Sunday, January 31, 2016

Jesus Visits His Hometown, and They're Not on the Same Page

The sermon at church this morning was about Luke 4:16-30.  Jesus is at the synagogue in Nazareth, the town in which he was raised.  Jesus reads to the synagogue from Isaiah 61:1-2: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord” (KJV).  Jesus then sits down and says to the people at the synagogue that this Scripture is fulfilled that day in their ears.

The people speak well of him and ask if he is Joseph’s son.  Jesus then says that no prophet is accepted in his own country.  Jesus is not doing the miracles in his hometown that he performed in Capernaum.  As parallels to this situation, Jesus refers to Old Testament stories about God reaching out to outsiders rather than the people of Israel: Elijah visited a Sidonian widow during the drought even though there were widows in Israel, and Naaman healed the Syrian leper Naaman when there were lepers in Israel.  The people at the synagogue are then angry with Jesus and almost throw him off the cliff.

The pastor was speculating that the synagogue may have been angry with Jesus on account of his message about preaching good news to the poor and deliverance to the captives.  At the very least, the pastor noted, the people of Nazareth were not on the same page as Jesus, which was why Jesus was not performing miracles there.  The pastor also referred to a lady whom he mentioned in a previous sermon.  This lady was raising five kids in a van, and she called the church for gas money.  The pastor asked what good news for the poor means, and he said that the lady probably worries about more than gas money.  I was wondering how she fed her kids.

Today, at the church service, there was a focus on giving to the church.  A member of the church was telling us how the church uses the money.  It uses some for the poor, some for African-American colleges, some for the pastor’s salary, and some for other causes.  A portion of it goes to the national denomination, which uses money for world mission and advocacy at Washington, D.C.

I’ll stop here.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Book Write-Up: A Commentary on 1&2 Chronicles, by Eugene H. Merrill

Eugene H. Merrill.  A Commentary on 1 & 2 Chronicles.  Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2015.  See here to purchase the book.

Eugene H. Merrill is professor emeritus of Old Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary.  He has degrees from Bob Jones University, New York University, and Columbia University.  He has two PhDs!

Here are some thoughts about Merrill’s commentary on I-II Chronicles:

A.  Overall, Merrill believes in biblical inerrancy.  He does treat the Chronicler and the Deuteronomistic Historian (a term he uses for convenience) as having distinct agendas, which influences what they include and omit and how they tell the story.  Yet, he tends to regard their histories as complimentary rather than contradictory, and he also seems to treat their histories as faithful accounts of what actually happened.  Granted, this can lead to interesting insights: Merrill, for example, attempts to account for an apparent discrepancy between Chronicles and Kings by exploring ancient Mesopotamian historiography.  An inerrantist approach can make one sensitive or open to certain possibilities or avenues, whereas simply saying that the Bible is wrong can shut down exploration or further discussion.  At the same time, an inerrantist approach is difficult to sustain.  If the Deuteronomistic Historian and the Chronicler are telling the same story and give different numbers in saying how many troops there were in a battle, one of them has to be factually incorrect, right?

B.  Because Merrill had more of a harmonizing, or Christian inerrantist, approach, he tended to flatten or suppress the Chronicler’s own distinct theological voice.  Many other commentaries on Chronicles mention aspects of the Chronicler’s ideology: about priests and Levites, about trusting in God, etc.  Merrill, however, chose to focus on what he believed was one aspect of the Chronicler’s ideology: the Chronicler believes that God will send a Messiah, and that the Davidic kings foreshadow this.  Merrill’s belief that this Messiah is Jesus shapes how he interacts with Chronicles.  According to Christianity, Jesus is a priest and a king.  The Chronicler, by contrast, distinguishes the priestly roles from the monarchical roles, going further than the Deuteronomistic Historian on this.  To his credit, Merrill does interact with this issue.  (There were a number of tensions that he did not interact with, as far as I can recall.)  But he downplays its significance.

C.  Overall, I do not care for harmonizing or inerrantist approaches to the Bible.  But they do interest me, perhaps because there is a part of me that likes to see how theological tensions can co-exist in a coherent picture (assuming that they can).  That said, there were times when I was hoping that Merrill would wrestle with a tension, but he did not do so.   For example, Merrill speculates about why David’s wife Michal was so upset about David’s dancing before the Ark in I Chronicles 15.  Her stated reason, according to Merrill, was “her disgust at seeing David expose himself in this joyous celebration (1 Chr 15:29; 2 Sam 6:16)” (page 198).  Merrill doubts, however, that her disgust was rooted in Torah laws that prohibit nakedness in the worship of God (Exodus 20:24-16; 28:42-43).  That only raises other questions, though: Is the Chronicler portraying David doing something that the Torah forbids, without criticizing David?  If so, why?  Merrill brought up an interesting consideration but did not follow through on it.

D.  There were times when Merrill left a question unanswered, and I was hoping that he would wrestle with it some more.  For example, Merrill says that we do not know why some kings were buried where they were (i.e., in Jerusalem or outside it, in the royal tombs or outside of them), and that their righteousness or wickedness are not an adequate explanation.  Merrill does well to notice problems with that explanation, but it would have been nice had he attempted to provide some alternative explanation, since the Chronicler (for some reason) more than once makes a note about where kings were buried or not buried.

E.  There were questions that Merrill addressed, and I appreciated him addressing them, even if I was not always satisfied with his answers.  For example, in II Chronicles 26:3, the king of Egypt changes Eliakim’s name to Jehoiakim.  Merrill wonders why a pagan king would change a Judahite king’s name to one that honored YHWH, the God of Israel.  Merrill proposes that the king of Egypt was saying that the God of Israel was God of Israel alone, not everyone else.  For Merrill, the “El” in Eliakim implied that the God of Israel was a universal God.  The name “YHWH,” by contrast, is God’s covenant name with Israel.  For Merrill, the king of Egypt was denying that the God of Israel was a universal, all-powerful God, choosing to focus on God’s covenant name with Israel.  This is interesting, but I question whether that works as an explanation, since there were times when pagan kings changed a Judahite’s Yahwistic name to another Yahwistic name (i.e., Mattaniah to Zedekiah).

F.  Merrill’s discussion of the authorship of Chronicles was mixed.  Merrill referred to the view that Ezra wrote I-II Chronicles, without interacting with strong arguments to the contrary (i.e., Ezra opposed intermarriage between Israelites and Gentiles, whereas such intermarriages are mentioned without criticism in the Chronicler’s genealogies).  On the other hand, Merrill did offer ideas about the Chronicler’s different sources, which I have not encountered in other commentaries about I-II Chronicles that I have read.

G.  Merrill argues that I-II Chronicles expresses a Messianic hope—-the hope of a Messiah who would bless Israel and the nations.  He did well to show that such a hope was a part of the Chronicler’s post-exilic reality, or at least that it occurred in other post-exilic biblical writings.  (And, interestingly, Merrill says that Haggai hoped Zerubbabel would be the Messiah, a view that some conservatives try to distance themselves from because that would make Haggai wrong.)  Merrill’s argument that the genealogies in Chronicles culminate in Judah (which had the Davidic dynasty) is another fairly strong point in terms of his thesis.  Merrill’s thesis may also explain why the Chronicler omits some of David’s sins: David is a type of the Davidic Messiah.  (Of course, as Merrill acknowledges, the Chronicler mentions certain sins or flaws of David and his offspring, so the thesis is not exactly infallible, in my opinion.)  My problem with his thesis, however, is that eschatology is not overly explicit in I-II Chronicles.  Merrill could have fit the content of Chronicles better with his thesis.

H.  Merrill often regurgitates the plot in discussing I-II Chronicles, but he sometimes offers historical information that the reader may find valuable.

I give this commentary three stars.  It raised some interesting points.  Yet, it tended to flatten Chronicles on account of its harmonizing, Christian inerrantist approach.

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

Friday, January 29, 2016

Book Write-Up: The Pounamu Prophecy

Cindy Williams.  The Pounamu Prophecy: A Sweeping Story of Love, Betrayal and Hope.  Rhiza Press, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

The Pounamu Prophecy is set in Australia and New Zealand.  Actually, this book was published in Australia, and my review copy was sent to me from there.  I thought that was pretty cool!
Helene and James are two characters in the book.  Helene and James live in Australia, and they are a married couple.  Helene is a medical doctor, and James has a graphic design business.  Helene and James are not getting along, and each feels unappreciated by the other.

Mere is an elderly friend of James’ mother, and she has come to stay with Helene and James.  Mere helps around the house and in the garden.  She is also writing a book about her life experiences.  Mere is from New Zealand.  She is part of the Ngati Whatua tribe.  That tribe historically experienced hardship on account of the New Zealand government taking its land.  When she was a child, Mere lost her brother after the water was polluted.  Mere became a lawyer so that she could challenge the government’s injustice.

This is a quality book.  It is well-written, striking a balance between prose that is simple and sophisticated.  The marriage between Helene and James is typical of other stories about struggling marriages and the temptation to have an affair, but the characters still seemed like real people.

There were themes in the book that I particularly liked.  First, there was Helene’s evaluation of the different religious options that were presented to her.  Helene’s friend, Nicollette, encouraged Helene to send her wishes and requests to the universe, whereas Mere promoted a Christian approach.  Helene thought that Mere’s approach was rather childish, or child-like, but she came to believe that there were problems with Nicollette’s approach.  Second, there was the notion that God historically sent the Ngati Whatua tribe what they needed, when they needed it.  Third, there was more to Mere than met the eye, as Helene and James learned near the end of the book.

The book is about forgiveness and loving others even if one does not feel love.  What it says about these themes is not particularly new, but it is still good to be reminded of those principles and outlooks.  Mere was a wise woman with credibility on account of what she had gone through.  The book also taught me about New Zealand.

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

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Book Write-Up: Dispensationalism and the History of Redemption

D. Jeffrey Bingham and Glenn R. Kreider.  Dispensationalism and the History of Redemption: A Developing and Diverse Tradition.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

Dispensationalism and the History of Redemption contains essays by ten scholars about dispensationalism.  The scholars include Craig A. Blaising, Darrell L. Bock, Oscar A. Campos, Nathan D. Holstein, Eugene H. Merrill, T. Maurice Pugh, Michael J. Svigel, and Stanley D. Toussant.  Each scholar has some connection with Dallas Theological Seminary, which teaches dispensationalism.  Each scholar either has a degree from DTS, or he teaches there.

What is dispensationalism?  More specifically, what is the dispensationalism that is promoted and engaged in this book?  First of all, dispensationalism maintains that God has dealt with people in different ways throughout history. God’s ways of operating in Old Testament times were not entirely the same as God’s ways of operating in New Testament times.  In Old Testament times, there was a focus on the nation of Israel, observing the Torah, and offering sacrifices to atone for sin.  In New Testament times, there is a church that consists of Jews and Gentiles, Christians are not expected to observe the Mosaic law, and the blood of Christ is what atones for sin.  Of course, many Christians believe this, even those who would not classify themselves as dispensationalists.  Dispensationalists have been accused, however, of teaching that people were saved by works in Old Testament times (particularly under the Mosaic law), a charge that is denied in this book.

Second, dispensationalism distinguishes between Israel and the church.  In the Old Testament, God makes promises to Israel about possessing the land of Canaan and prospering there.  For dispensationalists, these promises are to be interpreted literally and as applying to the people of Israel.  By contrast, other Christians have regarded the promises as ultimately symbolic of the work of Christ or God’s spiritual blessings for the church.

There are other features that have characterized dispensationalism.  There is a dispensationalist teaching that God offered to send the Messianic era if Israel would repent, that God established the church when Israel did not to do so, and that God would send the Messianic era and restore Israel after she repents.  There is a belief in a pretribulational rapture, the idea that God will take Christians to heaven before the Great Tribulation, which will precede the second coming of Christ to earth.

The book defines and defends dispensationalism.  It mentions different kinds of dispensationalism (classic, revised, and progressive) and the differences of opinion among dispensationalists.  A few essays contrast dispensationalism with Covenant Theology.  One essay discusses the history of dispensationalism.  It divides the history of dispensationalism into seven eras, the way that many dispensationalists divide biblical history into seven dispensations.  Other essays struggle with the issue of dispensationalism and biblical interpretation: What does it mean to interpret the Bible literally, as dispensationalists claim to do?  How does dispensationalism relate to the tendency of many Christians to believe that the Bible speaks to them personally?  There are also essays about dispensationalism and the Old Testament, the New Testament, and eschatology.

The book is informative, and it can whet one’s appetite as it portrays dispensationalism as a diverse belief system that has undergone development.  The book is unsatisfying, however, in that it did not really explain why God operates as God does, under dispensationalism.  Perhaps one can draw conclusions: God worked with Israel in the Old Testament so that she would bless the nations, but God then worked through the church after Israel as a nation failed to repent, making Israel an unsuitable vessel for God’s purposes.  God will still restore Israel, however.  The book also should have gone into how Israelites were justified by grace through faith even under the Mosaic law.

The book also should have tackled more arguments that Covenant Theology has made.  Covenant Theology has argued that Old Testament promises to Israel are treated as symbolic in the New Testament.  The book should have interacted with its arguments by addressing how dispensationalists have interpreted such passages.

An index would also have been helpful.  That way, readers can refresh their memories about the distinction among classical, revised, and progressive dispensationalism.

I give this book 3.5 stars.  It is worth reading on account of its information.  Yet, I was still hungry after reading it.

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

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Posts I Wrote Engaging Ron Dart's Thought

Ronald L. Dart recently died.  Dart was a minister in the Worldwide Church of God (WCG).  When Garner Ted Armstrong left the WCG and founded the Church of God International (CGI), Dart became a minister at the CGI.  Later, Dart left CGI and founded his own ministry, Christian Educational Ministries (CEM).  Dart had a radio program entitled “Born to Win.”

I grew up in the Church of God International, so I got to listen to a lot of Ron Dart’s sermons and teaching.  We had cassette tapes of his messages, and I would listen to them often (including in art class at school).  Years later, I would listen occasionally to his radio program.

Mr. Dart was a good speaker.  There was an inviting, storytelling quality to his sermons.  There was an intellectual rigor to them, too.  I was recently reading a blog post about Dart’s passing, and a commenter said that he actually continued to listen to Dart even after becoming an agnostic!  I can identify with that!  I do not exactly put myself in the agnostic category, but I do know that I appreciated listening to Dart’s teaching, even after I stopped adhering to Armstrongite faith and practice.

Mr. Dart had a stroke, and that was sad.  Here was a man who loved to speak and to write, and he got to the point where he could no longer do that.

What follows are blog posts that I wrote over the years that engage Mr. Dart’s thought.  In some cases, I disagree with Dart.  In some cases, I agree.  Sometimes, I just reminisce.  Mr. Dart was a key influence on me in terms of my theology and knowledge of the Bible.  Even when I was in graduate school wrestling with academic biblical scholarship, Mr. Dart’s thought was still somewhere in my mind.

The posts are in chronological order.  If you are interested in listening to some of Dart’s sermons on YouTube, see here.

Meditating on the Law
Reflections on Malachi
More on Religious Pluralism: Clark Pinnock
How Many Times Was I Saved?
A Chance to Be Lost
John MacArthur on the American Revolution, Voting
Sabbatarian “Paul Would Have” Arguments
Are Gentiles Under the Law?
Eschatological Sabbath: The Literal Interpretation
The Pre-Sinai Argument
FOT 2008, Day 2
FOT 2008, Day 5
Samuele Bacchiocchi Has Passed Away
This Coming Week
Born Again, Immortal Soul
Ex-WCG Individualism
The Two Witnesses of Revelation 11
Hard-Headed Practical Wisdom
Pentecost 2009
Does “Sabbath” Mean Week?
Is Venting Effective?
What to Do with Agnosticism
Union with God
Respecting Other Gods, Philo on Inspiration
Criticism and Flattery, So THAT’S the Covenant Formula, Adam’s Naming of the Animals, Newness of Spirit and Oldness of Letter, Testimonia
II Kings 13
Van Seters on the Flood Doublet and the Pre-Sinaitic Law
Laws for the Ger
Torah or Moral Freedom?; Davies on I Corinthians 9
Speaking with Authority: Delivery
A Powerful Sermon Series
Animal Sacrifice and Substitutionary Atonement
Going Out on Your Own
Book Write-Up: Can Evangelicals Learn from World Religions, by Gerald R. McDermott

Monday, January 25, 2016

Hector Avalos' Critique of Patterns of Evidence (About the Historicity of the Exodus)

Patterns of Evidence is a 2015 documentary arguing that the biblical Exodus happened in history.  On the blog, Debunking Christianity, biblical scholar Hector Avalos extensively critiques the documentary.  I am sharing this for the information that Avalos presents.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Crushed Grape

The pastor in his sermon this morning was talking about crushed grapes, which are used to make wine.  He was using that as a metaphor for how life’s blows can make us better people.  He also talked about how God can heal us in the midst of our brokenness.

I have thought about life’s blows that I have experienced.  Some of them were my fault.  Some of them, not so much.  Life’s blows have made me more compassionate than I would be otherwise.  They have made me sensitive to issues that otherwise would not cross my radar.  They have purified me of certain character flaws, or at least they have made me aware of them and the importance of addressing them.

But at what cost?  I have to admit: when it comes to certain experiences, part of me feels as if I would have been better off not experiencing them.

A struggle that I have is this: I may have all this compassion inside of me, but what use is that to anyone else?  So I have compassion for people in certain situations.  Whoop-dee-doo!  I am not always in a position to help people who are in those situations.

But who knows what opportunities God can provide.  That compassion may come in handy some day, for someone.

Friday, January 22, 2016

A Socially Phobic Introvert in an Active Church

I went to my church’s Life Group yesterday.  We are going through Thom Rainer’s I Will: Nine Traits of the Outwardly Focused Christian.

In the book, Rainer says that church people who only attend the worship service are more likely to drop out of church than those who attend a small group or a Sunday school class.  Someone in the group explained her understanding of the rationale for that: we’re more likely to attend a church if we have friends there.  Someone else said that, when she first attended our church, the pastor encouraged her to get involved in all of the church’s activities.  That way she can learn people’s names, get to know people, and find a place in the church.  Before you know it, she had a role in the church, and she considered it home.

The previous pastor of the church told me a while back that small groups were a new thing for this church.  I asked the Life Group what the church was like before there were small groups.  Essentially, they answered that the church still had lots of activities to attend.  There was Sunday school, Bible study, quilting groups, committees, etc., etc.

I will be moving again in a few months, and I will probably look for another church that will be closer to where I will be.  My experience in the current Methodist church that I attend has made me think about what exactly to look for in a church.  What do I want?  What should I want?

Of course, the point of Thom Rainer’s book is that we should not think so much about what we want or what we can get from church.  We should be focused more on worshiping God and on serving.  I guess I have to decide for myself what to do with that line.  I do not repudiate it entirely.  On the other hand, I have difficulty removing my wants and desires—-in short, myself—-from the equation.  After all, I carry myself—-and my own thoughts, needs, feelings, and wants—-with me wherever I go.

Something that strikes me about the Methodist church is that it is very active.  There are many churches that talk about doing good, and these churches mean well.  But the Methodist church is actually proactive in doing good.  It is always on the go.  It is high energy.  I admire that.  But I get exhausted thinking about it.  I am the sort of person who likes to be by myself and read all day.  But I am glad that somebody is out there trying to make the world a better place!

I also am the sort of person who wants to be loved, or at least liked, without much effort on my part.  Some places are more comfortable for me in this regard than other places.  For me, trying to be liked takes a lot of work.  Add to that the times in my life when I have earnestly tried to be liked, and I have not been liked.  That can easily discourage a person from trying, or it can make a person socially phobic.

I guess that one thing that I can do is to keep an open mind.  Be open to participating in some activities—to try them out, at least.  Keep in mind that I am not the center of the universe.  Hear other people’s joys and concerns, and care about them.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Book Write-Up: The 11th Demons, by Bruce Hennigan

Bruce Hennigan.  The 11th Demon: The Ark of Chaos.  Bloomington: WestBow Press, 2013.  See here to buy the book.

This book is part of a Christian fiction series about Jonathan Steel, a demon hunter.  Essentially, Steel sends demons back to the underworld.  Although this is not the very first book of the series, its author, Bruce Hennigan, tells readers that they do not have to read the previous books to understand and appreciate The 11th Demon.

Jonathan Steel is the demon hunter.  His uncle, Cephas, was a skeptic in the 1960’s about the demonic, until he came into contact with a demon.  He is a source of experience and spiritual wisdom in this book.  Another character is Vivian Ketrick.  She accepts being inhabited by demons because they give her power.  Yet, she is torn because she also desires a regular life, which includes a romance with a deputy.

The demons have their own perspective.  They have a long memory and bitterness, which can never be alleviated.  They desire power, and that easily can put them into conflict with each other.  Yet, they also sow chaos.  They did so in November 1963, with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which precipitated social and political turmoil.  They also sought to sow chaos in Jerusalem soon after the crucifixion of Jesus.

Bruce Hennigan enjoys Christian apologetics, and that shows in this book.  There is a defense of hell, and also an affirmation of the New Testament canon against the works of Gnostic Christians.  A Gnostic-like sect plays a key role in this book.

In this book, people and demons are looking for an Ark.  There is question about what exactly this Ark does: does it contain information about the plans of demons, or does it give one power?

Questions are still in my mind after reading this book.  First of all, do demons desire chaos, or do they desire power over human beings, which presumes some order?  Is their vision for the first to lead to the second?  I not only have these questions in response to this book, but also in response to other Christian works about Satan that I have read, ancient and modern.

Second, Cephas talks about how attempting to bind a demon by one’s own power or through exorcist rituals does not necessarily work, for one needs to pray to God, who has authority.  In what sense, then, has Jonathan Steel been a demon hunter up to this point?  Is Cephas talking about the demons who can only come out by prayer and fasting (a la Matthew 17:21), not all demons?  Is he simply emphasizing the value of relying on the authority of Jesus when attempting to conduct an exorcism?

Third, it makes sense that demons would be in conflict with each other, just as there is no honor among thieves.  You get a bunch of evil, self-serving entities together, and you will get conflict.  At the same time, would that not nullify Jesus’ point in Mark 3:25 that demons would not try to cast out other demons, for a house divided against itself cannot stand?  (That was Jesus’ response to those who claimed that he was casting out Satan through the power of Satan.)

This book did not particularly thrill me.  It struck me as rather scattered.  While Hennigan and others say that one does not need to read the previous books in the series to enjoy this book, I think that one should probably do so, in order to understand and appreciate the characters.  Cephas’ story was all right: a skeptic who changes his tune in response to the supernatural and is looking for a lost love.  His apologetics did not present me with anything new, at least not overall.  (I wonder if the church fathers realized that parts of Mark 16 were a later addition, which is what Hennigan seemed to imply.  This book at least inspired that question in my mind.)  The tie-ins with the Gnostics and the Kennedy assassination had the potential to make this book intriguing, but the effect was unsatisfying to me.  Perhaps it was because those elements were rushed, or elliptical in places (as when the Gnostic-like sect was discussed).

I received a complimentary review copy of this book through BookLook Bloggers, in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Paul Krugman's Critique of Bernie Sanders

I want to pass on a couple of Paul Krugman’s recent blog posts.  They are critical of Bernie Sanders.  Paul Krugman is a notorious liberal economist who won a Nobel Prize.  He is an influential voice on the Left.

Weakened at Bernie’s

Health Reform Is Hard

I am not sharing these blog posts because I agree with them entirely, but I do think that they raise valid considerations.  I appreciate Krugman’s honesty in these posts.  Some of what Krugman says also overlaps with why I have a difficult time deciding between Hillary and Bernie.  If I had to judge, I would say that Bernie is better in terms of character.  But Hillary seems to me to be better at realistically assessing the political scene to determine what can get passed, and also at developing policy proposals that have nuance and substance.  Sanders often seems to me to be spouting cliches.  I have no doubt that he sincerely believes those cliches, and even that there is merit in them.  But what Hillary says sounds more substantive to me.
On the other hand, allow me to share a positive statement about Bernie by Robert Reich (see the January 17, 2016 status on Reich’s Facebook page):

“Hillary presented herself as an experienced politician who is prepared to assume the presidency, while Bernie presented himself as the leader of a political revolution. Both characterizations seem fair. If you assume Washington is not changeable and that the vicious cycle of wealth and power dominating our politics and economics is unalterable, Hillary’s experience is relevant; she will make a first-class president for the system we now have. But if you believe Washington must be changed, and that system can be altered for the benefit of the many and not the few, Bernie’s leadership is more relevant; he is heading up a political movement.”

Monday, January 18, 2016

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Avoiding Complacency, or Independence of God

At church this morning, the pastor made an interesting statement during the prayer part of the service.  Our bulletin lists people to pray for, and our church was on the list.  The pastor said that it is acceptable for a church to pray for itself, since it needs prayer.  The pastor then said that he does not want to see our church become a place that looks like him, and yet God is not a part of it.

By "looks like him," he probably means that the vast majority of the church is white.  I think one implication of what he was saying is that he does not want the church to become complacent, or in its own little world.  To avoid that, it needs to pray.  Prayer is a place where it can remind itself of its mission.  It is also a place to focus on God and to draw on God for strength for the mission.

Similarly, in my own spiritual life, I find that I need to be vigilant, and prayer is one way in which I try to do that.  I do not naturally love God and my neighbor.  My mind often does not go in a spiritually-appropriate direction.  Prayer is a way for me to remind myself of how I should be.  More importantly, it is a way for me to draw strength from God when I feel, and am, spiritually helpless.

But there is another implication to what the pastor is saying.  The church can try to do a lot of good things, but what if God is not a part of it?  One could argue that God is already a part of things, and we do not need to conjure up God's presence through prayer, for God is already present.  There is something to that.  The pastor himself has said similar things.  At the same time, I think of the Christian cliche that God is a gentleman: God does not go where God is not wanted.  Maybe God can work with some mindsets or attitudes better than others.  God wants the church to work with God, not independently of God.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Book Write-Up: The Gospel of St. John, by J.B. Lightfoot

J.B. Lightfoot.  The Gospel of St. John: A Newly Discovered Commentary.  The Lightfoot Legacy Set, Volume 2.  Ed., Ben Witherington III and Todd D. Still.  Assisted by Jeanette M. Hagen.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

J.B. Lightfoot was an English preacher and a New Testament scholar in the nineteenth century.  The Gospel of John: A Newly Discovered Commentary contains previously unpublished writings by Lightfoot about the Gospel of John.

The book offers background information about who Lightfoot was.  Lightfoot had an encyclopedic knowledge of ancient sources and a firm grasp of various languages.  He remarked to a friend that he sometimes forgets what language he is reading when he is absorbed in a text.  This prompts the editors to comment that “There have been precious few biblical scholars over time that could have candidly made such a remark about so many different languages” (page 26).  The introduction also discusses why Lightfoot did not submit his comments on the Gospel of John for publication.  Furthermore, it notes that Lightfoot was unmarried, which allowed him to devote more time to his scholarship.

The book then shares Lightfoot’s writings on the Gospel of John.  These include an introductory piece about the external and internal evidence for the Gospel of John’s authenticity (i.e., its first century date and the apostle John being its author); Lightfoot’s comments on John 1-12; an appendix on the external evidence for the Gospel of John’s authenticity; and an appendix on the internal evidence for its authenticity.  The appendices offer more detail than the introductory piece.

To define terms, “external evidence” refers to voices outside of the Gospel of John that attest to its authenticity.  This includes second century patristic sources and Gnostic voices that acknowledge the apostle John to be its author.  It also includes historical indications that the Gospel of John was known, honored, and used throughout the second century C.E., indicating that it was not written in the late second century.  “Internal evidence” is evidence from the Gospel of John itself.  It includes the issues that the Gospel of John addresses and does not address (i.e., it does not clearly address late second century issues); indications that the Gospel of John was written by a first century Palestinian Jew who was familiar with the language, history, and sites of first century Palestine; and indications that the Gospel of John was written by an eyewitness to Jesus rather than a late forger.

The book concludes with an essay by Martin Hengel (1926-2009) about Lightfoot’s interaction with German scholarship.  Lightfoot was critical of the voices from Tubingen who claimed that the Gospel of John was written in the mid-to-late second century and was not really from the apostle John.  Hengel, who himself taught at Tubingen, provides background about this controversy and offers insights about which direction modern scholarship has followed.  According to Hengel, it has followed Lightfoot in some areas, and Tubingen in others.  Hengel also notes that, while Lightfoot was more conservative than many in the Tubingen school, he was more progressive than Christians who rejected the historical critical method of interpreting the Bible.

Lightfoot wrote in the nineteenth century, which was prior to many notable discoveries, such as the 1948 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, or the 1945 discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts.  Still, Lightfoot did well with what he had (i.e., Josephus, Philo, the Targumim, the church fathers, rabbinic literature, Greco-Roman sources, etc.).  Of particular interest to me were the ways that Lightfoot utilized Josephus to illuminate passages in the Gospel of John and to defend its authenticity.  Lightfoot cites passages in Josephus that may explain the priest Caiaphas’ rude remark in John 11:49 and the Jews’ strange statement in John 8:33 that they were never in bondage to any man.  Lightfoot also refers to a passage in Josephus that sheds light on Samaritan eschatology, and Lightfoot argues that John 4 shows knowledge of first century Samaritan eschatology.  Also of interest to me was Lightfoot’s discussion of what rabbinic literature has to say about differences in dialect between Galilee and Judah.  This issue occurs in the Gospel of John.

In terms of critiques of Lightfoot, there were times I wished that Lightfoot provided references to primary sources.  I think specifically of his comments about the disciples’ question about the blind man in John 9:2: whose sin caused this man to be born blind—-the sin of the blind man’s parents, or of the blind man himself?  Were the disciples implying that the blind man could have sinned prior to his birth?  Lightfoot speculates that they may have believed that God foresaw the blind man’s sins, but Lightfoot also refers to a Jewish view that one could sin in the womb.  Unfortunately, he did not refer to a specific primary source for that.  In my opinion, he should have cited at least one.  He did refer to a secondary source that he wrote, however.  Lightfoot was overall very specific in citing primary sources, but not in every case.

Lightfoot, or at least the editors of this book, also should have compared the Gospel of John with other ancient sources, particularly sources that many scholars believe are pseudepigraphic or historically inaccurate.  Lightfoot argues that there are internal indications that the Gospel of John was written by an eyewitness to Jesus.  The Gospel of John shows knowledge of a first century Palestinian context.  Its depiction of its characters is realistic.  It is vivid and detailed in areas, yet it is elliptical about certain topics, showing (for Lightfoot) that its author was not consciously creating a forged document.  It does not seem to create events from imagination but rather to comment on the significance of events that happened.  Can one find similar features, however, in ancient sources that many scholars would agree are pseudepigraphic and historically inaccurate?

Lightfoot, in his comments on verses, usually quotes parts of the verse in Greek, without providing an English translation.  This will not be a problem for scholars who know New Testament Greek really well.  Readers without that level of familiarity may want to have an English (or whatever language one speaks) translation of the New Testament in front of them when reading Lightfoot’s comments, otherwise they may get lost.

I should also note something else.  If you read Matthew Henry and John Gill, you may notice that they often refer to a “Dr. Lightfoot.”  That is not J.B. Lightfoot, since J.B. Lightfoot lived a century later than them.  Rather, they are referring to John Lightfoot, a seventeenth century English clergyman and author.

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

Friday, January 15, 2016

Week 1 of My Church’s Life Group: I Will

I went to my church’s Life Group yesterday.  I probably will not blog on days that I attend my church’s Life Group.  I didn’t blog yesterday!  And I enjoyed the break from blogging.

The meeting actually went by pretty quickly, even though we met for an hour and a half.  We talked about the introduction and the first two chapters of Thom Rainer’s I Will.  People shared about what was going on in their lives and in the life of the church.  I admire people there who have been through a lot, yet are still faithful.

The thesis of Thom Rainer’s book, as I understand it, is that people should not focus on receiving when they go to church, but rather on giving and serving.  Someone in the group candidly admitted that she does go to church to receive: she feels filled when she worships God.  She is hoping to receive edification when she goes to church.  She was not apologetic about that.  The thing is, she is one of the most active members of the church.

I think that church should be about receiving and giving.  Focusing on one to the exclusion of the other does not work, at least not in my experience.  If I focus exclusively on receiving, I will be continually wondering if I am receiving enough.  If I focus exclusively on giving, I can feel depleted.  The two can mutually reinforce each other, though.  As I focus on God, I can be fed, and that can inspire me to serve others.  As I serve others, that can show me what God is like and allow me to experience God in new ways, which feeds me.

We talked briefly about why many people today do not go to church.  Someone talked about how church in the old days was the meeting place for the community.  Someone else mentioned the attacks on Christianity.

I was thinking of saying something, but my thoughts were not fully formulated, so I did not say anything.  Why don’t many people go to church these days?  Of course, blog post after blog post talks about why millennials are leaving church.  I personally identify with a lot of their reasons, at least when it comes to why I feel alienated from right-wing American evangelical churches.  But I doubt that they speak for everyone.  There are plenty of growing evangelical churches.  And there are many people whose reason for not going to church has nothing to do with them being liberal, while the churches are conservative.  They just don’t care about organized religion.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Ramblings on Thom Rainer’s I Will, Which My Life Group Will Be Reading

My church’s Life Groups will be reading Thom Rainer’s I Will: Nine Traits of the Outwardly Focused Christian.

I finished the book.  It’s essentially the response that a lot of Christians give to those who are disenchanted with church.  It tells them that church is not about what they can get, but what they can give: worship, service, etc.  Maybe there is something to that.  Not every criticism of church should be casually dismissed with that pat answer, though.

I will be attending my Life Group and blogging about it.  Essentially, I will mention theological points that people make.  I will not be sharing things that are supposed to be confidential.  Nor, for that matter, will I be compromising anyone’s anonymity.  I will probably refer to people by a letter that is not associated with their names.  My goal in writing these posts is to preserve people’s insights for future reference, and to process what people said.  That is how I get something out of church, books, and small groups: by blogging about what I hear.

During the Fall, my Life Group was going through Robert Morris’ The God I Never Knew, which is about the Holy Spirit.  I only went to two sessions of that, and the reason was that I sprained my ankle.  People in the group offered me a ride, but I turned them down because I was recovering.  Also, I did not want to feel compelled to attend.  I wanted to walk there myself because then it would be my own personal decision each week to attend, or not to attend.  I value my personal autonomy.

Someone from the group is giving me a ride this time around.  The group will meet for five weeks.  The group has been welcoming to me, even though I am different from the others there: I am the youngest, and I am the only male.  I am attending the morning group because I prefer to have the rest of the day to myself.

There are things that I like about the group.  I do not agree with some of the perspectives that people share, but there are diverse opinions in the group, and people are tolerant of each other and open-minded.  I also like how we begin each meeting with five minutes of silence, so that we can be grounded and open to God.

Like I said, we will be going through Thom Rainer’s I Will.  One problem I have with Rainer’s thesis is that some of the people he talks about who became disenchanted with church were involved in church.  They did not just attend worship services, but they were serving and active in the church.  Yet, they were disenchanted.  What is their problem?  Do they simply need an attitude adjustment?  Do they need to serve joyfully, with a smile on their face?  I picture a sled-driver telling his doggies to “mush, mush, mush!”

I do agree with Rainer that one should not be nit-picky.  Things are not going to be perfect, according to anyone’s standards.  One should try to focus on the positive, and maybe even serve.  That is true of me.  That does not mean that every place should be a fit for everyone: people may find that certain environments suit them better than other environments, and they should feel free to explore as opposed to feeling forced to “tough out” wherever they are.  Still, one should not be overly nitpicky.

It will be interesting to see how people in the group process this book.  I hope that I am not criticized for not serving enough, though.

I would like to share a couple of things from the book that I actually liked.

First, on page 27, Rainer states that people should not go to church for a worship experience, but rather to experience God in worship.  (I do draw from Rainer’s language in that last sentence).  That is an interesting way of looking at worship.  I almost missed this gem, but I felt that I should go back and reread it.  That happens often when I am reading and gloss over a gem: something in my mind tells me to go back and reread the passage, since I just missed something important!

Going to church for a worship experience prioritizes feelings: I want an emotional high from worship.  I want to feel special in God’s eyes as a result of worship.

But, rather than imposing these expectations or desires on worship, how about seeing the issue differently?  I do not have to conjure up God’s presence as a way to make myself feel better.  God is already there at worship.  We will be celebrating aspects of God’s character through the songs and the readings.  What I need to do is participate.  The focus should be on God.

Second, on page 51, Rainer gives examples of how church members can serve: “They might write encouraging letters to other members.  They might visit and serve the homebound.  They might work in a local missions house.  They might clean the church or work in landscaping around the church facilities.  They might pick up trash in the community.  They might get involved in a prayer ministry.  They might work in the church ministry or preschool.”

This is an important passage for me, because I am the sort of person who would reply to calls to service with, “Well, what exactly do you want me to do?  If you won’t give me specifics, don’t criticize me for not serving!”  This passage gives examples.  Of course, there are many people—-and this can be me—-who may want to get involved in church as a way to fit in.  That is all right, I suppose, but service should be about more than people trying to earn other’s approval.  One should try to become more outward-focused, as opposed to being critical because one’s own needs are not fully met.  Is that the magical answer to all discontentment with church?  No, but it is a good life rule.

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Sons of God of Genesis 6, in “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan”

In Genesis 6:1-4, the sons of God see that the daughters of men are beautiful.  The sons of God then take wives from the daughters of men.  V 4 states that, when this happened, there  were Nephilim—-often translated as “giants.”  These Nephilim were mighty and renowned.

Who were the sons of God in Genesis 6:1-4?  Who were the daughters of men?  Some say that the sons of God were angels or deities, and that the daughters of men were human females.  Another view is that the sons of God were descendants of Seth, a righteous son of Adam, whereas the daughters of men were descendants of Cain, Adam’s wicked son.

The fifth-ninth century C.E. Christian document, “The Conflict of Adam of Eve with Satan,” appears to go with the latter view: that Genesis 6:1-4 is about the Sethites intermarrying with the Cainites.

In “Conflict,” the Sethites are on a mountain, whereas the Cainites are on the low ground.  The Sethites are not supposed to go down from the mountain to be with the Cainites, lest the Cainites corrupt the Sethites.  Satan tries to get the Sethites to descend.  He and his angels appear as Adam and other past figures and lead the Sethites to the low ground. There, the Sethites are tempted by the sights.  Satan instigates the Cainites to invent enticing music that inflames lust: that reminds me of Rock and Roll, or what some fundamentalist pastors have said about it!

“The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” calls the Sethites children of God (II.11. 4; 20.27).  This is on account of their purity and their worship of God.  They are also called angels (II.20.15).  This is because, in worshiping God, they are replacements for the angels who fell with Satan.

In II.20, the Sethites see that the daughters of Cain are beautiful and descend the mountain, even though righteous Enoch warns them that, in doing so, they will cease being children of God and will become children of the devil.

“The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” does not say that the intermarriage results in giants.  Still, it is most likely interpreting Genesis 6:1-4, for it talks about children of God seeing beautiful women and intermarrying with them.  By saying that the Sethites were angels, could “Conflict” be responding, in some manner, to the view that the sons of God of Genesis 6:1-4 were angels?  Its point, in that scenario, would be that the sons of God were angels, but not in the sense that the angelic interpretation assumed.  The Sethites, because they worshiped God, were functionally angels, even though they were human.

I am hesitant to refer to wikipedia, but its article on the Nephilim contains leads on who interpreted the sons of God as Sethites within Judaism and Christianity.  Such an interpretation probably resonated with the writer of “Conflict” because he was ascetic.  Adam and Eve fast for long periods of time, and sex is practically treated as a necessary evil in “Conflict.”  The writer of “Conflict” may have wanted his Christian community to stay away from a world that he considered corrupt, a world symbolized by the Cainites on the low ground.

God in “Conflict” is often merciful and patient with Adam, Eve, and Cain, staying with them even though they make mistakes.  The Sethites are not to exercise that same patience towards the Cainites, however, probably because the Cainites are believed to be too far gone.  The Cainites would corrupt the Sethites, rather than the Sethites having a positive influence on the Cainites!

Monday, January 11, 2016

Movie Write-Up: Star Wars, the Force Awakens (and the Previews)

We went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Saturday.  Here are some of my reactions to the movie, and to some of the previews that came before it.  This blog post will contain spoilers.

A.  I don’t want to see the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.  The new Independence Day movie looks like a rehash of the first Independence Day movie.  The X-Men Apocalypse movie looks offensive and disturbing from a religious point-of-view: the villain is Yahweh, the God of the Bible!  Still, I want to see it.  The preview about sloths working at the DMV was cute and funny, and it lightened the mood after a series of loud, intense, yet rather bland previews.

B.  How did I feel after watching this Star Wars movie?  How does that compare to how I felt after watching the previous Star Wars movies?  The original movies often leave me with an emotional high, a feeling of “Wow!”  The prequels did not do this as much as the originals.  I was disappointed with The Phantom Menace.  I liked Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, even though Hayden Christiansen’s acting was bad.  My emotional reaction to The Force Awakens is somewhere in between my reaction to the originals and my reaction to Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.

C.  The action scenes in the movie bored me.  Of the characters in the original who were in the Force Awakens, Han Solo was the best, since there was life in his character.  Leah just seemed to me to be making a cameo appearance.  The movie also was trying to establish some bonds between the characters, and its attempts were coming across to me as superficial.  Rey saw Han Solo as a father figure, for example, even though she did not know him that long.  I would say the same about the bond between Rey and Finn.

D.  From a religious perspective, the movie’s depiction of the Force is noteworthy.  Han Solo said that the Force holds good and evil in balance.  Does that mean that evil is necessary, in some sense?  The Star Wars movies are often about the triumph of good over evil.  The granny Jedi with the big goggles was telling Rey that the light is out there, but Rey has to acknowledge it and be open to it.  That overlaps with Christian things that I have read and heard, including in church: God is already present, but we need to be open to God.

E.  I should also say something about C3PO’s religion.  Something good happened for the Resistance, and C3PO said “Thank the Maker!”  Does C3PO believe in God?  When he said “Thank the Maker” in A New Hope, I thought he was talking about the person who made him: C3PO was about to have an oil-bath, and he was thankful that his maker made him with the ability to enjoy it.  And didn’t C3PO call Anakin Skywalker (who made him) “the Maker” in Attack of the Clones?

F.  There were powerful scenes.  Finn leaving the Stormtroopers because of their brutality was one of them, as well as the villain Kylo Ren’s sense that Finn had moral objections to what the Stormtroopers were doing.  The encounter between Han Solo and Kylo Ren, Solo’s son Ben, was also noteworthy: Han did not understand what Ben was feeling, but he would do anything to help.  And the ending scene, in which Rey handed Luke his lightsaber, was a powerful ending, and the brooding-then-triumphant Star Wars music definitely enhanced it.

G.  The actors who played Rey and Finn were unknowns, but they were good.  I like Rey, someone who was alone and sold garbage to earn a living, which was not particularly lucrative.  Finn was funny, and his role as a reluctant hero was endearing.

H.  BB-8 was cute.  He reminded us of one of our cats, Dante.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

On Homelessness

At church this morning, a young lady talked to us about her work at a homeless shelter.

She said that working there has changed her view on service.  Many people serve because of how it can help them.  “I feel so good and fulfilled when I serve,” many of us say.  “You want to cure your depression—-help somebody else.”

There may be merit to that, on some level, but, as the young lady this morning was saying, we should also serve because there are people out there who need help.

The young lady was also saying that her attitude on homelessness has changed.  Before working at the shelter, she thought that people became homeless as a result of drug abuse and bad decisions.  That does happen, but there are many people who become homeless as a result of hard times.  Considering how medical bills can be, I can see how families can easily become impoverished.

In addition, the young lady said that children who are homeless did nothing to deserve homelessness.  She said that they deserve the same things that many of us got growing up.

I thought that she made important points this morning.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Book Write-Up: David and Bathsheba, by Roberta Kells Dorr

Roberta Kells Dorr.  David and Bathsheba.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2013, 1990.  See here to buy the book.

The story of David and Bathsheba is in the biblical book of II Samuel.  King David of Israel sees a beautiful woman bathing from his roof.  He learns that she is Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.  David sleeps with Bathsheba, and she becomes pregnant.  David tries to make it look like her baby is Uriah’s, so David tells Uriah to go home and sleep with Bathsheba.  Instead, Uriah stays at his post.  David then sent a letter to his military leader, Joab, instructing Joab to have the Israelite soldiers abandon Uriah in the heat of battle.  Uriah is killed by the Ammonites, and David takes Bathsheba as his wife.  The prophet Nathan rebukes David for this and informs him of God’s coming punishment.  Ahithophel, David’s wise adviser and possibly Bathsheba’s grandfather (cp. II Samuel 11:3 and 23:34), leaves David and joins David’s son Absalom when Absalom attempts to take over the throne.

Roberta Kells Dorr’s David and Bathsheba goes from the time that David ascended the throne of Judah after the death of King Saul, to the aftermath of Absalom’s rebellion.  There were many things that I liked about this book, but I would like to highlight three details in the book that particularly interested me.

First of all, there is Uriah the Hittite.  Why does a Hittite have in his name the name of the God of Israel (“Jah”)?  Dorr attempts to account for that.  In Dorr’s story, Uriah was originally Uri, a Hittite who helped David take Jerusalem from the Jebusites.  After Uri does this, Ahithophel gives Uri his granddaughter Bathsheba in marriage.  To marry Bathsheba, Uri needs to convert to the worship of the God of Israel, so he changes his name from “Uri” to “Uriah” to honor the Israelite God.

Second, Uriah in Dorr’s story knew that David slept with Bathsheba, and that was why Uriah refused to leave his post.  Uriah was upset with David and did not want to participate in David’s cover-up.  This stood out to me because Meir Sternberg, in The Poetics of Biblical Narrative, entertains the idea that Uriah was aware of David’s adultery with Bathsheba.

Third, Dorr explores the possibility that God intended David to be with Bathsheba all along.  Solomon was the son of David and Bathsheba.  When II Samuel 7 is read alongside I Chronicles 22, the story that emerges is that God foretold before David even met Bathsheba that Solomon would be David’s successor on the throne and would build the Temple.  Moreover, Dorr interprets II Samuel 12:8 to mean that God would have given Bathsheba to David in marriage, had David wanted her.  Dorr does not explain how this would have happened.  In her story, Uriah was frustrated with Bathsheba because she was not bearing him a son, and he sent his previous wives away for the same reason.  Perhaps the conclusion we are supposed to draw is that Uriah would have divorced Bathsheba, then David could have married her.  Instead of relying on God to work things out, however, David sinned.

Dorr’s explores interesting possibilities.  She also seeks to explain details in the biblical story: Why did David conduct a census?  What is the sound over the trees that was significant in the battle in II Samuel 5?  Dorr’s characterization is also intriguing.  Ahithophel’s stance towards religion, Bathsheba’s devout religious practice, and the positives and negatives in Uriah’s character come to mind.  Dorr also portrayed the negative effects of David’s sin with Bathsheba: David indeed gave God’s enemies an occasion to blaspheme (II Samuel 12:14), and David felt God’s absence after his sin (Psalm 51).

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

Friday, January 8, 2016

Book Write-Up: A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, by John M. Frame

John M. Frame.  A History of Western Philosophy and Theology.  Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2015.  See here to purchase the book.

In A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, John Frame summarizes and critiques Western theological and philosophical views from the time of the Greeks through the twentieth century.  Frame refers readers to primary and secondary sources, offering advice on how to navigate the sources fruitfully (since some sources are easier to understand than others).  The book’s appendices include articles and book reviews that Frame has written.  My favorite of these was Frame’s attempt to answer the question of whether unbelievers know God, since the New Testament offers affirmative and negative answers.  The book also has a helpful glossary of key terms.

The book is over nine-hundred pages, and it covers a lot of ground.  Frame’s description and analysis of theological and philosophical views is lucid, down-to-earth, friendly, approachable to laypeople, and informative.  Anyone wishing to navigate his or her way through the complex world of Western theology and philosophy would profit from Frame’s book.  One who is curious about a particular Western theologian or philosopher would do well to consult Frame’s section about that thinker, for that would provide a foundation of understanding for further study.  Depending on one’s level of familiarity with Western theology and philosophy, one may even learn about unfamiliar thinkers from Frame’s book, sparking new interest.

Frame’s perspective is Reformed and presuppositionalist, even though Frame does not hesitate to disagree with and to critique other Reformed and presuppositionalist thinkers (i.e., Cornelius van Til, Gordon Haddon Clark).  Essentially, Frame believes that God’s revelation in the Bible provides a foundation for philosophy and theology and should be what guides it.  As far as Frame is concerned, philosophy and theology apart from consideration of God’s revelation in the Bible lead to irrationalism and contradiction.  In many cases, Frame contends, they reflect a sinful desire to find ultimacy and to ground reality in something other than the biblical God, allowing people to feed their desire for autonomy.  For Frame, the biblical revelation solves many of the paradoxes with which Western philosophers have struggled (i.e., can humans trust the ability of their mind and their senses to understand the world?  Is the cosmos unified or composed of many diverse pieces?).  Biblical revelation also avoids the unhelpful extremes to which many Western theologians and philosophers have gone—-for example, in making God overly transcendent, or overly imminent, or in highlighting one theme in biblical revelation to the exclusion of other themes, or in making issues a matter of either/or rather than both/and.  While Frame is critical of autonomous human reason, he does allow secular philosophy to edify and to inform him, in areas.  For example, Frame states that Wittgenstein has helped him to understand or better appreciate certain points of Christian theology.

I give this book five stars because it is informative, lucid, and a pleasure to read.  Still, I have some questions and critiques.

First of all, could Frame’s presuppositionalism stand in the way of understanding some of the philosophers and theologians he discusses, on their own terms?  Frame says that the ancient Greeks were rebelling against knowledge that they had of the true God (a la Romans 1:28).  For Frame, some of them were seeking a unity or common element of the cosmos in an attempt to find ultimacy without having to submit to God.  But was that really their motivation?  By embracing such a religious interpretation of their motivation, does Frame ignore a historical understanding of it, one that seeks to understand the ancient Greeks on their own terms?

Second, Frame makes some thinkers sound pretty absurd.  Kant talks about how his philosophy explains how humans have knowledge, before saying that humans do not actually know what is in the outside world.  Barth and Tillich reject the idea that God reveals propositions to people, yet theological propositions are present in their theology.  Frame is interacting with what these thinkers say, but I wonder whether their thoughts were as absurd as what Frame’s presentation implies.  Perhaps they held these apparent tensions together, in some manner.

Third, in what sense should the Bible be the foundation for philosophy and theology?  Frame does say that the truth in the Bible provides a foundation for reason: because the biblical God made a coherent world and gave us the ability to know it accurately, on some level, we can trust our reason.  At the same time, Frame is critical of theologians who added autonomous human reasoning to their theological thoughts, such as Thomas Aquinas.  Where exactly did Aquinas err?  Aquinas believed in the biblical God.  In Frame’s eyes, was Aquinas’ error seeking truth outside of the Bible?  But what is wrong with that?  Must everything we believe be supported by a biblical prooftext?  Frame himself is critical of Clark’s view that one cannot know anything outside of the Bible.

Fourth, is Frame’s presuppositionalism wishful thinking?  Sure, one can respond to epistemological skepticism by saying that the Bible presumes something different.  That does not necessarily eliminate the problems that epistemological skeptics have raised.  Nor does it eliminate the ambiguity in reality and in language that justifies some level of epistemological skepticism.  Essentially, it responds to epistemological skepticism with a mere assertion: you say that we cannot understand the world for such-and-such reasons, but my response is that we can, so there!  That does not sound too different from the thinkers Frame critiques, the ones who say that we should trust our senses because that works practically.  There is something to that, but I question whether assertion, and even assertion that comes from the Bible, solves  every problem that philosophers have raised.

This book does make me want to read more, particularly more of Frame and some of the Reformed thinkers whom he profiles.

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

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Book Write-Up: The Other Worldview, by Peter Jones

Peter Jones.  The Other Worldview: Exposing Christianity’s Greatest Threat.  Bellingham, WA: Kirkdale Press, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

In The Other Worldview, Peter Jones distinguishes between two worldviews.  He calls one “Twoism,” and the other “Oneism.”  Twoism, which Jones believes, distinguishes between the creator and the creation.  That is why it is called “Twoism”: there are two parties, creator and creation, and one is separate from the other.  Twoism also honors the distinctions that God made in creation (i.e., male and female).

Oneism, by contrast, conflates God with creation.  This occurs in a variety of manifestations.  According to Jones, paganism treated nature as divine.  Pantheism regards the cosmos as divine.  Gnosticism believes that there is an inner divinity within humans with which they should get in touch.

Jones contends that Oneism is prevalent today, and he believes that Oneism is dangerous.  For Jones, Oneism promotes narcissism, as people search for the God within.  Oneism has also encouraged the sexual revolution, according to Jones.  It dismisses God’s distinction between male and female through its acceptance of homosexual sex and transgenderism.  The psychologist Carl Jung, who is particularly criticized in this book as anti-Christian, did not conform to traditional Christian views on sexuality (i.e., fidelity within marriage).  Although Oneism speaks highly of social justice, Jones does not believe that its adherents have the capacity to create a just society.

Jones does not just criticize Oneism, but he also promotes Twoism, particularly Christian Twoism.  For Jones, Twoism encourages love for others rather than a narcissistic search for the divine within or a feeding of one’s fantasies.  Twoism worships a being higher than oneself, gives God thanks, and submits to God in holiness.  Twoism hopes for God’s eschatological renewal of the cosmos.

Jones asserts that there are only two perspectives: Oneism and Twoism.  One either worships the Creator, or one worships the creation (Romans 1:25), as far as Jones is concerned.  Jones also seems to think that Christianity is the only truly (or fully) Twoist religion, on account of its belief in the Trinity.  For Jones, God loves Godself within the context of the Trinity and did not create humans out of any neediness on God’s part, but rather out of love.  This God is truly independent of creation.

Jones does document his claims, or he at least points readers to resources.  He refers to Jung’s writings, Hebrew Bible scholarship about paganism, and “Oneist” writings.

My main problem with the book is that it paints a picture of a monolithic threat, when reality is more complex than that.  That is the impression that the book left on me as a reader.  Jones, who went to Harvard and Princeton, is probably aware of complexities and nuances, but such an awareness was not salient in his book.  In effect, Jones lumped a bunch of people and ideas together, interpreted their beliefs in a less-than-sympathetic or less-than-empathetic manner, and warned Christians about this dangerous boogeyman whom he was presenting.

But not all of the people Jones was criticizing are Oneists.  The extreme sentiments of a few radicals on sexuality, even if they are scholars, does not speak for all supporters of homosexual rights.  Not all (or probably even most) Oneists support narcissism, pornography, or dehumanization of other people.  People can take Oneist thoughts in a positive direction (i.e., love the other, for the divine is in her, too), just as one can take Twoist thoughts in negative directions (i.e., intolerance, self-flagellation for being a sinner, etc.).  How would Jones feel if a left-wing secularist were to make generalizations about conservative Christians, painting them as a dangerous movement or a sinister conspiracy?  People have done that, using the sorts of methods that Jones uses in his portrayal of Oneism.  There may be something valid in both pictures, but neither is entirely accurate, or fair.

Jones’ book would have been better, had there been more acknowledgment of nuance.  Jones could have acknowledged nuance, while still mounting an effective critique of Oneism.

Moreover, from a scholarly perspective, I would have liked to have seen more nuance in Jones’ portrayal of ancient Near Eastern paganism.  Jones does well to point to scholarly resources on this, including older Hebrew Bible scholarship that held that the pagans divinized nature.  Still, ancient Near Eastern paganism did have creation myths, which leans towards a Twoist model.  Jones should have wrestled more with the extent to which ancient Near Eastern paganism was Oneist, and the extent to which it was Twoist.  I recognize that Jones did not intend this book to be a scholarly work of Hebrew Bible scholarship, but rather a popular book.  At the same time, some recognition of nuance would have made the book better.

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

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Is Star Wars Demonic, and Should Christians See It?

I am reading Peter Jones’ The Other Worldview: Exposing Christianity’s Greatest Threat.  I received a complimentary review copy.  Not long ago, I linked to Jones’ critical article about Star Wars.

A key villain in Jones’ book, and article, is the psychologist Carl Jung.  In Jones’ portrayal, Jung was anti-Christian.  Jung also received guidance from a spirit guide, named Philemon.  Jung would have a profound impact on Joseph Campbell, who would influence George Lucas, the maker of Star Wars.

That gets me asking: Should I go see Star Wars, when some of its mythology could be based on demonic influence?

I do plan on seeing it.  I would regret not seeing it on the big screen, on account of some religious hang-up.  Still, the question does occur to me.

And it does not just occur to me in reference to Star Wars.  Should I stop watching Little House on the Prairie, Highway to Heaven, and Father Murphy, all of which were made by Michael Landon?  Consider this quote from Landon, which is on the Internet Movie Database:

“I felt my father’s presence with me, enlightening my memories, helping me to commit to paper the feelings I had. I really heard my father speaking to me from the other dimension, filling my mind with just the right words. The story came so fast and was so right. In three days, the script was complete.”

Did Michael Landon get some of his ideas from the beyond?  I suppose that a strict fundamentalist Christian could regard his shows as religiously deceptive, promoting a concept of salvation by works, apart from faith in Jesus Christ.

I am hesitant to link to this article, since it is on David Icke’s site, and I do not believe that lizard-people control the government.  Still, if what it says is true, then spiritualism has been pervasive within Hollywood.

How should a Christian respond to Hollywood or television?  Should a Christian not watch anything except for Christian movies?  Maybe a Christian should not watch anything at all and should simply read the Bible!  One can avoid demonic or Satanic deception that way.

Do the Scriptures offer guidance about this?  I think that one can see both sides in Scripture.  On the one hand, Deuteronomy 12:30 prohibits the Israelites from inquiring how the Canaanites worshiped their gods and imitating their worship.  There are orthodox Jews who conclude from this that they are not allowed to study other religions.  On the other hand, in many college classes about the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East, one hears that the ancient Israelites who wrote the Bible absorbed motifs from their ancient Near Eastern context.  How the God of the Bible is portrayed overlaps with how other ancient Near Easterners portrayed their gods.

There is the prohibition on consulting mediums (Leviticus 19:31).  Does that mean that one cannot see a movie or watch a show that may have been inspired by a spirit?  Or is that merely prohibiting consulting a medium for questions about one’s personal life, or decisions that one may make?

The apostle Paul seemed to regard the Greco-Roman religions of his day as demonic.  He states in I Corinthians 10:20 that the Gentiles are sacrificing to demons, not to God.  The church father Justin Martyr had a similar attitude towards pagan worship.  At the same time, Paul in Acts 17 appealed to pagan sources in trying to convince his audience to believe in Jesus Christ.  He found, and exploited, overlap between his own beliefs about God and a pagan belief system.  So did Justin Martyr, for that matter.

It can be a difficult issue, for Christians.  Some may feel that they are strong enough to withstand deception, to sift the wheat from the chaff.  I see myself as one who can appreciate a movie, a book, or a TV show, without adopting the entire belief system that is in that medium of communication.  At the same time, can anyone be too confident?  I know that my attitudes about sexuality have been shaped by what I have seen on television and in movies, and my attitudes are not entirely godly, from a Christian standpoint.

Star Wars was an avenue through which I learned about God.  It had lessons: about relying on the spiritual, calming down, not giving in to hate.  People in churches and in recovery groups draw from and pass on wisdom that they have learned from Star Wars: “You must UNLEARN what you have learned.”  “Do, or do not.  There is no try.”  “That is why you fail.”  Indeed, there are overlaps between Star Wars and Christianity.  “May the Force be with you” reminds me of Christians who desire that God be with them.  Still, notwithstanding the similarity, the Force in Star Wars is not like the Christian God.  It is an energy that flows from nature and binds the universe.

Most stories will be imperfect, in terms of their spiritual accuracy and worldview.  My approach is to accept what is edifying.  Throughout the New Testament, there seems to be an acknowledgment that Christians will hear a lot of things, from different perspectives.  They are to prove all things and hold fast to what is good, according to I Thessalonians 5:21.  Yet, the very next verse tells them to abstain from all appearance of evil.  Does that have to do with not watching Star Wars (or, in those days, not listening to false teaching or pagan stories), or is it an ethical exhortation: you, do not do evil things, or things that remotely appear evil?

At the same time, there are exhortations about not listening to false teachers, or even welcoming them into one’s home (I John 2:10).  There are teachings that can form a solid foundation for a spiritual life, and there are teachings that can lead in negative directions.  One should be discerning.  Christians may also see a need to determine for themselves if a person is imposing a false belief system on them, and if they find that this is compromising their own spiritual walk.  I am not talking about putting blinders on and refusing to hear other perspectives.  What I am saying is that there are times when, in a relationship, one has to determine what one believes and where one wants to go, and if that relationship is conducive to those goals or detrimental.

My post does make some religious assumptions.  I am assuming that Christianity is true, whereas spiritualists are getting their messages from demons.  Could I be wrong?  The Gnostics, after all, thought that their view was true, whereas the biblical God was a deceptive sub-deity.  Could Jung and Michael Landon have been receiving messages from the beyond that were not demonic?  I suppose that we can judge that by the fruits of what they produced.  But Star Wars and Michael Landon’s show teach good values.  They can also encourage interest in the spiritual, and perhaps Christianity.  Yet, Christians can come back and say that Satan can appear as an angel of light (II Corinthians 11:14).

There is also the missionary or evangelistic angle.  Some Christians say that Christians should see Star Wars because it is part of their culture, and they should be able to engage their culture if they are to bring people to Christ.  Maybe.  I guess I can go with that idea to make myself feel better about seeing Star Wars!  But I have issues with such a negative approach: Can I ever approach a source sympathetically, to learn from it, as opposed to judging it according to some fundamentalist Christian grid?

Feel free to share your thoughts.  It may take me a while (as in, a day) to publish them.  But I am interested in reading them.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Why Did God Reject Cain’s Offering in “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan”?

I finished “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” not long ago.  This is a Christian work that dates anywhere from the fifth century C.E. to the ninth century C.E.  It was written originally in Arabic and was translated into Ethiopic.

In this post, I will highlight how this work addresses a question: Why did God in Genesis 4 accepts Abel and Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain and Cain’s offering?

The answer to this question that I heard when I saw the story of Cain and Abel on Superbook as a kid was that Cain had a bad attitude.  Cain did not give God the best, whereas Abel did.

In high school, I read an alternative explanation.  This was in a book by E.W. Bullinger entitled The Great Cloud of Witnesses, which was about the exemplars of faith in Hebrews 11.  According to Bullinger, what differentiated Abel’s offering from Cain’s offering was not attitude, so much, but rather the nature of the sacrifice.  Abel offered an animal sacrifice, whereas Cain offered fruit from the ground.  Animal sacrifices atoned for sin because they were blood sacrifices, and without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin (Hebrews 9:22).  Fruit sacrifices, by contrast, not only did not atone for sin, but they were also from ground that God had cursed (Genesis 3:17).  For Bullinger, the lesson of the Cain and Abel story was that we should trust the blood of Christ for salvation, rather than our own cursed works.

I have heard Bullinger’s interpretation in other settings.  When I was in college, I visited a conservative Baptist church.  The pastor there was criticizing the view that God rejected Cain’s offering because Cain had a bad attitude, treating it practically as a deception from Satan!  The pastor believed that God rejected Cain’s offering because it was not a blood sacrifice, the only kind that would atone for sin.  The pastor took the opportunity to invite us to trust in the blood of Christ for salvation.  Otherwise, God will reject us and our flawed attempts to win God’s favor.

I lean in the direction of saying that Cain’s sacrifice was rejected on account of Cain’s bad attitude.  Genesis 4:4-5 says that Cain brought from the fruits of his ground, and that Abel brought the firstlings of his flock and the fat.  The implication seems to be that Abel brought his best for God, whereas Cain did not.
Where does “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” land on this question?  Its telling of the story is in Book I, chapters 76-78.

“The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” leans in the direction of saying that God rejected Cain and Cain’s sacrifice on account of Cain’s bad attitude.  Cain did not value or enjoy the worship of God.  Abel regularly went with his parents to worship God, but Cain often did not go.  When Cain did offer a sheep to God, it was the smallest sheep that he could find.  Cain was eyeing the sheep when he was sacrificing it, as if he did not want to give it up.  Cain had a murderous attitude towards his brother Abel.  Cain feared that his parents loved Abel more than him and that they would give his beautiful sister to Abel in marriage, and Satan was encouraging those thoughts.  When Abel and Cain both brought offerings, Cain threw Abel away from the altar, offered his own sacrifice, and cried out to God to accept it.  But God did not send God’s divine fire from heaven to accept Cain’s offering.  God considered Cain proud and (for some reason) fraudulent.

Abel, by contrast, enjoyed the worship of God and was guileless and meek.

There are two things to note, which are relevant to Bullinger’s interpretation.

First of all, “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” does not make a big deal about Abel offering an animal and Cain offering fruit.  In fact, that is not even necessarily the case.  Cain offers an animal on a couple of occasions.  And Adam instructs Abel to offer corn.

Why “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” says this, when Genesis 4 is clear that Cain offered fruit from the ground and Abel offered from his flock, is unclear to me.  There does seem to be a loose understanding of “fruit” in “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan,” Book I, chapter 77.  There,  Adam instructs Cain to take from the fruit of his sowings and offer it to God, and Cain in that chapter offers an animal.  That does not solve everything, however.  Genesis 4:2 says that Abel was a keeper of sheep, whereas Cain was a tiller of the ground, so it makes sense that Abel would offer a sheep while Cain would offer fruit.  As far as I can remember, “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” does not differentiate between the occupations of Cain and Abel.  Was “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” relying on oral traditions rather than the biblical text itself?

(UPDATE: This article states: “It is remarkable that in this legend the offerings of Cain and Abel have been reversed.  Contrary to what the Scriptures say, in this tale it is Cain who offers animal sacrifices and Abel who offers grains and vegetables.  It is possible that this alteration reflects a bowdlerisation of the biblical narrative by an Encratic Christian heretic who rejected the killing and eating of animals, perhaps due to a ‘Manichaean’ rejection of created matter.”  I am unfamiliar with this author and I do not know his credentials, though I do know Doug Ward, whose publication the article was in.  I am not equipped presently to evaluate his statement, but I may revisit it in the future.)

Second, there does seem to be an assumption in “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” that Cain and Abel are offering sacrifices to atone for sin.  It was not the case that Abel’s sacrifice had an atoning function, whereas Cain’s did not.  In chapter 77, Adam tells both Cain and Abel to offer fruit to atone for their sins and wickedness.  Adam notices that Cain hates his brother, and Adam hopes that their offering of sacrifices to God will soften their hearts.  Cain’s offering in this retelling probably did not successfully atone for Cain’s sin because God rejected it on account of Cain’s attitude.

While God does detest Cain in “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan,” God still shows Cain mercy after Cain kills Abel.  That is a theme that runs throughout “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan”: God’s mercy and patience with people, notwithstanding the wrong things that they do.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Movie Write-Up: Ragamuffin (2014)

I watched the 2014 movie, Ragamuffin, a couple of nights ago.  Ragamuffin tells the story of award-winning Christian Contemporary musician Rich Mullins.  It goes from his childhood, through his success and the time that he spent on a Native American reservation, up to his tragic death in an automobile accident in 1997.

I was familiar with Rich Mullins’ music before I was familiar with Rich Mullins himself.  If you attend an evangelical event of praise and worship, you will probably sing at least one Rich Mullins song, and maybe more.  The songs that I particularly remember are “Step by Step” and “Awesome God.”

Rich did a concert at my undergraduate institution in the 1990s, and I went to that.  We sang “Awesome God.”  He did his simulated “rain” trick, in which people in the audience simulated the sound of rain by snapping their fingers and slapping their thighs.  What was ironic was that it actually did rain after that!  Someone told me that Rich Mullins’ response to that was, “Yeah, that was awesome, wasn’t it?”  He sounded to me like a nice guy, not the sort of celebrity who puts on airs.

Rich Mullins did not just sing at the concert, but he also shared his reflections about faith and life while he was playing the piano.  He was honest and funny.  I remember him sharing about how he can develop his own worldview of how life is, and then the Bible comes along and unravels it!  He referred to that verse in Psalm 137 in which the Psalmist blesses those who dash babies’ heads on rocks.  (The Psalmist is wishing that this might occur to Babylonian babies, since the Babylonians had done the same thing to the Israelites.)  “Imagine sharing that at a pro-life meeting!”, Rich said.

Later, listening to the radio, I gained more insight into how Rich Mullins did not just talk the talk, but walked the walk.  Rich donated most of his money to charity.  He also lived on a poor Native American reservation, teaching music there and helping people out.  It was sad that he died in that automobile accident in 1997, at the young age of 42.

The movie, Ragamuffin, looks into the side of Rich Mullins that I did not know about.  Yes, he was friendly, open, and approachable.  But he was also very lonely, to the point of being needy.  He had friends, but he felt hurt when a friend went somewhere without telling him.  He was what people in Alcoholics Anonymous would call “restless, irritable, and discontent.”  And, speaking of that, there were seasons in which he drank a lot, even when he was a Christian celebrity.  He had unresolved issues with his father, since the two of them did not get along.  He and his college girlfriend also broke up, but he still loved her and did not marry after that.

Rich was not easy to work with because he wanted to do things his way, rather than conforming to the Christian music business’s expectations.  People thought his songs were too brooding and that his running commentary at his concerts was too controversial.  (The songs that I knew never struck me as particularly deep and brooding, but some of his songs apparently were.)  His business superiors tried to appeal to the “toys” that Rich got to buy to get him to conform, but it got to the point where those things did not matter to Rich anymore.  As one of his managers said, “Someone who doesn’t want anything is a dangerous person.”  But Rich was searching for something: authenticity, healing, and fulfillment.

He did not spend all of his time feeling sorry for himself and having an existential crisis, however.  He sought out mentors.  One mentor was the father of his college roommate, a likable, humble fellow, and a strong Christian.  Another was Brennan Manning, a preacher, author, and  recovering alcoholic.  Manning popularized the term “Ragamuffin” (someone who realizes he needs God’s mercy) and taught Rich that God loved him as he was, not as he should be.  Rich also served people at the Native American reservation, and his own brokenness helped him to minister to others at his concerts.  For example, he played and sang the song, “Hold me Jesus, I’m shaking like a leaf.”

Rich obviously did not have everything together.  Perhaps that is what made him accepting, honest, and open with others.

His brother is in the movie, playing the DJ who interviews Rich Mullins.  I thought that the DJ looked like Rich but realized that he couldn’t be him because Rich died about a decade ago.  But it was Rich’s brother Dave.

I found this movie worth watching.  It is a bit long: two hours and seventeen minutes.  But it was an interesting look at the man.  I am still sad that he died.

Wikipedia’s article about Rich Mullins may give you more insight about Rich and his significance.  The article links to some articles that suggest that Rich, soon before his death, was thinking of converting to Catholicism.  (That stands out to me because I remember a Catholic friend telling me that he liked Catholic liturgy rather than “Awesome God.”)  See also wikipedia’s article about Brennan Manning.

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