Friday, July 29, 2016

Ramblings on the 2016 Democratic National Convention

Here are some thoughts about the Democratic National Convention this week.  I rephrase and elaborate on notes I jotted down last night in preparation for this post.
  1. Sarah Silverman told "Bernie or Bust" people that they were being ridiculous.  That's not the way to win over Bernie supporters!  Plus, while I do not condone the trolling that many Bernie supporters have engaged in, they are not being ridiculous when they feel alienated from both parties, Republican and Democratic. 
  2. Bernie was mentioned by Jesse Jackson, Tim Kaine, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton.  I wish more speakers had acknowledged Bernie, considering the movement that he started.  But that's how it is in most conventions: to the victor goes the spoils!  Still, I appreciate the speakers who did acknowledge Bernie.
  3. There were some protests.  It was raucous on the first night.  On Day 3, there were chants of protest when Admiral John Hutson and Leon Panetta spoke.  Chanters were saying "Let her in" and "Trump," and I do not know why.  Were they supporting Trump's call for Russia to hack Hillary's e-mail?  The chants against Panetta were anti-war and anti-drone.  The camera was not always on the crowd, and that somewhat obscured the presence of protesters for those watching the convention on TV, especially since many of the speakers just kept on speaking despite the protesters, and there were plenty of people in the audience who drowned the protesters out.  The camera was occasionally on the audience, and sometimes there were a lot of anti-TPP signs and anti-war signs, and sometimes not.  Plus, there were Bernie supporters who walked out, and that may account for times when the convention was calmer.  The convention was not as unruly as the 1968 one, and it was usually like a normal convention. 
  4. Hillary talked about how she was bullied when she was a kid and ran into the house, and her mom made her go back outside.  This reminded me of a 2002 movie that I saw recently, Tomorrow Man.  An abusive father made his son go outside to fight the bullies, even though they were bigger.  At the end of the movie, after the father has learned the error of his ways, he no longer makes his son go outside to confront the bullies.  Both Hillary's mom and that dad on that movie probably had the same rationale for their position: you can't let bullies walk all over you, otherwise people will bully you for the rest of your life.  Is that approach right or wrong?
  5. There were appeals to independents and Republicans.  Mike Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York who went from being a Republican to being an independent, appealed to the independents who were watching the Democratic convention from home, and he said where he disagreed with Republicans and Democrats.  Hillary Clinton praised not only Tim Kaine's son for serving in the military, but also Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Mike Pence's son for doing the same.  I respected Hillary for doing that.  Some have argued that the positive emphasis on God, country, and the military at the Democratic Convention this year was designed to appeal to Republican voters.  I am not so cynical.  I think that Hillary Clinton, Tim Kaine, and Barack Obama are sincere in their faith convictions.  Plus, it is not surprising for African-American ministers to talk about God at the Democratic National Convention. 
  6. Bill Clinton asked an intriguing question: How do you square his positive portrayal of his wife with what the Republicans said about her at the GOP convention?  Bill's answer is that his portrayal is true, whereas the GOP's portrayal is made-up.  How does one square the positive things we hear about people with the negative things?  A while back, I read a biography of George W. Bush by Ronald Kessler.  It was entitled A Matter of Character, and it was a positive portrayal, which contended that Bush was a decent man.  Amazon reviewers were wondering how to square that with Bush's alleged corruption and shenanigans, which are in negative biographies about the man.  Many say that we all have light and dark aspects of ourselves, and I know that is true of myself.  But I think of James 3:11 in the Bible: "Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?" (KJV).  What is the fundamental core and organizing principle in a person's life: good, or evil?  It cannot be both, can it? 
  7. Corey Booker was talking about how the Declaration of Independence encourages love, not tolerance.  He observed that the last line of the Declaration said that "we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."  Booker said that, when we merely tolerate people, we feel that we can do without them.  Love, however, is different.  That challenges me, since there are plenty of people I feel I can do without!  Yet, I would like for the country to run more on love: a positive concern for people's well-being. 
  8. Speakers at the Democratic convention presented Trump as a hypocrite.  Trump preaches against outsourcing while having some of his campaign material made in other countries.  Trump is against foreign workers coming to the United States and competing with Americans for work, yet, a speaker said, Trump himself has a history of hiring foreign workers.  A speaker also said that Trump fired workers who were taking time off to serve in the military overseas.  Trump said at his own convention that he knows the system, so he alone can fix it.  My question is: Can we be assured that he genuinely wants to fix it, when he has a history profiting off of it?  The same question can be asked about Hillary.  Robert Reich, in response to this article, posted this week about the trade-offs and rewards for big donors that have occurred at the Democratic convention this week.  Can we really trust Hillary to get money out of politics, in light of that?  Those are important questions, but perhaps a case can be made that Trump and Hillary will do the right thing, despite whatever shadiness exists in their pasts.  Accomplishing reforms would make them look good in the annals of history! 
  9. The GOP convention was rather one-sided in its discussion of the police issue: it defended the police, condemned criticism of the police, and said "blue lives matter," without much criticism of police misconduct, especially towards minorities.  The Democratic convention was more balanced on this.  It presented family members of people killed due to police misconduct, but also cops who were sensitive to this issue, and to the lives of cops. 
  10. I mostly watched the conventions on C-Span.  The Democratic convention appeared to have speakers on all day, whereas the Republican one did not.  That was probably because the Republican one this year was lucky to get whatever speakers it got!
  11. Whatever my political disagreements with him, I love Tim Kaine.  He's like a goofy TV dad, yet he is intelligent.  I loved his humble story, especially the part about how he and his family still live in the same house that he and his wife first moved into.  I also enjoyed his “Believe me” imitation of the Donald!
  12. There were stories about the goodness of America. I tend to recoil from the idea of American exceptionalism, and yet these stories tell me that the goodness of America is not just a cliché----there is bad in America, but also a lot of good.  I especially loved Hillary’s reference to Dallas police chief David Brown, who appealed to his community to join the police, and hundreds applied.   In my eyes, David Brown is a national hero.  He was just the right person to be in the limelight after the shootings in Dallas, with his background and the pain that he has personally experienced.  I think of Esther 4:14, which talks about how Esther was brought to prominence for such a time as this. 
  13. In watching the video that was about Joe Biden, I was reminded that Biden actually came out in support of gay marriage before President Obama did.  Biden did so on Meet the Press.   Biden is notorious for speaking his mind, even when it goes against what is deemed to be politically sensible.  That can lead to gaffes!  This time, though, many progressives were proud of Biden for speaking his mind and taking leadership.
  14. The Democratic convention struck me as more positive than the Republican one.  As was to be expected, there were criticisms of Donald Trump at the Democratic one, but they focused on his record.  The Republican convention, however, had jarring cries of "Lock her up!" in reference to Hillary Clinton. 
  15. More than one Democratic speaker criticized Trump's claim that he alone can fix the system.  Hillary and Obama said that it is up to all of us, not just one person, to make this country better.  And even many conservatives have criticized Trump for saying he alone can fix the system.  This is not surprising.  Conservatives have often said that we should look to the people, not the government, to solve the nation's problems.  They make an important point, but I wonder: Why can't both people and government address the country's problems?
  16. Actress Elizabeth Banks talked about her own humble background: she referred to the time in her life when she worked as a waitress and did not have health insurance and had to eat a bagel for brunch each day.  Hillary talked to someone who worked two full-time jobs and barely made ends meet.  That reminded me of what I like about the Democratic Party: it is sensitive to people with struggles.  I should mention, though, that conservative Laura Ingraham at the GOP convention also talked about her humble, working-class background: her mother worked as a waitress for decades.  Laura's mother criticized those who were burning the American flag, saying to Laura, "They have no respect, honey."  The Democratic convention was highlighting the vulnerability of the working class and saying that Democratic policies would help them.  Laura Ingraham was appealing to working class Americanism and was referring to her parents' working-class background, at least in part, to criticize illegal immigration: she said that Americans are willing to do the jobs that illegal immigrants do, in challenging arguments to the contrary. 
  17. Donna Brazile is the interim chair of the Democratic National Committee.  Her speech at the convention was lackluster, but she is very effective in debates, on TV news shows, and at schmoozing.  People have their own talents! 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Book Write-Up: Why God Allows Us to Suffer

Kevin Tewes.  Answering Christianity’s Most Difficult Question—-Why God Allows Us to Suffer: The Definitive Solution to the Problem of Pain and the Problem of Evil.  Chapel Hill: Triune Publishing Group, 2015.  See here to purchase the book.

The “About the Author” section of this book states that Kevin Tewes is An “accomplished trial lawyer and former US Army officer,” who “deployed to Iraq in late 2006, just as a bloody sectarian conflict was enveloping the country.”  After Tewes observed numerous victims flooding into a military hospital, he felt challenged to address the problem of evil: the question of why an omnipotent, benevolent God allows suffering.

Tewes’ answer is that God chooses to allow us to impact and be impacted by others and thereby limits God’s intervention in the world.  Why does God want us to impact and to be impacted by others?  Tewes’ answer is that God wants us to give and receive love.  For Tewes, apparently, God wants us to impact and to be impacted by others positively, so God allows us to impact each other freely, even when that impact is negative.

This sounds somewhat like the Free Will Defense, the idea that God chooses not to prevent evil deeds because God respects human free will.  But Tewes strongly distances himself from the Free Will Defense.  For Tewes, apologists who appeal to free will act as if free will is of paramount importance, or a worthy end in itself.  Tewes, by contrast, emphasizes something else as more important: love.  Tewes seems to argue that, in this fallen world, an environment in which people freely impact and are impacted by others can be conducive to love.  Tewes appears to maintain that God, by intervening, would compromise that environment and God’s goal, and so God limits God’s intervention.

Tewes addresses the question of why God permits humans to do evil acts, but does Tewes address the problem of natural evil: hurricanes, or earthquakes?  Essentially, Tewes blames the Fall for natural evil.
One positive of the book is that, early on, it critiques popular and conventional solutions to the problem of evil, while interacting with such thinkers as atheists Bart Ehrman and John Loftus, liberal Christian philosopher John Hick, Simone Weil, and others.  Tewes rightly questions whether conventional solutions to the problem of evil are adequate in the face of how horrible evil can be.  Tewes questions the argument that God permits evil so that we can build our character or so disadvantaged people can be guinea pigs for other people’s moral development, as well as the Free Will Defense.  Tewes finds these solutions insufficient in light of the numerous people who were slaughtered in Iraq, or people who die soon after they are born.

Another positive to the book is that it presents God limiting Godself because God has higher ends in mind.  God is omnipotent, but God makes choices about when and how to use God’s power, in light of the reality that is in front of God, and God’s loving purposes.  Tewes may not go so far as to suggest that God wrestles with the options in front of God, but he does present something like that, and this makes God someone with whom one can identify.

The third positive is that Tewes continually reminds the reader of God’s love and grace.  For Tewes, we know that God loves us because God did not execute Adam and Eve right after their sin.  God still had a purpose for humanity.  A lot of Christians depict God as totally just: God has to punish each and every sin, otherwise there is moral anarchy, so God sent Jesus to be punished in our place, and those who believe are declared innocent.  Whether Tewes embraces that idea is unclear.  Tewes states that God’s punishment of sin after the Fall is an example of God’s justice, yet he states that God did not pour out God’s justice totally on Adam and Eve, since God allowed humanity to continue.  Does Tewes believe that God can be just, without being absolute in justice?  Does Jesus’ death on the cross mitigate God’s justice, on some level?  Tewes should have interacted with such questions.

On that note, a negative to the book is that so many questions are left unanswered.  Tewes argues that God chooses to limit God’s intervention, and yet the Bible often presents God intervening in the world.  How does Tewes account for that?  Is Tewes’ solution to the problem of evil how God generally works, and yet Tewes acknowledges that God can make exceptions to that?  How does God decide when to intervene?  Does God do anything other than letting nature take its course in God’s attempt to encourage people to love?  If so, what?  Tewes does not say.  The book would have been better had he said!

Tewes says that God may choose not to make God’s existence obvious to humanity because that can provide an opportunity for us to have faith.  But is that an adequate solution to this apparent problem?  God made Godself obvious to many people in the Bible, and that did not take away their opportunities to have faith.  They may have been surer than we are about God’s existence, but they still had to decide whether or not to trust God.  Tewes’ proposal here may have some merit, but it does not solve the problem entirely.

Tewes seems to argue that God made the world so God would have someone to love.  (This is my understanding of his argument, and I am open to correction.)  Many Christians would respond that God already had someone to love, even before creating humanity: the persons of the Trinity loved each other.  Tewes is aware of this argument, for, in a footnote, he tells the reader to forget for a moment the Trinity.  Forget the Trinity?  Tewes himself appears to believe in the Trinity, but he should have wrestled with how or whether the Trinity poses a possible challenge to his argument, rather than telling readers to forget that challenge.

There is finally the question of whether Tewes’ scenario is adequate in the face of how horrible evil is.  Tewes did well to critique other scenarios, but is his own scenario adequate?  Could God accomplish God’s goal without all of the horrible suffering in the world?  Is the suffering in this world overkill, in terms of God’s agenda?  Could God accomplish the same goals with less suffering—-not no suffering, but less suffering?  Even after reading this book, this question remains.

And could one make the case that the current state of the world actually discourages love, rather than enhancing it?  Life can bruise people and make them less willing to trust and to reach out to others.  Life probably encourages and discourages love, but Tewes’ book is rather one-sided, on this.

The book is well-written in terms of its prose.  In terms of its organization, it could be rather scattered, at times, and Tewes went on some unnecessary tangents (i.e., Descartes starts with a presupposition in his “I think therefore I am” argument).

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

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Rebuke or Be Punished? Strengths and Weaknesses. Obedience.

At church last week, the preacher was preaching about I Samuel 3, in which God calls the child Samuel at night.

The preacher said that the high priest Eli failed to rebuke his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas.  According to I Samuel 2, Hophni and Phinehas kept the best part of the sacrifices for themselves, taking it by force if they deemed that necessary.  They also slept with women at the door of the Tabernacle.  Although Eli actually does rebuke his sons in that chapter, they do not listen to him, and God through a prophet accuses Eli of honoring his sons ahead of God and of making himself fat with sacrifices.

The preacher was saying that we ourselves may need to rebuke people who are closest to us, otherwise God will punish us along with them.  Or he said something like that: his point may have been that we may suffer the consequences of the sins of the people closest to us.

Yet, the preacher also commended Eli, for all of Eli’s flaws.  The preacher said that Eli did not take himself too seriously when God called Samuel.  Eli was not upset that God called Samuel instead of him.  Eli wanted Samuel to be receptive to God’s voice, and Eli wanted to know what God said.

The preacher also said that God does not just want to be heard, but obeyed.

Here are some thoughts:

A.  There may be cases in which rebuke is necessary.  But suppose that people close to us are not Christians, or adhere to other religious practices?  Should we continually rebuke them for that, in fear that God will punish or withhold favor from us if we fail to do so?

In the Old Testament, God commanded the Israelites to kill close family members who recommended the worship of other gods (Deuteronomy 13:6-11).  And a single sinner in the community could bring down others, even the innocent.  Consider the case of Achan in Joshua 7!  Achan’s sin caused Israel to lose a battle, and God was appeased when Achan and his household were stoned (or so many interpret vv 24-25).  At a church that I attended over a decade ago, that actually scared the pastor, for he thought that God still may operate that way!

That was how God operated in Old Testament times with Israel, which was a covenant community under the authority of God.  Does God still operate that way in New Testament times?  Two New Testament passages come to mind.

First, there is I Corinthians 7:14-15: “And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him.  For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy” (KJV).

In some manner, the believing spouse sanctifies the unbelieving spouse and the children of the household.  Here, at least, the sinners are not contaminating everyone else, but the believer is sanctifying others through his or her presence.

Second, there is I Peter 3:1-2: “Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives; While they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear” (KJV).

Leaving aside the question of what “subjection” to husbands means and whether that is a fair or positive organization of the household, the passage does offer insight about how believers can approach the unbelievers in their lives: by living a virtuous life.  I Peter does not tell believers to nag or to rebuke continuously the non-believers in their family.

The Old Testament was one nation under God, and everyone was part of the covenant and obligated to keep it.  In the New Testament, by contrast, a number of Christians found themselves married to non-believers, and they wanted to know how to behave in that situation.

All of that said, the prospect of believers having a patronizing attitude towards non-believers in their lives does repel me.  I should be an example to the non-believers in my life?  They are an example to me!  They are stronger and more virtuous than me, in many cases!

I also have problems rebuking people over their religious beliefs, or lack thereof.  Religious beliefs are personal, they cannot be forced, and they seem to me to be matters of taste and opinion (but evidential Christian apologists will probably disagree with me on that, thinking Christianity has an evidential basis).

B.  According to the preacher, Eli failed to rebuke his sons sufficiently, and yet Eli deserves credit for not taking himself too seriously.

Could those two personality traits actually go together?  Maybe Eli was a passive, laid-back man.  That would lead him to tolerate his sons’ sinful behavior, but it would also influence him not to take himself too seriously and to let someone else share the stage.  Our temperament can contribute to our strengths and weaknesses!

On the other hand, Eli’s attitude towards God was arguably contradictory.  Eli wanted to know what God had to say and had reverence for God.  Yet, Eli did not respect God enough to stop his sons’ behavior, and Eli even profited from it by becoming fat off the sacrifices.  Eli may have meant well, but he was rather weak, or he was unwilling to follow through on his commitment to God where it mattered.  I have difficulty condemning Eli for this, but many in society judge those who are weak or fearful.

C.  The preacher said that God not only wants to be heard, but also obeyed.  Obedience is a concept that troubles me, since I am imperfect when it comes to living God’s standards.  But the preacher makes sense: God’s word is brought into the realm of real life, and has its effect, when it is obeyed.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Book Write-Up: Culture, by A.W. Tozer

A.W. Tozer.  Culture: Living as Citizens of Heaven on Earth—-Collected Insights from A.W. Tozer.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

A.W. Tozer was a pastor and Christian author who lived from 1897 to 1963.   This book, Culture, is a collection of (mostly) short excerpts from Tozer’s writings.  If there is a common topic throughout the book, it is the church as it exists in and relates to the world.  The internal life of the church is also discussed.

There are themes in this book that overlap with themes in other books by Tozer that I have read.  Tozer advocates an authentic spirituality, which includes being filled with the Holy Spirit and having a genuine knowledge of God.  In this book, Tozer goes further and criticizes dispensationalists who maintain that the Sermon on the Mount is inapplicable to Christians today.  For Tozer, the Sermon on the Mount is practically a constitution for what Christians should be like, and adherence to its principles set Christians apart from the world.  Tozer laments that many professing Christians fail to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously, including its exhortations about forgiveness and reconciliation with others.

Tozer interacts with other themes as well.  He is critical of Christians who fit in too well with the world, noting that Jesus was maladjusted.  Tozer says that spirit-filled Christians will excel in love, yet he is critical of the culture’s emphasis on tolerance.  Tozer talks about how Jesus spoke simply.  Tozer also discusses public prayer and the income tax.

Unlike in other books by Tozer that I have read, Tozer is self-deprecating in this book and is candid about his flaws.  Tozer laments his lack of patience.  At the same time, while he is somewhat critical of his fearless, tells-it-like-it-is approach, he also justifies that approach, on some level.

The book is thoughtful, as Tozer’s writings usually are.  Tozer’s advocacy of a genuine adherence to Christianity is attractive.

In terms of criticisms, Tozer could have been more specific about what exactly Christians are standing for before the world, and what sets them apart in their outlook and behavior.  He could have spoken more about giving to the poor, or, if Tozer has written about that topic, the compilers of the book could have included more about it.  Charity is emphasized throughout the Bible, and it is certainly in contrast with the self-seeking that the world so often promotes.  Tozer himself comes across as rather politically conservative in this book, but that need not preclude one from advocating charity for the poor.

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

Monday, July 25, 2016

Book Write-Up: The Cherished Quilt, by Amy Clipston

Amy Clipston.  The Cherished Quilt.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

The Cherished Quilt is the third book of Amy Clipson’s “Amish Heirloom” series.  Book 1, The Forgotten Recipe, focused on Veronica and her relationship with Jason.  Book 2, The Courtship Basket, focused on Veronica’s sister Rachel and her relationship with Mike.  Book 3, The Cherished Quilt, is about Emily, the third sister.

One can understand most of The Cherished Quilt without having read the previous books of the series.  Readers should keep in mind, however, that the character of John is a little kid.  Readers of The Cherished Quilt could probably detect that from what he says, but it is not explicitly stated in that book.  Those who have read the previous book of the series already know that he is a little kid, since he was a major character in The Courtship Basket.

In The Cherished Quilt, Emily meets Chris, who has recently moved to the area to work with his uncle.  Chris is self-doubting and aloof, and Emily wants to reach out to him.  Chris is dealing with a lot of guilt because his little brother Gabriel fell off a horse while Chris was around.  Chris is estranged from his father, who blames Chris for the accident.  While Chris is attracted to Emily, Chris is reluctant to be baptized and to join the church, which is a requirement for marriage.

The Cherished Quilt is probably the best novel by Amy Clipston that I have read thus far.  Many of her novels (that I have thus far read) are repetitive and cover the same territory over and over.  The Cherished Quilt, by contrast, covered the same territory the right amount of times (in my opinion), diversified its presentation of the territory, and covered a variety of topics.

The character of Chris was particularly well-developed.  Chris was insecure, even towards people who had been nothing but friendly towards him.  There was more to Chris’ relationship with his father than the accident involving Gabriel: Chris’ father showed favoritism towards Chris’ brother Paul because Paul was better at training horses.  Chris’ struggle with joining the church is also explained in some detail.

The scene in which Chris and his father talk things out is remarkable, as Chris’ father acknowledges his foibles, while also explaining his perspective.  Chris’ religious struggle was resolved too hastily, and yet Amy Clipston may genuinely feel that the answer to Chris’ perplexity had a simple answer.  The book also briefly discussed the question of whether Chris’ crafts are a graven image and violate the second commandment, but more detail and wrestling with this question should have been provided.

Emily often thinks of others besides herself, yet she struggles with her own loneliness.  The intersection between these characteristics perhaps could have been developed more, and yet Emily is still a lovable character.

Like the previous two books of the series, the third book ends on a mystery.  This mystery intersects with the mysteries in the previous two books.  The mysteries remain unresolved, and yet Emily’s mother at the end of the book is finally willing to explain what happened.  We may have to wait for the fourth book before we, the readers, can find out!

In terms of stars, this book is too good to get four stars, yet not quite five-star material.  I would give it a 4.5, while giving it five stars on Amazon.  The book is officially released in November, though, so I will have to wait before posting my Amazon review.

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

Friday, July 22, 2016

Final Ramblings on the Republican National Convention

The 2016 Republican National Convention is over!  This year, I adapted to watching it on the west coast, where the convention is on from 5-8 p.m. rather than 8-11 p.m.  I caught a lot of the speeches on YouTube.

Here are some thoughts:

A.  Bernie Sanders was mentioned a handful of times, and never negatively.  Donald Trump, Jr. referred to Bernie Sanders’ criticism of immigration over two decades ago, as Bernie feared that immigrants could drive down wages and compete with Americans for jobs.  Mike Pence said that Hillary Clinton runs a powerful political machine, then said, “Just ask Bernie Sanders!”  And the nominee, Donald Trump himself, said that Bernie tried to challenge a system that was rigged, and that Bernie supporters have a home in the Trump campaign because Trump opposes unfair trade deals, which cost America jobs.

Trump is obviously trying to appeal to Bernie Sanders supporters.  There are a lot of them, and many of them will not vote for Hillary.  I hope, though, that the Republicans’ references to Bernie Sanders at the convention are also sincere, on some level: that those Republicans respect what Sanders tried to accomplish, even if they disagree with Sanders’ policy proposals.

B.  Trump’s kids were impressive.  That is not surprising to me, since they did give the Trump campaign whatever professional face it had.  Trump was crass and shot from the hip throughout his campaign, and there were indications that his campaign was in disarray.  But his kids were genteel, well-spoken, and articulate.  I think of when Ivanka was greeting various states, and she came to Hawaii: “Aloha, Hawaii, this is Ivanka Trump!”  I also respected Donald Trump, Jr. when he was being interviewed by David Muir, the day after the Melania Trump plagiarism scandal.  Donald, Jr. candidly admitted that he did not write all of his own speech, since he is not a professional in politics, but he did contribute to it.  Now, after he has delivered that speech, many want him to become a professional in politics!

Trump must have been a decent father, for his kids to be as supportive as they are.  A good businessman?  A good employer?  Well, I have read plenty of stories to the contrary on that!  But he may very well be a decent father, even if he is closer to some of his kids than others.

C.  As I heard speech after speech praising cops, I wondered if I would hear any acknowledgment of the existence of racism.  Occasionally, I did.  Lynne Patton, the Vice-President of the Eric Trump Foundation, is an African-American, and she lamented that black lives often have not mattered to people.  Mark Burns, an African-American pastor, discussed how many African-Americans lacked hope, and he talked about economic renewal of their poor communities.  I wish I had seen more of that.

D.  That said, the convention was trying, on some level, to be diverse, or to show that the Republican Party can be diverse.  There was a Muslim who spoke in favor of Trump.  A Sikh gave the opening prayer on one of the nights.  There were many African-Americans who spoke.  A Hispanic gentleman (apart from Marco Rubio) spoke.  A Korean spoke.  Eileen Collins, the first female to command a space shuttle, also spoke, though her speech was rather non-political.  Peter Thiel, a gay billionaire, said in his speech that he was proud to be gay, and the Republican crowd applauded.

Ivanka Trump portrayed her father as one who is sensitive to women in the workplace and wants to change the rules so there could be equality.  Donald Trump in his acceptance speech expressed concern about minority unemployment rates.  He stressed the need to protect the LGBT community from terrorism, and commended his audience for applauding him on that.  And yet, Trump also reached out to evangelicals, saying that he does not deserve their support, and yet that he would protect their civil liberties.

Part of this may be Trump’s outreach to Bernie Sanders supporters, or even mainstream Americans, who view Trump as a misogynist and a bigot.  Trump is also trying to balance different interests.  He wants to appear open to LGBT concerns, and he himself may have progressive leanings on that issue, as a New Yorker.  Still, the religious right is influential.

The presence of minority speakers for Trump itself is interesting, since they hold positions that many think people in their group would not hold.  Many may dismiss them as tokens or as traitors to their group, but they have their own story and reasons for arriving at their positions.

E.  I have a hard time hating anyone politically, since I see many of the politicians as characters in a drama, with their virtues and vices.  I admit that I sometimes have had a visceral and negative reaction to Hillary, maybe because she comes across as arrogant, and yet I respect her mind and her ability to come up with solutions to the nation’s problems.  In terms of last week’s convention, I respected Ted Cruz for refusing to endorse Donald Trump, for Ted is still upset about what Trump said about Ted’s wife Heidi and Ted’s father.  Ted does well to stand by his family!  That said, I also like how Trump knew that Cruz would not endorse him, yet let Cruz speak anyway.  That may not relate to integrity on Trump’s part, so much, as it does to Trump’s desire for drama: he knows how to get coverage in the news, and to keep the coverage going!

F.  I have difficulty with the Republican stance and tone on immigration.  That was the case even when I was a Republican.  I voted for Pat Buchanan in 1996 and 2000, and he made opposition to illegal immigration one of the centerpieces of his campaigns.  But I supported Pat on certain other issues.

My problem with what I heard at the Republican Convention is that it carried an implied message of “We have ours, so who cares about anyone else!”  We should build a wall to keep illegal immigrants out, and who cares if they are impoverished in their own country!  That’s not our problem!  It’s theirs!  We should put America first!  That’s the sub-text that came across to me.  Even the speeches that were critical of American interventionism abroad did not express concern for people in other countries and the impact of our interventionism on them, but rather for Americans.

I hope, though, that we could create enough prosperity in this country to go around—-so that we do not have to choose between immigrants benefiting, and Americans benefiting.  How, and whether, we can arrive at that point is a good question.

Next week, the Democratic National Convention!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Book Write-Up: Eschatology

D. Jeffrey Bingham and Glenn R. Kreider, ed.  Eschatology: Biblical, Historical, and Practical Approaches.  Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.
Eschatology is a collection of scholarly essays about eschatology, the last days, which include the second coming of Christ.  They are in honor of Craig Alan Blaising, a scholar who wrote about the topic.  Timothy George writes the Foreword, which speaks briefly about eschatology then provides the reader with information about Blaising's approach to it.  Steven L. James contributes a biography of Blaising, which includes a bibliography of Blaising's academic works.

In this review, I will comment on each essay.

"The Doctrine of the Future and Canonical Unity: Connecting the Future to the Past," by D. Jeffrey Bingham.

If you want to learn about the life and thought of Marcion of Sinope and the reception to him during the second century C.E., then this is a good essay to read.  Marcion posited that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament were different gods, with the latter being more beneficent than the former.  Church fathers argued, by contrast, the the same God was God of the Old and New Testaments, but that the Old Testament had an earthy, material system that would foreshadow the spiritual system of the New Testament.  Bingham effectively laid this out for the readers.  Unfortunately, he failed really to address how Old Testament prophecies should be understood, from a Christian perspective.  Old Testament prophecies discuss the eschatological restoration of Israel to her land, and some even depict the restoration of the Levitical or Zadokite priesthood and a Temple reconstruction.  That sounds like a future restoration of the Old Testament earthy, material system, which many Christians believe has been supplanted.  Why would God go back to that, from a Christian perspective?  Bingham should have included something on that issue.

"The Doctrine of the Future and the Concept of Hope," by Stanley D. Toussaint.

This essay taught me something that I had not previously considered, yet which is pretty obvious.  In Matthew 23:31-32; Mark 12:26; and Luke 20:37, Jesus argues for the resurrection from the dead against the Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection.  Jesus appeals to Exodus 3:6, in which God says to Moses that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Jesus says that God is not God of the dead but of the living.  Many Christian interpreters make a big deal about Jesus in Matthew 22:32 quoting the passage to say "I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob," as if the "I am" part of the passage is what Jesus thinks establishes the resurrection.  But there are problems with that. First, the Hebrew in Exodus 3 lacks an explicit "I am" ("I am that I am" is actually "I will be what I will be"), and that may be troubling to people who think that Jesus never erred.  (Note: This is my observation, not Toussaint's.)    Second, "I am" would fit more with the patriarchs being alive now rather than in the future resurrection, whereas Jesus is arguing for their future resurrection.  Third, as Toussaint notes, the Markan and Lukan parallels lack "I am."  According to Toussaint, what establishes Jesus' argument for the resurrection is not the "I am" part of Exodus 3:6, but rather God being the God of the patriarchs.  Because God is God of the patriarchs, and God is not God of the dead but of the living, that must mean that the patriarchs will live in the future, at the resurrection.

A critique that can be made of this chapter is that it is a bit incongruent in one detail.  In discussing Jesus' parables and teachings, Toussaint seems to maintain that Jesus envisioned a long time passing before his second coming.  In discussing Acts, however, Toussaint states that the apostles thought Christ's coming was imminent.  Did they somehow misunderstand and fail to grasp Jesus' teaching, according to Toussaint?

"The Doctrine of the Future and the Weakening of Prophecy," by Charles C. Ryrie.

Ryrie assumes that Old Testament prophecies predict events in the life of Christ, and he asks what the chances are of that.  That, for him, demonstrates that the prophecies are from God.  The problem is that there are alternative ways to interpret those prophecies.  Ryrie should have interacted with some of those.

"The Doctrine of the Future, the Doctrine of God, and Predictive Prophecy," by John D. Laing and Stefana Dan Laing.

An asset to this chapter is that it presents scholarly arguments for the Book of Daniel being written in the sixth century B.C.E., rather than the second century B.C.E., during and after the events that it "foretells."  The chapter was trying to defend the reality of predictive prophecy, against skeptics.  Unfortunately, it did not address the prophecies that Ezekiel made that, according to many scholars, failed to come to pass as predicted.

"The Doctrine of the Future and Moses: 'All Israel Shall Be Saved,'" by Daniel I. Block.

Block tries to argue that the Book of Deuteronomy has eschatological elements, although he wrestles with the possibility that some of those elements can be interpreted non-eschatologically.

"The Doctrine of the Future in the Historical Books," by Gregory Smith.

Smith makes a fairly decent case that I-II Chronicles has an eschatology.  It is not overbearing in the books, but, according to Smith, one can discern from certain passages that the Chronicler expected a future restoration of the Davidic monarchy.

"The Doctrine of the Future in the Psalms: Reflections on the Struggle of Waiting," by George L. Klein.

Klein focused largely on God's deliverance of individuals.  Unfortunately, he did not talk much about scholarly views that some of the Psalms are eschatological, or that the Book of Psalms is organized in its final form in reference to a coming Messiah.  These topics should not be ignored in a book about eschatology!

"The Doctrine of the Future in the Prophets," by Mark F. Rooker.

Rooker argues that the Old Testament prophets do not just discuss their own time but the far-off future.  Yet, in making eschatological predictions, the prophecies discuss what will happen to nations that existed in their own day.  How would Rooker account for that?  Do those nations symbolize nations in the far-off future?  Can resurrection account for it?  Rooker should have wrestled with this.

"The Doctrine of the Future in the Synoptic Gospels," by Darrell L. Bock.

Unlike scholars who believe that Jesus envisioned an imminent end, Bock points to passages in the synoptics in which Jesus envisioned a time of waiting until the Son of Man comes.  To his credit, Bock does attempt to address passages in the synoptic Gospels that appear to suggest that Jesus would return in the first century C.E.  Bock does not want Jesus to be wrong, and that is understandable.  But, when one takes away the apologetic motivation and thinks of other ways to see the text, is a time of waiting really inconsistent with believing that Jesus would return soon after 70 C.E.?  Forty years is still a long time to wait for Jesus' return!  Plus, are those passages about waiting authentic to the historical Jesus?  One could argue that early Christians put those words in Jesus' mouth after they had waited for the second coming, and it had not yet materialized.  There are a lot of passages to consider, and one can inquire about the extent to which they pass the criteria of authenticity (which are somewhat marginalized these days, but they may still be useful).

"The Doctrine of the Future in John's Writings," by David L. Turner.

Many scholars argue that the Gospel of John has a realized eschatology rather than a futuristic one.  Turner, quite sensibly, argues that it has both.

W. Edward Glenny's "The Doctrine of the Future in Paul's Writings" and David L. Allen's "The Doctrine of the Future in Hebrews and the General Epistles" will be considered together, in this review.

In Psalm 110:1, the LORD tells "my lord" to sit at his right hand, until he makes his enemies his footstool.  This passage is applied to Jesus in many places in the New Testament.  Glenny interprets I Corinthians 15's interpretation of that passage in light of the millennium of Revelation 20: Jesus will come back and rule the earth, and during that millennial rule God will be in the process of subjecting all of Jesus' enemies to his feet.  This view is not surprising in this publication because many of its contributors expressed agreement with dispensationalism, which believes in a millennium.  Interestingly, though, David L. Allen expressed a different view on Psalm 110, in considering the interpretation of the passage in the Book of Hebrews.  Allen states that "God has 'not yet' subjected all things under his feet", for "That will occur in the end times with the second coming of Jesus" (page 249).  Does Allen believe that Jesus is sitting on God's right hand now, not just in the millennium, and that God is in the process of subjecting things to Jesus' feet (albeit not everything)?

That said, while there were many believers in classic dispensationalism in this book, there were also many contributors who believed that the Kingdom of God is already and not yet, which differs from the futurist focus that a number of classic dispensationalists have held.  There are also progressive dispensationalist contributors to this book.

"The Doctrine of the Future in the Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus of Lyons," by Stephen O. Presley.

A question that occurred to me in reading this book concerned the extent to which the church fathers believed in a heavenly hope for believers, and the extent to which they believed in an earthly hope.  Did they think believers after their resurrection would go to heaven and see God, or that they would inhabit a renewed earth?  Presley could have tackled this question more directly, especially since so many Christian thinkers today criticize the emphasis on going to heaven in Christendom and stress that God loves the physical.  Still, Presley does offer patristic quotations that are relevant to this issue.  According to Presley, Irenaeus presents resurrected believers dwelling in different places, based on their level of spiritual maturity (which, for Irenaeus, is not stagnant, even after the resurrection).

"The Doctrine of the Future in Origen and Athanasius," by Bryan M. Litfin.

This chapter is helpful for those interested in Origen's belief in universal salvation because it provides primary references that relate to whether Origen did or did not believe in the ultimate salvation of the devil.  Litfin also discusses the relevance of Plato to patristic eschatology, but he could have explained Platonic eschatology a lot better than he did.

"The Doctrine of the Future in Augustine," by Jonathan P. Yates.

Christians often talk about the torment of souls in hell.  According to Augustine, however, resurrected bodies, not just souls, will be in heaven and hell.  I am finding more Christians who talk about that, who say that God will give the damned bodies that will be able to survive eternally in hell, notwithstanding the torment.

"The Doctrine of the Future in John Calvin," by Nathan D. Holsteen.

This chapter depicts Calvin was rather amillennial.  Calvin did not emphasize eschatology but preferred to stress Christ's current spiritual reign and triumphs.  Holsteen maintains that Calvin was similar to the Catholic church in this regard, even though Calvin took that thought in his own direction.

"The Doctrine of the Future in Anabaptist Thought," by Paige Patterson.

This chapter is largely about how Anabaptists were against the radicals of their day who tried to establish the Kingdom by force or by violence.  Many Anabaptists taught that Christians should wait for Jesus to return to set things right.

"The Doctrine of the Future in Jonathan Edwards," by Glenn R. Kreider.

This chapter was an effective explanation of Edwards' views, but there were a few unclarities.  First, did Edwards believe that heresy would be destroyed on earth before or during the millennium?  Second, did Edwards believe that the earth would be destroyed and that believers would be in heaven, or did he posit a renewal of the earth in the eschaton?

"The Doctrine of the Future in Baptist Theology," by Kevin D. Kennedy.

Kennedy is fair in his explanation of amillennialism, postmillennialism, and premillennialism.  Kennedy also refers to prominent Baptists who adhered to these positions.

"The Doctrine of the Future and Dispensationalism," by Mark L. Bailey.

Bailey defends the pretribulational rapture and premillennialism.  On page 397, he states that Paul understands the wrath from which believers are delivered as the eschatological Day of the Lord, not the great white throne judgment.  For Bailey, that supports the pretribulational rapture: believers will be taken to heaven before God pours out God's wrath on the earth.  But how does Bailey know that Paul understands God's wrath as the Day of the Lord rather than the last judgment?

Bailey does offer an extensive defense of the millennium being a literal one-thousand year reign on earth after Christ's return.  He presents fifteen arguments!  They were all decent, but his third argument particularly stands out to me as good: "...since Isaiah 65:17-25 describes the blessings of the kingdom to come with the presence of sin and death, this argues for an earthly fulfillment prior to eternity in which according to both Isaiah 25:8 and Revelation 21:4, death will be no more."  For Bailey, these tensions in Scripture can be reconciled by positing a millennial reign, during which sin and death will still exist, followed by a new heavens and a new earth, which will lack sin and death.

"The Doctrine of the Future in Jurgen Moltmann," by Lanier Burns.

According to Burns, Moltmann was a panentheist, one who believed that God was closely connected with nature.

"The Doctrine of the Future in Contemporary European Theology," by Friedhelm Jung and Edward Friesen.
This chapter is informative about modern Catholic eschatology.  It also discusses Karl Barth's belief that God may save everyone, and yet is free not to do so, as well as Wilfried Harle's universalism.  For Harle, many Christians emphasize faith for salvation, rather than Christ.  I had not heard of Harle before reading this book, and now I am intrigued.  Friesen, not surprisingly, disagrees with Harle, but his presentation of Harle's thought is quite detailed, and probably fair.

"The Doctrine of the Future: Millennialism in Contemporary Evangelical Theology," by David S. Dockery.

This is another chapter that explains amillennialism, postmillennialism, and premillennialism.  Surprisingly, although that territory was covered more than once in this book, it never got old.  I loved reading about postmillennialism's optimistic views about God's activity on earth, even if the authors disagreed with that perspective!

"The Doctrine of the Future and Pastoral Care," by J. Denny Audrey.

Audrey refers to the argument that many Christians look to eschatology for personal comfort rather than "direction for the contemporary church" (page 460).  Audrey never seems to flesh out how Christians can do the latter.  He does provide an interesting history, however, of how Christians in the past have conceptualized pastoral care.

"The Doctrine of the Future and Contemporary Challenges," by R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

Augustine in The City of God was addressing the fall of the Roman empire.  Mohler says this was devastating to Christians, since the Roman empire protected them.

"The Doctrine of the Future and the Marketplace," by Stephen N. Blaising.

How this chapter relates to eschatology is unclear.  It is mostly about being a good steward, in the economic realm.

My critiques notwithstanding, I still give this book five stars, since it is thorough and informative.

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

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Ramblings on Trials

At church last week, the youth pastor was preaching the sermon.  The main topic of the sermon was sanctification, but a sub-topic was trials.  The preacher was saying that trials are a way that God refines us.  Suffering is not always God’s punishment for any sin on our part, but it can be a means that God refines us.  And the preacher said that everyone needs refining, whether they are religious or non-religious.

These points intersected with what was going on this last week.  We had a few days of trials.  I will not share what exactly they were, but we were scared.  For their own reasons, not everyone where I live would necessarily consider himself or herself a Christian believer.  Still, they are good people, people of integrity.
The trials lasted only for a few days, and they were resolved.

Trying to account for the trials theologically is difficult.  Refinement?  The trials only lasted a few days.  Not much time for refining, is there?  But people were better prepared for these trials this time around because they had gone through them before, and, as one person said, they knew more now than they did then.  I suppose that I have more gratitude now.  But I also have more fear.

What if people in the household are not turning to God for help?  Will God provide?  I cannot make anyone like God, especially when there are times when I wonder if I like him that much myself.  Something I pray every day is, “Lord, help me not to hate you or others as much as I do, if at all, but to have more love in my heart, or at least respect for you and others as beings of value, in their own right.”  People like what they like and believe what they believe for their own reasons.  My preaching was not something that people needed to hear, in this time.

It got to the point where I figured that I could do nothing more than I already was doing.  I prayed.  I did not have a prayer-a-thon, since there is no point making the same request over and over, as if God did not hear me the first time, or as if I did not make the request the first time.  But I prayed, sometimes formally, and sometimes informally.  But I pray every day anyway.  It was not as if my devotional routine was dramatically changed as a result of this trial.

During the trial, I did think about issues other than the petty issues I ordinarily think about.  But I was honest with God: if this trial passes, and things become normal again, then my mind will probably return to its usual pettiness.  I don’t like that.  I struggle with that.  But going through a trial does not necessarily change the way that I am, at least not entirely.

We got through this.  During the trial, I had to take a good hard look at how I viewed God.  And, even afterwards, I was perplexed, as relieved as I was, and as relieved as we all were.  Things are becoming normal again, but an experience like this is somewhat like what happened to Jacob after he wrestled with God: he still had a limp.

The preacher’s sermon was relevant to the questions I was asking, even if I did not find it to be a slam-dunk answer.  I have found that the sermons these last few weeks have been relevant to my situation, to questions I was asking or struggles I was having.  Maybe that has to do with God’s concern, or it may just be because a lot of people have these struggles.  A lot of people struggle with intimacy with God after botching things up, which was my struggle a couple weeks ago.  A lot of people have trials.

I hope my frequent use of “I” in this post does not come across as self-centered.  I was, of course, praying for others during this difficult time.  We were in this together, but we were also coping with it and handling it, in our own way.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Ramblings on the Republican National Convention, Night 1

I watched some of the Republican National Convention last night.

At first, it was rather sleepy.  As far as I can see, Willie Robertson and Scott Baio got scattered, tepid applause.

Then Marcus Luttrell, a former Navy Seal, spoke, and he brought down the house.  At first, he fumbled through his speech, but then he said that he would forget about his prepared remarks and speak from the heart.  The audience responded with thunderous applause.  A lot of what he said consisted of patriotic platitudes.  He made good points, though, about thinking about others besides ourselves.  Why did the audience respond so well to him?  Maybe they liked his heroism, or his books, or just someone being real, for a change.

Then there was Pat Smith’s speech.  Pat Smith’s son, Sean, died in the Benghazi attack, and Pat is holding Hillary Clinton personally responsible.  Pat said that her son called the day before the attack and said that security was being withdrawn, and he couldn’t find out why.  Pat also said that, at her son’s funeral, Hillary Clinton blamed the attack on a video.  Implicitly, Pat was criticizing the contradictory statements that the Obama Administration made soon after the attack.  Pat contrasted Hillary Clinton with Donald Trump, who speaks his mind and his heart.  The speech was very emotional, and many in the audience had tears.

Pat Smith’s speech was similar to other speeches last night, in that many of the speeches were from people who lost family, and they were blaming the loss on the Obama Administration.  One lady blamed her son’s death in Afghanistan on the military’s restrictive policies, which she said hindered the troops from getting the job done.  There were people whose family members were killed by illegal immigrants.

There were also African-American speakers who were saying that blue lives matter.  And, while the audience was mostly white, there were some African-Americans in the audience, cheering.  In contrast to the 2012 GOP convention, however, I did not see too many Hispanics.

Melania Trump was trying to portray her husband as an inclusive, compassionate sort of person.  She said that he would represent people of all religious faiths, including Islam.  She noted that, as a businessman, he worked with people of different faiths.  She also promoted new programs to help the poor.  These were surprising things to hear at a Republican convention, especially when the candidate became popular after criticizing illegal immigration and proposing a ban on Muslims entering the U.S.

Interestingly, even Giuliani’s speech tried, on some level, to distant the party from Islamophobia.  He made the point of criticizing radical Islam.  But, for the benefit of the media (and that’s what he said, not me), he said that does not include all of Islam, or even most Muslims.

A commentator said that the Republicans in the prime-time part of the convention try to speak to the mainstream of America.  Maybe that was what was going on with the speeches by Melania and Giuliani.  At the same time, I would not be surprised if there is some inclusivist side to Donald Trump, since he has had to work with different people in the past, and he probably respects talent wherever he can find it, whatever that person’s background.

I read different things last night, in an attempt to fact-check what was said.  What exactly happened at Benghazi?  What are the crime statistics regarding illegal immigrants?  What restrictive policies was that one mother criticizing?

On Benghazi, would Hillary Clinton deliberately withdraw security from Benghazi, so people would die?  I have my doubts, since that wouldn’t make her look good, but I have not read up on the conspiracy theories.  But, at most, the speakers at the convention (at least Giuliani) seemed to be accusing her of negligence.  I have read a variety of things: the security was not ordered to stand down but to wait for provisions; that security was withdrawn before the attack because it was deemed unnecessary; that the government wanted to keep the Benghazi site a secret (Andrea Mitchell said something like that, as I recall); and that Republican cut-backs resulted in the lack of security at Benghazi.

On crime statistics and illegal immigrants, I read both sides.  I heard someone say a while back that many illegal immigrants try to keep the law, since, if they are arrested, they may face a greater chance of deportation.  They want to keep under the radar, as much as possible, and that is an incentive to keep the law.  That makes some sense to me.

On the military restrictions, I read on a right-wing site that they relate to protecting allies and civilians.  Some may say that President Obama here is putting American lives at risk in seeking to appease other countries.  But we are in Afghanistan, other people’s land, so shouldn’t we try to avoid killing civilians there?
These are just thoughts, and I’m sure they can be nitpicked.

At least there is a convention to watch!  The Donald got speakers!  People were wondering if that would happen.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Book Write-Up: The Courtship Basket, by Amy Clipston

Amy Clipston.  The Courtship Basket.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

The Courtship Basket is the second book of Amy Clipson's "Amish Heirloom" series.  Book 1, The Forgotten Recipe, focused on Veronica and her relationship with Jason, after the death of Seth, who was Veronica's fiancee and Jason's friend and co-worker.  (See my review here.)  Book 2 focuses on Rachel, Veronica's sister.

Rachel is upset after her boyfriend David breaks up with her to be with her best friend.  Rachel teaches school, and there she meets Mike.  Mike is the older half-brother of John, who is in Rachel's class.  Mike has assumed a lot of responsibility over his household, for there is no mother in the home, his father is sick, and Mike is reluctant to ask people for help.  When John acts up in class, Rachel meets with Mike, and the two of them get off to a rocky start in their relationship.  Over time, Rachel makes meals for Mike's family, and Rachel and Mike become friends.  As their friendship develops into something more, a misunderstanding will threaten their relationship.

There were a variety of noteworthy details in this book.  For one, the idea of parents and teachers communicating with each other through a journal was somewhat new to me, though I suppose it is not too different from teachers leaving notes on report cards.  Second, the contrast an observer made between how Mike acted around Rachel and how David acted around Rachel was a sweet scene.  Mike was clearly more interested in Rachel than David had been.  Third, the book was about how difficult it is to move on from baggage from the past.  Because Rachel had been hurt by David, that would influence how she would view and respond in another relationship.  Fourth, there is Mike's father, who wants for Mike to enjoy life and is saddened that Mike's taking care of him may be taking Mike away from happiness.  Fifth, there are scenes in which Mike's father wants to enjoy life himself and yet has to think about his poor health.  He wants a slice of pizza, for example!

Sixth, the Amish in this book use telephones and refrigerators.  Some Amish communities are more open to certain forms of technology.

Seventh, the book ends on a mystery, like the first book of the series.  And, by the way, the mystery in the first book was not resolved in this second book.  In this second book, the mystery concerns why Rachel's mother and father lived apart shortly after getting married.  A lot of mysteries are going on!  Will they be resolved in a future book?  Maybe the mysteries intersect with each other.

The book was okay.  It had good things, but it was not particularly eventful.  It could also be repetitive.  And the high-schoolish themes of "Does he or she like like me" (my paraphrase) could get rather old. 
The prose is dignified, as Amy Clipston's prose usually is.  Perhaps the book would have been better had more gone on in the plot, or had the characters reflected on more things or different facets of what they liked to reflect on, as opposed to the same things over and over.  That would have rounded the characters out more.  Maybe some psychological analysis would have been helpful for the reader: for instance, why was Rachel so hesitant to communicate with Mike about the misunderstanding? 

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

Friday, July 15, 2016

Book Write-Up: Courageous, by Dina L. Sleiman

Dina L. Sleiman.  Courageous.  Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2016.  See here to buy the book. 

Courageous is the third book of Dina L. Sleiman's Valiant Hearts series.  The Valiant Hearts series is Christian historical fiction that is set in the thirteenth century.  Courageous includes two characters who were in the second book, Chivalrous.  One character is Rosalind, a servant, who is dealing with guilt because she had an abortion.  Another character is Randel.  In Courageous, Randel wants to become a knight, whereas his parents want him to become a clergyperson.  They threaten to disown him if he goes against their wishes.

Courageous focuses on the Crusades.  A group of people from England are going to Tripoli to free some prisoners.  Among them is a young prophetess, Sapphira, who sees visions and wrestles with her commitment to God, and her desire to live a normal life.  They are also guided by Sufi Muslims, who are alienated from the broader Muslim community.  Occasionally in the book, the narration shifts from third person to first person, and the first person narration is from the perspective of someone who is a spy for the other side.  This person is seeking revenge.

In terms of positives, the book thoughtfully engages political and religious questions.  There are characters who defend the morality of the Crusades, as a way to take back land that Muslims had conquered from Christians, and to take the holy city of Jerusalem for the Christians.  Dina Sleiman is not unsympathetic, and yet the book acknowledges that there were many Crusaders who committed gross atrocities, and it does not demonize Muslims.  In the book, there are descriptions of Muslim beliefs and practices.

A salient religious discussion in the book occurs after the death of a Sufi Muslim, Wassim, who was guiding the Crusaders.  Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam.  Sapphira and the man's sister, Rabia, are discussing the man's eternal destiny, since Christians believe that one needs to be a Christian to go to heaven.  Rabia is asking Sapphira if she believes that Wassim is in hell, and Sapphira is unsure if that is a good time to preach the Gospel.  Sapphira responds: "Is it fair to say that I hope there is something I am not accounting for?  That your brother perhaps found Christ somehow during those divine experiences, or even at the moment of his death?  I do believe that Jesus is the only way, but I hope from the bottom of my heart that your brother is happy in heaven right now" (page 227).  It is interesting to see how evangelical fiction wrestles with questions of exclusivism and inclusivism, on the issue of salvation.

There were times in reading the book when I wondered if it was being a bit anachronistic.  Some characters in the book believe in justification by grace through faith alone, whereas Catholicism and Islam are said in the book to add penance or works as a requirement for salvation.  Was a belief in justification by grace through faith alone truly on the table for people three centuries before the time of Martin Luther?  Perhaps some could read the Bible and arrive at that conclusion.  One may inquire, however, about the extent to which people would question their cultural assumptions, and whether Sleiman depicts evangelical beliefs as an option back then because she wishes to convey an evangelical message.  That said, the experiences of various characters in finding peace with God were moving parts of the book.  

In the book, Rosalind is called a murderer because she had an abortion.  Yet, in the appendix, Sleiman acknowledges that "while at this time in history abortion was considered a sin, it did not carry the punishment of excommunication as it did in later times" (pages 357).  Would Rosalind being considered a murderer for having an abortion be realistic, in light of that?  There has long been discussion within Judaism and Christianity about whether abortion is murder and when exactly an unborn baby becomes a person.  Sleiman did well to note the historical nuance that abortion was not a sin that carried the punishment of excommunication in the time that she depicts, but perhaps she should have also included a brief paragraph in her appendix about whether abortion was considered murder at this time.

The plot could be plodding, in areas, and there were a lot of characters of whom to keep track.  Still, the book deserves four stars because it wrestled well with historical, theological, and political issues.

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

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Day I Met Mike Pence

Rumor has it that G.O.P. Presidential candidate Donald Trump will pick Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his running mate.  Maybe that will happen, and maybe it will not.  Trump likes theatrics, so he may surprise us by picking someone we don’t expect!

But, while Mike Pence’s name is in the news, I want to share a story about the time that I met him.

The year was 1996.  Mike Pence had not yet entered politics, but he hosted a local TV political show.  I was an intern at a conservative Christian organization in Indiana, and my boss was going to appear on The Mike Pence Show.  The topic of the episode would be the influence of the religious right on Republican politics.

Other guests would be on the show, as well.  One was a liberal guest, who did not like being called a liberal.  There was a political writer, whom I had met earlier at the Indiana Republican Convention.  I had struck up a conversation with him because his column appeared in my small town’s newspaper, on the days when Charley Reese’s column was not there.  He actually remembered me the second time that he saw me!  And there was a Republican operative.

The political discussions before the show are what I remember most from that day.  The liberal was saying that the reason that the federal government stepped in and started welfare programs was because the states were not sufficiently doing so.  My boss asked if the welfare programs made things better, implying that they had not.  The political writer expressed reservations about the platitude he heard that government should be run like a business, for he had bad experiences with businesses.  And the Republican operative said that Richard Nixon was crazy all by himself!

This discussion would stay with me.  What the liberal said about the states not sufficiently helping the poor was eye-opening to me, since I had assumed that letting the states handle things was the way to go: the states were closer to the problems and knew better what needed to be done, I figured, and it was better for power to be distributed among the states rather than for it to be concentrated in the federal government.  The liberal’s argument was the first time that I heard a decent argument to the contrary.  (Then again, I knew then that slavery and segregation were good arguments against states' rights, but the liberal's argument was the first time I heard a decent argument against leaving the poverty problem to the states.)

My boss’ response to the liberal’s argument seemed weak to me at the time, but, nowadays, I think that he was asking a good question: did the “solution” work?  People can debate that when it comes to social welfare programs, but what my boss said remains poignant to me on account of the problems that Obamacare has had.  What do we do when our choice is between no solution, which leaves problems unattended, and a bad solution?

On the show itself, the guests were talking about the influence of the religious right on Republican politics.  The Republican operative asked “So what?”  The liberal agreed, but said that people should be honest about it, and he compared it to big labor’s influence on Democratic politics.  The political writer leaned in the direction of defending the religious right, even though he himself was not dogmatically conservative.

Where does Mike Pence come into all this?  To be honest, I don’t remember much of what he said.  I shook his hand, and he came across to me as a low-key guy, much like he does on TV today.  He was not there throughout the pre-show conversation, but only a small part of it, when the make-up was being put on him.  When his TV show started, he was much more animated, even more so than he is on TV today.

I’ve not met too many celebrities in my life, as far as I can remember, but I know people who have met celebrities.  Mike Pence probably wouldn’t know me from Adam, were he to see me on the street!  But it is interesting that I met him before he became a big-time politician, back when he had dark gray hair.  Like I said, I don’t remember much of what Pence said, but I do remember the political conversation that day as something that challenged my beliefs, and that still challenges my beliefs.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Time for Prayer

At church last Sunday, an associate pastor was preaching about II Chronicles 7, in which King Solomon of Israel is dedicating the Temple.  Solomon says that, when people sin, they can come to the Temple and pray.  The preacher said: "When is a good time to pray?  When you have sinned!"  When you botch things up, that is the time to pray.

I needed that message that day.  And the sermon went on and on, such that the person in front of me fell asleep, and his wife said to him, "Shame on you!  This is church!"  But I liked that the sermon went on and on.  In times of inner desolation, being barraged with a good sermon is what I need!

And others there may have felt the same way.  When the associate pastor asked people to stand if they felt a desire to go deeper in their prayer lives, a lot of people stood.  And they were not just doing so to be polite, for a lot of other people, myself included, did not stand.  Those who stood must have felt impacted by this particular sermon.

When you sin, or botch things up, and feel inadequate and distant from God, that is the time to pray. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Book Write-Up: Chivalrous, by Dina Sleiman

Dina L. Sleiman.  Chivalrous.  Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

Chivalrous is the second book of Dina Sleiman's "Valiant Heart" series.  The series is set in thirteenth century England.

Chivalrous has some of the same characters as the previous book, Dauntless, such as Allen, Merry, and Timothy Grey.  It also makes reference to the Ghosts of Farthingdale Forest, who were prominent in the previous book.  See here for my review of Dauntless.

But Chivalrous also introduces new characters, and a new story.  There is Gwen, a young noblewoman, whose father wants her to marry a brutish man.  Gwen has an independent streak, for she pretends to be a knight and fights in a tournament.  There is Gwen's maid and friend Rosalind, who is dealing with her own guilt.  There is Randel, a devout man, who is a potential suitor for Gwen.  There is also the villain of the story, a rival to the progressive duke.  The villain's sister is a witch. 

Chivalrous was much better than Dauntless, for a variety of reasons.  For one, Chivalrous had themes that added an aura of mystery to the story: a prophecy that Allen feels he has to fulfill, and a man whose sister is a witch.  Second, there was more theological discussion in Chivalrous, and the discussion actually went somewhere.  In Dauntless, Merry and Timothy Grey disagreed about Romans 13 and whether that means they should obey the brutal King John.  But the discussion did not get too deeply into the details and implications of Romans 13, nor did the two of them arrive at an interpretation of Romans 13 that would justify their opposition to King John.  Romans 13 was just left hanging!  By contrast, the theological discussions in Chivalrous were meatier and had more resolution.  

An endearing quality of Chivalrous is that the protagonists are good people, even if they do not necessarily belong with each other, in terms of marriage.  Gwen is drawn to Allen, but Randel is still a good person.  Allen feels that he has to marry a duchess to fulfill a prophecy about a low-born person marrying a duchess and saving the nation.  The duchess is a good person, but she is grieving the death of her husband and is not ready to marry again.  The characters in Chivalrous are more rounded and likable than the ones in Dauntless

An excellent scene in the book is one in which Gwen, Allen, and Randel are all three discussing Scripture and life.  Gwen's father is domineering, but Randel says that he is as hard on himself as he is on others.  Unfortunately, this humanizing view of Gwen's father is not developed further in the book.

In Chivalrous, there are people who have egalitarian perspectives on Scripture and on life, when it comes to gender, and one may wonder how realistic that was, historically-speaking.  Perhaps portraying characters in this time as egalitarian would be anachronistic, and yet there may have been raw material that would have allowed some people to have egalitarian perspectives, at least on some level.  The Bible does have strong female characters who assume positions of prominence, such as Deborah the judge, and readers of the Bible even then would have been aware of that.  A good question would be how Deborah was portrayed, in medieval Judaism and Christianity.  Moreover, Dina Sleiman in her historical appendix notes that there were women who rose to positions of prominence in medieval England. 

Chivalrous was a pleasure to read. 

Monday, July 11, 2016

Book Write-Up: God's Pursuit of Man, by A.W. Tozer

A.W. Tozer.  God’s Pursuit of Man.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2015.  See here to purchase the book.

A.W. Tozer was a pastor and Christian author who lived from 1897 to 1963.  The page of the book that has the copyright information states: “God’s Pursuit of Man was originally published under the titles The Divine Conquest and The Pursuit of Man and is a sequel to The Pursuit of God.”

Overall, this book is about having a tangible, vibrant experience of the divine, in which the Holy Spirit actually dwells inside of a Christian.  Tozer advocates that Christians read the Bible, but he is against them substituting that for an experience of the living God, calling that seeking the living among the dead (a la Luke 24:5).  According to Tozer, a spiritual experience is what can nourish a Christian.

In what sense is the book about God’s pursuit of human beings?  Tozer makes Calvinist-like statements about the sovereignty of God in calling certain people to be Christians, as if who becomes a Christian is God’s choice, and God is the one who enables sinful human beings to receive God.  (For a thoughtful post about whether or not Tozer was a Calvinist, see this post by John H. Armstrong:  At the same time, Tozer also includes statements that are supportive of human free will, and he discusses what people can do to be filled with the Holy Spirit, or to prepare themselves for such an experience.  Tozer  appeals to the story of Jacob wrestling with God (Genesis 32) and the story of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon becoming a beast (Daniel 4) as examples of God conquering human beings and yielding them to God; in those cases, God works through circumstances.  Tozer does not dismiss human free will, but he also wants Christians to acknowledge God’s sovereignty and proactive role in their call, including their ability to believe.

Tozer also presents the Christian’s possession of the Holy Spirit as a rough ride.  According to Tozer, the Spirit inside of a person will conquer that person’s sinfulness and self-will.  Tozer says this within the context of asking people if they are sure that they want to be filled with the Holy Spirit.  There are tensions within Tozer’s book, and he does not successfully resolve them.  On the one hand, Tozer presents God as one who proactively conquers a person.  On the other hand, Tozer presents being filled with the Holy Spirit as the result of human choice: humans have to do things (i.e., have a cheerful faith, forsake things contrary to God’s character, read the Bible) if the Holy Spirit is to dwell inside of them.  Is the Holy Spirit a conqueror, or a gentleman?  Does the Spirit meet people in their halting attempts to know God, or give up on those who fail to meet a certain spiritual standard?  Tozer is all over the place on this, but he may hold these tensions together in some manner, in his own mind.  The Puritans, too, stressed God’s sovereignty and role in converting people, while encouraging people to seek God continually in hope of a saving experience.

Tozer thoughtfully engages a variety of questions and topics.  A few times in the book, he discusses the question of what it looks like for the Holy Spirit to enter and live inside of a person.  Does the Holy Spirit possess the person and void that person’s humanity and free will?  Tozer answers in the negative.  For Tozer, the Spirit burns wickedness, while preserving a person’s humanity; plus, the Spirit works with the Christian’s volition.  Tozer does not clearly describe what it looks like for the Holy Spirit to dwell inside of a person, but he does make the effort.

Tozer talks about the Trinity: how the Holy Spirit is equally God and interacts with the Father and the Son.  Tozer discusses how the Spirit has all of the divine attributes, works with the other members of the Trinity in union, and yet performs specific tasks.  Tozer has this discussion because he believes that the Holy Spirit has been a neglected member of the Trinity within the Christendom of his day.  Tozer’s insights about the Trinity, and also God’s attributes, are arguably relevant to contemporary debates about the Trinity within the theological-blogosphere (as of July 2016), over the question of whether the Son has eternally been obedient to the Father.

Tozer’s discussion on how the world refuses to receive the Holy Spirit was helpful, in terms of explaining what Jesus may have meant when he said in John 15:19 that the world loves its own.  Tozer did well to highlight the importance of character in this discussion: meekness and humility, as opposed to the world’s values of pride, power, and bribery.  While there is no honor among thieves, the world often does admire those who thrive according to the world’s values, or lack thereof.

Tozer was slightly unclear on the question of whether a person can be saved without having experienced the sort of tangible spiritual renewal that he discusses.  On the one hand, he does seem to present that tangible spiritual renewal as an aspect of salvation, and being filled with the Holy Spirit as the normal for truly regenerate people.  On the other hand, he is critical of Christians who believe that the measure of the Holy Spirit that they received upon regeneration is all that there is for them.  Tozer, in that case, may acknowledge that these people are true Christians, while thinking that they are selling themselves short.

The book did make me feel spiritually insecure, since I tend to rely on a book (the Bible) for my knowledge of God, plus I am not dogmatic about what does or does not constitute God’s activity in my life.  God is aloof in my Christian experience, and also in the experience of many other Christians, I have gathered.  Some people do not condemn those in that situation, saying that God works in different ways, for different people.  Others, by contrast, are critical of people in that situation, blaming them for God’s aloofness.  Tozer seems to me to belong more in the latter category, even though, to his credit, he does at least offer suggestions for those who experience God as aloof, and yet desire a deeper spiritual experience.  The spiritual experience that he presents is one in which God is nourishing, even as God puts people through a rough ride.

I give this book four stars.  It was thoughtful.  Yet, it could have done more to portray God as one who woos people to Godself.  Plus, as I said above, it did have tensions, which were not resolved overly well.

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

Friday, July 8, 2016

Church Write-Up: God As Parent; a God Thing; Black Lives Matter

I have three topics for my church write-up today.  Last Sunday, I went to a Baptist church.  Most of the people who attend, as well as the pastor, are African-American.  But there are a significant number of white people who also attend.

A.  The character of God as a parent was one topic that came up.  The pastor asked, "How many of you like to give things to your children when they're disobedient?"  The expected answer, of course, at least among those who have children, was "none of us."  The pastor was arguing that God is that way, too.

I went home and listened to another of this pastor's sermons.  He was presenting a scenario of people going to God in prayer with a request, and God responds, "What have you done for me lately?"  The pastor's point was that Christianity is about more than us getting our needs met.  God has God's agenda.

Contrast that with a message that I heard from the pastor of a Word of Faith-like church that I attend every now and then.  This pastor presented a different scenario.  Suppose you are a parent, and your child is disobedient, and your child gets into trouble.  Wouldn't you go and help your child?  Many parents would.  The pastor said that God is the same way.

All three of these are plausible scenarios, when it comes to how people act as parents, and perhaps when it comes to how God acts.  But they are quite different from each other.

B.  The pastor----I mean the pastor at the Baptist church that I attended last Sunday----was saying that God blessed him with his wife.  He and she first met at church, when neither one of them wanted to be there.  But they went, and they met.  His wife was sensitive to spiritual things and prays for her husband.  For the pastor, their marriage is a God thing.

I thought about a conversation that I had with a friend a while back.  This friend was talking about going to college and dating, but he did not find anyone with whom he was compatible.  But he met the woman who became his wife when he was off in the boonies somewhere, and they have been together since.  He considers that a God thing.

When I had that conversation with my friend, I resented what he was saying.  What about people who never find their soul mate?  What about people who get into marriages that don't work?  Does God care less for them?  Can Christians think about anyone other than themselves and their own well-being, for once?

After hearing the pastor, though, I could sympathize more with what my friend was saying.  When a person meets a person in an off-chance encounter, and they form a relationship that actually works and is a blessing to both of them, then I can understand why they would consider that a God thing.  It's like the arguments for Intelligent Design: things could have turned out differently, and there would have been no life in that case, but they turned out as they did, and so there is life.  Many see that as a God thing.  They think that something more than luck is going on.

I would say that there have been events in my life that I would consider a God thing.  Something breaks down, there is not enough money to buy a brand new replacement, and yet we find a fairly inexpensive replacement on Craig's List.  Many would call that luck.  But I can understand why people see that as God's provision.

None of this solves the problem, though, of why God seems to be so present and active in some people's lives, but not in others.  But the key word is "seems."

C.  I do not like calling the tragic events this week a "topic."  I'd rather not comment on those tragic events at all, since nothing I say can do justice to them.  Plus, I don't want inadvertently to say something offensive, or for commenters to leave offensive comments on my blog.  But the pastor said something last Sunday that relates to these events, or at least to similar events.

The pastor was criticizing the "Black Lives Matters" movement, saying that all lives matters.  As an African-American, he acknowledged that the "Black Lives Matters" movement is protesting real problems.  But he does not believe that rioters display much wisdom.  He said that it is unwise for rioters to burn down businesses, because then they don't have a place to go to work the next day.  He said that he wouldn't express these opinions in the middle of Chicago, however, since then he'd be killed.

I do not really know this pastor, but my guess is that he has this perspective because he believes that is how African-Americans can get through life.  He probably acknowledges that things are unfair, but he may think that people need to make due with the hand that they've been dealt, on some level.  But the problem is that there are African-Americans going through life, and they end up dead after a tragic encounter with the police.  I wonder what the pastor thinks about that.  I'm sure he's against it, but is it more to him than something that he sees on the news and has an opinion about?

Of course, I cannot make a judgment, since I know little about the pastor.  I read on his bio that he used to be a cop.  That may factor into his views, somehow, and not necessarily in a gun-ho pro-police manner.  He may have a unique perspective.

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