed in his wife’s friends.  He says: “I realized the life I was living would not be a very attractive life to non-Christians.”  Here we go: Christians have to be an advertisement for Christianity to non-Christians!  We have to put on a show for the outside world!  Heaven forbid that people think Christians have flaws, since then they would not be attracted to Christianity!  I am not suggesting that Shackelford goes that far, but the evangelical idea that Christians need to advertise Christianity to non-Christians just seems to me to go against the authenticity and honesty that Shackelford is promoting, and which he exemplifies as he shares his story and his struggles.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through Bookcrash, in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Can Bernie Sanders Supporters Replicate the Success of the Christian Coalition?

Early in May, Rachel Maddow interviewed Bernie Sanders in Burlington, Vermont.  Maddow asked Sanders how his vast array of support could be marshaled into a political movement after the election.  She drew a comparison with Pat Robertson’s candidacy in 1988.  Although Pat Robertson failed to win the Republican nomination for President in 1988, he went on to found the Christian Coalition, which would have a profound influence on politics for decades to come.

Could something similar happen with Bernie Sanders’ supporters?  My impression in watching Sanders in that interview was that he had not thought that far ahead.  I could be wrong on that, but it just seemed to me when I watched that interview that Rachel Maddow had more insights about how the Bernie Sanders candidacy could become a formidable political movement than Bernie Sanders cared to contribute.

In this post, I will share my understanding of what the Christian Coalition did, and evaluate whether the American Left can do something similar.

A.  The Christian Coalition’s strategy was to educate Christian conservative voters so that they would go to the polls and vote for Christian conservative candidates.  One area in which this occurred was through Christian conservative churches: you would go to a Christian conservative church and see Christian Coalition voter guides.  These voter guides were technically non-partisan: they simply said where both candidates stood on issues of importance to Christian conservatives (i.e., abortion, pornography, same-sex marriage, etc.), without telling people specifically how to vote.  Some of the voter guides recorded how Senators and representatives voted on these issues, and they would give the elected leaders a percentage based on how much their voting record accorded with the Christian Coalition’s stance.  Again, these guides were technically non-partisan, but Christian conservatives could read them and form their own conclusions about how to vote.

The American left, too, informs like-minded people about elected officials’ voting record: they do so through the Internet.  I get stuff from Move-on and People for the American Way on a regular basis.  But my impression is that the American Left does not do so as extensively or as effectively as the Christian Coalition did.  You see a Christian Coalition voter guide, and you know immediately who the good guy is and who the bad guy is.  The American Left does not do this as well.  It may criticize nationally-known right-wingers, but my impression is that it forgets that so much of politics is local: that leftists need to be educated, not just about national figures, but also local figures.  That way, progressives can make a decision that accords with their own values in congressional, Senate, statehouse, etc. races, and in local referendra.  Moreover, while leftists pride themselves on nuance, the educational outreach needs to be concise rather than complicated, particularly when it comes to mobilizing people.

The Christian Coalition had a solid social center, namely, conservative evangelical churches; you have people gathering together and hanging out with each other who share similar values, and you have a network that can be informed and mobilized (even if that occurs unofficially, or outside of the church).  The American Left probably does not have anything that effective in terms of social glue and mobilization, but hopefully it can capitalize on what it does have.  There are African-American and liberal mainline churches.  There are college campuses (though I would not want professors pressuring students on how to vote).  There are left-wing mailing addresses.

B.  To reiterate a point in (A.), so much of politics is local.  The Christian Coalition recognized this.  By contrast, its predecessor, the Moral Majority, reputedly focused more on who would win the Presidency.

Suppose Bernie Sanders does not get the Presidency.  What then?  There are politicians who support Bernie Sanders’ ideas who are running for Congress, for Senate, for the statehouse, for Governor, for city council, and the list goes on.  While I did say in (A.) that the American left seems to focus on national politics rather than the local, there is a sense in which it is making progress on the local front.  Consider the cities and states that have raised the minimum wage, or the states that are considering a single-payer health care system.  The American Left needs to be vigilant in showing up and supporting this.  National personalities come and go.  It is who shows up on the local level who decides things.

C.  To build on (C.), the Christian Coalition showed up.  You have a bunch of Christian conservatives showing up at the local G.O.P., and before you know it they are running the show, getting the important offices and making important decisions.  Bernie supporters: you don’t want Roberta Lange in charge of any future Nevada Democratic conventions?  You need to become involved in Democratic Party procedure and politics.

Some may be intimidated by the mazes of political rules and procedures.  Often, though, it just takes one politically savvy person to guide others through the process.  I one time read about a bunch of Christian Coalition people going to a political meeting.  These Christian Coalition people had strong values and wanted those values to be a part of the political process, but they were not always sure how to advance their interests when it came to voting on procedural matters. Thus, one of its members would sit up front and wear a hat when the people were to vote “yes” on a procedural matter, and he would take the hat off when they were to vote “no.”

Part of the problem is that there may be a lot of people who support Bernie, but they are working multiple jobs to make ends meet, so they may not have the time to devote to political activity.  But there are many on the American Left who do have the time.  And even those without much time can do something, however small.

Church Write-Up: God's Love Is Constant

Last Sunday, I visited a non-denominational evangelical church.  This church is doing a series on disappointment.  It showed a scene from the movie Bruce Almighty in which Bruce is at Niagra Falls and learns on live TV that he did not get the anchor position that he wanted.  Bruce has a melt-down before all of his viewers!  The church refrained from showing us the part in which Bruce cusses out the network.

The person speaking to us was the retired senior pastor.  He was presenting our awareness of God’s love for us as a solution for disappointment, or at least as something that can lessen disappointment.  The pastor was saying that God’s love does not change.  Our love changes from day to day, even from moment to moment, on account of how we feel and often in response to how other people are acting.  God’s love, by contrast, is constant.

The pastor then told a story that he said he did not tell the service before us, and it was about when he was on the road and a woman was trailing him.  He deliberately slowed down his car just to upset her.  Later, he apologized to Jesus and confessed that what he did was not particularly loving.  He said it would not happen again.  The pastor then looked up at us briefly, and we laughed.

The pastor also said that God is forgiving.  He told us a story about when he was in the Navy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  People were afraid that nuclear war was around the corner, and, for the first time, the pastor felt a need to make peace with God.  He was confessing thousands of sins, and he said that God told him, “I forgive you of all that.”

I could identify, somewhat, with what the pastor was saying about God’s love being constant.  Usually, in reading the Bible, I question that, since there is so much about God’s wrath and judgment.  There is Jesus’ saying that God won’t forgive us if we don’t forgive others (Matthew 6:15; Mark 11:26).  Is Jesus saying that God will love us in the same way that we love others?  I hope not, for our love is pretty brittle, as the pastor was pointing out!

But what if God’s love is constant, even though God judges people, or even when God withholds official forgiveness to teach people a lesson?  God wants to teach people that there are consequences of sin.  The problem, of course, is that people die in the process.  A number of people have died from God’s judgment before they even had a chance to repent in this life.  I think of numerous stories in the Bible to that effect.  I suppose we can say that God’s love is still constant, since God may give people a chance to repent in the afterlife.  I don’t know.  Universalists do like to appeal to Ezekiel 16:53, which talks about Sodom being restored.

In short, while I do not currently know how to iron things out, theologically-speaking, it makes sense to me that God’s love would be constant: that God would be that mature, in contrast to many of us, who can be easily offended.  There is something within God that keeps God committed to people, even when they disappoint them.

Something I liked about this church: it sent me an e-mail thanking me for visiting!  No other church that I have visited in this particular area has done that, even though I gave them my name and address.  “Well, they’re busy.”  Too busy to drop a line to a first-time guest?

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Book Write-Up: Freedom, by Jeremy Griffith

Jeremy Griffith.  Freedom: The End of the Human Condition.  Sydney, Australia: WTM Publishing, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

Jeremy Griffith is an Australian biologist.  This book and his treatise have been recommended by a number of academics.  Harry Prosen, a professor of Psychiatry and former President of the Canadian Psychiatric Association, wrote the introduction to this book.  And yet, as Griffith points out throughout this book, Griffith’s ideas have been controversial and rejected by a number of academics.  But Griffith contends that many people have found spiritual healing as a result of his ideas.

This book is about why humans are the way that they are, and how they can find healing from their alienated condition.  Understanding how everything Griffith says fits together was rather difficult for me.  Griffith would have done well to have provided a lucid, concise summary at the end of the book of what exactly he is proposing.  I have to confess, though, that I did not watch the online videos that Griffith says are helpful for people wanting to understand the book.  Plus, Griffith says that a rereading of the book could make a profound difference.

What are some of Griffith’s points?  I will try to explain them, as I understand them.

Griffith is arguing against the idea that humans are naturally selfish and violent.  For Griffith, the opposite is the case: we are naturally loving and peaceful.  That is our instinct.  Griffith appeals to at least three considerations to support this argument.  First of all, Griffith points to the behavior of bonobos, apes who are very closely related to human beings.  Griffith has studied bonobos, and he contends that they are peaceful and loving.  Second, Griffith maintains that mythology contains a remembrance of how the ancestors of humans used to be.  Hesiod, Plato, and Genesis 2-3 present a sort of Golden Age in the past when humans were peaceful towards one another.  Third, Griffith appeals to archeology and the fossil record, which he believes indicate that certain ancestors of humans were peaceful.

At the same time, Griffith appears to believe that nurture played a role in how humans became instinctively peaceful.  Griffith seemed to acknowledge that there is a genetic tendency in many animals towards selfishness: a competitive desire to survive and pass on their genes.  But he argues that, at some point, ancestors of humans developed benevolence.  They did this by nurturing their children with unconditional love.  This taught their children the value of unconditional love and gave them the inner security they needed to love others.  According to Griffith, the conditions were right in certain areas for this to develop: there was material plenty, for example, and that lessened the need to compete for resources.

But Griffith maintains that there was a Fall, and that this Fall related to knowledge, as Genesis 3 says.  Consciousness and intelligence emerged.  Humans could feel free to go against their instincts in favor of pursuing their own desires.  And yet, consciousness and intelligence brought something else, according to Griffith, and that is defensiveness and self-justification: humans want to contend that they are right, against the belief that they are violent and flawed.

Griffith believes that his insights about nurturing are controversial because people do not want to admit that they are bad parents.  At the same time, Griffith’s solution is not for people to feel guilty and beat up on themselves.  His solution seems to be for people to realize that their nature is to be peaceful and loving: to become reconciled with who they truly are.

I am giving this book four stars because I did enjoy it.  As a Christian who believes in evolution, I wonder how Genesis 1-3 and evolutionary scenarios of history can hold together, and this book is helpful in that regard.  (This is not to imply that Griffith is a Christian, in a traditional sense, for he seems to have non-traditional ideas about God.)  I do not have the background in biology to evaluate Griffith’s arguments, but his arguments and his interaction with scholarship struck me as scholarly.  Griffith’s quotations of literature and pop culture also made this book interesting and relevant.  I particularly liked Griffith’s discussion of the Simpsons and how Homer Simpson had a legitimate problem with Ned Flander’s religiosity, even if Homer couldn’t articulate what that problem was.

In terms of criticisms, like I said, Griffith could have been clearer, and he could have pulled together what he was saying a lot better.  Griffith was also making controversial statements about homosexuality and autism, and he was drawing from decades-old research in doing so.  Moreover, Griffith could have toned down his save-the-world rhetoric, his narrative about how he has been persecuted, and his criticisms of E.O. Wilson.

To be honest, while I found this book to be fascinating, I am not entirely clear about what issues are at stake, in terms of Griffith’s arguments and the arguments of those with whom he disagrees.  Both sides seem to believe that humans have good and bad tendencies: they just differ on how to account for them.  What difference does that make, practically speaking?  It makes a huge difference, for Griffith, for he talks as if many people who reject his message are in denial.  Really?  It looks like an academic difference of opinion to me.

I apologize, though, for any incompleteness of understanding on my part.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Book Write-Up: The Counselor, by A.W. Tozer

A.W. Tozer.  The Counselor.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

A.W. Tozer was a pastor and Christian author who lived from 1897 to 1963.  I have seen him quoted numerous times.  I have finally read a book by him.  Or, actually, this book is an edited version of two classics that Tozer wrote.  It is still quotable, though!

This book was not exactly what I expected.  I thought that this book would be about how the Holy Spirit dwells inside of Christians and counsels them.  The book, after all, is entitled The Counselor.  Instead, this book talks about the importance of being filled with the Holy Spirit.  Tozer addresses the question of why so many Christians or professing Christians are not filled with the Holy Spirit.  He also discusses what being filled with the Holy Spirit looks like.

What does being filled with the Holy Spirit mean, according to Tozer?  As far as I can recall, Tozer in this book does not answer that explicitly.  But he does talk about what being filled with the Holy Spirit looks like.  He looks at the Book of Acts, in which the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit.  He also examines church history, as he refers to such examples as Martin Luther, John Wesley, and others.

For Tozer, being filled with the Holy Spirit includes a variety of characteristics: joy, an intense hunger and thirst to know God, speaking with authority, God anointing one’s preaching so that it produces results, spiritual transformation, and knowing God through the Holy Spirit rather than through intellect.  For Tozer, being filled with the Holy Spirit is not a process that stretches out over time.  Rather, it is a single event of spiritual empowering.

How does one become filled with the Holy Spirit, according to Tozer?  There is another book by Tozer, How to Be Filled with the Holy Spirit, which may give more practical steps.  But The Counselor does make significant points.

Tozer says that the Holy Spirit exalts Jesus Christ, which implies that those who desire to be filled with the Holy Spirit must do the same.  In discussing why so many professing Christians are not filled with the Holy Spirit, Tozer says that one desiring to be filled must surrender to God; so many Christians, by contrast, want to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to their lives.  In some cases, Tozer states, people can arrive at a state of loneliness and desperation, and that opens them up to being filled with the Holy Spirit.  To be filled with the Holy Spirit, one must be in agreement with God.  Hatred, lust, and egotism are irreconcilable with being filled with the Holy Spirit, whereas praying for others with an attitude of kindness is the proper frame of mind for Christians to have.  For Tozer, Christians need to clean up their thoughts and spend more time in the Bible, and that can set the stage for them to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Tozer interacts with other questions, as well.  Is speaking in tongues a sign of being filled with the Holy Spirit?  Tozer does not regard it as a necessary sign, for he observes that several Christian luminaries, such as Luther and Wesley, did not speak in tongues.  Can one be a saved Christian without being filled with the Holy Spirit?  Tozer does not address this question head-on, but he raises various considerations, some of which lead in different directions.  He says that the disciples were converted before they were filled with the Holy Spirit.  Sometimes, Tozer expresses agnosticism about whether the Christians he criticizes are genuine Christians; at other times, he is more skeptical.

Tozer addresses certain Christian views in his day, views that he believes obscure the truth.  On the one hand, Tozer is critical of those who believe that speaking in tongues is a necessary mark of being filled with the Holy Spirit.  On the other hand, he is critical of the view that being filled with the Holy Spirit only related to the time of the apostles.  Tozer rejects the view that the disciples were unconverted when Jesus was on earth, for he believes that many Christians use that position to excuse their own carnality.  (Maybe Tozer is criticizing an attitude that I have encountered in evangelicalism: Look, Christ called imperfect disciples and used them for God’s glory, so that must mean that we do not need to worry about our own sinful imperfections!)  Tozer believes that treating being filled with the Holy Spirit as a process rather than a single event likewise allows Christians to excuse their sins and their fears about being filled with the Holy Spirit.  (They fear letting God be in the driver’s seat, or they are afraid of doing embarrassing things under the Spirit’s influence, or that God will place them in insecure situations.)  And, as you can probably tell, Tozer did not care for the over-emphasis on grace, God’s unmerited favor for Christians, within Christendom.

I found what Tozer said to be interesting, especially when he was critiquing Christian perspectives of his day and regarding some of those perspectives as excuses.  I have to admit that I felt spiritual insecurity in reading this book, for a variety of reasons (i.e., wanting to run my own life, not feeling sure that I can obey God’s commands, not wanting to be obsessed with religion, as Tozer seemed to suggest that Spirit-filled people are).  Still, I could identify, somewhat, with what Tozer said about the hunger to know God.

Tozer could have been a little more pastoral in his tone.  Rather than bragging (or so it seemed to me) about how he never holds a grudge, he could have offered advice to people who struggle with sins, or at least he could have expressed sympathy and understanding towards their situation.

I was surprised that Tozer in this book never engaged Ephesians 5:18-21: “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God” (KJV).  That passage seems to imply that being filled with the Holy Spirit is not just a one-time event, and it describes what being filled with the Holy Spirit looks like.

In reading this book, I wondered if being filled with the Holy Spirit could occur outside of Christianity.  Tozer would probably answer “no,” since he says that the Spirit exalts Jesus Christ.  Still, there are mystics and ecstatic spiritual experiences outside of Christianity.  Maybe they are more prominent within Christianity, but they do occur outside of it, as well.

I hope to read more books by Tozer in the future.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Book Write-Up: If God Is Good, by Randy Alcorn

Randy Alcorn.  If God Is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil.  Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2009.  See here to buy the book.

If God Is Good is about how Christians can interact with the problem of suffering.  This book is about 500 pages, so I doubt that I can do it justice in this one blog post (which is not to say that I will write any more blog posts about it).  But here are some thoughts:

A.  I thought that what Randy Alcorn said about hell somewhat undermined his points about suffering.  Alcorn believes that the Bible teaches eternal conscious torment in hell for non-believers after they die.  What’s more, appealing to Matthew 7:14, Alcorn argued that most people will end up in hell, since few find the way that leads to life.  In my opinion, that makes their suffering in this life rather pointless: they suffer in this life, then they go to hell and suffer eternally.  Alcorn may say that suffering in this life can encourage them to come to Christ: they can be reminded that life is short and that there are eternal matters to think about (so Alcorn applies Luke 13:3).  Maybe.  But most of them will not come to Christ, and God knows that, so does their suffering really serve much of a purpose?  What Alcorn says about hope and suffering building character in people that matters eternally does not really apply to most people, within his worldview.

B.  In light of (A.), Alcorn at one point says that we don’t suffer long, since life is short.  But, as he says elsewhere, that only applies to believers, in his theology.  It does not apply to most of humanity, who will be going to hell to suffer eternally.

C.  This is not to say that universalism (the idea that God will save everyone in the end) can be neatly reconciled with the reality of suffering.  Alcorn says that God may cause people to suffer to bring others to Christ, to make a difference in eternity.  Would that matter as much, if everyone is eventually saved in the end?

D.  There were a few times when I was reading Alcorn’s book and I said “Wait a minute.”  On page 105, Alcorn asks regarding skeptical biblical scholar Bart Ehrman: “What percentage of the royalties from Ehrman’s best-selling book has he earmarked for easing world suffering?”  That is a pretty presumptuous question.  I don’t know what the percentage is in terms of his royalties, but Ehrman does donate quite a bit of money to charity.

On page 132, Alcorn states: “As Americans reeled from the events of September 11, 2001, no one explained the terrorists’ actions from a naturalistic worldview…A naturalistic worldview just couldn’t account for such wickedness.”  What?  There were plenty of naturalistic explanations for what happened on 9/11: the terrorists hated us, so they flew planes into the World Trade Center.  Does one need to appeal to the supernatural to account for that?

E.  One can read what Alcorn says about suffering and conclude that evil is really good in disguise.  Evil, after all, serves a constructive purpose, according to Alcorn.  Why, then, should I not hurt somebody else?  Would I not be doing that person a favor by hurting him?  I would be giving that person opportunities to overcome adversity and build character, after all!

In my opinion, I have no right to put somebody else through suffering, for the simple reason that there are things that people should not have to endure, if I can help it.

Perhaps Alcorn can respond that I have no right to put people through suffering, but God knows how to do that properly.  God, after all, knows everything.  God knows what we need and what to give us.  We do not have that sort of perspective.  Perhaps.  Still, I think that Alcorn’s implication that evil is really good in disguise has troubling implications.

F.  To his credit, Alcorn is not afraid to be honest about what the Bible says.  Appealing to Exodus 4:11, Alcorn argues that God is the one who made people disabled.  According to Alcorn, that actually has given comfort to people who are disabled.  I can understand that, since it allows them to believe that their disability must have a purpose.

Alcorn says that there are passages in the Bible about God hating certain people (see, for example, Psalm 5:5).  True, but why should I assume that God only has hatred for them, without one ounce of love?  Plus, where exactly is Alcorn going with that observation?  Does God only hate extreme evil-doers, or does God regard all non-believers as workers of iniquity and hate them (since Romans 3 presents the human race as pretty bad)?  I do not think that the latter perspective would be helpful to me, as I try to love other people.

G.  A lot of what Alcorn says has been said before.  Still, I did enjoy this book.  I never felt that Alcorn was hastily dishing out pat-answers, for there was a weight in what he was saying.  Alcorn talked about his own suffering as a diabetic, and he shared stories about other people’s suffering.  In addition, there were times when Alcorn questioned traditional Christian views on evil.  For example, he questioned Augustine’s view that evil is merely a deficiency in goodness, for Alcorn thought that evil had to be much more than that, a negative force in its own right.  On how exactly evil originated, when God made everything good, Alcorn seems rather agnostic.

H.  To his credit, Alcorn was honest about tensions within the Bible.  For example, like Calvinists, he believes that God has to enable people to believe.  Yet, Alcorn also believes that God is being sincere in exhorting evil-doers to do good: that God is not playing games and telling them to do something that he knows they are incapable of doing.  At times, Alcorn admits that he does not know how these tensions hold together.  On one occasion, he seemed to be saying that free-will exists in some areas, but not as much in other areas.

I.  There were a lot of inspiring stories in the book.  My favorites were about when people were torturing Christians, and the torturers were so impressed with the Christians’ demeanor that they became Christians themselves—-sometimes subjecting themselves to the persecution that they inflicted on others.  I would not be surprised if such stories were true.  They make me think that there is something to Christianity!  Yet, they can also burden me, in a sense, since they can make me feel bad about not having that kind of effect on people: I always have to wear a smile, regardless of how I feel, since that will bring people to Christ!  That was why I appreciated Alcorn’s stories about people who hit rock bottom and needed God to sustain them.  For example, Joni Eareckson Tada is a quadraplegic, and she said that there are days when she says to God that she does not have a smile.  “Can I borrow yours?”, she aks God.

J.  I like something Alcorn says on pages 406-407: “Bertrand Russell claimed that no one could sit at the bedside of a dying child and still believe in God.  He was wrong—-countless people, including ones I spoke with while researching this book, have sat at the bedside of their own dying children and do still believe in God.”  That is a fairly effective, point, which Alcorn makes elsewhere, as when he talks about Holocaust survivors who have a deep faith.  Who are atheists to tell people what they should think and feel in response to their suffering?  At the same time, we should remember that there are people who draw opposite conclusions from suffering: they conclude from their own suffering that there is no God.

K.  Something that I wonder: how can experiencing intense physical pain help a person build character?  Perhaps it can make a person humbler and bring a person down to earth.  But how can people spiritually grow when they are experiencing distracting physical pain?  How can they set their mind on higher things when their mind is on how much they hurt, because they cannot get their mind off of their pain?

L.  Isaiah 65:17 states that, in the new heavens and the new earth, the former things will not be remembered.  I remembered Tim Keller saying that we will appreciate heaven more when we get there on account of our suffering on earth.  Randy Alcorn makes the same sort of point.  Is that inconsistent with Isaiah 65:17?  Why would God use suffering to build our character for eternity, when God will wipe our minds clean in the new heavens and the new earth, effectually wiping out anything we learned?  Alcorn addresses this question: he does not take the sentiment in Isaiah 65:17 overly literally, but he interprets it to mean that people will be comforted in the new heavens and the new earth.  Their suffering will become a thing of the past, a distant memory.  But Alcorn still believes that there is a connection, or continuity, between our experiences in this world and the world-to-come.  See here for how John Piper addresses the question.

M.   There are times when Alcorn seems to present suffering and challenges as necessary parts of life on earth.  Would we grow or be heroic without adversity, after all?  Alcorn also says that one reason evil exists is that God respects free will, for God wants people to love God genuinely.  At the same time, Alcorn presents suffering as a result of the Fall, meaning it was not a part of God’s original creation.  Alcorn states that suffering will not exist in God’s eschatological reign.  Alcorn also says that people will do what is right in God’s eschatological reign, which casts question on whether there will be genuine free will at that time, at least in the sense that people have it today (which entails the possibility of doing wrong).  To his credit, Alcorn is sensitive to this tension, and he acknowledges it.  But he did not sufficiently wrestle with it in this book, in my opinion.

N.  In some cases, I was intrigued by a view that Alcorn was trying to refute.  Alcorn was arguing against open theism, the idea that God does not know the future for certain.  Alcorn referred to a story about a woman who married a Christian man, and the man later left her for another woman.  The woman found comfort in open theism rather than the idea that God foresaw her suffering and permitted or orchestrated it for some good reason.  She particularly found comfort in the story of Saul in the Bible: God chose Saul to be king and had plans for him, but Saul forfeited that through his sins.  Alcorn made pretty effective arguments against open theism: Can we trust a God who does not fully know what will happen down the road?  Still, the view that he was refuting was intriguing to me.

I’ll stop here.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

A Religious Drifter Experiencing God?

For church last Sunday, I revisited an evangelical church.  I visited this church a few weeks ago, and it is close to where I live.  It’s about a fifteen minute walk.  It was raining outside last Sunday, and I did not want to make a huge trek searching for a church in the rain, so I decided to revisit this evangelical church.

The praise songs were about how God’s love is huge, obvious, and overwhelming.  But what about God’s still, small voice (I Kings 19:12)?  What about the argument of Christian apologists that God refrains from making himself too obvious to the world because God does not want to impose himself on people and desires for them to choose him freely, out of love?  And yet, there are passages in Scripture about God acting publicly, and people then knowing that he is the LORD.  There is Romans 1:20’s statement about God’s existence being evident to people on account of the things that are made.  God is aloof, yet God is public.  Maybe the songs were saying that God’s love is huge and obvious to the Christians singing them—-the people who have tasted that God is good.

The sermon was delivered by a youth pastor.  He was talking about how we do not serve an ordinary God, and, since we have the Holy Spirit inside of us, we are not ordinary people.  This was Pentecost, which commemorates God baptizing Christians with the Holy Spirit in Acts 2.  The preacher was lamenting that there are many young people who leave or drift out of the faith because they believe that God is ordinary.  They want results without process, and they do not think that God is worth the process.  But God is worth it, since God thought they were worth it—-enough to send God’s Son to die for them.

In what way is God not ordinary?  The preacher talked about God’s provision for a youth conference: he was not sure he would have enough money for it, but God provided.  I think that what he may have been getting at was that the Christian life is supposed to be one of adventure, of experiencing God and seeing that God is real.  After he spoke, the church’s pastor shared how God uses him to bless people’s lives.  He prayed for pain to leave the body of a man’s wife, and it left.  The pastor was saying that God can use us that way, too.

The preacher during his sermon was critical of people who drift from one church to another.  He was saying that we should consider sacrificing by becoming part of one church.  That relates to me, since I am in the process of visiting various churches right now, as opposed to settling in one place.  Was God telling me in this sermon to do otherwise?  I have no idea.  I still plan to visit various churches, in this season of my life.

Some may say my attitude here is why I do not experience God as tangibly as other Christians supposedly do.  But I didn’t experience God that tangibly when I was doing what those evangelical types said I should do, either!  Maybe I am like those young people the preacher was mildly criticizing: the ones who doubt that the process is worth the effort.  Or maybe the way that evangelicals want me to be is 180 degrees from the way that I am, and I have grown jaded beating myself up over that.

I do like this church, though, in that the sermons make me think.  I may visit it more than once, but I doubt that I will join.  What the pastor says is intriguing to me, even though I do not experience what he is talking about, and I doubt that I will any time soon.

Of course, there is the factor of visiting a church, and people recognizing me from the last visit.  Part of me prefers more anonymity.  Yet, anonymity can be lonely, and I don’t want that.  I don’t know what I want.  Maybe that’s why I’m drifting when it comes to going to church, in this season of my life.

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