Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Book Write-Up: Return to Me, by Lynn Austin

Lynn Austin.  Return to Me.  Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2013.

Return to Me is the first book of Lynn Austin’s Restoration Chronicles.  It is Christian historical fiction about the return of the Jews from Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.E., and their attempts to start a new life in the land of Israel, where they face the challenges of rebuilding God’s sanctuary and their homes, and dealing with the inhabitants of the land (the Samaritans) and the Persian authorities.  Because there is a good chance that I will receive a review copy of the second book of the series, I decided to read the first book.

Let me say that I was impressed.  Lynn Austin is a talented writer, who is able to tell a compelling story and to create characters with whom I could sympathize.  Austin features a variety of characters: the Jews who were enthusiastic about returning from exile, the Jews who did not want to return because they had made a life for themselves in Babylon, the faithful, the somewhat faithful, the doubters, the closet pagans, those who wanted to make peace with the native Samaritans, those who thought that commitment to God should preclude appeasing the Samaritans, and the list goes on.  These characteristics are not always set in stone, for some characters may doubt the miracles in the Bible while holding to some sort of faith in God, and a number of the characters change their perspective due to experiences or epiphanies that they have.  In any case, I could sympathize and empathize with all of the characters in the book, including those who were doing things of which many of the biblical writings (and probably Lynn Austin herself, an evangelical Christian) would disapprove, as well as the religious characters who annoyed me because they got too preachy.

Austin also navigates the tensions within the Hebrew Bible: between judgment and grace, between legalism and love, and between Israelite exclusivism and the vision that Israel had a divine mission to be a blessing to the Gentile nations.  Austin smoothes some tensions over better than others, but, overall, she presents people wrestling with the tensions and arriving at decisions.

How did Lynn Austin do in terms of historical accuracy and agreement with biblical scholarship?  Well, liberal scholars may disagree with her dating of Second Isaiah, Daniel, and other biblical writings.  Her book also said that Babylonian temples had orgies, which coincides with Herodotus, but which some biblical scholars dispute (see here).  She depicts Jewish students wearing kippot, when it is debated whether that was a practice in biblical times (see here and here).  She presents her characters as largely literate—-including the young Jewish woman Yael, who had star charts, and a Samaritan old woman, who could actually read those star charts.  I am not entirely certain how accurate that picture is, but I am open.  I do not doubt that priests like Iddo and Zechariah could read; maybe even some of the Samaritans could.  But Yael and the Samaritan old woman?

There were times when Austin indicated that there were differences between the Samaritans and the Jews—-on when girls got married, on dowries, etc.—-when my guess is that the Jews were probably similar to the Samaritans on these things, particularly when both were drawing their ideas from the Torah, or the Torah was exemplifying their cultural features.

Austin is also sensitive to conservative scholarly attempts to reconcile Bible contradictions or to address Bible problems: she presents the Babylonian kings Nabonidus and Belshazzar as co-rulers, for example, and she says that the seventy years of Jewish exile officially started when the first set of exiles were taken from Israel, not when Jerusalem was destroyed in 587 B.C.E. (otherwise we have less than seventy years between the destruction and the return from exile).  I would say that her book does reflect research, but scholars would probably quibble with some of her picture, depending on their perspective or what they believe the evidence reveals.  Let me also say that, overall, I was impressed by Austin’s knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, including the priestly laws in the Pentateuch.

I had two favorite passages.  In one passage, Iddo, the devout grandfather of Zechariah (who would grow up to become the prophet Zechariah), is telling his grandson about the power of words:

“We’re made in the Holy One’s image so our words also have power.  You tell someone they’re ugly or that they’re a fool, and if you repeat if often enough, you might create ugliness or foolishness in that person.  You praise them for their goodness or kindness, and your words just might create even more kindness in that person.  We must be careful to speak words of life.”

The other passage that I really liked was on page 383.  In Austin’s book, the Samaritans are presented in a rather unflattering light, yet they are not entirely dehumanized.  One Jewish character, Dinah, is upset about leaving her family behind in Babylon and questions the value of serving God, but she has an epiphany when she is delivering a Samaritan baby, and the Samaritan old woman wants to throw the baby out to die because the baby has a deformed foot.  Dinah concludes that the Samaritans do not value life the way that the Jews do, and that the Jews value life because they have the Torah.  Yet, there are parts of the book that indicate a more complex picture: that the Samaritans also believe in the Torah, on some level, that there are good Samaritans, that a Samaritan can join the community of Israel, and that the Samaritans are upset because they were on the land and now a bunch of exiles are returning.  On page 383, Zechariah is responding to someone who is criticizing the Babylonian and Samaritan stargazers, as Zechariah is saying that the Temple will be a way to bring everyone to God.  Zechariah says: “I know some of those stargazers, and they’re searching for Him whether they realize it or not.”  Some may find that to be condescending.  I find it to be a beautiful acknowledgement that we are all thirsty.

Which Takes Priority: Faith or Political Affiliation?

I was reading a blog post recently that was arguing that the white evangelical community is itself post-evangelical.  Whereas previous generations of evangelicals looked to commitment to biblical authority and sharing the faith as identity markers, nowadays a number of white evangelicals look to partisan politics, namely, being a conservative Republican who opposes abortion and gay marriage.

I have to admit that I do get a bit tired of white evangelicals who assume that believing in Jesus and Christianity has to entail being a conservative Republican, just because of abortion and gay marriage.  There are more issues out there than abortion and gay marriage, and so I believe that an evangelical Christian can legitimately arrive at the conclusion that the Democratic Party is more in line with the Bible and Jesus’ teachings.  Politically-liberal evangelicals have concluded that political liberalism is kinder towards the poor, a prominent concern in the Bible and Jesus’ teachings.

I would not say that being a Christian has to entail being a political liberal, however.  An evangelical Christian, who sincerely desires the good of people and of society, may legitimately conclude that political conservatism creates a more favorable climate for business and job-creation, and that commitment to and promotion of old-fashioned values (i.e., faith, abstinence outside of marriage, etc.) will help society and those within it.

For me, the key question is which has priority: faith or political orientation?  Is one a Christian who happens to be a Republican or Democrat, or a Republican or Democrat who happens to be a Christian?  In my teenage years, I was a Republican who happened to be a Christian.  My enthusiasm was for Republican politics, and I saw Christianity as a part of that package.  But Christianity at that time did not shape my life, my values, and how I treated people.  It was when I committed to Christ that I began to prioritize those things.  And, even after that, through all of my shifts in political ideology, I still have to face the question: Which is more important to me—-my partisan political affiliation, or my faith and the values that it teaches?

I cannot say that a lot of white evangelicals put their politics before their faith, for their faith is what shapes how they try to live and to treat people: with love and compassion.  In my experience, many of them see their political affiliation as a part of their faith, but it is not the entirety of it.  I have noticed my share of exceptions, though.  It’s easy for even a sincere Christian (or anyone seeking to be kind to people) to be a jerk and to dehumanize others in acrimonious online political discussions!

I was thinking about this issue a while back, after Ann Coulter criticized sending Christian missionaries to Africa.  I was wondering where white evangelicals’ allegiances would lie.  Would they choose Ann Coulter, a conservative icon with whom many of them probably agree and root for when they see her on television?  Or would they choose Jesus’ command to go forth into all the world to teach about Jesus?  As far as I could tell, many of them chose the latter (see here, for example).  And that did not surprise me that much.  They love Jesus.  They believe that Jesus, not Ann Coulter, was the one who died for them, saved them from their sins, and made them see after being blind.  Their first commitment was to Jesus.

Monday, September 29, 2014

New Seasons and Comfort TV

Well, some new TV seasons started last night!  We watched all of season 3 of Once Upon a Time recently, so we were ready for the start of Season 4 last night.  And we watched the hour-long episode of Family Guy, in which the characters from Family Guy meet the characters from the Simpsons.

Once Upon a Time has become comfort food for me.  As long as I have been an adult TV viewer (and there was a stretch of time in which I didn’t even own a TV), some show has played that role for me.  For a while, it was LOST and Desperate Housewives.  I would eagerly anticipate the start of each season, like I was reuniting with old friends, and about to meet new friends.  Even the less-than-stellar seasons were comfort food for me.

I don’t think that much about LOST and Desperate Housewives anymore.  The ending of LOST ruined the show for me, and I have not watched old Desperate Housewives episodes since the series came to an end (except for one time, when I watched the last episode of season 1).  Still, the feeling I have right now about Once Upon a Time is the same feeling that I had about those two shows.

Can We Over-Emphasize God's Love?

Can we over-emphasize God’s love?  I was thinking about that as I was trying to sleep last night.  Some think that we can.  We can use God’s love as an excuse, to convince ourselves that we can sin and still be okay with God.  After all, God loves us, right?  He won’t reject us if we are disobedient!

There are seasons in my life, though, when God’s law—-or perhaps my perception and understanding of God’s law—-weighs me down.  In these times, I may find myself hesitant to lean on God’s love, since a little voice in my head is telling me that I cannot use God’s love as an excuse to sin.  Sometimes, I can pray and the right attitude materializes within me, making the Christian life look like a cake-walk.  At other times, that does not work so well, and I am conscious of how much I fall short of God’s high standards (or, again, my perceptions and understanding thereof).

But I was thinking: Can I really over-emphasize God’s love?  Do Christian legalists—-and my inner Christian legalist—-seriously think that the way to get me on the straight and narrow is for me to believe in a harsh, judgmental God?  Belief in that sort of God does not bear much fruit in my life.  It does not make me joyful, loving, and peaceful, the fruits of the Spirit that Christian legalists (and, again, my inner Christian legalist) may judge me as not having.

I do not believe that I can overemphasize God’s love.  Actually, I believe that God’s love is what I need to be a fruitful Christian.  How can I forgive or love a person who rejects me?  I can remind myself—-and remind myself until it becomes an integral aspect of my identity—-that God loves me unconditionally and will never ever reject me.

I do believe, though, that I should adopt a belief in God’s love for me that orients my view of others in a positive direction.  Yes, God loves me, but it is not God and me against the rest of the world.  God loves everyone else, too.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Working in the Vineyard

At church this morning, the pastor preached about Matthew 21:28-32, in which Jesus tells the story of two sons.  The father told one son to work in the vineyard, and the son said no but later changed his mind and did what his father asked. The father then told another son to work in the vineyard, this son said that he would, and the son then went on and did not do what his father told him.  Jesus compared the first son to the tax collectors and prostitutes who repented at the righteous preaching of John the Baptist, and the second son to the religious leaders who gave lip service to God but did not repent.

The pastor was saying that we should not merely honor God with our lips, wear Christian T-shirts (I was wearing a WWJD shirt underneath my shirt!), and put a fish sign on the back of our car.  We should also work in the vineyard.  As examples, the pastor mentioned listening compassionately to people’s problems or taking a sick woman to the doctor because she is afraid of being alone.  The pastor said that the world wants to see authentic Christianity, people who do not just talk the talk but also walk the walk.

Whether or how I will apply any of this, I do not know.  I do get a bit tired of writing posts in which I try to justify the level at which I live or don’t live a loving, Christian life.  By now, I just count on the fact that I will hear comforting sermons, and I will hear sermons that make me walk out of the church service wondering if I am doing enough.  Sometimes, I am so tired and dead inside that I do not care if I am doing enough.  Working in the vineyard?  Maybe I get tired of listening to people’s problems, especially when I cannot do anything about them.  Maybe I would prefer to stay home and read all day rather than go out and serve people.

But I do agree that the Christian life should be about more than talk.  If it is just talk, then what exactly is the point?  Somewhere along the way, one should live according to what one professes to believe.  If one believes in a loving God, one should place faith in that God.  If one sees others as people of value, one should treat them that way.

Which son am I?  Well, would it be all right with the father if one of the sons just said that he did not want to go work in the vineyard, and let that be that?

Somebody has to work in the vineyard, though.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

I Chronicles 29

In  I Chronicles 29, King David encourages leaders in Israel to support his successor, Solomon, in the task of constructing the Temple, and to donate materials to the project, as David did.

I generally listen to sermons about the chapter that I am studying for my weekly quiet time.  In the sermons that I heard about I Chronicles 29, there was a lot of emphasis on God loving a cheerful giver, a la I Corinthians 9:7.  More than one preacher said that, if we do not want to give, then God does not want us to give, for God desires that our giving be willing.  Throughout I Chronicles 29, we read that the Israelite leaders gave willingly, freely, or joyously.

I am a bit ambivalent about the pastors’ statement that we should not give if we do not want to do so.  On the one hand, I am against trying to force or guilt people to do things that they do not want to do.  If I absolutely do not want to go to a Christian small group, for example, then forcing myself to do so out of “obedience to God” will not help me, and it probably will not help those in the group.  On the other hand, when it comes to giving, especially charitable giving, then I believe that the focus should be on the need of the recipients rather than the attitude of the giver.  The attitude of the giver is still important, but that is because being a cheerful giver can lead to more giving and helping of those in need, not because it meets some legalistic requirement of what counts as legitimate giving in God’s eyes.

In I Chronicles 29, however, we are not dealing with charitable giving, but with giving that relates to the construction of the Temple.  But is not the Temple necessary for Israel to prosper?  Remember the Book of Haggai, where God criticizes the post-exilic Israelites for taking care of their own needs while neglecting their religious duty to build God a Temple?  According to Haggai, that neglect resulted in economic dearth for the Israelites, as their crops were consumed by blight, mildew, and hail (to draw from the NRSV’s rendering of Haggai 2:17).  Israel needed God in her midst in order to prosper.  When post-exilic Israel recognized that and undertook the duty of building God a Temple, then things got better for her economically.

But I am doubtful that Israel in the time of David and Solomon really needed a Temple in order to have God’s presence in her midst and to prosper.  God already dwelt in Israel’s midst through a Tabernacle, and, according to I Chronicles 17, God was satisfied with that.  It was David who decided that this was not good enough for God, that it was improper for David to dwell in a great palace while God dwelt in a lowly tent.  David decided to build God a Temple, and God signaled his approval of that, or, more accurately, his approval of David’s son Solomon undertaking the project.

That being said, David and the leaders of Israel were not donating willfully to building the Temple because they believed that God needed a Temple to dwell in Israel’s midst and to bless and prosper her, for God already dwelt in Israel through a Tabernacle.  Rather, they were eager to donate out of a conviction that a great God deserved a great Temple.  This was worship.  This was something that could not be compelled.  God wants for our love of him to be joyful, free, and willing.

At the same time, there was a temptation: people who try to do something for God may start to exalt themselves.  “Look what I am doing for God!”  That may be why David in I Chronicles 29 is exalting God at the expense of humans, saying that all came from and belongs to God, that humans are temporary, and that no one really deserves to give God anything.  Moreover, while one may point to one’s piety and become proud of it, David highlights the need for God to preserve a person’s piety, so that it is not just a passing fad or whim but becomes a defining factor in one’s life.  Human beings are inconstant and can be fickle, and so, rather than congratulating themselves for whatever piety or goodness they may have, they should depend on God to preserve that piety or goodness such that it becomes a defining part of their character.

I wonder also if David was also exalting God at the expense of the human as a way to convince people to give.  Maybe he was telling the Israelite leaders that their time on earth is temporary, and they cannot take their wealth with them, so what better way is there for them to use their wealth than to use it to honor the great God?  I suppose that one can think of other good uses they could have made of their wealth, even if they would die some day and could not take their wealth with them.  They could leave it to their children, and that would be laudable.  But David wants them to do something even more significant with it.

Giving is not always easy for me.  I have given in the past.  But it is not easy.  Somewhere in my mind, there should be a sense that—-in addition to saving up my money—-I should use at least some of it for something significant, such as helping those in need, or promoting the worship of God.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Ramblings on Being a Private Person

I try to write on my blog every day.  Today, I am finding that difficult.  I already posted something, but I wrote that post last week and scheduled it to appear on my blog today.  I try to write an actual post each day.

What is constipating my writing?  Well, my writing is not entirely constipated.  I try to do ten minutes of free writing each day for my dissertation, and I did that pretty well today.  (Just to make clear: I spend more time than ten minutes a day in working on my dissertation!)  Writing for an audience is what can be hard.  I start thoughts in my mind, thinking of potential blog posts, yet I do not want to take those thoughts to any conclusion. Sometimes, I just want privacy.  Why do I have to share my thoughts with anyone?

There was a time when I was more enthusiastic about blogging.  Nowadays, I do not have that enthusiasm.  But I still enjoy blogging.  Just not on some days.

I am in a bit of a misanthropic mood today.  I am on most days, but especially today.  I think about all those bad social encounters I had in the past.  It makes me want to be a recluse for the rest of my life!  Lonely, yes.  But at least I don’t have to answer to or please others.

Of course, I like the people and cats with whom I live.  They essentially let me be.  I don’t have to try hard to be accepted by them.  I can talk or not talk.  It doesn’t matter.

I fear that I will not have the social skills to make it in the world, though.  Some tell me that the way that I learn social skills is to do more socializing.  Well, thanks Sherlock!  Suppose I keep falling flat on my face every time I try to socialize?  Doing lots of socializing does not necessarily teach a person social skills.

Anyway, I’m shutting off comments.  I’m just a very private person today!  Thanks, those who read!

Mesothelioma Awareness Day

Today is Mesothelioma Awareness Day.  According to Dr. Howard West, “Mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer affecting the membrane lining of the lungs and abdomen.”  Dr. West states that “The primary cause and risk factor for mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos.”  Since the 1970’s, asbestos has been highly regulated.  Yet, it continues to be a problem in older homes (see here), and diseases from asbestos still afflict people (see here).

According to Dr. West, “While there is currently no cure for mesothelioma, many patients have had success in managing their cancer with traditional treatments like chemotherapy and surgical methods.”  The prognosis can depend on different factors, such as the stage of the disease and health.  See here for symptoms or warning signs of mesothelioma.

Merlin Olsen was known as a football player and as an actor in Little House on the Prairie and Father Murphy.  He died in 2010 at the age of 69.  In 2009, he had been diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma, which impacts the abdomen’s lining.  Olsen attributed this to exposure to asbestos.

Check out Mesothelioma.com for more information about Mesothelioma, symptoms, treatment, and asbestos.

See also the Mesothelioma Lawyer Center.  

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Book Write-Up: Why John Wrote a Gospel

Tom Thatcher.  Why John Wrote a Gospel: Jesus—-Memory—-History.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.

I got this book at a low price from Christian Book Distributors.  It looked like it would be a good book for me to read for two reasons.  First, I have read more than once in the biblioblogosphere that historical Jesus studies are moving away from the longstanding criteria of authenticity, and towards a focus on memory.  For a long time, and even today, scholars have applied criteria to the Gospels in order to determine what parts of the Gospels are historically accurate.  For example, if the Gospels say something embarrassing about Jesus, then what they say in that case is probably accurate, since why would Gospel authors make up something that is embarrassing about Jesus?  If the Gospels present Jesus saying something that is discontinuous from the teachings of early Christians, then Jesus most likely said it.  Nowadays, scholars are saying that there are weaknesses in the criteria (i.e., what we may consider embarrassing about Jesus may not have been thought to be so by the Gospel writers), and many are saying that we should look at memory, particularly social memory.  I have read a number of blog posts about this topic, and yet there are gaps in my mind about it.  I have wondered: Does the focus on memory imply that the Gospels stem from eyewitness testimony, from people who were in Jesus’ presence and remembered what he did and taught, even if they interpreted or applied those things in different ways?  Because Thatcher’s book contains an extensive discussion of social memory, I figured that I might find some answers there.

Second, I have long had questions about writing in the ancient world.  Why were things written down in the first place, when there was oral culture and people passed down traditions by word of mouth?  Why would Gospels need to be written down?  Who did the writing, since writing in those days may have required some wealth or influence due to the costliness of writing materials?

Tom Thatcher’s Why John Wrote a Gospel addresses the question of why the Gospel of John was written down.  He raises some of the same sorts of questions that I have: Why write, when most people arguably could not read, and when there was an oral culture?  But he also asks questions that rest on other considerations.  Why did the author of the Gospel of John see a need to write a Gospel, when he said that the Holy Spirit would bring things about Jesus to people’s remembrance (John 14:26)?  If the Holy Spirit could cause believers to remember what Jesus said and did, would it not be unnecessary to write those things down to preserve them and to keep them from being forgotten? On a similar note, did not I John 2:27 tell believers that they needed no one to teach them because they were anointed by the Holy Spirit?  If John believed that they were so anointed and guided directly by the Holy Spirit, why would he write a Gospel so that they could be taught or remember what Jesus said and did?

Thatcher’s answer is that the author of John’s Gospel was writing the Gospel down to create an official and permanent version of what Jesus said and taught, in opposition to the Antichrists whom I John criticizes.  The Antichrists were denying that Jesus Christ came in the flesh: they may have been saying that a Christ spirit came upon the historical Jesus of Nazareth and left Jesus when Jesus was about to be crucified, or that Jesus only appeared to be human but really was not, but rather was a divine figure.  The Antichrists maintained that they were faithful to the memory of Jesus—-and they may have even claimed that they were witness to new revelations from Jesus.  But the writer of the Johnannine literature did not believe that their interpretations of Jesus’ life were accurate, for he thought that Jesus came in the flesh and died as part of God’s plan.  Consequently, the Johannine author wrote his Gospel.  Writing in those days served to give permanence or stability to certain recollections or versions of a story, which was what the Johannine author wanted to do: once something was written down, that was hard to change, and it was even official, in some sense.  Moreover, because most people could not read, they tended to revere the written word.

I found Thatcher’s book to be useful and helpful for a variety of reasons.  I appreciated his reference to ancient Christian sources that actually specified why the Gospels were written down: to preserve what Jesus said and did.  Thatcher’s discussion of memory was also valuable.  He pointed out that the Gospel of John itself maintains that memory is about more than what Jesus said and did, for it also includes the correct interpretation of those events.  The Gospel of John, after all, says that some of Jesus’ words were misunderstood until after he was resurrected (see, for example, John 2:22).  Moreover, Thatcher argued that memory is social.  Even if we remember doing something in solitude, we did what we did within a social context, and, if we wanted to share what we did with others, we would have to communicate it in a way that would make sense to our social context.  I should also note that Thatcher’s cartoons and visual aids in the book clarified to me what he was arguing.

In terms of criticisms, I have four.  First of all, although Thatcher made a fairly decent case that most Jews could not read in antiquity, he should have interacted with scholarship that argues the opposite, such as Alan Millard’s Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus (see here, both my post and the comments).  Second, Thatcher states that people may not have even read the Gospel of John, but he should have interacted with the question of whether they would have read from it in church services, as Jews hear the Torah being read in synagogues.  Third, I wish that Thatcher addressed the question of who in the ancient world would have had the wealth, power, or resources to write a Gospel, or to contribute to the writing of one.  That could have launched a profitable discussion about the role of social interests in defining what is orthodox and heretical.  And, fourth, I was not always clear about Thatcher’s definition of memory.  I often thought that he believed that it related to eyewitness testimony—-people remembering what they saw—-but he seems to indicate in places of the book that memory can be broader than that: that it can include believing something about the past, or even encountering events through reading a book.

Although Thatcher did not address all of the questions that are in my mind about social memory and writing, I did find what he said about the Gospel of John to be interesting and thought-provoking.  His personal anecdotes also made him a pleasure to read.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Book Write-Up: The King James Version Debate

D.A. Carson.  The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism.  Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979.

D.A. Carson is a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  This book is his response to Christians who argue that the King James Version is the only legitimate Bible version that Christians should use.

Carson focuses his energy on the New Testament manuscripts, since it is mainly in that area that the debate takes place.  Carson, like many text critics, believes that one can group New Testament manuscripts into text-types on the basis of common features.  There is the Byzantine text type, which is the basis for the King James Version, and of which the majority of New Testament manuscripts are a part.  There is the Alexandrian text type, which is earlier.  And there is the Western text type.

Carson’s text-critical problems with the KJV-only viewpoint are that (1.) the Byzantine text is late and probably dates back to the mid-fourth century C.E., (2.) the Byzantine text is not used by the ante-Nicene church fathers, who do use the Alexandrian and Western texts, (3.) the Byzantine text draws from the Alexandrian and Western texts, showing it is more steps removed from the original, and (4.) the Textus Receptus behind the KJV came about when Erasmus (fifteenth century) made a manuscript using late Byzantine manuscripts and supplementing missing pieces of Revelation with a Latin text.  According to Carson, the fact that most New Testament manuscripts out there are consistent with the Byzantine texts is not due to divine providence favoring that version, as some KJV-only advocates maintain, but has other explanations: that the Byzantine Empire spoke Greek long after other parts of the world stopped doing so and thus produced more Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, that Emperor Constantine sought to standardize the versions, and that John Chrysostom popularized the Byzantine text.  Even if the Byzantine text has the most copies, Carson maintains that this does not make it the most reliable text.

As I read further into the book, particularly the appendix, which Carson warned would be complicated, I learned that things are a bit more complex.  There actually are times when ante-Nicene fathers appeal to distinctly Byzantine readings, but those occurrences are very rare.  In addition, ante-Nicene fathers appear to refer to the content of I John 5:7, which is Trinitarian and in the KJV but which many scholars believe is not original to the text.  Carson says on page 61, however, that “the words are not cited as Scripture, but…probably arose as allegorical exegesis of the three witnesses.”

I found this book, especially Carson’s fourteen theses, to be a decent and lucid introduction to the KJV debate.  I still find that I need to learn more about textual criticism, specifically why certain criteria are valid or useful at helping us get at the now lost original text.  For that, I may consult Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus, which even some conservatives say can serve as a good introduction to text criticism, or Bruce Metzger’s authoritative work.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Pilot to Gotham

I watched the pilot to Gotham last night.  Gotham is a retelling of the Batman story.  I cannot say that the pilot blew me away.  But the scene in which young Bruce Wayne is walking with his parents and his parents get shot by a burglar was really sad.  One minute, Bruce and his parents are laughing about a movie that they just saw and enjoying each other’s company.  The next minute, Bruce’s parents are lying on the ground dead.

The Spiderman story usually gets to me, too.  Peter Parker did not stop a burglar because of his own resentment, and that burglar later killed Peter’s kindly Uncle Ben.

These events were what made the men into what they became: superheroes, with a calling to save other people’s lives.  They were sad events, though, even if they were fictional.  Too bad it took those events to cause them to become heroes.  Otherwise, would they have?  They would not have had the motivating factor of wanting to preserve others from the pain that they themselves experienced.

Monday, September 22, 2014

My Search for a News Home

I have been watching ABC News each weeknight for the past five or so years.  I have settled on it as my news home, if you will.  Don’t get me wrong: I still read other news-related sources.  But I regularly watch ABC News to keep current on news events.

It took me a while to find a news home, to tell you the truth.  I would watch Tom Brokaw, whom my family watched at dinnertime back when I was growing up, but then Brian Williams replaced him, and he could not quite hold my attention.  I tried out Katie Couric after watching the Palin interviews, but, while she was definitely nice to look at, she was just too formal for my taste.  She also seemed like she was trying to mow people down in interviews.

I decided to watch Hardball on MSNBC because I respected Chris Matthews’ knowledge of history and appreciation for the strengths and foibles of the past and contemporary figures of American politics.  But that show was a turnoff to me because Chris was obsessed with the birther movement and grilled his guests for pronouncing “Cheney” as “ChAY-ney” rather than “ChEEny.”  (I found Chris’ weekly program to be a lot better, though.)

I tried out Bill O’Reilly.  I grew up watching him during dinnertime with my family, after all, back when he had more hair and was hosting Inside Edition (and he did a pretty good job on that show—-it exposed corruption on all sides rather than being political propaganda for one side).  O’Reilly had charisma, but I got sick of him shouting at his guests.  I watched Glenn Beck and got tired of his rants about Paul Revere and saving America.  I tried out Hannity and Colmes, but so much of that was Republican vs. Democrat and each side attacking the inconsistencies of the other side.

My more intellectual friends liked PBS, but I found that to be very dry.  I did not care for the dramatics and dogmatism of Fox News and MSNBC, but I was looking for something that I enjoyed watching, that could hold my attention.

Then one day, I was flipping through channels and came across Diane Sawyer on ABC News.  This wasn’t the first time that I saw Diane Sawyer on TV—-I knew who she was and had seen a number of her interviews (such as her interview with Mel Gibson during the Passion of the Christ controversy).  But this may have been the first time when I noticed her in the anchor’s chair, and she was holding my attention when she spoke.  She also had a warm, gentle demeanor.  She asked the hard questions, but there was a gentleness about how she went about doing so.

Over time, I have come to appreciate other things about ABC News.  I like how it cares for its viewers and tries to make the world a better place.  It has stories about how they can save money and find work-at-home jobs, and it encouraged people to buy American.  It seems to love the people it features, with all of their strengths and foibles.  It has positive, inspiring stories, in addition to the bad news that is usually the news.  I wouldn’t be surprised if other networks have these things, too, but I have come to appreciate them on ABC News.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

"O Perfect Love"

At church this morning, we sang the hymn, “O Perfect Love” (see here).  At first, I just went through the motions of singing it, without thinking about the words that much.  Then, I decided that the hymn might have some meat to it, so I decided to read the words.  The words of the hymn were rather awkward, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.  If it were straightforward, it would not be as interesting or thought-provoking, I don’t think.

The stanza that most stood out to me was the second one.  It says:

“O perfect Life, be Thou their full assurance,
“Of tender charity and steadfast faith,
“Of patient hope and quiet, brave endurance,
“With childlike trust that fears nor pain nor death.”

What does this mean, exactly?  A perfect life is to be their full assurance—-not so much that things will go well for them or that they will go to heaven after they die—-but that they will have charity, steadfast faith, patient hope, brave endurance, and a lack of fear of pain or death.  Granted, the hope that they will go to heaven after they die may play a role in all this and serve as at least one reason or basis for those virtues.  But, whereas many Christians talk about “assurance” in the context of people knowing they are saved and will go to heaven instead of hell after they die, assurance in this hymn focuses on something else: the assurance of having certain virtues.

What is the perfect life that is the assurance of these virtues?  Is it God himself?  Well, perhaps, but why would God be called a “life”?  A life is something one lives, not the person who is doing the living.  Could it be the perfect life of Jesus, the righteous life that Jesus lived on earth and that many Protestants believe is imputed to those who believe in Jesus?  In this case, the point is that Christians’ assurance of having those virtues comes from the fact that they are righteous before God on account of Christ’s merits, that, when God looks at them, God sees Jesus’ righteous life covering up them and their sins, and so God can now proceed to work on them and make them practically righteous because their guilt no longer hinders their relationship with him.  There is justification—-being considered righteous before God through faith—-and that is followed by sanctification—-leading a life of righteousness and holiness, through God’s Holy Spirit.  Is the hymn simply reaffirming that God will sanctify whom God justifies?

Maybe.  That sounds pretty Martin Luther-esque to me, though, and, according to the wikipedia article about Dorothy Frances Gurney, the author of the words to the hymn, Gurney was from an Anglican family and later became a Roman Catholic.  That did not surprise me, for the part of the hymn about charity accompanying faith seemed rather Catholic to me (since some Catholics say that faith is not enough to save but needs to be accompanied by charity as well).  And yet, my understanding is that Gurney wrote the words to the hymn in 1883, but that she became a Catholic later, in 1919.

Maybe Gurney does not just have in mind justification by faith when she uses the expression “O perfect Life,” but she has in mind the entirety of Jesus’ salvific work.  Jesus came to earth to bring salvation, and the life that he lived would free people from sin, both its guilt and their bondage to it.  Jesus also lives his life in people.  His perfect life is the assurance believers have that they, too, can be righteous.

Here’s another possibility: Maybe that perfect life actually is Jesus himself.  He calls himself the way, the truth, and the life in John 14:6.

Anyway, I think it’s fun to think about these old hymns—-what they mean, and why they say things the way that they do.

Book Write-Up: David Wilkerson

Gary Wilkerson, with R.S.B. Sawyer.  David Wilkerson: The Cross, the Switchblade, and the Man Who Believed.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014.

David Wilkerson was a Pentecostal preacher.  In the 1950’s, he read about a high-profile murder trial in a newspaper and went to New York City to show the love of God to the murderers.  He was thrown out of the courtroom and did not get to meet the murderers, but he ministered to gangs, and one prominent gang member became a Christian as a result of David’s influence.  David Wilkerson wrote about this experience in what became a bestselling book, The Cross and the Switchblade.  The book would be made into a movie starring Pat Boone as David Wilkerson.

David Wilkerson would minister to people who used drugs.  His book, the movie based on his book, and his Christian recovery organization would reach throughout the world, even in some countries that were not particularly friendly to Christianity, but which respected Wilkerson on account of his successful outreach to drug addicts.  Wilkerson would also travel across the country as a preacher, and later he would serve as a pastor.

In David Wilkerson, David’s son Gary tells about his father, basing his story on interviews and his own experiences.  On page 299, Gary says that “In our dad’s eyes, his life was simply a picture of normal Christianity, of a man who was flawed yet yielded.”  David Wilkerson was an introverted and often socially-awkward man, yet he had a love for God and a sense of mission.  There was long a tension within him between focusing on the love of Christ and legalism, but he came to appreciate the grace of God more in his later years as he read the Puritans.

There is so much of worth in this book: the stories of miracles and prophetic gifts, of letting people pursue their own path, of relationships, of generosity, of empathy, and of people from different backgrounds working together.  (On the last one, according to Gary, Wilkerson actually had more luck getting The Cross and the Switchblade published by a secular publishing house because many Christian publishing houses were hesitant to publish a book that talked a lot about charismatic gifts!)  If I had a favorite passage, it was on page 24: “For reasons of his own, [David Wilkerson] had turned down every invitation from a US President to visit the White House, but he would drive hundreds of miles out of the way during an evangelism tour so he could meet an obscure nun who had written something about Christ that had moved him.”  It was when I read that passage that I knew that I would love this book!

I give the book five stars because it is excellent.  I heard David Wilkerson speak once at Times Square Church, and I one time heard one of his recorded messages.  One message was full of fire and brimstone, and the other started out tough but moved towards a tender expression of appreciation for God’s mercy.  I was glad to have learned more about this man’s background, and I identified with David Wilkerson’s introversion and personal devotion to God, while admiring his courage.

If I have one criticism, it is that I wish that Gary had gone more deeply into the issue of prophecy.  According to Gary, his father at crusades often had the gift of being able to tell people he had never met specific details about their lives.  Yet, Gary acknowledges that his father sometimes made predictions that he claimed were from God yet did not come to pass, to his father’s dismay.  While Gary seems to attribute one of those visions to his father’s insecurity about death, he should have attempted to offer a theological or biblical explanation for how prophets can predict things that do not come to pass, even though there are indications that God is using them.

Note: I received a complimentary review copy of this book through the BookLook Bloggers (http://booklookbloggers.com/) book review bloggers program.  The program does not require for my review to be positive, and my review reflects my honest reaction to the book.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Nadia Bolz on What Grace Is

I got this quote from Rachel Held Evans’ post today.  I’m posting it here for future reference, because I want to remind myself of what it says.

“Grace isn’t about God creating humans as flawed beings and then acting all hurt when we inevitably fail and then stepping in like the hero to grant us grace–like saying ‘Oh, it’s OK, I’ll be a good guy and forgive you.’ It’s God saying, ‘I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new.'” – Nadia Bolz Weber, “Pastrix”

I Chronicles 28

I have four items for my blog post on I Chronicles 28.

1.   David summoned the princes, captains, valiant men, and officers of Israel, as well as his stewards and the stewards of his son.  In I Chronicles 28:2, he calls these men brothers.  More than one commentary that I read made a big deal about this.  Matthew Henry says that David is doing so to humble himself.  The more critical Peake’s commentary states  that “an oriental king does not place himself on a level with his subjects in this way”, so David must be doing so out of stress.  David wants for his son and coming successor, Solomon, to build the Temple, and for the important people of Israel to provide support for Solomon in this endeavor.  That could be what is stressing David out.  Peake’s commentary also cites Deuteronomy 17:15, which commands the Israelites, if they want a king, to appoint the king from among their brethren.  The king is to be a fellow Israelite, part of the family.

David may be addressing these men as brothers because he is humbly seeking their help, or because he actually does regard them as brothers—-they are fellow Israelites, after all.  Maybe David is saying that, as Israelites, they should be privy to God’s plans for Israel: to dwell with Israel in a Temple.  This involves them, too, and David in calling them brothers is recognizing and highlighting that.  I think of what Jesus says in John 15:15: “Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you” (KJV).

2.  David in I Chronicles 28:9 exhorts Solomon to know and to serve God.  What does it mean to know God?  Evangelicals like to make a big deal about this: “Do you know the Lord?”, some of them may ask people, or they may say that there is a difference between knowing about God and knowing God.  Is knowing God having an awareness of God’s identity and attributes, being in a relationship with God, or something else?

Roddy Braun in the Word Biblical Commentary on I Chronicles interprets knowing God in light of a covenant context:

“Studies in Hittite and Accadian treaties assure us of the usage of ‘to know’ to denote the mutual legal recognition of suzerain and vassal and the binding nature of treaty stipulations (cf. H. Huffmon, ‘The Treaty Background of Hebrew [Yada], BASOR 181 [1996] 31-37).  Biblical passages cited by Huffmon such as Amos 3:2; 2 Sam 7:20 (=I Chron 17:18); Hos 8:2; 13:4-5; Deut 9:24; and Psalm 14:4 wholly support the view that we are dealing here with conventional terminology which exhorts Solomon to recognize Yahweh as his covenant lord and to conduct himself in accord with his stipulations.”

So knowing God is recognizing that God is lord within the covenant relationship and treating God accordingly.  That could be.  Still, I think that there may be a broader conception of knowing God, within both the Hebrew Bible and also the New Testament.  In Jeremiah 22:15, we read: “He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well with him: was not this to know me? saith the LORD” (KJV).  That could mean that King Josiah recognized God as covenant lord and thus obeyed God’s commands regarding social justice, but could there also be a sense here that knowing God is seeing that God is just and acting according to God’s character?  We see something similar in I John 4:8: “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love” (KJV).  Here, knowing God is being aware (perhaps intimately aware) that God is love and thereby walking in love.

I also think of verses about people not hurting and destroying in the future paradise, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:9; Habakkuk 2:14).  In Isaiah 11:9, that seems to apply to the Gentiles, and the Gentiles are not part of God’s covenant with Israel.  Does knowing God in this context, then, relate to any covenant?  Well, maybe the Gentiles were part of some covenant with God, since God made a covenant with humanity through Noah (Genesis 9).  Moreover, Isaiah 24:5 accuses humanity of breaking a covenant with God by violating God’s laws.  Do Gentiles know God by acknowledging that they, too, have a covenant with God and are subject to God as their lord?  Or is Isaiah 11:9 saying that the Gentiles will know that hurting and destroying violate God’s character, and they will thus turn from hurting and destroying?  Is knowing God honoring God as the boss in a covenant, or is it recognizing God’s character?  Could it be both?

3.  More than one scholar has maintained that there is diversity within the Hebrew Bible concerning whether God’s covenant with David and David’s offspring was conditional or unconditional.  In II Samuel 7, God says that David’s seed will be established forever, and that God will discipline it when it does wrong but will not remove his love from it, as God did with Saul.  The implication seems to be that, whereas God rejected Saul from being king on account of Saul’s sins, God will not do this to David’s line; rather, God will discipline David’s line, but it will still rule.  And, throughout I-II Kings, God refuses to destroy Jerusalem for David’s sake, notwithstanding Jerusalem’s sins.

But there are also voices in the Hebrew Bible that treat God’s faithfulness to the Davidic line as conditional on its obedience to God’s commandments.  This occurs in I Kings, and those passages may be Deuteronomistic.  Eventually, Jerusalem was destroyed, and the Davidic monarchy was overthrown.  Some voices within the Hebrew Bible may have looked at that as evidence that God’s covenant with David was conditional on obedience, and that David’s line forfeited the covenant through its sins.  There are some, however, who hold out hope that God is still faithful to the Davidic line: that God will restore it to its position of rulership, and it will rule forever (see, for example, Jeremiah 33:25-26).

Where does the Chronicler land on this issue?  In I Chronicles 28, the Chronicler seems to maintain that God’s covenant with David was conditional on obedience: v 7 says that Solomon’s throne will be established if Solomon obeys God, and v 9 threatens that God will cast Solomon off forever if Solomon forsakes God.  At the same time, I Chronicles 17:12-14 affirms that Solomon’s throne will be established forever, and that God will not take away God’s love from Solomon, as God did from Saul.  Maybe there is a contradiction between I Chronicles 28 and 17, due to different sources.  Or perhaps the Chronicler, even in I Chronicles 17, downplays the unconditionality of the covenant.  The Chronicler omits the part from II Samuel 7 about God disciplining the line of Solomon.  Could the reason be that the Chronicler does not think that Solomon and his line will merely receive discipline for sin, but will actually be forsaken by God?  Could the Chronicler be implying that God would not remove God’s mercy from Solomon and Solomon’s line, but only so long as Solomon is faithful to God?

Overall, the Chronicler may have believed that the days of the Davidic line were over, and that God in the Chronicler’s post-exilic days was doing things differently.  Perhaps the Chronicler thought that the Davidic line broke the covenant and thus forfeited God’s faithfulness.

4.  I Chronicles 28:19 seems to imply that David’s plans for the layout of the Temple were from God.  But scholars have noted that the Solomonic Temple resembles other Temples in the ancient Near East, particularly those of Phoenicia, which was helping Solomon build the Temple.  Would God imitate a country’s style?  Well, the Chronicler may be going a step further than I Kings by saying that the plans for the Temple’s layout were from God.  But God may very well condescend to speak within people’s culture—-to meet people where they are.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Proceeding to the Deuterocanonical Writings

I am currently reading the Book of Malachi for my daily quiet time.  I said in a recent post that I was thinking of going to the New Testament next rather than the deuterocanonical writings.  I have changed my mind about that: I will be going through the deuterocanonical writings next.

This is a bit daunting, for a variety of reasons.  For one, I have a host of commentaries that pertain to the Jewish and Protestant canon of the Bible.  I do not have as many for the deuterocanonical writings, which appear in Catholic Bibles.  I have a bit more than I thought, though.  My HarperCollins Study Bible has notes at the bottom.  I have a Catholic Study Bible, which also has notes.  I just remembered that I had a commentary on Wisdom of Solomon, and I dug it out.  Plus, maybe I can search online.  In going through the deuterocanonical writings, I will not have the vast resources to consult that I ordinarily have when I have a Bible question: what does this verse mean, and why is it saying that this way?  But I am not totally in the dark.

Second, I find some of the deuterocanonical writings to be boring.  Or, to be more accurate, I find one of them to be boring: I Maccabees.  I Maccabees has a lot of battles and alliances, and those things do not interest me that much.  Maybe I will feel differently this time.  I am not entirely the same person today that I was the last time that I read I Maccabees, or the rest of the deuterocanonical writings.

Third, I do not feel inspired when I am reading the deuterocanonical writings.  They do not have that Bible-feel to me, for some reason.  Maybe that is because I am not used to them.  Also, my sentiment is rather subjective: it reminds me of a guy I know who said that the King James Version is the only legitimate Bible because a person he knew felt inspired by the Holy Spirit when he read it, but not when he read other versions.

Anyway, committing to the deuterocanonical writings is a pretty big commitment.  It may take me a year to go through them.  Maybe my experience will be positive.  After going through the deuterocanonical writings, I will proceed to the New Testament.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Book Write-Up: Farewell to God, by Charles Templeton

Charles Templeton.  Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith.  Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1996.

Charles Templeton was a Christian evangelist and a close friend to Billy Graham.  Templeton left the Christian faith and became an agnostic.  In this book, he explains why.

A lot of his reasons are not particularly new.  They include the problem of how God can permit evil and suffering, the implausibilities within the Bible (i.e., the Flood story), biblical contradictions, the problem of how God can damn so many people in the world to hell for not being Christian, inconsistencies between the Bible and science, the reality that many people embrace the dominant religion of their surroundings, the deficiencies in character and temperament of the God of the Old Testament, and Old Testament laws that marginalize or are unfair towards women.  I suppose that even someone who has already interacted with these issues can learn something new from Templeton’s discussion: I, for one, never thought about the problem of ventilation on Noah’s Ark!

The book is about more than Templeton poking holes in the Bible and Christianity, though. Templeton also reflects on the decline of Christianity (except for fundamentalist Christianity) in the West, the humble Christians he knew and admired, and technological advancement that is accompanied by emptiness and moral corruption.  While Templeton does not believe that Jesus was God and thinks that the Sermon on the Mount is rather unrealistic, he admires Jesus for his moral insights and courage.  He contrasts Jesus with mainline pastors whose messages do not rock the boat!

Templeton says that he is not an atheist but an agnostic.  He believes that something started the universe but that it was an impersonal force rather than a personal being.  For Templeton, the universe is indifferent to human beings.  Templeton still maintains, however, that there are natural and moral laws, and that obeying them can result in positive consequences.  Society works better when people are kind to each other.  If people treat nature well, then nature will treat them well.  (Templeton asks why God does not send rain to areas plagued by drought, yet he also blames drought on human beings.)

Does Templeton regret leaving Christianity?  He acknowledges that church can bring people comfort, community, and solidarity, and he misses that.  At the same time, he says that he was plagued by doubts when he was a Christian, as a result of what he was reading.  Now, he is free to explore different things, without fear that what he learns might contradict Christian orthodoxy.

I enjoyed his telling of his own conversion story, how he became a Christian, perhaps because it is somewhat similar to my own.  Templeton felt guilty and unclean but felt peace, warmth, and light after he asked God to come into his life.  In my case, I felt guilty and aimless, and I was looking for comfort and a moral compass.  I felt peaceful and grounded when I committed myself to Christ.

My favorite passage in Templeton’s book was what he said on page 233 about loving his neighbor: “I believe that you cannot love your neighbour as yourself but that you should care about your neighbour, whoever he is and wherever he lives, help him when you can and co-operate with him to make the world a better place.”

I myself question whether I am called to love my neighbor in the exact same proportion that I love myself, or to love my neighbor more than I love myself.  I doubt that is possible or that even many evangelical Christians attain to that.  I do believe, however, that I should love my neighbor, and that there are times when I may need to put others first for the sake of peace, or because it is the right thing to do.

In terms of criticisms of the book, I have three.  First of all, Templeton did not really interact with Christian voices that were not fundamentalist.  In a movie about Billy Graham’s early years, the Templeton character praised an academic for his dissertation on theologian Karl Barth.  I wonder where Templeton would find Barth’s thought to be inadequate.  My understanding is that Barth tended to dodge modernist criticisms of Christianity and the Bible by focusing on how God can use the Bible to challenge Christians in church.  In my opinion, even if the Bible has problems, God can still use it to bring people into relationship with God, and to challenge them about their sin and need for redemption.

Second, Templeton did not have much of a critical methodology in determining what in the New Testament was historical and un-historical.  He dismissed the Temptation story of Jesus because that sounded to him like a legend serving to highlight Jesus’ humanity.  He rejected the stories of Jesus’ resurrection because they were contradictory.  Yet, he largely accepted the parts of the Gospels about Jesus’ ministry and crucifixion, even though he had just said that the Gospels were written after the time of Jesus by people who did not even know him, casting doubt on their historical reliability.  Templeton seemed to accept those parts because he found them plausible and did not think that they contradicted each other, even though they arguably do.  Interestingly, Templeton even found Jesus’ miracles to be plausible, but that was because he thought that Jesus may have been curing psychosomatic illnesses, or people’s symptoms manifested themselves again after Jesus left (as occurs with a number of faith healers).  Templeton’s discussion of the historical Jesus was interesting, but he should have offered a better methodology of why he was deeming parts of the Gospels to be historical, especially after arguing that there is reason to doubt the Gospels’ historicity.

Third, Templeton should have explained how the stories about the resurrection of Jesus originated.  He said that Jesus’ followers made them up because they were disappointed about Jesus’ death, but Christian apologists can then ask questions:  Does that mean that Jesus’ disciples were lying?  Would they be willing to suffer or even die for something they made up?  Templeton should have interacted with such issues.  I will say, though, that Templeton did raise an interesting consideration: If Jesus’ tomb was empty, would not Jesus’ disciples be able to point all of the Jews to the empty tomb, resulting in mass conversions to Jesus?  The Gospel of Matthew has an answer to that, though: Many Jews believed that the disciples stole Jesus’ body while the Roman guards were asleep.

This was a worthwhile book for me to read.  It is important for me to read books like this so that I can clarify to myself what I believe, and why.  I think that Templeton asks good questions and raises valid points.  I personally do not dismiss the existence of God or a higher power, but I struggle with questions about God’s existence and activity (or lack thereof) in the world.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Nicolle Wallace vs. Rosie O'Donnell

On The View yesterday, Republican Nicolle Wallace and Rosie O’Donnell were arguing over whether President Obama loves people.  See here to read more about that.

Personally, I think that Rosie O’Donnell was missing Nicolle Wallace’s point.  Nicolle Wallace was not saying that President Obama wants to harm others or is totally uninterested in their well-being.  My impression is that she was simply saying that he’s not much of a people-person: he does not like to schmooze with people on Capitol Hill.  He is rather introverted.  People all across the political spectrum have made this point.  But Rosie was likening Nicolle’s point to the claim some made that George W. Bush neglected New Orleans after Katrina out of a dislike for African-American people.

What puzzled me was that Nicolle Wallace was really making no attempt to clarify what she was saying and to correct Rosie’s misunderstanding.  Why not?  Is it because Nicolle is getting used to The View?  Was this all a design to increase conflict on the show so it will be talked about on the Internet the next day, as has happened?

Book Write-Up: The Challenge of the Disciplined Life

Richard J. Foster.  The Challenge of the Disciplined Life: Christian Reflections on Money, Sex & Power.  HarperSanFrancisco, 1985.

If you are looking for a book that provides clear-cut rules about how a Christian should handle money, sex, and power, then this may not be the book for you.  What the book does do is offer things to think about.

Can a Christian man have sexual fantasies, or does that violate what Jesus said in Matthew 5:28 about lusting after women being adultery?  Richard J. Foster says that sexual fantasies can be a legitimate outlet, but that one should take heed not to think that reality is like one’s fantasy, and that sex should be about mutual love rather than dehumanizing other people.

Is homosexuality a sin in the eyes of God?  Foster believes that it is, even as he acknowledges that people do not always choose their sexual attractions (and how advanced of an understanding that was in the 1980’s, I do not know for sure).  Still, Foster on page 112 likens homosexuals pursuing a relationship to a less-than-ideal war: sure, it is less than ideal, but there can still be moral constraints and limitations placed on it if that is what one chooses.  Foster also does not think that Christians should abandon homosexuals who choose to have a relationship but should stay around to help pick up the pieces if things fall apart.  That is pretty presumptuous—-it’s like Foster is saying that we should expect homosexual relationships to lead to disaster because they go against God’s will, when Foster is very much aware that there are heterosexual relationships that fall apart.  Yet, Foster’s discussion was different from the absolutist stance that many conservative Christians take.

Should Christians get a divorce?  Foster believes that Jesus criticized divorce because there were Hillelite Pharisees who dumped their wives for any reason, leaving them vulnerable.  Foster thinks that we should keep that in mind rather than applying Jesus’ teaching legalistically.  Foster argues that Paul himself was rather flexible in applying Jesus’ teaching in I Corinthians 7, where Paul allows couples to separate if one is a Christian while the other is not, something that goes beyond Jesus’ teaching that one should not divorce unless there is sexual immorality.  Foster also contends that marriage should be about mutual love and the benefit of others, and, if a marriage is not manifesting that, it may be best to end it.

How much money should a Christian give?  Foster does not say, but he does give us things to consider.  Jesus was very critical of money, probably because Jesus recognized its power in gaining people’s devotion and motivating them to do almost anything for it.  But there are also passages about wisdom, good stewardship, and enjoying God’s creation, which differs from asceticism.  Foster makes the point that, technically, our money belongs to God, so we should be asking ourselves how much of it we can use for ourselves rather than how much we should give to God.  Foster also stresses giving to others.

In one interesting case, Foster shows how rules can get in the way of love.  He tells of an African Christian man who inherited his father’s wives.  The man could have put the wives away to obey a rule, but that could have left them alone, vulnerable, and unsupported in the world.  Consequently, he chose to stay married to them, while refraining from sex with them and allowing them to pursue their own romantic interests.

Foster transcends the liberal-conservative divide, for he largely affirms conservative sexual morality, while also criticizing war.  In one part of the book, he asks if a Christian scientist can legitimately work for the military-industrial complex.

Foster also provides interesting historical information, such as the Puritans’ permissive attitude towards divorce.

I have two criticisms, though.  First of all, I think that there are times when Foster ignores historical or cultural explanations for certain biblical commands.  While I am open to accepting that biblical commands about sexual restraint were about love, they were also about keeping property in the family, fathers being able to know for sure that their children were really their children, and the negotiations that families made with each other regarding marriage.  Foster largely ignored those considerations.

Second, I am a bit ambivalent about Foster’s biblical arguments about divorce.  Was Jesus critical of divorce because it left women vulnerable, or simply because he opposed divorce?  Jesus does not say anything about divorce leaving women vulnerable, so maybe he just opposed divorce.  Early Christian writings, including patristic writings, were practically absolutist in opposing divorce.  Could that stance go back to Jesus?  And was Paul really unfaithful to Jesus’ teaching, or (to put it more charitably) trying to modify it?  Not necessarily.  My impression is that Paul in I Corinthians 7 does not allow the Christian spouse to initiate the divorce, which would be consistent with Jesus’ anti-divorce stance, but permits the divorce only if the non-believing spouse wants it.

At the same time, there are other considerations.  Whereas Jesus in Mark 10:11-12 and Luke 16:18 is anti-divorce, Matthew 19:9 has an exception clause: divorce can take place if there is sexual immorality.  That tells me that not everyone in the early church interpreted Jesus’ sayings absolutely but were willing to allow some flexibility, as Foster argues.  There is also Exodus 21:7-11, which says that a man can put away his female maidservant if he has absolutely no intention of supporting her.  Some point to this text to argue that God would permit divorce if a husband does not provide for his wife or is abusive to her.

I would now like to quote my favorite passage from Foster’s book, which is in his section about power.  On page 207, Foster tells the following story:

“I once experienced this power that frees in an especially vivid way.  I had just returned from a conference where I had made some rather significant decisions, and I was telling a friend who was a spiritual mentor about the experience.  At one point I exclaimed, ‘Oh, by the way, I made one decision that I know you have been wanting me to make for a long time…’  My friend interrupted, ‘Wait just a minute!  Let’s be clear about one thing.  My business, my only business, is to bring the truth of God as I see it, and then to simply love you regardless of what you do or don’t do.  It is not my business to straighten you out or to get you to do the right thing.’  After our visit I thought about the significance of this simple statement.  His care and compassion had always been evident, but in those words I discovered a new dimension of freedom—-a freedom that allowed intimate friendship without a slavish need to please on either side.”

“…intimate freedom without a slavish need to please on either side.”  Imagine that!  Wouldn’t we all like that kind of relationship!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Movie Write-Up: The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story

I watched the recent Lifetime movie, The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story, which is about the actors and actresses in the 1990’s TV series Saved by the Bell.

The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story got poor reviews, but I still enjoyed watching it.  Although many have alleged that the movie is based on Dustin Diamond’s scathing expose, Behind the Bell, the movie actually lacked many of the book’s scandalous allegations (i.e., sex and drug use on the part of certain actors).  The movie essentially depicts the actors and actresses as good people, who largely got along with each other and supported each other.

There were exceptions to this in the movie, though.  I would say that Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, Elizabeth Berkeley, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, and Mario Lopez were the closest to each other in the movie’s depiction, whereas Dustin Diamond and Lark Voorhies were outsiders.  Lark Voorhies and Mark-Paul Gosselaar had somewhat of a romantic relationship, but Mark-Paul was frustrated by Lark’s reluctance to define what their relationship actually was, plus her strict Jehovah’s Witnesses faith may have alienated her from him.  Mark-Paul and Dustin Diamond initially got along: when they were both auditioning for Good Morning, Miss Bliss (the precursor to Saved by the Bell), Mark-Paul actually was friendly towards Dustin, whereas another person auditioning for the role of Zack Morris wanted Dustin to leave him alone.  Mark-Paul and Dustin became more estranged from each other as the movie progressed, however, and Mark-Paul, to his credit, apologized to Dustin for this near the end of the movie.

In a sense, Dustin further alienated himself from the group through things that he said.  When Mark-Paul and Elizabeth Berkeley were doing the notorious scene in which Zack was confronting Jessie about her addiction to speed pills, most of the other actors and actresses watched it with silent solemnity.  Not Dustin, though.  Dustin laughed and said that she wasn’t using heroin but mere caffeine pills, which was not that big of a deal!  Mario Lopez then called Dustin an idiot, and Dustin stormed out of the room.  Fortunately, Dustin found some people with whom he connected.  There was an NBC executive who mentored Dustin and encouraged Dustin to look on the bright side of playing the geeky Screech, and there was the executive’s daughter, who loved Screech.  It was sad when they were both hurt in an automobile accident.  Dustin made another friend, but this friend later blackmailed Dustin by threatening to reveal a video of Dustin smoking marijuana, unless Dustin got him a better job on the set.  In their reconciling scene, Mark-Paul offered Dustin advice on how to handle this problem.

As someone who likes Hayley Mills and her Disney movies, I was glad that The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story acknowledged that Saved by the Bell derived from Good Morning, Miss Bliss, in which Mills starred as a beloved teacher.  My favorite scene in The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story was when Hayley Mills was meeting Dennis Haskins, who would play Principal Belding in both series.  Haskins said to Hayley Mills (and his zany mannerisms were like those of Principal Belding), “I had such a crush on you in The Parent Trap—-both of you!”  (Mills played identical twins in that 1961 movie.)  Classic!

A theme in the movie was the attempt of some of the actors and actresses to make a positive impact on their world and to grow.  When Tiffani-Amber, Lark, and Elizabeth learn from some female fans that an episode of Saved by the Bell encouraged one of the fans to stand up to her lying boyfriend, they lobby the board to have more serious episodes of Saved by the Bell, noting that there have been comedies that have touched on serious issues (i.e., All in the Family).  And Tiffani-Amber and Elizabeth both come to conclude that Saved by the Bell is holding them back and leave the show for a while.  The movie ends on a positive note, however, as the Dustin Diamond character tells the viewers all the positive things that the actors and actresses went on to accomplish.

What shocked me a bit was how some of the NBC executives in the movie could make a big deal about race or ethnicity.  “A.C. Slader is supposed to be an Italian ladies man, not a Latino!”  “Seinfeld is too Jewish and New York!”  I don’t know if that is technically racist or bigoted, but it did not sound good.

Good movie.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Life You Always Wanted

John Ortberg.  The Life You Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997, 2002.

Someone recommended this book to me years ago.  He said that the title was a bit cheesy, but that it is a really good book that he found to be helpful to him in his Christian life.  Years after my friend’s recommendation, I decided to read the book, probably because I was looking for guidance on how to see and to live the Christian life.

Writing from my current perspective and where I am, I found the book to be all right.  Ortberg is well-read, and that comes out in his writing.  Have I decided to make any significant changes to my life after reading this book?  Well, mostly no, but I am open on some things.

Let me share a bit with you about myself.  Over the past four years, I have prayed each day for at least ten minutes.  At first, I just talked to God, sharing what was on my mind.  Later, I was finding my prayers to be rather aimless and self-centered, so I decided to incorporate the reading of Scripture into my ten-minute prayer time.  I initially felt that I had to comment on the Scriptural passage I was reading for most if not all of those ten minutes.  Then, I got to the Book of Psalms and found that I had a hard time finding something to say about the Psalm passage I was reading, so I just read the passage then commented on whatever I wanted (usually my life) for the rest of the ten minutes.  I did not want to fall into a pattern of not absorbing the Scripture, however, so I decided that I would read a passage, say at least something about it, and then talk about what I wanted.  My ten minute prayers currently vary.  Sometimes, I interact with the passage during all of the ten minutes.  Usually, there is a mix between commenting on the passage and commenting on other things.  When I find that I have nothing to say, I look at a list of people to pray for, which my church provides every week, and pray for people on that list.  But don’t think that I don’t pray for people otherwise: I do.

I tend to have a sense of accomplishment when I get through a book of the Bible.  On hard days, or days when I am enthusiastic about God or my reading of Scripture, I may add another ten minutes of prayer time, or another.  Moreover, my reading of Scripture is rather academic.  It consists of me noticing puzzling details and looking up commentaries to see how they iron those details out, or drawing conclusions about the ideology of the writers of the biblical books, comparing it with the ideologies of other biblical writers.  I would say that the Bible seems rather human to me when I read it, not as inerrant.  Yet, it also appears to me to have a divine power or authority to it, but I cannot quite pin down where the human ends and the divine begins, and vice versa.  Do I get any guidance from the Bible on how to live my life?  I would say yes, on some level: I struggle with practical ramifications of biblical passages, and I learn about humility, discipline, and love and compassion for others.

Overall, I would say that I am satisfied with my current practice of doing devotions.  Or, at least, I am hesitant to change.  Ortberg gave me things to think about: about not being afraid to go slowly through biblical or devotional readings if one feels a divine encouragement to linger, to talk with God for five minutes each day about whatever, etc.  On the first suggestion, I will probably continue my practice of meeting a schedule in my biblical reading.  Still, I do wonder: I go through these biblical books so fast, and I forget pieces of what I read and learned.  I read Leviticus a year or so ago, and I cannot tell you what I learned from that reading.  Is there a place for being slow and steady in my reading of Scripture?  Ortberg talked about chewing on a single verse or passage throughout the day, especially if that passage is relevant to what one is concerned about.  I am open to that.

In what ways was I challenged or encouraged to change in my reading of Ortberg’s book?  Well, I am encouraged to ask the Holy Spirit for guidance on how to interact with people before I interact with them.  I also know that I have a problem with approval addiction, desperately craving acceptance from others.  Ortberg says that is a problem because that can prevent people from speaking truth to power, or saying things that people do not want to hear.  I am not particularly concerned about that, at least not right now.  I just do not want to feel like garbage when I am rejected or ignored by others.

The book also had good stories.  Ortberg referred to a psychologist, Milton Rokeach, who wrote about his attempts to deal with three people who thought they were the Messiah.  Ortberg wrote about this in his chapter on humility, on realizing that the universe does not revolve around us personally!

These are my thoughts about how I interacted with the book, from where I am right now.  Others may have a different experience.  I may even have a different experience with it were I to reread it years later.  I will not linger in it right now, though, but will move on to another book!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Forgiveness and Giving

At church this morning, the overall theme of the service was forgiveness.  Also, someone from an organization that serves veterans spoke to us, particularly about the problem of veteran homelessness.

Where am I on forgiveness?  Well, I do try to get rid of bitterness and malice within myself, with God’s help.  The pastor this morning quoted Ephesians 4:31: “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice” (KJV).  I do this within the context of prayer.  I do not do so perfectly, but I try.

I do not try to revive or initiate relationships with people I am mad at.  Some may say that means I have not truly forgiven these people.  Well, they’re entitled to their opinion.  Maybe I should work on being less touchy.  At the same time, sticking with certain relationships is not the answer, I don’t think.  Alternatively, I do not believe that cutting people out of my life is the answer, either.  But I do not know what a sensible middle ground between these two extremes would be.  Some say that I should confront people about their faults.  That can be productive, but it can also backfire, so I tend to avoid doing that.  At the moment, I just try to work on getting rid of bitterness—-to see all people as people of worth, whether I choose to dive into a relationship with them or not, and not to allow bitterness to consume my day.

The pastor was saying that God’s forgiveness is unconditional.  Do I believe that?  Well, I can think of plenty of biblical passages that seem to indicate otherwise: that say that God forgives us if we confess our sins and repent, or that God will not forgive us if we do not forgive others.  I sometimes get the impression that God in Scripture wants us to be more forgiving than he himself is: we’re supposed to forgive others seventy times seven, but God places all these conditions on us receiving forgiveness from him.  I think, though, that, somewhere within me, I picture God as someone who does not hold my past against me, who gives me more chances than I can count.  Then what about those biblical passages suggesting that God has conditions for us to receive his forgiveness?  I see them as educational tools on God’s part.  God wants us to take moral inventory, and also to love others notwithstanding their flaws.  Is my way of reconciling and applying all this stuff in Scripture perfect?  Some may say that I am trying to bring God’s high standard down to my own level.  Well, everyone who wants to apply Scripture to his or her own life has to make interpretive moves, to decide for himself or herself what is the best or most productive way to apply Scriptural principles, with their diversity and complexity.  I have not found beating myself up to be that edifying to me personally, so I tend to adopt a more charitable interpretation of Scripture.  Others can read the same text and arrive at different conclusions, though.

I was thinking of something else this morning.  It is easy for me to discourage myself from doing good by saying that I am already bad, and so any good I do would not count before God.  If I am unforgiving or imperfect, do I have a right to do good?  But the speech from that person from the veterans outreach group helped me to think about this differently.  What is important is for me to focus on the needs that should be met: for example, there are veterans who live in their cars or do not know where their next meal will come from.  Any money that can go toward that need will be helpful to them, even if that money comes from someone like me with spiritual or personal hang-ups.  What is important is that I give, not to earn brownie points before God or to count as a truly good person, but to meet a need.  Will I give to the veterans’ outreach, beyond what I gave this morning?  Well, I will consider it.  Let me say that I will not let my hangups discourage me from giving!

Those are my rambling attempts to work through issues for today!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

I Chronicles 27

I Chronicles 27:5-6 states (in the KJV): “The third captain of the host for the third month was Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, a chief priest: and in his course were twenty and four thousand.  This is that Benaiah, who was mighty among the thirty, and above the thirty: and in his course was Ammizabad his son.”

Benaiah is present in many places in II Samuel, I Kings, and I Chronicles, specifically within the context of the reign of King David or of King Solomon.  II Samuel 23:20-21 and I Chronicles 11:22-23 list some of his great feats: killing lionlike Moabite men, killing a lion in a pit, and killing a large Egyptian warrior with the warrior’s own heavy spear.

But only in I Chronicles 27:5 is Benaiah said to be the son of a priest.  What is more, Benaiah’s father Jehoida is called a chief priest.  That does not mean that Jehoida was a high priest, for the Hebrew uses a different phrase for that (ha-cohen ha-gadol, whereas in I Chronicles 27:5 Jehoida is called ha-cohen rosh), plus, during the time of David, Zadok and Abiathar were the high priests.  But I Chronicles 27:5 may be implying that Jehoida was a descendant of Aaron, for Aaronides in Chronicles are usually the ones who are priests.

Because Benaiah is said to be a son of a priest only in I Chronicles 27:5, one may inquire if the Chronicler made that up.  Good question.  Yet, I wonder if hints of Benaiah’s priestly heritage may be evident in a story in I Kings 2.  Joab is clinging to the horns of the altar, and King Solomon commands Benaiah to go in and kill Joab, which Benaiah is reluctant to do.  More than one person has speculated that this would defile the sanctuary, since there are laws that try to keep death away from the realm of the holy.  I write about that here.  Still, I am curious: Did Solomon assign this task specifically to Benaiah because Benaiah was the son of a priest and thus had a right to enter the sanctuary?

Speaking of the holy and death, an issue that I have wondered about more than once on this blog concerns the priests who fought in battles.  Benaiah may be one example of this.  Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, accompanies the Israelites to battles or potential battles.  The Maccabees were another example.  Josephus was a general, and he brags about being descended from one of the twenty-four courses of priests.  My problem has been this: Would this violate the purity rules of Leviticus 21, which try to keep priests away from human corpses?

I recently read an article that may shed light on this issue.  It is by Christophe Batsch, and it is entitled “Priests in Warfare in Second Temple Judaism: 1QM, or the Anti-Phinehas”.  It appeared in the 2010 book Qumran Cave 1 Revisited, and you can read the article (minus a few pages) here.  The article highlights the diversity of views in Second Temple Judaism about whether priests should participate in war.  Some said yes, and some said no.  One view was that they could, as long as they killed people with a long spear so as to avoid direct contact with the corpse of their enemy.  I wonder if Benaiah grabbing the spear of the large Egyptian and killing him with it would accord with such a requirement.

Another issue concerns Benaiah’s city.  Benaiah is repeatedly said to be from Kabzeel, and Kabzeel was not a Levitical city.  Consequently, some question whether he was a priest.  But could Benaiah have moved to Kabzeel from a Levitical city?

Friday, September 12, 2014

Book Write-Up: Breaking Free, by Kevin W. Shorter

Kevin W. Shorter.  Breaking Free: How to Be Completely Free from Any Addiction.  Kevin Shorter, 2014.  See here for Amazon’s page about it.

Breaking Free contains Kevin Shorter’s suggestions on dealing with addiction.  Shorter writes from an evangelical Christian perspective, and he says that his own addiction was pornography.  Shorter’s suggestions include recognizing God’s love, allowing God to shape one’s perspective about one’s experiences and other people, looking at the root causes of addiction to find healing, doing service work to get out of oneself, and being in a non-judgmental group where one can share openly.  I would say that Shorter’s suggestions overlap with those of Alcoholics Anonymous, only Shorter’s perspective is evangelical Christian.

In my opinion, the greatest asset to Shorter’s book is his interpretation of I John.  I John is a book of the Bible that has long troubled me, since it seems to assert that people who sin repeatedly or who fail to love others are not truly saved.  Shorter offers another perspective: that addiction to a sin is not a sign that one is not saved at all, but rather is an indication that one has failed to shine God’s love into a certain area of one’s life.  I do not know if that is what I John originally meant, but I do find Shorter’s interpretation to be a constructive way of looking at the Christian life.

There were areas in which I may have differed from Shorter, but I could understand and appreciate his rationale.  First, I personally am not dogmatic about when God speaks to me.  But I can appreciate Shorter’s point that, with God’s help and the help of a mature human being, we may need to look at the negative experiences of our life and place them within a more positive narrative, or that we should look for the positive in ourselves and other people.  Second, I tend to shy away from small groups, but I can understand why many find them helpful.  I appreciated that Shorter mentioned the challenges of finding non-judgmental friends and a support system.

In some cases, I found myself wishing that Shorter gave specific examples.  Shorter mentioned service work as a way for one to get outside of oneself and thereby lessen alienation and depression.  In my opinion, he should have listed examples of service work that one can do.

Shorter’s book had grammatical mistakes, but, overall, they did not detract from the book’s readability or clarity.

The author of the book asked me to write a review.  That did not influence the review’s content.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Father Ralph's Religious Struggle

I watched The Thorn Birds last week.  The Thorn Birds was a 1983 miniseries about a priest, Ralph de Bricassart, who was in love with a woman named Meggie.  It was based on a 1977 novel by Colleen McCullough.

It was quite a miniseries, let me tell you that!  Overall, I liked the characters and the actors and actresses playing them.  My main problem, however, is that I do not entirely understand Father Ralph’s religious struggle.

Throughout the miniseries, Father Ralph believes that he must choose between God and Meggie.  I can understand his conceptualization of the “Meggie” choice: part of him wants to be with the woman he loves and to have a family with her.  What is unclear to me is how he was conceptualizing the “God” choice.  Did that entail serving others?  In the first episode, Father Ralph tells Frank about his desire to be a conduit for God.  The thing is, though, Father Ralph would leave Australia, the place of his service, so that he could become a Cardinal and later an Archbishop.  Maybe he was even hoping to become pope!

Father Ralph did have ambition.  He did not just want to be a lowly priest serving people in Australia.  He wanted more than that.  But how is that serving God?  I think part of my problem is my lack of knowledge of what a Cardinal or Archbishop actually does.  To me, Father Ralph was serving God most when he was being a loving presence in Australia.  What was his service to God like when he was a Cardinal and Archbishop?

Anyway, my Mom has read the book, and she says it goes into more detail about Father Ralph’s religious struggle.  I may read it.

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