Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Book Write-Up: Our Deepest Desires

Gregory E. Ganssle.  Our Deepest Desires: How the Christian Story Fulfills Human Aspirations.  IVP Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Gregory E. Ganssle teaches philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, which is at Biola University.  Ganssle articulates his goal in Our Deepest Desires on page 135: “I set out to make the case that the Christian story grounds and explains the things we care about most.”  Such things include life’s purpose, the human desire for relationships, morality, and beauty.

Ganssle’s philosophical training is evident throughout this book, as he engages the thoughts of Bertrand Russell, John Stuart Mill, Sartre, Plato, Nietzsche, and Hume.  Ganssle also discusses postmodernism.  His explanation of their thoughts is clear.  I especially appreciated his discussion of Sartre’s view that human existence precedes essence: that we were not created to be a certain way, but we get to define what our essence is.  Ganssle, of course, disagrees with that view, but the view has a certain attraction to it, as long as it is not taken too far.  Speaking of that, I wondered if Sartre, Nietzsche, and Hume believed in at least some moral boundaries.  You would expect most humans to do so.  Occasionally, Ganssle mentioned considerations that may indicate that some of these thinkers drew the line somewhere, but the broad thrust of his discussion communicated that they were not too keen on moral boundaries.  Sartre was against others telling people what their essence should be, Nietzsche regarded conventional (and Christian) morality as weakness and detrimental to human self-fulfillment, and Hume was skeptical of the existence of moral facts.

Ganssle sometimes employed philosophical argumentation, as when he argued against the view that evolution was sufficient to account for the human love for goodness.  One can argue that human morality evolved as a way to help humans survive, since cooperation is conducive to survival.  This makes some sense, but Ganssle does well to ask if a mere desire to survive accounts for the love for goodness and heroism that many people possess.

The book also had winsome reflections and anecdotes.  Ganssle shared his love for reading, saying that he reads Jane Austen, C.S. Lewis, Tolkein, and Walker Percy every two or three years.  He also talked about how many people (himself included) do not enjoy being criticized: they want truth, but not the criticism that can lead them in that direction.  That resonates!

A criticism that I had through much of the book was that it did not appear to acknowledge suffering.  Ganssle was saying that there are more good things than bad things in life, but is that true for everyone?  Ganssle talked about the importance of relationships, but what about those who have difficulty forming and sustaining them?  The book perhaps would have been better had it engaged the problem of suffering more.  This is not to imply that Ganssle should radically change his thesis: people in the Third World, to use an example, do enjoy the goodness of life.  But they also experience intense suffering, and Ganssle’s discussion of the goodness of the world is incomplete because he does not really engage that.  Near the end of the book, there was more discussion about suffering and human mortality.  It was thoughtful, but even that discussion seemed to reflect a First World perspective (not that Ganssle can change his perspective, but there are other perspectives out there).

Ganssle talks about how God can spend an eternity helping people to develop character, so it is never too late to begin.  That is a profound concept.  I wonder, though, if it is consistent with prominent strands of conservative Christianity—-the types that assume that Christians become morally perfect once they enter heaven.

Also, I was curious about how hell would fit into Ganssle’s thesis.  One can argue that what Ganssle says about humanity’s deepest desires is not irreconcilable with the existence of hell.  Perhaps.  But why would God create so many human beings with desires that God can fulfill, if God’s purpose was to damn most of them to hell, because they left this earth before embracing a particular religion?

Does Christianity contribute to human flourishing?  Ganssle contends that it does, and, in certain respects, he is probably correct: Christianity gives people hope, a basis for morality, and motivations for philanthropy.  Obviously, some of the thinkers Ganssle discusses had a different view, seeing Christianity as detrimental towards human flourishing.  Maybe they went too far in their assessment.  But one can ask: Can homosexuals flourish when they cannot have a lifelong relationship with someone of their own gender, due to the will of the conservative Christian God?  Do certain conservative Christian ideas about sex—-specifically those that act as if people should not have sexual desire until they are married—-contribute to human flourishing?  The other extreme—-promiscuity—-contributes to its share of problems, but are not certain conservative Christian ideas themselves problematic in terms of helping people to arrive at happiness?

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

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Book Write-Up: Institutional Intelligence

Gordon T. Smith.  Institutional Intelligence: How to Build an Effective Organization.  IVP Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Institutional Intelligence is about how to run an institution.  Such institutions include non-profits and churches, but author Gordon T. Smith focuses largely on Christian academia, since that is where he is especially experienced.  Smith discusses the importance of having a clear mission for the institution, listening to one’s board, taking into consideration the interests of the stakeholders, and having a budget that is not only balanced but also accomplishes something.  He offers advice on the type of people to hire, how to raise money, things to consider when merging with another institution, and how to design the building such that it conveys a welcoming and spiritually-appropriate message.

At times, Smith comments on Christian spirituality, since his focus is on Christian institutions.  He talks about how God is the provider, yet institutions are still called to be good stewards.  He makes an interesting point about chapels and how they should not be comfortable and nostalgic but should, in some manner, acknowledge the brokenness of the world.  Smith states that working under authority and with people has spiritual value, in that it trains people for Christian discipleship.  And, because Smith is clear that institutions are generally not places of unconditional love, he gives readers tips about the proper attitude to have in responding to that: how they can avoid bitterness and respond appropriately to praise.

A lot of the book seemed to be common sense, but there are readers who may benefit from Smith’s articulation of the issues: they may wonder what exactly they should be considering, and Smith tells them.  Smith focuses a great deal on the type of attitude that leaders of institutions should have, but he occasionally provides practical advice about what they should actually do.  The book would have been better had it had more practical advice.  Moreover, the book was rather dry, and stories would have enhanced the book by making it more relatable and entertaining, while illustrating the principles that Smith was discussing.

The book would have also been better had it had a more pastoral tone.  The section on whom to hire makes sense, but it can make a person feel as if he or she needs to be perfect to work for an institution (not that Smith says that).  Of course, workers in general are expected to perform at a quality level, but Smith perhaps should have offered advice to potential workers about how they can prepare themselves for that.

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

Monday, September 18, 2017

Church Write-Up: The Law and Eternal Life

For church last Sunday, I watched some church services at home.  The reason I did not go out was that the air quality was poor, due (I presume) to the recent forest fires in Washington and Oregon.

A.  The first service that I watched was that of John MacArthur, Jr.  He spoke about the purpose of the law of God.  According to MacArthur, the Judaizers against whom Paul wrote in Galatians claimed that justification (i.e., being right with God) was by faith in Abraham’s time, but that it was by obedience to the law after God gave the law at Sinai.  Why else, they asked, would God have given the law?  MacArthur contended that God gave the law for a variety of reasons.  One reason was to separate Israel from the pagan nations, so that them Israelites would not socialize with them intimately.  That was designed to protect them from paganism.  Another reason was to show the Israelites that they fell short of obedience to God’s moral standards and thus needed a Savior.  The sacrifices atoned for their sin, demonstrating that they were sinners.  And the law contained God’s moral character, of which the Israelites fell short.  The law, for Paul, led to destruction and wrath, since the Israelites did not and could not observe it.  Through Christ, however, the life that was promised in the Abrahamic covenant comes to believing Israelites and Gentiles.  MacArthur talked about the errors of legalism and antinomianism.  For MacArthur, people are still obligated to obey the requirements of the law that reflect God’s moral character, and the New Testament commands.  God, after all, is holy, and MacArthur said that he doubted that he would want to worship a God who was not just and holy.  MacArthur also said that, when it comes to grace teachers (i.e., teachers who say that obedience to the moral law is unnecessary, since salvation is by grace through faith), he expects them to suffer a moral failure, and they often do.  Another point that MacArthur made was that it is acceptable for obedience to God’s moral law to flow from a sense of duty, even when there is not a deep spiritual feeling.  Paul, after all, said that he beats his body and makes it his slave (I Corinthians 9:27).

MacArthur observed that God’s covenant with Abraham did not talk much about sin or morality.  MacArthur speculated that, prior to the giving of the law, there was some unclarity about God’s moral will.  That was why there was polygamy then, MacArthur stated.  That reasoning, by itself, is problematic, for the law itself appeared to permit polygamy, as Deuteronomy 21:15 demonstrates (yet Deuteronomy 17:17 prohibits the king to multiply wives).  At the same time, the law does prohibit certain acts that the patriarchs practiced: Abraham married his half-sister (Genesis 20:11-12), which Deuteronomy 27:22 forbids.  MacArthur may have a point, even if the example that he cited was not very good.  MacArthur may also have had in mind Paul’s enigmatic statement in Romans 5:13-14, even though MacArthur did not cite it or quote it in that particular sermon: Paul there says that sin was in the world prior to the law, yet it was not imputed, and nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses.  Before the law, were people let off the hook by God, since God did not yet make God’s will known through the law?  The thing is, God punished people for sin prior to the law: God punished people with a flood on account of their violence, and God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  (UPDATE: Actually, my paraphrase of Romans 5:13-14 is laced with my interpretation.  Paul actually says that sin is not imputed where there is no law.  There is a scholarly argument that Paul's point there is that there was a moral law prior to the Mosaic law.)

There are other questions that I have about what MacArthur said about the law.  If God gave Israel rules to separate her from pagans in a sea of paganism, why did God not do the same for the Christians, who were also in a sea of paganism?  Was it because God wanted to give Israel a chance to develop in a righteous direction, setting the foundation for Christianity to come?  Once the foundation had been set, Christians could come on the scene and did not need the Torah’s rituals to keep them separate from paganism.  At the same time, there was some desire on Paul’s part to keep believers separate from non-believers, on some level, for Paul in II Corinthians 6:14 criticizes being unequally yoked; still, Paul in I Corinthians 7:12-14 exhorts believing wives to remain married to non-believing husbands.  I also question whether the Hebrew Bible itself regarded the Torah as a path to destruction, assuming that no one could keep it.  There were righteous people in the Hebrew Bible, such as Josiah, who was said not to turn to the right or the left (II Kings 22:2).  Yet, there were gracious provisions even in the Old Testament: God accepted Israel’s repentance and preserved Israel on account of God’s covenant with Abraham.  Could Paul have meant that the law, apart from these gracious provisions, would lead to destruction?  Or is that a stretch?

B.  The second sermon was preaching on Matthew 7:13-23.  In that biblical passage, Jesus exhorts people to travel the narrow way that leads to life, which few travel, rather than the broader, more popular way, which leads to destruction.  Jesus also warns his disciples of false prophets, and Jesus states that not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” to Jesus will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only those who do God’s will.  Doing miracles will not grant a person entrance into the Kingdom.  The topic of the sermon was avoiding “judgment shock,” which means expecting to inherit eternal life at the last judgment and instead finding that one is going to hell.  How does one avoid this?  The pastor said that being in church and simply believing facts about God is not enough, for  the demons believe in God yet are not saved (James 2:19).  Doing good works is not enough, either.  According to the pastor, one inherits eternal life by trusting Christ for salvation, as one’s Savior and Lord.  But were not the people in Matthew 7:21-22 believing in Christ, since they called him “Lord, Lord”?  The pastor said that they were saying that because they were at the last judgment and they would say anything to get out of going to hell.  Yet, the pastor also seemed to suggest that they thought that they were believers before then, during their lifetime.  But they did not have a deep relationship with Christ, which was why Christ said that he never knew them; Jesus also calls them workers of iniquity in v 23.  The pastor also said that he could spend time with a person and figure out what that person’s passions are, implying, perhaps, that true Christians have a passion for Christ.  This is not my favorite kind of message, but I like when the pastor shares aspects of his own testimony.  He said that, in his youth, he wanted to be a band leader, and he is glad that God delivered him from that, since where would he be had he gotten that wish?  He also expressed gratitude for the preachers of his youth who talked about hell and the need to be born again, and that he has more joy as a follower of Christ than he ever had following the world.

Matthew 7:21-22 has long disturbed me.  But I was thinking on Sunday afternoon: it is in the spirit of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, who said that worship of God was not enough to please God, if people turned around and oppressed and harmed their neighbor.  Why worship God, if one does not want to stand for what God stands for?  Jesus appears to be making the same sort of point.  Was Jesus saying that salvation was by good works, then?  Not exactly: in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus shed his blood to ransom people and remit their sins (Matthew 20:28; 26:28), so it portrays the death of Jesus as essential for salvation; people, presumably, cannot simply clean themselves up by doing good works, for Jesus needed to die for them to be forgiven, even in the Gospel of Matthew.

I’ll stop here.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Book Write-Up: Between One Faith and Another

Peter Kreeft.  Between One Faith and Another: Engaging Conversations on the World’s Great Religions.  IVP Books, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Peter Kreeft teaches philosophy at Boston College and is the author of over fifty books.  Because Kreeft has written about Christian apologetics and uses rigorous logic in his presentations that I have heard, I was expecting this book to be a critique of non-Christian religions and an argument that Christianity is superior.  I was wrong, and pleasantly surprised.

The book is a fictional dialogue among three people, all of whom participate in a religion class.  First, there is Thomas Keptic, a student.  Thomas is an exclusivist.  What that often means in this book is that Thomas believes that the truth claims of the religions are mutually irreconcilable: they cannot all be true.  Thomas is not a conservative Christian claiming that Christianity is true, however, but rather is a skeptic (get it, Thomas Ceptic) and an agnostic about religious truth claims.  He relies heavily on logic, particularly the law of non-contradiction.

Second, there is Bea Lever, another student.  She is an inclusivist, which means that she maintains that the different religions share commonalities in their practices and even, on some level, in their truth claims, and thus they are accessing a common reality.  She considers herself a Christian (her name is Bea Lever, as in “believer”), and Thomas often nitpicks her about how she can be a Christian while rejecting the exclusivism (in this case, the claim that one religion is true while others are false) that is promoted in the Bible.  Whereas Thomas relies on logic, Bea values intuition.

Third, there is Professor Fesser, who teaches the religion class.  He is somewhat of a mediator in the discussions between Thomas and Bea.  He points out the strengths and weaknesses of both sides, and he often encourages both to consider the aspects of the religions themselves, rather than continually falling back on the exclusivism-inclusivism debate.  He is called a pluralist.

The book explores the question of the definition of religion and the religious sense, and it also discusses specific religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Zen, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.  The final chapter is about the question of whether contradictory religions can simultaneously be true.  This question recurs throughout the book, but it is the focus of the final chapter.

All three perspectives get their licks in.  That does not mean that the book is a long, acrimonious debate (though it occasionally does become heated), but rather that each side boldly defends its beliefs.  Conservative Christianity does not mercilessly mow down the other sides, in short.  Near the end, I thought that the book would go in that direction, when Professor Fesser encouraged Thomas to seriously consider Pascal’s Wager and the Lord-Liar-Lunatic argument in light of his (Thomas’) logical “either-or” perspective.  But Professor Fesser does not dwell on that, and the book ends on an inconclusive note, as if the journey, not the destination, is what is important.  In addition, while each side holds its beliefs, they also modify them, on some level: Thomas eventually sees some value in inclusivism, and Bea admits that she is not an absolute inclusivist but draws the line somewhere.

The book does not just dwell on the exclusivism-inclusivism debate, but it also delves into the peculiarities of different religions, and the diversity within them.  For example, an intriguing part of the book is when Professor Fesser explains that the co-existence of contradictions, in which prominent aspects of Hinduism believe, makes sense in light of Hindu principles about theology and cosmology.

Although the debate itself does not go in an explicitly conservative Christian direction, Kreeft, in a thoughtful introduction, explains how the three approaches fit into his own understanding of Christianity.  Kreeft is an exclusivist in that he believes that Christ is God incarnate, yet he also holds that the Logos/light enlightens everyone who comes into the world (a la John 1:9, though the meaning of that verse has been debated), meaning that non-Christian religions have at least some access to truth.  Kreeft also shares where he identifies with the three schools of thought that he addresses, and where he has reservations.

The book is worth reading, particularly on account of its rounded exploration of issues.

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

Thursday, September 14, 2017

R.I.P., Figabuddy

His name was Figaro.  I called him my “Figabuddy.”  He passed on this morning.  He was a sweet, lovey kitty.  We miss him.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest

John H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton.  The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest: Covenant, Retribution, and the Fate of the Canaanites.  IVP Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Biblical scholar John Walton is known for his books, The Lost World of Genesis One and the Lost World of Adam and Eve, in which he offers fresh interpretations of the Hebrew Bible in light of its ancient Near Eastern context.  With his son, J. Harvey Walton, a graduate student in biblical and theological studies, Walton attempts to do the same thing in this next book of the series, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest.  The Waltons tackle the disturbing issue of the Israelite Conquest, in which God in the Hebrew Bible commanded the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites and to take their land.  The Canaanites were put under the ban, or, in Hebrew, the cherem.

The Waltons are critical of both criticisms of the Israelite Conquest and also apologetic attempts to defend it.  Against the criticisms, the Waltons contend that there was a different mindset in the ancient Near East than there is today: the Canaanites, for example, would not have considered the Israelites to be unfair in taking their land, but rather they would have concluded that the Israelite God was stronger than their gods, or that they had somehow displeased their own gods.

Against the apologetic defenses, the Waltons contend that, in the Hebrew Bible, the Canaanites are not killed because God is punishing them for sins that they committed.  The Waltons offer alternative interpretations of biblical passages that have been held to promote the viewpoint that the Israelite Conquest was divine punishment of the Canaanites, including Genesis 15:16, Leviticus 18:27-30, and Deuteronomy 9:4-5.

According to the Waltons, the purpose of cherem was for the land of Canaan to be given to God, for God’s use.  The Waltons seem to acknowledge that, in the Hebrew Bible, this entailed the killing of the Canaanites in battle.  At the same time, they maintain that cherem does not necessarily entail killing.  It could include the Canaanites leaving their cities, Canaanites giving up their identity and becoming Israelites (as Rahab did), Canaanites being consecrated to the service of God (like the Gibeonites), and Canaanite identity being eradicated through the killing of the Canaanite kings, the leaders of the nation.

The book had interesting details.  For example, the Waltons address the biblical portrayal of the Canaanites in light of ancient Near Eastern descriptions of certain groups (like the Umman-manda) as barbarians, as people who are chaotic or even monstrous.  For the Waltons, the biblical portrayals of the Canaanites were not intended to be taken literally, but rather to remind the Israelites that their God was a God of order, not chaos.  In addition, while I have heard that the prophetic “Oracles against the Nations” were intended for an Israelite audience and not the actual nations themselves, the Waltons cogently explained how the Oracles functioned for the Israelites.

The book had somewhat of an “All dressed up and no place to go” feel, in that the Waltons failed to articulate what exactly God’s larger purposes were.  They reject the idea that God in the Hebrew Bible was seeking to convert the nations to the religion of Israel.  They seem to suggest that the goal of the Conquest was so that God could have the land so that God could manifest God’s glory to the nations, but what was the telos of that?  In a few passages, they appear to say that we do not really know: that God’s aims in the Hebrew Bible are obscure to us because we are from a different culture from theirs.  They seem to suggest something similar about the New Testament: that it leaves questions unanswered about God’s ultimate purposes.

The Waltons also address how the concept of cherem relates to the New Testament.  Cherem in the Hebrew Bible was about the surrender of a previous identity so that God could have possession.  That is the case in the New Testament, with believers.  Moreover, in the same way that the Waltons dispute that Leviticus 18 was a literal description of how the Canaanites behaved, they contend that New Testament descriptions of the flesh, likewise, are not intended to be interpreted as fully accurate.  This is not entirely convincing, but it is intriguing, as some (myself included) have wrestled with New Testament depictions of humans apart from Christ as depraved.  Another interesting detail of their discussion about the New Testament was that they held that church discipline in I Corinthians was not so much about policing sin in the church, as maintaining a good reputation with outsiders.  Yet, the Waltons balanced this out by saying that church discipline in the New Testament is about the church affirming its identity, against threats to her identity that compromise her usefulness to God.

The prose of the book was relatively simple, and the Waltons utilized analogies to make their arguments clearer.  The book was still difficult, and one reading alone may not suffice, for some readers.  One reason is that the Waltons were advancing theses that were counter-intuitive, so special attention needed to be paid to their arguments to see where they were going, and how they were getting there.  Reading the Waltons’ book brings to mind the words of Yoda: “You must UNLEARN what you have learned!”  Second, the Waltons were exploring different dimensions of topics, including the cherem.  They were not simply suggesting that the Israelite Conquest (among other things) echoes the ancient Near East, but they were pointing out areas in which concepts in the Hebrew Bible differed from the ancient Near East.  Third, they seemed to contradict themselves, at times.  They argued that Leviticus 18-20 did not contain laws that the Israelites were expected to obey, and, indeed, scholars have questioned whether ancient law codes, such as the Code of Hammurabi, were intended to be applied literally.  For the Waltons, the law codes contained principles of justice, not actual laws.  At the same time, they seem to acknowledge that there are laws of the Old Testament, and they liken the laws of the Torah to rules of a game that Israelites were expected to honor.  There was also some unclarity about the biblical passages that depict Canaanites as existing after the Conquest: does their preservation show that the Conquest did not entail utter annihilation, or did God change God’s mind about their annihilation, allowing the Canaanites to survive to be a test to the Israelites (a la Judges 3:1).

In terms of its approach to the Bible, the book is rather conservative.  It seems to accept the historicity of the Israelite Conquest.  It also uses some of its insights to present the Bible as coherent: the Waltons state, for instance, that the Pentateuch contains laws that differ from each other, but that this does not matter because the “laws” are not actually laws but are intended to convey the importance of certain principles.  Many conservatives probably would not defend the coherency of the Bible in this way, but the Waltons do so.  A good question would be, however, why there are contradictory laws in the first place, if a single God inspired the Bible.

The book is thought-provoking and informative, especially about conceptions within the ancient Near Eastern world.

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

Monday, September 11, 2017

Church Write-Up: Grace, God and Non-Believers, Divine Guidance, Gnosticism

I visited two churches last Sunday.  One was an African-American Baptist church.  The other was the evangelical church that I call the “Pen Church,” since I get a free pen there when I attend.  The sermons at both churches overlapped in the topics that they addressed: guidance by the Holy Spirit, water baptism as an act of obedience to God, the importance of immediate rather than delayed obedience, and the list goes on.  This was interesting, since, unlike the two churches that I attended a few Sundays ago, these churches were not using the same Scripture readings.  They just overlapped in their topics!

Here are some things that stood out to me, along with my responses.  I will call the preacher at the African-American Baptist church “Preacher A,” and the preacher at the Pen Church “Preacher B.”

A.  Preacher B was saying that God’s grace is free upon request, but that spiritual disciplines take effort.  Preacher A said that delayed obedience is not real obedience, and he quoted someone who said that disobedience to God undermines or rejects God’s grace.

I do not know what the person whom Preacher A quoted meant by that, or what Preacher A interpreted it to mean.  On the one hand, this is a Baptist church: it believes in once-saved-always-saved rather than thinking that Christians can lose their salvation through disobedience.  It tends to think that God disciplines disobedient believers rather than kicking them out of God’s family.  On the other hand, the pastor last week was preaching about the Book of Jude, saying that Jude was critical of those who appealed to God’s grace to excuse their willful sinfulness.  The pastor also quoted Hebrews 12:14, which exhorts, “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (KJV).  According to the pastor, we will not get into heaven without living a holy life.

How does disobedience undermine or reject God’s grace?  I can guess.  It could mean that, when we sin, we stomp on the second chance that God has given us.  God has presumably given us a second chance so that we can become transformed into righteous people, and we obviate that goal when we are persistently disobedient.  It may mean that, by sinning, we reject God’s grace, if we define God’s grace as God’s assistance that enables us to live a righteous life.  The Holy Spirit graciously leads us one direction, and we choose to go in another.

I liked something that Preacher B said: that an essential part of owning our spiritual lives is recognizing our need for God’s grace.  I think that, here, he was defining grace as God’s unmerited favor.  We need God’s grace to be accepted by God, for we are imperfect.  This does not merely describe what was the case before I became a Christian, for it describes me now.

B.  Preacher A was conducting an altar call at the end of his sermon, but nobody came forward to accept Christ.  Preacher A was saying that we cannot be led by God, when we are not reconciled with God in Christ, and when we lack God’s Holy Spirit within us.  We get those benefits when we accept Christ into our life.  Preacher A also said that sinners without Christ are not sick people who need to be healed; they are spiritually dead people who need to be spiritually resurrected (see Ephesians 2:1-7; Colossians 2:13).

Preacher B, similarly, was saying that our sins created a vast gulf between us and God, and that was why Christ became a human and suffered.  His implication, presumably, is that we need to believe in Christ to close that gulf between us and God.

Does God have nothing to do with non-believers, in terms of guiding them and spiritually transforming them?  I have wrestled with that question on this blog before: see “Does God Hear Non-Believers?” and “Does God Only Hear Christians’ Prayers?”  I agree with some of what I wrote, and I disagree with other parts.  In terms of where I disagree, I have more optimism about God’s presence in my life now than I did back then, as I depend on God continually to help me through my negative mindset.

I struggle somewhat with the idea that non-believers are spiritually dead.  I know non-believers who seem to have a genuine love for social justice: who care about people who are in need or who are oppressed or exploited.  They do good things for other people.  Are they perfect?  No, but are they spiritually DEAD?  Of course, there are Christians who have their answers to my question.  They would say that non-believers have God’s common grace, which prevents them from utterly degenerating into their depravity.  Or they say that “Total Depravity” does not mean that non-believers are as bad as they can be, but rather than they are flawed: that even the good that they feel and do is corrupted.  Some Christians of the non-Calvinist variety interpret “dead in trespasses and sin” in Ephesians 2:1-7 and Colossians 2:13, not in reference to human nature and whether it is able to will and to do good (on some level), but in reference to God’s death penalty for sin: we sin, and we deserve death as a result.  Ephesians 2:1-7, however, seems to refer to both: people apart from Christ did bad things on account of their passions, and they deserve God’s wrath (but Christ has delivered believers from that by lifting them up to spiritual places).

I am writing myself into a pit here, so I will move on to the next item.

C.  Preacher A was likening God’s guidance to driving a certain kind of car, which automatically moves people to where they are supposed to be when they are veering off course.  (Don’t ask me for more information on this, as I know little about cars!)  He seemed to be advocating being fully led by the Holy Spirit.  He may have acknowledged a role for the human will, though, for he stressed obedience to God.

Preacher B was saying that humans need to do their part, and God will usually not do for them what they can already do by themselves.  God answers prayers, but we need to pray.  God stores God’s word in our hearts, but we need to read it.

Preacher B made another point.  He said that God chooses to speak to us in a whisper (I Kings 19:12), rather than booming at us from a distance, because we need to be closer to God to hear God’s whisper.  God desires intimacy with us.  The pastor then told us about the times that God whispered to him since he became a Christian as a child.

D.  Preacher A was primarily focusing on the Book of Colossians, and he was talking about Gnosticism, against which the author of Colossians was supposedly inveighing.  He was probably relying on a reference book in describing Gnosticism.  He said that Gnosticism repudiated Genesis 1 in claiming that God did not create the cosmos, but that is not entirely accurate: Valentinian Gnosticism believed in Genesis 1 but thought that the creator was a sinister (or just, depending on the writing) sub-deity.  There is debate within scholarship about the category of Gnosticism, but I do not want to get entangled in that in this post.

I was wondering what exactly was at stake, when it came to ancient Christians’ opposition to Gnosticism.  The pluralist part of me wondered what was so wrong with accepting Gnosticism, as long as a person lived a good, moral life.  Christians have said that Gnosticism is wrong because physicality matters: God loves matter and will renew the physical cosmos.  Gnosticism, by contrast, tended to devalue matter as evil, stressing that humans were spirits trapped inside of bodies; they hoped for liberation from the material.  Some took this in ascetic directions, and some in libertine directions.  Is asceticism necessarily wrong, though?  Maybe it is, if it becomes a legalistic requirement.  Gnosticism also may not be good for the environment, since it devalues matter.  But one would think that Christians rejected Gnosticism due to larger issues that were at stake.

Preacher B was talking about the importance of Christ’s suffering.  Christ did not simply become a human to hang out, he said, but Christ came to suffer for our sins.  Preacher A had said that Gnosticism rejected Jesus’ incarnation and the sufficiency of Christ.  Perhaps that is why Christians rejected Gnosticism: they believed that it contradicted the truth, as they understood it.  They thought that Christ, in Christ’s incarnation, suffering, and resurrection, brought life, and Gnosticism, in rejecting that, was rejecting life.  For ancient Christians who came to be considered “orthodox,” the Gnostics were on the wrong road.

But I wonder: did they also believe that there were practical negative effects of Gnosticism, as a belief system?  There are Christians who say that atheism has practical negative effects in that it eliminates a firm foundation for morality.  There are atheists who say that theism has bad practical effects in that it keeps people in a state of childishness.  These critiques have nothing to do with the truth of the belief systems but rather look at their supposed practical effects.  Did Christians make practical criticisms of Gnosticism?

Friday, September 8, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Enchanter King, by Dave Neuendorf

Dave Neuendorf.  The Enchanter King: Book Two of the Kalymbrian Chronicles.  NeuSys, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

The Enchanter King is the second book of Dave Neuendorf’s Christian fantasy series, “The Kalymbrian Chronicles.”  In the first book, The Summoned King, high school student James Madison Young is transported to the land of Kalymbria and is appointed king.  He deals with the sinister political interests in his own country.

In The Enchanter King, King Jim is dealing with external threats, as the country of Venicka makes threats against Kalymbria.  Jim devises strategies for battle, and he meets Celia, a little girl who lost her parents to the Kalymbrians.  Jim observes that Celia has magical abilities that need to be harnessed, so she is tutored by the wizard Maynard.  Jim also meets a dragon who communicates telepathically, and she accepts the name “O’Hara.”

There are many positives to this book.  Like the first book, The Enchanter King has political science, as Jim attempts to enact political reforms and to deal with the push-back to those reforms.  Jim also deliberates about civilian casualties, as he draws from his father’s critical view of Harry Truman’s use of the atomic bomb to end World War II.  We get a little more insight into the Venickans, some of whom have been magically duped by the sorceress Ruingia, and we are given a bit of a teaser as we learn that Maynard and Ruingia had a history.  The story-line with Celia was an asset because she had potential yet was a child.  The dragon also enhanced the book because she was intriguing, there was more to her than we were told, and she had witty comebacks.

There is a salient technical element to the book.  Some may find this dry, but it did not detract from the story.

The characters were better developed in this book than in the previous one, but the book perhaps could have used more pathos.

Overall, I like this book better than the previous one in the series.  The previous book had a lot more going on, but this book went into more depth, was more realistic as Jim attempted to enact reforms, and rounded the characters more.

I look forward to the next book of the series.

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

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Book Write-Up: Daily Readings from The Christian in Complete Armour

William Gurnall.  Daily Readings from The Christian in Complete Armour.  Ed., James S. Bell, Jr.  Moody Publishers, 1994.   See here to purchase the book.

William Gurnall was a Puritan pastor who lived in seventeenth century England.  His work, The Christian in Complete Armour, edified John Newton, who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace,” and also the renowned preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon.  Daily Readings from the Christian in Complete Armour renders Gurnall’s work into a daily devotional, in modern English.  Although the English is modern, the book still conveys a heavy, deep tone, such that readers may feel that they are encountering a work from the past, even as they understand it and find it relevant to their own lives.

The organizing theme of this book is the armor of God in Ephesians 6:11-17, the spiritual tools that the author of Ephesians advocates so that believers can resist onslaughts from the devil.  The book is characteristically Puritan.  It presents life as an upward spiritual struggle to the very end, encourages people to test whether their faith is authentic, and regards spiritual experience as at least one test for the reality of one’s life in Christ.  At the same time it offers hope, encouragement, and compassion to Christians who feel that Satan is attacking them and making them feel depressed.  How does a Christian tell the difference between conviction by the Holy Spirit and Satanic criticism?  Many Christians glibly respond that conviction restores, whereas Satanic criticism undermines.  Gurnall somewhat goes that route, but not entirely.  You will have to read the book to see what I mean!

Puritanism can be daunting to those who spiritually struggle, in that it encourages people to examine whether they are truly in the faith.  People, in response to such a message, can look at their imperfections and become discouraged, feeling as if they are dangling over the pit of hell.  The book had its share of daunting passages and encouraging passages, but even the daunting passages were edifying, in their own way.  Gurnall advocates a spirituality that is not tied to worldly possessions, approval, and appetites because it values God more and finds genuine happiness in God.  For Gurnall, authentic spirituality brings about a consistent spiritual transformation of the believer (i.e., the Christian values all of the graces, not just some), and encourages continual repentance as a necessary path to honoring God.  At the same time, Gurnall recognizes that believers in this life are imperfect and that they face unhappiness, and he encourages them to seek and to depend on God.  Gurnall sometimes seems to present salvation as a continuous journey, not something that one knows that one has as a result of an initial moment of faith; at the same time, Gurnall stresses the importance of justification by faith and personal regeneration.  One may think that Gurnall contradicts himself, but even his spiritually difficult passages have their rhyme and reason.  Faith should be transformative, consistent, and lasting, and yet, of course, people fall short.

The book is a delightful read, in its own way.  While some of the themes that I mention above may appear trite, this book is deep and conveys wisdom.  Gurnall often starts with one theme in a daily reading then ends up in a different, yet somewhat related, place.  He has a keen insight into human psychology.  It is not necessarily an infallible insight, since people may explain negative or tepid reactions to religion in alternative ways, ways that give people the benefit of a doubt.  Still, what Gurnall says may be at least somewhat on the mark.  (I think of his comments about how people can become hardened even to God’s grace and mercy.  That stood out to me, since I have lately regarded Christianity, rightly or wrongly, as a carrot-and-stick religion.)  Gurnall also smoothly weaves into his text biblical allusions, as if the Bible is second nature to him and his audience (which it likely was).  Some of the allusions are from Old Testament stories that may not be readily familiar to contemporary readers.

I am giving the book five stars, and, as one who enjoys reading the Puritans (even though there is much Puritan literature that I have not read), I consider the book a keeper.  In terms of critiques, the book should have had some footnotes, to inform the reader of possibly unfamiliar Old Testament stories, and also of the religious views of the time that Gurnall is attempting to refute.

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

Monday, September 4, 2017

Church Write-Up: Love and Romans 12:9-21

I visited two churches today: a Presbyterian Church (USA), and a Missouri Synod Lutheran church.  Both interacted with roughly the same texts: the Old Testament reading was different, but the New Testament and Gospel readings were the same.  I learned when I preached at a PCUSA church a while back that pastors have a selection of verses from which they can choose.

One of the texts with which the churches interacted was Romans 12:9-21:

9 Let love be without dissimulation. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good.
10 Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another;
11 Not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord;
12 Rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer;
13 Distributing to the necessity of saints; given to hospitality.
14 Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not.
15 Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.
16 Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceits.
17 Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men.
18 If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.
19 Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.
20 Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.
21 Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.  (KJV)

The first preacher was presenting Romans 12:9-21 as a Christian response to current evils, particularly racism.  The second preacher touched on more points.  He talked about expanding our range of love through hospitality, praying for our enemies so we can get God’s perspective on them (i.e., Christ died for them), how a lot of our love is selfish in that we love people who love us back, and the importance of gaining the continuing motivation to love through the Holy Spirit.  The children’s part of the service was about how we should not add to the darkness through retaliation, and how we can make our enemies into our friends through love.

Both preachers interacted with the first part of v 9: “Let love be without dissimulation.”  The first preacher said that the passage does not say “make love genuine,” but “let love be genuine.”  He did not explain what he meant.  Perhaps he meant that Christians have the Holy Spirit inside of them, which leads them towards genuine love, and all they have to do is let that out.  Looking at my BibleWorks, there appears to be a difference of opinion on how to translate Ἡ.  BNT and BGT see it as an article, going with love.  BYZ treats it as a subjunctive, which would be consistent with “let love be genuine.”  I did a search on that subjunctive form, though, and, when it is used for eimi, there is an iota under the eta, which is not the case in Romans 12:9.

The other preacher said that the verse means that our love should not be hypocritical: we should sincerely love rather than pretending to do so.

Here are some thoughts:

A.  I have heard some Christians say that agape love does not mean that we have to like a person or feel good about him or her.  Rather, it means that we need to be concerned about his or her well-being.  In our text, there appears to be some ambivalence about where emotions fit in.  On the one hand, there seems to be an indication that believers are supposed to feel good about their fellow believers, for v 10a states: “Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love…”  Emotions are not enough, for actions are also a significant part of the equation: distribute to the necessity of the saints, be hospitable, rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep, etc.  But positive emotions are still a part of the equation.  On the other hand, our text does present a picture of believers struggling to love certain people, showing outward acts of love towards others even as they leave vengeance to God.  Why would they desire God’s vengeance for such people, if they felt good about them?  And yet, are they truly allowed to desire vengeance for such people?  V 14 exhorts them to bless, not curse, their persecutors.

A possible way to harmonize this apparent tension is to say that believers, if possible, should pursue peace with others—-shalom, a relationship in which both parties feel good about one another.  If that fails—-if the person who hurt is not repentant when confronted—-then the person who was hurt should leave vengeance to God.  That was essentially the message that I got out of a book that I recently read: Forgiveness and Justice, by Bryan Maier.

B.  Can sincerity be commanded?  Is it truly wrong to pretend to love: to do the outward acts of love, without really feeling it?  What is so wrong with that?  If you don’t feel it, you don’t feel it.  Yet, I have to admit: it is phony to be all lovey-dovey with someone while not feeling it.  Part of the solution may be the recognition that I should treat people with respect: I should regard them as people with needs, strengths, weaknesses, and fears, like me, even if I do not like them.  Maybe that will encourage me to treat them with respect and dignity (assuming that I see them, which I hope I don’t).

C.  In the children’s part of the service, the leader was saying that, if a kid pushes them, they should not push the kid back.  That only adds to the darkness.  Does it?  I would probably run from conflict so as to avoid assault charges, but I can understand those who choose to fight back.  Essentially, they are saying: “I am a person of dignity, and you are not going to push me around, without consequences.”  There is a place for ending feuds and letting bygones be bygones, but should there be no consequences for hurting and bullying others?  Would not bullies respect those who fight back?

D.  I am currently reading a book by Puritan pastor William Gurnall, which I will be reviewing tomorrow.  I do not want to steal my thunder for tomorrow’s review, but one point that Gurnall makes is that conflict between Christians results in Christians not supporting each other.  Satan likes that, according to Gurnall, because believers are more vulnerable when they are alone.  I am a bit jaded, though.  After dealing with Christians who dislike me, and whom I dislike, I am skeptical of ever arriving at some Shangra-la in which I support Christians, and they support me (not materially, but spiritually and emotionally—-and I am not making a blanket statement about all Christians I know).  Still, I think that Gurnall makes good points.  And, while I do stink at love in many respects, I cannot say that I am a total failure at it.  I try to rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep—-in the sense that I show concern, not in the sense that I feel what they are experiencing as deeply as them.

E.  I saw a fine example of Christian love at the first service that I attended.  There is one person who is a regular attender, and I think that he is partially blind.  He does not have e-mail, but one of the congregants shares her e-mail address with him.  That warms my heart.  That is a good example of believers providing support for one another.

F.  As I said, the first preacher was relating Romans 12:9-21 to the question of how Christians should respond to racists.  He humbly and meekly said that he wishes that he could take the Nazi protesters to Auschwitz, or the KKK people to the slave camps in the South, and then they would see the negative consequences of their ideology.  I am skeptical that this would work.  At the same time, I read so many social media posts that try to take a bold stand for justice, and they are usually snarky.  There is not a whole lot of love and tenderness in them.  Granted, they are saying what they are saying out of love for the oppressed, and that is admirable and even necessary.  I also doubt that God desires for us to eliminate every negative comment from our language.  Still, can there be some place for speaking the truth with love?

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