Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Book Write-Up: Among the Gods, by Lynn Austin

Lynn Austin.  Among the Gods.  Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2006.

Among the Gods is the fifth and final book of Lynn Austin’s Chronicles of the Kings series, which focuses on the reigns of kings Hezekiah and Manasseh of Judah.  See here, here, here, and here for my blog posts about the first four books of the series.  You may want to take a look at that last post to get background information for this post.

Wicked King Manasseh is ruling Judah with his adviser, the occultist and pagan-oriented Zerah.  Meanwhile, Manasseh’s brother Amariah, the priests and Levites, the family of King Hezekiah’s adviser Eliakim (whom Manasseh executed), the family of Eliakim’s servants, and Hadad the grandson of Hezekiah’s Egyptian adviser Shebna all live in Elephantine, Egypt.

Joshua, a son of Eliakim, hates Manasseh for executing his father and desperately wants revenge.  Joshua tells his sister Dinah, who had been a concubine of Manasseh, to marry Amariah, Manasseh’s brother.  That would be a way for Amariah to challenge Manasseh for the throne of Judah.  But there are problems with Joshua’s request.  For one, Hadad and Dinah are in love with each other.  Second, Amariah is not politically-motivated.  Amariah is more of an artistic type, and Joshua is the one whom the community sees as the real leader.

Amariah and Dinah marry, and Hadad wants revenge.  He goes to King Manasseh in Judah, spends some time in one of Manasseh’s torture chambers, and then develops a plot with Manasseh to defeat Manasseh’s enemy Joshua.  Essentially, Hadad would go back to Elephantine and convince Joshua and the others to assassinate Manasseh in a procession.  The thing is, Manasseh would not really be in that procession, and Manasseh’s forces would come out and destroy Joshua and Joshua’s men.  Hadad convinces Joshua easily, since Joshua is enraged with Manasseh.

Amariah and Joshua’s servant Miriam piece together that Hadad is deceiving them, and Miriam, who is in love with Joshua and has risked her life for him, runs off to warn Joshua.  In the course of all this, Hadad gets killed, some of Joshua’s men die, Manasseh’s general defects to Elephantine out of admiration for Manasseh’s predecessor (the righteous King Hezekiah), and Miriam falls down a precipice and becomes crippled.  Joshua, who had earlier been oblivious to Miriam’s love for him, comes to love Miriam.

Both sides’ plots failed.  Later, Manasseh in Judah is approached by the Assyrians.  Zerah advises Manasseh to become a tributary to the Assyrians, since the Assyrians are known for their brutality, but Manasseh is reluctant to do this, for he remembers the story of how Assyrian soldiers were destroyed when they tried to invade Jerusalem during the reign of King Hezekiah.  Manasseh agrees to become a tributary to the Assyrians, however, and he kills the Judahites who protest against his decision.

The Elephantine community is approached by a brother of the Assyrian king, who is trying to start a revolt against the king of Assyria.  The revolt fails, and the Assyrians get Manasseh mixed up with Amariah, who tried to participate in the revolt, because both were Davidids from Judah.  The Assyrians take Manasseh and Zerah to Babylon and throw them into prison.  Zerah dies in prison as he curses his gods.  Manasseh tries to hold on to hope, but he remembers how he as king unjustly executed people, and he contrasts Zerah’s final moments with the final moments years before of Eliakim, who told Manasseh that he forgave him before going to his death.  Manasseh spends a lot of nights in prison, wondering if he will live or die and eating barely edible food.  Manasseh repents before God, and that gives him some peace, even though he is still willing to pay for his sins by staying in the dreary prison.  Manasseh is released, though.

With Manasseh being in Babylon, Amariah and the other Jews in the Elephantine learn that there is a power vacuum in Judah, and Amariah, Joshua, and others go to Judah so Amariah can rule until Manasseh’s son Amon is old enough to become king.  Joshua is elated because he thinks that Manasseh died horribly at the hands of the Assyrians, but he is upset when he hears that Manasseh is returning to Judah.  Amariah and Joshua stick around to see Manasseh, and they are shocked to see that Manasseh looks old and thin.  They are even more shocked when Manasseh recites the Shema and repudiates idolatry.  Joshua is not convinced that Manasseh has changed, and, even if he acknowledges the possibility that Manasseh did change, he still believes that Manasseh should be punished for his sins.  Joshua needs to learn to forgive, for his resentment is alienating him from God.  Something that encourages him to forgive is his experiences with his step-son, Nathan, whom Joshua chose to love even though Nathan was not loving Joshua back.  Joshua gains insight into the love of God as he reflects back on this experience.

The book had some powerful scenes.  The scene in which Amariah and Dinah resolve to be themselves around each other was moving, for they developed a quiet kind of love, even though neither initially wanted to marry the other.  Manasseh’s experiences in prison were also poignant, for Lynn Austin captured the hopelessness and abject condition that one could confront there.  Another scene that comes to my mind is when Joshua is talking with his brother Jerimoth about his problems with Nathan, Joshua’s step-son.  Jerimoth had adopted Nathan’s brother Mattan, and Jerimoth’s family was happy.  Joshua wonders if Nathan would be happier in Jerimoth’s family, but Jerimoth tells Joshua that God brought together Joshua and Nathan for a reason: both had their share of resentment, and they could understand each other.

The book also had profound character development.  Amariah comes to assume his role as leader rather than running away from it.  And Nathan and Joshua both learn love and forgiveness.
The book did not have as much wrestling with Scripture as did the previous books in the series, with the exception of Joshua’s attempts to justify his plans and his rage with Scripture.  In addition, the book seems to place evangelical Christian ideas into the mouths of some of the characters (i.e., God living in a person’s heart, or something to that effect), when I am not entirely convinced that people in the days of the Hebrew Bible had such ideas.  Still, the book had good lessons about love and forgiveness.  I could identify with Joshua’s resentment—-I resent snubs, but how could one forgive a man who killed his father?  But Joshua’s resentment was eating him up and was alienating him from God, in the sense that Joshua blamed God rather than trusting him when plots against Manasseh failed.

Some may think that I gave away too much about this book.  Maybe I did, but reading my write-up is a different experience from reading the book itself.  It’s like the difference between me telling you about the steak, and you eating and enjoying the steak yourself.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Book Write-Up: Candle in the Darkness

Lynn Austin.  Candle in the Darkness.  Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2002.

I have been reading Lynn Austin’s historical fiction about the Hebrew Bible, and I decided to give her Civil War books a try.  Candle in the Darkness is the first book of her Refiner’s Fire series, and it received a Christy Award, which is awarded to Christian fiction writers.  Let me say that Candle in the Darkness certainly deserved an award!  I have enjoyed all of the books that I have read thus far by Lynn Austin, but Candle in the Darkness surpassed all of those—-in its depth, in its meatiness, and in its ability to move me as a reader.  Something that I noticed when I first opened Candle in the Darkness was that a lot of words were crammed on each page, whereas that is not the case with the other Lynn Austin novels that I have read.  Well, lots of words being on the page definitely makes a book a slow read, at least for me, but I do notice that it often means a quality read!

Candle in the Darkness is about Caroline Fletcher, who lives in the South and whose family owns slaves.  Caroline is very shy and socially-awkward, but she enjoys the company of her family’s slaves.  One slave in particular, Eli, a devout Christian, is a comforting presence to her as she attends a school for girls and is nervous about making friends and being around the other students.

Caroline does not care for slavery as an institution.  She notices the slaves’ wretched conditions, and she observes the pain that her servant, Tessie, feels when Tessie’s son (also Caroline’s friend) Grady is sold to another plantation.  Caroline also senses that there were strange circumstances surrounding the conception and birth of Tessie’s son Grady, but Eli refuses to tell her about that.  Caroline hears sermons that say that the Bible supports slavery, but she notices that Colossians 4:1 instructs masters to give their slaves what is just and equal, and she does not believe that the institution of slavery that she observes in the South actually does that.

Caroline spends time with her cousin Jonathan, on whom she has a crush, and with whom she debates slavery.  Her father later sends her to the North, in Philadelphia, to stay with her aunt, uncle, and cousins.  At church, Caroline hears a young Yale-educated minister, Nathaniel Greene, who boldly preaches abolitionism from the pulpit.  Caroline’s cousin, Julia, is infatuated with Nathaniel, and they all three attend abolitionist meetings together.  Caroline’s opposition to slavery becomes reinforced, and she also puts the pieces together and concludes that her father was the father of Grady, her slave Tessie’s child.  Although Caroline agrees with abolitionism, she notices flaws even in her Northern surroundings.  She confronts Nathaniel by asking him how many black people he actually knows, and she tells him that, even though slavery in the South is horrible, there are at least mutual relationships between blacks and whites in the South, relationships that contain some level of concern for each other.  Nathaniel is challenged by Caroline’s words and preaches about that topic on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Caroline attends social functions with her cousins and learns how to be social notwithstanding her shyness, and she hangs around her cousin Robert, a plump guy who is obsessed with talking about war.  Robert has a crush on her, but she does not feel the same way about him; still, she feels safe around him.  Caroline returns to the South when her father comes to pick her up, after her father gets into a little debate with his northern relatives about slavery.

Back in the South, Caroline decides to spread the gospel of abolitionism.  In town, as she carries her pamphlets, she notices a man grabbing a little African-American boy, and she smacks the man with her purse.  The man tells her that the boy stole an apple, and, when he notices her abolitionist pamphlets, he informs her that spreading abolitionist propaganda is a felony.  The two part their ways, but she encounters that man again at a social function that her cousin, Jonathan, encouraged her to attend with him so he could make a woman named Sallie jealous.  Caroline and this man argue about slavery, and she tells him that, if he was so compassionate, he should have bought that African-American boy the apple!  That night, Caroline cannot get this man out of her head, and she thinks of things she should have said to him in their argument.

She later learns that this man is named Charles and is the brother of Sallie, whom Jonathan loves, and who is from a well-to-do family.  Caroline and Charles get to know each other and fall in love.  They argue about slavery, but they come to see each other’s point-of-view.  Charles acknowledges that slavery is unjust, while Caroline concludes that it would be unwise to abolish slavery right off the bat, since the Southern economy depends on it, and there is the question of what might happen to the freed slaves—-where they would go, how they would support themselves, etc.

The Civil War begins, and Charles and Jonathan go off to war.  Caroline stays and joins a women’s group that makes uniforms for the Confederate soldiers, and one of the ladies there refers to traitors and Northern sympathizers and asks Caroline about her view on slavery, since Caroline spent time in the North.  Caroline does not express her convictions, and she feels bad about that afterwards.  Eli tells her, however, that, like Esther in the Bible, she will be in a position to act on her convictions when the time is right.

Caroline learns that her cousin Robert from the North is a Union soldier and is a POW in a nearby facility.  She visits him, and Robert persuades her to help free him and to pass on information to the Union.  Caroline is reluctant, but Robert tells her that this can end slavery and the war sooner.  Caroline gathers information from her social circles and passes it on to a Union contact, who is selling fish in the market.  She tries to avoid giving the Union any information that can result in the death of her husband Charles.  Caroline wonders if she is doing the right thing, and, in a touching scene, Eli tells her that her work on behalf of the slaves has had an impact on Eli’s son, Josiah.  Josiah hates white people and dismisses Christianity as a white-person’s religion, notwithstanding Eli’s lectures to him, but Josiah is impressed that Caroline has put her neck on the line for him and other slaves.

I could go on about the plot, but I don’t want to give away the story’s ending.  There is a powerful scene at the end, though, where Josiah is lecturing Charles that perhaps God caused the Civil War to show some of the rich Southern white people what slavery was actually like—-how abject it was (and the book effectively describes the abject conditions that soldiers experienced).  And Charles felt some obligation to listen to Josiah because Josiah saved his life in the war.

The book did not have too many Scriptural debates about slavery, and that disappointed me because the Scriptural debates are what I love about the other Lynn Austin books!  Still, Candle in the Darkness was inspiring, and Eli’s wisdom as a Christian added a valuable spiritual component to the book.

A theme that was in this book, and that is in other Lynn Austin books that I have read, concerns human attempts to manipulate God.  After Caroline tries to make a deal with God, Eli tells her that God does not make deals, and that God does not subject his good will to the whims of human beings.  Eli encourages her to trust in God’s plan and will.  Still, the book acknowledges that people can share their dreams and hopes with God.  In one profound scene, Caroline is having Christmas dinner with the slaves, and each person takes a turn sharing his or her dream, so that they can know what to pray for each other about: Eli wants to be a pastor, another slave wants to work in shipping with his master, see the world, and get married, etc.  Eli then prays that their dreams might be God’s will.

In terms of the historical component of the book, I had to respect the tenacity of the Confederates in battle, as bad as their cause was.  The Confederates were outnumbered and did not have the resources that the North had, yet they still won battle after battle.  As much as I respected them for this, I had to agree with Caroline that their cause was still wrong, as much as they tried to sugarcoat it with language about states’ rights.

I appreciated the romance between Caroline and Charles, probably because I did not expect it.  I was expecting for Caroline to become romantically involved with Jonathan, whereas Charles would be a temporary character, but I was pleased that this did not happen.  Caroline and Charles loved each other, even if (maybe even because) they had passionate disagreements.

If I have a criticism, it is that Caroline did not seem to have any concern over whether her espionage could endanger people’s lives.  Suppose that her espionage helps the Union invade Richmond: would that not endanger those she knew and loved?  The book acknowledges that the Union committed atrocities in the South, but Caroline did not seem to me to reflect much on how her actions could have contributed to that.  Interestingly, the book did depict Caroline as someone who did not always think about people outside of her own social circle: when Eli is using information that Caroline gave him to help slaves from other plantations to escape, Caroline is upset, until she realizes that these other slaves have many of the same struggles and concerns as the slaves she knows.

I plan to read the next book in the series.  It is entitled Fire by Night, and it focuses on Julia and Nathaniel Greene, whom Caroline met when she was in Philadelphia.  It, too, won a Christy Award, so it will most likely be good!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Book Write-Up: Confessing Christ for Church and World

Kimlyn J. Bender.  Confessing Christ for Church and World: Studies in Modern Theology.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014.  See here for Intervarsity’s page about the book.

Confessing Christ for Church and World is a collection of essays that relate the insights of theologian Karl Barth to current religious issues.  Such issues include the significance of the church in the face of evangelical individualism, biblical scholar Bart Ehrman’s critique of Christianity, the new atheists, and the relationship between science and religion.  Author Kimlyn Bender also discusses Barth’s view on the canon of Scripture and historical-criticism of the Bible, and Bender compares Barth’s thought with that of another theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher.

Bender’s book is excellent for one who wants to explore the nuances and implications of Barth’s thought.  Barth believed that revelation was God personally revealing Godself to people, but that stance can raise questions, such as “Can God only use the Christian canon of Scripture to do this?”   Still, as I read Bender’s attempts to correct Barth’s critics and to clarify Barth’s stance, there were times when I was asking myself, “Why look to Barth for answers?”   Bender seems to explain why Barth’s thought means so much to him on page 265.  Bender likens Barth’s project to what Thomas Aquinas did for the Middle Ages and predicts that “Barth’s star will shine brighter among the constellation of twentieth century theologians.”  Bender also depicts Barth as one whose theology was balanced and avoided extremes: it acknowledges that church confessions are historically-contextual while avoiding the pitfall of “cultural relativism or human subjectivity”; it is not the sort of fundamentalism against which Bart Ehrman rebelled, yet it is not liberal or accommodationist to the times; and it is Protestant in its emphasis on the believer even as it acknowledges the value of the church.  Bender’s comments on 265 placed his earlier discussions in the book in context for me.  While I wonder if Bender would have done better to include these paragraphs much earlier in the book, part of me actually enjoyed the journey of following Bender’s discussion, then later reading his passionate account of why he is having the discussions.

Bender’s discussion of Schleiermacher was intriguing.  According to Bender, Schleiermacher did not believe that humanity fell through the deeds of Adam and Eve, and yet he still saw Christ as a savior, of sorts.  This is relevant to current Christian attempts to reconcile Christianity with evolutionary history, even if that may not have been a reason for Schleiermacher’s stance, and even if Bender did not mention biological evolution in discussing Schleiermacher’s thought.  An area in which Bender’s discussion of Schleiermacher was unclear to me was when Bender was talking about Schleiermacher’s dismissal of miracle in favor of natural uniformity, even as Schleiermacher sought to depict Christ a special event, one brought about by God.  According to Bender, Schleiermacher believed that the religious experience of utter dependance was somehow contingent on excluding the possibility of miracles and seeing the natural processes and order as constant, but I did not grasp why Schleiermacher thought that was the case.

If I have a favorite passage in Bender’s book, it is on page 266: “Baptists speak unabashedly of the priesthood of believers, but at their best they have always recognized that you cannot be a priest by yourself.  Certainly each person can boldly approach the throne of grace; that is not the question.  It is rather that the idea of an autonomous priest is a contradiction in terms.  To be a priest is to be an intercessor.  And to be a priest you need someone to intercede for.  And Christians are called to intercede for each other, and together, to intercede for the world.”  I am one who is tempted to be very individualist in terms of my piety.  Some of that is on account of my religious background, and some of it relates to my Asperger’s Syndrome, which can alienate me from people and push me to be a loner.  That passage on page 266 ministered to me because it seemed to me to advocate a balance between individualism and community: yes, individual believers can approach the throne of grace, and yet part of our mission is to pray for others.

Bender’s discussion of the alienation between Barth and evangelicals, and the current acceptance of Barth’s thought by a number of evangelicals, is also worth the read.  I particularly liked Bender’s quotation of Barth’s reasons for not responding to certain evangelicals' critiques of his thought in Christianity Today.  Let me give you a taste of Barth’s comments: “None of their questions leaves me with the impression that they want to seek with me the truth that is greater than us all.  They take the stance of those who happily possess it already and who hope to enhance their happiness by succeeding in proving to themselves and the world that I do not share this happiness.”  (Source: Barth, Letters 1961-1968, pages 7-8.)

Overall, I found Bender’s book to be thoughtful, thorough, and relevant.

My thanks for Intervarsity Press for sending me a complimentary review copy of this book.

Sunday, December 28, 2014


At church this morning, the Pastor Emeritus conducted the service, since the Pastor and his wife are away on vacation.

During and after the service, I thought about something.  I have felt oppressed by the Bible, but I have also been pushed by its teachings to try to become a better person.  The Pastor Emeritus was talking about his seminary days and how he helped a struggling student pass a Church History course.  I thought about the times when I helped other students, and how that was motivated by my Christian faith—-I was hoping to please God and others by helping people.  The Pastor Emeritus later in the service referred to Jesus’ statement that God won’t forgive us if we don’t forgive others, and I thought about how that passage has long oppressed me.

Would I have helped others had I not had a Christian faith, some sense that I was commanded to help others?  I don’t know.  My Christian faith is what got me a bit more out of my shell.  The Pastor Emeritus, however, said that he himself was motivated to help that one student because, back when the Pastor Emeritus was in high school and was struggling to pass Geometry, somebody helped him pass.  The Pastor Emeritus was “paying it forward,” so to speak.  Still, the Pastor Emeritus mentioned a time when he was a kid and his family was helping another family, and the Pastor Emeritus wondered why.  The response he got was that the Scriptures commanded it!

I think that remembering that we ourselves are or can become vulnerable is something that can encourage us to help others.  As much as I can’t stand Jesus’ statement that God won’t forgive us if we don’t forgive others, I think that it is useful in that it can make me put myself in the position of one who needs to be forgiven, and then I will be willing to extend forgiveness to others who need to be forgiven.  What trips me up is that I wonder if I should then have contact with those I have forgiven, and, if I don’t, does that indicate that I haven’t truly forgiven them?  What exactly does God want?  He should have defined his terms!

Anyway, these are commonplace thoughts on my blog.  I may be struggling with this stuff until the end of my natural life!  That’s not too bad, since I can find myself learning along the way.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

II Chronicles 13

For my blog post today about II Chronicles 13, I will adapt my notes on the chapter.

In I Kings 15:1-8, King Abijah (or Abijam) of Judah is said to walk in the evil ways of his ancestors, and yet God still preserved the Davidic line of which Abijah was a part because God was honoring the righteousness of David.  The passage also states that Abijah fought King Jeroboam of Northern Israel all his days.

II Chronicles 13, however, seems to paint a different picture.  There, King Abijah preaches to the Northern Kingdom of Israel when Judah and Northern Israel have gathered to battle each other.  Abijah criticizes the North for revolting against the Davidic king whom God had established.  Abijah also lambastes the Northern King Jeroboam’s idolatry and expulsion of the LORD’s priests from Northern Israel, as Abijah notes that Judah worships the LORD rightly in the Temple.  Abijah exhorts the North not to fight God, for it will not succeed.

The battle proceeds, and the Judahites shout to God for help.  God then responds by defeating Northern Israel, and Judah captures some cities and villages from the Northern Kingdom.

Abijah in I Kings 15 is wicked and fights repeatedly with Jeroboam.  Abijah in II Chronicles 13, however, appears to take a stand for righteousness and fights a single battle that cripples Jeroboam.  Are these two pictures compatible?  Perhaps they can be.  Even if one is not a fundamentalist who seeks to harmonize the Bible and demonstrate that it is perfectly consistent, one can still be edified by reading two texts intertextually—-in dialogue with one another.  Maybe one can say that Abijah fell short in his own life, yet he was willing to appeal to righteousness for political ends.  How many of us appeal to righteousness, without allowing that righteousness to sink deeply into us and shape our lives?  If only Abijah absorbed the righteous words that he was speaking—-the appreciation of God’s work, the love for worship in the Temple, and the outrage at unrighteousness that Abijah was outwardly expressing.

Interestingly, according to the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary, rabbinic literature tends to take a dim view of Abijah’s speech and actions in II Chronicles 13.  Abijah is criticized for publicly shaming Jeroboam and for mutilating Northern Israelite corpses (which the great slaughter of II Chronicles 13:17 is interpreted to be).  Another consideration is that, while Abijah criticizes Northern Israel for rebelling against Judah, God was the one behind the Northern Israelite revolt, and it was in response to the father of Abijah, King Rehoboam, refusing to lighten the burdens of the people (I Kings 11-12; II Chronicles 10:15).  Although rabbinic literature depicts Abijah as wrong in II Chronicles 13, one cannot escape that God helps the Judahites in that chapter.  The Artscroll explains this by saying that Abijah may have been bad or inaccurate, but God was still honoring the Judahite army that cried to him for help.

I would say that Abijah is depicted rather positively in II Chronicles 13.  When we bring together different biblical texts, however, the picture becomes murkier, yet perhaps more interesting and spiritually instructive.

Friday, December 26, 2014

School Plays

I was going to write a book review today, but I did not get to it.  I’ll save it for Monday!

I was thinking about school plays that I saw, both when I was in high school and an undergraduate in college.  In high school, I went to school plays to get extra credit.  At least I went to see Bye Bye Birdie for that reason.  I think it was my Geometry teacher who was offering extra credit, and I definitely needed it in that class!  I may have gone to Auntie Mame for that reason, too.  When I saw Auntie Mame, my Grandma, brother, and sister went with me.  It was a pleasant evening.

In college, I saw The Crucible.  There were other plays that went on that I did not see, but I decided to see The Crucible because I had heard of it and knew it was about the Puritans and McCarthy (both interests of mine).

Seeing these plays was fun.  I got to see people I knew playing parts on stage.  Their acting usually was not as good as what I saw on the movie versions.  But they did fine.  And I will say that seeing The Crucible put chills up my spine.  These girls were randomly accusing people of being witches, and the authorities were taking them seriously.  Yikes!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Scattered Christmas Ramblings

It’s Christmas today!  Here are some thoughts:

1.  I didn’t go with my Mom and her husband to midnight mass last night because, well, it was at midnight, and I was tired.  Maybe I’d be more cheerful today had I gone!  Still, at least I got things done this morning.

I’m not sure if I missed much.  They’re kind of the same every year.  But I usually do have a feeling of warmth when I go.

2.  I grew up in an Armstrongite church that didn’t celebrate Christmas because it regarded it as pagan.  Yesterday, I was reading an article by the leader of the church that we attended back when I was a kid.  The article is by Garner Ted Armstrong and is entitled “Christmas…the Untold Story.”  The article opens, “Anyone can discover the truth about the pagan origins of Christmas, simply by looking up the word, along with all its accouterments and symbols in the major encyclopedias and history books.”

That’s something we’d say: Christmas is pagan, and, if you don’t believe us, look it up in any encyclopedia!  We’d praise one who did so as someone who was willing to think rather than accept the customs around him without question.  The thing is, what if those encyclopedias were wrong, albeit understandably wrong?  I was reading a blog post yesterday, Darrell Pursiful’s “When Was Jesus Born?  Why December 25?”  Pursiful appeals to scholar William Tighe and says that Tighe asserts that “there is in fact no evidence for a pagan observance of December 25 prior to emperor Aurelian’s decree [in 274 C.E. that December 25 is the Unconquered Sun’s birthday,] and, as Hippolytus and Julius Africanus attest, Christians had already been celebrating the date as the birthday of Jesus for at least 50 years before Aurelian.”  I can understand how encyclopedias can conclude that Christians got Christmas from the pagans, for fifty years is not much time, and a person who fails to look closely at the weeds may walk away with the impression that Christians were basing Christmas on the celebration of the Unconquered Sun.  But there are reasons to believe the contrary.  (Note: Pursiful still says that certain Christmas customs have pagan roots.)

On a side note, I did not find all of Garner Ted’s arguments to be bad.  Would Caesar Augustus order a nationwide census (Luke 2) during the winter, when Jesus exhorted his disciples that winter was not a good time to flee Jerusalem (Matthew 24:20)?  Good question!

3.  I was reading a blog post this morning, Roger Olson’s “For God So Loved the World…That He Couldn’t Stay Away: A Christmas Meditation.”  The following passage especially stood out to me:
“I believe, with the Eastern churches, that the incarnation was God’s great plan and purpose in creation all along; it was not merely a ‘rescue mission.’ It became a rescue mission, but it would have happened even if humanity had not fallen due to rebellion. The purpose of God toward the world, toward humanity especially, was to join with it and join it with him by becoming one of us so we could become part of him. The original plan (to speak mythically) did not include the cross, but it became part of the plan when humanity rebelled. Because of our rebellion and God’s refusal to give up on his plan, the wounds of Jesus remain forever embedded in God’s life.”

I was thinking about where this overlapped with and differed from my Armstrongite heritage.  My impression is that Armstrongites believe that God had grand plans for human beings before they sinned, and that their sin necessitated God taking certain steps—-sending Christ to die for our sins—-to get those grand plans back on track.  These plans were for human beings to become part of the God family, spirit beings.  I doubt that Armstrongites would accept, however, that the incarnation would have occurred even had human beings not sinned.  They don’t even think that Jesus has his fleshly body anymore, maintaining that Jesus is a spirit being, and they hold that our destiny is to become spirit beings.  It’s almost as if they regard the incarnation as a temporary stage Jesus had to go through to die for our sins.  They may still acknowledge, however, that Jesus’ incarnation means that God understands what we are going through, since God himself was a human being.

4.  Growing up as someone who didn’t keep Christmas, I felt weird, yet superior to those who kept it.  “There are seriously people who believe in Santa Claus?”, I thought.  It’s interesting to me nowadays that there are Christians who observe Christmas yet advise parents against telling their kids there is a Santa Claus.  See here.  I tend to agree with them.  I am all for honoring the loving deeds of the historical St. Nicholas, but I don’t see why parents have to lie to their kids by saying that Santa Claus is real.

Anyway, have a Happy Holidays!  (“No, it’s Merry Christmas.”  “But not everyone keeps Christmas this holiday season.”  Blah blah.  The debates are endless!)

Wednesday, December 24, 2014


I was watching the movie Prayers for Bobby yesterday.  It’s about a Christian fundamentalist mom, Mary Griffith (played by Sigourney Weaver), whose son was gay and committed suicide.

After her son’s death, Mary visits the local Metropolitan Community Church, which reaches out to gays and their families, because she learns that her son attended there.  At the MCC, she meets the church’s pastor, Rev. Whitsell (played by Dan Butler, who also played “Bulldog” on Frasier), and she barrages him with Bible verses and accuses him of confusing people by saying that homosexuality is not a sin.  When Mary points out that Leviticus 20:13 says that men who lie with men shall be put to death, Rev. Whitsell retorts that the Torah also mandates the death penalty for adulterers and disobedient children, yet we don’t take that literally.  Although Mary is not yet a convert to Rev. Whitsell’s position, that particular argument gets to her.

The scenes in which Mary interacts with Rev. Whitsell were my favorite part of the movie, even though I wish that they had been longer and more in-depth.  Rev. Whitsell was compassionate towards Mary, yet he was also clear that he would not be bullied. Rev. Whitsell also had interesting things to say about religion, even though I can understand why many may not find what he said to be adequate.

What I want to address in this post, though, is Rev. Whitsell’s argument that we don’t take the Bible passages about executing adulterers or stoning disobedient children literally.  I wonder what exactly he—-or others who say this—-mean by “literally.”  I myself interpret those passages literally in the sense that I believe that they are about executing adulterers and disobedient children.  I take those passages at face value, and I do not see them as symbolic or figurative.

My hunch is that what Rev. Whitsell meant is that most Christians don’t apply those passages literally, or they don’t believe in applying them literally.  Some Christians do, but they believe that these laws can only be enforced under a theocracy, not by private individuals.  Many Christians, however, would say that those passages only applied under the Old Covenant and are not applicable anymore.  They may interpret the commands literally, but they don’t apply them according to what the text literally says, and they are cool with that.

Personally, I find these sorts of discussions interesting, but they seem to me to lead to dead-ends (at least from my perspective as a Christian).  Okay, so both sides (in this case, conservative and liberal Christians) pick and choose from the Bible.  Can the Bible now be authoritative for people?  If so, how?

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

II Maccabees and the Afterlife

I finished the Deutero-canonical book of II Maccabees last night.  I was not planning to read II Maccabees during Hanukkah, which commemorates some of the historical events that II Maccabees is about.  It just happened that way.  I started the Deutero-canonical writings about four months ago, and I ended up in II Maccabees in December.

A question that is in my mind concerns the afterlife in II Maccabees.  Here are some thoughts:

1.  In II Maccabees 7, we read the story of the time that the evil Seleucid King Antiochus Epiphanes tried to compel seven Jewish brothers and their mother to eat swine’s flesh, in violation of their religious convictions.  The brothers and the mother are unafraid to die, and one reason is that they believe in the resurrection of the dead.  In v 14, one of the brothers tells Antiochus, “But for you there will be no resurrection to life!” (NRSV).  What does that mean exactly?  Does the brother in this story believe that Antiochus will not be resurrected from the dead, period, but will remain in the grave, or in Hades?  Or does the brother think that Antiochus will have a resurrection, but it will not be unto life, but rather unto damnation?  Daniel 12:2 contrasts two such resurrections: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (NRSV).  The later Book of IV Maccabees, in its telling of the story, depicts one of the brothers telling Antiochus: “but you, because of your bloodthirstiness toward us, will deservedly undergo from the divine justice eternal torment by fire” (NRSV).

2.  The thing is, in both I Maccabees and II Maccabees, Antiochus does repent.  In I Maccabees 6:1-17, after losing a battle, Antiochus reflects that he was wrong to treat Jerusalem as he did.  In II Maccabees 9, Antiochus actually converts to Judaism.  Still, he dies of a horrible disease in II Maccabees 9, and II Maccabees 9:18 (and also II Maccabees 1:13-17, which has a different story of his death and does not depict him actually repenting) attributes his death to God’s just punishment.  Did God not forgive Antiochus for the evils that he had done, notwithstanding Antiochus’ regret or repentance?  Could Antiochus find God’s forgiveness in the afterlife?  IV Maccabees does not have a story of Antiochus repenting, but it does depict him admiring the seven Jewish brothers for their bravery (IV Maccabees 17:23-24).  As far as Antiochus’ eternal destiny is concerned, IV Maccabees maintains that Antiochus has, is, and will experience postmortem punishment: “The tyrant Antiochus was both punished on earth and is being chastised after his death…For these crimes divine justice pursued and will pursue the accursed tyrant” (NRSV).

3.  Interestingly, II Maccabees briefly refers to a Seleucid idea regarding the afterlife.  II Maccabees 11:23 depicts Antiochus V writing to his brother Lysias, “Now that our father has gone on to the gods…” (NRSV).  This suggests that Antiochus V believed his father went to the gods after death.

4.  In II Maccabees 6, we read the story of the elderly Jew Eleazar refusing to eat swine’s flesh, choosing to die instead.  V 23 says that he told people to send him to Hades.  In this story, he believed that even he, a righteous person, would go to the Underworld after death.

5.  II Maccabees 12:40-45 tells the story of Judas Maccabeus finding the corpses of Jewish soldiers who had been carrying “sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia” (NRSV).  Judas says that these soldiers fell in battle on account of this sin, yet he arranges for an offering of atonement to be made on their behalf.  The author of II Maccabees says that Judas did so because he believed in the resurrection.  “For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead.

But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin” (NRSV).  This statement leads me to ask questions.

a.  Did Judas necessarily believe in the resurrection when he had that offering offered for atonement?  Daniel Harrington in the HarperCollins Study Bible distinguishes II Maccabees’ interpretation of Judas’ act from what Judas’ intention may have been: “The sin offering was probably intended by Judas to ward off punishment against the living” (see Josh 7).”  Harrington’s idea is that Judas offered the sin offering so that God would not punish the living Jews for the sins of the Jews who carried those talismans, not to atone for the sins of the dead Jews who had carried the talismans.  That could be, but I wondered something: Could one believe that Judas atoned for the sins of the dead Jews who carried the talismans, without accepting that this had anything to do with them receiving a good afterlife?  The ancient Israelites seemed to believe that dead people survived through their name being around and honored after their death, or through their children.  Could Judas’ atonement be a way to ensure that people would still honor and remember these men’s name and posterity?

b.  II Maccabees seems to imply that Judas making atonement for the dead Jews only makes sense in light of a belief in the resurrection.  It makes that statement as if resurrection was the only possible afterlife.  Yet, II Maccabees 15:14-16 depicts Judas seeing the departed Onias and Jeremiah in heaven, praying for the Jews.  Does II Maccabees there believe that souls go to heaven?  If so, why can’t that be a post-mortem reward?  The answer may be that II Maccabees prioritized resurrection over the immortality of the soul: that, sure, souls may go to a place temporarily after the death of the body, but the ultimate hope is the resurrection.  Notice also that Onias and Jeremiah are in heaven, whereas righteous Eleazar in II Maccabees 6:23 expected to go to Hades after death.  Do only very special souls go to heaven, in II Maccabees?  Why wouldn’t Eleazar qualify for this designation, though, since he died out of commitment to God?

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Firefighter's Sign

At church yesterday, a few people were expressing support for a local firefighter who put up a sign saying “Happy Birthday, Jesus” outside of the fire-station.  An atheist group is suing, saying this violates the separation of church and state.

During the four years that I’ve attending this church, I’ve differed with many members on church-state issues.  I rarely voice my opinion about this, for I don’t want to be obnoxious.  And, to be honest, it’s not so much that I have problems with their position, as it is that I wonder about the extent to which they have considered the other side.

Then again, I don’t know.  Is it really a big deal for a fire-station to have a sign saying “Happy birthday, Jesus”?  I can understand prayer not being in public schools, since we wouldn’t want people who don’t want to pray to feel excluded, to be pressured to violate their convictions, or to be bullied for not praying.  But is a person seriously hurt by driving by a sign saying “Happy birthday, Jesus”?  He’d see it outside of a church, and that is legal because it’s not a public place.  Why would the former be hurtful, whereas the latter would not be?

Of course, there is a history behind the American idea that the government should be neutral about religion.  There was the notion that Americans should not have to pay taxes to support a church whose beliefs they do not accept, and that America should be a place that welcomes religious diversity rather than one that has a state church.  Maybe those issues come into play in the case of the sign.  Yet, were tax dollars even used for the sign?  Well, they're used for the fire-station, which is promoting Christianity whenever that sign is displayed!

I guess my response is “What’s the big deal?”  But it is a big deal to some in my church, and to the atheists suing.  I feel a bit alienated from both sides, to tell you the truth.  Those who are gun-ho behind the firefighter seem to me to think that Christianity is the truth, everyone should accept it, and the atheist group just wants to silence Christians.  Do they realize that people with other beliefs just might have a rationale for their positions?  On the other hand, the atheist group acts as if the sign is such a huge problem, when I would say that there are worse problems out there in the world.

This issue is not a deal-breaker for me when it comes to attending my church.  I myself should accept that there is diversity of thought in the world.  Fortunately, this sort of issue does not come up too often in the weekly church services, which focus more on God and living right rather than divisive political issues.  At the church’s Bible study, on the other hand, it comes up more often—-repeatedly.  Or at least it did when I attended the Bible study.

Please feel free to comment, but any comments that I consider insulting or obnoxious will not be published.  What’s more, any nit-picky comment that asks me to define or set clear criteria for what is insulting or obnoxious also will not be published.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Scattered Ramblings on Jesus' Virgin Birth and Resurrection

While I was walking to church this morning, I was thinking about Romans 10:9, which states: “if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved” (KJV).

I was asking myself: Do I believe in my heart that God raised Jesus from the dead?

My pastor in his sermon actually touched on this issue.  He was criticizing those who do not believe that Jesus was born of a virgin.  He attributed that to their disbelief in miracles, period.  The pastor also mentioned Jesus’ resurrection, saying that so much hangs on that doctrine.  If I recall correctly, he may have referred to Paul’s arguments in I Corinthians 15.

So the pastor’s sermon got me thinking on my walk home: do I believe that Jesus was born of a virgin?

I find these days that I believe in God, or a higher power.  Part of that is because of people’s testimonies about their relationship with and experience of God.  Part of it is wishful thinking on my part.  I depend on God to help me not to make an ass of myself.  Also, the world is a pretty scary place, so I hope that there is a God who will provide for me and my loved ones.  When it comes to my personal spiritual and moral struggles, though, my focus tends to be on Jesus.  Why that is the case is a good question.  Perhaps it is because there is a part of me that sees Jesus as a savior from sin.

Do I believe that God raised Jesus from the dead?  Well, a stumblingblock to me is that Jesus during his time on earth seemed to envision the end coming soon, and, if he indeed did so, then he arguably turned out to be wrong.  Am I convinced by classic apologetic arguments for Jesus’ resurrection?  Maybe I am convinced more now than I was in the past.  Jesus’ resurrection appears to be an early belief: Paul in I Corinthians 15 appeals to the church teaching that he received that Jesus rose from the dead, and some of Jesus’ apostles, like Peter, were still alive at that time and were pillars in the church.  That tells me that Peter believed that Jesus rose from the dead.  Whether Jesus’ resurrection is the only possible explanation for that belief, I do not know.

What my pastor was saying got me thinking about I Corinthians 15, though.  Paul said that, if Jesus was not raised from the dead, then our faith is in vain.  We are still in our sins, and we have no basis to hope for our own resurrection.  Now, one can believe in the resurrection from the dead without believing that Jesus rose: prominent strands of Judaism have done precisely that.  But how can I be assured that I will rise from the dead unto eternal life, since I am a sinner, not a righteous person who deserves eternal life?  Well, that’s where the doctrine of Jesus’ resurrection ministers life to me.

Do I believe in the virgin birth?  I have a hard time accepting that Isaiah 7:14 was originally about Jesus being born of a virgin.  Some have said that “almah” there can mean virgin, and their arguments are not that bad, but they should explain how the virgin birth would fit into the context of what Isaiah is talking about in that chapter: the threat of the Syro-Phoenician alliance against Judah.  Fortunately, my pastor was not rebuking the Revised Standard Version for translating “almah” with “young woman” rather than “virgin.”

I have not been convinced by some Christian arguments that the virgin birth had to have happened, but I am open to the possibility that it could have happened.  I am not convinced by arguments that it could not have happened.  Some say it was unlikely because Paul did not refer to it.  Well, maybe Paul did not know about it.  That doesn’t mean that nobody knew about it.

At the same time, there were lots of ancient stories about people having unusual or supernatural births.  Am I open to those having occurred, too?  I am not one who dismisses the possibility of miracles, but, if I accept tons of miracle claims, that means that God is violating the rules of nature an awful lot.  Would God set up a natural order, only to violate it repeatedly?  I look at the world around me, and, by and large, things occur according to the rules of nature.  If someone were to claim otherwise, should I just accept that?

I think that there is a likelihood that Jesus had a controversial birth.  Matthew 1 seems to try to account for that by pointing to the controversial women in Jesus’ genealogy: God has worked through controversial women in the past, and so why could God not be at work with Jesus, whose birth was controversial?  In John 8:41, some of the Jewish leaders say to Jesus that they were not born in fornication.  Are they suggesting that Jesus was?  I remember reading a book, Bruce Chilton’s Rabbi Jesus, about how Jesus was considered a mamzer (often translated as bastard), and so Jesus was excluded from the Jewish community.  If I recall correctly, Chilton was skeptical of Gospel stories about Jesus reading the Scriptures in the synagogue for that very reason: a mamzer would not be asked to read the Scriptures in the synagogue.  Chilton’s thesis was intriguing, but it may have gone too far.  Jesus may not have technically been a mamzer under the Torah, yet people could have still been wondering what exactly the circumstances were in terms of his birth: Was Jesus conceived when Joseph and Mary were married?  They didn’t have proof that he was a mamzer, but questions were in their minds.

Anyway, I’ll stop here.  I’m thinking of turning the comments off.  I’m not interested in interacting with snarky atheists or Christians who want to witness to me.  I wouldn’t mind some helpful feedback, though, as long as I am not put down, or as long as what I say is not trivialized.  So I will leave the comments on.  Just remember: I don’t have to answer to any human being about what my religious beliefs are or aren’t.  I’m through with being a people-pleaser when it comes to my beliefs.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Book Write-Up: Misfits Welcome

Matthew Barnett.  Misfits Welcome: Find Yourself in Jesus and Bring the World Along for the Ride.  Nelson Books (An Imprint of Thomas Nelson), 2014.

Matthew Barnett is a pastor in Los Angeles, California.  He also pastors the Dream Center there, which reaches out to the homeless, addicts, and others who need help; actually, a number of volunteers at the Dream Center are people who came to it for help.  Misfits Welcome is how God can use quirky people to serve others, and how Jesus has a heart for quirky people.

The book has a lot of anecdotes.  These include Matthew’s stories about service and his own personal growth, and testimonies by people who came to the Dream House and had their lives transformed for the better.  My favorite anecdote was about Matthew’s father, who was also a pastor.  There was a football game, and an outraged dad was screaming at the referee for making an unfavorable call towards his son.  The referee kept on giving the team yellow flags in response to the dad’s behavior, and the dad walked away, alone, unpopular, and rejected.  But Matthew’s father reached out to this dad.  I appreciated this story because I can imagine how lonely this outraged dad felt, and I found it moving that Matthew’s father showed him love.  That is what this book is about: love.

The book had a lot of wisdom, about giving glory to God and accepting people’s approval as a bonus rather than being a people-pleaser, about how it is good for people to have a mission in life that helps others, and about the importance of getting out of oneself.  Matthew shares this wisdom with humility.

In terms of criticisms of the book, I wish that Matthew had addressed more how quiet, shy, or introverted people can reach out to others.  In talking about quirks, one that he mentioned was “a quiet personality in the midst of a big room” (page 5).  Does Matthew have any stories about how such quiet personalities can make a difference in service?

Overall, though, I enjoyed this book.  I was inspired to read about Christians who truly love people on society’s margins and show them love.  The book tells heart-breaking stories about problems that people experience, and I applaud the Christians (and others) who are actively serving as part of the solution.

Note: I received a complimentary review copy of this book through the BookLook Bloggers ( book review bloggers program.  The program does not require for my review to be positive, and my review reflects my honest reaction to the book.

II Chronicles 12

II Chronicles 12 is about King Rehoboam of Judah.  Specifically, it focuses on the disasters that Judah experienced on account of Rehoboam’s spiritual neglect and transgression, and Rehoboam’s humbling of himself before the LORD, which influenced God to turn from God’s wrath towards Judah, to refrain from destroying Judah altogether, and to ensure that things went well in Judah.
I have two items.

1.  Whereas I Kings 14:22-24 mentions the idolatry that existed in Judah under Rehoboam’s reign, II Chronicles does not really highlight that.  According to the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary, the Chronicler believes that Rehoboam’s problem was not idolatry, but rather being spiritually passive and failing to be a spiritual leader.

There are indications in II Chronicles 12 that support this view.  Actually, I would say that the picture in II Chronicles 12 is that Rehoboam did not seek God and that led him to neglect God’s law, and neglect of the law in turn led to Rehoboam’s transgressions of that law.  I would go further and suggest that I Kings 14:22-24 is complementary with II Chronicles 12.  I Kings 14:22-24 does not say that Rehoboam himself worshiped idols, but rather that Judah did so while he was king.  Juxtaposing I Kings 14:22-24 with II Chronicles 12, we could say that Rehoboam failed to be a spiritual leader and simply left many of the Judahites to their own devices: he failed to stand up and encourage them to worship the true God rather than pagan gods.

In my opinion, the Artscroll does well to highlight how the Chronicler tells the story.  The problem is not just breaking rules.  The problem is failing to seek God.  Once we are enamored with God’s beauty, glory, and righteousness within the context of a relationship, we may be less likely to break God’s rules, or to worship what is less than God.

2.  II Chronicles 12:9-14 is a bit enigmatic.  At least v 11 is.  II Chronicles 12:9-14 states the following (in the KJV):

9 So Shishak king of Egypt came up against Jerusalem, and took away the treasures of the house of the LORD, and the treasures of the king’s house; he took all: he carried away also the shields of gold which Solomon had made.
10 Instead of which king Rehoboam made shields of brass, and committed them to the hands of the chief of the guard, that kept the entrance of the king’s house.
11 And when the king entered into the house of the LORD, the guard came and fetched them, and brought them again into the guard chamber.
12 And when he humbled himself, the wrath of the LORD turned from him, that he would not destroy him altogether: and also in Judah things went well.

I get that Shishak of Egypt came to Jerusalem and took the treasures of the temple and of the king, including Solomon’s golden shields.  I get that Rehoboam made shields of brass to replace those gold shields.  And I get that Rehoboam humbled himself and that influenced God to show clemency to Judah.  But why does v 11 say that the guard came and fetched the brass shields when Rehoboam went into the house of the LORD?

The explanation that I found the most edifying was offered by the Artscroll.  The Artscroll said that Rehoboam was allowing the brass shields to instruct him.  Rehoboam was allowing himself to be reminded that, on account of his sins, the shields before him were of brass and not gold, due to Shishak’s invasion.  Brass is inferior to gold.  This reminder would exhort Rehoboam to follow God and to be humble.

There is a place for people to let their past to stay in the past, as they look ahead.  On the other hand, there is also a place for people to remember where their misdeeds led them, such that they are motivated to try to avoid those misdeeds in the future.  The point here should not be discouragement about the past, but learning from it and moving forward.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Book Write-Up: To Kill a Lion

Bruce Lengeman.  To Kill a Lion: Destroying the Power of Lust from the Root.  Apopka, Florida: Certa Publishing (Second Printing), 2010.  ISBN: 9780982785874.  See here to purchase the book.

A number of men within evangelical Christianity struggle with sexual lust.  The lust against which they struggle can take the form of merely looking at an attractive woman and desiring her sexually, but it can also take other forms: sexual obsession, addiction to pornography, lurid fantasies, or adultery.  In To Kill a Lion, Bruce Lengeman argues that one should deal with the root causes of sexual lust, rather than simply applying band-aid solutions that do not address the real problem.  Lengeman draws from his experiences as a man and as a counselor.

For Lengeman, a number of sexual problems (i.e., sexual obsession, etc.) have their roots in unresolved pain, which can include rejection or painful childhood experiences.  Lengeman exhorts men to bring those problems to the foot of the cross to find healing, and also to forgive.  In addition, Lengeman challenges men to be active rather than passive in their approach to life, and to seek sexual healing, not primarily to live a happier life, but to become men who can further the Kingdom of God.  Lengeman still believes that a proper attitude towards sexuality can lead to a happier life, however, for he calls inappropriate attitudes towards sexuality an “empty bag” that does not satisfy oneself or others, and he contends that a proper approach to sexuality can lead to better sex, which manifests mutual love and intimacy.  Other issues that Lengeman discusses include cases in which demons may be involved in encouraging sexual obsession, and ways to understand Jesus’ criticism of lust (Matthew 5:28) that do not contribute to self-condemnation and discouragement.

The book’s strengths were its anecdotes and the author’s compassionate and empathetic tone.  I also appreciated Lengeman’s discussions of God’s grace and his view that God is loving.

I would say that this book can set men in the right direction, but that men struggling with sexual desire may need more than this book.  Lengeman says that men should repent or take their problems to the foot of the cross, and he offers prayers for that.  This can be a long process, however, and men may need more practical steps and guidance than Lengeman provides in the book.  Lengeman admits, however, that he could have said more, and that there are numerous books out there about dealing with personal emotional pain.  In my opinion, he should have recommended a list of such books at the end.

Lengeman briefly addresses the issue of how single males should approach their own sexuality, since his Christian view is that people should not have sex outside of marriage.  Essentially, his solution is for single men to channel their energies into non-sexual pursuits.  While I appreciated that Lengeman addressed this issue and even exhorted small groups not to leave out singles in their discussions, I did not find his discussion of this issue to be particularly satisfying.  Lengeman stresses that we are sexual beings, but he should have talked more about how this insight pertains to singles.

Lengeman also takes the position that homosexual attraction is often caused by childhood experiences of an absent or distant father and an overbearing mother.  Lengeman is entitled to his opinion, and he appeals to anecdotal evidence that there are times when such may be the case.  At the same time, there are many psychologists who disagree with such a view, even some prominent evangelicals are saying that homosexuality is an orientation with which some are born, and there are homosexuals who did not grow up with a distant father and an overbearing mother.

I appreciated many of this book’s insights, however.

The publisher sent me a review copy of this book through Bookcrash, in exchange for an honest review.

Book Write-Up: A Ranger's Trail, by Darlene Franklin

Darlene Franklin.  A Ranger’s Trail.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012.  See here for Moody’s page about the book.

A Ranger’s Trail is part of the Texas Trails series, also known as the Morgan Family Series.  This series focuses on the Morgan family in nineteenth century Texas.   A Ranger’s Trail is about William “Buck” Morgan, the son of Jud and Wande Morgan of Lone Star Trail and Captive Trail.  In A Ranger’s Trail, Buck is a Texas Ranger in post-Civil War Texas.

A Ranger’s Trail is about the violent conflict in Texas between Germans and Anglos.  The book starts with Derrick Denning being acquitted of stealing cattle from Germans, and this is followed by his hanging by a German mob.  Buck Morgan is related to Germans through his mother, and one of his relatives actually participated in the hanging.  Buck still reaches out to Derrick’s widow, Leta, as he attempts to ensure that justice is done.  Germans fight Anglos and Anglos fight Germans, and peace-loving Germans and Anglos get caught in the crossfire.

There were aspects of the book that attracted me.  It has important lessons about forgiveness.  I especially liked Leta’s quiet times with God, which baffled her expectations and eventually challenged her to turn away from revenge.  The book also effectively conveyed Leta’s sense of loss after her husband was killed, as well as the pain felt by her brother Andy, to whom Derrick was a sort of father figure.  Andy wants to be a man and joins a gang led by an ex-ranger who is exacting vengeance against the Germans.

In terms of my personal chemistry with the book as a reader, however, I have to say that the chemistry was not that great.  That may be because I thought that the book was too technical and complicated and had too many characters.  But some readers may actually enjoy these aspects of the book, especially if they like historical fiction that really focuses on historical detail.

The book was complicated in areas, but it taught valuable lessons and wrestled with theological questions.

I would like to thank Moody Publishers for sending me a review copy of this book.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Interview

I’ve been reading a bit of both sides of the debate on whether or not Sony was right to pull The Interview.  One side says that Sony should not give in to cyber-terrorists or the North Korean dictatorship.  Another side (see here) says that Sony has justifiable reason for doing what it did, for Sony’s parent company is in Japan, which is closer to North Korea; plus, The Interview was pretty irresponsible, for it is about killing the North Korean leader.

I tend to side with the latter perspective.  I think The Interview went too far.  Some may say that the movie is just kidding, but to kid about killing a country’s leader?  I just don’t understand how some people can defend that.

The Andy Griffith Show: "Runaway Kid," and Moral Questions

I’ve been watching The Andy Griffith Show during my lunch time.  A couple days ago, I watched an episode that I found a bit puzzling.  It’s from Season 1, and it’s entitled “Runaway Kid.”

The episode starts with Opie and his friends playing cowboy in town.  Sheriff Andy Taylor (Opie’s father) sees them, and Opie pretends like he is shooting his Dad.  Andy plays along, then goes into the Sheriff’s office to get some work done.

Opie’s friends decide to play a trick on Sheriff Taylor.  Their plan is to move Andy’s car in front of a fire hydrant.  That way, the Sheriff, who is supposed to uphold the law, looks pretty dopey because he inadvertently disobeyed the law himself.  Opie goes along with their plan, and they make Opie promise not to tell the Sheriff that they were the ones who moved the Sheriff’s car.  Opie promises.
Well, Deputy Barney Fife notices that the Sheriff’s car is parked in front of a fire hydrant, and he decides to arrest Andy.  Andy asks to plead his case, and Andy asks Barney if Barney has ever known him to do anything illegal.  Barney says no.

Andy goes outside, and Opie comes up to him, confessing that he and his friends were the ones who moved Andy’s car in front of the fire hydrant.  Opie tells Andy that Opie promised his friends not to reveal this information, but thought that he should do so.  Regarding the prank, Andy laughed it off and said that there was no harm done.  But Andy did not think that it was right for Opie to break his promise to his friends.  Andy told Opie that he admired his character, but that Opie should remember the importance of keeping a promise.

Well, Andy’s words there bite him later in the episode.  Opie brings home a boy who has run away from home to be a cowboy.  Opie promised this boy not to tell the boy’s parents where he is.  Opie was holding Andy to that promise, too.  Andy tries to find some way around this promise, and his solution is to convince the boy to go back home to his parents, which the boy agrees to do.  Andy then calls the boy’s parents and tells them where the boy is.

Opie is outraged.  He thinks that his father gave him a rule that he then went on to break himself.  Andy then gives Opie a little lecture on situational ethics.  Suppose there is a sign by a pond saying that no swimming is allowed.  Suppose that Opie saw a boy drowning in that lake.  Would Opie obey the sign, or would Opie break the rule and dive into the pond to save the drowning boy?  Andy then said that rules are good, but that there are cases in which, to help somebody, one may have to bend the rules a little.  Opie agrees with his father.

Here are some thoughts:

1.  It took me a little aback to see Opie pretending to shoot his father, and his father having no problem with that.  But those are games that many kids play.  While one can say that this desensitizes kids to disregard the sanctity of life, many would respond that it is just pretend.  The same questions arise today, in discussions about violent video games.

2.  I was surprised that Andy was not disappointed with Opie and his friends for moving his car in front of a fire hydrant.  I just don’t care for those sorts of pranks.  Maybe it’s because I like for there to be order in my little world, and I would hate to have to pay a fine for something that I did not do.  I find that sort of prank to be inconsiderate towards other people, and I am disappointed that Andy did not gently rebuke Opie for that, and have a talk with the kids’ parents.

3.  I also do not see keeping promises as important as Andy did—-or at least I do not elevate keeping promises above avoiding or apologizing for pranks.  Let me be clear: I do try to keep my word.  But concealing people’s misdeeds on account of a promise that I was coaxed into making?  I just don’t find that to be particularly virtuous.  A “Who cares if we did wrong—-you have to be a loyal team player and not tell on us” attitude has been abused so often, in my opinion.

4.  I do not understand why Opie was upset with his father for calling the runaway boy’s parents.  What’s more, I do not understand why Andy was agreeing with Opie’s assessment that Andy broke his promise to the runaway boy.  For one, Andy himself did not make the promise; Opie did.  Second, even if Andy was bound by the promise, Andy did not break it, I don’t think.  Andy simply persuaded the runaway boy to return home.  If the runaway boy was not holding Andy or Opie to the promise, then the promise becomes null-and-void, in my opinion.

5.  The situational ethics scenario that Andy was presenting to Opie was excellent.  It showed Opie that there are times when higher values may necessitate a breaking of the rules.  Andy called it bending the rules, but let’s be honest: swimming into the lake in violation of a rule to save a boy is breaking the rule, not bending it.  Of course, Andy’s point could be fleshed out some more.  So we should bend rules to help somebody.  How far can we take that?  Can a person rob the bank to feed his starving family?  Well, in that case, he should probably seek out alternatives that would help his family, yet not entail him breaking the law.  Andy’s principle can be fleshed out, or perhaps re-articulated: one can bend a rule when failure to do so will result in clear harm to somebody else.  Maybe even that re-articulation needs to be fleshed out, itself!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Once Upon a Time Cliffhanger: Happy Endings

I watched the winter cliffhanger to Once Upon a Time last Sunday night.  I’d like to share what stood out to me and see if I can bring all that together into a coherent thought.

1.  Regina was the evil queen of the Snow White story.  She has been trying to be good, though.  Her problem is that, in fairy tales, villains do not have happy endings, and so she fears that she will not have a happy ending.  That is confirmed, in her eyes, when she loses Robin Hood, with whom she is in love.  Robin Hood is married to Maid Marion, who has been comatose due to a spell by the Snow Queen.  (Regina and Robin Hood did not fall in love while Robin Hood was married, for Maid Marion had died, but Emma and Hook went back in time and brought back a woman from the past, and she turned out to be Maid Marion.)  Regina helps bring Maid Marion out of her coma, but Marion begins to fall back into her disease.  Regina concludes that Marion can only be free of her disease outside of Storybrooke, for Marion needs to get away from magic.  The thing is, no one who leaves Storybrooke can ever come back.  Regina recognizes that Robin Hood will have to leave Storybrooke with Maid Marion, for it would be wrong to leave Marion out there alone.  Regina does the right thing, but she is depressed because she cannot have her happy ending.

2.  Regina has a talk with Mr. Gold/Rumplestiltskin, who himself has struggled in choosing between good and evil.  Gold has decided to pursue a selfish path.  Gold tells Regina that he does not need any author of fairy tales to write him a happy ending, for he will simply take his happy ending.  Mr. Gold then tells Regina that, as hard as it may be for her to believe, he hopes that she will have her happy ending, too.  Things do not turn out well for Gold, though.  Gold’s wife, Belle, whom Gold sincerely loves, and who has long rooted for Gold to become good, learns that Gold has pursued evil and rejects Gold, making him leave Storybrooke (she has a dagger that can control Gold’s actions).  Gold does not get his happy ending, after all.  At the end of the show, he himself wants to find the Author!

3.  Amidst her sadness, Regina actually feels happy that Gold lost out on his happy ending?  Why?  My guess is that it shows her that, on some level, the universe is still a fairly just place.  She is disillusioned because she did the right thing and is suffering for it.  It may be a relief to her to see that, notwithstanding Gold’s attempts to claim his happy ending while being selfish and evil, his selfishness and evil led to his downfall.  Doing good will not always lead to things going well, but evil often contains the seeds of downfall.

4.  What particularly interests me is that, on some level, Gold was being good when he was talking to Regina.  He sincerely wished that she might have a happy ending, and he was offering her advice.  I would not say that he was altruistic or was invested in Regina having a happy ending—-I am sure that if he had to choose between his happiness and Regina’s, he would choose his own.  But he was a detached observer, one who felt that he learned some valuable life lessons and was imparting those lessons to Regina.  While Gold is being somewhat giving on his path of evil and selfishness, however, Regina in her commitment to goodness gloats a bit over Gold’s misfortune.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Book Write-Up: Captive Trail, by Susan Page Davis

Susan Page Davis.  Captive Trail.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2011.  See here for Moody’s page about the book.

Captive Trail is part of the Texas Trails series, also known as the Morgan Family Series.  This series focuses on the Morgan family in nineteenth century Texas.  In Darlene Franklin’s Lone Star Trail, the Morgan family makes reference to a member of the family who was missing.   Susan Page Davis in Captive Trail tells the story of this particular family member, Taabe Waipu (Billie Morgan), who had been captured by the Comanche.  Captive Trail is about how Taabe came to be reunited with her family, with the help of a mail carrier named Ned Bright, some nuns, and other friends.

The book was pretty slow at first, but I got really drawn into it when the mail carrier Ned brought a buffalo hunter who spoke Comanche, in hopes that this would help him to communicate with Taabe.  Taabe recognized the buffalo hunter and did not want to speak with him, so the nuns hid her and told the buffalo hunter that Taabe was not there.  Ned, later reflecting, concluded that there must be some reason that Taabe did not want to speak with the buffalo hunter, and that perhaps it was because she had an experience with him in the past.  Not only did I admire the respect that Ned and the nuns were showing to Taabe in this scene, but the scene also made me long more for Ned to find a translator whom Taabe could trust, so that the barriers of communication could be redressed.

Another scene that I found moving was when one of the sisters was speaking to Taabe and Taabe’s Mexican friend, Quinta.  Taabe was telling the sister that her father died in the war, and the sister concealed that this war was the one between Texas and Mexico, to avoid causing a rift between Taabe and Quinta.  Taabe admired the sister’s judgment, wisdom, and consideration, and so did I, as a reader.

I was happy that this book from an evangelical Protestant publishing house was depicting Catholic nuns as heroes.  I would have liked to have seen a bit more, however, about the differences between Protestant and Catholic beliefs.  This was touched on in one place in the book, where Ned was explaining to Taabe that the hymn “Amazing Grace” was a hymn sung by Protestants, and that Protestants and Catholics worship the same God but have different beliefs.  But I would have liked to have seen more about this.

I am a bit ambivalent about the book’s portrayal of the Comanche.  I would have liked to have seen a more sympathetic portrayal of the Comanche, one that sought to understand issues from their point-of-view, without denying that there were Comanche who did some bad things.  The book did portray the Comanche positively, on occasion, but not as often as I hoped.  At the same time, the picture of the Comanche that we get is largely from the perspective of Taabe, who did not want to live with them.  The book acknowledges, though, that there were many captives who preferred to stay with the Comanche.

I would like to thank Moody Publishers for sending me a review copy of this book.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Book Write-Up: Discovering Delight, by Glenda Mathes

Glenda Mathes.  Discovering Delight: 31 Meditations on Loving God’s Law.  Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014.

In Discovering Delight, Glenda Mathes offers spiritual insights, using as her starting point verses from the Book of Psalms, particularly Psalm 119.  Occasionally, Mathes draws from Reformed Confessions.  As the book’s title indicates, it has thirty-one meditations.

The positive to this book is that, overall, it has good insights.  These insights include the importance of giving one’s problems to God rather than retaliating, how problems can be an opportunity to draw closer to God, and how one should use one’s talents for God’s glory rather than to make a name for oneself.  I found these insights to be edifying.  At times, Mathes raises a profound question, such as how impatience can be appropriate and inappropriate.  There are also times when she acknowledges her own flaws and how love for God’s word is not necessarily automatic but needs to be cultivated.

The book would have benefited, in my opinion, from more anecdotes, which would have allowed Mathes to show the reader what she was talking about, not just tell.  I appreciated her story about how the hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” was a reaction against Arminianism, but I would have liked to have seen more anecdotes, perhaps even some personal ones.  That would have made the book more interesting and given it a greater personal dimension.  Moreover, since the title of the book says that it is about loving God’s law, it would have been nice had Mathes shown us what meditating on God’s law is like—-by picking laws from the Torah and showing how they illustrate God’s character, for example.

The book could have been better, but I still felt in reading the book that I was sitting at the feet of a wise teacher, one with a deep love for God.

I received this book from the publisher through Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

"Whom Ye Know Not"

The sermon at church this morning was interesting.  We’re celebrating Advent, which is about anticipating the coming of Christ.  The pastor during the first part of his sermon was inquiring why John the Baptist was not at the nativity.  My thought was “Because John the Baptist was still a baby at that time,” and that is probably true, if one accepts what the Gospel of Luke says.  At the same time, I could somewhat understand my pastor’s question, for John the Baptist was preparing people for the ministry of Jesus.  In my opinion, John was trying to get people ready for the Messiah by encouraging them to repent.  By being in a spiritual state of mind that was oriented towards God and righteousness, people would be in a better position to recognize and to embrace Jesus’ ministry of compassion and healing as the work of God.  Those who did not repent would be focused on other things, or they would reject Jesus because Jesus conflicted with their power interests.

My pastor was making a big deal about John 1:26-27, which states: “John answered them, saying, I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not; He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose” (KJV).  I did not entirely understand how my pastor was applying this verse—-and I consider that a good thing, since that makes me think—-but I believe that his point was that we assume we know everything about Jesus and that we have a firm handle on who Jesus was.  We do not consider that Jesus can surprise us, or we fail to look at Jesus in fresh ways.  My pastor is neither disputing the importance of Christian orthodoxy nor suggesting that we should depart from that, I don’t think, but rather he is promoting a living relationship with Jesus, not simply assuming that we know all there is to know about Jesus and putting Jesus on the shelf, either trivializing him or forgetting about him.

What do I make of that?  Well, I have my own frozen image of Jesus, I cannot deny that!  There are all sorts of images of Jesus out there: Jesus the nice person who accepted everyone, Jesus the man who was not afraid to tell people off, Jesus full of grace, Jesus giving people a new law (or a new interpretation of the old law) more difficult than the law of Moses.  I tend to gravitate towards a compassionate Jesus, though there are doubts somewhere in my mind about whether that is the case.  I have just found beating myself up for failing to live up to certain spiritual standards to be a futile endeavor.  I have settled on compassionate Jesus!  I have resolved that no one will tell me otherwise!  They can have any Jesus they wish, but they are not taking away from me my compassionate Jesus!
But can that frozen image of mine close me off from learning new things, from gaining new insights?

Saturday, December 13, 2014

II Chronicles 11

I have three items for my blog post today about II Chronicles 11:

1.  v 15 states regarding King Jeroboam of Northern Israel (in the KJV):

“And he ordained him priests for the high places, and for the devils, and for the calves which he had made.”

The Hebrew word that the KJV translates as “devils” is sa-ir, which often means a goat (see here).  That is why a number of English translations render the term as “goat demon” when it appears within the context of pagan worship.

Raymond Dillard in his Word Biblical Commentary on II Chronicles made some interesting points about II Chronicles 11:15.  Jeroboam made priests for the goat-demons and the golden calves he had made.  Dillard notes that there is no evidence in Syro-Palestine that Israelites worshiped deities who had the form of animals.  Moreover, in this region, gods are usually standing on the backs of calves, meaning that Israelites probably did not worship the calves themselves but the deity who was using the calves as a sort of throne.

Dillard is arguing that the worship of deities in the form of animals was not distinctly Israelite, and yet he does not seem to believe that Jeroboam encouraging this sort of worship was historically implausible.  There are icons in Egypt in which deities are depicted in animal form, and Jeroboam spent some time in Egypt when he was on the run from King Solomon.  Could Jeroboam have picked up such worship during his stay in Egypt?

2.  II Chronicles 11:18-23 states the following (in the KJV):

18 And Rehoboam took him Mahalath the daughter of Jerimoth the son of David to wife, and Abihail the daughter of Eliab the son of Jesse;
19 Which bare him children; Jeush, and Shamariah, and Zaham.
20 And after her he took Maachah the daughter of Absalom; which bare him Abijah, and Attai, and Ziza, and Shelomith.
21 And Rehoboam loved Maachah the daughter of Absalom above all his wives and his concubines: (for he took eighteen wives, and threescore concubines; and begat twenty and eight sons, and threescore daughters.)
22 And Rehoboam made Abijah the son of Maachah the chief, to be ruler among his brethren: for he thought to make him king.
23 And he dealt wisely, and dispersed of all his children throughout all the countries of Judah and Benjamin, unto every fenced city: and he gave them victual in abundance. And he desired many wives.

The Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary presents a variety of Jewish interpretations about this passage.  Why were King Rehoboam of Judah’s children intentionally dispersed throughout the tribes of Judah and Benjamin?

Malbim states that it was to prevent a civil war.  Rehoboam made his son Abijah a chief and was grooming him to become king, even though Abijah was not the oldest son.  Abijah was born to Rehoboam’s favorite wife, Maacah the daughter of David’s son Absalom, and Rehoboam took Maacah after he had taken Mahalath and Abihail and they had borne him sons.  Maacah was a late wife to the scene.  Rehoboam perhaps feared that his other sons would be jealous of the younger son Abijah and the special authority that Rehoboam was giving to him.  Malbim’s point may be that Rehoboam was distributing his other sons throughout Judah and Benjamin and was giving them favors because that would lessen the chance that they could conspire in Jerusalem against Abijah.

Another explanation was offered by Malbim and Ralbag, and this was that Abijah was the one sending his sons throughout Judah and Benjamin, in order to consolidate his own authority.

3.  I read an article by Israel Finkelstein, “Rehoboam’s fortified cities (II Chr 11, 5-12): a Hasmonean reality?”, which appeared in Zeitschrift fur die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, 123, number 1, 2011, pages 92-107.  Finkelstein argues that Rehoboam’s fortified cities—-their location and even some cities’ names—-do not reflect Israel’s post-exilic period but rather the Hasmonean period, which was later.  I recall Finkelstein saying in that article that Judah was not really fortified during the post-exilic period, notwithstanding what Nehemiah says, but that the Book of Nehemiah reflects a Hasmonean context in that case.  Finkelstein bases this conclusion, at least in part, on archaeology.  Similarly, Finkelstein in another article, “The Historical Reality behind the Genealogical Lists in 1 Chronicles” (Journal of Biblical Literature 131/1, 2012, pages 65-63), contends that the genealogies in Chronicles are consistent with the boundaries in the Hasmonean period rather than the post-exilic one.

Finkelstein speculates that the Chronicler may have been presenting Rehoboam as building fortifications in order to highlight that fortifications alone could not save Judah: that they actually did not save Judah because Shishak of Egypt still invaded.  Rehoboam could not bypass piety towards God, which, for the Chronicler, was the true path to Israel’s security.

In my readings about Chronicles, I have encountered the view that the Chronicler does not care for Israel making alliances, for he believes that Israel should trust in God instead.  Does that mean that the Chronicler is critical of fortifications, as if they are human means for Israel to protect herself as opposed to relying on God for protection?  Well, II Chronicles 14:7 depicts the righteous King Asa building them, and his reason for doing so is that the LORD has given Israel rest.  The Chronicler does not explicitly criticize Asa for doing so.  And yet, later in the chapter, Asa wins against enormous odds by trusting God; later, in II Chronicles 16, Asa is criticized for trusting in an alliance and physicians rather than the LORD.  Maybe the Chronicler does not deem fortifications to be that good of a thing.  Or perhaps the Chronicler believes they are fine, as long as a king does not rely on them to the exclusion of relying on God.  Solomon did some practical things, and the Chronicler does not seem to criticize him for that; rather, he depicts that time as Israel’s golden age.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Book Write-Up: Love Unexpected, by Jody Hedlund

Jody Hedlund.  Love Unexpected.  Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2014.  See here for Bethany House’s page about the book.

In Love Unexpected, the year is 1859.  A young woman named Emma Chambers and her brother Ryan are on a steamboat that is attacked, robbed, and destroyed by pirates.  Not long after Emma, Ryan, and others from the boat come ashore, a traveling preacher, Holy Bill, recommends that Emma marry Patrick, the recently widowed keeper of the local lighthouse.  Patrick has a toddler named Josiah.  Emma has not exactly been successful at courtship and finding a man to marry, so she agrees to marry Patrick, who likes how Emma relates to Josiah.  Emma does not know how to cook, and she bumbles her tasks as a housewife and mother, but Patrick loves her, encourages her, and does small acts of kindness for her.  Emma thinks that her husband is a good God-fearing man, yet she hears rumors from her gossipy neighbor, Bertie Burnham, a relative of Patrick’s late wife Delia.  Does Patrick have an unsavory past?  Is he the type of man who would have an affair?  Was Delia’s death truly an accident?

I was expecting the book to be very suspenseful, but it did not meet my expectations in that regard.  I was wondering what exactly Patrick’s secrets were, and that was one factor that kept me reading, but I would not say that I was on the edge of my seat.  At the same time, I was a bit afraid when Emma shared Patrick’s secrets with Bertie, for I wondered what Bertie might do.

The book also was not particularly deep.

Overall, though, I enjoyed the story.  I appreciated its themes of second chances, of the vulnerability of those with an unsavory past as they try to start anew, of thoughtfulness to others, and of love for others, even when they do not follow what one considers the right path.  My favorite parts of the book were when cynical characters stepped forward and did the right thing.  In some cases, they were motivated by their own pain, which produced in them compassion for others.

I also liked the Author’s Note at the end, in which Jody Hedlund said which parts of the book were based on historical events, and which were not.

The publisher sent me a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Watchtower and the Word, by Stephen J. Bedard

Christian apologist Stephen J. Bedard recently sent me a PDF copy of one of his books, The Watchtower and the Word: A Guide to Conversations with Jehovah’s Witnesses (see here for Amazon’s page about the book).  He was hosting a giveaway on his blog, and I was fortunate to receive a copy.  He asked that I post a review of his book, so I will do so here.

In the Watchtower and the Word, Bedard explores the historical background and the doctrines of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Although Bedard disagrees with a number of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ doctrines, he acknowledges that Jehovah’s Witnesses and evangelical Christians share common ground, such as a commitment to the authority of Scripture.  Bedard also notes that evangelicalism is coming to overlap with Jehovah’s Witnesses in emphasizing the future resurrection and the coming new earth rather than the immortality of the soul (though Bedard later in the book actually uses this concept to argue against the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ belief that the 144,000 will go to heaven).  Bedard’s goal is respectful dialogue, not attacking Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Bedard talks about what he calls “Samaritan Beliefs,” which are identity markers that Jehovah’s Witnesses hold, but which do not pertain to salvation.  Bedard calls them “Samaritan Beliefs” because of a scene in John 4, in which Jesus is bringing up spiritually significant topics to the Samaritan woman at the well, and the woman changes the subject by asking where people should worship: Jerusalem, or the mountain where Samaritans worship?  Jesus is hitting a little too close for home, and so the Samaritan woman changes the subject!  Bedard offers his opinion on these Samaritan Beliefs—-which include Jehovah’s Witnesses’ belief in addressing God as Jehovah, their opposition to blood transfusions, their view that Jesus died on a stake rather than a cross, their refusal to keep holidays that they believe are pagan (i.e., Christmas, Easter), their view that one should pray to Jehovah and not Jesus, their refusal to participate in politics, and their organizational system that requires submission to a central church authority.  (On the last one, I was interested to learn that Jehovah’s Witnesses’ official publications do not name the authors of their articles, and Bedard says that the reason for this is that the authority is believed to belong to the Watchtower organization, not individuals.)  Bedard does not believe that evangelicals who talk with Jehovah’s Witnesses should get sidetracked by these Samaritan Beliefs, but should instead focus on important issues.  For Bedard, these important issues include the deity of Christ and the Trinity, which Jehovah’s Witnesses deny, and also the idea that the Kingdom of God was breaking into the world at Christ’s first advent, not starting in 1914, which is when the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the end-times began and Jesus returned (or came to be present).

Here are some of my thoughts about Bedard’s interaction with Jehovah’s Witnesses doctrines:

1. Bedard's best arguments, in my opinion, occurred when he was looking at Greek grammar and doing word studies.  The Jehovah's Witnesses translate John 1:1 to say that the Word who became Jesus Christ was "a" god rather than God, their rationale being that the Greek word for god there lacks a definite article.  Bedard, however, refers to a place in the New Testament where a noun lacks a definite article yet appears to be definite (Son of God in Matthew 27:54).  Bedard also explores the meaning of the Greek word monogenes, which is translated as "only begotten" in some versions and "only" in others, as well as the concepts of the firstborn and begettal.  Bedard looks at the New Testament and also II Esdras 6:58 and Sirach 36:17.  Bedard is arguing against any idea that the pre-existent Jesus' being begotten means that he was a created being, since Jehovah's Witnesses teach that God created the pre-existent Jesus.  Bedard demonstrates that begettal and the status of firstborn can often relate to God's choice of someone for a task or the preeminence of the person or group, not necessarily to the question of when (or if) someone came to exist.  Bedard acknowledges, however, that the Nicene Creed has a different understanding of the Son's being begotten----as the Son's eternal emanation from the Father.  Either way, Bedard notes, calling the pre-existent Jesus begotten or the firstborn does not imply that God created him and that he came to exist at a certain point in time, for these concepts are compatible with Jesus being eternal.

2.  Bedard quotes a number of scholars, including evangelical ones.  At times, this appeared to be an argument from authority, and I doubt that this by itself would persuade Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Perhaps, however, the views of scholars would influence them to take what Bedard calls another look at the evidence.

3.  In John 17:3, Jesus calls the Father the only true God, and I Corinthians 8:6 affirms that there is one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ.  Do these passages indicate that the Father is God whereas Jesus is not?  On John 17:3, Bedard appeals to scholar Raymond Brown and states that “it is clear that Jesus is not attempting to give a precise theological definition of the nature of God but rather to glorify his Father.”  On I Corinthians 8:6, Bedard quotes scholar Gordon Fee’s statement that “Paul’s concern is not with philosophical theology, but with its practical implications for the matter at hand”—-namely, the question of whether Corinthian Christians should eat meat offered to idols.  I have problems with these sorts of arguments, maybe because they appear to be circumventing what the text says by appealing to context, or they contradict my literal-mindedness (i.e., John 17:3 affirms that the Father is the one true God, so why not take that at face value?).  At the same time, Bedard does raise considerations that show that these texts may be more complex than a number of Jehovah’s Witnesses (and hyper-literalizing me) might think: that the New Testament applies things to Jesus that are said about God in the Old Testament, and that calling Jesus “Lord” is significant because “Lord” is a designation for God.

4.  Reading Bedard’s book made me curious about the Christology of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Bedard states that Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus was Michael the archangel, yet he also says that they do not take that to mean that Jesus himself was an angel, but rather had authority over the angels.  Bedard successfully argues on the basis of Hebrews 1 that Jesus was not an angel, but, if the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe that Jesus was an angel, why make that argument?  Moreover, Bedard refers to Hebrews 1:3, which affirms that the Son “is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (NRSV).  But could a Jehovah’s Witness claim to accept that and still maintain that the Son was a created being?  Human beings are in God’s image, yet they were created by God.

5.  There was a question going through my mind as I was reading Bedard’s defenses of the deity of Christ and the Trinity: Can one believe that Jesus is somehow God, without believing that he was always God, within a Trinity?  Some say that Jesus was a man who became divine—-after all, Philippians 2 says that it was at his exaltation that God gave Jesus a name above every name.  Some point to examples in Jewish literature in which a person bears the name of God and receives some divine authority.  I would not expect for Bedard to deal with these thorny issues in this book head on, for he is writing about Jehovah’s Witnesses who do not believe that Jesus was God, and that is the question with which he interacts.  Plus, I would not be surprised if he has thought about such issues; he does refer to indications in the New Testament that the Son pre-existed and was even in the form of God (Philippians 2).  I was just wondering about other ways to account for Christ’s deity that are not Trinitarian, and if there may be diversity in how the New Testament approaches this topic.

6.  Bedard asks how Jehovah’s Witnesses can question the Trinity while accepting the canon of Scripture.  Both, after all, were promoted by Athanasius (who gave us the first canonical list of the books of the New Testament).  This reminded me of a Roman Catholic critique of Sola Scriptura: How can Protestants say that we should believe only in the Bible (and not the church or church tradition) as authoritative for faith and practice, when they themselves accept the canon of Scripture set forth by the church (on some level)?  I wonder if Jehovah’s Witnesses would respond to Bedard’s question as many Protestants would reply to Catholics: that the church recognized the books of the canon as authoritative but did not make them authoritative, for their authority comes from their divine inspiration.

7.  At one point, in discussing the Trinity, Bedard says that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not three parts of God.  For Bedard, we should not see the Trinity as 1+1+1=1, but rather as infinity+infinity+infinity=infinity.  I wonder in what sense God is infinite, though.  God has to have boundaries, right?  Otherwise, would not everything and everyone be God?

8.  Bedard regards the deity of Christ and the Trinity as important issues—-even salvation issues.  He should have explained why he believes this to be the case, though.  Perhaps he should have referred to John 8:24, which states: “you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he” (NRSV).  Jesus may be saying there that people’s sins are not forgiven if they do not accept that Jesus is “I Am,” which could be a name for God (Exodus 3:14).  Rather than just saying that the church has regarded the deity of Christ as orthodox teaching, Bedard should have laid out a case for why that belief is important.

9.  I was intrigued, albeit not entirely satisfied, with Bedard’s discussion of Christian observance of holidays, which Jehovah’s Witnesses claim have pagan origin.  Bedard said that the Israelites used gold from Egyptian idols to construct the Tabernacle, and that God can use holidays to teach God’s people spiritual truth.  That is interesting, but Bedard should have addressed Deuteronomy 12:3-4, 30, where God seems to forbid the Israelites to worship God in the manner that the pagans worship their gods.

Those are just my questions and thoughts, and I am open to correction.  I enjoyed reading this book, and I especially appreciated Bedard’s respectful tone.

Search This Blog