Saturday, May 31, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Saviour God

S.G.F. Brandon, ed.  The Saviour God: Comparative Studies in the Concept of Salvation Presented to Edwin Oliver James, Professor Emeritus in the University of London by Colleagues and Friends to Commemorate His Seventy-Fifth Birthday.  Manchester University Press, 1963.

This 1963 book was edited by S.G.F. Brandon, who would later go on to write Jesus and the Zealots (see my review of that here).  The Saviour God is a collection of scholarly essays about the concept of salvation in various religions, including ancient Near Eastern religion, mystery cults, the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, Buddhism, Taoism, Yoruba African religion, Islam, and Hinduism.  “Salvation” is a broad-ranging term, and it can encompass gaining eternal life, receiving blessings in the here and now, becoming enlightened or freed from selfishness, being released from the cycle of reincarnation, or political liberation.  A common thread across these religions (with exceptions) is a reliance on some higher power for salvation, whether that be defined as a deity, an advanced human being, or something more impersonal.

At least three issues in particular stood out to me as I read this book:

1.  A couple of scholars touched on the question of whether Christianity influenced certain non-Christian conceptions of salvation.  The Yoruba in Africa have a story about the Supreme Being sending a divine sort of being (though some versions say he was human) named Qrunmila to the land to persuade the gods to accept the elements or to give people guidance and blessing.  The author of the essay about this topic, E.G. Parrinder, does not believe that this story came about through Christian influence, for “most of these myths seem indigenous and they are not hard to explain from local materials” (page 121).  While stories about Qrunmila and other African saviors may overlap with Christianity, it is important to recognize that Yoriba religion and its treatment of the savior deity have their own emphases, some of which differ from Christianity; such emphases include divination, a focus on fertility, and avatars.

Another scholar in the book asked the question of whether certain Buddhist conceptions of a savior could have been influenced by Nestorian Christianity, but this scholar chose not to to answer that question.

2.  Within popular debates, people wonder if the myth of Osiris had any influence on the story of Jesus, since Osiris was a dying and a rising god.  Detractors among both Christians and non-Christians emphatically say “no,” noting that Osiris after he was resurrected impregnated Isis and went to the underworld to rule, which was quite different from Jesus’ resurrection (see my post about this topic here).  Interestingly, the scholars in The Saviour God who wrote about Osiris knew a lot of the Egyptian story—-Osiris and Seth fight, Seth kills Osiris, Osiris is resurrected and impregnates Isis with Horus, Isis later exacts revenge on Seth, etc.—-but they left out the part about Osiris going to the underworld soon after his resurrection.  One scholar quoted a passage by Lucius, a participant in the Isis mystery religion, that denied that Osiris was even under the earth, placing him instead in some pure, deathless realm.  All of this puzzled me.  Was not Osiris the Egyptian lord of the underworld?  Did these scholars not know that?  Did Osiris going to the underworld become more evident to scholars over time?  If so, did such a discovery or fresh reading mark the time when scholars concluded that the Osiris-Jesus parallel did not hold water?

3.  When I was reading David Marshall’s books, an issue that came up was tribal and Asian acknowledgment of a Supreme Being.  Marshall was criticizing the view that religion went through animist, polytheist, then monotheistic stages, arguing instead that belief in a Supreme Being was long a part of tribal and (certain) Asian religions.  See my posts about that topic here, here, and here.  Where did the essays in The Saviour God line up on this issue?  The essay about African religions disputed that the Yoruba religion was animistic instead of theistic, noting a belief in a Supreme Being, while also acknowledging diversity and complexity.  An essay about Chinese religion, however, regarded Chinese religion as focused on ancestors initially, before there developed some sort of belief in a Supreme Being.

I Chronicles 12

In I Chronicles 12, Israel comes to David while he is in Ziklag to support him.  David is still on the run from King Saul of Israel.  I have four thoughts about this chapter.  In this post, I will use the King James Version, which is in the public domain.

1.  I Chronicles 12:1-2 state: “Now these are they that came to David to Ziklag, while he yet kept himself close because of Saul the son of Kish: and they were among the mighty men, helpers of the war.  They were armed with bows, and could use both the right hand and the left in hurling stones and shooting arrows out of a bow, even of Saul’s brethren of Benjamin.”

Benjaminites, people from Saul’s tribe, were coming to David to support him.  They were ambidextrous, which means that they could effectively use both their right and their left hands.  They were probably left-handed but trained themselves to use their right hand as well.  The left-handedness of the Benjaminites is mentioned also in the Book of Judges.  The Benjaminite judge Ehud was left-handed (Judges 3:15), as were the Benjaminites who were fighting the rest of Israel near the end of the Book of Judges (Judges 20:16).  Because the Benjaminites were ambidextrous, they could be formidable in battle, for their enemies may have been unaccustomed to fighting people who could use both hands!

According to the Intervarsity Press Bible Background Commentary, “Left-handedness was not acceptable in the ancient world because it was generally associated with evil or demons”, so “anyone who was left-handed became ambidextrous because the use of the left hand in many situations was not approved” (page 415).  Yet, the Bible depicts Israel using left-handedness as opposed to stigmatizing it.  That does not necessarily mean that Israel was vastly more progressive than the rest of the ancient world, for the fact that left-handed people in Israel were ambidextrous may indicate the ancient Israel, too, attached some stigma to left-handedness: Why else would left-handed people feel a need to learn to use the other hand?  Still, the stigma must not have been that strong, for ancient Israel used left-handedness to her advantage, and the Bible does not criticize the left-handed for being left-handed.  This coincides with how I would like to see God and God’s community: as accepting and inclusive, and as acknowledging the talents of all members, allowing each to play an important role.

2.  I Chronicles 12:8 states: “And of the Gadites there separated themselves unto David into the hold to the wilderness men of might, and men of war fit for the battle, that could handle shield and buckler, whose faces were like the faces of lions, and were as swift as the roes upon the mountains”.
The Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary believes it is significant that the tribe of Gad was the first Israelite tribe to side with David.  Building on such Jewish sources as Genesis Rabbah 99:2 and the Midrash Lekach Tov, it notes that Gad is notorious for firsts: it was the first tribe to enter the land of Canaan, it was the first to accept David as king when David was still in exile from King Saul, and Elijah (perhaps a Gadite) will be the first to recognize the Messiah. 
People are different.  Some are enthusiastic, take risks, and like to rush into things.  Others are quiet and reserved and may prefer to step back and think about things before jumping into the fray.  Both are important, for enthusiasm motivates others, while being reserved adds wisdom to the mix.

3.  I Chronicles 12:18 states: “Then the spirit came upon Amasai, who was chief of the captains, and he said, Thine are we, David, and on thy side, thou son of Jesse: peace, peace be unto thee, and peace be to thine helpers; for thy God helpeth thee. Then David received them, and made them captains of the band.”

There is debate about whether this spirit that came upon Amasai was the spirit of God or Amasai’s own human spirit.  John MacArthur interprets it as the spirit of God, commenting that what happened to Amasai was “A temporary empowerment by the Holy Spirit to assure David that the Benjaminites and Judahites were loyal to him and that the cause was blessed by God.”  V 18 does not explicitly say that the spirit is the spirit of God, however, and so Jewish interpreters Mefarash, Radak, and Metzudos contend that the spirit there is “the enthusiasm which prompted Amasai to assume the role of spokesman for his companions” (Artscroll).  I am drawn more to MacArthur’s interpretation, for I like stories about God working and influencing things to turn out smoothly.  That motivates me to ask God in prayer to send his spirit into certain situations, especially ones that intimidate me because they appear so uncertain.  At the same time, I think it is important for me to honor and have gratitude towards those who, by their own initiative, have helped me out.

Interestingly, I Chronicles 12:18 states that the spirit clothed Amasai.  In the Septuagint, the Greek word that is used for “clothed” is enduo.  That is the same Greek word that is used in Luke 24:49, where Jesus promises his disciples that they will be clothed with power from on high, which probably refers to their empowerment by the Holy Spirit in Acts 2.  In the New Testament, Holy Spirit can dwell within people, even fill them.  But, for certain tasks, the Holy Spirit clothes them.

In the Jewish Study Bible, David Rothstein relates I Chronicles 12:18 to the general ideology of the Chronicler.  Rothstein states: “Whereas many biblical books view prophecy as the exclusive prerogative of ‘professional’ prophets whose activity centers on the monarchy, Chronicles maintains that any individual, even a non-Israelite, may, under the proper circumstances, serve as a conduit for conveying the divine will; hence, Amasai, a military man, experiences ad hoc prophecy.  The possession formulae (the spirit seized) introduce the speeches of ‘non-prophets’ only, indicating that Chronicles differentiates between this group and ‘professional’ prophets.” 

Rothstein is probably right about the Chronicler’s ideology: that it respects the professional prophets, while recognizing that God can speak through anyone.  I think of II Chronicles 35:21-22, in which the Egyptian king Neco warns the righteous Judahite king Josiah not to fight the Egyptian forces, and Neco’s words are considered to be a message from God.  At the same time, at least against the background of biblical thought, I do not think that the Chronicler was revolutionary in believing that God could speak through other people besides professional prophets.  Amos was not a professional prophet, nor was Elijah.

4.  I Chronicles 12 strikes a number of scholars as idealistic, for things did not go as smoothly for David in I-II Samuel.  Whereas I Chronicles 12 depicts Israel coming to David in support while David was still on the run from King Saul, I-II Samuel presents David enduring a rough road: even after Saul died, the Kingdom of Israel was split between supporters of David and supporters of Saul’s son and successor, Ish-bosheth.

Can I learn any spiritual lessons from I Chronicles 12, even if its picture may be overly idealistic?  For that matter, can I trust stories from Christians about God’s work in their lives, or should I instead regard them with skepticism, as idealistic, or as Christians conforming events to their own ideology?  I one time heard a Christian say that, if you are unsure what story to believe, believe the story that glorifies God.  Maybe that is good, on some level, since it encourages people to hope.  At the same time, there have been far too many Christian leaders who have referred to God’s alleged work in their lives as a way to prop up their power, to imply that those who question or oppose them are actually going against God.

I will pray for God’s spirit in my day-to-day life.  As far as other people’s stories about their spiritual experiences are concerned, I will respect them, and I will not discount that God may have acted in such a manner that convinced them of God’s love and care for them.  Yet, I will remember that life can be messy, and I will not conclude from people’s spiritual experiences that everything they say, do, or promote is right.  God showed them his care and concern.  God may have even done so with a broader agenda in mind, to perform a great move that would bless a lot of people.  That does not obligate me to recognize them as an authority over my life.

Friday, May 30, 2014

"The Amazing Power of Prayer"

For its Bible study, my church is going through When God’s People Pray, by Jim Cymbala.  Yesterday, we did Session 2, “The Amazing Power of Prayer.”

Here are some thoughts:

1.  Recently, in the blogosphere, there have been mainline Protestants who have been pretty down on prayer.  Or so it seems to me.  They see a distinction between praying about a situation and actually doing something to fix that situation.  Some commenters allege that prayer can be an excuse to avoid action: people can pray for people, without taking concrete steps to help them.

Jim Cymbala on the DVD that I watched last night, however, did not act as if prayer and actions were somehow at odds with each other.  Rather, he said that prayer can empower people to act.  And it can bless the actions.  Dwight Moody preached, but the Holy Spirit, in answer to people’s prayers, made his words weighty and effective.

2.  I was thinking overall about my church and whether it will practice the principles of the Bible study, or if this will just be another Bible study that we go through, in which we say the right things, but nothing really changes.  I think that people in the group recognize the importance of prayer.  One lady in the group, who is organizing the Vacation Bible School, says that this task needs prayer to succeed, for kids in the community have so many other things that they might want to do this summer than go to Vacation Bible School.  But will our church have a prayer meeting, of the sort that we see on the Bible study DVD?  I have my doubts.  That’s not part of our tradition.  Individuals in the church may value prayer.  They may even have a heritage of prayer—-the pastor talks about how his Welsh grandfather was a prayer warrior.  But will they gather together and deliver powerful, sermonic sorts of prayers?  I can’t see it.  It’s not due to a lack of commitment.  There are many people who show up at church every single Sunday, and Bible study often draws ten people or more.  But that’s gathering together to watch a program.  Gathering together to pray, though?  I have difficulty imagining that!  But they probably will pray at the start and close of meetings about the Vacation Bible School.

3.  Do I believe that prayer can grow a church?  I don’t know.  There are plenty of examples in which people in a church pray, and the church grows.  I one time went to a church that seemed to value prayer, however, and it did not grow.  Maybe the problem was that we did not stick with a prayer schedule.  Or perhaps the deal was that prayer was not enough, but we needed to go out and witness, as well.  The thing is, though, pastors guilt-tripping me into witnessing is a huge turn-off to me.  My impression as I watch our Bible study’s DVD is that Jim Cymbala’s Brooklyn Tabernacle does not guilt people into witnessing.  Still, people from that church do witness.  Perhaps prayer creates an attitude of joyfully wanting to share God’s love with others.

4.  On the DVD, Jim Cymbala was talking about a time when he had to speak in Indianapolis, and he was planning to give a message about God’s love.  But the Holy Spirit instead wanted him to give a message about the importance of prayer—-about how church has become a place where people show off their talents, when it should be a house of prayer for all peoples.  Jim wrestled the night before about giving that sermon.  He feared that it would be controversial.  His wife that night, who was in New York, woke up and called him, saying that she sensed that he needed prayer.  Jim delivered his message the next day, and it was a huge hit.  It has circulated around the world.  You can watch it here.

I don’t entirely understand why Jim was afraid to deliver his message.  Evangelical sermons often criticize how people do things.  Still, his message resonated to me.  Church should not be about showing off talent.  Rather, it should focus on God.  Yes, people have spiritual gifts and talents, and they should use those in church, but, ultimately, the focus should be on God.

5.  On the DVD, Jim said that the problem is not that prayer isn’t in schools, but that prayer isn’t in churches.  There were a couple of people who were not at the Bible study last night, and I wish that they had been there just to hear that.  They complain about prayer not being in schools.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Christology of Hegel

James Yerkes.  The Christology of Hegel.  Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a nineteenth century German philosopher.  James Yerkes’ The Christology of Hegel is about Hegel’s view of Jesus Christ, and how that fit into Hegel’s larger religious, historical, philosophical, and political ideas.

Yerkes’ book, as I understood it, presented a lot of tensions.  Here are some of them:

1.  Hegel believed that a spirit, God, was moving history forward to a time of freedom and rationality.  He treated German Protestantism as an exemplar of where history should lead.  Yet, Hegel was not always so optimistic.  At times, he did not regard German Protestantism as the ultimate culmination of historical progress, thinking there was a yet future stage.  Hegel looked at Germany and saw problems like factionalism.  Yet, in the midst of these problems, he clung to the idea that God is close to human beings, and he regarded Jesus’ incarnation as an exemplar or a precursor to that.

2.  Hegel believed that Jesus was an essential part of historical progress.  Jesus needed to be here and do what he did for humanity to arrive at where it needed to be.  For Hegel, Jesus promoted authentic morality and embodied God’s presence with humanity.  Yet, my impression is that Hegel also had some problems with Jesus.  For one, Jesus was from a Jewish culture, and Hegel did not have a high opinion of Judaism, believing that it promoted alienation within the human race (i.e., God chooses a people who are separate from others).  Second, Jesus had apocalyptic and world-denying ideas, and Hegel thought this was why Christianity encouraged separation and systemic fragmentation rather than unity.

3.  On the one hand, Hegel emphasized the importance of the incarnation, which is God becoming man.  On the other hand, Yerkes interprets Hegel’s Christology as being rather adoptionistic: that Jesus was a man who was particularly in tune with the divine, and so God decided to make this man Jesus into the Christ.

4.  On the one hand, Hegel championed reason.  He did not care for Shleiermacher’s subjective, feelings-oriented approach to religion.  He hoped that reason could sift between the universal and normative aspects of Christianity and what was merely historical and cultural.  He believed in people doing what was right out of a free recognition that it was the reasonable thing to do, and he supported political systems that would allow that.  He regarded the religion of his time as slavish adherence to doctrines and laws, without much authenticity.

On the other hand, Hegel valued the cultural expressions of religion (i.e., church, doctrines, practices, etc.).  He believed that fed people in a way that mere philosophy could not.  He wanted to unite his people, and culture was a way to do so.  He was against human autonomy because that could amount to each person doing what was right in his own eyes.

5.  On the one hand, Hegel believed that we can know about God rationally.  He disagreed with Immanuel Kant's idea (or an idea attributed to Kant) that we cannot know anything about God through reason.  For Hegel, we can see that we are finite, and thus we can draw the conclusion that there is an infinite.  On the other hand, Hegel thought that people could believe in God as a result of illumination from the Spirit.  

This was my impression after reading Yerkes’ book, and I may have missed some nuances.  Yerkes was a clear author in terms of his prose, clearer than many who write about philosophy.  But I am unclear as to how Hegel held all these tensions together, assuming I am correct in saying there are tensions in the first place.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Maya Angelou

When did I first hear of Maya Angelou?  It may have been when my Mom was a college student.  Her major was African-American studies.  She brought home some of Maya Angelou’s works, such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  I was a conservative at the time, so I liked Maya’s poem that was criticizing white liberals.  Perhaps I had a sense that she thought that white liberals talked a good game but doubted whether they were fully committed to the African-American struggle for freedom.  I don’t know how much of the poem I understood then.  I just liked that she was criticizing white liberals!

I think that my Mom and my Grandma went to hear her speak.

In high school, we students had to watch Channel One, which was a daily news program.  It featured Maya Angelou reciting her poems a couple of times.  In 1993, we watched Bill Clinton’s inauguration, and she read one of her poems there.  I also saw a commercial in which Maya’s poem, “Still I Rise,” was recited, and I found it to be powerful.

I thought about Maya Angelou not long ago because I was going through the Touched by an Angel series, and she was on one of the episodes.  That was cool, that she was on that show!  I had vague recollections of her poem at Clinton’s inauguration, so I decided to watch it on YouTube.

Rest in peace, Maya Angelou.

Robert Price/James White Debate, with Some Reservations about Apologetic Arguments

Yesterday, I watched a debate between Christian apologist James White and skeptic Robert Price.  The debate was over the question, “Is the Bible true?”  In this post, I will not get into all of the points and counter-points, but I will list my favorite parts.

1.  Robert Price’s opening speech was fantastic.  A lot of times, Christian apologists argue that we can trust what the New Testament says about Jesus because eyewitnesses to Jesus were around to correct any misconceptions.  These eyewitnesses were supposed to be like the Snopes of the day, Price said.  But Price disputed this argument by pointing to times in the New Testament when eyewitnesses, and even Jesus himself, were not able to control what was said about Jesus.  Jesus told people he healed not to tell anyone about the healing, but they went out and did so anyway.  Jesus asked his disciples who people were saying that he was, and the disciples listed all sorts of ideas that were circulating (and, as Price said, contra C.S. Lewis, not one of those ideas was that Jesus was God).  There were Judaizers who claimed that Jesus wanted Gentiles to be circumcised and keep the Torah to be saved, whereas Paul had a different viewpoint.  Price also asked how eyewitnesses could even refute that Jesus said something.  It’s not as if any of the eyewitnesses heard every single thing that Jesus said!

James White in his opening speech encouraged the audience to read Price’s books and to compare them with other books.  Ironically, one of the books that White recommended was Reinventing Jesus, which actually makes the eyewitness argument that Price was trying to refute.  (See my review of Reinventing Jesus here.)

Overall, I get joy when skeptics appeal to the Bible to refute Christian apologetics.  It shows that the Bible does not always fit into the predictable, air-tight mold into which Christian apologists try to consign it.  Price’s wit was also enjoyable to listen to.  In my opinion, Price did a better job in his debate with James White than he did in his debate with William Lane Craig.

2.  A lot of times, I hear Christian apologists argue that the resurrection of Jesus is as historically supportable as other events in history.  They may note that skeptics who dismiss the resurrection of Jesus have no problems accepting other events in history as historical, even though acceptance of those other events may be based on sources that were written long after the events that they purport to describe (longer than the time between Jesus and the Gospels).

That argument has long bothered me.  I am impressed when William Lane Craig uses the criteria of historicity that the Jesus Seminar uses as he supports his thesis that Jesus rose from the dead.  But I question whether something so contingent as history can give us guidance as to the absolute will of God.

In one of his speeches, Robert Price was saying that historians rely on probability, and that, the further one goes back in history, the harder it is to say what actually happened.  Sure, historians try to accurately conceptualize the past, but what they say is far from absolute, and it can even be revised in light of new evidence.

Consequently, when Christian apologists say people should become Christian because Jesus’ resurrection is as supported as any other event in history, I question that logic.  Why should anyone base his or her religious beliefs on something so tentative as conclusions about what happened in history?  Does that mean that I am a total skeptic about the past?  No, but I realize that what historians say is not necessarily absolute: that they are trying to make sense of what evidence they have, and they may not even have all of the data.

I think back to a time when I referred to one of N.T. Wright’s arguments for Jesus’ resurrection in a paper that I wrote.  Wright argued, as I understand his argument, that people in Jesus’ historical context did not believe that individuals bodily rose from the dead before the end times, and so something had to give rise to the early Christian belief that Jesus rose from the dead; for Wright, and many Christian apologists and preachers who appeal to Wright, that something was Jesus’ actual resurrection.  But my professor was not convinced by that argument.  He said that we may some day find evidence that others believed one could rise from the dead before the end times.  Wright’s argument may make a degree of sense, but should one build one’s beliefs about religion on a historical argument like that, especially when we do not know if later evidence may undercut it?

3.  Robert Price holds many views that are not broadly accepted within scholarship.  He knows that.  In debates with Christians, when Christians say “most scholars say,” he regards that as an argument from authority, and he asks that they deal with the substance of his arguments rather than simply dismissing them with “most scholars say.”  I can understand his point-of-view on that.  At the same time, I would caution people that there may be good reasons that “most scholars say” something.
In any case, I loved that James White in his opening speech acknowledged that Price does not care for arguments from authority, and White said that he would try his best to deal with the substance of Price’s arguments rather than dismissing them with “most scholars say.”  My opinion of James White went up some notches when I heard him say that!

4.  The debate was moderated by Hank Hanegraaff, who hosts the radio program, “The Bible Answer Man.”  I used to listen to that program.  I really liked it.  I even called into it one time.  Hank has a soothing radio voice.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

James White and Barry Lynn Debate about Homosexuality and Christianity

Yesterday, I was watching a debate between Christian apologist James White and Barry Lynn, a lawyer, United Church of Christ pastor, and Executive Director of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State.  The debate addressed the question, “Is homosexuality compatible with authentic Christianity?”  Barry Lynn argued “yes,” while James White argued “no.”

Overall, I would say that James White had the edge when it came to biblical exegesis.  Barry Lynn knows things about religion and the Bible, but he admitted that he was no biblical scholar. In my opinion, White offered better arguments about Romans 1 and I Corinthians 6:9.

Moreover, I learned something from James White’s presentation that I did not know before.  A while back, I blogged through John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality.  Boswell’s book has been influential among gay Christians.  One argument that Boswell made is that the Greek word arsenokoites in I Corinthians 6:9 (where Paul says that certain sinners will not enter the Kingdom of God) does not necessarily refer to homosexuals but could mean a male prostitute, who sleeps with men and women.  The word literally means “man bed,” and the debate is over whether that means that the man is sleeping with people (male and female), or if the term concerns men sleeping with men.  Boswell leans towards the former point-of-view, which distances the term from homosexuality, and thereby distances I Corinthians 6:9 from being a condemnation of same-sex activity.  (See my post here about Boswell’s argument.)

James White, however, was arguing that Paul invented the word based on the Septuagint of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.  These are passages that condemn men lying with men.  In the Septuagint for both passages, we see the Greek word arsenos for “man,” and also the word koiten for “bed.”  These are the very words in Paul’s term arsenokoites in I Corinthians 6:9.  Did Paul have in mind the Septuagint of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 when he invented the word arsenokoites?  If so, then Paul in I Corinthians 6:9 was condemning men lying with men.  Barry Lynn was not able to refute James White’s points about Boswell’s scholarship, scholarly critiques of it, and biblical languages.

Lynn still did manage, however, to make good points, or at least to ask good questions.  Leviticus 18:22 states that men lying with men is toevah, an abomination, and, as James White noted, the end of the chapter says that God drove out the Canaanites from the land for sins such as this, indicating that Leviticus 18 is authoritative, not just for Israel, but for all people.  But, Lynn noted, Deuteronomy 24:4 says that a man putting away his wife and then remarrying her is toevah and causes the land to sin.  Would the religious right consider divorced people remarrying each other to be sinful and incompatible with authentic Christianity, as it does with homosexuality?

Lynn also interrogated White about whether White agreed with Leviticus 20:13′s statement that men who lay down with men should be put to death: Did White believe that society today should do that?  White’s answer, in my opinion, was rather muddled.  White denied that he supports an Old Testament theocracy in America.  He said that he does not trust current politicians to do that, and he noted that the Old Testament theocracy was headed by godly men.  Lynn asked if White would support execution for homosexuals if godly men presided over the government.  In the course of the conversation, White appealed to Romans 13 as evidence that the New Testament supports the secular authorities carrying out the death penalty.  I guess that, where White landed, he was against America executing homosexuals, but his manner of defending that thesis was muddled, a far cry from his usual precision.

Lynn also questioned some of White’s political and health arguments.  White referred to a gay manifesto (I presume it is this) that called for the lowering of the age of consent, and Lynn denied that this manifesto reflects the views of all gay people.  (Note: Reading the manifesto, it seems to me that it is against making age 21 the legal age of consent for gay people, while straight people have a lower age of consent.)  White also cited statistics about homosexuals dying earlier than most people due to health problems, and Lynn inquired what the minority of healthy homosexuals are doing that keeps them healthy.  Lynn did not make this point, but some have argued that the very stigma attached to homosexuality encouraged a number of homosexuals to have more reckless sex, in secret, and that contributed to the spread among homosexuals of sexually-transmitted diseases.

You can watch the debate here.  The sound quality was bad for the first hour, but it was better in the second hour-and-thirty-seven minutes.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Opponents of Paul in Second Corinthians

Dieter Georgi.  The Opponents of Paul in Second Corinthians.  Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.

This book is a 1986 English translation of Georgi’s 1964 work in German, with new epilogues in which Georgi clarifies and refines his positions.  The book is about the apostle Paul’s opponents in II Corinthians2:14-7:4 and II Corinthians 10-13, the superapostles about whom Paul complains.

Some scholars have argued that the superapostles were associated with the Jerusalem church, where James and Peter were influential, and that the letters of recommendation that the superapostles presented to the church in Corinth were from the Christian church in Jerusalem.  Some contend that Paul was fighting the legalism of the Jerusalem church in writing II Corinthians, particularly the Jerusalem church’s (alleged) attempt to get Gentile Christians to be circumcised and obey the law of Moses.  Georgi, however, disagrees with this view, noting that the issue of legalism does not come up in II Corinthians.  Georgi still believes, however, that the superapostles’ activity was related to Judaism, particularly Hellenistic Jewish apologetics and missionary activity.

According to Georgi, in the New Testament period, there were itinerant Jewish missionaries who prophesied and impressed people with their magic and wonders.  Not only did itinerant Jewish missionaries do this, but so did wandering philosophers and teachers.  They got money from people who were impressed by their works, and they competed for prominence and influence.  Moreover, within Jewish Apologetic literature, such as Philo, there is the concept of a divine man: a person so in tune with God that he actually partakes of the divine.  This was true of Moses, according to Jewish Apologists, and the hope was expressed that others, too, could partake of the divine, as Moses did.  Jewish Apologetic literature also stressed biblical interpretation as a way to experience the divine, and it revered antiquity, claiming that it represented the old and the true.

It is against this background that one can understand the superapostles in II Corinthians, Georgi argues.  The superapostles were trying to impress the Corinthian church with their wonders and power, and the Corinthian church was responding by paying them, showing their appreciation that the superapostles were working in their midst.  The letters of recommendation that the superapostles were bringing were not from the Jerusalem church, as far as Georgi was concerned, but were from other places, and they were a way to advertise the power of the superapostles; George states that the superapostles actually wanted a letter of recommendation from the Corinthian church, as well!  The superapostles also maintained that interpreting the law of Moses could lift the Corinthian Christians to higher spiritual levels, transforming them from one degree to another.  Moreover, the superapostles admired Jesus on account of Jesus’ wonders.

According to Georgi, Paul in II Corinthians is responding to these sorts of claims and beliefs.  Paul contrasts himself with the superapostles by saying that, while the superapostles wanted money for their wonders, Paul did not demand money from the Corinthian church but got a job to support himself.  While the superapostles were primarily interested in their own prestige, Paul cared for the Corinthian church and had a relationship with it.  The superapostles stressed impressive wonders, and they tended to skip over Christ’s crucifixion when they talked about Christ, focusing instead on Christ’s power.  Paul, however, emphasized humility, how God shined forth in Paul’s own weakness, and the importance of Christ’s crucifixion.  The superapostles looked to the law of Moses as a path to spiritual progress, noting its antiquity as an indication of its authority.  Paul, by contrast, said that the Old Covenant of condemnation was nullified, and that it was by looking to Christ that believers spiritually progress.  Paul, according to Georgi, was quite revolutionary in supporting the new over the old.

A number of scholars might question some of Georgi’s claims.  First, there is debate about whether or not Second Temple Judaism even had an active missionary program (see here).  Georgi is on the “yes” side of this debate, but there are scholars on the “no” side.  Second, there is debate about whether Christianity was unique (or at least rare) in terms of its miracle claims, and whether pagans and other non-Christians in the New Testament period technically performed miracles (see here and here).  Some scholars, therefore, might challenge any notion that Hellenistic Jewish missionaries were out there doing miracles, competing among themselves and with other itinerants.  Third, while Georgi refers to Apollonius, who did miracles, Apollonius’ story was written a few centuries after the New Testament period and may reflect Christian influence.

I also have questions about whether or not Georgi can conflate itinerant Jewish missionaries with things written in Philo about the divine man, or biblical interpretation.

Still, I do think that Georgi’s case is plausible.  The itinerant missionaries could have agreed with Philo about the divine man and biblical interpretation.  Georgi also refers to Jewish magicians in the Book of Acts, which was the New Testament period, and so such a phenomenon may very well have existed in the time of Paul.  In my opinion, the wonder-workers in Josephus whom Georgi discusses also deserve consideration; there is some debate about whether or not they were miracle-workers in the sense that Jesus and the early Christians were, but I think that there is good reason to believe that they were, on some level.

There were other issues in Georgi’s book that intrigued me.  First, there was Georgi’s argument on page 12 that II Corinthians 7:1 was not from Paul but may reflect the thoughts of Palestinian Jewish Christians.  In II Corinthians 7:1, there is an exhortation to people to purify themselves of defilement of flesh and spirit, and Georgi contends that this sentiment differs from Paul, who maintained that the flesh was corrupt rather than calling for Christians to cleanse it.  Whether or not Georgi is correct that there is a contradiction here could probably be debated, but I like it when scholars talk about diverse ideas in Scripture.  Second, Georgi interacts with such issues as the cessation of prophecy in Second Temple Judaism, as well as how a belief in miracles could coincide with rationalistic attempts to downplay miracles (particularly in Josephus).  Georgi makes a pretty convincing case that pneumatic activity was alive and well in Second Temple Judaism.

I decided to buy this book.  I got it for 17 cents on Amazon, and I am glad that I gobbled it up, since the next lowest price was in the $10 range!  I think that this book will be useful to me in terms of my own area of research, which concerns Gentile conversion to Judaism.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Enjoying a Beautiful Day with a Good Attitude, Plus Getting Some Books

I didn’t go to church this morning.  It was a beautiful day, so my Mom, her husband, and I went to Syracuse to eat breakfast, go to the zoo, then go to the Goodwill, which has a big store there.  We didn’t get to go to the zoo because it was crowded: the traffic extended far back.  But we did the other two things, and later we got ice-cream.  I had a strawberry shake.

The Goodwill had lots of books, not to mention videos, DVDs, and CDs.  I didn’t buy much, though, because, if I were to buy everything that caught my eye, I’d buy up most of the store, and that would cost me lots of money, even though most things there are cheap in price!  Consequently, I only bought what especially grabbed me.

I bought four books.  The first was Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism.  I recently read her History of God and found it to be enjoyable, informative, and potentially useful as a teaching resource.  I figured that her Battle for God would be similar.  I did not buy her biography of the Buddha, however, though it was also at the Goodwill.  I don’t have fond memories of her biography about Muhammad, so I shied away from her biography of the Buddha.

The second book that I got was Charles Templeton’s Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith.  Charles Templeton was a Christian evangelist and close friend to Billy Graham, but Templeton left the Christian faith.  He has been on my mind lately because I watched a movie about Billy Graham’s life, Billy: The Early Years, which I wrote about here, and also because I read a book review of William Martin’s biography of Billy Graham, A Prophet with Honor.  The review said that Billy Graham chose not to follow Templeton down his path to skepticism because, when Graham spoke with authority about what the Bible says, he got more converts.  I’d like to read what Templeton has to say.  His character seemed intellectually sophisticated in Billy: The Early Years, since he read a dissertation about theologian Karl Barth, and I am curious as to how he comes across in his book.  Of course, the book is a popular rather than an academic work, so he may simplify things.

The third book that I got was Four Views on Hell, which is part of the Zondervan Counterpoints series.  These series feature diverse evangelical views about religious topics, as prominent evangelicals present their cases and respond to each other.  The book about hell debates about whether hell is a literal place of eternal fiery torment, a place where the torment is metaphorical or spiritual, a place that is purgatorial, or a place where the wicked are annihilated rather than one of eternal torment.  I try to gobble up these Zondervan Counterpoint books whenever I can find them at a cheap price.  They are not as cheap as I would like on Amazon.  I hardly ever find them at libraries.  I’m glad that I found one at the Goodwill.

The fourth book that I got was Gordon MacDonald’s Who Stole My Church? What to Do When the Church You Love Tries to Enter the 21st Century.  It appears to be about how the older generation can deal with the church that they love becoming different to appeal to the younger generation.  I was debating getting this book, but I finally decided to do so because it deals with such issues as discontent with church and the use of traditional hymns vs. more contemporary praise songs.  These are issues that interest me.  Plus, the book has stories.

I was somewhat afraid that I would get into a bad mood on this trip.  When I am at home, I can take a prayer break when my mind goes in the wrong direction.  On the road, I cannot really do that—-at least not as I do it at home, which is basically reading my Bible and praying aloud for ten minutes.  I took steps to keep my mind from going negative.  I did not turn on my computer this morning to check my blog stats.  (Yesterday’s stats were LOW, lower than they have been in years.  Today, they’re pretty good.  I wanted to avoid discouragement.)  Whenever my mind thought about people who have disliked me, those I dislike, or my flaws, I thought to myself, “I don’t want to think about that,” and that seemed to do the trick.

Today was an enjoyable day.  It was good to get out into the sunshine!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

I Chronicles 11

I have four items for my blog post today about I Chronicles 11.  I will follow that with some reflections.

1.  In I Chronicles 11, David captures Jerusalem from the Jebusites.  The notes in the Jewish Study Bible (written by David Rothstein) contrast how this is depicted in I Chronicles 11 with how it is depicted in II Samuel 5.

—-In II Samuel 5, David arguably has a political motive for capturing Jerusalem: “to consolidate his hold over a newly united political entity (Israel and Judah), which emerged only after a lengthy period of political instability” (Rothstein’s words).  Jerusalem belonged to the Jebusites, not to any of the Israelite tribes, and so David’s establishment of Jerusalem as the capital city would appease all of the tribes, in that David would not be showing favoritism to any of them.  In I Chronicles 11, by contrast, David already has the support of all Israel, even before he takes Jerusalem from the Jebusites.  Whereas II Samuel 5 presents David taking Jerusalem with the help of his own men, I Chronicles 11:4 affirms that all Israel accompanied David to take over Jerusalem.  David in II Samuel 5 captures Jerusalem to appease the tribes and consolidate his hold over the nation, whereas David already has all of the nation’s support in I Chronicles 11.  Why, then, did David see a need to conquer Jerusalem in I Chronicles 11?  According to Rothstein, it was because David in I Chronicles 11 foresaw that Jerusalem would be religiously important, which would be true: it would be the site of the Temple.

—-In II Samuel 5:6b, 8, David appears to run all over the lame and the blind to take the city of Jerusalem from the Jebusites.  The Jebusites said that the lame and the blind would be able to hold David’s forces back, and David proved the Jebusites wrong.  I Chronicles 11 lacks that, and Rothstein speculates that this may be because it does not want to depict David as prejudiced against the lame and the blind.

2.  I Chronicles 11:17-19 troubles some people.  David longs for water from the well of his home town of Bethlehem, but the Philistine garrison is there.  Three of David’s men bravely break through the Philistine ranks, draw water from the well, and bring the water back to David.  David then refuses to drink the water but pours it out as a drink offering to God, for his three men put their lives in danger by getting that water for him.

Some religious readers have problems with this because it appears that David was initially commanding his men to get him the water—-to risk their lives just because he wanted a drink.  That looks pretty trivial to them!  Consequently, some preachers note that David was merely expressing a wish, not making a command.

The Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary presents another interpretation: David was not requesting water, but rather something more serious: halakhic guidance—-guidance on how to obey God’s law.  David was curious as to whether he could take barley for his men’s animals from Jewish farmers and later pay those Jewish farmers back with lentils that he was about to take from a Philistine field (see vv 13-14).  David’s three intrepid men risk their lives to inquire of the Sanhedrin and learn that David as king is indeed allowed to commandeer crops from Jewish farmers and pay them back later.  David decides, however, not to benefit from this royal privilege.  This, according to the Artscroll, is a view within rabbinic literature.

Some Christian pastors try to get homiletical meaning from I Chronicles 11:17-19: David’s wish was his three men’s command, as God’s wish should be our command.

3.  I Chronicles 11:41 refers to Uriah the Hittite.  The Artscroll cites Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 7b, which states that the men of v 41 were Israelites, and that they are being mentioned in reference to where they lived, not their nationality.  Uriah was not a Hittite, according to this reasoning, but was an Israelite who had lived among the Hittites.  This interpretation makes a degree of sense, for why would a Hittite have a name that refers to the God of Israel: Uriah means “YHWH is my light”?  Perhaps one could respond that YHWH was honored by non-Israelites and thus a Hittite could have a Yahwistic name, or that Uriah changed his name to Uriah from something else when he joined David’s men.  I don’t know.

4.  A few evangelical preachers I heard drew from I Chronicles 11 the lesson that Jesus is the only way to God: as all Israel followed David, so should all people follow Jesus, otherwise they won’t be in the kingdom.  It’s interesting to me, however, that David in I-II Samuel and I Chronicles honors those who honored Saul, the very one who was against David.  David honored goodness wherever he saw it.  Yet, those who honored Saul still had to honor David once David became king!  Or at least they could not revolt against David.  What can a Christian do with these insights, assuming that she wants to draw a typological connection between I Chronicles 11 and Jesus?  Perhaps she could say that Jesus honors virtue wherever he sees it, even from non-Christians, but that, at a certain point in time, everyone will have to believe in Jesus and accept Jesus’ authority to be in the kingdom of God.  Some may say that the time for this has past: In the Book of Acts, God honored Cornelius’ good works, and God let nations go their own way in the past, but now God is commanding people to believe in Jesus, and God has demonstrated Jesus’ authority as judge by raising him from the dead (Acts 17:31).  Others may argue that the time when people are expected or commanded to believe in Jesus will come in the future, when Jesus will rule the earth and his authority will be evident to all (something that is not currently the case).

Reflections: The Chronicler makes David look better than II Samuel does, and the rabbis make David look even better than the Chronicler does.  You have all these spins, wrestling with who David was and how he related to all Israel.  Should all of this spin undermine the religious value of the Bible, for those who seek religious value in this book?  It might, for some.  I personally see something divine behind all these human wrestlings: I see profound points about God being at work, the importance of doing good, and dependence on God.  These ideals are important, even though people fall short, while occasionally manifesting flashes of goodness.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Elliptical Ramblings on the Fruit of the Spirit

My church did not have its Bible study last night because the pastor was at his granddaughter’s birthday party.

So what should I write about today?  I was visiting a Christian blog.  The blog post that I was reading linked to another blog post on that blog that interested me, so I clicked on that.  And that blog post linked to other blog posts that interested me, and I clicked on those.  I was enjoying what I was reading, since the posts made sense, plus the author had a wry sense of humor.  But eventually I came across a post that hit a little too close to home, so I stopped reading.  I had my fill.  Or so I thought.  My curiosity was still there, so I visited that very post again later that day and clicked on some of its links.  Those posts offered more hope, but they still reinforced my bad mood.

I am at the point where I prefer to pray for the fruit of the Spirit (i.e., love, joy, peace, etc.) rather than beating myself up for not producing enough of this fruit, or for not producing it perfectly.  At least when I pray for the fruit of the Spirit, my thoughts are positive! Beating myself up is not exactly consistent with love, joy, peace, patience, etc.

I am also not interested in other people’s opinions about whether I am producing the fruit of the Spirit, for other people are not in any position to judge.  They neither see how bad I am on the inside, nor do they see how good I am.  And I am a mix, as are most people, including those who like to sit in judgment of others!  Who is another human being to pronounce a verdict on my character?  My spiritual fruit is between me and God, not me, God, and holier-than-thou busybodies.

I know that this post is rather elliptical.  I don’t care.  I wasn’t in the mood to write a blog post today, anyway.  But I have committed myself to writing a blog post everyday, and I stick with my commitments.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Reflections on the Problem of Evil

I read a post not long ago, Prayson Daniel’s Scholarly Status of Logical Problem of Evil.  The problem of evil (as I understand it) states that the existence of evil in the world is strong evidence against the existence of an omnipotent, benevolent God.

Daniel states: “The logical problem of evil is dead. This is the general status of the once loved argument against the existence of an omnicompetent God in academia. The idea that existence of evil is incompatible with the existence of God is dying.”  Daniel then goes on to quote academics who challenge the power of the problem of evil in refuting the existence of God.

Here are some of my thoughts about the problem of evil.

1.  I think that the problem of evil goes too far when it says that the existence of evil in the world is evidence against God’s existence.  There may be a God who has reasons for temporarily permitting evil.

2.  On the other hand, I do not think that many theodicies (defenses of God) have the corner on truth.  There may be something true in them, but they usually have flaws.  For example, I can envision God permitting evil because adversity can lead us to seek God, because encountering evil teaches us why bad is bad and encourages us to love the good all the more, or because evil gives us opportunities to do good and thereby develop such traits as compassion and benevolence.  Do I think that such theodicies have flaws?  Yes.  Some theodicies seem to treat suffering or dying people as guinea pigs for others’ moral and spiritual growth.  I do not dismiss the possibility that God may permit suffering for the reasons that theodicies say, but I believe that those theodicies only have part of the truth and are not adequate, iron-clad, end-all-be-all explanations for why God permits suffering.

3.  God advertises himself as benevolent.  Or, if you do not believe in God, God is advertised as benevolent by certain religions.  In light of this, the existence of suffering will continue to challenge belief in God.  Even some of the people Prayson Daniel quotes acknowledge that, while the deductive problem of evil may be dead in many parts of academia, the problem of evil could still continue to exist, albeit in another form (i.e., as an inductive argument).  Jesus in Matthew 6 says that his audience should not worry, for God will take care of their needs (i.e., eating, clothing).  Yet, there are people in the world who die of starvation.  I can understand why people conclude from this that there is no God.

4.  At the same time, I do get sick of people saying that, because God seems inactive in the Third World, I should not pray to God or trust God to take care of my needs or answer my prayers.  Who is to say that God is totally inactive in the Third World?  There are many people in the Third World who enjoy life: family, food, etc.  There are also a lot of Christians in the Third World: whatever suffering exists there has not discouraged them from looking to God in faith.  Why, then, should it discourage me from having faith?

I admit, however, that I am rather sheltered, and that there are problems in the world far beyond what I comprehend.  The human community should try to meet those problems, when it can.  I applaud people who, for whatever reason, show compassion.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Book Write-Up: A History of God, by Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong.  A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

I just finished a library copy of this book, but I decided to buy a copy for myself.  They run for as low as a penny on Amazon!  I figured that this would be a valuable book for me to own, for it clearly explains the thoughts of Christian, Jewish, Islamic, existential, and other thinkers, while placing the significance of those thoughts within their historical contexts.  The book also explores pre-Israelite religion, Hinduism, and Buddhism.  Reading this book helped me to make sense of things that puzzled me about Immanuel Kant, David Hume, and the various strands of the cosmological argument that William Lane Craig discusses in The Cosmological Argument from Plato to Leibniz.  This book would not only be valuable to me as a scholar seeking to beef up my knowledge, but also as a future teacher, seeking to explain these things to others.

Were there times when I felt that Karen Armstrong was over-simplifying issues?  Yes, especially when she was talking about New Testament Christology.  This is understandable, though, because she is telling a story, and she may not have wanted to disrupt it by noting all the issues about which scholars debate.  Were there times when I took what she said with a grain of salt?  Yes, as when she said on page 121 that, for St. Augustine, “God…was not an objective reality but a spiritual presence in the complex depths of the self.”  I do not thoroughly dismiss what Armstrong is saying here, since she has read books about Augustine, which she cites in her excellent annotated bibliography in the back of the book.  But I have difficulty accepting that Augustine rejected the idea that God was an objective reality—-which I understand to mean someone who is out there and real.  Notwithstanding these reservations, I find that I understand more after reading this book than I did before, and I believe that others seeking to learn about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (as well as Eastern religions and philosophy) can benefit from it, as well. 

I first heard of Karen Armstrong when I was an undergraduate in college.  I was taking an Introduction to Religions class, and the professor assigned us Karen Armstrong’s biography of Muhammad.  Karen Armstrong also came to my college to speak, and I also listened to preliminary discussions of her work among faculty.  To be honest, at the time, my impression of her work was not entirely positive.  Her biography about Muhammad did not particularly grab me: I preferred the other book that we had to read because it clearly explained the history and legends of Islam as well as its branches and the beliefs.  Armstrong’s book struck me as flowery and circuitous.  Armstrong’s speech did not resonate with me, either.  It seemed to me that she was dismissing the human ability to understand and to conceptualize God.  As a fundamentalist Christian at the time, I believed that I had the right concept or picture of God, but even putting that to the side, I wondered why anyone would want to worship and be in relationship with a God about whom nothing can be posited.  Something has to be said about what God is like for us to get anywhere, right?  I was not alone in this concern.

But there was something that Armstrong said in that speech that actually did resonate with me, at least somewhat: She said that trying to understand God rationally was like eating soup with a fork rather than a spoon.  I was aware that there were people who had all sorts of rational objections against the existence of God and Christianity.  I came across them often as a college student.  Part of me felt threatened by this, and part of me felt that their objections could be surmounted.  But I also wondered if there was a way to bypass rationality altogether and to accept religion as something valuable and nourishing, even if its reality could not be rationally or evidentially supported.

About a decade later, I was working on a presentation about Jews and Christians in Byzantine Jerusalem, and one of the sources that I was using was Karen Armstrong’s Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths.  I did not read the book cover to cover, but I was impressed by what I did read.  I liked that she explained the nuances of the Arian controversy in an understandable narrative style.  Reading that part of her book answered some questions that I had about the Arian controversy.  I write about that in my post here.  That experience led me to believe that I would profit from reading her other books.

And I did profit from reading her History of God.  The historical parts of the book and the parts that summarized the thoughts of prominent thinkers were the book’s chief asset, in my opinion.  I am a bit ambivalent about some of her theological conclusions, however, and yet I am intrigued, perhaps more so than I was when I heard her speech as an undergraduate over a decade ago.

There are certain themes that come up throughout Armstrong’s A History of God.  One is the question of whether God can be explained or conceptualized.  Throughout history, some have thought so, but a number have not.  They believed that there was some part of the divine that was beyond human explanation, maybe even transcendent.  We see it in parts of the Hebrew Bible, where God glory or spirit stands in for God himself, and also within strands of Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Some were open to saying that we can see God’s activity or energies, but they sharply distinguished those things from God himself, for God is beyond human categories, and is even indescribable.  Some, such as Aristotle, took this in the direction of saying that God was aloof and unaware of what was going on in the world.  Others, particularly mystics, believed that they could achieve ecstatic union with the indefinable God.  Armstrong herself seems to prefer seeing God as indescribable and mysterious, for she notes that serious abuses have occurred when people have humanized God and brought God down to their level.  At the same time, she appears to sympathize with those who felt a need to personalize God so that they could get through pain and suffering.  Moreover, she is against tossing reason out of the window in religious discussions, for that itself has led to abuses.  Armstrong also may shy away from viewing God as aloof, for she seemed to me to appreciate process theology, which holds that God is close to us and that we can have an impact on God.

Second, there is the issue of whether God is one object among others, or rather is being, or the ground of being.  Armstrong seems to believe that the former denigrates God.   On God being the ground of being, she refers to Jewish thinker Martin Buber’s notion that God is closer to “I” than I myself am.  Armstrong shies away from versions of the cosmological argument that depict God as one agent moving others, for that treats God as one being among other things.  At the same time, in discussing Thomas Aquinas’ cosmological argument, she notes that he, too, regarded God as the ground of being.  I do not entirely understand what it means for God to be the ground of being, but Armstrong does appear to prefer the idea that the cosmos emanates from God to the notion that God created the universe out of nothing; perhaps that is relevant to God being the ground of being.
Third, there is the question of whether God is an entity out there, or if we encounter God by looking inward.

Near the end of the book, Armstrong discusses atheism and existentialism.  She describes the view that religion promotes a perpetual immaturity, as people rely on God and subserviently obey his rules, as well as the attitude that religion alienates us from ourselves (i.e., by depicting us as bad, by discouraging our efforts at progress, by denigrating sexuality) and imposes on humans a tyrant in the sky.  Conservative Christians reading this may say that these atheists, existentialists, and modernists flinched from religious rules because they wanted to do their own thing, to cater to their fleshly desires rather than submitting to the authority of a higher power.  Perhaps there is some truth to that, but I am hesitant to dismiss their critique of religion without understanding it better.  I agree with these critics of religion that adherence to religion can look immature, but I also am open to mature ways to practice faith.  Plus, people find all sorts of ways to cope in life, so I don’t feel remiss in coping by relying on a higher power for strength, or accepting moral or religious boundaries.

As when I was an undergraduate, I still wonder how I can have a relationship with a God whom I cannot define.  With what exactly would I be in relationship?  I have to have some picture in my mind of what God is like, right?  Armstrong herself appears to recognize this problem, for she says near the end of the book that having a mystical relationship with the divine is a long process, and that people who have not undergone this process might not understand what such a relationship would even look like.  Good point!

There is now a part of me, though, that is open to seeing God as indefinable, as mysterious, as something other than a large version of myself in the sky.  I would like to believe that God is vastly beyond me, other people, even the universe.  I do not go as far in this as Armstrong may.  My approach is to say that God has a personality, and yet I—-with my small mind—-cannot grasp the totality (maybe even the majority) of who God is.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Isaiah 59:16-17: A Vulnerable God?

Isaiah 59:15-17 states (in the NRSV): “Truth is lacking, and whoever turns from evil is despoiled. The LORD saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice.  He saw that there was no one, and was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm brought him victory, and his righteousness upheld him.  He put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle.”

This passage raised questions in my mind.  Why does God need to be upheld by God’s own righteousness?  And why does God need to wear armor that, incidentally, is the same sort of armor that believers are to put on in Ephesians 6:14 and 17?

Here are some thoughts:

1.  On why God needed to be upheld by God’s own righteousness, one explanation that I came across in browsing through E-Sword commentaries is that God’s own recognition that God’s cause is righteous is what supports God as God carries out God’s act of justice.  Perhaps God is discouraged: God sees injustice on earth and is dismayed that no one is doing anything about it or seeking God, and so God has to act, otherwise there will be no righteousness on earth.  What motivates God amidst this discouragement that God feels?  The righteousness of God’s cause.

2.  Commentators note that the armor that God wears is defensive.  Why would God need to wear defensive armor?  Who can attack God?  One commentary I read said that God is so powerful that God does not need to go on the offensive; that does not explain why God is wearing defensive armor, though.  Another commentator noted that pagan gods wore armor in battle; perhaps Isaiah 59:17 is simply a case of people attributing to a god what is true of themselves: they wear armor in battle, and so they figure that their god must, as well.  Edward J. Young says that “there are several foes who would attack the Lord and seek His destruction.”  But who could succeed against a powerful God?  I suppose that, if God were to bring himself down and refrain from using his full might, God could make himself more vulnerable to being harmed by humans.  But maybe God is guarding, not his actual person, since that is not vulnerable, but rather God’s reputation.  God in the Hebrew Bible is often concerned about God’s glory.  God wants it to be known that his act is righteous, for that would encourage repentance.  God acts, yet God is dealing with the free will of human beings, and that makes God vulnerable: vulnerable to failure in encouraging repentance, and vulnerable to being misunderstood.

3.  I did a search on the Babylonian Talmud.  Baba Bathra 9b states (in whatever translation that is on my Judaic Classics Library): “What is the meaning of the verse, And he put on righteousness as a coat of mail?  It tells us that just as in a coat of mail every small scale joins With the others to form one piece of armour, so every little sum given to charity combines with the rest to form a large sum.”  Here, it seems that God’s armor of righteousness is applied to the duty of the Jewish people to perform charity: God’s armor is not just about God but about God’s people as well, namely, their moral responsibilities.  Similarly, Paul in Ephesians 6 tells believers to put on the armor of God, and the details of that armor resemble the armor that God puts on in Isaiah 59.  Paul may very well regard the armor that God wears as instructive for how God’s people are to act.

In Sanhedrin 98a, a rabbi applies Isaiah 59:16 to the son of David: God may send the son of David (the Messiah) when times are so wicked that God sees no intercessor.  Interestingly, whereas the point of Isaiah 59:16 is that God acts himself because there is no human being to help him, that rabbi in Sanhedrin 98a depicts the Messiah as one who is helping God in God’s act of righteousness, as if the Messiah is the hand of God (though those exact terms are not used).

In the E-Sword commentaries, there were Christian commentators who related Isaiah 59:16 to the Messiah, whom they consider to be Jesus Christ.  Jesus was God, according to their belief, and yet as a man Jesus was vulnerable in the world of human beings.  Jesus needed to encourage himself that what he was doing was right, amidst opposition.  Perhaps Jesus even needed to put on spiritual armor to stay strong as he was doing God’s work.

These are just speculations.  I have not dealt much with the fact that Isaiah 59:16-17 is describing God’s vengeance, but perhaps my thoughts can still be consistent with that.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Origin of Christology

C.F.D. Moule.  The Origin of Christology.  Cambridge University Press, 1977, 1978.

Christology has recently been a prominent issue within the biblioblogosphere, due to Bart Ehrman’s new book and the responses to it.  I’ve been wanting to read Moule’s The Origin of Christology for some time, since Derek Leman’s Daily D’var mentioned it a while back, and the book looked interesting to me.  Moule’s book was not quite what I expected.

Ordinarily, Christology debates revolve around whether the New Testament maintains that Jesus was God.  Some say that all of it does.  Some say that different books in the New Testament have different ideas.  Christology debates also look at such issues as whether Jesus in the New Testament pre-existed his earthly life.

On some level, Moule participates in this debate.  He argues against the idea that a high Christology (one that regards Jesus as divine) was an importation of Greco-Roman religious ideas, which occurred due to Paul (or even occurred later than Paul) and had nothing to do with the historical Jesus.  Moule argues instead that, in some sense, what Paul thought about Jesus goes back to the historical Jesus.

Unlike many discussions of Christology, Moule does not focus much on such issues as Jesus’ pre-existence.  Rather, Moule’s focus is on the communal Christ.  In Paul’s writings, believers are said to be in Christ, or part of Christ’s body, and so, in a sense, Christ is a communal being (though Moule does not deny that Jesus was also a historical individual).  Moule compares Paul’s Christ to “the omnipresent deity ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’—-to quote the tag from Acts 17:28 which is generally traced to Epimenides” (page 95).  Moule contends that Paul and early Christians concluded from their experience after Jesus’ resurrection that Jesus was more than a man, that Jesus was a being who encompassed them, and in whom they were participating.  That would lead to the idea that Jesus was pre-existent, and maybe even God.

While Moule in one place appears to trace the early Christian belief in the communal Christ to early Christians themselves, Moule also seems to maintain that, on some level, it was consistent with the message and ministry of the historical Jesus.  Jesus claimed to be the Son of Man, and Moule believes that Jesus’ understanding of this term coincided with how the Book of Daniel used it: to refer to Jewish martyrs, which is communal, rather than a specific individual.  Jesus, therefore, exemplified Jewish martyrdom, which occurred to other Jews as well.  Jesus’ status of Son of God was closely associated with his baptism, which has a communal dimension.  I do not think that Moule draws a clear line from Jesus’ own self-conception in the synoptic Gospels to Paul’s conception of Jesus as a communal being.  Moule does well, however, to highlight that Jesus may have had some communal conception of his life and mission, and that Paul had this view as well, even if Paul expressed it differently.

Moule also argues that Paul’s presentation of Jesus as Lord may have come from Judaism rather than Greco-Roman ideas, for the Aramaic term mar (which Moule claims means lord, or something similar) can sometimes go beyond being a mere polite address.

Near the end of the book, Moule has a discussion with another scholar about the relevance of the communal Christ to the relationship between Christianity and other religions.  I vaguely understood this debate.  Moule may have been arguing that Christ encompasses all people, and thus Moule favors an inclusivist view of Christianity or Christ, whereas the other scholar was noting that Paul himself excludes people from Christ’s body—-the Jews who did not believe in Christ, for example.  This made me wonder how exactly Moule was defining the communal Christ: as the body of believers in Christ (the church), as the people of Israel (for they appear to be relevant to Jesus’ self-understanding, in Moule’s scenario), as the entire world (Jesus, after all, is the second Adam, for Paul), or all of the above?

I apologize for any misunderstandings of this book.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Knowing God Apart from Special Revelation (If "Revelation" Is an Accurate Term)?

At church this morning, the pastor told a story about theologian Karl Barth.  Barth spoke at Princeton, and someone asked him if he believed that God could speak through religions other than Christianity.  Barth’s response was that God does not speak through any religion, including the Christian one, but God’s revelation is through the son of God alone, Jesus Christ.

That reminded me of something that I recently read in my old notes about the Book of Isaiah.  In my notes about Isaiah 63, I wrote: “Israel is God’s heritage.  Without God's people, who on earth would know about God?”  God in the Hebrew Bible works through a specific community, Israel.

Both ideas are a challenge to me, as one who has come to lean in the “spiritual but not religious” direction.  I’ve been believing in a benevolent higher power, but I have wondered if I could do so without adhering to Jewish or Christian holy books.

I believe that God can bless people who look to a benevolent higher power without adhering to a Jewish or Christian religious creed.  At the same time, I would venture to say that even, say, twelve-step groups—-which promote a belief in God that is not necessarily confessional (it can be, if you want, but it doesn’t have to be)—-get some of their ideas about God and Christianity from Jewish and Christian holy books.  Even they are not entirely independent of what Christians call “special revelation.”

There is natural theology, the notion that we can learn things about God from nature, reason, conscience, etc.  There are things in the Bible that seem to support that (Romans 1:20; Acts 14:17).  But nature does not strike me as univocally good.  There are destructive aspects of nature.  What message would nature even communicate about God?  That God loves beauty because nature is beautiful?  But not all of nature fits everyone’s conception of beauty.  That God is orderly because nature is orderly?  I wouldn’t see nature as too orderly were I to experience its harsh, destructive side!

Can we really bypass special revelation, if we want to know God?  The thing is, even if the answer is “no,” that does not solve a whole lot.  I’m reading Karen Armstrong’s A History of God, and she shows rather effectively that different time periods and contexts have had different conceptions of God or the divine.  I recently listened to a debate between agnostic biblical scholar Bart Ehrman and Christian apologist and scholar Mike Licona, and Ehrman made the point that ancient Christians would neither have recognized nor accepted evangelical Christianity (or Ehrman said something similar to that).  I have my doubts that many evangelical Christians worship the God of the Bible.  Rather, my impression is that they draw from certain pictures of God in the Bible, and they reinterpret parts that do not fit with their worldview, as many throughout history have done.

I can somewhat sympathize with Barth.  I believe that looking to Jesus’ goodness, his act of atonement, and his resurrection is quite a bit.  From that, I learn to do good to others, to recognize my sinfulness, to appreciate God’s love for me and for others, and to have hope of entering a positive afterlife.  But I don’t exclude that God can demonstrate God’s goodness apart from a Christian confessional context—-through nature, other religions, etc.  Does this contradict all that I have said above—-the doubts that I have expressed?  Somewhat.  I do see some thread of love throughout the Bible, and also in the cultures of the world, and maybe even in nature, even though I can also observe phenomena that appear to contradict love.

The thing is, within the Bible, God is often in competition with other religions, rather than treating them as alternative revelations of himself.

Anyway, I’ll stop here.  This post is starting to wear out its welcome—-and I mean to me, the person writing it!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

I Chronicles 10

I have four items for my blog post today about I Chronicles 10.

1.  I Chronicles 10:11-12 states (in the KJV): “And when all Jabeshgilead heard all that the Philistines had done to Saul, [t]hey arose, all the valiant men, and took away the body of Saul, and the bodies of his sons, and brought them to Jabesh, and buried their bones under the oak in Jabesh, and fasted seven days.”

Saul had died in Israel’s battle with the Philistines, who captured and dishonored Saul’s corpse.  But the people of Jabeshgilead took Saul’s body and gave it a proper burial.

The reason that the people of Jabeshgilead were so loyal to Saul, even at Saul’s death, was that Saul in I Samuel 11 delivered them from the oppressive Nahash the Ammonite.  Nahash the Ammonite, incidentally, would later be kind to David, according to II Samuel 10:2.  It’s an example of the old saying, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” though, of course, David in the Bible did not see himself as an enemy of Saul, while Saul saw David as an enemy.  In a passage that I find rather beautiful, David commends the people of Jabeshgilead for burying Saul (II Samuel 2:4-6).  In the political situation in which David found himself, David had been supported by the very person who had oppressed the people of Jabeshgilead, whereas the people of Jabeshgilead were loyal to Saul for saving them from that tyrant years earlier.  David and the people of Jabeshgilead were not exactly on the same “side.”  Still, David admired and honored the loyalty that the people of Jabeshgilead showed to Saul.  He was willing to value goodness, wherever he saw it.

According to the Jewish commentator Rashi, there was actually another connection between Saul and the people of Jabeshgilead: that the two might have been related.  Saul was from the tribe of Benjamin.  In the latter part of the Book of Judges, all of Israel goes to war against Benjamin because a brutal rape and murder occurred within Benjamin’s territory.  The people of Israel vow not to give any of their women to Benjamin, thereby threatening to make the tribe extinct.  When the people of Israel later feel remorse about this course of action, they seek some way to help the Benjaminites to find wives and to reproduce.  They learn that the people of Jabeshgilead were not present when Israel vowed not to give any daughters to Benjamin, and so the people of Jabeshgilead are not bound by the vow.  The Israelites command a group of men to kill the men of Jabeshgilead, and the group abducts virgins from that area and gives them to the Benjaminites.  The Benjaminites then survive as a tribe.

What can I say?  The relationship between Benjamin and Jabeshgilead looks rather complex and checkered to me, as may be the case with a number of relationships in life!  You have a story about how its men were killed and its virgins were kidnapped, all for the benefit of Benjamin.  Yet, Benjaminites are related to people from Jabeshgilead, so there is a family connection between the two that may entail mutual loyalty, as bitter as the events leading to that connection may have been.  Moreover, Saul, a Benjaminite, rescued the people of Jabeshgilead from an oppressive Ammonite ruler.  Perhaps Saul did so out of family obligation, or simply out of outrage at the injustice of the situation.  In any case, the people of Jabeshgilead were grateful to Saul for what he did, and they honored Saul’s dishonored body after Saul’s death.  They put their own lives at risk in doing so, since they had to take Saul’s body from the Philistines.

2.  I Chronicles 10:14 states that God was the one who killed Saul.  Granted, Saul committed suicide (v 4), but I Chronicles 10:14 says that God actually killed Saul, since Saul did not inquire of the LORD.  People have contended that there is a biblical contradiction here, for I Samuel 28:6-7 states (contrary to I Chronicles 10:14) that Saul did inquire of the LORD, but the LORD did not answer him, and so Saul went to the witch of Endor for guidance.  Did Saul inquire of God or not?  Others respond that there is no contradiction between I Samuel 28:6-7 and I Chronicles 10:14: that Saul may have asked God a question in I Samuel 28:6-7, but he was not truly seeking the LORD and the LORD’s will in that case.  I can somewhat understand both perspectives: the two passages look contradictory to me, and the fundamentalist harmonization strikes me as rather weak.  Yet, I acknowledge that one can pray to God in pursuit of one’s own agenda, which is different from actually seeking God. 

It is remarkable to me that, even though I Chronicles 10 and I Samuel are clear that God rejected Saul, they still appear to depict the people of Jabeshgilead as heroes because of their bravery in demonstrating their loyalty to the divinely-forsaken king.  God does what God does for God’s own reasons; we, however, are called to love.

3.  I Chronicles 10:9 states that, after Saul was dead, the triumphant Philistines sent Saul’s head and armor so as to carry good tidings to their idols and their people.  In the Septuagint, the Greek word for bringing the good tidings is the word from which we get evangelism.  Evangelism in Christianity is carrying good news about Jesus’ new reign and the life that Jesus has brought.  Often, for me, it has amounted to awkward conversations in which I have to tell people about Christian doctrines, or defend controversial conservative Christian positions or biblical portrayals of God that I myself find troublesome, or convince them that they deserve to go to hell so that they will accept Christ as their personal savior, but imagine seeing it as joyfully carrying good news!  Moreover, it is interesting that the Philistines not only shared the good news with other Philistines, but with their idols as well.  One can probably reach all sorts of homiletical applications of this, but one lesson I can see for me is that it is good for me to share my joys with God, since God is rooting for me.

4.  The Orthodox Jewish Artscroll attempts to reconcile a biblical contradiction.  In Genesis 49:10, the patriarch Jacob predicts that Judah will possess the scepter.  That means that the king of Israel would come from Judah, and he did, when David was king.  And yet, years after the time of Jacob, when Israel requested a king, God did not select one from the tribe of Judah, but rather from the tribe of Benjamin: God picked Saul, a Benjaminite, to be king of Israel.  What’s more, the prophet Samuel in I Samuel 13:13-14 tells Saul that God would have established Saul’s kingdom over Israel forever, had Saul not disobeyed God.  So God was planning to make a Judahite king, chose instead a Benjamite, and even had plans to make that Benjaminite king over Israel forever, notwithstanding God’s prophecy through Jacob years before that a Judahite would be king?  That looks pretty messy, doesn’t it?

The Artscroll offers a variety of solutions, sometimes drawing on Jewish sources: that God was not intending for Saul to reign forever but gave Israel Saul out of anger, knowing Saul would fail; that Israel only felt a need for a temporary ruler because she experienced God’s providence so strongly during the time of Samuel; that, even had Saul not sinned, David would still have been king, and Saul either would have ruled the descendants of his ancestress Rachel (Benjamin, Ephraim, and Manasseh), or Saul would have been like a vice-king to David. 

These ideas seem, to me, to disregard I Samuel 13:13-14′s statement that God intended Saul to rule over Israel forever.  At the same time, the last idea addresses a question that has long bothered me: Did Saul have a choice as God’s rejected king to make peace with God?  What if Saul had decided to stop fighting God and David, and to let David be king?  Would God have still killed Saul?  Saul’s son Jonathan died in battle, even though Jonathan was on David’s side.  Moreover, one could argue that the evil spirit tormenting Saul (I Samuel 16:14) was keeping Saul from repenting, by making Saul continually upset about David.  In my opinion, God would look a whole lot better if Saul had the ability to repent, and also could find some niche for himself after David became king, as the Artscroll suggests.  Saul’s choice would then not be between remaining king in violation of God’s will and dying, for Saul could abdicate the kingship, find fulfillment in God, and contribute his talents to God’s people.  God, in that case, would be extending some hope to the tragic figure of Saul.  

Friday, May 16, 2014

Starting a New Bible Study: When God's People Pray

My church started a new Bible study last night: When God’s People Pray.  It is hosted by Jim Cymbala, pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle.

Here are some thoughts.  Warning: This will be a long post.

1.  I was struggling over whether or not to attend this Bible study, for a variety of reasons: ideological differences, social anxiety, a spiritual inferiority complex, wanting more time to read books, etc.  I was about to call my pastor yesterday morning to tell him that I didn’t need a ride to the Bible study, for I would not be going.  But something changed my mind.  I asked someone I know to check out her tarot cards (or something similar to that) so I could gain insight about whether or not to attend the Bible study, and she did so.  Her conclusion from the cards and the book accompanying them was that I may experience some discomfort at the Bible study, but that I will ultimately be glad that I went.

This was actually pretty ironic!  Not long ago, I was watching a YouTube clip of Pat Robertson answering questions that viewers sent him.  One question concerned tarot cards, and Pat was saying that people who consult them are hearing messages from the devil.  Another viewer asked how we can be sure that the Bible is not from the devil, since II Corinthians 11:14 states that Satan can transform himself into an angel of light.  Pat responded that the Bible coincides with good values, and he also said that the Bible promotes praising God, something that Satan would never support.  Well, according to his logic, Satan wants me to go to a Bible study!  Go figure!

Incidentally, the person who read the cards for me is quite disenchanted with organized religion.  She respects my church attendance, but she said that she herself would never go to a church Bible study, and that she could identify with why I was hesitant to go.  The fact, therefore, that she was encouraging me to attend the Bible study, notwithstanding my reservations, got my attention!

At Harvard Divinity School, I had to do field education for my M.Div. program, and I was part of a group in which students shared their experiences with each other and sought feedback.  We had to write papers in which we detailed an experience that concerned us, then referred to something (a story, an idea) in our religious tradition of which the experience reminded us.  Allow me to do that here!  Yesterday, I felt like King Saul, who went to the witch of Endor because he prayed to God and got no answer.  I liked the message from the tarot cards because they seemed to speak to my situation, and they appeared to be sympathetic about where I was.  Why don’t I ever get that from prayer, Bible study, or certain believers?  I wasn’t getting much from prayer, in this case.  I did an online search and found someone talking about her reservations about her church’s Bible study, and a pastor commented that she was selfish.  I needed something other than “Tough it out.”

Of course, I don’t want to believe that I am deciding between Christianity and something else.  What is interesting is that, after I heard the interpretation of the cards, I felt at peace, and I was then joyfully listening to Christian sermons.  Perhaps God can speak to people in all sorts of ways.

2.  The first session of the Bible study was all right.  A couple of people there were getting into a little debate about whether we had to ask God for something for God to do it for us, or if God may do it for us without us asking, since God already knows our needs.  One person was saying that God assists those who are trying to follow Christ’s teachings, but we watched on the DVD the story of someone whom God rescued, even though he wasn’t exactly following Christ’s teachings: he was a photographer for Vogue but ended up on the streets due to a drug habit, and he was hearing annoying or hostile voices in his head.  Yet, when he cried out to the Lord on his hospital bed, he began to experience healing.

Another question was whether God is more likely to answer prayers when a bunch of people are praying for something, as opposed to when just one person is praying.

One guy aptly said that you cannot put God in a box, since God is sovereign.  This was pretty ironic, coming from him.  He is a conservative evangelical.  He argued a while back that people who engage in homosexual conduct will not go to heaven, for I Corinthians 6:9 declares that homosexual offenders will not enter the Kingdom of God.  He said that we need to treat the words of the Bible in an absolute sense, otherwise what assurance does he have that he will go to heaven?  (His assurance depends on the Bible’s declaration that people are saved by trusting in Christ for salvation, which he does.)  Yet, he was saying that you cannot put God in a box!  My impression was that he often put God in a box!

Notwithstanding whatever disagreements I have with him, I agree that you cannot put God in a box.  I don’t believe that we have to pray for God to act on our behalf, for God can meet our needs without us even asking, but I think that prayer is useful, for reasons that people stated in the group: it allows us to depend on God, it builds our faith, it helps us to clarify to ourselves what our true needs are, etc.  On whether God is more likely to answer the prayers of a group rather than those of one individual, I agree with what one lady in the group said: that God can answer the prayer of only one person.  Still, God may choose to answer the prayer of a group to build that group’s faith.

3.  The church that I attend is Presbyterian.  We are not overly expressive when it comes to our religion.  One lady there was fondly recalling her time in a Pentecostal church, when she would get enthusiastic in worship or lift up her hands in adoration to the Lord.  She said that made her feel good, yet she is reluctant to lift up her hands at the Presbyterian church because people might start talking or look at her funny!  The pastor told her that she should never feel embarrassed about lifting up her hands, and he said that he himself did so during the worship service.  And he’s right about that: I’ve seen him lift up his hands on numerous occasions!

Ordinarily at Bible study, the pastor alone does the closing prayer.  But the pastor said that he hoped that we would eventually get more comfortable in the course of the study with adding our own prayers to the mix, however brief they might be.  We didn’t do that last night, but maybe we will as time progresses!  Personally, however, I prefer the status quo.  I don’t miss listening to mini-sermons or rebukes masquerading as prayers, as occurred in one small group I was in.

My pastor seems to admire evangelicalism and its passion and fervor, yet he realizes that our Presbyterian church is where it is.  I would say that there are times when our worship is lively, and times when it is not so much.  My approach to worship is rather contemplative: Often, I prefer to read the lyrics of a song rather than to sing them, for those old hymn’s lyrics can be rather deep!  But there are also times when I feel like moving my body to some rhythm!

4.  The pastor was asking about liberal churches and why they don’t seem to pray that much, at least not informally, in the sense of really talking to God.  The more evangelical person in the group responded that it was due to rote and tradition.  There was then a discussion about whether or not people in our general culture are aware of the human instinct to cry out to God.  Many people in the group thought not.  The evangelical mentioned a bumper sticker he saw that upset him: “If you don’t pray in my school, I won’t think in your church.”  He felt that Christians were besieged by atheists.

I did not entirely agree with the tone of this discussion.  I believe that liberal churches do pray, but not necessarily in the way that evangelicals do; my impression is that their prayers are more contemplative or meditative.  Moreover, I would say that people in society desire some guidance or communion with a higher power, even if they might not pursue it within the church.  I was thinking of expressing these points in the group, but I did not, either out of shyness, or a desire not to disturb the spiritual flow of the group with my ideological objections.  Unfortunately, I keep replaying in my mind what I wanted to say last night in the group!

Although I am against demonizing liberal churches or looking down on them, I do have to admit that I share my conservative friends’ impressions, in areas: It does not seem to me that liberal churches really do emphasize prayer, in the sense of asking God for provision or revival.  (I am open to correction on this.)  I remember Pastor Tim Keller in Manhattan saying that you don’t see revivals in Unitarian churches, and his point there may have been that God backs conservative Christianity.  I have wondered why mainline churches are dying whereas evangelical churches are growing.  I don’t believe that it is because evangelical churches have the truth, whereas mainline churches do not, for my impression is that there are areas in which mainline Protestantism is correct whereas conservative evangelicalism is not: I think of Biblical inerrancy and evolution.  Perhaps God blesses evangelical churches because they pray to him more: they want to make a positive difference in the world, they want to bring people to God, and so God honors their request.  Even if people become evangelicals and hold some wrong views, evangelicalism still brought them into a relationship with God, and God blesses its passion, fervor, prayers, and love for him.

UPDATE: On a related note, check out mainliner Aric Clark’s post about prayer on Rachel Held Evans’ blog.

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