Tuesday, August 30, 2016

A Reorientation of the Heart

At church last week, the pastor was preaching about James 5:1-6.  In that passage, James criticizes the rich people who hoarded their wealth, lived in luxury while depriving their workers of pay, and condemned the just one to death.

The pastor addressed a lot of issues, but I want to focus on one.  In the course of his sermon, the pastor was criticizing companies that shipped jobs overseas for the bottom line.  The pastor was beginning to sound like Bernie Sanders when he lamented the decline of America’s middle class!

This church is an interesting mix, politically-speaking.  Of course, the pastor and the church do not endorse or oppose candidates, but the pastor does voice his opinions about the issues of the day.  The church started out as an African-American church, but it became more multi-ethnic over the years; my guess, based on my observation when there, is that more than half of those who attend this particular church are African-American.  Plus, the pastor himself is African-American.  The church is rather conservative on social and cultural issues, such as school prayer and abortion.  This is not too much of a surprise to me.  What is more of a surprise to me is that the pastor is critical of the “Black Lives Matters” movement, as he says that “All lives matter.”  And last Sunday, and on other Sundays, the pastor criticized companies that ship jobs overseas.

The pastor was saying that, when we go to work on Monday, we should not tell our company that our pastor was criticizing its policies!  The pastor said that our greatest weapon is prayer.

I identified with this, but I would like to explain when and why that sort of spiel has turned me off in the past.  A lot of times, I have seen Christian conservatives say that we should pray that more people become Christians, and that will take care of the country’s problems, or at least improve the country’s situation.  The idea is that, if more people have new and changed hearts, then they will be less prone to commit the sins that harm other people.

My understanding is that this spiel was often used against the social Gospel, or any idea that the government should take a proactive role in tackling poverty.  Such a spiel was also used against the Civil Rights movement: you can’t legislate morality from the top down, some Christians said, but we should pray that more people will be converted, and then the different races will get along.  Ironically, many Christian conservatives still support using government power when it accords with their own religious, cultural, or moral agenda: on what marriages to recognize, on pornography, or on the promotion of religion in public schools.  Sometimes they want to legislate morality, and sometimes they do not.

This spiel has been abused, and yet there is some wisdom and merit to it, which is not to endorse all of the baggage that has accompanied this sentiment throughout history.  Legislation or decrees from the top down are not sufficient to tackle the country’s problems.  That is not to say that legislation or just enforcement of the law should not exist.  But it is to say that, as long as greed is a paramount factor in the decisions that people make, legislation will not cut it.  Health insurance companies will leave the Obamacare exchanges.  Corporations will pass on higher taxes to their consumers, resulting in higher prices.

What I believe I should pray is that people will become less greedy, that people will have a social conscience and concern for other people rather than thinking solely about their profits, and that they will repent over the damage that they are doing.  Does this entail praying that they will become Christians?  Well, perhaps a changed heart would be an asset.  A heart that is more like Christ will coincide with love of neighbor, concern for the poor, and trust in God, which may obviate whatever feelings of financial insecurity drive their greed.

But I am less-than-optimistic that them becoming Christians will necessarily make them less greedy or increase their social conscience, for there are plenty of Christians who compartmentalize their religion, or whose religion does not lead them to be less greedy.  Churches and religious people have managed to co-exist with societies that have massive problems, and there have been many times when they have ignored or even perpetuated these problems.

I will pray that people will have changed hearts in this area, either flowing from a Christian commitment or from good moral sense, or even a practical recognition that the current path is unsustainable.  In praying, I am assuming that God can bring this about, that God can enlighten people by changing their heart through God’s Spirit, or through experiences.  A re-orientation within people’s hearts is important for things to improve in this country.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Book Write-Up: The Touchpoint, by Bob Santos

Bob Santos.  The Touchpoint: Connecting with God Through the Bible.  Indiana, PA: Search for Me Ministries, Inc., 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

I read and reviewed Bob Santos’ The Divine Progression of Grace over a year ago and found it to be a thoughtful and edifying book.  When I learned about Santos’ new book, The Touchpoint, I wanted to read it.

The Touchpoint is essentially about the Bible.  Why is the Bible important for the Christian life?  How can believers have confidence that the Bible is credible?  How can Christians read and study the Bible, and make time to do so?  In the course of these discussions, Santos addresses hot-button issues, such as whether the Bible is inerrant, the historicity of the creation accounts in Genesis 1-2, and Christian abuses of Scripture.

The things that I liked about The Divine Progression of Grace are the things that I like about The Touchpoint.  Santos is honest about his personal and spiritual journey.  The Touchpoint seemed to have even more personal anecdotes than The Divine Progression of Grace, and this humanized Santos and enabled him to make a connection with me as a reader.  The prose of the book was easy to understand, and yet it was not the sort of book that I could binge read.  I read fifty pages a day and let that digest, for the book was rich and weighty.  And, overall, Santos attempts to be fair and balanced towards different perspective and to understand people’s struggles and challenges when it comes to making time and effort to study the Bible.

There were passages in the book that I especially appreciated.  I could identify with Santos’ statement that he was a good student but that he struggled in making life decisions, and that this was why he relied on God and the Bible.  On page 247, Santos said that he has to prove himself in his vocation by working “at speaking with meaning and clarity,” but “when it comes to my personal identity, I don’t need to prove anything to anybody,” for “My ‘work’ is simply to believe.”  Santos’ use of the analogy of skin and bones to highlight the roles of objective truth and subjective experience in the Christian life was effective, and his discussion of how the Gospel humbles peoples so that they will have humility in heaven was illuminating.

There was one area in which Santos’ point provoked a new insight within me, even though that new insight may go beyond what Santos intended.  I have long been skeptical of Christians who claim that they receive their interpretation of Scripture from the Holy Spirit.  In my opinion, such a stance implies that their interpretation has a certitude that it actually lacks.  Plus, some of these interpretations contradict each other, so do we want to say that God gives contradictory interpretations of Scripture?  Santos himself contends that people should ask God for guidance when reading Scripture, for spiritual truths are spiritually ascertained.  At the same time, Santos states that people should ask God to help them see what God wants them to see, to learn what God wants them to learn.  That, in my mind, is different from the notion that God gives believers divinely-sanctioned interpretations of Scripture.  God can guide people and use the Bible and other media to do so, even if God does not provide people with the final, unassailable interpretation of a biblical verse.

In terms of critiques, Santos at times seemed to contradict himself, sometimes in his attempts to balance out certain perspectives.  He proposed that the contradictions between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 may indicate that the creation accounts were not intended to be scientific, yet later he treats Adam and Eve as historical figures, although many scientists dispute that all of humanity descended from two people who lived six thousand years ago.  In one place, Santos said that fulfilled prophecy attests to the truth of the Bible, and he trotted out the usual texts in the Hebrew Bible that many Christians believe predict Jesus.  I wondered if Santos was aware that these passages appear to mean something different in their original contexts.  He later indicated that he was aware of this issue, for he said that Christians should not necessarily approach the Old Testament as the New Testament authors did.  Such contradictions did leave an unevenness in the book; at the same time, Santos may have been attempting to offer food for thought rather than giving the final comprehensive answer to these complex questions.

Overall, the apologetics parts of the book were all right, albeit subject to critique.  There was a lot of emphasis in the book on text criticism, but Santos did not really engage Bart Ehrman, who argues that ancient Christians did alter New Testament texts to accord with their religious views.  Santos was rather dismissive of higher critics, when their insights demonstrate that there is another side to the story besides what Santos presents.  Santos provided an actual argument that the creed in I Corinthians 15:3-7 originated within a decade after the death of Jesus, whereas many apologists simply assert that.  Santos’ reference to Sir William Ramsay, who in the nineteenth century converted from being a skeptic about the Book of Acts to accepting its historicity, was intriguing.

In my opinion, Santos’ personal or anecdotal arguments for Christianity were more appealing than his apologetic arguments.  Santos contends that people are looking for love, hope, and something to believe in, and he believes that the God of the Bible can meet these needs.  Santos also states that he has seen the life-transforming power of God in his own and other people’s lives.

This book is not comprehensive, but it is a Christian man sharing his experiences and insights in studying the Bible.  Seeing how another person does this can be helpful.

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

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Derek Leman on "No Other Name" (Acts 4:12)

Derek Leman was a Messianic rabbi, and I have been subscribing to his Daily D’var for years.  Now it is called the “Daily Portion.”

In his August 27, 2016 Daily Portion, Derek addresses Acts 4:12.  Acts 4:12 is a famous passage, in which Peter tells Jewish leaders after healing a lame man that there is no other name under heaven given among men by which one can be saved.  A number of Christians interpret that to mean that people who believe in Jesus in this life will go to heaven after they die, while those who do not believe in Jesus in this life will go to hell.

Derek offers an alternative interpretation: that the salvation in Acts 4:12 concerns Israel’s national salvation rather than going to heaven or hell after death.  For Derek, part of the issue is Israel avoiding a catastrophic collision with Rome.  Derek believes that this interpretation is consistent with the content of Peter’s speech in Acts 3:17-24, and also the meaning of salvation in the Hebrew Bible.

Questions remain in my mind.  For example, in the Book of Acts, there are places in which salvation applies to Gentiles, not just Jews (Acts 11:14; 15:1, 11; 16:30-31).  When Paul exhorted the Philippian jailer to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and he shall be saved, what did that have to do with national Israel repenting and avoiding collision with Rome?

Still, Derek raises important points that deserve consideration.  Does salvation in the New Testament relate, in any way, to the Israel-focused salvation in the Hebrew Bible?

Here are Acts 3 and Acts 4, in case you want to read them before reading Derek’s comments.

Derek’s comments:

NOTES: Johnson says that Acts is developing the theme of Israel’s true leadership, the apostles as the leaders of the remnant within Israel that follows Messiah Yeshua. In keeping with this theme, the Sanhedrin is powerless against the apostles in this story. They cannot punish them because the people have all seen the signs they performed. Peter instead preaches to the council! They come up with a weak judgment, to order them to silence. Peter refuses the order of the council and still he and John are let go. In every sense, the apostles thwart the power of the Sanhedrin and have the favor of the people. This position of the apostles is, of course, temporary, but Luke shows us a foretaste of the coming age when Israel will be governed by Yeshua and the apostles will sit on thrones (Luke 22:30). The chapter contains a number of interesting sayings. Vs. 2 could be translated either in or through Yeshua, so that they were saying the resurrection of the dead is in Yeshua or through him. This could mean that the foretaste of the resurrection has happened in Yeshua, so that Peter can point to the event of Yeshua’s raising as a sign to help his generation believe. Or he may mean more: that the only way to know we are included in the coming resurrection is if we locate ourselves in Yeshua. In vs. 10 he says the lame beggar was healed “in the name of Yeshua,” indicating that power to see miracles happens because of Yeshua’s coming and his authority given to the apostles as his agents. Finally, in vs. 12 he says salvation can be found in no one else. What is meant here by “salvation”? Some Christian traditions assume the word always means inclusion in the blessed afterlife. This is rarely if ever the meaning in the Bible. In Peter’s time the nation of Israel needs to be saved from its present course in a collision with Rome in which the people are headed for major destruction. The nation needs to find its salvation in the resurrected, ascended Messiah. Calling upon him as a nation would bring rescue to Israel, what Peter has also called a “time of refreshing” (Acts 3:20). In other words, the Messianic era can come down to earth, bringing peace and plenty to everyone. Compare this reading of Peter’s words with the more common individualistic salvation message: “if you will personally believe in Yeshua God will not punish you in the afterlife.” The individualized afterlife message, with its notion that God is waiting for each person to pass a test, fails to explain the long history of the word salvation as national deliverance and does not match well the plural nature of the words Peter has been using (“This Yeshua is the stone that was zejected by you, the builders”). He is calling on the collective nation to welcome Yeshua, not just individuals.

Book Write-Up: An Amish Harvest

An Amish Harvest: Four Novellas.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

As the title indicates, this book has four novellas.  Each is by a well-known author in the field of Amish fiction.  In this review, I will list each novella then offer my thoughts about it.

Beth Wiseman, “Under the Harvest Moon.”

This story deals with domestic violence, for the main character, Naomi, was physically abused by her late husband.  The novella’s interaction with this issue is effective.  It talks about the fear that Naomi experienced, her rationalizations of the violence, how her husband came across as a decent fellow to others, and the impact of the violence on at least one of her children.

A noteworthy plot device in the story involved Brock, Naomi’s love interest after her husband’s death.  Brock was English and was doing chores at Naomi’s place.  Unbeknownst to Naomi and her family, Brock has an Amish background and can understand them when they are discussing him as a romantic prospect for Naomi!

The novella also discusses powwowing, which is somewhat like witchcraft.  Amish culture largely disapproves of it, yet there are Amish people who secretly consult practitioners.  This was new to me.

The romance was rather rushed and a bit underdeveloped, but that may have been due to limitations in space.  The story did have some good characters, such as Naomi’s daughter,  who was intelligent beyond her years.

Amy Clipston, “Love and Buggy Rides.”

This story intersects, somewhat, with Amy Clipston’s “Amish Heirloom” series, but one can understand this story without having read the series.

This novella is about an accident involving an automobile and an Amish buggy.  An Amish young woman develops an attraction towards the driver of the buggy.  The story goes into the trouble that the driver was in, in terms of his job.

This story was not my favorite in the book, but it was all right.  There was not much in this story that was eventful.  Perhaps my reaction is due to my having already read an Amish novel (Kathleen Fuller’s An Unbroken Heart) involving an accident; fortunately, in Clipston’s novella, nobody is killed.

Kathleen Fuller, “A Quiet Love.”

In this novella, there is Amos, who is in his twenties.  Amos may be on the autistic spectrum, or he may be developmentally-delayed.  He is slow in processing things, and he is rather blunt when he speaks.  At the same time, he is very talented at drawing.

Dinah is also in her twenties.  She stutters, and she has been a recluse on account of that, even though her mother pressures her to go out, meet people, and get married.  She meets Amos because a relative of hers married a relative of his.

A romance develops between Amos and Dinah.  Amos thinks that Dinah is beautiful, and he likes that Dinah does not talk down to him or take offense at what he says; he feels comfortable around her, in short.  Dinah is drawn to Amos’ innocence.  She also notices his insight when she is teaching him to read poetry.  And there is the physical attraction.

This is a beautiful story, and it interacts thoughtfully with certain issues, such as the extent to which Amos understands romantic love, and his growth into adult responsibilities after he gets married.  It is moving when two “odd ducks” find each other and make a life together.  The appropriateness of such a relationship would probably be debated, though.

Vannetta Chapman, “Mischief in the Autumn Air.”

This story is a mystery, which is not surprising, since Vannetta Chapman writes Amish mysteries.  A map involving U.S. history is involved.  So is an auction.

I read this story in its entirety, but I had difficulty getting into it.  It could have used more pathos, which would have allowed me to connect more with the characters.  At the same time, the story’s distance did coincide with intelligent insights about God’s work in bringing people together to meet each other’s needs.

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

Friday, August 26, 2016

Humility and Limitations

At church last Sunday, the pastor preached about humility.  He has been going through the Book of James, and his text last Sunday was James 4:13-15.  In that passage, James criticizes people who have grandiose plans about what they are going to do tomorrow.  James points out that they do not know what will happen tomorrow, plus their life is a vapor.  They should say that, if the Lord wills, they will do those things tomorrow.

The pastor was telling us the customary points about how we can die at any time, so we should not take our lives for granted.  He exhorted us to consider how we are using the time that we have.

The pastor also told the story of a professional football player he knows.  The football player was moving to another location to play for another team.  The pastor asked him whether he was loyal to his current team, and the football player replied that it’s about money.  The football player said that he only had a limited time to play this sport, since he will not be young and fit forever.  During that time, he needs to make as much money as he can to provide for his family.  Plus, money has to be set aside for his family in case he is injured and cannot play the sport anymore.

That story about the football player calls to my mind how humbling life is.  That football player was probably confident—-the sort of person who exudes confidence in a room, and who has confidence in his abilities.  One has to be confident to do a lot of things.  Yet, reality makes him humble.  He knows that, due to human limitations, there will come a time when he will be unable to play this sport.  I would add that athletes are also humble when they train: they discipline themselves and they practice, for they realize that they need to prepare to play the game.  They cannot simply rest on their laurels and expect for their natural talent to carry them through.

I am far from being an athlete, yet I, too, am humbled by life, a lot of times.  Unfortunately, I can also get a pompous attitude, thinking that I’m morally better than certain people in certain areas.  That’s one, but not the only, reason that I need to go to God in prayer: to draw closer to God amidst my imperfections.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Book Write-Up: Between Pain and Grace

Gerald W. Peterman and Andrew J. Schmutzer.  Between Pain & Grace: A Biblical Theology of Suffering.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

Gerald W. Peterman and Andrew J. Schmutzer teach Bible at the Moody Bible Institute.  They contribute chapters to this book, Between Pain & Grace: A Biblical Theology of Suffering.  Some of the book’s chapters are by Peterman, some are by Schmutzer, and the final chapter is by both.

This book is rather thin in terms of discussing why God allows suffering.  The book blames the Fall, while also positing that God usually chooses not to intervene when God's image-bearers can do so.

The book is more substantive in discussing how Christians should view and respond to suffering, both their own and the suffering of others.  It presents God and Jesus as beings who have suffered, against ancient Christian views that attempted to distance God from emotion.  It is critical of Christians who maintain that Christians should never be sad because they have hope.  It advocates lament.  It talks about sexual abuse and mental illness.  It contends that Christians should be sensitive to where people are when they admonish, encourage, or help, a la I Thessalonians 5:14.

The book has its share of positives.  It is thoughtful and sophisticated, yet accessible to lay-readers.  It does not use big words, but its expression is still deep and weighty.  It tries to understand where people are coming from: why people may choose to leave the Christian faith in response to suffering, for example.

The book offered thought-provoking insights, some of which were new to me.  For instance, one of the essays notes that people forgiving others is not exactly a major theme or command in the Old Testament, whereas it is in the New, and it says that this is because of God’s forgiveness of people through Christ.  There are problems with this view.  Leviticus 19:18 forbids revenge or carrying a grudge.  Even before Christ came to earth, Ben Sira 28:2-7 exhorted people to forgive and even stated that God would not forgive those who withhold forgiveness from others; the New Testament commands on forgiveness may be continuing prior Jewish tradition, rather than just being based on atonement through Christ.  The synoptic Gospels, which talk frequently about forgiveness, do not really stress atonement through Christ.  Still, the essay in the book may be on to something.  Revenge did occur in the Old Testament, and God did not always express explicit disapproval of that; also, there are not too many explicit commands in the Old Testament to forgive and reconcile with others.

(UPDATE: This is not to suggest that the book argues that God permitted revenge in the Old Testament, for it does not argue this.  It is my impression, though, that the Old Testament at times allows for revenge.  That could be consistent with this book's argument that the Old Testament did not stress interpersonal forgiveness on the same level that the New Testament did, even though this book's authors would disagree with this application of the argument.)

Another essay in the book contrasted Old Testament anthropology with New Testament anthropology.  According to this essay, New Testament anthropology believed that humans consisted of body and soul, whereas Old Testament anthropology lacked that dualistic division.  The essay chalks that difference up to progressive revelation.  That discussion perhaps could have been developed some more, but the book’s notation of biblical diversity is one of its assets.

An edifying insight in the book concerned the family dysfunction in the Book of Genesis. One of the book’s authors said that, even though there was dysfunction, it was not the end of the world.  God was still at work, bringing forth good out of bad.  On the issue of forgiveness, there were times when what the book said may be uncomfortable for people struggling to forgive; in other cases, however, it offered a realistic view of forgiveness, one that empathizes with victims and upholds justice.

In terms of negatives, the book at first was like a laundry-list, as it looked at what the Bible said about the various kinds of suffering.  It listed a lot of things but did not really integrate them into a larger picture.  The book was also rather short in terms of solutions: for instance, it is critical of happy-clappy worship where people come and pretend to be happy, even if they are not, but it does not talk much about how worship can be structured to allow for lament.

Notwithstanding any shortcomings, the book is still an edifying read.

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

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Book Write-Up: Genesis Revisited

Donald Arlo Jennings.  Genesis Revisited: The Creation.  Bloomington: WestBow Press, 2013.  See here to buy the book.

Donald Arlo Jennings has a Ph.D. in Management Information Systems and has written about healthcare technology.  In Genesis Revisited, Jennings attempts to answer questions about the Book of Genesis.

Jennings asks a variety of questions as he reads Genesis.  There is the famous question of where Cain got his wife.  Jennings wonders if the vast multitude of the people on earth truly could have descended from just eight people on the Ark.  He asks where the races came from: the Tower of Babel story talks about God creating different languages, but how did God create different races?

The answer that Jennings proposes involves aliens.  For Jennings, God could have created human-like creatures in outer space and populated the earth with them.  That would explain where Cain got his wife, the multitude of people after the Flood, and perhaps even the different races: there are more people on earth than those descended from Adam and Eve and Noah.  Jennings also speculates that God may also have sent renegade aliens to the earth as prisoners.  The wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah may have been from outer space, Jennings states.  But Jennings also wonders if Adam himself may have been created in outer space, or if the Garden of Eden was necessarily on the planet earth.

Jennings biblical arguments have a lot of “What ifs?”  Jennings often speculates, without much basis for his speculation.  Occasionally, Jennings does appeal to phenomena in the Bible.  He relies some on the work of Erich von Daniken.  Jennings refers to the shiny divine chariot in Ezekiel 1 as a possible UFO phenomenon, and he relates the sons of God mating with the daughters of men in Genesis 6 to aliens having sexual intercourse with humans.  Oddly, Jennings interprets the light coming into the world in John 1 in reference to UFOs, when the vast majority of interpreters would rightly interpret that in reference to Jesus coming to earth.

Jennings also relates stories about UFO sightings and abductions, perhaps in an attempt to demonstrate that what he is arguing is possible, even plausible.

Here are some critiques of the book:

A.  The book could have been better organized.  It was rambling, and Jennings often repeated points that he had made earlier.  He should have organized the chapters by topic.

B.  The book could have been better written.  The grammar and the spelling were all right, but the prose could have been a lot tighter and more formal.  Jennings comes across as someone meandering around, guessing this and guessing that.  He uses “I” a lot, and that is not necessarily bad, but narrating more in the third person could have added a tone of formality to the book.

C.  The book could have offered more substantive arguments.  Jennings would dismiss evolution and say that he believes in the Bible, for example, as if that by itself were an argument against evolution.  He should have mentioned arguments in support for evolution and said why he found them implausible, or at least referred to creationist or Intelligent Design resources that did so.  At times, Jennings indicated some familiarity with debates, but this book had a lot of unsupported assertions.

D.  The book could have been better had Jennings imitated an episode of Ancient Aliens, while adding his own questions and thoughts.  Many scholars, probably correctly, disagree with what Ancient Aliens says.  Yet, Ancient Aliens can be entertaining because it gets into mythology throughout cultures and compares it with supposed UFO and alien phenomena.  The people on the show offer arguments and base what they are claiming on at least something.  After watching Ancient Aliens, I often rush to the Internet to find how mainstream scholars explain the phenomena that Ancient Aliens discusses.  With the exception of Jennings’ discussion about Noah’s Ark supposedly being found, there was nothing in Jennings book that I wanted to fact-check.  Why would anyone want to fact-check a bunch of unsupported guesses?

E.  Jennings’ theological framework was rather unclear.  Of course, he is a Christian and believes in the Bible.  But how would he reconcile that with seeing God’s chariot in Ezekiel 1 as a UFO?  Jennings should have explained how he holds all that together.

I give this book one star.

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

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Book Write-Up: How Jesus Saves the World from Us

Morgan Guyton.  How Jesus Saves the World from Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

Morgan Guyton blogs at the “Mercy Not Sacrifice” blog at Patheos and has written a number of online articles.  He has also been a United Methodist pastor.  In How Jesus Saves the World from Us, Guyton critiques what he considers to be toxic Christian attitudes.  More saliently, Guyton offers what he believes is a constructive Christian alternative, referring to Scripture and his own experiences.  This constructive alternative concerns one’s attitude towards sin and atonement, one’s view of Scripture, and one’s spirituality.

People who feel burned out by conservative evangelical Christianity will probably enjoy this book.  At the same time, while many may stereotype Guyton as a liberal mainliner, he is not entirely that, for he does seem to embrace the historicity of the virgin birth and Jesus’ literal resurrection in this book.  For Guyton, these events are examples of God doing something new in history, encouraging people to hope in God’s fresh activity.

Guyton also is edified by Roman Catholicism and Orthodox traditions.  He speaks in favor of sacraments that allow people to sense the faith, and he tells a beautiful story of how he used to visit regularly a Catholic mass and respected the awe for the holy that he observed there.  Moreover, while Guyton is critical of elements and attitudes within evangelicalism, he embraces elements of conservative Christianity.

In terms of positives, Guyton does offer food for thought, along with honest and vulnerable anecdotes.  His story about visiting the Catholic mass was excellent, but so was his insight into Jesus’ parable of the sower.  Guyton observed that the sower was wasteful in scattering the seed, even towards ground where the seed would not grow.  For Guyton, that means that God is continually speaking to us, even when we are not receptive.  Guyton’s stories about the humility that he observed in dying mainline churches, which he had previously considered “lukewarm,” also stood out.

Guyton’s critiques of evangelical attitudes drew an “Amen!” from this reviewer, and yet Guyton also told an endearing story about a friend of his who was once a progressive and became a conservative after being in a conservative Christian addiction program.  Guyton respects this person’s path, even if it is not Guyton’s own, and Guyton views this person as a fellow co-worker for the Kingdom.  Building bridges and respecting another’s path are commendable.

In terms of criticisms, I have three.

First of all, on page 128, Guyton states: “When was the last time you invited a homeless person into your home to eat at your table?  I sure haven’t.”  Guyton is implying that we should do this, while acknowledging that he has not (at least prior to this book).  People may have understandable reservations when it comes to letting people into their home, however.  Guyton should probably lead by example on this before he tells others what to do, and not only because it is tiring to see progressive Christians (not all, but many) put heavy burdens on people that they themselves do not carry.  By leading by example, Guyton can tell stories about how something like this is done, and then other Christians may not be as apprehensive about taking that kind of step.

Second, on page 122, Guyton talks about an officer who shot an African-American woman.  Responding to friends who knew this officer and said that he was a Christian man, Guyton states: “I don’t doubt Encinia is a good Christian man who believes that he must respond severely to any challenge to his complete authority.”  That is a very judgmental statement.  Guyton may have been saying this to set the stage for his excellent critique of Franklin Graham, who said that police shootings can be avoided through obedience to authority.  As Guyton astutely notes, Jesus challenged authority!  But Guyton could have made that point without presuming to know the motives of the officer.

Third, Guyton talks about how he has been jealous of famous evangelical pastors who pack auditoriums, but that God has used his relative lack of fame to teach him about the Kingdom.  Guyton should have told more anecdotes to illustrate this.  Earlier, he told a story about how a lesbian mainline pastor reached out to him at a low point in his life, but he should have elaborated about the lessons of the Kingdom that he has encountered in humble settings.  That would have clarified his point, while balancing out—-or better, overshadowing—-his personal complaints.

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

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Book Write-Up: A Doubter's Guide to the Ten Commandments

John Dickson.  A Doubter’s Guide to the Ten Commandments: How, For Better or Worse, Our Ideas About the Good Life Come from Moses and Jesus.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

John Dickson has a Ph.D. in Ancient History from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.  In A Doubter’s Guide to the Ten Commandments, Dickson comments on each of the ten commandments.  Although Dickson in his comments shares his knowledge of ancient history with readers and refers them to scholarly books, this book is popular rather than scholarly.

Here are some of my comments on the book:

A. Narrowing down Dickson’s approach to the commandments is difficult, for Dickson does a variety of things throughout the book.  On some commandments, he refers to what the commandments may have meant in light of their ancient Near Eastern context.  In other chapters, by contrast, that sort of analysis was sorely lacking, and Dickson focused instead on philosophical issues (i.e., is God necessary for morality to exist?) or how Judaism and Christianity compare with other world religions.  Both of these issues are relevant to contemporary debates between Christians and atheists.  Parts of the book are rather homiletical, as Dickson quotes such thinkers as C.S. Lewis and John Calvin.  Throughout the book, Dickson discusses the significance of the commandments in the New Testament: how the New Testament interprets, applies, or amplifies the commandments.

The book had a lot of asides and was somewhat meandering.  In some cases, Dickson seemed contradictory, as when he was addressing the question of whether God in the Old Testament blessed people materially as a reward for good behavior and whether that affirmed the prosperity Gospel.  Dickson is against the prosperity Gospel, but he was rather contradictory on material blessings in the Old Testament.  There were also occasions when his point was a bit unclear.  He says more than once that what has influenced Western civilization for the better has been the commandments as they have been interpreted in Christianity, rather than Judaism or their original meaning.  What exactly Dickson’s point was in making that statement is difficult to determine.  Was this his justification for looking at what the New Testament said about the commandments?  Was he somehow marginalizing what the commandments meant in their ancient Near Eastern context or Judaism?  But Dickson does discuss what they meant within those contexts, often positively!  Even the subtitle of the book is confusing: “How, For Better or Worse, Our Ideas About the Good Life Come From Moses and Jesus.”  Better or worse?  Dickson argues consistently that the ten commandments made a positive contribution to Western civilization.  Where’s this “worse” come from?

Part of the book’s charm is in its thoughtful, informed, and honest meanderings.  Still, perhaps the book could have been better organized, with more consideration of the commandments’ ancient Near Eastern context and their place in biblical religion.  In each chapter on the commandments, Dickson could have had sections on what a commandment meant in its original context, how Judaism and Christianity interpreted it, and that commandment’s relevance to today.

B.  Dickson’s overall approach is to see biblical religion as different from, and superior to, other religions.  It is interesting how Christian apologists take different approaches in their comparison of biblical religions with other religions, and the point that they believe their comparison is making.  Dickson stresses the contrasts: he contrasts the Sabbath commandment with ancient views on rest and work, the biblical God with pagan gods, and Christian attitudes on charity with pagan attitudes.  He regards biblical religion as distinct, superior, and revolutionary.  Yet, there are other Christian apologists, such as David Marshall, who look at similarities between Christianity and other religions and imply that this shows God is revealing Godself to humanity, cross-culturally.  (Marshall also makes contrasts and believes that biblical religion is revolutionary.)  Do the biblical religion’s differences from other religions attest to its truth, or are its similarities with other religions what demonstrate the truth of what it is saying?  Such a discussion would be interesting!

The points that Dickson makes are certainly relevant and important to consider.  There may be truth in a lot of what he says about the differences between biblical religion and other religions.  At the same time, one should remember that there are other perspectives on this issue, and that these other perspectives, too, may be referring to details that are true, or that are part of the picture.  Atheist biblical scholar Hector Avalos recently quoted on John Loftus’ “Debunking Christianity” blog a statement by Christian scholar John Goldingday.  This statement appears on pages 42-43 of Goldingday’s book, Do We Still Need the New Testament?:

“What difference did Jesus’ coming make to the world? It has been argued that ‘The Church has made more changes on earth for good than any other movements of force in history,’
including the growth of hospitals, universities, literacy and education, capitalism and free enterprise, representative government, separation of political powers, civil liberty, the abolition of slavery, modern science, the discovery of the Americas, the elevation of women, the civilizing of primitive cultures, and the setting of languages to writing.

“It is easy to dispute this claim. The church resisted some of these developments just listed, some are not particularly Christian, and all were encouraged by humanistic forces and reflect Greek thinking as much as gospel thinking.”

There are passages in Greco-Roman literature that depict Zeus as just and compassionate.  Hospitality was an honored value in the Greco-Roman world, which is why Josephus tried to present Judaism as a compassionate religion to his Roman audience.  Morton Smith, in his article “Common Theology of the Ancient Near East,” which appeared in the Journal of Biblical Literature 71 (1952) 135-147, argued that the ancient Israelites resembled other ancient Near Eastern societies in their belief in a god who was just and compassionate.

This is not to suggest that Dickson should repudiate his viewpoint.  This book would have been better, however, had he thoughtfully wrestled with the other side, as he thoughtfully engages perspectives throughout the book.

C.  There are times when Dickson makes claims without telling the reader the source for his claims.  When he does document his claims, however, he is very helpful.  When Dickson contrasts Christian attitudes on charity with pagan attitudes, he refers readers to a scholarly book on the subject.  When Dickson contrasts Jesus’ stance on vows with Jewish stances, Dickson refers readers to specific passages in the Mishnah about vows that are not binding.

D.  The book is informative.  Dickson’s interpretation of the Sabbath commandment in light of ancient conceptions of work is noteworthy.  Dickson also refers to a medieval Christian concept that a poor person who steals to feed his family is technically not stealing, since the poor person is entitled to provision.  Dickson probably does not say this to recommend such behavior, but rather to show that the commandment against stealing is about more than what’s yours is yours, and what’s mine is mine.

E.  Reading the Sermon on the Mount can be difficult.  When Jesus tells us to reconcile with our brother who has something against us before we offer our gift to God (Matthew 5:24), does that mean we have to make everyone like us, before we can worship God?  But Jesus offended people!  When Jesus says that those who lust after women are adulterers at heart (Matthew 5:27-32), does Jesus forbid men to have a natural sex drive?  And is Jesus really equating hate with murder and lust with adultery?  When I told a secular therapist that, she was baffled: of course, she thought that actual murder was worse than hating someone!

An asset to this book is that Dickson engages these questions.  In some cases, he merely makes assertions.  In other cases, he offers an argument for his interpretation, as he does regarding Matthew 5:27-32.  His sensitivity to these issues was impressive.  His interpretations are reasonable, yet they maintain the challenge of the Sermon on the Mount.

F.  There were discussions in Dickson’s book that were inspiring and edifying.  A discussion that particularly comes to mind concerns how Christians can love everybody, while still maintaining high standards about what is right and wrong.  Humility about one’s own shortcomings plays a key role in that, according to Dickson.
This is a good book, and I am definitely open to reading other books by Dickson.

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

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Book Write-Up: A Little Handbook for Preachers

Mary S. Hulst.  A Little Handbook for Preachers: Ten Practical Ways to a Better Sermon by Sunday.  Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

Mary Hulst is a college chaplain and has been a professor of preaching and a senior pastor.  As the title indicates, this book is about how preachers can prepare and preach better sermons.

Hulst discusses how preachers can research for their sermons, in terms of both Bible study and also looking for anecdotes.  She talks about the content of sermons: how to encourage people to act in light of God’s work and grace rather than coming across as a nagging parent, and how to organize the sermon so that it makes clear, applicable points that stay in the minds of listeners, without creating information-overload.  Hulst supports preaching about what the biblical passage meant in its original context, yet she also wants the sermon to preach Christ.  Hulst stresses the importance of pastors getting to know people in their congregation, which is relevant to what content to include in sermons: to know why the people like the TV shows that they like, for example (i.e., what needs or desires are those TV shows meeting?), and to know what questions the people are asking in light of their own experiences.  Effective delivery of sermons is another topic in this book, and this includes eye-contact, gestures, and the use of props.  Hulst also offers advice on interpersonal issues, such as dealing with feedback, including from one’s spouse.  In addition, she deals with thorny issues, such as whether a pastor should ever preach somebody else’s sermon, say, one from the Internet.

There are many positives to this book.  It is grace-filled.  It is honest, vulnerable, and empathetic, in that Hulst understands why pastors can be sensitive about feedback on their sermons.  It has stories, which effectively illustrate the points that Hulst makes.  It is highly practical and specific.  As one who has preached his share of wandering sermons that have information-overload, I found her reference to Paul Scott Wilson’s Four Pages of the Sermon to be especially helpful: a well-ordered sermon can identify the trouble or need that is discussed in the biblical passage and a similar trouble or need today, then say what God was doing then in response to that trouble or need in the biblical passage, and what God is doing now.  Such an approach can help a preacher to focus and organize his or her research about the biblical text, allowing the sermon to make a point rather than becoming aimlessly antiquarian or going on tangents.  Hulst provides examples on how to execute this approach, using Psalm 84 and James 1:19-27 as her texts.  Hulst’s book also has an annotated bibliography, in which she tells readers the books that she has found helpful and says why she found them helpful.

In terms of critiques, a lot of Hulst’s advice presumes that the pastors reading this book are pastors of small or medium-sized congregations: the types in which the pastor knows a lot of the people there, and they know the pastor.  Her advice would be helpful for pastors of such congregations, but she should also have addressed whether, or how, similar principles can be applied by pastors of large churches, or megachurches.

There was an area in which I somewhat agreed with Hulst, and somewhat disagreed with her.  Hulst is largely against pastors preaching a lot about themselves.  She astutely notes that not everyone in the congregation is in the same place or has the same background as the pastor: some are younger, some are older, some have a different marital status, etc.

On page 167, Hulst discourages pastors from telling personal anecdotes that make themselves look stupid or prone to anger, since people need them to be pastors, “someone who appears to love God and follow him well…”   She goes on to say: “If the story is gently self-deprecating, humble and allows you to give testimony to God’s work in your life, you’re probably fine.”

Personally, I prefer sermons in which pastors are honest about their struggles and vulnerabilities, in which they present themselves, not as perfect, but as people on a spiritual path, like many in the congregation.  That can comfort people in the congregation that they are not alone.  Hulst perhaps should have discussed this further.  At the same time, Hulst did well to advise pastors against going too far with this, or doing so in a manner that is counterproductive.

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

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Book Write-Up: What Christians Ought to Believe

Michael F. Bird.  What Christians Ought to Believe: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine Through the Apostle’s Creed.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

In What Christians Ought to Believe?, New Testament scholar and theologian Michael Bird goes through the Apostle’s Creed.  Bird uses statements from it as a launchpad for a fuller explanation of Christian doctrine.  Among the topics that Bird discusses are faith in God, God as creator, Jesus as God incarnate and Messiah, the virgin birth, the significance of Jesus’ crucifixion, Jesus’ descent into Hades and resurrection, Jesus’ ascension to heaven and corresponding reign, the Holy Spirit, the church, and issues related to the afterlife and eschatology.  Before Bird’s chapters about the sections of the Apostle’s Creed, Bird explains why creeds are important.  Bird addresses a question some Protestants may have: Why should Christians consult creeds, when they already have the authoritative Bible?

The book has its share of positives.  It is eloquent yet down-to-earth, with illustrations and occasional humor.  Bird’s Christian conviction is manifest in this book, and it is contagious: readers can feel inspired, stronger, and hopeful as they go through this book.  Bird has a pastoral sensitivity, especially when he discusses the role of doubt in the life of a believer.  In addition, Bird on occasion is unafraid to challenge conventional Christian wisdom.  For example, in his chapter on the virgin birth, he denies that the virgin birth is primarily about Jesus being born without original sin, as he offers other reasons that it is significant.

This book is popular and rather homiletical, and yet the times when it is influenced by scholarship are definite assets.  There are occasions when Bird interacts with scholarly arguments, particularly in his chapter on the virgin birth, as he disputes arguments that the virgin birth is unhistorical and was influenced by paganism.  Bird in footnotes refers readers to scholarly treatments of such topics as the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus.  Bird mentions historical nuances on Jesus’ descent into and harrowing of Hades.  The history of Christian theology looms large in this book, as Bird describes beliefs that came to be considered heretical (i.e., Marcionism, Arianism), while lucidly discussing what was theologically at stake in these debates.  In addition, Scripture plays a significant role in Bird’s explanation of the Apostle’s Creed.

The book has some negatives, however.  At times, Bird makes assertions and assumptions in this book, without really supporting them.  Bird assumes and asserts that the church creeds (i.e., the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, etc.) reflect normative Christian belief going back to the time of the apostles.  Bird’s interpretation of the New Testament reflects that, including his apparent assumption that the New Testament presents a rather monolithic perspective on such issues as Christology. There are many New Testament scholars who would disagree and see early Christianity as more diverse.  Bird knows this and has engaged their thought in other works.  Even in a popular work, Bird should have mentioned sources about this in a footnote, at least so that readers can know that Bird grounds his narrative in something other than assertion.

Another example in which Bird makes assertions is in his chapter on the atonement.  After acknowledging that the New Testament does not explicitly say how Jesus’ death and resurrection bring forgiveness, Bird lists different ideas about the atonement throughout church history and asserts that they all are a facet of how the atonement works.  On what authority does Bird say this, if the Bible itself is not so specific?  One could appeal to an alleged apostolic tradition as authoritative, but Bird fails to marshal patristic statements on this, which is what people who emphasize apostolic church tradition (i.e., Catholics) would usually do.  To his credit, though, Bird did quote Athanasius.

Bird often quotes people throughout church history, even people who lived long after the time of the apostle’s creed.  That is not necessarily bad, for this book is an explanation of Christian doctrine, rather than a scholarly explication of what the Apostle’s Creed originally meant in its historical context.  Bird probably was not trying to imply that someone living centuries after the time of the Apostle’s Creed was an authoritative source for what the people who composed the creed intended.  Still, Bird perhaps should have included more patristic references that were closer to the time of the apostle’s creed, or even references to Jewish sources predating Christianity.

In the chapter on Jesus’ ascension to heaven and corresponding reign, Bird should have contrasted the time before Jesus’ coming with the time after his coming.  What is different now, after Jesus has gone to heaven and sat beside the throne of God?  What difference does Jesus’ rule make, and how does that contrast with God’s rule before Jesus came to earth?  Bird says things throughout the book that may touch on this, but such questions should have been engaged more directly.

There were two passages in the book that especially stood out to me.  First of all, on page 59, Bird offers reasons that monarchianism and modalism do not make sense.  Bird states that “if you read [II Corinthians 13:14] in a monarchian sense, it seems rather impoverished as God’s blessing is mediated through two lesser gods rather than coming directly from him.”  Bird seems to be arguing that standard trinitarianism makes sense of the benediction in II Corinthians 13:14, whereas certain heretical positions do not.  Bird also is identifying and clarifying what is at stake in the acceptance of some positions over others.  At the same time, Bird’s argument that the monarchian position is “impoverished” arguably implies (whether or not Bird intends this) that personal taste should play some role in what one accepts as truth.  There are many fundamentalist Christian ideas that some people find “impoverished” or even oppressive, yet many fundamentalist Christians would tell these people to suck it up: their preferences make no difference in terms of what the truth is!  After all, there are a lot of unpleasant ideas that are true!  By contrast, Bird in this book often tries to argue that Christian doctrines have been rejected because they have not been properly understood.  The implication may be that true doctrines are not just true but are rich, make sense, and have a positive effect on people, when properly understood.  Would that not be the case of doctrines that come from a beneficent God?

Second, on page 172, Bird states: “Jesus is not coming back to inflict apocalyptic carnage on a bunch of innocent agnostics; rather, he is coming to bring heavenly justice to a world that is submerged in wickedness and mired in corruption.”  There may be truth to this, yet it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Christianity, and aspects of the Bible, forecast doom for non-believers: everyday people who simply reject Christian doctrines.  But I am open to different interpretations and views on this!

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

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Not Wanting to Be Hurtful

At church last week, the sermon had a lot of things with which I disagree.  I can itemize them all in this post, but I don’t want to do that.  Instead, I’ll look for common ground and identify where I agreed.

The pastor was talking about conflict.  He asked us if we really want to say something hurtful to someone else, something that would make that person cry.  I have to admit that I would not want to be that hurtful.  And, if I were that hurtful, I should apologize to that person.  But it is better not to be that hurtful in the first place.

As the pastor said, though, hurt people hurt people.  That is why I need to pray continually to God for God to set my heart at peace, or at least to give me self-control so that I do not blow up at people.

That doesn’t mean that I can never stand up for myself or stand up to people when they are being out of line.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Book Write-Up: Critical Theology, by Carl A. Raschke

Carl A. Raschke.  Critical Theology: Introducing an Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

Carl A. Raschke teaches religious studies at the University of Denver.  In Critical Theology: Introducing an Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis, Raschke explores how Christian theology can contribute to political liberation.  Raschke refers to a global crisis, which includes disarray on the global scale and the aftermath of the economic collapse in 2008.  Another problem that Raschke discusses is how the communications media enslave people by emphasizing commodification.  Karl Marx’s thought plays a role in Raschke’s analysis, as Raschke notes Marx’s insight that the superstructure (i.e., society, media, etc.) often supports and reinforces the class system.

Raschke presents a history of Christian theology’s political programs, primarily in the twentieth century.  Bultmann, Heidigger, Otto, and Barth were significant figures in this.  Neo-Kantianism also had significant influence in the story that Raschke tells.  (Kant, of course, was a philosopher, but there was a transcendental and religious dimension to his thought, which would influence later neo-Kantianism.)  Raschke also discusses the Frankfurt School, which offered analysis that was supportive of liberation, albeit from a largely secularist standpoint. (Yet, Raschke says in an endnote that some have argued that the Frankfurt School was actually open to religion playing a role in liberation.)

Raschke profiles thinkers whom he believes can inform the agenda that he believes is important.  Raschke discusses how Badiou and Zizez interpret Paul in a manner that is consistent with political liberation.  Law refers not just to the Torah in their thought, but to structures of society that enslave.  Grace ran contrary to such law in Badiou’s thought, and Zizez regarded love as a cure for treating people as commodities.  Zizez interpreted faith as optimism regarding the future.  Badiou and Zizez were still secularists, but they believed that aspects of the Christian religion could be helpful in their analysis and articulation of the importance of political liberation.

What elements of Christianity does Raschke highlight as significant in terms of the agenda that he introduces?  He appears to agree with Zizez’s emphasis on love.  He highlights the incarnation, in which God in Jesus was present with humanity.  That may relate to God’s concern for humanity, which a political theology presumes, but it also seems to relate to how Raschke believes Christians should interact with other cultures and religions in a post-modern age.  At the same time, Raschke maintains that Christians should regard ethics as transcendent: human value and dignity are not relative but are absolute principles from God.

The book is highly abstract and complex, and one may wonder if a lot of academic and philosophical language is being unnecessarily used to express the simple proposition that love is the answer.  It is tempting to think so, and yet Raschke does wade in waters that are deep and complex.  These waters concern trends from the past and the present, in thought and in life, and how the agenda that Raschke introduces engages current trends.

In terms of the political program that Raschke promotes, Raschke seems to emphasize the power of ideas, used by God, to effect change.  He is critical of violent revolution.  He talks about the New Left, and he may be supportive of political activism, motivated, for Christians, by theological concerns.  His hope may be that more people will see the Christian religion as something other than an object of study, a set of creeds, or feel-good platitudes, and to embrace it as something that can make a positive difference in the world for all people, especially the disenfranchised.

This book has its positives.  It is informative in its exploration of theological and philosophical political thought, and some of that thought interacted with other fields, such as psychology.  This book is deep and rich.  The treatment of Paul by Badiou and Zizez was definitely creative.  Raschke’s discussion of how thinkers in the New Left opposed totalitarian Communism was also interesting, since many right-wingers tend to lump the two together as allies.

In terms of negatives, this book could have been clearer in terms of its prose, hopefully without sacrificing its depth.  The prose in the endnotes was very lucid, and perhaps Raschke would have done well to have used that kind of prose throughout the book.  Moreover, while Raschke is interacting with and contributing to an academic discussion, Raschke should have explained how these academic thoughts could make a difference on the ground.

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

Sunday, August 14, 2016

"Paul on Being Justified by Faith[fulness]," by Derek Leman

Derek Leman was a Messianic rabbi, and I have been subscribing to his Daily D’var for years.  Now it is called the “Daily Portion.”  In the August 13, 2016 Daily Portion, Derek shares some thoughts on what it means to be justified by faith.  Specifically, he weighs in on the debate about whether Paul believed or stressed that people are saved by their own faith in Christ, or by Christ’s faithfulness to humanity and to God in carrying out his saving mission.  Are people saved by faith in Jesus, or by the faith of Jesus?  Derek agrees with the latter.

In posting his comments, I am not entirely endorsing them, for I still have questions: Why does Paul stress Abraham’s faith and seem to imply that people should follow that?  Romans 10:9 says that those who confess the Lord Jesus and believe in their hearts that God raised him from the dead will be saved.  Derek explains that verse, in light of his argument.

Still, a lot of what Derek says resonates with me, from an emotional standpoint.  Am I saved by conjuring up faith and making myself believe certain things?  How is that different from being saved by good works and personal efforts?

That said, I present to you Derek’s thoughts:

Paul on Being Justified by Faith[fulness]

We have been assured of divine acceptance, says Paul, by the faithfulness of Messiah. More than that, through Messiah’s faithfulness, we have obtained access into a new standing with God, living under the certainty of his kindness (and thus, dispelling the fear that his wrath is what is causing the problems in our lives). Where does Paul say such beautiful things? Romans 5:1-2, which in the ESV translation read, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”

It may appear to you that Paul’s words in the ESV version are not saying the same thing as my first two sentences. Paul’s words seem to be about us having faith and our faith being the prerequisite requirement for all the good things God does for us. God, according to justification theory (a name for the commonly accepted idea of what the Christian message is) knows we cannot keep his moral laws perfectly and so he makes an easier test: just believe in a few things about me and my Son and I will treat you as though you are righteous.

Sometimes the things we think we know turn out not to be true. Romans 5 is not saying our faith earns God’s reward. Nor is it saying our ability to believe is what changes God’s attitude toward us from wrath to benevolence. Messiah’s faithfulness has brought about a new realization for us. Messiah is God made flesh. The way he has acted for us shows us what God, hidden in heaven, truly thinks. He turns out to be a God who gets right down here with us, suffering alongside us, crying with us, laughing with us, dying with us, and — when time has fulfilled its course — rising with us.

Now I am not saying that our faith (belief, trust) in God and Messiah is irrelevant or unimportant. To be clear, I am saying that our faith (belief, trust) is not a condition of God’s love and acceptance but is a result of God’s love and acceptance. I am not saying faith is unimportant. I am saying, for people who like theological terms, it is part of our sanctification (growth to maturity while we live in this present evil age) and not the basis of our justification (being accepted now by God and assured of being found innocent in the coming judgment).

But wait, faith is the condition. We’ve always been taught that, right? “Believe” is sometimes a command and the promise that goes with it is “you will be saved.” But maybe, and this is what I am saying, believing is an experience that happens to us, not something we cause to happen. And maybe “believe in the Lord Messiah Yeshua and you will be saved” is not a command to meet a condition, but a statement of result: “if you find yourself responding with faith to what you hear, you will know that you are saved.”

All of this preparation is so I can talk about an idea which has become well-known in modern scholarship of the Greek New Testament but which is not commonly known at the popular level. The numerous “by faith” statements in Paul could mean something different than the way popular translations render them and the manner in which they are usually understood.

There are two reasons for this. One is that faith-as-condition is an assumed paradigm with a lot of tradition behind it and strength. The other is that few realize the Greek word group for “faith” usually means “faithfulness, fidelity, persevering in belief” and not “giving assent to an idea, believing a fact.”

So, is it our faith or Messiah’s faithfulness? Is Paul talking about something Messiah did for us or a condition we meet in order to receive the benefits of what Messiah did for us? Let’s take a verse as an example, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith/faithfulness, we have peace with God through our Lord Messiah Yeshua” (Rom 5:1). Have we been justified [accepted as one of the righteous destined for vindication in the coming judgment] because we met the condition of faith? Or have we been justified because of faithfulness [the faithfulness of Yeshua who believed what the Father told him, that his death and resurrection would save humans]?

I will try to persuade you of the latter, that Messiah’s faithfulness is meant and not our ability to believe.
First, don’t remain stuck on the translation “we have been justified by [our meeting God’s condition of] faith” just because it’s what you’ve always heard. Be willing to reprogram your mind to read it in a way no common English translation renders it: “we have been justified by faithfulness [Messiah’s, that is].”

Second, don’t forget that Romans 5:1 begins with a “therefore.” And “therefore” directs us to look at what came before, which would be Romans 4:25. When we look there we find the statement that Yeshua “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” The verse is unambiguous. The cause of our justification is Messiah, not us. So when Paul says “therefore” in 5:1, he repeats the thought “since we have been justified by faithfulness,” and adds something new “we have peace with God.” The “faithfulness” of 5:1 is that Yeshua was delivered up and raised, not a reference to our capacity for faith.

Third, Paul emphasizes repeatedly that Messiah is the foundation of his message, that the message of Messiah is God’s power to change human hearts, and that the Gospel is what happened to and through Messiah. Does it make more sense for Paul to say that we are vindicated before God by the merit of our faith or Messiah’s faithfulness?

Fourth, realize what justification means for Paul, the Jewish teacher of Gentiles. The source of the idea for him is the Hebrew Bible. God is King and Judge of the earth. He has chosen Israel. The nations accuse Israel of being undeserving and at times God uses the nations as his instruments to chastise Israel. The question of justice comes up repeatedly in books like Isaiah and Psalms. But in God’s law-court, Israel is destined to be vindicated in the end, its punishment over, its consolation assured. Israel’s justification is based on the assurance of God’s covenant love. It does not depend on Israel and the outcome is never in doubt. Should we be surprised that love, not legal justice, is the basis for vindication on the last day for all who belong to Messiah? It depends on what God does, not what we do.

Fifth, when Paul contrasts works of the law with either our faith or Messiah’s faithfulness, which contrast makes more sense? If the right interpretation is “our faith,” then the contrast is between two kinds of human action: doing works versus believing facts. One is law-keeping and the other is mental assent (see N.T. Wright, What St Paul Really Said, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997, pg. 110). But the contrast is much clearer if what he means is not our works but God’s faithfulness made known in Yeshua. That would be a contrast between human action (law-keeping) and divine action (the sending of Yeshua to die and be raised). If God did it, no human can boast.

And sixth, if it is by our faith then we have the problem of knowing the minimum content of our faith. How many facts about God and Messiah must be included in our faith? How long is God’s multiple choice test and how many questions can we miss? But if it is by Messiah’s faithfulness then the whole thing is not a test. It is more like a rescue mission. Which better fits God, the “tester of minds” or the “healer of souls”?

Friday, August 12, 2016

Book Write-Up: A Tapestry of Secrets, by Sarah Loudin Thomas

Sarah Loudin Thomas.  A Tapestry of Secrets.  Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

A Tapestry of Secrets is mostly set in 2008, but it occasionally is set in 1948.  The settings are Virginia and West Virginia.

In 2008, there is Ella.  Ella has been dating Max, a cold shark of a lawyer.  But she is thinking of breaking up with Max and has other suitors: Richard, who is a local pastor, and Seth, who does not have much of a family of his own and thus hangs around Ella’s family.

Perla is Ella’s grandmother and has had a stroke.  Perla’s daughter Sadie is curious about who her (Sadie’s) father is, knowing Perla’s husband is not her biological father.  Perla would like to say something but is inhibited in her speech on account of her stroke.  The flashbacks to 1948 concern Perla’s secret and what made her feel the guilt that she has been carrying for years.

Also in 2008, some developers are planning to tear down Richard’s church, which has nostalgic value for Ella.

I had difficulty feeling connected to any of the characters.  Maybe that was because a lot was going on and not enough time was spent going into depth on aspects on their personalities.  Or perhaps Sarah Loudin Thomas’ style was too indirect for my taste.  In her “Acknowledgements,” for instance, she says “If I did it well, the credit is entirely vertical.”  That is her way of giving glory to God for her obedience, but, after reading that, I thought “Huh?”  And that reminded me: I had a similar reaction throughout my reading of the book.  “Huh?”

Amazon says that this is Book 3 of The Appalachian Blessings Series.  That could be my problem: In reading A Tapestry of Secrets, I was jumping into the middle of the story without really knowing the characters.  Yet, in reading summaries of the previous two books, I wonder if that was the problem.  The first book was set in the distant past.  (But I did recognize the name Casewell in reading a review of the first book, for it occurs in the third book.)  The second book focused on other characters.

The book somewhat reminded me of the movie Steel Magnolias, but not so much in terms of the plot or specific characters.  A Tapestry of Secrets reminded me of Steel Magnolias in that it had characters chatting about the mundane aspects of life, as if they were of great importance.  Plus, a lot is going on.  Some may prefer a book that is more linear and organized; others may think that the structure in A Tapestry of Secrets is truer to real life, which often is disorganized.

My reaction to the book is rather subjective, and someone else may read this book and have a different reaction.  In terms of what Thomas could have done better, two things come to mind.  First, the cover of the book could have said that this was part of a series.  Second, the book could have specifically identified when it was narrating Perla’s past.  At first, the book did that, but just once.  Clearly identifying the time and setting of each part of the book can allow confused readers, like myself, to go back and reread parts and thus gain a clearer understanding.

My initial plan was to give this book two stars, but I give it three because it did have quite a few profound theological and religious discussions.  Richard talks about how the church need not fear the destruction of its building, for the building is not what is important.  Ella has thoughts about how Jesus experienced stress before his death, even though he believed that God would raise him from the dead.  Keith (who was involved in the development project) gives a little speech about how the church welcomed him, and that was heartwarming.

The scenes in which characters think about the past were also insightful, and they made the characters look more vulnerable and real than the narrative itself did.  Here, I am not speaking about Perla’s 1948 story, but rather such scenes as the ones about how characters met and married, and what kept them together.

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

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Book Write-Up: UnClobber, by Colby Martin

Colby Martin.  Unclobber: Rethinking Our Misuse of the Bible on Homosexuality.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

Colby Martin was a pastor at a megachurch.  He was dismissed from his position when he posted a status on Facebook applauding the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT).  In UnClobber, Martin tells this story.  Martin also offers an alternative interpretation of biblical passages that many Christians regard as opposed to same-sex intercourse.  For Martin, the Bible, when properly understood, does not issue a blanket condemnation of homosexual relationships.

Here are some thoughts:

A.  Martin’s story about how he came to an accepting position regarding homosexuality is different from many such stories.  In many such stories, a conservative Christian naively thought that homosexuality was a sin until he met someone who was gay, and that transformed his perspective.  Martin was a conservative Christian, but his background story is more complex than that.  Martin discusses what may be roots of his later accepting position.  When he was a child, he had a gay neighbor, and his mother accepted her as a neighbor, while still believing that homosexuality was a sin.  But Martin somewhat minimizes this as a factor when he says that this gay neighbor was a distant memory to him.  Martin says that a factor behind his accepting position was that he did not like the idea of rejecting people.  Martin may be struggling to identify and to articulate what exactly led him to his current position.  His story on this is neither smooth nor dramatic from a narrative standpoint, and so it does have a rather detached quality.  Still, the story is honest: Martin does not try to make his story something that it is not.

B.  While his attempts to describe the roots of his current position were somewhat muddled, his narration about his experiences with the megachurch and his attempts to find employment and God’s calling after that was vivid and compelling.  Martin had stories about service and friendship, even with those with whom he disagreed.  His stories had ups and downs: you think you have a “happily ever after,” then reality sets in!  And Martin makes a reflective point about how the current Colby Martin differs from the Colby Martin who defended his position before the megachurch elders.

C.  Are the parts of the book that concern biblical interpretation superfluous, in light of all of the books out there that offer a pro-gay (or at least not anti-homosexuality) interpretation of Scripture?  I have not read the books that Justin Lee and Matthew Vines wrote about homosexuality.  But I have read the late John Boswell’s works, and I heard a lecture in college a while back by a gay evangelical, who presented interpretations of Scripture that were not opposed to homosexual relationships.  Even with that in my background, I still learned things that I did not know before in reading Martin’s book.  Some examples: Martin refers to the work of Calvin Porter in arguing that Romans 1:26-27 does not reflect Paul’s actual perspective but is included for rhetorical purposes (to criticize the Jews who condemn Gentiles): Porter argued that God abandons people to their sins in Romans 1:26-27 but that Paul believed that God is faithful.  Martin refers to a passage in which Augustine regards non-procreative sex as unnatural, and Martin believes that may be helpful in interpreting Romans 1:26-27.  In discussing I Corinthians 6:9-10, Martin makes the usual points about malakos and arsenokoitai, but he looks at the other sins in that passage and concludes that the passage is condemning exploitative homosexual activity, not same-sex activity in general, and that exploitation is contrary to what God is doing in establishing the Kingdom of God.

D.  Martin’s statements about the ancient context of biblical writings are sometimes impressive, and sometimes not.  Martin notes that homosexual rape in the days of the Hebrew Bible was often a way of shaming people, and that this was what was going on in Genesis 19.  Martin states that pederasty was becoming more stigmatized in the Greco-Roman world by the time of the apostle Paul.  Martin includes a thoughtful discussion of eunuchs and how they included not only men whose genitals were cut off, but also men who naturally were not attracted to women, and they were accepted in early Christianity.  These were areas in which Martin was impressive.  Where was he unimpressive?  Martin said that Paul would have been unaware of committed same-sex relationships, so Paul was not condemning them.  But Martin should have interacted with scholars who argue the contrary: that committed, loving homosexual relationships existed in the ancient world.  Robert Gagnon argues this on the conservative side, and Louis Crompton, who was a prominent figure in gay studies, also argued this.  Overall, although Martin made relevant observations and consulted scholarly sources, he should have written more about how homosexuality or homosexual activity was viewed in the ancient world.

E.  Martin’s interpretation of Leviticus 18:22 raised good questions, yet it was unsatisfactory.  Martin asks why Leviticus 18:22 does not condemn sex between women, if its intention is to issue a blanket condemnation of same-sex intercourse.  That is a good question.  Martin also did well to do a word study of toevah (abomination), and he astutely noted that the term in the Bible sometimes applies to things that conservative Christians today deem acceptable (i.e., eating certain animals).  Where was Martin’s interpretation unsatisfactory?  Martin was trying to argue, on the basis of Hebrew language, that Leviticus 18:22 applies to a very specific case and is not a blanket condemnation of homosexuality.  Martin’s arguments here were not very convincing (at least not to me) for a variety of reasons, but what was especially disappointing was that Martin did not specify what that very specific case in Leviticus 18:22 was, and he seemed to imply that the meaning is lost to us, since we did not live in that time.  He should have at least speculated!  (He may have been implying that Leviticus 18:22 condemns a man sleeping with a man rather than his own wife, or sleeping with a man in the bed in which he sleeps with his wife; Martin was unclear.)  In addition, Martin argued that Leviticus 18:22 concerns the separation of Israel from the Gentiles.  Martin ignored that Leviticus 18:30 criticizes the Canaanites for doing the acts condemned in Leviticus 18, which implies that God did not want Gentiles to do those acts, either.

F.  Martin seems to acknowledge in one place that a gay person would have been stigmatized in ancient Israel.  Martin’s response to this is that women were second-class in ancient Israel, too, but that does not mean women should be second-class now.  Martin does deserve credit for honestly engaging this, even though his point here does seem to be in tension with the overall case that he is trying to make.  Ancient Israel was a society that assumed and privileged heterosexuality as the norm, and the Hebrew Bible does not seem to contradict this.  Similarly, while the apostle Paul sees celibacy as an option, he assumes that marriage is an institution between a man and a woman.  Martin’s approach to the Scriptures is rather conservative, at least overall; Martin does flirt, somewhat, with progressive revelation in the book, but he appears, overall, to regard the Bible as inspired by God.  That would explain his interest in what the Bible teaches, and his detailed look at biblical passages.  But, if God inspired Scripture, as Martin assumes, and God wanted homosexuality to be accepted, why didn’t God explicitly say so?

G.  Related to (F.), Martin addresses the question of whether relationships should influence one’s theological stances.  He states that this occurred with Cornelius and Peter in the Book of Acts: Peter had a religious stance against Gentiles, God led him to Cornelius, and that led Peter to change his mind.  Martin’s argument here can be critiqued, but Martin does well to highlight the importance of experience in the Bible, especially when some conservative Christians seem to set the Bible against experience and to say that the Bible should trump experience.  Martin’s book perhaps could have been stronger had Martin also noted times in the Bible when biblical law seemed to be overridden in certain cases (or so one can argue): Deuteronomy 23, for example, bans people with crushed genitals and certain foreigners from the congregation of the LORD, but the Book of Ruth and Isaiah 56 arguably have a different view, one that is more inclusive.  Martin occasionally points out that the Bible is not overly rigid, but the book would have been better had he made this more of a theme.

H.  Martin should have addressed the criticism of same-sex intercourse within the history of biblical interpretation.  If Martin’s interpretations are correct, why did so many Jewish and Christian interpreters throughout history miss that, or criticize same-sex intercourse?

While Martin was not always convincing, his book was an edifying, thought-provoking read.  He could have been less dogmatic, in places, and instead tried to come across as one presenting different options, which was what he was essentially doing in his arguments.  At the same time, his dogmatism may be a part of his strength and his vision.

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

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Salt, Light, and Lack of Charisma

At church last Sunday, the preacher talked again about Christians being salt and light in the world, a la Matthew 5:13-16.

I thought that he would say the same things that he said last week, and, in some cases, he did.  But he also presented new material.

He shared with us some things that he had learned about salt.  Salt was precious in the ancient world, and people sometimes even paid in salt; similarly, he said, we are precious to God.

Salt was cleansing.  Similarly, Christians have a cleansing effect on the world through their words and example.

Salt puts out fires.  Similarly, Christians help deliver people from the fires of hell by sharing the Gospel with them.

The preacher talked about being a light.  As an example, he referred to a situation in which there was a catastrophe at work, and he was smiling, and people wondered what was the matter with him.  But he was smiling because he knew whom he served.  When people ask him what is the matter with him, he gets to share with them about Jesus.

The preacher said that it is important for Christians to lift up the name of God before the world.  That is light.
The preacher also said that we do not necessarily have to be persuasive or charismatic to be salt and light.  We need, however, to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit and surrendered to God.

I’ll comment on that last item.  I have vacillated in how I have viewed that.  I used to believe it, then I did not believe it.  Now I believe it, albeit with modification.  I think that I used to believe it in the sense that I thought that, notwithstanding my lack of charisma, God could still use me to make a powerful difference for him, which would make me popular and feed my own ego.  When that did not happen, I was disappointed.  Now, I believe that God can still use un-charismatic people, whether or not they pack auditoriums.  Sometimes, God may anoint them so that they do pack auditoriums.  But God can also use them in low-key ways.

I’ll stop here.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Book Write-Up: Introduction to World Christian History

Derek Cooper.  Introduction to World Christian History.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

Derek Cooper teaches world Christian history at Biblical Theological Seminary.  His book, Introduction to World Christian History, is about Christianity in the world from the first to the twenty-first centuries.  Part 1 concerns “Christianity from the first to the seventh centuries,” and it covers Christianity during that time-frame in Asia, Africa, and Europe.  Part 2 goes from the eighth to the fourteenth centuries, and it, too, looks at Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Europe.  Part 3, which covers the fifteenth to the twenty-first centuries, looks at Christianity in Europe, Latin America, Northern America, Oceania, Africa, and Asia.

One would expect a book such as this to be a massive tome, but it is not.  It is 254 pages.  People can probably debate about whether Cooper does certain topics justice in such a slender volume, but the book is useful and informative in what it does cover.  The book looks at Christianity as it existed in these regions, says something about their distinct beliefs (e.g., whether their Christology was or was not Nicene), discusses the issues that the Christianities faced, and addresses whether the Christianities numerically grew where they were.

Cooper also does well to include a glossary in the back.

In terms of critiques, the book’s organization was somewhat scattered.  Perhaps it would have been more user-friendly had it been organized differently, by region rather than chronology.  Part 1 could have been about Asian Christianity, Part 2 could have been about African Christianity, Part 3 could have covered European Christianity, and a Part 4 could have covered North America, Latin America, and Oceania.  Such an organization would have been less distracting for the reader, and it would have provided a more holistic, story-like depiction of the various Christianities in the world.

The index could have included a few more things.  Cooper makes the point that there have been scholarly challenges to the usage and understanding of the Nestorian label.  This interested me, and I looked in the index to see where else Cooper covered this in the book.  Cooper should have included Nestorianism in his index.

A bibliography at the end, divided by region, also would have been helpful for readers desiring to learn more.

The book seems to accept certain folklore uncritically.  Cooper did well to refer to that folklore, for that made the book interesting, and perhaps the only stories we have about how Christianity came to certain areas are from folklore.  Still, Cooper should have said something about the difficulty in accepting some of that folklore as historically accurate.

There were many times when Cooper was descriptive and offered little analysis.  Yet, there were times when he provided analysis.

Whatever critiques one can make, this book is a decent handbook about the history of Christianity from the first to the twenty-first centuries.

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

Friday, August 5, 2016

Book Write-Up: An Unbroken Heart, by Kathleen Fuller

Kathleen Fuller. An Unbroken Heart.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

An Unbroken Heart is the second book of Kathleen Fuller’s “Amish of Birch Creek” series.  The first book of the series is A Reluctant Bride.

I read An Unbroken Heart without having read A Reluctant Bride.  I still understood and appreciated An Unbroken Heart, but I recommend that people read A Reluctant Bride first.  That way, readers do not have to spend as much energy trying to figure out who the characters are and how they are related to each other.  Also, An Unbroken Heart refers rather hastily to an accident that profoundly impacted some of the main character’s lives.  That accident is covered a lot more in A Reluctant Bride.

An Unbroken Heart is about Joanna and her boyfriend, Andrew.  The book opens with a scene about when they are young and Andrew protects Joanna from bullies.  Andrew is reluctant to show love to Joanna, and Joanna is dealing with her own insecurities and temperament, seeing herself as mousy in contrast to her extroverted, assertive sisters.  When Andrew and Joanna are about to get married, Joanna breaks off the wedding.  She learns to identify her own strengths and to show love to Andrew, even though both of them struggle with outward displays of affection.

Joanna is dealing with the death of her parents from a hit-and-run accident, which occurred in the first book of the series.  In this second book, we meet Cameron, the one who caused the hit-and-run accident and lost his wife in that.  He is reluctant to turn himself in because he is the single parent of his baby girl, and what will happen to her if he has to spend years in jail?

Another element to this book’s plot is Andrew’s father, who left the family to join the English.  We learn more about his background and why he did what he did.

There are other plot-lines, as well, but they do not stand out as saliently in my mind.  One of them involves Joanna’s sister, Abigail, who is the subject of the next book of the series, which will be out in September.

This is a good book.  The book has enough plot-lines to keep it interesting, without creating a distracting mess.  This is a difficult and delicate line to walk.  Some authors, such as Amy Clipston, usually focus on one plot-line, and it becomes a bit overdone.  Others, by contrast, have so many characters and plot-lines that it is hard to keep track of what is going on.  Kathleen Fuller struck a fairly decent balance in An Unbroken Heart.

The book only went so deep with a lot of the characters, however, leaving me still to wonder what makes them tick.  The book could have provided more detail about the hole in Andrew’s life after his father left.  Still, the book did present characters with whom one could sympathize and empathize, and following their struggles was edifying.  This was especially the case with the book’s descriptive presentation of Joanna’s insecurities, how they influenced her relationships, and how she moved past them.  The book also provided other characters' backstories, with which one can sympathize.

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

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