Friday, October 31, 2014

Christian Reproof

Sirach 32:17 states: “The sinner will shun reproof, and will find a decision according to his liking” (NRSV).

When I read this verse yesterday, it got me thinking about Christian reproof.

Here’s my problem with it: A lot of time, it amounts to Christians criticizing me, without offering me any support or encouragement to help me to overcome whatever problem I may have.  Oh, some Christians love to criticize, since that makes them feel righteous and authoritative.  But are they actually going to help those they are criticizing, or will they essentially leave those people alone, to deal with their struggles all by themselves?  In my opinion, if those Christians are not willing to provide encouragement, support, and guidance, then they have no business rebuking.  I’m not saying that as an absolute, for there are probably exceptions, but just as a rule of thumb.

On the other hand, do I really want what I am talking about here?  Suppose that a Christian rebukes me, and I say “You’re right” just to get that person off my back.  Do I seriously want that person to be nagging me continually about whether I am living up to his or her standards?  Not particularly.  That’s the thing about spiritual mentorship: the spiritual mentee has to be willing to receive guidance.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Forgiven Yet Not Regenerated?

I read a post by Arminian theologian Roger Olson this morning entitled, Is It Possible to Be Forgiven (Reconciled) but Not Born Again (Regenerated)?  It’s a long post, and that was daunting to me, at first.  But I am glad that I stuck with it.

I was expecting the worse, especially after reading some of Olson’s past posts about whether we can question anyone’s salvation.  See particularly his post: Is A “Carnal Christian” Saved? (Part Three).  There, Olson gives us a fictional scenario of a man named named John, who accepted Christ at a revival when he was twenty years old, yet John is dishonest in his business, has gone through multiple marriages, had committed adultery while he was married, and seems to be filled with bitterness when people talk with him.  Olson asks: Can a pastor at least raise with John the possibility that John is not saved and needs to receive Christ?

That hit home a little too deeply for me.  I have not committed all of John’s misdeeds, but I do struggle with bitterness, resentment, and unforgiveness.  And I would be outraged if someone suggested to me that I am not saved.  Why would I be outraged?  Because I have tried.  I said the sinner’s prayer years ago.  I was baptized.  I go to church.  I pray.  I read my Bible.  Maybe there are reasons that I am bitter, resentful, and unforgiving.  What makes judgmental Christians think that they wouldn’t be, either, if they experienced life as I experienced it?  What’s more, I am very skeptical that even the judgmental Christians are so perfect.  Guess what?  It is natural to be mad at people!  Not everyone likes everyone!  When we are hurt, we get mad!  You’d probably have to be a robot to pass the salvation tests of a lot of judgmental Christians.  Then again, maybe a robot would not pass either, since the judgmental Christians would accuse him of not being emotionally passionate for Christ enough, or of being lukewarm.

What a better world this would be if Christians were compassionate to those with character defects rather than judgmental.  If you are talking with someone and find that he or she has bitterness, how about praying for (or even with) that person that he or she might experience the peace of God, rather than getting on your high horse and questioning that person’s salvation?  What exactly is questioning people’s salvation supposed to accomplish, anyway?

These are just my reactions, and I am not saying that Olson is one of those judgmental Christians.  I’m also not particularly interested in being nitpicked over technicalities or accused of being an uncareful reader, for this post is simply my honest, raw response.  We’re allowed to have those, I do believe.

Anyway, Olson’s post that I read this morning was good, for he asked a question: What if a person sincerely had a salvation experience, and yet he does not seem to have spiritual affections?  Is he truly reconciled with God and forgiven, if he does not manifest any change in his life and his affections?  Maybe this person does not commit gross misdeeds, Olson says, and yet that internal transformation does not seem to be there.  Olson appeared to be open to the possibility that, yes, that person may truly be reconciled with God and forgiven.

I have wondered about this myself.  I have come across my share of people who appear to be Christians, and sincere Christians at that.  Maybe they actually do have religious or spiritual affections, but they are not particularly nice people.  I am tempted to say that they were not really saved, especially if they have rejected me or hurt me in some way, but who am I to judge?  There are people who may make the same sorts of judgements about me.  If these people reach out to God, in some capacity, and their lives do not appear to be transformed radically, does that mean that God does not honor their reaching out to him?  I would like to think that a loving God does honor that, along with my attempts to reach out to him.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Scattered Ramblings on an Atheist Podcast and Believing in God

I was listening to an atheist podcast yesterday.  I was initially hesitant to do so.  Why?  Was it fear that they might persuade me to abandon my belief in God?  It’s not as if I hadn’t heard their sorts of arguments before, in some way, shape, or form.  Was it because I did not want to be nagged with spiritual doubt?  Maybe I feel that I have enough on my plate, so why be nagged with spiritual doubt?  Did I simply not want to feed my mind with that sort of stuff?  Could be.

Anyway, I listened to it.  I got a chuckle out of something one of the counter-apologists said.  She said that she talks to Christians and they tell her that the universe is so fine-tuned for life, and so there must be a God.  She responds that actually there is not that much life in the universe.  Christians then say that it is such a miracle that there is life on earth, amidst a largely hostile, lifeless universe, and so that shows there is a God!  My hunch is that there is something wrong with how she was laying out the Christian arguments, but I cannot really point out what.  The fine-tuning argument, as I understand it, says that the universe is finely-tuned for life on earth.  The question would then be why God would create life on only one planet, amidst a vast, apparently lifeless universe of other planets, stars, black holes, etc.  (“Apparently” may be too strong a word here, for perhaps there is life on other planets.)  That Matt Papa book that I recently read, Look and Live, said that God did so to teach us about his own vastness.  Could be.  The church tradition in which I grew up said that Christians as spirit beings would create life on those planets and rule them after Christ’s second coming!

I got a laugh out of what the counter-apologist said on the atheist podcast because, at first, she sounded spot on!  She actually was spot on when she made a similar point in discussing how Christians point to the good things in the universe and say that demonstrates there is a God, but, when someone points out to them the bad things in the universe, they blame that on the Fall.

Of course, we cannot stereotype what Christians say.  The people on the show were speaking about their own interactions with Christians and Christian apologists, and there are many Christians who believe as they say.  But I was listening to the radio program, Unbelievable, recently (for the first time in a long time), and it had a debate on animal suffering.  Is God’s existence and benevolence incompatible with animal suffering?  Why would God allow animals to suffer?  I got mad when I heard a clip of Christian apologist William Lane Craig saying (as I understood him) that animals technically do not feel pain.  But the guest on the show who was speaking from a Christian perspective said that animal suffering was part of the order of nature.  He also seemed to dismiss that it was the result of the Fall.

But back to the atheist podcast!  The counter-apologist made another point: that answered prayer is totally subjective.  There is no objective way to say that God answers our prayers.  It’s all based on how we interpret what happens.  We are the ones deciding if what happened counts as God’s answer to our prayer.  For some reason, I actually like that point.  She, of course, was making it to dismiss religion, and that soured the point a bit for me.  But I still liked the point, for some reason.  Maybe it has to do with liking the concept of interpreting circumstances positively.

The atheist podcast also made me think about reasons that I believe.  A lot of it has to do with fear: I am afraid of life.  The counter-apologist was saying that religions prey on that.  Not long ago, I was browsing through the library, and I saw a book by Hans Kung on the existence of God.  He interacts with Freud, Nietzsche—-you know, critics of Christianity who saw it as immature and as relying on a crutch—-and I did not want to read that book.  I just figured that I already knew, at a basic level, what Freud and Nietzsche said, that I did not feel a need to justify my faith to others, and that, therefore, I was not interested in rehashing those debates.  But the podcast yesterday helped me realize that maybe those debates are more important to me than I think.  When does believing in God discourage me from taking action myself?  Yet, I can’t do everything, and there are things outside of my control, so when should I trust in God?  And is it wrong to rely on something?  I wouldn’t be surprised if even atheists rely on something or someone—-family, a social network, maybe some take medication.

Of course, my usual response to those who say that Christianity is a crutch for the weak is for me to acknowledge that, yes, I am weak.  But I think that faith should be about more than looking for a security blanket.

Anyway, those are some scattered ramblings.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Book Write-Up: Religion of the Romans

Jӧrg Rüpke.  Religion of the Romans.  Trans. and ed., Richard Gordon.  Cambridge and Malden: Polity Press, 2009.

This book is about the religion of the ancient Romans: their rituals, their festivals and who attended them, their votive offerings, their sacrifices, and their private and public devotion.

From an academic perspective, this book is quite informative, especially for those who want to learn more about Roman ritual.  There was not a whole lot of chemistry between me and this book, however, and so I may try out other books on Roman religion in the future.  This book did have some interesting details, though: that the Epicureans believed that the gods had bodies that consisted of atoms and that “the dynamic equilibrium between the positive and negative flow of atoms” guaranteed these gods’ immortality (page 65); that people were supposed to pray out loud because otherwise others might suspect them of devising harm against someone; and that gods were not believed to be under any obligation to grant people’s requests.

I also learned about a type of votive offering, a devotio, in which a Roman commander would offer to sacrifice himself in battle if the gods let Rome win.  Usually, the commander would charge into the ranks of the enemy to fulfill this vow, but what would happen to him if he survived and Rome won?  What was thought to have happened was that he would be excluded from the community and regarded as a non-citizen, and “a doll representing him was burned” (page 165).  That would count as the fulfillment of the vow.  Rüpke goes on to say, though, that “this was almost certainly a Late-Republican or Augustan rationalization” (page 165).

I appreciated when Rüpke tied in what he was discussing in Roman religion with the Bible.  This happened rarely, but it did happen, as when he talked about Paul’s stance on whether the Corinthian Christians could eat meat offered to idols.

Overall, because of my familiarity with rituals in the Hebrew Bible, I did not feel as if I was in a no-man’s land when reading Rüpke’s discussion of Roman rituals, even if Rüpke provided quite a bit of theory.  They are a lot alike.  I would have liked, however, to have read more about Roman theology—-beliefs about the gods and the gods’ stances on morality—-along with Roman mythology.

I may find another book that is more of a fit for me.  I don’t particularly want to go through the hulkish Cambridge Companion to Roman Religion, at least not right now.  I may check out A Matter of the Gods, which is a book about how Romans viewed the gods, but it keeps getting checked out!  I checked it out one time and could not renew it because someone else wanted it, and later I went to the library and it was not on the shelves.  There was a book on the emperor cult, which might be pretty good.  We’ll see!  I’ll just keep on reading!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Movie Write-Up: Grace Unplugged

I watched a Christian movie a few days ago: Grace Unplugged, which came out in 2013.  Although the movie is Christian, Lionsgate Films and Roadside Attractions released it, and they release a lot of secular movies.

The movie is about an 18-year-old girl named Grace Trey, whose father, Johnny Trey, used to be a rock star.  Johnny was known as a one-hit wonder, and he left the secular music industry when he became a born-again Christian.  Now, he and his daughter perform at their church, and also at other churches.  The two of them clash quite a bit.

When Johnny’s former agent, Frank “Mossy” Martin, comes into town and tells Johnny that his one hit is becoming famous again, Mossy invites Johnny back into the secular music industry.  Johnny declines Mossy’s offer, but Grace runs away from home, meets with Mossy, and becomes a success in her own right by performing her father’s hit.  Her father tells her that she is not ready for the secular music business, and she struggles to define the role of faith in her life.  She bumps into a nice Christian intern, Quentin, who befriends her and encourages her to make the Christian faith her own.  After Grace experiences a few professional bumps, Mossy tells her that she will be making her own album with songs that others have written for her.  When she objects that one of the songs depicts a one-night stand and goes against her values, she leaves the secular music industry and goes back home.  She remains a professional musician, however, along with her father.

The movie was not earthshakingly good, but is was all right to watch.  It shows how hard it is in certain settings to stand by one’s values, especially when they are unconventional.  In once scene, Grace and some higher-ups in the secular music industry are toasting with champagne, and Grace drinks it to fit in with the crowd.  I myself have no religious objections to drinking, but I do not drink because I am a recovering alcoholic, and I wonder what I would have done in Gracie’s situation: would I go along with the crowd, or would I just not drink from the glass while not being obvious about it?  I have to respect the Hollywood celebrities—-and there are many—-who are in Alcoholics Anonymous and may have to find ways to be social and fit in at drinking functions, without actually drinking.

Some of the actors in Grace Unplugged were familiar to me.  James Denton played Johnny Trey, and I know James Denton as Mike Delfino on Desperate Housewives.  I always liked Mike.  And I learned that Quentin was played by Michael Welch, who has been in some of the Twilight movies, but whom I know from the series Joan of Arcadia.  He played Joan’s nerdy little brother, who brought a scientific dimension to the show, and who also made a good point that there is a distinction between facts and the interpretation of them.

I read Christianity Today‘s negative review of the movie, and I have two thoughts about that.  First, the review tells about a host of a screening of the movie who scolded evangelicals for going to see The Hunger Games rather than Grace Unplugged, pleading with them to go in masses to the opening night of the latter movie.  I really did not like this, for a variety of reasons.  I get sick of evangelical leaders bossing around other evangelicals as if they’re children, or pressuring them to see a movie they may not want to see just because they are supposed to root for Team Evangelical.  While my opinion of Grace Unplugged was not as low that that of Christianity Today‘s review, I still laud Christianity Today for not being afraid to question Team Evangelical!

Second, I liked what the Christianity Today review said about the music manager in the movie, Frank “Mossy”: “Kevin Pollak sidesteps the film’s biggest potential landmine by making Frank a grown up, rather than a predator.”  I actually appreciated that, myself.  Mossy was not a Christian, and he did not share some of Grace’s values, but he was a good and a dependable agent, who knew how the secular music game was played.

Book Write-Up: The Foundation of Communion with God

Ryan M. McGraw, ed.  The Foundation of Communion with God: The Trinitarian Piety of John Owen.  Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014.

John Owen was a seventeenth century English Puritan.  Ryan M. McGraw’s Ph.D. work was about John Owen.  In The Foundation of Communion with God,  McGraw includes excepts from John Owen’s writings, focusing on Christians’ communion with and worship of the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

McGraw provides readers with a strong introduction about who John Owen was, the rigorous education that Owen received as a youth, the concerns of the Puritans about adding non-Scriptural elements to worship, Owen’s support for and later disagreement with the Puritan Lord Protectorate Oliver Cromwell, Owen’s views regarding the Old and New Covenants, and Owen’s polemics against the Socinians, who denied the Trinity and held to other doctrines that were not considered orthodox (e.g., that God had a body).  The information in McGraw’s introduction is helpful and lucid for a popular audience.

In an appendix, McGraw offers advice on how to read Owen.  McGraw acknowledges that John Owen is not an easy read, so he provides information about the various works of Owen, as well as gives advice about the order in which to read Owen’s works and how to read them without getting lost.  McGraw also gives a list of Owen’s works and a small list of secondary literature about Owen.

The body of the work, as I said above, contains excerpts from Owen’s writings.  McGraw states that he has “updated [Owen's] language” in order to “introduce readers to Owen’s writings and make them more accessible…”  Personally, I found the updating of Jonathan Edwards’ prose in John MacArthur’s The Vanishing Conscience to be much clearer than what McGraw did with Owen’s language, and yet McGraw’s updating was not that bad: it preserved some of the old feel and flavor of Owen’s language, and maybe it does not hurt modern readers to concentrate a bit in their reading, especially when one is reading Owen’s discussion of weighty topics.

As far as the substance of the excerpts was concerned, there were parts that I really enjoyed.  Owen talked about the believer finding comfort in Christ, stressed the need for divine grace for people to rise above their sin, and discussed how believers can use rites as a means of divine grace, while focusing on God and not the rites themselves.  Owen demonstrated his classical education, as he contrasted Christianity’s focus on grace with the self-help programs of certain ancient philosophers.  Owen has a reputation as one who stressed that believers can have an assurance of their salvation, and this was clear in two passages that I appreciated: one in which Owen said that even a believer of weak faith has the attention of God, and another in which he stated that believers should remind themselves of their sins, but not in order to beat themselves up.  There were a couple of places where Owen seemed to manifest the stereotypical Puritan insecurity, however: he talked about experiencing worship in a state of dryness, and how one should try to prevent that from happening, and he discussed how non-believers may feel good by going through certain spiritual exercises, and yet they are not experiencing divine grace.

Overall, though, I found McGraw’s work, and the excerpts from Owen, to be informative and edifying.

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

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Book Write-Up: Look and Live, by Matt Papa

Matt Papa.  Look and Live: Behold the Soul-Thrilling, Sin-Destroying Glory of Christ.  Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2014.  See here for Bethany House’s page about the book.

Matt Papa is a Christian recording artist and a minister.  His book Look and Live is about how Christians can find fulfillment, defeat sin in their lives, and be transformed by focusing on the glory of God the Father and Jesus Christ.  The title is based on a story in Numbers 21, in which the Israelites in the wilderness have been bitten by venomous serpents and find healing in looking upon a bronze serpent.  They looked at the bronze serpent, and they lived.  In John 3:14, Jesus likens that bronze serpent to himself.

My impression is that Papa holds to the Reformed tradition of Christianity.  Although he quotes C.S. Lewis and a variety of other figures (including comedian Louis C.K.!), the main influences on Papa appear to be Reformed: Jonathan Edwards, John Piper, and Tim Keller.  Papa also emphasizes such things as the sovereignty and glory of God, and he accepts the concept of God’s predestination of the saved.  At the same time, Papa is probably from the branch of Reformed thought that focuses on God’s love rather than God’s wrath (even though he does say that we all deserve hell).  In one of my favorite passages of the book, Papa questions how many Christians act as if God’s holiness is in opposition to God’s love when they say that God is loving, but also holy.  Papa argues that God’s holiness is about God being one of a kind, unique.

I have heard or read the sorts of things that Papa says in this book from other Christian teachers: that everyone thirsts to worship something and to get more out of life, that only God can fulfill us, that disaster results when we look to something or someone other than God for ultimate fulfillment, and that victory over sin comes, not through trying harder, but through looking to Jesus and falling in love with him.  Such a message may not resonate with everyone, but it has long resonated with me, since I do realize that I idolize many things (i.e., approval from others) and that this leads to disappointment.  I find looking to Jesus and being primarily enamored with him, however, to be easier said than done.  What I appreciate about Papa’s book is that he acknowledges this, and he offers tips on how to pray and read the Bible so as to cultivate an appreciation for God’s glory and beauty.  Moreover, while Papa does say that looking to Jesus is better than simply trying harder, he acknowledges validity in the objection that such a perspective may undermine the motivation to obey God in the believer’s life.  Papa states that obedience itself can be a means through which a person comes to know and to appreciate God better: did not Jesus say, after all, that the pure in heart shall see God (Matthew 5:8)?

Papa is open about his weaknesses, and he provided a number of stories and analogies that effectively illustrated his theological points.  Papa also did well to support from Scripture his argument that people need to taste God’s love and grace before they are motivated to obey: Paul often emphasized God’s grace in Christ first, and Jesus in Luke 19 reached out to the tax collector Zacchaeus before Zacchaeus decided to morally change his life.  In my opinion, people hungry to read about the love and the grace of God will enjoy this book.  I jotted down notes on a number of pages!

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

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