Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Thanksgiving, the Problem of Evil, and Eschatological Hope

I have three items about last Sunday’s church service.

A.  Someone was telling the congregation about his Thanksgiving.  He was talking about sitting on the couch, watching football on TV after having his Thanksgiving meal, dozing off.  In the midst of all this, he said, he had a sense of God telling him that everything will be okay.  He said that we can have this experience when we are with family on Thanksgiving, or if we are alone.

B.  The pastor was preaching about the importance of thanksgiving.  He was talking about an experience that he had when his daughter was sick.  All of the doctors were believers, and he said that he could feel the presence of God.  The pastor said that God may not always do that sort of thing, but there are occasions when God does.

The pastor also talked about how God may have delivered us from peril, and we were not even aware of it.  Someone may have been about to assault you, for example, but God diverted the would-be assaulter’s mind onto something else.

When a Christian says this, my mind cannot help but to ask “problem of evil” questions.  Why didn’t God stop that other assault, or misfortune?  Some think it makes more sense to say that God doesn’t intervene at all, rather than to say that God stops evil in some cases but not others.  With this mindset, can we truly thank God, as if God is the source of our good fortune?

I cannot provide a satisfactory answer to the problem of evil.  I do not dismiss the possibility of God’s existence, though, for there are people who have what seem to be God-moments.  I also believe in having gratitude and expressing it towards people, rather than taking people and positive circumstances for granted.  That sort of attitude, as opposed to a sense of entitlement, can help a person have a better attitude towards life, and maybe to get along with others better.  As far as the problem of evil goes, people who have should think about people who need and, if they can, they should help provide for their needs.  That does not exactly solve the problem of why God seems inactive in the face of evil, but it does hopefully discourage an attitude of being satisfied with our good fortune and leaving things there.

C.  The pastor was saying that we should get used to thanking God here, because we will be doing that a lot in heaven.  He said that there will be no football and baseball in heaven!  No, we will be praising and spending time with God, and we will be spending a lot of time with God’s people!

That reminded me, somewhat, of a Mark Driscoll sermon that I heard last week.  Driscoll was saying that God is loving, even towards people in hell.  God loves the people in hell, Driscoll said, but God will not let them into heaven where they can hurt God’s people.

What troubles me about these sentiments is that they assume that how people are now is how they will be in the afterlife.  I fare positively and negatively, according to these criteria.  On the one hand, I do enjoy spending time with God in prayer and listening to and singing praise songs.  On that criterion, I will love heaven!  On the other hand, I do not particularly enjoy socializing with Christians, and there are times when my attitude towards God is negative.  On those criteria, I won’t like heaven that much!

I suppose that one can say that God will transform Christians and cleanse them of sinful imperfections before letting them into heaven.  I am hesitant, though, to say that heaven and this life are radically discontinuous from each other.  Why am I in this life, building character, if God will transform me and everyone else after we die, anyway?  Is it so I will better appreciate my transformed state, in which I will no longer struggle against sin because I will be sinless?

What exactly is my eschatological hope?  I grew up in Armstrongism, which said that believers would become godlike beings, ruling the earth and creating their own universes.  This may beat sitting on a cloud and playing a harp, but it does not particularly appeal to me.  Some Christians talk about learning, attending lectures, and listening to Mozart playing a live concert in heaven!  That appeals to me more!  Such a conception may allow there to be football and baseball in heaven, even though the pastor has a point when he notes that God will be a significant figure there, and so maybe in the here and now we should prepare ourselves for that by loving God.

The first time I really developed an eschatological hope was when I read Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “Heaven, A World of Love.”  Edwards said that heaven is a place where people love each other.  If you do not have companions, Edwards said, do not hate those who reject you, but look forward to heaven, a world of love!  Edwards himself could get frustrated with people in this life, and his daughter, Esther, hoped even more for the millennium as she was dealing with difficult people (see here)!  On some level, Edwards may have believed that the love that believers have and show here will be continuous with the love that they will have and show in heaven.  But he and his daughter also allowed their social frustrations in the here and now to be a foil for the happiness and harmony that will exist in heaven.

Open Forest: Anxiety Month

Psychiatrist Michiel Bosman edits the web site Open Forest.  This month, the site is focusing on the topic of anxiety.  Dr. Bosman asked me to share either the overview page or one of the blog posts, and I would like to share this article:

Helping Your Partner with Severe Social Anxiety: 5 Experts Weigh In

Something that Michele Paiva said in the article stood out to me:

“Social anxiety can be a wedge in an otherwise healthy relationship, and bring on patterns that lead to dysfunction. Imagine having a partner that refuses to, or creates stress around, family visits, going to a child’s school play, attending a holiday performance, going to work picnics, or simply being cordial to neighbors.”
A lot of the advice in the article sounds reasonable: be supportive, set small goals with your partner, and understand that your socially-anxious partner may need time to recharge.

One of the contributors, Carolyn Dean, says that magnesium can alleviate anxiety and “will go a long way in keeping a person calm in social settings.”  I’m neither endorsing that claim nor criticizing it, since I don’t know enough to evaluate it.  But she has links and a book, if you are interested.

Mesothelioma: Virgil's Story

Virgil Anderson has Mesothelioma, and he asked me to post his story, which he sent to me.  Here it is:

Mr. Anderson was born and raised in Williamson, WV.  His father, a coal miner, passed when Virgil was 8 years old. Virgil worked in demolition work and excavating since high school. This required the physical tear out, and hands on removal of asbestos containing insulation in walls, ceiling, attics and heating and cooling systems. To remove this required saws and sledge hammers all of which sent the asbestos fibers flying into the air. Unfortunately for Virgil the material had to not only be freed from its location but also picked up and carried to the disposal area. Once asbestos is disturbed it can stay in the air for 5 days. On some occasions there was a haze of dust and debris that you could actually taste in your mouth. He also came in contact with asbestos while working on his family’s farm and during his job as a press operator in the manufacturing of stovetops.

Virgil Anderson was recently diagnosed with mesothelioma cancer, which is a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. Many other groups of people come in contact with a lot of asbestos and are also at risk.
When he was diagnosed with mesothelioma he needed immediate medical attention. He found a few websites on the internet that are supposed to help people with mesothelioma cancer but nobody got back to him.

Then he found Mesothelioma.net. Even though he contacted them on a Sunday one of their patient advocates gave him a call back within minutes. They gave him a great deal of helpful information on doctors and resources available to him.

As a result of their website, he is now being treated at the national cancer institute and the patient advocates have even provided him with financial assistance so he could afford a place to live during his chemotherapy. If he had not reached out to this website he would likely be homeless and more importantly in Hospice waiting to die. These people gave him his only chance at survival.

One year ago before all this happened, Virgil was very active but now he has become extremely limited in his activities. Now he spends his extra time spreading awareness and helping others who are in need of assistance. If you would like to contact Virgil, his email is virgil.anderson@mesothelioma.net.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Book Write-Up: The Prayer God Loves to Answer

Daniel Henderson.  The Prayer God Loves to Answer: Accessing Christ’s Wisdom for Your Greatest Needs.  Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

The back cover of the book says (and these are excerpts, not the whole two paragraphs):

“Should I take that new job?  How can I be a better parent?  Who should I marry?  How can I make ends meet?…The source of all wisdom and knowledge has not called us to figure out life’s uncertainties for ourselves…In this book, Daniel Henderson shares his practical approach to prayer.”

In my opinion, this book is not exactly as it is advertised.  The writers of that summary may sincerely believe that their description is faithful to the content of this book, and I am not accusing them of being intentionally misleading.  What I am saying is that readers should expect something different from this book.

The book is essentially about Spirit-led character formation, and relying on God in prayer for that godly character.

What is the prayer that God loves to answer, to echo the title of this book?  According to James 1:5-6, God loves to answer people’s prayer for wisdom, provided those prayers are made with faith.  And what are the characteristics of the wisdom that God gives to those who ask?  James 3:17-18 states: “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.  And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace” (KJV).

That is how the book is organized.  The chapters unpack each of those characteristics of wisdom from above, then the book interprets v 18, which states that “the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace” (KJV).

The book has its share of positives.  It seeks to define the characteristics enumerated in James 3:17-18, rather than just assuming that readers know what they mean, and it looks to Scriptures for illumination.  Occasionally, it provided an insightful interpretation of Scripture that was new to me.  For example, it discussed James 3:1’s statement about teachers receiving stricter judgment in light of what James 3 later says about cursing and vain ambition; for Henderson, these would-be teachers may have been guilty of precisely that.

There were good quotations, such as the quotation of Charles Haddon Spurgeon that said that people’s unkindness should make us appreciate God’s kindness even more, and a quotation of John MacArthur about what God’s kingdom is about.  A few times, the book referred to aspects of Greco-Roman society that overlapped with or differed from the virtues of biblical religion, and that was interesting, or at least it can stimulate further research.

Often, the book was presenting a standard that appeared idealistic or unrealistic.  Yet, Henderson occasionally told stories about his own shortcomings, and he encouraged struggling Christians to persevere amidst spiritual failure.  Henderson also said that he has experienced God enabling him and others to be merciful, when they lacked the power within themselves to be so. Such testimony gave more credence to what he was saying.

The book presented a lot of thoughts that have been presented before, in other places, but there is nothing wrong with being reminded of these insights.  (This is not to suggest that Henderson is plagiarizing, but he does relay a lot of the common sense that is out there in Christian culture, and even secular culture: common sense about treating people with respect and being kind rather than winning arguments.)

In terms of negatives, the book would have been better had it addressed difficult questions.  Does gentleness mean that we have to be passive doormats and can never stand up for ourselves?  Does being impartial mean that we cannot love some people more than others?  Does avoiding hypocrisy mean being completely transparent to people about how we are feeling?  Really?

There was an occasion when Henderson raised an excellent question, but his answer was slightly disappointing.  He asked whether Jesus’ apparent preference for Peter, James, and John contradicted God’s standard for Christians to be impartial.  Henderson’s answer is that we cannot fully understand why God does what God does.  Maybe there is something to that answer, but I was hoping for a little more wrestling.

Another negative in the book, in my opinion, was a lack of pathos.  Henderson tried to convey some pathos.  He referred to a time when he pastored a church that was recovering from the previous pastor’s moral failure.  But Henderson only went so deep when it came to pathos, or to the grittiness and struggles of life.  Overall, the book conveyed a Zen-like, Pollyannish, and perhaps even a detached tone.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Current Events Write-Up: Castro, Trump's Cabinet, Etc.

I have some links for my current events write-up this week!  I cannot guarantee that I will post a current events write-up every week, but, when I come across something that I think is worth sharing, I will share it.

Fidel Castro’s Death

Adam Dick of the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity briefly weighed in on Fidel Castro: “Yes, review Castro and his government’s rights abuses. Still, I find a comment offered by journalist Glenn Greenwald upon Castro’s death provides important perspective. Greenwald wrote, ‘The amount of attention and concern a foreign leader’s abuses receive in US discourse is solely determined by how much they ‘defy’ the US.’”  Got that right!  Is Castro that much worse than the dictators the U.S. has supported?

Martha Raddatz on ABC This Week confronted Bernie Sanders with comments that he made about Castro decades ago.  Be sure to watch the video because the article itself does not quote Sanders’ comments.  Bernie said back then that, just because Ronald Reagan does not like a leader of a country, that doesn’t mean the leader is unpopular with the country’s people.

On the same program, Ted Cruz offered another perspective about Castro.  Cruz, of course, is anti-Castro, but Cruz noted that his father was tortured by the person Castro overthrew, Batista.  That reminds me of how some of the “contras” in Nicaragua in the 1980’s were former Sandinistas.

Jacobin Magazine is left-wing, and its article on Castro expresses ambivalence.  On the one hand, the article sees Castro as a reformer who inspired other countries victimized by Western imperialism.  On the other hand, it recognizes the repression by the Castro regime, against homosexuals and others.

Arminian theologian Roger Olson reflects on Castro.  Olson talks about how the Cuban revolution intersected with his own life when he was growing up.  He also refers to an American Christian leader who met with Castro, and Castro denied being anti-Christian: Castro said he simply wanted missionaries to stick to religion rather than promoting capitalism.  Olson makes the boo-boo of saying that Joe McCarthy headed HUAC: McCarthy was a SENATOR, and HUAC was in the House of Representatives!  Still, this is a good post.

The Trump Cabinet

President-elect Trump is considering Democrat Harold Ford for Transportation Secretary.  The same article says that Trump is also considering Tulsi Gabbard “for a foreign policy/national security position.”  Gabbard has a Hindu background and is an Iraq War veteran.  She made headlines when she resigned her position as vice-chairman of the Democratic National Committee and endorsed Bernie Sanders.  If the wikipedia article about her is correct about her positions, then I think she would make a fine choice.  She can counter-balance the neo-cons in the Trump cabinet.

UPDATE: In fairness, I think I should link to this anti-Tulsi Gabbard piece, which is on the progressive site Alternet.

Breitbart had some surprises.  Joel Pollack was giving pros and cons of Trump’s selection of Nikki Haley as UN Ambassador.  Pollack lists diversity and her taking down of the Confederate flag as advantages.  Dr. Susan Berry says that Betsy Devos supports Common Core (which Devos herself disputes), and commenters criticize Trump’s new pick for Education Secretary.

So far, in my reading experience, Breitbart does not look as horrible as the media say.  It even featured an article by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach!  And it has spoken against white supremacists (see here and here).  At the same time, I have come across some thoughtful articles that deny that Steve Bannon is personally racist, while still saying that he blows racist dog-whistles, or gives a platform to racists.  They include a National Review article, a Mother Jones article, an interview with Ben Shapiro, and a blog post by Lydia McGrew.

Domestic Policy/Issues

I read some articles on infrastructure.  Trump and Bannon have both said that infrastructure will play a huge role in the Trump Administration.  Bannon even said that “The conservatives are going to go crazy” in response to that!  Steve Chapman presents a conventional conservative critique of the government spending more money on infrastructure to create jobs.  Jonah Goldberg (my source for that Bannon quote) offers more of a “yes, but” stance on infrastructure, as he offers criticisms of Trump’s plan and more progressive approaches.  And progressive economist Paul Krugman lambastes Trump’s proposal as a “privatization scam,” supporting instead a progressive approach in which the government funds the projects directly.  Should we trust the government or the private sector?  Tough choice!

Bring back manufacturing jobs?  The Crooked Timber had an interesting post on that, entitled Trade After Trump.  Here is a quote: “The idea of manufacturing jobs as ‘good’ jobs is historically specific particularly to the US, and reflects the fact that the dominance of manufacturing coincided with the New Deal and the unionisation of the labour force. It’s unions, not manufacturing that we need to bring back.”

Many Democrats now agree that Democrats should start, or get back to, caring about the white working class.  Unfortunately, some of their rhetoric can be pretty condescending towards that class, especially when it suggests that people from that class are stupid or voting against their own interests by voting Republican.  Arlie Russell Hochschild’s “I Spent 5 Years with Trump’s Biggest Fans. Here’s What They Won’t Tell You” was rather refreshing.  It’s a Mother Jones article, and Mother Jones, of course, is left-wing.  But it talks about the suspicions that white working-class people have about the government.  I’m all for social programs, but those who think that simply offering the white working class social programs will make the Democrats more electable should seriously assess the pros and cons of such an approach, rather than just assuming its viability.

New York Times: Bloomberg Says Cities Will Fight Climate Change, With or Without Trump

I’ve maxed out the number of free NYT articles I can read this month, so I could not read this article.  I loved this title, though!

John Stossell and Reason Magazine are libertarian.  For Thanksgiving, Stossel repeated the usual right-wing talking point about how the Pilgrims saved themselves from starvation by converting from collectivism to private property: never mind that everyone got private property under the Pilgrims, which differs from the vast disparities of wealth that exist under the current capitalistic system!  Stossel goes on, though, to argue against the lack of private property rights in the U.S. for Native Americans.  Stossel’s article would have been better had it gone into more detail, but I do appreciate his concern for Native Americans, especially in light of the current Standing Rock protests.

Foreign Policy

The Ron Paul Institute had some good articles.  The first is What Would an America-First Foreign Policy Look Like?  This article concisely explains Russia’s concerns about the missile shield in Eastern Europe: Russia feels outgunned by NATO and fears invasion.

You hear a lot from public officials against “fake news.”  Well, check out this Ron Paul Institute article: When It Comes to Fake News, the U.S. Government Is the Biggest Culprit.  Especially when it wants to promote war!

Historical Interest

November 22 marked the anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.  I have long had an amateur interest in the topic.  Unfortunately, there are books that I have not read about it, but I sat through hours of the “Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald,” twice, and I loved the Oliver Stone movie!  In any case, this LA Times article addresses a question: What if Kennedy wasn’t even Oswald’s target, but Connally was?

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Book Write-Up: A Little Book for New Philosophers, by Paul Copan

Paul Copan.  A Little Book for New Philosophers: Why and How to Study Philosophy.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

Paul Copan teaches philosophy at Palm Beach Atlantic University.

As the subtitle of this book indicates, this book talks about the advantages of studying philosophy.  It seems to be aimed at people who wonder whether they should pursue philosophy as an academic study, perhaps for a career in academia.

The book thoughtfully explores a variety of subjects: the increasing acceptance of theism within philosophical circles, arguments for the existence of God, the existence of the soul, verificationism, similarities and differences between the God of the Bible and the philosophical God (i.e., the picture of God influenced by Greek philosophy), the question of whether atheists bear any burden of proof, and what to do with religious doubt.  Copan also defends the study of philosophy against Christians who regard it as antithetical to Christianity.  Not only does Copan offer an alternative interpretation of Bible verses that have been cited against philosophy, but he also effectively argues that Scripture itself, along with Christian minds throughout history, have encouraged the life of the mind.

Copan also offers a lay-of-the-land of academia, as he speaks from experience as an academic philosopher.  For Copan, Christian philosophers should exemplify the fruit of the Spirit in how they treat colleagues, including those with whom they disagree.  This may sound obvious, but Copan offers practical advice on how to be a Christian in academia: how to view one’s own work, how to help others, and how being in a group of Christian philosophers can be important.  Cohan also shares how he went through Coppleston’s series of books on philosophy, and that may be helpful to people who are seriously interested in the field, as well as people whose minds can easily wander when they are reading!

I would like to quote some of my favorite lines in the book, just to give you a taste:

“Practicing philosophy in the way of Jesus, for instance, requires that professors never publicly dismantle a graduate student’s paper at a conference” (page 81).

“So whether we publish much or little, whether our work is widely admired or falls stillborn from the press, we will be a faithful presence wherever God has placed us” (pages 82-83).

“My PhD advisor told me not to attempt anything earthshaking for my dissertation…He suggested I keep my nose to the grindstone, work hard and save any bold work for later” (pages 92-93).

And, as someone who wonders if James 1:6-8 condemns all doubt, I appreciated Cohan’s interpretation: “Actually, James is condemning a mindset of divided loyalty between God and the world—-a spiritual adultery” (page 103).

The book may help Christian students at secular universities to feel less alone when their Christianity is challenged.  This book demonstrates that intelligent people have embraced Christianity and have pursued careers in academia.

This book, by itself, may not provide Christian students with sufficient arguments to use against atheists and skeptics, who can easily respond with “Where’s the proof for God’s existence?”, dismiss some arguments as wishful thinking, or see some arguments as “God in the gaps” arguments.  Copan criticizes “God in the gaps” arguments as lazy, but he also seems to prefer theistic explanations because they at least attempt to account for things that puzzle naturalists.  Naturalists would probably see that approach itself as a “God in the gaps” approach, believing that we should not dismiss the possibility of a natural explanation just because one currently eludes us.  The book may still provide Christian students with a starting-point in addressing atheist and skeptical arguments.

A disappointment, in terms of the book, is that it did not really explore how Christians can be edified by philosophical insights.  Granted, it talked about how philosophy can sharpen one’s mind, but, when it came to philosophy, it largely focused on the questions of whether God and the soul exist.  Can philosophy do more than buttress what Christians already believe to be true?  Can it teach them anything new?  On pages 38-39, Copan refers positively to analytic theologians who “haven’t focused primarily on Christian apologetics or arguments for God’s existence…”  Copan’s book would have been better had its horizons been broader.

The book also had somewhat of a siege mentality, in places: Christians must try to protect their faith, and Christians should hang around their own.  I should stress, though, that, the opposite approach is in the book, too, as it encourages those interested in philosophy to learn the thoughts of major philosophical figures and to engage atheist and skeptical philosophers.  Copan also has reasons for holding the Christian faith, which include arguments, its explanatory power, its satisfaction of human longings, and the experiences of the supernatural by people he knows.  I doubt that Copan is insecure in his faith.  It just seems that he is for exploration, but he wants it to arrive at Christian conclusions.  Of course, there are atheists and skeptics who are the same way, with their own worldviews, but is there a way to be open-minded while holding a particular worldview, as opposed to being in a no-man’s land?

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest!

Friday, November 25, 2016

Book Write-Up: The Gospel on the Margins, by Michael J. Kok

Michael J. Kok.  The Gospel on the Margins: The Reception of Mark in the Second Century.  Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015.  See here to purchase the book.

The second century figure, Papias, has been significant in scholarly, apologetic, and counter-apologetic discussions about the historical reliability of the biblical Gospels.  Eusebius (fourth century C.E.), in Ecclesiastical History 3.39, states that Papias received information from eyewitnesses to the apostles.  According to Eusebius, Papias heard from John the Elder that the Gospel of Mark was based on the testimony of the apostle Peter.  Many Christian apologists and conservative scholars have argued, on the basis of Papias, that the Gospel of Mark reflects eyewitness testimony to Jesus Christ, which enhances its reliability as a historical document.

Michael J. Kok, in The Gospel on the Margins, evaluates these claims, and he also aims to address a perplexing puzzle: considering that the Gospel of Mark was believed to reflect the eyewitness testimony of Peter, why was it such a marginal Gospel, one that was rarely cited in patristic sources?  Would not one expect a Gospel thought to be based on the testimony of such a high-ranking apostle as Peter to be more popular and widely-used?

While scholars have debated the reliability of Papias and what Papias says about the Gospel of Mark, Kok explores a topic that he believes has been neglected in such discussions: the “ideological function” of the patristic traditions about the Gospel of Mark “in Mark’s reception history” (page 9, Adobe Digital Edition).
For Kok, the attribution of the Gospel of Mark to Mark, as well as the claim that the Gospel of Mark contained Peter’s eyewitness testimony, served an ideological purpose in second century Christian debates.

In the Introduction, Kok offers evidence that the Gospel of Mark was marginal in terms of second century patristic interaction with it.  Kok also briefly mentions a scholarly debate about Papias’ statement about the Gospel of Mark: was Papias correct on this, or did Papias spin “the whole tale out of an erroneous inference from 1 Peter 5:13,” which presents Mark as a close associate of Peter?  I Peter 5:13 will be significant in Kok’s overall discussion.  Kok also refers to a difference of opinion between Papias and Augustine: Papias regarded Mark as a preserver of Peter’s testimony, whereas Augustine viewed Mark merely as one who abbreviated Matthew’s Gospel.  This difference of opinion highlights the tensions that Kok will explore.  On the one hand, Mark’s Gospel was regarded as significant enough to include in the canon.  On the other hand, Mark’s Gospel was marginal and often overshadowed by the Gospel of Matthew, which has a lot of what Mark’s Gospel has, and more.

Chapter 1, “The Decline of the Patristic Consensus,” interacts with twentieth-century scholars who disputed that the Gospel of Mark was by John Mark, the one who knew apostles.  In turn, they also disputed that the Gospel of Mark contained Peter’s testimony.  To quote from page 33, Kok engages “the form critical replacement of Peter with the anonymous community (Dennis Nineham), the redaction or narrative critical portrayals of Peter as a villain in Mark’s drama (Theodore Weeden, Richard Horsley), and the historical critical objections to the authorship of the second canonical Gospel by a first-century Palestinian Jew (Kurt Niederwimmer, Pierson Parker).”  Kok weighs these objections and identifies what he believes are their strengths and weaknesses, but he does not think that they by themselves successfully exclude the possibility that Peter played some role in the Gospel of Mark’s content.  Kok also concludes that a first century Palestinian Jew could have written the Gospel of Mark.  One interesting question with which Kok wrestles in this chapter is this: Why would Jesus in Mark 7 criticize some of the Pharisees for violating the Torah, only to go on and nullify the Torah’s dietary laws?

In Chapter 2, “The Re-Emergence of the Patristic Tradition,” Kok engages scholars who maintain that Papias is reliable in what Papias says about the Gospel of Mark.  These scholars include Robert Gundry, Martin Hengel, Samuel Byrskog, Richard Bauckham, and Michael Bird.  It is in this chapter that Kok offers his own view on the reliability of Papias, and his conclusion is that Papias is rather wanting in terms of reliability.  Kok agrees with Eusebius that Papias is drawing from John the Elder rather than John the apostle (whereas Irenaeus equated the two), and Kok calls John the Elder “elusive.”  Kok doubts that John the Elder was an eyewitness to Jesus, since “the likelihood of [a personal student] of Jesus living into the second century is low” (page 82).  Kok also contends that Papias may have been naive and uncritical in his acceptance of traditions.  Also in this chapter, Kok evaluates whether the Gospel of Mark contains Peter’s testimony.  Kok is doubtful of this, one reason being that the Gospel of Mark is highly critical of the apostles.  Kok engages the question of whether the Gospel of Mark could have been written by someone associated with Paul, a Paulinist, and, while Kok believes some arguments for this have merit, he ultimately concludes that Paul and the Gospel of Mark are too different in terms of their ideologies, emphases, and themes.  For Kok, the author of the Gospel of Mark was probably a late first century Jew (writing for Jewish and Gentile Christians) who was alienated from the political and religious establishment and was hoping for the return of the Son of Man, and he encouraged his fellow Christians to suffer faithfully.  According to Kok, this Gospel was anonymous to highlight the importance of its message rather than its author.

In Chapter 3, “From Paul’s Fellow Worker to Peter’s Interpreter,” Kok offers one model for how the Gospel of Mark came to be attributed to Mark, and, in turn, to Peter.  According to Kok, Mark in parts of the New Testament is presented as a companion to Paul, but Mark comes to be associated with Peter, too (Acts 12:5; I Peter 5:13), in an attempt to present a centrist Christianity and to bring together different factions.  I Peter 5:13 was influential in Asia Minor, where John the Elder, the man who influenced Papias, was.  Kok believes that the Papian prologues influenced Luke-Acts rather than vice-versa, and that Luke-Acts itself may refer to the idea that Mark wrote the Gospel of Mark.  Kok thinks that Acts 13:5 may present John Mark as a repository of Christian tradition for Paul, who was not himself an eyewitness to the historical Jesus, and that the negative portrayal of Mark in Acts may serve to uphold Luke’s “orderly” Gospel at the expense of the Gospel of Mark.  Also noteworthy in this chapter is that Kok addresses the argument that Mark wrote the Gospel of Mark, for why would church fathers attribute the Gospel of Mark to an insignificant person such as Mark, unless Mark actually wrote it?  If the church fathers wanted to attach a name to a Gospel, why not the name of an actual apostle, such as Peter?  Kok notes that “apocryphal Gospels were attributed to all sorts of names, apostolic or not, such as Thomas, Matthias, Mary, Bartholomew, Nicodemus, or Gamaliel” (page 143).  Kok goes on to say that “‘Mark’ may have been an ideal candidate as a figure of some repute via his association with the apostles and as an intermediary who could bear the blame for the shortcomings of the Gospel instead of Peter himself.”  Another topic that Kok explores in this chapter is how Papias’ view on the Gospel of Mark influenced Justin Martyr (second century C.E.), Irenaeus (second century C.E.), and Clement of Alexandria (second century C.E.).

In Chapter 4, “Toward a Theory of the Patristic Reception of Mark,” Kok sets the stage to address possible ideological reasons that the Gospel of Mark was attributed to Mark, and, in turn, to Peter.  In the second century, there were debates within Christianity.  Both the factions that became “orthodox” and the factions later deemed “heretical” claimed apostolic succession and attributed their Gospels to apostles, as a way to buttress their own authority and claims to possess authentic Christianity.  Kok raises the question of whether the same thing that happened to the Gospel of John happened to the Gospel of Mark.  According to Kok, there was some avoidance of the Gospel of John in the second century, as the “orthodox” noted that the “heretics” used it; some even disputed that John wrote it, attributing it instead to Cerinthus.  Yet, the “orthodox” came to co-opt the Gospel of John, as it reinforced their belief that Jesus pre-existed and was God.  Could Mark’s Gospel, likewise, have been co-opted by the “orthodox,” after being used by “heretics”?

In Chapter 5, “The Gospel on the Margins of the Canon,” Kok narrates how Papias, Irenaeus, and Clement essentially apologize for the Gospel of Mark, offering different traditions on the Gospel’s relationship with Peter.  They want to uphold the Gospel of Mark as somehow related to Peter, but they also want to distance Peter from the Gospel of Mark’s apparent deficiencies.  According to Kok, Papias’ problem with the Gospel of Mark was its lack of literary refinement and its dearth of important details about Jesus’ life, such as Jesus’ birth.  Papias says that Peter relayed details to Mark, but blames Mark for the Gospel of Mark’s deficiencies.  Irenaeus’ solution was that Mark wrote after Peter died.  Clement (as discussed by Eusebius) offered other possibilities, one being that Peter was still alive when Mark wrote the Gospel, but was indifferent as Mark released the Gospel to a limited circle of Christian leaders, perhaps as unrefined notes.  Also in this chapter, Kok disputes that the Gospel of Mark was used in an Alexandrian baptismal lectionary.

Chapter 6, “The Clash of Rival Interpreters,” concerns the theological and religious problems that the “orthodox” had with the Gospel of Mark, or its usage by “heretics.”  Adoptionists appealed to the Gospel of Mark to argue that the divine possessed the man Jesus at Jesus’ baptism and later left Jesus at the passion.  Clement was concerned about how the Gospel of Mark was used by ascetics to encourage people to give up all their wealth, as Jesus told the rich young ruler; Clement had a more moderate stance on how Christians should perceive wealth.  Kok argues that the “orthodox” (my term, not Kok’s) co-opted the Gospel of Mark because it “was too dangerous to be left in the wrong hands” (page 322).  They attributed it to Mark, and in turn, to Peter, as a way to legitimize its usage in Christian churches, while controlling how it was used.  Yet, the Gospel of Mark “hardly captured their excitement” and was thus marginal (page 338).

An Appendix, “The Carpocratians and the Mystic Gospel of Mark,” concerns the controversial Mystic Gospel of Mark.  Kok disputes that the Mystic Gospel of Mark was a forgery by the twentieth century scholar Morton Smith, and Kok also disagrees with the idea that the Mystic Gospel existed prior to the Gospel of Mark.  For Kok, the Mystic Gospel of Mark is an example of how a group of second century Christians deemed heretical (by the “orthodox”) used Mark and Mark’s Gospel for their own purposes, while promoting the asceticism that Clement criticized.  Interestingly, the Mystic Gospel of Mark may be an attempt to continue the story of the rich young ruler who turned Jesus down in Mark 10 out of love for his own possessions: either the ruler in Mystic Mark later converted and gave up his possessions (which seems to be Robert Grant’s view), or another rich person gave up his possessions, after Jesus was disappointed that the first rich person failed to do so (Kok’s view on Mystic Mark).

This book has a lot of assets.  It interacts with scholarly views and addresses different patristic traditions.  Those interested in what scholars have said about Papias will find this book a valuable resource.  The book was often a maze and required intense concentration to follow Kok’s engagement with different scholarly ideas, but Kok did well to offer a lucid summary of his arguments and conclusions at the end of each chapter.

In terms of Kok’s argument, his models are possible.  They may be speculative, on some level, but they do incorporate plausible details.  His belief that I Peter 5:13 attempts to bring together different factions and appeals to Mark to do so is rather speculative.  Yet, one can make a plausible case that there were differences in early Christianity about Gentiles and the Torah among key figures (Paul and James, or James’ party; see Galatians 2), and that Acts seems to be a later attempt to present Peter, Paul, and James as united rather than divided on this issue, and others.  Could the depiction of Mark play a role in this development?  Moreover, Kok never definitively proves that the “orthodox” Christians attributed the Gospel of Mark to Mark, and, in turn, to Peter to score points in controversies, but he does present an effective case that there was concern about the Gospel of Mark in the second century.

In terms of slight critiques, I have a problem with how Kok presents John the Elder as somewhat of a nobody (which may be an extreme characterization of Kok’s view, on my part, but it was the impression that I got).  Why would Papias value what John the Elder had to say, if that were the case?  Also, I was puzzled about how paleographic experts could date a copy of the Mystic Gospel of Mark to the eighteenth century.  Kok dates it to the second century, whereas those who see it as a forgery by Morton Smith would presumably date it to the twentieth century.  How does the conclusion of the paleographic experts fit into all that?  Kok should have addressed that, at least to clear up misunderstandings that some readers (like yours truly) might have.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Edelweiss.  My review is honest!

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Jonah, the Important Things in Life,and Being Part of Something Larger, with a Mark Driscoll Detour Thrown into the Mix

At church last Sunday, the pastor preached about Jonah.  Two of his insights, in particular, stayed with me during the week.

The first insight was that, just because an opportunity opens up that appears beneficial to us, that doesn’t mean it’s from God.  Jonah was disobeying God, and, lo and behold, there was a ship that could take him away, and a place where he could sleep!  An opportunity opened up for Jonah that offered him comfort, but Jonah still was outside of the will of God.  Similarly, suppose that we get a promotion that requires more hours of work and takes away our time with God?  Is that really from God?

Confession time.  On the way home from church, for whatever reason, I had a desire to listen to a Mark Driscoll sermon.  Remember Mark Driscoll?  He left the Mars Hill Church due to controversies.  To my surprise, he now has a church in Arizona, where he pastors and preaches.  And why not?  He has a gift and should be allowed to use it, even if he has made mistakes in the past and many people can’t stand him.  Just because there are people who can’t stand him, that doesn’t mean he’s obligated to crawl under a rock for the rest of his life!  (And, by the way, I say the same about Trump!)

Anyway, I visited Mark Driscoll’s web site after coming home from church, and what do you think Mark Driscoll has been preaching about the last two weeks?  Jonah!  And Mark Driscoll made a similar point to what the pastor at my church said: that, just because an opportunity opens up, that doesn’t mean it’s from God.  We want money and there is an opportunity for us to steal?  That is not from God!  We want a romantic relationship, and an opportunity for a romantic relationship with a non-believer opens up?  Not from God!

I doubt that the pastor at my church got that idea about ungodly opportunities from Mark Driscoll.  The pastor has made that point in sermons before, so it’s his own idea.  But I suspect that the pastor at my church got the connection of that idea with the Book of Jonah from Mark Driscoll’s sermon.  I can’t prove it!  And, to be clear, I’m not accusing the pastor of plagiarizing: there are clear differences between his sermon and that of Mark Driscoll!  The pastor probably did what a lot of pastors do: explore commentaries and sermons to get insights for his own sermon.

Anyway, that point in the pastor’s sermon has been swimming in my mind as part of a larger discussion in my head concerning what I truly value.  One of the books that I am reading right now is Daniel Henderson’s The Prayer God Loves to Answer.  Henderson says that we should value God and people more than money.  When we are dying, don’t we want people around us who care about us?  And people on the verge of death never regret that they failed to spend more time at the office!

I really had to think about this!  In a sense, I do value money more than people.  I don’t particularly care for people, especially their snark, sarcasm, and cliquishness.  Money, at least, can grant me security and the ability to enjoy the hobbies and interests that I want to enjoy, even if I don’t like people and people don’t like me.  So which do I value more?

And do I value money more than spirituality?  Well, I’m not that good at spirituality, to be honest, so, in a sense, the answer is “yes.”  I may be far from perfect in terms of my Christian life and my character (i.e., I struggle with resentment and forming relationships), but, if I have the security that money can bring, then I can be content!

And yet, would I be truly happy?  I mean, if I am working all the time at menial tasks, would I be able to do as many of the things that I enjoy, the things that feed my soul?  Reading.  Watching shows.  Going to church.  I will work diligently when given a chance, but I do think that an enjoyable life is a balance between work and pursuing the things that feed the soul.

The second insight in the pastor’s sermon concerned the fruit of Jonah’s ministry.  Jonah preached, and Nineveh repented!  Jonah got to be part of something larger than himself.  Similarly, when we obey God, we are blessed!

(By the way, I think that’s how my mind got onto Mark Driscoll on my walk home from church.  The pastor was saying that he himself is not important, and that, if he goes, God will raise someone else to preach the word.  What is important is the word, not personalities!  That made me think about how some churches fold after a charismatic preacher leaves.  An example that came to my mind of that sort of phenomenon was Mark Driscoll!)

Of course, Jonah in the Book of Jonah did not particularly feel blessed after Nineveh repented, which is why God had to instruct Noah about the value of the people and animals in Nineveh, so that Jonah might see the situation as God did.  Still, I am attracted to the idea of being part of something useful, something bigger than myself.

Over the years, I have pulled back from “witnessing” to others, since that has long seemed rather artificial to me, at least when I try to do it.  That can be said for many of my attempts to be a good evangelical!  Appealing to God’s commands does not change that, so the “obey, obey, obey” mantra in many sermons on Jonah does not impact me that much!  I figure that I tried, I failed, so let’s move on!  Berating me as disobedient won’t change anything!

The pastor was saying, though, that if God calls us to a task, that must mean that God knows that there is something within us that makes us a fit for that task, something that can enable us for it.  He also said that God may see things in us that we do not acknowledge in ourselves.  Maybe.  That is worth considering.

I would like to leave the comments open.  But I will close them because I don’t want to get into a debate about Mark Driscoll and Trump!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Book Write-Up (Loosely-Speaking): The Bhagavad Gita As It Is

A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.  The Bhagavad Gita As It Is.  Second Edition: Revised and Enlarged.  The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1983.

I was reading The Bhagavad Gita As It Is for my daily devotion over the past few months.  I was initially hesitant to do so.  Would God approve of me using Scriptures about another god in my daily devotion?  If I want to read the Bhagavad Gita As It Is, I reasoned, maybe I should just read it at night while watching television, when I am not reading something else!  Just leave it out of my daily devotions! I don’t want to transgress the first two commandments!

But I learned pretty quickly that this was not the sort of book that I could binge read.  I had to go through it slowly, though the pace would later pick up as I got used to the book.  I decided that reading and commenting on a page as part of my ten-minute prayer time would be a fine way to go through the book, allowing me to digest it a bit at a time.  Plus, I would be talking with the true God about the book, not a false god!

I was hooked when I started reading it, and one reason was that it seemed to be interacting with the sorts of questions with which Christians have interacted.  In the Bhagavad Gita, there is a war, and Arjuna is part of the warrior caste.  Arjuna does not want to kill people in battle, and he has a conversation with the god Krishna, who is his charioteer.  Krishna is a god, but he is on earth as a human being, with human parents; Krishna makes periodic appearances to set people on the right spiritual path.  Krishna commends Arjuna’s compassion, but he still says that Arjuna should do his job and fight the battles.  For one, Arjuna as part of the warrior caste is supposed to enforce earthly justice, and his enemies in battle are wicked people.  Second, Krishna says that everyone has an eternal soul, anyway, so Arjuna should not stress out about killing enemies in battle.  They will live on, in another form!  Krishna goes on to highlight, though, that people should be kind to all people and animals: they should not make “everyone has an eternal soul” as an excuse or license to kill, unless there is a very good reason, as in a just war.

That discussion reminded me of Christian debates over pacifism, just war, and the Israelites’ conquest of the Canaanites.  Is there a time when war is approved or sanctioned by God as a way to bring about justice?  Or does war violate the spirit of love, compassion, and empathy that God wants us to have?  Christians have tried to navigate their way through these issues and tensions, and the Bhagavad Gita appears to be doing something similar.

A lot of my reading was of the commentary by the Swami, who lived in the twentieth century, long after the time of the Bhagavad Gita.  Some of what he says about the Bhagavad Gita may be faithful to the text itself, and some of it may be his own ideas.  One can tell from the book that there are different interpretations of the Bhagavad Gita, and the Swami was making his own contributions to a larger discussion; in fact, his version of the Bhagavad Gita was controversial on account of its criticisms of other Hindu groups and schools-of-thought.

That said, the Swami’s comments brought to mind Christian discussions.  He said that we should be conscious of Krishna during our work.  That reminded me of the Protestant idea of the priesthood of believers: that a person can honor God in his trade or profession.  Other discussions called to my mind Christian discussions on faith, grace, and good works, and the question of whether people can graduate from rituals after they reach a stage of spiritual maturity.  Recall Paul’s depiction of the law as a schoolmaster in Galatians 3!

The Bhagavad Gita—-not just the Swami’s comments, but the Bhagavad Gita itself—-encourages people to forsake or transcend the material world.  Material attachments, such as a desire for wealth or sex, bring the worse out of people and enslave them, the logic runs.  According to this book, people should be so enamored with Krishna that what people think about them does not even trouble them.

One may be tempted to compare the Bhagavad Gita with Gnosticism, in that both exhort people to flee material slavery and to get in touch with the divine or the spiritual within themselves.  Judaism and Christianity, by contrast, have a more favorable view of creation, seeing it as a gift of God to be enjoyed.

But the Bhagavad Gita does not strike me as anti-material.  If the Swami’s translation is correct, it regards the material as a creation of Krishna.  (I wonder if the Bhagavad Gita is in tension with mainstream Hinduism on this, since, according to this book, mainstream Hinduism believes Brahma was the creator and afterwards became inactive.  In The Bhagavad Gita As It Is, by contrast, Krishna is the creator, and Brahma was his first creation.)  The material is actually seen as an extension of Krishna.  In contrast, Gnosticism tended to believe that a sinister or inferior sub-deity, not the highest god, created the material world and sought to trap humans with its pleasures and limitations.

The Bhagavad Gita As It Is also has exhortations about respecting the material.  Rather than seeking to conquer nature, we should respect all creatures.  The Bhagavad Gita As It Is is opposed to killing and eating animals, though it tries to explain and justify why the Vedas mandate animal sacrifice.  It maintains that people of different castes are to be respected as equals.  It says that Arjuna should perform his task of enforcing earthly justice.  I should also add that its anti-materialism is, in some cases, negotiable or qualified: a married person can continue to be married and to have sex, for example, but the sex should be for procreation.

One can ask why Krishna created the material world, if he wants us to forsake it.  The closest that I got to an answer in The Bhagavad Gita, As It Is is that being in the material world gives us an opportunity to long for the divine, to be united with the divine being who is our source.  As we get sick of the material and the frustrations that attachment to the material brings, we long for something more.  And, if we fail to do this in one lifetime, reincarnation will give us other lifetimes to get things right, unless we are hopelessly demonic (and that discussion, by the way, reminded me of Christian discussions about apostasy and blasphemy against the Holy Spirit).  My impression is that the Bhagavad Gita As It Is implies that beings started to forget God, and so they were placed in material bodies so they could become part of a spiritual journey back to God.  This reminds me, somewhat, of some of the Calvinist theodicies I have read: the ones that say that God ordained evil to create a spiritual drama, in which God can display God’s righteous attributes.

From a Christian standpoint, I believe in enjoying the material world rather than forsaking it.  God gave us pleasures to enjoy!  At the same time, there are plenty of New Testament exhortations against being greedy and materialistic, and these overlap, at least partially, with the sentiments of the Bhagavad Gita.

My next daily devotion project: the Catholic catechism!

Monday, November 21, 2016

Book Write-Up: Fatal Frost, by Nancy Mehl

Nancy Mehl.  Fatal Frost.  Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

Fatal Frost is the first book of the “Defenders of Justice” series.  In this novel, Mercy Brennan is a U.S. Marshall.  After Mercy is shot, her estranged father, Nick, comes back into her life.  Nick also was a U.S. Marshall.  The two of them have lunch together.  Nick apologizes for his absence from her life since her childhood, and the two of them joke about Mercy’s therapy, and the therapy that many cops have to receive after traumatic experiences: how the therapist is hesitant to release Mercy back into duty if Mercy says she feels all right, but is willing to release her if Mercy says she is traumatized.

Meanwhile, there are the gangs.  There is a local gang leader, Darius, and the larger, more powerful Vargas gang, which is recruiting Darius for a task.  They are all launching a plot: their plan is to release a doctored video portraying excessive police force, use that video to instigate a riot, and take advantage of the mayhem from that riot to enrich themselves.  But there is a problem: the video is out there somewhere, but it has not yet been doctored to make the cop look guilty!  Actually, the video shows who really shot that person in the car.  That somewhat undermines gangs’ plan, so they want to find that video.

Another character in this novel is Tally, who is Mercy’s partner in the force.  Tally is a fatherly, African-American gentleman.  Tally and his wife, Annie, are like mentors to Mercy.  There is also Mark, who is a U.S. Marshall.  Mark was romantically involved with Mercy, but they broke up after Mark became a Christian.  Mark still has feelings for Mercy, but he laments that Mercy wears a thick emotional shield.  As Mercy deals with her emotional wounds, she remains closed to embracing the Christian faith.

You will have to read the book to see how all these details intersect in the plot!  A key plot-element is that Mark, Tally, and Mercy get trapped in a remote cabin during an ice storm, and the gangs are coming after them!

This book was an enjoyable read.  Those who enjoy cop-shows may appreciate this book, which is like an episode of a cop-show, albeit with a Christian spin.  The book provides background information that allows readers to know the characters better.  The characters deal with their temptations and struggles, and there is empathy even towards those who make poor choices.  The novel’s prose is simple, and yet there is an elegance to it.

In terms of the book’s depiction of religion, Mark seems to embrace a Joel Osteenish sort of Christianity.  His pastor interprets Christian concepts in light of Mark’s destiny: Mark should not be unequally yoked with Mercy because that may hinder him from his Christian destiny; Mark should accept God’s forgiveness for sleeping with Mercy because his past sin need not shatter his destiny.  Mark also feels better about himself after becoming a Christian.  Some Christian readers may have problems with this depiction of Christianity, thinking that it avoids key themes such as sin and Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.  Personally, I appreciated the book’s practical take on forgiveness.  There were also other religious features of the book that I liked, as well: how Mark and Tally did not try to shove religion down Mercy’s throat but simply lived authentic human lives, as Christians.

The book’s interaction with the issue of police brutality was somewhat of a turn-off to me.  I, for one, rejoice that people’s phones are capturing incidents of police brutality and releasing them to the public, so that rogue cops can finally be held accountable for their behavior rather than covering for each other.  I see that as justice.  This book perhaps would have been better had it acknowledged as legitimate the concerns of those who are victims of police brutality.

That said, this is still a good book, and, time permitting, I may read more Nancy Mehl novels in the future.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest!

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Book Write-Up: The Resurrection of Jesus, by Michael R. Licona

Michael R. Licona.  The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010.  See here to purchase the book.

Michael R. Licona has a Ph.D. from the University of Pretoria and has taught at Houston Baptist Seminary.  He is a New Testament scholar, and he is also considered to be a Christian apologist, though (as we shall see) his claims in this book are more modest than those of many Christian apologists.  Still, in The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, Licona defends the historicity of Jesus’ bodily resurrection.

One page 583, Licona defines the Resurrection Hypothesis that he supports: “Following a supernatural event of an indeterminate nature and cause, Jesus appeared to a number of people, in individual and group settings and to friends and foes, in no less than an objective vision and perhaps within ordinary vision in his bodily raised corpse.”

In Chapter 1, “Important Considerations on Historical Inquiry Pertaining to the Truth in Ancient Texts,” Licona discusses questions of historiography, which largely focus on the challenges to recovering and accurately representing the past.  Licona describes and appreciates such challenges.  The approach that he adopts is critical realism, so he is critical of postmodern challenges to the historical enterprise and maintains that historians can make tentative, plausible judgments about what happened in history.  Licona’s approach is also methodically neutral, which means that it expects historical texts (i.e., sources consulted to help reconstruct the past, such as primary sources) and historians’ hypotheses to bear the “burden of proof” regarding their claims and usefulness in the historical enterprise.  Considerations in this “burden of proof” include evidence, argumentation, plausibility, explanatory scope, explanatory power, being less ad hoc, and illumination (and these are Licona’s terms).  At the end of the chapter, Licona offers “confessions” about his own beliefs, biases, and situation.  Two parts of this that stood out was (1.) when Licona said that “there have been times when I have been desirous of a nonspecific form of theism” (page 139) (rather than a specifically Christian form, I am assuming), and (2.) when Licona said that “should my research lead me to the conclusion that Jesus did not rise from the dead I would be dismissed from my position and my employment would be terminated.”  I do respect Licona’s honesty.

In Chapter 2, “The Historian and Miracles,” Licona argues against the belief that miracles should be dismissed as a possibility when historians are attempting to recover and convey the past.  For Licona, miracles that pass the muster of historical method should be accepted as an explanation.  Licona would apply this criteria to non-Christian miracles, as well, but, overall, he believes that Jesus’ miracles and resurrection pass the historical criteria in a way that non-Christian miracles do not.  Later in the book, Licona expresses some openness to the Marian apparitions being supernatural, yet he refers to a view that these are demonic.

Chapter 3 is about the “Historical Sources Pertaining to the Resurrection of Jesus.”  In this chapter, Licona evaluates historical sources, both Christian and non-Christian, as to whether they are helpful in enabling historians to draw conclusions about the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection.  Licona rates the canonical Gospels, Josephus’ references to Jesus, and Tacitus (to cite examples, as Licona considers other sources as well) as “possible” in terms of their usefulness, but he prefers Paul and the sources that Paul quotes because they are closer to the time of Jesus, plus Paul “knew the major Jerusalem apostles” (page 209).

Chapter 4 is about “The Historical Bedrock Pertaining to the Fate of Jesus.”  This historical bedrock includes three claims.  The first claim is that “Jesus died by crucifixion.”  The second claim is that “Very shortly after Jesus’ death, the disciples had experiences that led them to believe that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them.”  The third is that “Within a few years after Jesus’ death, Paul converted after experiencing what he interpreted as a postresurrection appearance of Jesus to him.”  Licona states that these claims are accepted by a large majority of biblical scholars, of different faith commitments (including no religious commitments).  Licona does the historical work of supporting these claims, often by using the criteria that have conventionally been employed in scholarly attempts to identify what is historically accurate and what is historically inaccurate in the biblical Gospels.  Such criteria include the criterion of multiple attestation (i.e., a detail is probably historical because it appears in multiple sources), and the criterion of embarrassment (i.e., early Christians would not invent something that would embarrass them, so an embarrassing detail is likely historical).  Licona evaluates other claims, as well: did Jesus predict his resurrection, did Jesus perform miracles, did Jesus’ brother James convert to Christianity after doubting Jesus, and are the empty tomb stories in the Gospels historically reliable?  Licona believes that there are legitimate reasons to answer “yes” to all of these questions, but he ultimately excludes these from the historical bedrock, one reason being that they are not broadly accepted within biblical scholarship, as least not to the extent that the bedrock is.

Licona in this chapter extensively discusses Paul’s view of Jesus’ resurrection.  For Licona, Paul believed that Jesus rose bodily from the dead: that Jesus’ corpse was transformed into a glorious, albeit physical, body.  This is consistent with what the canonical Gospels present, including the empty tomb.  Licona argues against scholarly ideas that draw a wedge between Paul and the Gospels, by saying that Paul believed Jesus had a spiritual body rather than a physical body, or by positing that the early Christians could say that Jesus rose while acknowledging that Jesus’ corpse was still in the ground decaying.  Licona rejects the idea that the disciples saw a mere vision or hallucination, for he thinks that they objectively saw the risen body of Jesus.  For Licona, this was the view of Paul and Paul’s sources (including the creed in I Corinthians 15:3-7, which mentions five-hundred witnesses to the risen Jesus), which have high historical probability.

Chapter 5 is entitled “Weighing Hypothesis.”  In this chapter, Licona weighs scholarly attempts to account for the historical bedrock that he described in Chapter 4.  Licona looks at the work of Geza Vermes, Michael Goulder, Gerd Ludemann, John Dominic Crossan, and Pieter F. Craffert.  In an appendix, Licona evaluates the work of Dale Allison.  Many of these scholars attempt to account for early Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection from a naturalistic perspective, without any recourse to the supernatural.  Some say, for instance, that the early Christians saw hallucinations, and this is how they concluded that Jesus rose from the dead.  Licona rejects this explanation because he does not believe in group hallucinations, since a hallucination can only be in one person’s head.  Licona also rejects these scholars’ models because he thinks that they are lacking in evidence: for Licona, an acceptable hypothesis cannot merely ask “What if?” and poke holes in the Resurrection Hypothesis but must itself must have evidential support and be able to account for and explain the data.  Licona does not completely fail these competing hypotheses, for he gives them a passing grade in some areas and a failing grade in others.  Still, he believes that the Resurrection Hypothesis is the best explanation for the data and early Christian belief in the resurrection.

In terms of positives, this book was thorough, overall, in weighing different scholarly views.  To his credit, Licona was not shackled by Christian fundamentalism or a belief in biblical inerrancy, which is why this book was so controversial.  Although Licona is an apologist, he said that one did not necessarily have to believe that the biblical God was the one who raised Jesus from the dead to accept the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection.  Licona differs from Christian apologists who argue that Jesus rose, then smuggle into that the conclusion that biblical inerrancy is therefore true, or that the entire Christian worldview is true.  Licona also manifests some open-mindedness on there being a belief in dying-and-rising gods prior to Jesus.  Licona rejects the notion that these influenced the development of Christianity, but he still thinks that dying-and-rising gods is a topic for scholars to explore further.  Another asset is that there were occasions when Licona offered a fresh interpretation of Scripture.  Why does the Gospel of Mark end by saying that the women did not tell anyone about Jesus’ resurrection, noting their fear?  Licona interprets this in light of Mark 1:44, in which Jesus instructs a leper he cleanses to say nothing to anyone, but to go to the priest to perform the proper rituals.  For Licona, the women’s silence in Mark’s Gospel was temporary, and their fear was reverent awe.  Licona was also informative about ancient historiography, acknowledging that it could embellish or exaggerate, or contain contradictions.

I enjoy reading atheist biblical scholar Robert Price, and Price argues that the creed in I Corinthians 15:3-7 was a later interpolation and thus lacks historical value in supporting the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection.  Licona does not directly refute this argument (though he engages Price in the footnotes), but Licona did argue that there are verbal indications in the remainder of I Corinthians 15 that Paul adapted his vocabulary in response to the creed.  That would weigh against the creed being a later interpolation.

In terms of negatives, there were topics that Licona should have explored further.  Licona mentions instances in the New Testament in which resurrection bodies shine like the sun, but he failed to explain how that can be reconciled with Jesus’ resurrection body being physical.  (On one occasion, he mentions II Baruch 21:33 and 30:2-5, which posit a physical resurrection preceding a glorified, shining body, but Licona was not addressing there the resurrection body of Jesus.)  Licona did well to offer an interpretation of I Corinthians 15:45, which calls the risen Jesus a spirit, but (as far as I recall) Licona did not address Paul’s reference to the different kinds of flesh in I Corinthians 15:39-41; this is significant because it pertains to whether Paul is saying Jesus had a different, spiritual kind of bodily composition, which Licona (at least somewhat) disputes.  Licona offers a fairly effective argument that the soma pneumatikon of I Corinthians 15 was not an ethereal or spiritual body lacking physicality, as he looks at the usage of the term in other ancient sources.  While he cited the sources, however, he failed to say what exactly those sources were saying a soma pneumatikon is.

Licona in Chapter 3 is very critical in his acceptance of sources.  He appears to take off the table the canonical Gospels and Tacitus, for instance.  Later in the book, however, he appeals to these sources as authorities when evaluating the historicity of the “historical bedrock,” as he uses the multiple attestation criterion.  On page 509, Licona argues against John Dominic Crossan’s comparison of the five-hundred witnesses to the risen Jesus in I Corinthians 15:3-7 to a (alleged) collective delusion of St. George during the Crusades.  Licona states that the disciples’ condition differed from that of the Crusaders, for the Crusaders were poised and ready to see such a delusion, whereas the disciples “were already in hiding and could have walked away accepting their losses, intent on finding another messiah or finding something else to do with their lives.”  How does Licona know that about the disciples, though?  Is he presuming the historicity of the Gospel accounts?

Licona does offer defenses for the reliability of the Gospel narratives on Jesus’ resurrection, even though he takes them off the table as evidence, on some level.  Many of his arguments will be familiar to those who have read Christian apologetics (i.e., the Gospel narratives are reliable because they present women as the first witnesses to the empty tomb, and women’s testimony was considered suspect in that day).  Some were new to me: If the Gospels invented the resurrection stories to portray Jesus’ resurrection as physical and to counter docetism, why did they portray Jesus’ resurrected body vanishing into thin air?  They would be shooting themselves in the foot, if refuting docetism were their agenda, right?  That was an effective argument, on Licona’s part.  Where Licona left me scratching my head, however, was when he was defending the Gospels by comparing them to other ancient sources.  The Gospels contradict themselves?  So do ancient sources that many historians accept as historical!  The Gospels are later than the time that they depict?  So are other ancient sources, yet historians deem them to be historically reliable.  In these cases, Licona should have explained why historians accept those ancient sources as historically reliable, notwithstanding their weaknesses.

Licona also should have taken a moment to explain why the criteria of authenticity can shed light on the past.  Nowadays, the criteria are becoming a bit outdated, or outmoded.  Since Licona used them, he should have explained their usefulness, perhaps in the chapter on historiography.

Licona was also a little too hard on the competing hypotheses, in my opinion.  He dismissed some of them as lacking any evidence.  Maybe they are limited as full-fledged explanatory hypotheses, but they still have valid insights.  One view was that Paul deep down was struggling with the law as a Pharisee and had a love hate-relationship with Christianity, and that could account for his vision of Christ and his conversion.  Licona dismisses this as historical psycho-analyzing.  But did not Jesus tell Saul that Saul was kicking against the goads (Acts 26:14)?  Does not Paul struggle with the law in Romans 7, and elsewhere in his epistles?  Why are these irrelevant in accounting for the bedrock?

I received a complimentary copy of this book from IVP Academic.  My review is honest!

Friday, November 18, 2016

Current Events Write-Up: Sessions, Bannon, and Health Care

I am thinking of doing a weekly version of what I did in my Election Day post this year: collecting links to news and opinion pieces and briefly commenting on them.  Whether I have the discipline to do that over the long haul remains to be seen!  I will write such a post today, however.  And I have to warn you: you may not like what I say!

Right now, at least, I am going to follow the format of my Election Day post.  I will have two categories: “pro-Trump” and “anti-Trump”!  If there is an article that I like that does not belong to either category, I will put it in a separate category, entitled “Other.”

To reiterate what I said in my Election Day post, by “pro-Trump” and “anti-Trump,” I do not necessarily mean that the authors of these articles support or oppose the President-elect.  What I mean is that these articles say things that reflect positively or negatively on Trump, in my eyes.  Many “pro-Trump” articles that I post will be by people who support Trump, and many “anti-Trump” articles will be by people who oppose him.  But that will not always be the case.  For example, today, I will put a Breitbart article in the “anti-Trump” section, even though the article is not opposed to Trump.

Here we go!


Weekly Standard: In Alabama Jeff Sessions Desegregated Schools and Got the Death Penalty for KKK Head.

President-elect Trump’s selection for Attorney General is being called a racist.  Is there another side to the story?  Has Jeff Sessions done anything against racism?

Yahoo News: Trump’s Attorney General Could Halt Obama-Era Criminal Justice Reforms.

I happen to support the Obama-era criminal justice reforms, so much of what this article says concerns me.  At the same time, kudos to the article for mentioning the pro-reform aspects of Jeff Sessions’ record.  The article cites Holly Harris, who is executive director of the pro-criminal justice reform group, the U.S. Justice Action Network:  “Harris said that while it’s clear Sessions is not a fan of sentencing reform, the Alabama lawmaker has supported legislation in the past to help people who get out of prison reintegrate into society. Sessions also backed a bill to reduce the vast sentencing disparity between crimes involving crack vs. those involving powder cocaine in 2010. (Crack offenders, most of whom were black, were sentenced 100 times more harshly than people who sold powder cocaine, despite the fact that it’s essentially the same drug.)”

Breitbart: Trump Considering Woman, Openly Gay Man for Leadership Posts. 

Okay, confession time.  I subscribed to the Breitbart newsletter last week!  I wanted to see what all the buzz was about.  Don’t worry: I’m not checking my brain at the door.  I still think there is sensationalist stuff on Breitbart, and here I am speaking in terms of what I have seen and read on it, which is far from comprehensive.  But I figured that at least I would get an alternative perspective by reading Breitbart.  With the avalanche of criticisms on Trump’s transition, Cabinet picks, and potential appointees this past week, this article was refreshing, since it highlights at least a few areas in which Trump is moving his cabinet in the direction of diversity.  I should also mention that this article is actually an AP article.

Breitbart: Team Trump Announces Five Year Lobbying Ban for Administration Officials. 

We’ve heard that President-elect Trump isn’t really draining the swamp but is hiring lobbyists to be on his transition team.  Okay, those are valid criticisms!  But is there anything positive that Trump is doing, in the area of lobbying reform?  People have criticized the revolving door that exists in Washington, D.C., as people leave government and immediately become lobbyists.  Is Trump doing something to redress this problem, on some level?

Breitbart: Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew

Read the article!  Don’t just rely on what you’ve heard about the article.  Read it!  The mainstream media have been referring to this article to argue that Trump’s appointment for chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is an anti-Semite.  But this article isn’t anti-Semitic.  First of all, it is written by David Horowitz, who himself is Jewish.  Second, its argument is that Bill Kristol, by criticizing Trump, is empowering Israel’s enemies.  Technically, this article does not make me feel that much better about Trump or Bannon: it sounds rather neo-connish to me.  But it does make me wonder how often the mainstream media read past the headlines!


Breitbart: An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right, by Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannopoulos

This article is disturbing in its description of the Alt-Right.  What’s more, one of its authors is Milo, who is a prominent voice on Breitbart.  The article is giving a layout of those who are part of the Alt-Right, and one group in it is the “natural conservatives.”  This is the part that disturbs me.

“The conservative instinct, as described by [social psychologist Jonathan] Haidt, includes a preference for homogeneity over diversity, for stability over change, and for hierarchy and order over radical egalitarianism. Their instinctive wariness of the foreign and the unfamiliar is an instinct that we all share – an evolutionary safeguard against excessive, potentially perilous curiosity – but natural conservatives feel it with more intensity. They instinctively prefer familiar societies, familiar norms, and familiar institutions.”

There is legitimate discussion out there about assimilation and what cultural glue should hold this country together, but the above sounds like stigmatizing the “other.”  In my opinion, we should learn to get along and appreciate people who are different from us, rather than trying to exclude them.

I should note that Milo is a homosexual with Jewish background, and the authors of this article note that Breitbart itself has embraced diversity.

LA Times: Selling Health Insurance Across State Lines Is a Favorite GOP ‘Reform.’ Here’s Why It Makes No Sense, by Michael Hiltzik

This article critiques the idea of allowing health insurance to be sold across state lines.  I wonder if there is a way to bypass some of the problems that the article identifies, while still allowing health insurance to be sold across state lines.  Why not have the same standard national regulations for all health insurance companies, rather than letting each state set its regulations?  David Frum and Bill O’Reilly have suggested this.  The other problem the article identifies, that insurance companies negotiate with hospitals that are in their proximity, remains as a challenge to the idea, though.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Church Write-Up: Being Filled with the Holy Spirit

At church last week, the pastor preached about being filled with the Holy Spirit.  I am in a bit of a hurry, so here are some thoughts:

A.  The pastor was saying that a barrier many Christians have when it comes to being filled with the Holy Spirit is that there are a lot of other interests and preoccupations taking up space in their hearts.  A question that enters my mind when I hear this is: “Okay, so are you saying we need to be totally occupied with religion?”

I wonder the same thing when I read the Bhagavad Gita, As It Is, as Swami Prabhupada’s commentary encourages people to be totally occupied with Krishna.  At the same time, the Swami also says that we can go about our daily lives, doing our daily tasks, and yet we can and should be doing those things in a state of Krishna-consciousness.  That may have been what Paul was getting at when he said: “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (I Corinthians 10:31).  (Paul, though, was talking about the biblical God, not Krishna.)

The pastor was probably talking about focus: we should put more focus on God.  Perhaps one can be conscious of God and one’s identity in God, though, while paying attention to other things.

B.  The pastor was saying that, when we are filled with the Holy Spirit, others will look at us and see something that they want and thus will become Christians.

The question in my mind is: “Do I look at Christians and see anything in them that I want?”

Here, I am not talking about hypocritical Christians, but those who sincerely believe and try to walk the walk that they talk.

Well, I can look at other people, Christian and non-Christian, and see things that I want in terms of personal characteristics.  I wish my social skills were better, for example.

Looking at Christians specifically, I can admire their joy.  That does not necessarily make me want to be like them, however.  I know a Christian who is enthusiastic about the Lord, for example, and that gives him joy and peace through life.  But he is also somewhat of a zealot, and he is very dogmatic.  I doubt that he has even thought much about, say, what someone with a homosexual orientation goes through.  I wish this Christian well, but I cannot say that I want to be like him.  And that’s not necessarily a horrible thing: I am where I am, similarly, and I do not expect people to want to be like me.

C.  I guess what I am saying in (B.) is that there is a part of me that considers Christian joy to be an uninformed joy, or a joy that comes with tunnel-vision.  The pastor, though, was emphasizing that the Holy Spirit gives us wisdom.

I struggle with that, albeit for other reasons than what I mentioned in (B.).  I can look back at foolish decisions I made, and I do not recall the Holy Spirit attempting to dissuade me from those foolish decisions.  Some may say that he was and I was not listening!

Actually, even now, when I look inside of me, all that I see is myself, rather than some other voice speaking to me and guiding me.  There’s just me in there!  Nobody else is home!  Or so it feels.

D.  The pastor  was exhorting people to be patient with God.  God may be waiting until we are ready before God fills us with God’s Holy Spirit.  Maybe foolish decisions can make one receptive to the Holy Spirit: the pastor indirectly refers to foolish decisions that he made.  The pastor also talked about the importance of prayer that includes praise, not just requests, and Bible reading that seeks understanding rather than simply plowing through verses.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Book Write-Up: Love Bears All Things, by Beth Wiseman

Beth Wiseman.  Love Bears All Things.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

Love Bears All Things is the second novel of the “Amish Secrets” series.  The first novel of the series was Her Brother’s Keeper.  I did not read the first novel, but I did buy it when it was on sale because I loved the second novel!

In Her Brother’s Keeper, Charlotte hears that her brother died in an Amish community, so she goes to that community to find out what happened.  She pretends to be Amish, thinking that could help her to find answers.  At first, she thinks that the Amish are a cultish group, but she comes to admire their faith.

In Love Bears All Things, people in that Amish community are distrustful of Charlotte, since they now know that she was pretending to be Amish all that time.  Charlotte still has some friends from that community who have forgiven her, though.  Charlotte has resumed her life in the outside world, and she is dealing with massive debt and a boyfriend who broke up with her.  Amidst these struggles, an Amish young man from the Amish community, Jacob, shows up on her doorstep and announces that he is taking a break from the Amish!  He wants to see the world!  That prompts Charlotte to pay a visit to the community.

The book has its share of mysteries that encourage the reader to keep reading on.  Is Jacob’s girlfriend Annie pregnant?  Will they be shunned?  Who is that mysterious person hanging around Charlotte’s old house in the Amish community?  Who paid for Jacob to stay in an expensive hotel?

The book also has sweet or theologically notable scenes.  There is the theme of unexpected love.  Charlotte and Annie wrestle with the question of how God works and whether God is punishing.  There is Edna, who is “searching for an amount of love that’s not humanly possible” (page 189).  Themes of personal healing, forgiveness, and Amish views on the extent to which the Amish should adopt new technology also appear in this book.

The book’s prose is simple.  It conveys the characters’ thoughts and feelings realistically, without getting too bogged down in wordy descriptions.  A lot of their reflections came out in conversation.  Perhaps the simple prose allowed the portraits of the characters’ thoughts and feelings to be more vivid, thereby enhancing the story.  Reading this book was somewhat like watching a TV episode, albeit a good TV episode.  (By the way, I loved the scene in which Jacob was watching The Big Bang Theory!)

Can one understand this novel without having read the previous novel in the series?  I think so.  This book refers to events in the previous book, but one can still pick up what happened.  One can even like the characters in this book without having read the first one, as I did, but readers will probably appreciate the characters a lot more after reading the first book.

I can tell from this book that another book of the series is coming, since some things were unresolved in this book or could be developed further.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Netgalley.  My review is honest!

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Tom Friedman: Left to Bernie, Right to the Wall Street Journal

I was watching ABC This Week this afternoon.  It’s part of my Sunday ritual.  I come back from church, and I watch the episode of ABC This Week that was taping while I was away.

Tom Friedman was being interviewed near the end of the episode.  I often heard Tom Friedman’s name when I was a student in New York City, at the beginning of the Iraq War.  Students and teachers around me liked to hold him up as some paragon of infallibility.  “THOMAS FRIEDMAN said…”  And, the way I am, when there’s a fad, I tend to go in the opposite direction!

I actually liked something that Thomas Friedman said this morning, though, as he transcended the usual left-right divide.  He said:

“Well, basically, my own politics, George, is I’m actually to the left I think of Bernie Sanders on some issues. I think in this world of accelerations, we’re going to need better and stronger safety nets. I mean for single-payer health care. But at the same time, I’d be right of The Wall Street Journal editorial page. I think we should abolish all corporate taxes and replace them with a carbon tax, a tax on bullets, a tax on sugar and a tax on small financial transaction tax.

“Our challenge, and the challenge of politics going forward, is to get I think stronger safety nets, because this world is going to be too fast for a lot of people, George, and to pay for them, we need to get radically entrepreneurial.

“One side always emphasized the radical entrepreneurship, one just the safety nets and the two have got to co-evolve together.”

See here for a transcript of the episode.

That reminds me of a point that Bruce Bartlett made in his 2009 book, The New American Economy: The Failure of Reaganomics and a New Way Forward.  Bartlett is an economist who served in the Reagan Administration, yet he has come to despise much of the American right.  In this book, Bartlett notes that there are countries in Europe that have a strong safety net, and yet their corporate taxes and taxes on capital are less than what the U.S. has.  Instead, they have a VAT and higher taxes on gasoline and alcohol.  See my write-up here.

Whether Friedman’s plan would work, I do not know.  Speaking for myself, I voted for Measure 97 in Oregon, which would have increased the corporate tax, had it passed (which it did not).  I would prefer for people who have money to pay more, rather than for those who struggle financially to be hit with higher sales taxes.  (Yet, critics of 97 warned that the higher corporate tax would be passed on to consumers, while proponents of 97 offered the reassurance that competition would prevent that from happening.)  On the other hand, I do not want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg.  Plus, I don’t think it is a good idea for one economic class to do all of the rowing—-not that it does, entirely, but I just get leery when progressive politicians talk about creating all of these programs to help people and saying that they will pay for the programs by taxing the rich heavily.

In any case, I appreciate Friedman’s open-mindedness.

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