Friday, June 24, 2016

Identity, Service, Law, and Donation

This post will be about two services from last Sunday: one at a Presbyterian church, and one at a Catholic church.

At the Presbyterian church, the pastor artfully tied together three biblical texts.  The first text was I Kings 19, which was about Elijah fleeing to Horeb and God asking him what he was doing there.  The second text was Galatians 3:23-29, which talks about how the Galatian Christians are clothed with Christ, are children of God, and are Abraham’s seed.  The third text was Luke 8:26-29, which was about Jesus casting demons out of a man, and the exorcised man was then clothed and in his right mind.

The pastor was uniting these three texts around the theme of identity.  Elijah was running away because he was scared, and God gently reminded him of his identity.  Similarly, the pastor said, when we run from God, God reminds us that we are his children.  Galatians 3:23-27, too, is about identity, as Christians’ identity is in Christ and not whether they are Jews or Greeks, free or slave, male or female.  They are children of God, Abraham’s seed.  Luke 8:26-29 was about a man receiving a new identity: he went from being possessed and oppressed by demons, to becoming his old self, clothed and in his right mind.  We sang a hymn, “Silence! Frenzied, Unclean Spirit,” which was about God delivering us from our inner demons, including our fears.

The pastor made a few points that particularly stood out.  For one, he was telling the children the story of Jesus healing the demon-possessed man, and he said that Jesus brought the man clothes after cleansing him of demons.  That makes sense, since Jesus was around for a while after the exorcism, and the man did come to be clothed somehow, so why not conclude that Jesus was the one who brought him the clothes?  Jesus clothing the man may look like a small, insignificant detail, but it is not.  Jesus does not just cleanse the man of demons and move on, but Jesus, ever a servant, continues to help the man on his journey back to normalcy.  May God help us to have that kind of servant attitude, continually looking for and seeing ways to help.

Second, in talking about Galatians 3:23-27, the pastor was referring to the part of the passage about people being under the custody of the law until Jesus came: they were under the supervision of a tutor, until Jesus came and God took a different approach.  The pastor compared the law with Maria on the Sound of Music: she taught the children the basics of singing, the notes to sing.  But the children would move past that. They would mature.

Questions or objections can emerge in response to this.  Of course, many adherents to Judaism would disagree with any Christian characterizations of the law as a stepping-stone to Christ, or as a temporary stage of religion for the spiritually immature until Christians would come with their supposedly mature spirituality.  Plus, are not Christians themselves still under some sort of law, since God has requirements, and God wants for Christians to practice certain disciplines, such as prayer and attendance of worship?  Is that necessarily a bad thing?

Adherents to Judaism may have a point and be justified in their disagreement.  Yet, from a Christian perspective, the coming of Jesus makes a difference, such that people need not have the same relationship with the law that they had before.  They possess the Holy Spirit inside of them, so they do not necessarily need for the law to hover over them, telling them what to do and what not to do.  They will still try to do what is right and avoid what is wrong, but they do so with a new perspective, from a different standpoint: a standpoint of being at a new stage of what God is doing, of being accepted by God, of the Holy Spirit being inside of them.

At the Catholic church, the priest was trying to raise money for air-conditioning for the church, and for a chapel where people can come to pray.  People in the church had actually requested these things.  The priest said that he has the money for this, and it is in our pockets!  Some may sneeze at this: why not give the money to the poor, instead of to enhance the church?  But it is still good to be able to worship in a state of comfort, and to have a place where people can gather to pray.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Book Write-Up: Land of Silence, by Tessa Afshar

Tessa Afshar.  Land of Silence.  Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

In Matthew 9:20-22, Mark 5:25-34, and Luke 8:43-48, there is the story about the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment.  The woman had an issue of blood for twelve years, and she had spent a lot on physicians, to no avail.  When she touched the hem of Jesus’ garment, she was healed.

In Land of Silence, Tessa Afshar provides a back story about this figure in the Gospels.  In Afshar’s story, the woman is named Elianna, and she runs her father’s textile business.  Her sister is Joanna, who is mentioned in Luke 8:3 as a wife of Herod’s steward Chuza and as one who financially supported Jesus’ ministry.

When a bee fatally stings Elianna’s brother in Elianna’s presence, that disrupts Elianna’s relationship with her father, who accuses her of negligence.  Elianna’s father withdraws from life in his grief, so Elianna runs his textile business, which prospers under her direction.  In the course of the story, Elianna develops an issue of blood, which isolates her from the Jewish community, due to the requirements of Leviticus 15:25-26.  She spends a lot of money on physicians, who try techniques that do not work, yet charge her anyway.  She hears about a prophet with the gift of healing, and while she is initially hesitant to learn about this prophet, she becomes curious about who he is and what he is about.  Not only does she receive physical healing, but she also receives spiritual healing: from her wounded feelings due to her alienation from her father, and from her unforgiveness.

Afshar’s portrayal of the woman with an issue of blood is plausible.  She may very well have been prosperous, since she had money to spend on physicians.  Jesus calls her “daughter,” and Afshar interprets that in light of the absence of a father in Elianna’s life.  (Jesus may have been calling her "daughter" because she was a daughter of Israel, but Afshar's proposal is intriguing.)  The book captures the powerlessness that many Jews (and even some Romans) felt under the Roman empire, as challenging injustice or standing up for oneself against the Romans could have dire consequences.  As Afshar does in other books that she has written, Afshar in the appendix discusses the historical plausibility of her narrative and the judgment calls that she as an author made.  One issue that she discusses in the appendix is the influence of Levitical ritual laws in first century Palestine.

Readers of other works by Afshar will encounter familiar themes and features in this book.  A wounded person is in need of healing.  Religious discussions enter the picture.  In this book, Pharisees disagree with each other about why people suffer.  Elianna also shares the Jewish faith with a Roman friend, who talks about Roman religion.  That discussion was not as good or as in-depth as the comparative religion discussion about Judaism, Greek religion, and Zoroastrianism in Afshar’s Harvest of Gold, but it still added an intellectual component to the story.

The book was plodding in some places, but intense in others.  In terms of the characters, Elianna was endearing on account of her vulnerability.  Joanna was a sweet person.  Ethan genuinely loved Elianna, yet he could be rather controlling, and that was a turn-off.  Viriato is a Roman slave whom Ethan saves from the mining pits, and he is a cheerful, accepting person.  He reaches out to Elianna, in her time of isolation.

Readers familiar with the Bible will recognize other characters in this book: the Pharisee Gamaliel (Acts 5:34), and Lydia the seller of purple (Acts 16).  Mary Madgalene tells her story to Elianna.

Overall, this is an enjoyable book.

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

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Movie Write-Up (Sort Of): The Keys of the Kingdom

I mentioned yesterday that I watched some faith-affirming films last week.  I watched three of them that I want to discuss on this blog.  The first one was the 2014 romantic comedy Christian Mingle, which I wrote about yesterday.  The second is the 1944 movie The Keys of the Kingdom, starring Gregory Peck as a progressive priest.  I will write about that movie today, in this post.  The third is A Man Called Peter, a 1955 film about the preacher Peter Marshall.  I will probably write about that movie next week.  I have a book review to write tomorrow, my church write-up to write on Friday, and another book review to write on Monday, so I will most likely write my post on A Man Called Peter on Tuesday.

The Keys of the Kingdom!  Like I said, Gregory Peck plays a progressive priest, Father Francis Chisholm.  The movie had familiar faces: Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who was on the Ten Commandments; Vincent Price, who was also on the Ten Commandments, and many horror movies; Thomas Mitchell, who played Uncle Billy on It’s a Wonderful Life (but he was without the pet bird in Keys of the Kingdom).

Francis Chisholm was a progressive priest.  What’s that mean, exactly?  Well, he was somewhat of an inclusivist when it came to salvation.  In a comical scene, he asks if God really values believing in doctrines, when such a belief is largely a matter of where a person was born.  The priest sternly retorts, “The answer to your question is ‘Yes!'”

Father Chisholm wonders if he can find a place to fit in, and he goes to China to minister there.  There are many events in this movie, and I won’t discuss all of them here.  In this post, I want to focus on Father Chisholm’s relationship with the Reverend Mother Maria-Veronica.  I will use that as a starting-point for further discussion.

Father Chisholm and the Reverend Mother did not get along at first.  A significant factor was that she and her fellow nuns arrived in China before Father Chisholm was even expecting them, so Father Chisholm was greeting them in his dirty clothes!  He didn’t make a very good first impression! They started their relationship off on the wrong foot!

Father Chisholm offers to help the nuns, but the Reverend Mother continually spurns his offers of help.  She and her fellow nuns want to keep to themselves and contemplate.  When Father Chisholm’s atheist doctor friend Willie Tulloch (Uncle Billy) is on his deathbed and Father Chisholm refuses to shove religion down his friend’s throat, the Reverend Mother leaves the room in disgust.

In the course of the movie, we learn of the roots of the Reverend Mother’s disdain for Father Chisholm.  Essentially, she envies him spiritually.  She grew up in a privileged background and was somewhat of an elitist, so she looked down on the economically impoverished Chinese.  But she hated her elitist attitude, for she thought that she as a Christian should be better than that.  She envied how easy humility and service came to Father Chisholm.  She believed that he was closer to God than she was, and she resented him for that.

Father Chisholm’s old friend Monsignor Angus (played by Vincent Price) comes to visit Father Chisholm in China.  Angus is rising quite well in the Catholic hierarchy, and Father Chisholm feels a bit inadequate in comparison to his friend on account of that.  Angus downgrades the lowly Chinese and suggests that Father Chisholm befriend the wealthier Chinese, since they can benefit Father Chisholm and the church.  Father Chisholm refuses to do so and criticizes Angus’ attitude.

After this encounter, the Reverend Mother confesses and apologizes to Father Chisholm about her elitism and her resentment of him.  Perhaps Monsignor Angus’ attitude reminded her of the attitude that she was fighting within herself!  She tells Father Chisholm that Monsignor Angus is not worthy to kiss Father Chisholm’s shoes!  Father Chisholm tells her that there is no need for her to apologize.  Later in the movie, Father Chisholm and the Reverend Mother are old, and Father Chisholm is jealous about Angus becoming a bishop.  He feels that Angus has accomplished something with his life, whereas he has not.  The Reverend Mother replies that Father Chisholm is closer to God than Angus is.

I could identify with the Reverend Mother, in the sense that she was trying to be a good Christian but realized that she fell short, and she resented someone because she thought that Christianity came so easy to him.  Later in the movie, she arrives at a greater sense of peace with herself and with Father Chisholm: she serves however she can, and her admiration of Father Chisholm no longer entails her beating herself up for falling short.  Father Chisholm’s acceptance of her most likely played a role in her growth.  He did not berate her for her spiritual shortcomings but was an accepting presence in her life.

Do we see something similar in Christian communities today, or in the world in general?  There are many Christians who look down on others for their shortcomings, when they themselves have their own share of shortcomings.  The reason for their attitude may be that they try so hard to be righteous, to walk on the straight and narrow, so they have disdain for those who do not seem to try as hard, or who fall short.  They are not like Father Chisholm, loving and accepting people where they are.

Conversely, when someone tries to manifest a Father Chisholm-like attitude, many people may not feel that the person is being real or authentic.  No one is that good, right?  There must be some resentment underneath that Pollyannish attitude!  And, in many cases, there may be!  The person is trying his best to manifest a proper attitude, against emotions inside of himself that rush in the opposite direction.

Hopefully, we can become more loving and accepting of others, where they are.  May God grant me the strength to have that kind of attitude!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Movie Write-Up (Sort Of): Christian Mingle

I watched some faith-affirming movies last week.  Today, I will comment on the first one that I watched: the 2014 romantic comedy Christian Mingle.  Christian Mingle is a Christian dating site.

Gwyneth Hayden is disappointed with the dating scene and is looking for a relationship that has substance.  Although she is not a Christian, she goes onto the dating web site, Christian Mingle, and pretends to be one.  She meets Paul, a goofy, likable guy.  She tries to imitate the evangelical lingo, and that can get pretty unconvincing and awkward.  Paul’s mother Lacie, played by Morgan Fairchild, suspects that something is wrong.

Gwyneth joins Paul’s family in Mexico on a mission trip.  They are installing a church bell after disaster had struck the Mexican community.  At a Bible study with the Mexican children, a Mexican child asks why God allowed that destruction to hit her community.  Lacie, knowing by this point that Gwyneth is only pretending to be a Christian, volunteers Gwyneth to answer that question.  Gwyneth says that is a good question, and that there must be some answer to it somewhere in that beautiful book, the Bible.  Lacie responds, “How about James 1:2-4?”  We learn later in the movie that the Mexican little girl was actually satisfied with the answer that people experience trials to become stronger.

Paul later confronts Gwyneth and asks her if she is a believer.  She is curious about what exactly that means.  After all, she says, she has been baptized, and she believes in God.  Paul attempts to define where she is spiritually—-to paint her a picture, and to see if that resonates with her.  He proposes that she realizes that there is something bigger, and she gives it the name “God” to conceptualize it.  But she has heard negative things about religion and has seen and experienced bad things in life, and then she doubts God.  She vacillates between belief and non-belief.

Gwyneth tries to be religious after her break-up with Paul: she starts attending an enthusiastic church and serves in the soup kitchen.  She begins a dialogue with God.  She has been working for an advertising agency that tries to make things look good (by the way, Peterman from Seinfeld is on this movie, playing a Peterman-like character!), and, in the midst of that, she develops a genuine desire for truth.  Notwithstanding all of that, her Christian co-worker tells her that she still has a long way to go.  What more does she need to do?  It seems that she needs to tell Jesus that she wants him in her life.  But didn’t she already indicate that, by going to church, talking to God, serving in the soup kitchen, etc.?  She still needed to make that formal commitment.  She needed to want Jesus in her life.

On that scene about the Bible study in Mexico, I am not sure how I would have responded had someone asked me about the problem of evil.  Most likely, I would have replied that it is a mystery.  Because I did not care for the Morgan Fairchild character’s smug attitude in that scene, I would have probably even gotten belligerent: “Unlike some people here, I am not going to parrot some evangelical pat-answer to one of life’s biggest mysteries, from a hilltop of white privilege.”

At the same time, the scene did sensitize me to something that I knew, and yet it was not in the forefront of my mind as I was watching the scene: the Bible does have things to say about why people experience trials.  It is not as if the Bible leaves it a total mystery.  Granted, no answer is a one-size-fits-all, but it does provide something to think about, to grasp onto.

On Paul’s speech to Gwyneth, I can somewhat identify with where Paul suggested that Gwyneth was spiritually: vacillating between belief and non-belief.  I do not think that is entirely bad, per se, since we’re all human.  No one believes perfectly.  My hope is that God loves us, even when we waver.  At the same time, there should be room for commitment, for having a mission in life as opposed to sitting on the fence, for actually doing something with that sense of the transcendent and numinous, beyond just being inspired temporarily.  That is the only way to take it seriously, and for it to shape a person.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Reading Vanhoozer in Light of Ancient Aliens

I reviewed Kevin Vanhoozer’s Pictures at a Theological Exhibition a few days ago.  I forgot to include an item in that review that I was planning to include.  Maybe that’s for the best, as you will see below.

Basically, the deal was this: I was watching an episode of Ancient Aliens not long ago, and that was generating in my mind some theological questions.  Vanhoozer actually addresses similar questions and issues in an essay in his book.  The essay is entitled “Enhancement in the Cathedral: Power, Knowledge and Smart Pills.”

Let’s be clear: Vanhoozer does not interact specifically with Ancient Aliens.  I probably did well not to include a reference to Ancient Aliens in my review, since many scholars scoff at that show, or roll their eyes at it.  Just tossing out the term “Ancient Aliens” in my review would be poison.

But allow me to share my thought process.  I was watching an episode of Ancient Aliens entitled “The Next Humans.”  It was episode 3 of Season 11.  See here for somebody’s review of it.  On that episode, people were talking about how we may be on our way towards positive breakthroughs, in terms of our health, lifespans, and intelligence increasing.  Aging may be counteracted.  Organs can be replaced.  Cells will be repaired.  Technology can play a role in a lot of this.  According to the episode, we are actually moving in this direction right now.

How true this is, I have no idea.  My Mom’s husband is a scientist, and he was disputing what Ancient Aliens said on another episode, about human and rabbit DNA being mixed together.  He was saying that this was not what happened!  In addition, when I am watching Ancient Aliens and see a person labeled a “Futurologist,” I wonder what the heck that is.  Where do futurologists get their qualifications?

But suppose that there is some validity in what Ancient Aliens was saying about “the Next Humans.”  Would that be a good thing?  Would that be a bad thing?

I thought about the Tower of Babel story in the Book of Genesis.  God stepped in to stop the people from building a tower that would reach to heaven, saying that, if they have started to do that, nothing they imagine will be impossible for them (Genesis 11:6).

Then there is the question of whether we would want a world without any suffering and death.  You know the usual theistic theodicies: God permits suffering because that builds in us character.  It gives us depth.  People who have not suffered can be pretty shallow.  Suffering makes us more compassionate.  The possibility of death humbles us.  Our limitations, in general, humble us.

Then there is the practical issue of over-population.  If people are not dying, won’t there be too many people, but not enough resources?  Maybe our augmented intelligence will be able to find a solution to that problem!

But my mind had its share of “on the other hands.”  For instance, I have no objection to other inventions and devices that have reduced suffering and prolonged life.  I use soap.  I take an Aspirin when I have a headache.  Looking outside of myself, I am happy that more women can bear children and live through childbirth, rather than dying.  The mother can then enjoy her children.  The children can have a mother.  Should I oppose these things on account of some “no pain, no gain” belief system?  I don’t think so.

Another question enters my mind.  God is powerful, right?  God is far more powerful than we are.  Why, then, should God be intimidated by us trying to enhance ourselves?  God would still be more powerful than us, even after we enhance ourselves!  And, because of that, people may still feel some need for God in their lives, even after their enhancements.  Yet, God did seem to feel somewhat threatened in the Tower of Babel story, and this was at the prospect of building a Tower.  We know now that the Tower would not have even reached the heaven where God dwells, since there is so much outer space out there.  Why would a great God feel threatened?

Now for the Vanhoozer essay.  Like I said, Vanhoozer did not mention Ancient Aliens, nor did he really interact with anything that was on that Ancient Aliens episode.  But he was talking about attempts to enhance human nature.  He referred to smart pills, which would be like steroids for the mind.  Vanhoozer was critiquing enhancements from a Christian and a bioethical standpoint.

Vanhoozer took great pains to distinguish enhancements from healing or medicine.  Healing and medicine restore our bodies, rather than enhancing them.  For Vanhoozer, enhancement is a bad idea for a variety of reasons.  For one, God made us as we are, and we should not try to tamper with that.  Also, our limitations build in us character.  And, according to Vanhoozer, seeking to enhance ourselves in this life focuses on prospering in this life and this world, when we should be seeking treasures in heaven (a la Matthew 6:19-21).

I am still rather ambivalent in terms of how I feel about this issue.  I doubt that God is threatened by anything human beings can do.  At the same time, God may not feel that human beings are ready for certain things.  He may believe that they lack the character to handle certain things properly.  There are plenty of sci-fi stories about people attaining godlike powers, yet lacking the wisdom or the character to use them in a way that benefits themselves or others.  I think of the Star Trek episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”
The New Testament teaches that God has a plan to exalt human beings, at least the ones who follow him (see II Timothy 2:12, for example).  In a sense, Christianity itself is about human enhancement: God gives people the Holy Spirit, and they grow in wisdom and character and even gain eternal life.  But that is enhancement God’s way, and it entails having a good moral character.

I have no plans to oppose technological advancements, even those that can enhance human nature.  God will permit what God wants, and God will step in and stop what God wants.  That does not mean there should be no bio-ethics at all.  If we are to enhance our nature, we need to make sure that everyone gets enhanced, if possible, so that nobody is left out in the cold or gets stigmatized or marginalized.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Book Write-Up: Pictures at a Theological Exhibition

Kevin J. Vanhoozer.  Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of Church Worship, Witness and Wisdom.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.  See here to purchase the book. 

Kevin J. Vanhoozer is a theologian at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  He has a Ph.D. from Cambridge University.  Pictures at a Theological Exhibition is a collection of essays by Vanhoozer about theology, worship, and the church's witness to the world.  Some of the essays are sermons that he delivered.
Here are some of my reactions to the book.

A.  The book is thoughtful.  The conclusions, you can probably find in a lot of Christian writings and sermons.  But what makes this book worth reading is the journey.  Vanhoozer is an educated person exploring territory.  He interacts with prominent thinkers and trends of thought as he makes his points.  In talking about imagination, Vanhoozer addresses an argument some Christians make that imagination is wrong because it focuses on what is false (i.e., imagined).  In discussing Jesus' statement to the Samaritan woman that people must worship God in spirit and truth (John 4:24), Vanhoozer disputes the hyper-individualist application of this verse by Kant and other modernists.  In a chapter about the doctrines of angels, Vanhoozer explores what various New Testament passages say about angelic doctrine: Paul's statement in Galatians 1:8 about how the Galatians are to reject a message even from an angel from heaven when it contradicts the Gospel; Paul's statement in I Corinthians 13:1 that speaking in the tongues of angels is without value if one lacks love; and I Peter 1:12's statement that angels desire to learn more about people's salvation.

B.  There were times when the book offered me a fresh understanding.  In Vanhoozer's discussion of Jesus' interaction with the Samaritan woman in John 4, for example, Vanhoozer interprets Jesus' reference to God being a spirit, not in reference to God's bodily composition or immateriality, but rather in reference to the activity of the Holy Spirit in animating and renewing.  In discussing Jesus' reference to living waters, Vanhoozer refers to passages from the Hebrew Bible about springs and living waters, as well as rabbinic Judaism's likening of the Torah to waters of life.  Vanhoozer mentions and addresses what interpreters have said about the Samaritans and how that may be influencing the content of John 4.  For example, Vanhoozer states that some early commentators interpreted Jesus' reference to the woman's husband and the man she was living with who was not her husband in light of Samaritan religion: the Samaritans had worshiped five gods, and now they were worshiping YHWH, yet they were not exclusively committed to him.  Vanhoozer disagrees with this interpretation, saying that the Samaritans were monotheists by this point.  It is still an intriguing interpretation.

C.  Vanhoozer talks about why he believes that theology is important.  He quotes skeptic Richard Dawkin's statement that theology is utterly unimportant.  Vanhoozer makes a variety of interesting and profound points.  He notes that, in the New Testament, sound doctrine is often contrasted with sin, not doctrinal heresy.  He states that doctrine has to do with spiritual health, not just truth.  He says that theology is important because it can counteract the tendency of today's knowledge to be vast, while not really going anywhere.  That last point resonates with me, for I do think that there is more to life than survival and machines running smoothly.  At the same time, Vanhoozer may have done well to have explored how (or if) certain academic discussions of theology have any relevance to people's lives.  In short, are these discussions about esoteric and arcane trivia, or are they about something relevant that can impact people's perspective and life?

D.  Many of the essays were inspiring.  Vanhoozer had thoughtful things to say about beauty and the church's mission to point people to God's reconciliation with humanity.  Vanhoozer talks about the importance of narrative and how that can show Christianity being lived, not just contemplated.  The chapter about the inerrancy of Scripture was somewhat lackluster, and Vanhoozer perhaps should have wrestled more with the problems the Bible has, in the eyes of many people.  At the same time, those looking for a reasonable perspective on inerrancy, one that is not rigidly fundamentalist, may find Vanhoozer's insights helpful here, in terms of providing a starting-point or food for thought.

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

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Book Write-Up: The Rector, by Michael Hicks Thompson

Michael Hicks Thompson.  The Rector: A Christian Murder Mystery.  Memphis: Shepherd King Publishing, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

The Rector is set in 1950’s Mississippi.  David Baddour, the pastor of an Episcopalian church in the small town of Solo, has died at the young age of thirty-two.  Martha McRae, who owns a boarding house and a newspaper, suspects that he was murdered.  The church gets a new rector, Thomas Bain, but there are indications that he is not as he seems.

The book is competently written.  It has its share of likable characters.  Martha is humble and level-headed.  Her friend Oneeda becomes infatuated too easily, but is a cheerful person.  Mary is trying to move on from her past and to be a good Christian.  Freddie works at the post office and is the town drunk.  John “JJ” Johnson makes honey and is a big wooly man; he is devout and donates ten percent of his income to the Episcopalian church.

The Amazon note about the book says: “Set in the 1950s, the key figures are Martha, Mary Magdalene, John the Baptist, Satan, and Jesus.”  The Christian allegory in this book is not as overbearing as, say, the Christian allegory in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  But it is still there.  I was wondering who the John the Baptist character was in the book, then it dawned on me: honey, wooley man, JJ!  That, by the way, accounts for a scene in the book that I initially thought was unnecessary and gratuitous.

Occasionally, the book has theological discussions.  They mainly revolve around the problem of evil.  One of the rectors tries to explain the existence of evil by talking about how God gives people free will, but he also says that God needs to enable a person to come to God if that person is to believe.  That seems like a mixture of Calvinism with a belief in libertarian free-will.  Maybe that is contradictory, or maybe the author believes that the two concepts can fit together, somehow.

One of the themes in the book reminds me of a theme in that awful 2005 miniseries, Revelations: a Satanic sort of person is in jail, inciting prisoners and orchestrating disaster and mayhem in the outside world.  Come to think of it, didn’t Andre Linoge do some of that in Stephen King’s Storm of the Century?  There is also that Twilight Zone episode in which Satan is in jail.  I guess it’s a motif.

Comparing and contrasting the teachings of the Satanic sort of character with those of the good rector would make for an interesting discussion.  One preached prosperity and God giving people what they want; the other preached justification by grace through faith alone.  Both did their share of good for the community, in their own way, but the Satanic character obviously produced bad fruit, in the end.

The first two thirds of the book were really good, perhaps because I was enjoying the characters and wondering how mysteries would be resolved.  The resolution to the mystery was a bit “meh” to me.  It reminded me of a Matlock or Perry Mason episode, only the way of arriving at the truth did not strike me as that much of a slam-dunk.  I also thought that the book was hastily trying to tie one of the characters to Jesus in the end.  That in itself raises questions: Was that character Jesus?  Can Jesus come back and die again?  And, on a related note, was the Satan character really Satan?  He had his own human history, so there are arguments for the “no” answer.

I did like this book, and I am open to reading the book’s sequel when it comes out.

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

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