Saturday, February 28, 2015

Derek Leman on the Fig Tree and the Faith That Moves Mountains

Derek Leman is a Messianic Jewish rabbi, and I subscribe to his free Daily D’Var, in which he comments on passages in the Torah and the Gospels from a religious and a scholarly perspective.  I would like to share here his comments today on Mark 11:12-14 and 20-25.  It is phenomenal!

“12  On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it . . .

20 As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” 22 And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 23 Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.””  (Mark 11:12–14, 20–25 ESV)

NOTES: This whole section in vss. 14-25 is a classic example of what some have called the Markan sandwich technique. He begins to tell a story, follows with another scene which may not seem to be related, and then returns to the story. So, here, Yeshua curses a fig tree and then the story of his Temple protest action is related. But the next morning, the story comes back to the fig tree. I will save most of my comments on the Temple protest action in vss. 15-19 and focus here on vss.12-14 and 20-25 about the lesson of the fig tree. The episode raises a number of questions. Is Yeshua’s cursing a fig tree rational or irrational? Does the fig tree symbolize something specific and should we try to find the exact reference? Which mountain does Yeshua have in mind for being moved by prayer? How does the fig tree lesson relate to the Temple protest action? To begin, we need to understand the seasons for figs in Israel. By Passover there would usually be leaves, but no figs. By Shavuot, the same time as the wheat harvest, would be the early crop of figs (there are two fig crops a year in Israel’s climate). Therefore, and as Mark is careful to point out, it is irrational for Yeshua to expect figs at Passover. This means his action with the fig tree is purely symbolic. His curious action, a prophetic enactment, is meant to make the disciples curious. The next morning, after the Temple protest action, Peter remembers the fig tree as they pass it, now brown and withered. Does Yeshua now launch into a lesson about Israel being fruitless and unworthy, as we might expect? Not at all. He launches into a lesson about the power of prayer. What could it all mean? First, it is helpful to know that the fig comes up as a symbol in the prophets several times for Israel’s faith and fruitfulness. Micah speaks of God’s disappointment at finding no fig to eat in Israel (7:1). Hosea describes Israel as a withered fig tree without fruit (9:10). Yet the promise of a great age of peace is that every man will sit under his vine and fig tree (Isa 36:16; Mic 4:4). Second, we should forget about some specific symbolic meaning, since Yeshua gives no such clues. Neither should we read the mountain of vs. 23 with some specific reference (as if this is about the Mount of Olives and the Zechariah 14 imagery, as some interpreters do). Yeshua does not take the lesson in this direction. Note that Yeshua’s words about faith moving a mountain come up again in Paul in 1 Cor 13:2 (“faith so as to move mountains”). What we have here is a potent contrast between the powerful Temple state and the humble disciple group. The Temple, though holy, has become corrupt through its leadership. It is a religious institution of vast wealth and power. But it is not effective at making Israel holy and fruitful. So, Yeshua, powerless and alone, makes an ineffective protest action, an irrational act which cannot succeed (like his irrational expectation of a fig tree to have early fruit). But while Yeshua’s protest does not bring the Temple to its knees, his curse does wither a fig tree. This leads to a lesson about prayer. The humble disciple group has more power than all the Temple state. If they do God’s will and pray, nothing is beyond their ability. God will move mountains, shake empires, and change the world through them. Their power is not in wealth or position, but in prayer, forgiveness, and faith.

II Chronicles 22

II Chronicles 22 is about King Ahaziah of Judah.

II Chronicles 22:2 states (in the KJV): “Forty and two years old was Ahaziah when he began to reign, and he reigned one year in Jerusalem. His mother’s name also was Athaliah the daughter of Omri.”

Many scholars identify a problem with this verse.  For one, whereas II Chronicles 22:2 states that Ahaziah was forty-two years old when he began to reign, II Kings 8:26 says that he was twenty-two at that time.  Second, saying that Ahaziah was forty-two at the beginning of his reign does not work chronologically.  II Chronicles 21:20 says that Ahaziah’s father, Jehoshaphat, died at age forty, so Ahaziah would be older than his father if Ahaziah’s reign began when Ahaziah was forty-two.
Different solutions have been proposed for this:

1.  One solution is simply to say that a scribe made an error.  Keil-Delitzsch go this route.  One should also note that many Septuagint manuscripts have “twenty” and that the Peshitta has “twenty-two.”  Maybe they were trying to correct the Hebrew text or they possessed an earlier and more accurate reading.

2.  John Gill mentions the solution of coregency, that Ahaziah and his father Jehosphaphat may have reigned at the same time for a span.  This is often a solution that interpreters propose in seeking to deal with certain chronological difficulties, particularly the ones in Kings and Chronicles.  I am not sure if it solves anything in this case, though, for it does not seem to me to solve the problem of Ahaziah being older than his father.

3.  E.W. Bullinger says that the phrase is literally “a son of forty-two years, i.e. of the house of Omri.”  King Ahaziah was the king of Judah, but he was connected with the Northern Kingdom of Israel because his mother, Athaliah, was related to the wicked Northern king Omri, one who started the dynasty that included Ahab.  Bullinger argues that saying that Ahaziah was “a son of forty-two years” highlights Ahaziah’s connection with Omri—-that the forty-two years is not how old Ahaziah was when he began to reign, but rather the time since the kingship of Judah became intertwined with Omri’s dynasty.  I cannot disprove Bullinger’s argument, but I am not convinced by it.  Throughout II Chronicles, the sort of formula that appears in II Chronicles 22:2 is used to say how old a king was when he began to reign.  Why should II Chronicles 22:2 be any different?

4.  Bullinger’s view is similar to one found within Judaism.  According to Rashi, when King Asa of Judah took a daughter of Omri for his son Jehoshaphat, God decreed the destruction of the house of David with the house of Ahab (Omri’s son).  Seder Olam 17 and Tosefta Sotah 12 also have this sort of idea.  For Rashi, the forty-two years in II Chronicles 22:2 refer, not to Ahaziah’s age when he became king, but the time since God’s decree.  That God made a decree about Ahaziah’s death at some point may be in the chapter itself, for v 7 says that God was behind the death of Ahaziah and the cutting off of the house of Ahab.  I have difficulty saying that this relates to the forty-two years in v 2, however, for the reason that I gave in critiquing Bullinger: that the formula in v 2 usually relates to how old a king was when he began to reign.

I guess I go with saying that v 2 has a scribal error.  The other explanations are more interesting and intriguing, though.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Book Write-Up: God's Battle Plan for the Mind (Puritan Meditation)

David W. Saxton.  God’s Battle Plan for the Mind: The Puritan Practice of Biblical Meditation.  Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

God’s Battle Plan for the Mind is about meditating on the Scriptures, and it focuses on Puritan insights about the importance of doing so and ways to do it.

Meditating on the Scriptures has been a mixed experience for me.  One can easily fall into the trap of meditating on the Scriptures and falling into feelings of self-condemnation because one falls short of God’s rules, or negative thinking because there is a lot in the Bible about God’s wrath.  To be honest, there are times when I think that it is mentally healthier for me to think about nothing at all rather than the Bible!

At the same time, in reading this book, I could identify with a lot of what David Saxton and the Puritans had to say about meditation.  I do find that it is important for me to discipline my thoughts, to sit down and to deliberate about the kind of person I should be, and to seek God’s grace and strength.  Reflection, mindfulness, and contemplating the higher things in life can be very beneficial to a person, as opposed to allowing one’s mind to swim aimlessly into negative territory.

Overall, as I read Saxton’s book, I found the Puritans to be constructive in their approach to meditation.  Yes, they recommended thinking about hell, God’s judgment, and the warnings in Scripture, for they believed that this could encourage repentance.  Yes, they sometimes tossed in a spiritual threat towards those who failed to meditate.  But they also promoted relying on God’s love and grace, contemplating why sin is bad, and looking forward to heaven.  I was especially impressed when they tried to meet people where they were.  If you have a problem with covetousness and greed, focus on heaven, one Puritan recommended.  If you have difficulty having warm feelings towards God while meditating, turn to God in prayer, for we all must depend on God to meditate well, anyway.

As someone with Asperger’s who likes clear guidelines, I was impressed with how practical the Puritans were.  They offered ideas on subjects for meditation, the practical benefit of meditation, and the amount of time that one may want to spend on meditation.  They were not necessarily doing so to be legalistic, but rather were focusing on the goals of meditation and possible ways to meet those goals.  They also backed up many of their insights with Scripture, for there are passages about meditating on God’s commandments and setting one’s mind on heaven, the home of the saints.

Do I plan to change anything in my life after reading this book?  On the one hand, I am fairly satisfied with my spiritual practice, in that I think about the importance of being a good person and pray for the strength to be that.  I also do not want to fall into beating a dead horse when trying to meditate on the Bible, for I sometimes feel that there is only so much that I can say about a Bible passage.  (There may be more to the passage, but only so much about it that swims around in my mind.)  On the other hand, I do agree with Saxton that some of us (and this has been me) can listen to sermon after sermon and fail to grow because we do not stop and absorb the sermon.  In addition, I do think that I should have more of an application component in my devotional reading: to contemplate, not just what the passage means and why it says things as it does, but also how it relates to my life and my relationship with God and others.

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

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Book Write-Up: Contagious Disciple Making

Donald L. Watson and Paul D. Watson.  Contagious Disciple Making: Leading Others on a Journey of Discovery.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2014.  See here to buy the book.

Contagious Disciple Making is about how Christians can make disciples of Jesus Christ.  It is not exactly a book about how individual Christians can go out and share their faith with individual non-Christians, though it does have stories about that.  Its authors, David Watson and Paul Watson, think bigger.  Their vision is the conversion of families, communities, tribes, and even nations.  Their expectation is that people will come to Christian small groups and then be able to start their own small groups.  They support discipleship: mature Christians mentoring people on how to obey Jesus, and the mentees mentoring others and passing on what they learn.  Moreover, they share their experiences of their method actually succeeding.

In reading this book, I often felt as if I was reading about a factory producing cookie-cutter Christians.  One could understandably respond that my impression is completely off-base.  After all, do not the Watsons say that disciple-makers should respect the individuality of the communities they’re reaching and allow them to use their own ways of worship (as long as they don’t contradict the Bible)?  Do they not say that disciple-makers should mentor the group leaders and then back off from the group and let the Holy Spirit do his work, rather than being heavy-handed teachers and builders of their own personal religious empires?  Yes, they do say that.  Their critiques of traditional methods of disciple-making are insightful.

Still, as I was reading the book, the thought that went through my mind was that I was too much of an individual and a free-thinker to participate in the sorts of things that they talk about, and that people I know are too independent and free-thinking for me to drag them along into a Christian small group.  The section on discipleship had good insights, but it scared me a bit: it seemed to be suggesting that a discipler should have a say about everything in a disciplee’s life, and that both should be pursuing perfection.  I had mixed feelings about entire families and communities becoming evangelical Christians: how would this affect people in the family who do not exactly fit that paradigm, such as gay people?  And what if a person in the Christian community just does not want to go along with what his discipler or small group is saying he should do?

Some of the book’s advice was practical, but I was wondering if what we see in the Bible is always so practical.  A key point that the book makes is that disciple-makers should go into communities and look for a Person of Peace: a Christian or one who is open to the Gospel, who can then help bring others in his or her community to Christ (or, more accurately, into a Christan small group, where they can fall in love with Jesus).  In one place, the book says that the Person of Peace should have a good reputation within his or her community.  Makes sense.  But the book refers to the woman at the well in John 4 as a Person of Peace, and she did not exactly have a good reputation!  And yet, contrary to what I may imply here, the book is rather critical of business models.

The book did have lots of good parts.  Paul Watson talked about asking God’s opinion about movies and ways to use Jesus’ parables to pray for the needs of communities.  The stories and anecdotes were excellent.  On some level, the book did at least try to respect that people may be in different places spiritually, for it contrasted ways to teach non-believers in a small group to obey Christ with ways to teach believers to do so.  Its section on small groups may be helpful for those looking for specifics, whereas its section on mentorship may not be so helpful, especially for people who struggle socially and may not know how to establish a mentoring relationship.

The book may be valuable for evangelicals who want the sort of thing that the Watsons talk about: more people becoming evangelicals.  But even someone like me, who cringed a bit in reading the book, can find edifying insights in it.

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

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Ramblings on Neuhaus' Political Conversion

I was not entirely satisfied with my review of Randy Boyagoda’s biography of Richard John Neuhaus, and I was thinking of rewriting one of the sections.  I have decided not to do so, however.  I have submitted the review, and I do not want to revise it on my blogs, on Amazon, and on the Blogging for Books site.  Instead, I’ll just ramble about it here on my blog.

The part of my review that does not satisfy me is this paragraph: “If there is one weakness to the book, it is that I wish that Boyagoda had explained more fully what made Neuhaus tick when he was a liberal.  What drew Neuhaus to liberalism, and what were his rationales for his positions at that time?  In reading the book, I could understand Neuhaus’ rationales for his conservative positions, but not entirely what made him tick as a liberal.  That being the case, I wondered how he could have gone from one who decried capitalism and what he considered to be American aggression, to one who was more open to those things.  Neuhaus’ conservative older brother said that Neuhaus was rebelling against his father by being a liberal, and that may have been unfair, but why exactly was Neuhaus a liberal?”

I was afraid that I may have been a bit unclear there.  One could interpret me to be saying that I can understand conservatism because I agree with it, whereas I cannot understand how anyone could be a liberal.  That’s not what I’m saying, though.  Rather, I’m puzzling over how exactly Neuhaus made the transition.  How did he conclude that his previous way of seeing the world was inadequate, and that his new way of seeing the world was correct?  And did his new worldview address problems that motivated him to have his old worldview back when he had it?

As I said in my review, there were a variety of factors that led Neuhaus from the liberal camp to the conservative one.  I listed his belief that the U.S. was better than the Soviet Union, his support for democracy around the world, his commitment to Christian orthodoxy, his opposition to abortion, his dislike for the New Left’s libertinism, and his view that localities could handle welfare better, even though he did not propose dismantling the welfare state.  Some of these ideas he held (or may have held) even when he was a liberal.  He was a committed Christian even then, and he may have even opposed moral or sexual libertinism and abortion at that time.

An important factor in Neuhaus’ conversion to conservatism that I forgot to list was Vietnam’s persecution of Christians.  Not only did that contribute to his robust anti-Communism, but it also alienated him a bit from the Left, which did not seem to him to be overly concerned about that issue.
I would also say that perhaps there were traces of the old liberal Neuhaus in the new conservative Neuhaus.  The old liberal Neuhaus was against the Vietnam War and felt that America was being an imperialistic bully that was taking many lives unnecessarily.  The new conservative Neuhaus, by contrast, was critical of pacifism as an unrealistic option and considered the War on Terror to be a just war.  And yet, as Boyagoda argues, Neuhaus was far from trigger-happy, contrary to what some of his critics believed.  Neuhaus did not publicly give George W. Bush a blank check on the War on Terror, and, along with William F. Buckley, Jr., he had some private reservations about the Iraq War.

One consideration that was motivating Neuhaus when he was a liberal was a concern for the poor.  I cannot remember where exactly Boyagoda said this, but I do recall one place in the biography in which Neuhaus criticizes capitalism as exploitative and acknowledges that injustice is systemic, which means that just giving money to charity is insufficient to help the poor.  As a conservative, Neuhaus still thought about poverty: he was against dismantling the national welfare system, but he also believed that poverty was better addressed locally, and he stressed the importance of the family (even gay and lesbian families, though he would oppose gay marriage) as a way to help ameliorate the poverty problem.

On the one hand, this is precisely the sort of thing I’m looking for: how did Neuhaus as a conservative address the issues that troubled him back when he was a liberal?  That would make the conversion more real, more thoughtful.  On the other hand, I am a bit dissatisfied.  As a conservative, did he no longer acknowledge that capitalism was exploitative, or that injustice was systemic?  How, as a conservative, did he account for the facts that motivated his liberal position back when he was a liberal?  Well, I am speaking from my incomplete knowledge, for Neuhaus did write a book about capitalism, and perhaps I should read that if I am curious!  It’s called Doing Well and Doing Good: The Challenge of the Christian Capitalist.  Maybe he came to believe that capitalism was not all bad, that it had some positive effects, and that is was better than socialism and communism.

What about the Vietnam War and the Cold War?  As a conservative, Neuhaus believed that Vietnam was an oppressive dictatorship that persecuted Christians, and that the U.S. was better than the Soviet Union.  Could he not as a liberal see some of that?  I mean, Neuhaus was an intelligent guy.  He was not like me when I was a conservative and had not yet become a liberal: one who was blissfully unaware of certain harsh realities of life.  He had to have been familiar with the arguments of the other side, for he argued with people who made those arguments (i.e., his father, his brothers who were serving in Vietnam, and perhaps others).  Wouldn’t he have heard that North Vietnam was Communist and could be brutal to people, as could the Viet Cong?  Wouldn’t he, as a liberal, have heard the view that the Vietnam War was about stopping Communist expansion, an issue that would concern him when he was a conservative?  How could those arguments have had little or no affect on him as a liberal, only to form a key aspect of his ideology when he was a conservative?

Well, part of the reason could have been that he saw North Vietnam and the Viet Cong as the lesser of two evils.  But he may have also regarded Ho Chi Minh as a patriot and a freedom fighter against colonialism, as well as disputed the idea that Ho Chi Minh’s work was part of some plot of Communist expansion.  M. Scott Peck held similar views (see here).  I also recall something that Richard Nixon said in Monica Crowley’s book, Nixon Off the Record (see my post here).  Nixon was puzzled by candidate Bill Clinton’s apparent disagreement with the Vietnam War, for Nixon truly felt that he himself had been vindicated in his view that the war was a just cause.  Why?  I think it was because Vietnam after the U.S. left ended up being a brutal Communist dictatorship.  There may have been people in the New Left who did not anticipate that.

I may be trying to make Neuhaus’ conversion too neat, though.  I know that, as a liberal now, I have not fully accounted for the things that concerned me when I was a conservative, nor have I come up with ways to address those concerns as a liberal.  Unfortunately, life can be more complex than that, and we often try to choose the lesser of two evils.  Yes, it was bad that Vietnam became Communist, but the massive loss of civilian lives in the Vietnam War was horrible, too.  Maybe President Obama made some bad foreign policy decisions, but George W. Bush’s belligerence had drawbacks.  All I can do is pray that my leaders have wisdom so they can make better decisions in this complex world.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Book Write-Up: Richard John Neuhaus, by Randy Boyagoda

Randy Boyagoda.  Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square.  New York: Image (an imprint of Crown, a division of Random House), 2015.  See here to purchase the book.

Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009) was a Catholic priest and a conservative intellectual.  He edited and wrote for the conservative journal First Things, wrote a number of books, and advised George W. Bush on ways to appeal to conservative religious voters.  During the 1984 Presidential election, as candidates debated the influence of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, Neuhaus’ bestselling book The Naked Public Square offered a balanced perspective on religion and public life, one that affirmed religion’s role while criticizing aspects of the religious right’s approach.

Yet, Neuhaus was not always a Catholic, and he was not always a conservative.  During the 1960’s and the 1970’s, he was a prominent Lutheran clergyman who was active in the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements.  Neuhaus had also ministered in the inner-city.  Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square, by Randy Boyagoda, tells the story of this figure.

The book goes into Neuhaus’ public life through a number of events: the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, divisions within conservatism, the Clinton impeachment, the abuse scandals within the Catholic Church, 9/11, the Iraq War, and the candidacy of Barack Obama.  But the book is also about Neuhaus as a person: his struggles with school, his long love for debate and pontificating, and his relationship with his family.

Overall, the book effectively describes the conversions that Neuhaus made in his life.  It presents Neuhaus’ rationales for his conservatism: his belief that the U.S. was better than the Soviet Union, his support for democracy around the world, his commitment to Christian orthodoxy, his opposition to abortion, his dislike for the New Left’s libertinism, and his view that localities could handle welfare better, even though he did not propose dismantling the welfare state.  Regarding his conversion to Catholicism, long-standing features of his Lutheran commitment would contribute to that: his support for the Lutherans who advocated unity with the Catholic church and sacramentalism.

If there is one weakness to the book, it is that I wish that Boyagoda had explained more fully what made Neuhaus tick when he was a liberal.  What drew Neuhaus to liberalism, and what were his rationales for his positions at that time?  In reading the book, I could understand Neuhaus’ rationales for his conservative positions, but not entirely what made him tick as a liberal.  That being the case, I wondered how he could have gone from one who decried capitalism and what he considered to be American aggression, to one who was more open to those things.  Neuhaus’ conservative older brother said that Neuhaus was rebelling against his father by being a liberal, and that may have been unfair, but why exactly was Neuhaus a liberal?

My favorite part of the book was the Preface, where Boyagoda tells two stories about Neuhaus’ unconventional stances in the Left and the Right.  As a Lutheran liberal pastor, Neuhaus led his audience in singing “America the Beautiful,” which disturbed several leftists.  Neuhaus said, however, that they were singing about America as it should be, not as it was.  Years later, when Neuhaus was a conservative, he addressed the Christian Coalition’s Road to Victory conference, and he warned Christian conservatives not to confuse political success or political policy with their Christian hope.  A significant point that Boyagoda continually makes is that Neuhaus was more nuanced than his critics thought.

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

Discussion on Matthew 5:28 and Wanting Jesus to Make Sense

I came across an online discussion about Matthew 5:28, in which Jesus says: ” But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (KJV).

The person posting said: “The concept of ‘sin’ is dangerous or damaging, when natural desires are seen as bad in and of themselves. And Jesus certainly didn’t help matters when he talked about how if you even looked on a woman in lust, you had sinned.”

The post got a variety of responses.  There were no die-hard fundamentalists who responded, since the people who usually respond to this gentleman’s posts are not from that particular group of people.  By and large, the people who respond are disillusioned with conservative evangelicalism, fundamentalism, and really institutional Christianity in general.  Overall, they treat each other with respect.

But, even within this group, there were people who were trying to give Jesus the benefit of a doubt.  One person said that Jesus was criticizing covetousness, not noticing a beautiful woman.  Another raised the consideration of intent and looking for an opportunity to sin sexually.  One commenter put these views together and said that Jesus was criticizing Pharisees who coveted other men’s wives and used divorce as a way to sleep with other men’s wives.  Another said that Jesus was challenging the self-righteousness of Pharisees who looked down on others yet committed adultery with other men’s wives in their hearts.  Still another defined lust as wanting to use or exploit another person, not as admiration or desire.

There were others, though, who were more skeptical.  One person said Jesus never existed anyway, so who cares?  Another said that we don’t even know if Matthew 5:28 was from Jesus, since the Gospels put things in Jesus’ mouth that Jesus never said.  Another responded to the pro-Jesus comments by saying that, even if Jesus was criticizing the Pharisees, Jesus still upped the requirements of the law and equated lust with adultery, so the problem has not gone away.

There were other comments that were rather deep.  One commenter quoted a variety of religious texts against lust and talked about the flesh and the spirit.

Then there was a humorous comment: a gay man said he used to be proud of himself for not lusting after women.  Now, he knows why!

In the past, I leaned more towards the skeptical views.  I believed Jesus existed, but I did not think that attempts to defend Jesus solved any problems.  I would also have agreed with the commenter who noted that the Gospels contained words not actually spoken by Jesus, since that overlapped with what a number of New Testament scholars say.

Nowadays, I gravitate a bit more towards those who try to give Jesus, or Matthew, the benefit of a doubt.  From a faith or spirituality perspective, I want for Jesus to look reasonable—-to say things that make sense morally and that do not strike me as out of my reach.

I would say that the jury is out over whether Matthew 5:28 reflects Jesus’ actual views.  Some say that it reflects the views of Matthew, who depicts Jesus as a new Moses.  Hans Dieter Betz, by contrast, said that the Sermon on the Mount is from a different source from Matthew.  Some may say that the Sermon on the Mount contains things that Jesus taught, even if Jesus did not get on a mountain and speak those literal words.  For me, from a faith perspective, I would prefer for the words to reflect Jesus’ teachings.  But, from a scholarly perspective and as someone who would prefer for the Bible to be interesting and rich, I would like for the Sermon on the Mount to be part of the broader tapestry of Scriptural diversity.

Of course, my preferences do not matter, except insofar as they allow me to clarify to myself my own perspective, for reality is reality.  I suppose that, in the end, I consider Matthew 5:28 to be a text that God permitted to be in Scripture and that can teach me, whether it came from the historical Jesus or not.  From a faith perspective, I cannot really spiritually build that much on being overly skeptical, so I look for explanations that give Jesus the benefit of a doubt, or that present Jesus as making sense.  Of course, if die-hard fundamentalists were attacking me, my approach may get different!

Monday, February 23, 2015

Scattered Ramblings on Sarcasm (With a Detour About Hell)

These past days have been the sort of days in which crap from my past enters my mind.  I was remembering an incident this morning.  I was an undergraduate in college over a decade ago, and I said something sarcastic to one of my dorm-mates, an atheist.  He replied: “That sounds pretty sarcastic.  Jesus, I think, would have a different approach!”

I don’t think I had any snappy comeback then.  Since that time, I have thought of what I should have said: “Yeah, well, it would take Jesus to live with you!”  Remember that Family Guy episode in which Stewie went back in time to give Brian a snappy comeback?  Maybe a more appropriate comparison would be the time that George in Seinfeld wanted to use his “jerk-store” comeback, and it fell flat when he had an opportunity to do so!

I don’t entirely remember why I was being sarcastic in that incident.  My dorm-mate may have been baiting me about something.  I don’t know.  He often liked to put people on the spot.

Would Jesus have even had a different approach?  Well, Jesus did use his share of sarcasm, especially against his Pharisee critics.  Of course, some people take this thought a little too far.  I remember hearing Ann Coulter speak, and she appealed to the example of Christ to justify her own sarcasm.  I don’t think that being like Jesus means never criticizing anything or anyone.  When it amounts, though, to dehumanizing the other “side” and making them out to be the enemy, well, I would say something is wrong there, from a Christian perspective.  Kindness and love are supposed to fit into the Christian life somewhere, right?  I don’t see much kindness towards liberals in Ann Coulter’s columns.  “Yeah, well, liberals aren’t kind either.”  Do two wrongs make a right, for either side?
How could I have handled that situation with my dorm-mate?  I did handle it honestly, as a human being.  Not perfectly, but honestly.

Do I regret any sarcasm on my part as I look back?  Yeah, I would say so.  Not that conversation with my dorm-mate, but I would say so.  That season in my life when I was rebelling against evangelicalism and right-wing conservatism, I could be very sarcastic, mocking other people’s positions, using the reductio ad-absurdum in caricaturing people’s views.  I could have handled that a bit better, I think.  I should at least try to respect what people say, rather than treating what they say as stupid.

This morning, though, I did somewhat venture into the realm of sarcasm.  Someone posted a meme of C.S. Lewis’ statement that hell begins as a grumble, which the grumbler himself may even criticize, and eventually he gets to the point where he cannot turn it off.  A commenter responded to that meme by saying that it shows God does not send people to hell, but people send themselves to hell, which answers the question of how a loving God can send people to hell.  I replied: “God can’t overcome people’s grumbling moods when they have a hard time turning them off?”  Sounds a bit sarcastic.  Not abusive or trollish, but sarcastic. I’ve just had a long aversion to that whole line of “People send themselves to hell.”

I’m not sure if my point will be understood—-I don’t exactly provide much context, and the commenter may wonder what exactly I’m addressing.  Well, among other things, I’m questioning his idea that we have perfect free will and that God is not responsible, at least in C.S. Lewis’ scenario, for people going to hell.  If we are grumbling and can’t turn it off, our free-will is limited!  How can I be blamed if I am grumbling and can’t turn it off?  How can people in hell be blamed for that?  Can’t God turn off their grumble?  “Yeah, but God respects people’s free will.”  What free will, in that case?  “Well, our characters are cumulative, and we should remember that deciding wrong today will make deciding right tomorrow much more difficult, and that is our fault, not God’s.”  Joshua Ryan Butler did not use those words, but he made that sort of point in his book, The Skeletons in God’s Closet.   My response to that would be: “Is not God supposed to be the God of new beginnings?”
I could have written a complex treatise that readers would probably skip.  Instead I wrote a pithy comment that readers may skip because I didn’t provide much context!

Anyway, those are some ramblings.  I know sarcastic comments can get lots of likes.  They can also be dismissed by those who want a higher level of discussion!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Mark's Distinct Voice, and the Good News (Extremely Scattered Ramblings)

At church this morning, the pastor preached about Mark 1:9-15.  Allow me to post this passage in the King James Version (which is in the public domain):

9 And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan.
10 And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him:
11 And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
12 And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness.
13 And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him.
14 Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God,
15 And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.

The pastor’s sermon was entitled “Reading More Than the Headlines.”  The title relates to how my pastor was characterizing the Gospel of Mark: Mark’s Gospel is like the headlines of news stories because it does not tell us the rest of the story.  In Mark’s story of Jesus’ temptation, for example, we read that Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness, but the Gospels of Matthew and Luke tell us more of the story by detailing what Satan actually said to Jesus.

I was thinking about the scholarly view of Markan priority, which states that Mark’s Gospel came first and the other synoptic Gospels relied on Mark (among other sources).  What the pastor was saying influenced me briefly to question Markan priority.  Why would Mark, as the first to write a Gospel, simply write that Satan tempted Jesus, without detailing the contents of that temptation?  Maybe Mark was intended to be a more succinct version of the other Gospels, and Mark expected readers to know the rest of the story that he was not telling.

At the same time, Mark’s version of the story is distinctive in its own right, so it may have come first, or it may not have been a shortened version of what Matthew and Luke have.  Mark says that Jesus was in the wilderness among wild beasts, whereas Matthew and Luke do not have that detail.
The pastor was preaching about the temptation story as it appears in Mark.  The Holy Spirit has gently descended on Jesus like a dove, then the Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness!  What a remarkable contrast there is between the Spirit’s behavior at Jesus’ baptism and the Spirit’s behavior right after Jesus’ baptism, my pastor was noting.  Jesus is among wild beasts for forty days and is tempted by Satan, but angels ministered to him.  The pastor likened that to our experience: things happen in our lives that scare us and that lead us to question God’s care, but God is still with us in the wilderness.

After his temptation, John the Baptist is put into prison, but Jesus preaches the good news of the Kingdom of God.  The pastor asked us what exactly that good news was.  My understanding is that the pastor was seeing the Kingdom of God as God’s presence.  Jesus was proclaiming that God is near, even when we are suffering.  The hymns that we sang after the sermon reinforced that particular theme.

I’m one of the readers of the Lenten liturgy.  This morning’s liturgy was contrasting the hopefulness of Advent with the solemnity of Lent.  The liturgy said the following in reference to Advent:
“During the weeks before Christmas we celebrate the anticipation of the coming of the Christ child with candles.  One by one during Advent, we light the candles of peace, hope, joy, and love, all in preparation for the beginning of Christ’s life on earth.  All this culminated on Christmas Eve when we light the Christ candle itself.  It represents the light of Jesus Christ’s shining in the world, living in our midst, coming forth to save us, inviting us to its warmth.  That is a joyous season.”

Jesus, in a sense, was bringing the Kingdom of God near to people.

But did Jesus bring something that was not present before?  God is faithful to people even when they’re suffering?  That was true before Jesus came.  Our Old Testament reading was Psalm 25:1-10, which essentially says that.  Of course, there are times when that does not seem to be the case.  The Psalmist often acknowledges that, which is why he wants God to act concretely and make it the case.  In Jesus’ day, evil made some triumphs, such as the imprisonment of John the Baptist.  Yet God was on the move, as Jesus healed people and people repented and became reconciled with God.  I think, though, that my pastor may have been saying something a bit different: that, even when we are suffering and we doubt God’s faithfulness, God is faithful.  I guess my question would be this: Is God’s faithfulness with us during the suffering, or is his faithfulness the fact that he will step in and alleviate that suffering, as Jesus was doing by healing people?

A number of scholars would say that Jesus was predicting the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God: God would soon step in, overthrow evil, and set up his kingdom of goodness.  Jesus was setting the stage for that by healing people, casting out demons, and making converts to God.  Is there another viable way to understand the Kingdom of God being near?  Suppose it is near in proximity, through the ministry of Jesus.  Why, though, was it near at that time?  How was it good news?  Jesus came and embodied the Kingdom, then went back to heaven to wait thousands of years before coming back?  What was the point?

Well, he did need to die to bring about the atonement.  For Christianity, the atonement had to take place at some point in actual history, and that occurred when Jesus was crucified.  Jesus was also exalted after his resurrection.  What, though, is the practical difference between the time before Jesus came and the time afterwards?  Did Jesus bring anything different?  What was his good news?
These are scattered ramblings.  I’ve written scattered ramblings in the past, but these are extremely scattered ramblings.

Overall, I enjoyed my pastor’s sermon this morning because it allowed Mark to speak in its distinct voice, and because it was rather expository—-it focused on interpreting the text.  Usually, my pastor preaches from Matthew, perhaps because it is the first Gospel in the New Testament.  I’ve sometimes wondered if he sees Mark as a shortened version of the same story that Matthew tells.  He may, but he was also allowing Mark to speak with Mark’s distinct voice, and that was good.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

II Chronicles 21: Elijah's Letter

In II Chronicles 21:12-15, King Jehoram of Judah, the son of righteous King Jehoshaphat, receives a letter from the prophet Elijah, rebuking Jehoram and predicting Jehoram’s downfall.  How could Jehoram have received a letter from Elijah?  Had not Elijah been taken up into heaven?  Here are some thoughts:

1.  I grew up in an offshoot of the Worldwide Church of God (which was founded by Herbert Armstrong), and we did not believe that Enoch and Elijah went to heaven—-as in the third heaven, where God dwells.  John 3:13, after all, says, “And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven” (KJV).  We thought that Enoch and Elijah were removed to a safe place on earth.  According to this view, Elijah was taken to the first heaven, but not the third heaven, where God dwells.  And, after taking Elijah to the first heaven, God put Elijah in a safe place on earth.

I believe it was G.M. Bowers in Faith and Doctrines of the Early Church who appealed to II Chronicles 21:12-15 to argue that God took Elijah to a safe place on earth, not to the third heaven.  I have no idea if Bowers was affiliated with the Worldwide Church of God or its offshoots, but a lot of what Bowers said in that book overlapped with Armstrongite teaching.  My Dad once pointed this out to someone working at an evangelical Christian bookstore that was selling the book, and this evangelical rejected the book after hearing that because he saw Armstrongism as an unorthodox cult, even though this evangelical not long before was singing the book’s praises.  But I digress.  My point is that Bowers was arguing that Elijah did not go to the third heaven, and one of Bowers’ reasons was that Elijah was still around to send King Jehoram a letter.

Interestingly, in looking through ATLA, I found someone arguing along similar lines.  Roy E. Knuteson did so in an article that he wrote, “Elijah’s little-known letter in 2 Chronicles 21:12-15,” which appeared in Bibliotheca sacra (162 no 645, January-March 2005, pp. 23-32).   Bibliotheca sacra is published by Dallas Theological Seminary, a renowned conservative Christian institute, the type that would be rather critical of Armstrongism.  Maybe the Armstrongite view on Elijah is becoming a little more mainstream!  And that is not surprising, since a significant aspect of scholarship is critiquing previous ways of interpreting the text that may be inadequate, in favor of other ways.

2.  Okay, Armstrongites had their way of explaining Elijah’s letter.  How have other Christians or Jews sought to explain it?  Gleason Archer in his Encyclopedia of Biblical Difficulties essentially argues that Elijah had not yet been taken to heaven during that point in Jehoram’s reign, and so Elijah was still around on earth and could write and send that letter to Jehoram: his translation to heaven had not yet occurred.  Raymond Dillard says this is possible.

I have a question about that, though.  In II Kings 3, we see the prophet Elisha prophesying during the reign of Jehoshaphat, Jehoram’s predecessor.  Elisha was the prophet who replaced Elijah.  In II Kings 2, the chapter in which Elijah is taken up into heaven, Elisha receives Elijah’s mantle and a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, and, after Elijah is taken to heaven, Elisha is able to do a miracle that Elijah did.  One may think that Elisha’s prophetic ministry began after Elijah was taken up to heaven.

If that is the case, then it’s difficult to accept Archer’s argument that Elijah’s translation into heaven had not yet occurred when Jehoram received the letter from Elijah.  In II Kings 3, Elisha, Elijah’s successor, was the one prophesying when Jehoram’s father Jehoshaphat was king.  If Elijah was still around during that time (and later, during Jehoram’s reign), why wasn’t Elijah the one prophesying to Jehoshaphat?  One could conclude that Elijah had been translated prior to the reign of Jehoram.  Dillard says that Elisha could have been a prophet even before Elijah’s translation.  That could be, but is that really plausible?

There are ways that people have sought to explain how Elijah could write a letter to Jehoram, after his translation into heaven.  One explanation is that Elijah’s letter was prophetic: Elijah wrote the letter before Jehoram became king, and Elijah was able to do so because, as a prophet, he knew the future.  Another explanation, which is in the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary, is that Elijah appeared from the other world (heaven) and dictated to someone the letter for King Jehoram.

3.  All of this said, one could ask why Elijah was the one who wrote Jehoram the letter.  Elijah was a prophet to Northern Israel, whereas Jehoram ruled the south, Judah.  The Artscroll commentary offers two possibilities.  One is that Elijah was renowned as an opponent of the wicked King Ahab of Northern Israel, and Elijah was upset that Jehoram was forsaking the ways of his righteous father and was instead following the ways of Ahab.  Moreover, Jehoram was married to Athaliah, who was related to Ahab’s house.  Another view is that, as the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah, Elijah feared that Jehoram was putting the line of the Messiah in danger.  The Messiah would be descended from David, and Jehoram (and later his wife Athaliah) killed many Davidids.

Looking at the contents of Elijah’s letter to Jehoram, there is some merit to these views.  Elijah does criticize Jehoram for committing whoredoms similar to those of Ahab’s house, and also for killing other Davidids, who were better than Jehoram.  I would be very hesitant to read Messianism into II Chronicles 21, however, since II Chronicles 21 does not mention a Davidic Messiah or eschatology.  Still, the view that Elijah feared that Jehoram was threatening the Messianic line is interesting from a history-of-interpretation standpoint.

Friday, February 20, 2015

A Changed Heart?

I’ll be returning Siri Mitchell’s Love’s Pursuit to the library tomorrow.  I may write about it more in the future.  In this post, I want to quote my favorite passage.  The book is set in American Puritan times.  Nathaniel, the brother of the protagonist Susannah Phillips, says the following, as he likens his spirituality to canes:

“We all live in a state of sin.  And sometimes we plunge ourselves into it and hide from the love of God.  But if we do, have we not only to raise our heads once more toward heaven to be rescued from our filth?…We try so hard to bury our sin.  But if we look back on what we have done, we realize that God can create something from the whole of us.  And that we cannot hide ourselves from him.”  (Page 22)

Nathaniel wonders if this could count as his conversion experience—-the sort that people have to present to the Puritan church if they want to become members—-but Susannah has her doubts that this would count.  She says that what Nathaniel is describing is his own knowledge, which is external to himself.  It’s not something that God is working in his heart, an “inward work of grace”, or a sign or some change that indicates that God is at work within him.  It is simply an idea that Nathaniel is accepting, and, if being a true Christian were based merely on accepting propositions, anyone could claim to be a Christian.

This is a theme that recurs throughout the book, even to the end, when Susannah is submitting her own conversion experience to the church.  By the end of the book, Susannah has a different perspective.  She testifies to the church: “God saved me.  I am certain of God’s saving grace.  I stand convinced of His love.  And it has nothing to do with my faithfulness, for I have none.  I am faithless.  But He pursued me because He loved me.  He wanted me.”  (Page 325)  Susannah had arrived at this insight through her conversations with Daniel, a representative of the king of England who was Susannah’s love interest, and also by Daniel’s sacrifice of his own life for her.

After hearing her testimony, someone from the church asks Susannah if her experience has changed her on the inside, if there is a change in her heart, if there is internal evidence that she has experienced God’s grace.  Susannah replies: “Aside from recognizing the depth of God’s love?  Nay…I am the same wretched soul I always was.”  Susannah then realizes that the church will not accept her as a member.

This theme in the book resonated with me.  There are days—-maybe even seasons in my life—-when I look at my heart, and it does not look changed, or renewed, or loving, or whatever many Christians say is a sign that one has been truly saved.  I have selfishness.  I have resentment.  I have a lack of love.  Maybe I can find some love there in these seasons, but I wonder how exactly I differ from non-Christians whose hearts supposedly have not been regenerated by God—-they, too, are mixtures of good and bad.  Is there any sign that God is at work in my heart, anything I can point to and say, “That’s God”?

All I really can do in those seasons is be like Nathaniel: turn to the sunlight of God so that I can be rescued from my filth.  Trust in God that he can make something wonderful out of me, flawed as I may be.

If I continually look at my heart to see if God is at work there, I may be disappointed.  But I can still turn to God, I believe (or so I do, even if I struggle to believe).  Incidentally, even some of the Christian writers who make a big deal about God changing people’s hearts say that, if you find that you lack love or that you fall short, turn to God.  Humble yourself before God.  I would add what Nathaniel says: open yourself up to the sunlight of God’s love.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Scattered Ramblings on Three Posts, and Small Groups That Have Different People

Let me start by mentioning the three posts.

1.  Beth Caplin, Dear Church, here is where you lose me.

Beth talks about her disagreements with conservative Christians within the church, and how she has not been persuaded by the “answers” that conservative Christians have given her.

2.  Bob Seidensticker, The Design Argument (Fiction).

Bob Seidensticker is an atheist, and this post is an excerpt from his fictional work, Cross Examined: An Unconventional Spiritual Journey.  In this book, a Christian named Paul is trying to evangelize to an atheist named Jim, even though Paul has his own religious doubts.  This post focuses on the design argument for the existence of God, the argument that the universe is orderly and looks designed by a creator.  It gets into a variety of topics and questions, such as the question of whether complexity necessarily indicates design.  The most powerful part of the post, however, concerns the existence of natural evil (i.e., parasites, earthquakes) and the question of whether that undercuts the idea that a benevolent God designed the universe.  Paul comes back at Jim’s arguments by saying that God may permit such things to teach us moral lessons, but Jim asks why God would have to go that far—-to cause that much pain, suffering, and death—-to teach people to be moral.

3.  K.W. Leslie, Q. When are my fellow Christians gonna grow up?

I read this post a few months ago, and it has haunted me ever since.  A seminary student writes to K.W. Leslie and complains about people at his church.  The seminary student is asking questions, and he is not satisfied by the pat answers that Christians are giving him.  K.W. tells this seminary student that he should work on spiritual maturity himself and focus on loving the people in the church.  Loving the people in the church is much more difficult than promulgating one’s seminary knowledge, K.W. acknowledges, but it is very important to God that we do so.

I have been thinking about the issue of Christian small groups and Bible studies.  A lot of them may be rather homogeneous, but some have two types of people.  You have someone who has arrived at answers that satisfy him, and you have another who is not satisfied by those particular answers.  To the latter person, the former person looks like someone who is offering a bunch of pat answers.  To the former person, the latter person looks like someone who will never be satisfied with any answer that he’s given.  “I’ve answered your question, so can we now move on?”

I remember reading some quotes by Mark Driscoll, who was a conservative pastor.  He was complaining about Christians who keep asking questions, and, whenever their questions are answered, they have ten more questions.  They’re never satisfied, Driscoll was saying.  Driscoll also criticized the Emerging Church movement for asking questions that, in his mind, have already been settled by Scripture.  He may have been talking about homosexuality in that case.

I wonder myself how those two types of people can co-exist in a Bible study group.  Someone has real questions, and someone else tries to help out by offering what he believes are real answers.  But the person asking the questions is not satisfied by those answers.  She may not believe that quoting a prooftext is enough to make problems magically go away.

I think that different people may manage to co-exist in Bible study groups by focusing on other things than their differences.  They may believe that they can get something out of the Bible study, even if they disagree with people there.  Perhaps they have done what K.W. has suggested and focused on love rather than trying to convince others.

I can’t say that I am there yet.  On getting something edifying or informative out of Bible study groups, I can still do that, but I find that my differences with people are what are foremost in my mind, whether I like it or not.  On loving people, I am socially-challenged, so that hinders my ability to do that.  Yes, it’s important, but I wish that I did not fear or resent rejection so much.  One reason that I left my Bible study group is that I figured it would run more smoothly if the people there were roughly on the same page, and I—-a liberal who struggles with things in the Bible and is not satisfied with a lot of conservative Christian answers, for intellectual and emotional reasons—-was not on that page.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Book Write-Up: Wedded to War, by Jocelyn Green

Jocelyn Green.  Wedded to War.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012.  See here to buy the book.

Wedded to War is Jocelyn Green’s first novel, and the first book of her Heroines Behind the Lines series, which focuses on the American Civil War.  Wedded to War is about an upper-class woman who decides to becomes a nurse for Union soldiers.  Green’s third book of the series, A Yankee in Atlanta, is about a woman who dresses like a man and fights in the Civil War.  Green’s upcoming book, Spy of Richmond, is about a southern woman who engages in espionage for the Union.

Does any of this sound familiar?  Well, it does to me, since I read Lynn Austin’s Civil War trilogy, which came out in the early 2000’s.  Lynn Austin’s Candle in the Darkness is about a southern woman who helps the Union in an attempt to end slavery and the war (see my review here).  Austin’s Fire by Night is about an upper-class woman who decides to become a nurse, and one of its main characters is a woman who dresses like a man to fight in the Civil War (see my review here).
Jocelyn Green does read Lynn Austin (see here); she reads other books, too, and she even includes a bibliography of scholarly historical works in the back.  Green is probably drawing from things in history.

Reading Green’s books is not the same experience as reading Lynn Austin’s books, even though they overlap in areas.  I found that to be true in my reading of Wedded to War.   Wedded to War and Fire by Night both have an upper-class woman who wants to be a nurse.  Both have a churlish doctor.  Both have a woman dressing like a man to fight for the Union.  In both, the upper-class protagonist has to clean dirty sheets.  But there are differences.  The churlish doctor and the woman who dressed like a man are not central characters in Wedded to War, as they were in Fire by Night.  The upper-class woman’s motivation for wanting to be a nurse is a bit different: in Fire by Night, Julia Hoffman is trying to show a man she loves that she is not superficial; in Wedded to War, Charlotte Waverly wants to make a difference in the war and is inspired by the example of her late father, who sacrificed his life by helping people with cholera during an epidemic.  There are numerous other differences between the two books.

In terms of which book I liked better, it was Lynn Austin’s Fire by Night.  Lynn Austin’s writing style grabs me and makes me feel as if the characters are real and that I am living life with them.  But there are advantages to Green’s Wedded to War that are not in Lynn Austin’s Fire by Night.  Green includes a bibliography at the end.  She has an appendix that says which parts of her book were historical, and which parts were poetic license.  She also quotes primary sources.

I do not feel like regurgitating the plot of Wedded to War, but I will comment on two things that stood out to me:

1.  Dr. Lori Ginzberg, professor of History and Women’s Studies at Penn State University, praises Wedded to War:  “Although fictional, Wedded to War brings to life the important, and often dismissed, story of women’s entrance into Civil War nursing – and, in particular, the virulent opposition they faced from military doctors. It reminds us all that the access to employment and political rights that American women take for granted were achieved on deeply-contested ground, and that women showed both ambition and courage in opposing those who wished to defend their own turf.”  I find that to be remarkable—-a women’s studies professor praising a book from a conservative Christian publishing house.  I love when different people are brought together and find common ground.

2.  In my reading of Wedded to War, the plight of Ruby stood out to me.  Ruby immigrated to the United States from Ireland with her husband Matthew.  Matthew is out fighting the war, and Ruby is left alone in the city.  She struggles to support herself.  She seeks help from charities and Christians who protest against prostitution, but these people are very picky about whom they help: they want to help the so-called “worthy poor,” and they fear that recommending a prostitute or a disreputable woman for jobs would bring them a bad name, and possibly hurt the employer.  Ruby is not a prostitute in the beginning, but she has no references because she knows hardly anyone in the city, and she is acquaintances with a prostitute, so some people assume that she is a prostitute, too.  A wealthy man, Phineas Hastings—-who is a love interest of the book’s protagonist, Charlotte Waverly—-rapes Ruby when she is working for him and his mother, and Ruby flees and hesitantly resorts to prostitution.  Ruby becomes pregnant and seriously contemplates having an abortion, since she has no means to raise a child.  Fortunately for Ruby, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell finds her a place to work: Ruby helps Charlotte Waverly, the nurse.  Phineas threatens Ruby that he will tell Charlotte about Ruby’s history if Ruby tries to discourage Charlotte from marrying Phineas.

Ruby’s vulnerability is a sobering part of this book, especially when one considers that such things happened (and happen) in real life.  I could somewhat understand the perspective of those who were reluctant to help Ruby, since they did not want a bad reputation, but Christians (and others) should try to help prostitutes—-and others with no place to go or who are seeking a new beginning—-to get on their feet so that they do not feel forced into that kind of life.  See here for the story of a minister who is doing precisely that.

I thought that some of the main characters of the book were judgmental towards Ruby, even when they were trying to be compassionate.  When Ruby tells Charlotte, Charlotte’s sister Alice, and their mother Caroline that she had been a prostitute, the three agree to accept Ruby, saying that everyone has made mistakes.  Only Alice seems to recognize, on the basis of the character Cosette in Les Miserables, that women often resort to prostitution out of desperation.  Caroline and Charlotte may think that Ruby made a mistake, but what do they suggest that she had done?  Ruby at one point says that she would rather die than be a prostitute again.  Is that what we are to believe she should have done to preserve her integrity?  Regarding abortion, there is a reference to adoption in the book and how adoption is easy.  Maybe that was the case then, but my understanding is that it is not so easy today.

I may read other Jocelyn Green books in the future.  I enjoy Lynn Austin’s books more, but I appreciate stories about the American Civil War, especially when those stories deal with faith.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Scattered Ramblings on Handling Success

A few weeks ago, I was watching CBS Sunday Morning on Sunday morning.  During winters or on rainy days when I cannot walk to church, my Mom’s husband drives me, and we watch pieces of CBS This Morning  before we leave.  One of the pieces a few weeks ago was about actor J.K. Simmons.  We usually call him “Jonah Jameson” because he played that role in the Tobey Maguire Spiderman movies, the role of the over-the-top newspaper editor who hates Spiderman.  On CBS  Sunday Morning, he was profiled because he was nominated for an Academy Award for the movie Whiplash, in which he plays an obnoxious music teacher.

Up to this point, the story was saying, we knew J.K. Simmons’ face, but we didn’t know his name.  We saw him in the Spiderman movies and other films, insurance commercials, and some TV shows, but a lot of us didn’t know what his name was.  Now, more people know his name on account of his Academy Award nomination.  In perhaps the most poignant part of the story, J.K. Simmons was reflecting about the fame that he has received after decades of acting.  He is now in his sixties, and he said that he is glad that he getting famous now rather than in his younger years, for in his younger years he would not have been able to handle it.

I admired his maturity, his perspective, and his self-reflection when he said that.  This morning, I was reading an article about Chevy Chase and how a number of celebrities can be rather pompous at their peak; the article also said the fame can so easily be lost—-one can be at the top of his game, then he’s shown the door.  That’s one reason that it’s important for people not to believe their own press, not to root their identity and their sense of self-worth in fame and success.

I read a blog post this morning by Bruce Gerenscer, a Christian pastor who became an atheist, and he had this to say: “What drives the cult of personality?  Here in America, we are enamored with success. We tend to give respect to people who give the appearance of being a winner. Even in the blogosphere, we often judge the value of a writer by the number of people who read their blog and follow them on Facebook,Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and Google+.  We forget that these numbers say NOTHING about the person. I have to constantly guard against this. I know my blog readership numbers, page views, and subscriber numbers are growing. Does this mean that I am ‘more’ successful than I was years ago when a hundred people a day read my blog? Should people respect me more now that thousands of people read my writing? Of course not. A person’s success proves nothing.”

I personally try to root my sense of worth in God’s love for me, but I find this to be easier said than done.  I can easily find myself longing for applause and being upset if I do not get it.  I can be like Raj on The Big Bang Theory: What can I do so that more people (in his case, women) will love me?  This is not entirely bad because the desire for affirmation, community, and support is a part of being human.  Plus, there are cases in which we may need to sell ourselves and go with what works rather than what does not work: the product may not be bad, but the marketing needs work.  A message may be good, but it should be expressed tactfully and effectively.  But being obsessed with trying to earn people’s love can compromise one’s integrity.  How many times have I been less-than-honest about my beliefs because I wanted the people around me to like me, because I wanted to fit in?  I think of what the apostle Paul said in Galatians 1:10: “For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ” (Gal 1:10 KJV).

Back to the topic of actors, I would not say that actors as a rule are arrogant, at least not entirely.  I used to watch biographies of actors on A&E, and I learned that Jennifer Garner had to pay her dues and be in a lot of crap before she hit fame, and that George Clooney before his big break was in a lot of shows that did not get very far.  I one time watched one actor whose career has ended say that he will miss acting because he feels that he has gotten good at it over the past ten years—-he does not put on airs, but he sees acting as a craft at which he has improved.  Several actors admire the work of older and experienced actors.  These things tell me that actors are not entirely narcissistic and arrogant.  Still, there is the temptation for people, once they become famous, to start believing their own press.

I am not sure if I am the type of person right now who can handle success maturely.  I will still strive for success—-heck, the fact that I will have to pay off my student loans makes some measure of success necessary on my part!  It also makes humility necessary on my part, for I should not believe that I am too good for any job or grunt work.  In a time when I am not as successful as I’d like, it is easy for me to lean on God’s love and grace, on things that are truly important in life.  I hope that I can have that sort of perspective even after I become successful.

Monday, February 16, 2015

President's Day 2015

Today is President’s Day!  We’ll be going to a couple of Goodwills, the ones where the price of everything is 35% off.  I’ll be looking at the books, DVDs, and VHSs.

I have set limits on what I buy.  Sometimes, I regret my decisions.  I wish, for example, that I got that book by Donald Miller, or Pope Benedict’s biography of Jesus.  Come to think of it, I may have even turned down Rob Bell’s Love Wins.  I am a man of discipline!  But it’s not the end of the world.  I can get things from my local library.  Today, I’ll be on the lookout for Christian fiction.  That has been my thing, lately.

I was thinking about the topic of Presidents.  Who is my favorite President?  I am too jaded to answer that question today.  I read an article not long ago about some of the company former President Clinton may be keeping, and that did not make me like former President Clinton that much!  I still vote, though, because some candidates are more likely to be sympathetic regarding the issues that affect me (i.e., the interest rates I’d have to pay on my student loans).

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Tabernacles on the Mountain, and Service Here Below

The sermon at church this morning was about the Transfiguration.  In Mark 9, Jesus, Peter, James, and John go up a high mountain, and Jesus becomes transfigured before the three disciples.  Jesus’ clothes becoming shining, and Moses and Elijah appear and talk with Jesus.  Peter suggests that the disciples make three tabernacles—-one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.  V 6 says that Peter did not know what to say and that the three disciples were afraid.  A cloud overshadows them, and a voice from heaven proclaims that Jesus is God’s son and exhorts the three disciples to listen to Jesus.  Then, the only ones there are the three disciples and Jesus.  The disciples ask Jesus questions, and, when they come down the mountain, there is a child who is demon-possessed and needs Jesus’ help.

The most interesting part of this sermon was when my pastor was offering explanations for why Peter wanted to build tabernacles for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.  That is what I try to do when I am studying the Bible: I seek explanations for certain details in the text.  The pastor presented a few explanations.  One is that Peter was hoping to start the fulfillment of Zechariah 14, which foretells that nations will observe the Feast of Tabernacles in the time of the Messiah.  I liked this explanation because it was tying the New Testament with the Hebrew Bible.  I am not entirely convinced by it, however, because the Feast of Tabernacles was supposed to take place in Jerusalem, whereas the Transfiguration occurred in Galilee.  I also think that this explanation contradicts the spiritual lesson that the pastor was drawing from the Transfiguration story: that we cannot just stay on the mountaintop enjoying our mountaintop spiritual experiences, but we have to come down to the messy world and serve.  But, according to this explanation, Peter did not just want to limit himself to the mountaintop, for he was hoping to start the Feast of Tabernacles on that mountain and for that Feast to spread beyond that to the outside world.

The second explanation was that Peter wanted to keep the mountaintop experience going.  He wanted for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah to have tabernacles so that they could stay a while.  That makes some sense, and it coincides with what my pastor believes is the spiritual lesson of the Transfiguration story.  Still, I have a question about it: Does not v 6 say that the three disciples were afraid?  Why, then, would they want for the Transfiguration experience to continue?

Way back when I was in college and was in a Bible study group, I read a commentary’s explanation for Peter’s desire to build tabernacles.  It said that Peter was trying to contain the experience—-to put it in a box.  This is the sort of explanation that can draw glazed or confused looks in a Bible study group, but maybe Peter was trying to bring this exalted sight down a few notches so that it was more comfortable to him.  Or perhaps Peter was trying to be hospitable.

What do I think about the spiritual lesson that we shouldn’t spend too much time on the mountaintop but should try to make a difference in the messy world below?  I have heard this idea before.  I remember even hearing a Jewish homily in which the rabbinic student was drawing this sort of lesson from the Pentateuch.  It reminded me somewhat of Christian homilies I had heard about the Transfiguration, and someone who knew this student told me that was not surprising, for this student was a convert to Judaism from Roman Catholicism.

But what do I think about the spiritual lesson?  Well, part of me does not care for it.  I am the type who can spend the whole day in my study.  More than once during the day, I pray.  I enjoy being alone, away from the judgments and expectations of other people.  When the pastor said that we may like to spend all day with Jesus, not wanting the experience to end, I could identify with that.
But I do believe that I should have some contact with the messy world, a world that does not consistently conform to my desires or expectations, or God’s, for that matter.  I can do that when I go out into social settings.  I can also read about how messy the world is.

As the pastor said, mountaintop experiences are great.  Jesus may have given Peter, James, and John that mountaintop experience to encourage them in the days ahead—-especially after Jesus’ resurrection, when the disciples put together who exactly Jesus was and went forward in mission.  But we should also come down from the mountain and try to make a difference in the messy world here below.  Are mountaintop experiences pointless if they are not motivating us to serve here below?  Not necessarily.  God may give us mountaintop experiences to minister to us and to edify us, because he loves us.  But I do believe that God wants us to care about other people.  That is part of being like God.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Book Write-Up: The Divine Progression of Grace

Bob Santos.  The Divine Progression of Grace: Blazing a Trail to Fruitful Living.  Indiana, PA: Search for Me Ministries, 2014. ISBN-10: 1937956075. ISBN-13: 978-1937956073.  See here to purchase the book.

In The Divine Progression of Grace, Bob Santos argues that divine grace is about more than God giving undeserved favor to sinners; rather, it entails God empowering Christians for activity.  When I first read that, I was expecting Santos to criticize so-called hyper-grace teachers, and I was bracing myself for feelings of condemnation and dismay.  I am the sort of person who never feels spiritually good enough, and I thirst for God’s acceptance, notwithstanding my flaws.  Consequently, I tend to feel condemned when I read or hear things from Christian teachers that promote Lordship salvation or criticize the hyper-grace movement.  I was not expecting to like Santos’ book.  But I ended up enjoying it very much.

Santos does criticize certain hyper-grace teachings, but his vulnerability about his own flaws, his insightful critique of legalism, and the hope that he presents for those who feel that they fall short balance that out.  Santos writes from his own experience, recalling a time in his life when he felt like leaving Christianity on account of his struggles, and that experience gives him a compassionate perspective.  There were times when I was confused about what exactly Santos was advising: Should I rest in the Lord and passively look to God to bear fruit in my life, or should I be actively working on my spiritual life and attitudes?  Should I be obeying Christ, or is trying to obey rules legalistic and conducive to pride?  If there is a common theme that runs throughout the book, however, it is that we should depend on Christ to help us to produce spiritual fruit.

The book also covers a number of other issues: baptism, sex, divorce and remarriage, cessationism vs. continuationism, and the question of how we can love everybody, with so many needs out there in the world.  (Santos says we should find our calling.)  Santos is a conservative Christian with strong opinions, but he humbly acknowledges the complexity of issues.

This was not a book that I could binge-read: I had to read it slowly, and I found myself writing notes in the margins—-notes of “Amen!”, and also notes of disagreement.  (I think of the story about how Santos’ friend tried to get Santos to go to a church service one night by appealing to Hebrews 10:25, which tells believers not to forsake the assembling of themselves together; I wondered how missing one church service is forsaking the assembling of themselves together!)  Santos’ writing style is simple, so going through Santos’ book is not like reading Kant or Hegel.  But the book had a lot of thought-provoking ideas, so I found myself going through it slowly.

My reactions to the book varied by the day, sometimes by the page!  Overall, though, I give it five stars, for I found the book to be an edifying read.

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

II Chronicles 20

In II Chronicles 20, the Moabites, the Ammonites, the inhabitants of Mount Seir (the Edomites, most likely), and possibly another group (the NRSV says “some of the Meunites,” probably basing that on what the Septuagint has) are preparing to attack Judah.  The Judahites, under King Jehoshaphat of Judah, fast and seek God’s help, and God encourages them.  Jehoshaphat puts a choir of Levites in front of the army of Judah to sing praises to God.  God fights on Judah’s behalf, for, under God’s instigation, the Ammonites and Moabites fight the people of Mount Seir, then each other.

I have three items:

1.  There is debate about whether this story is historical.  Raymond Dillard in the Word Biblical Commentary and David Rothstein in The Jewish Study Bible list different scholarly ideas about this.

a. One view is that II Chronicles 20 is a midrash of the story in II Kings 3.  In both stories, Jehoshaphat is king of Judah and is in some sort of conflict with Moab.  The stories have some similarities, but also significant differences.  In II Kings 3, Moab is rebelling against the king of Israel, and Judah and Edom join Israel to fight Moab.  The prophet Elisha says that God will help this Israelite alliance on account of Jehoshaphat, a righteous king, and this happens when the Moabites see some puddles of water and think that they are blood, and that the people of the Israelite alliance have killed each other.  Feeling secure, some Moabites rush to get some spoils, and the Israelites come out and kill them.  In the heat of battle, the king of Moab sacrifices his oldest son as a burnt offering, and the Israelite alliance departs.

We see common themes in these two stories: the theme of people on one side fighting with each other, and of God supporting one side in battle.  But the stories are different.  II Chronicles 20 may have borrowed themes from II Kings 3, but I have a hard time believing that the Chronicler there was intentionally interpreting the story in II Kings 3.

b.  Who are the Meunites who may be mentioned in II Chronicles 20:1?  (They’re not in the Masoretic Text, but the LXX mentions Minaeans.  The MT refers to the third group as people other than the Ammonites, which is a bit odd, so I can understand why there are interpreters who believe that the term was originally a proper name for a specific people-group.  It is strange, though, that v 1 does not mention the Edomites or the inhabitants of Seir, since they are presented as part of the Moabite-Ammonite alliance later in the chapter.)  One view is that the Meunites were Nabateans who were aggressive in the late fourth-early third centuries B.C.E.  According to this view, II Chronicles 20 does not reflect the time of Jehoshaphat, but rather the time when II Chronicles may have been written, a time when Nabateans were aggressive.  In this scenario, the Chronicler is retrojecting into history some elements of his own time.  The Intervarsity Press Bible Background Commentary, however, mentions alternative possibilities that may indicate that the Meunites in II Chronicles 20:1 reflect a pre-exilic setting, not a post-exilic one.  It notes, for example, that inscriptions of the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pilesar III refer to the Mu’unaya.

c.  Some think that the Chronicler used an earlier document that talked about an alliance against Jehoshaphat, but others dispute that we can draw firm conclusions about what really happened in battles from the writings of the Chronicler, for his battle stories are stylized and have common themes.  I would say that a common theme in Chronicles is dependence on God in battle: sometimes (as in II Chronicles 13-14) the Judahites take more initiative in fighting, and sometimes (as in II Chronicles 20) God does more of the work, but the Judahites still depend on God, and God helps them.  The idea of some scholars seems to be that, if a story reflects the author’s ideology, that casts suspicion on its historicity, for real life does not neatly work out according to one’s ideology.

There are questions that one can ask when trying to determine if the story in II Chronicles 20 is historical: Would not I-II Kings mention these events if they happened?  Does their absence from I-II Kings necessarily indicate that they did not occur?  I can understand why some would conclude that the events in II Chronicles 20 are made-up by the Chronicler.  Still, I draw spiritual strength from a story about people who are vulnerable and afraid seeking solace from God.

2.  In II Chronicles 20:11-12, Jehoshaphat prays to God: “And now, behold, the children of Ammon and Moab and mount Seir, whom thou wouldest not let Israel invade, when they came out of the land of Egypt, but they turned from them, and destroyed them not; Behold, I say, how they reward us, to come to cast us out of thy possession, which thou hast given us to inherit” (KJV).

Jehoshaphat hearkens back to the time soon after the Exodus, when God expressly forbade the Israelites to attack, destroy, or dispossess Ammon, Moab, and Seir (see Deuteronomy 2:5, 9, 19).  “And this is how they repay us—-by trying to attack our land?”, Jehoshaphat is saying.

Jehoshaphat may have a point: as far as he was concerned in the story, the Israelites never took and occupied land that belonged to the Ammonites, Moabites, and Edomites.  The Israelites let these people-groups dwell in their own land.  But one cannot say that the Israelites never hurt these people-groups.  I Chronicles 18 mentions David subjugating Moab and Edom, and II Samuel 8:2 depicts David’s subjugation of the Moabites as very brutal.  The Moabites and Edomites could still live in their land, but they were subjects of Israel.  At the same time, though, one could refer to earlier stories in the biblical narrative, where the Moabites and Edomites themselves were hostile and aggressive towards Israel.  In the area of land-rights, in Judges 11, the Israelite judge Jephthah gets into a debate with the Ammonites over whether the Israelites took Ammonite land.  Jephthah says no, whereas the Ammonites say yes.  In II Chronicles 20, Jehoshaphat may have sincerely believed that the Israelites never took land from these people-groups, and that those people-groups were thus ungrateful; the other side, however, may have had a different perspective.

3.  Jehoshaphat put the choir in front of the army.  Raymond Dillard says that music was a part of ancient warfare, but was putting the choir before the army normal?  I have my doubts.
When I went to Harvard Divinity School, a visiting speaker at the Christian fellowship referred to this story in II Chronicles 20.  She was saying that Christians should sing praises to God.  Evangelicals at Harvard Divinity School had questions about how they should interact with their environment, which, arguably, was not particularly friendly to evangelicalism.  How can they be witnesses to Christ, in such an environment?  Some thought apologetics (defending the faith intellectually) was the solution, but others would respond that many students at HDS were already familiar with apologetic arguments and rejected them.  One could say that prayer, loving others, and praise were the ways to get God to work on campus and to attract people to Christ, but some preferred apologetics: Give others intellectual reasons to believe.  Retreating behind prayer and praise would not solve anything, some thought.

I fondly reminisce about this, for I still have some evangelical sentiments within me, as much resentment as I have against evangelicalism.  I believe that, in encouraging people to come to God—-and that can entail apologetics, albeit not obnoxious and intellectually-smug apologetics (as I may have used)—-prayer and praise are both important.  God can open people’s eyes, and evangelicals should depend on God to avoid becoming proud and pompous in their approach to others.  They should also pray for those to whom they witness because that can cultivate within them (the evangelicals) an attitude of love—-of wanting people to find a loving God—-as opposed to triumphalism and pomposity.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Personal Relationship with God and Going to Church

I was reading a post recently about someone’s journey in exploring different churches.  He said that a bedrock for him, through all of the turmoil that he experienced, was his personal relationship with God.

I identify with that.  Evangelicalism nowadays talks a lot about being in community—-sometimes I hear the phrase “deep community,” or “vulnerable community.”  But it is my experience, and it is the experience of many others, that people will disappoint.  I need strength from my personal relationship with God to cope with that.  I also need to remember that, regardless of how well or how badly I fit into certain communities, God still loves me.

And yet, for me, being in a church community is important.  The reason is that it presents me with an opportunity to love others.  I have my personal relationship with God, and that is a foundation to me.  But I am also obligated to pass on God’s love for me onto other people.  For me, that amounts to shaking people’s hands in the passing of the peace, maybe even asking how they are doing.  I do the former, but I can probably do a better job at the latter.

There are plenty of people who are Christians but do not go to church.  I don’t judge them, for two reasons.  For one, whether they go to church or not is between them and God.  Second, many of the people like that whom I know find other opportunities to show love and concern for other people—-on Facebook, in social get-togethers, or in Bible studies.

What does not particularly resonate with me at this stage in my life, though, is saying something like, “Why do I need church?  I can just read religious literature at home, or listen to a sermon and praise music online.”  I’m not against doing those things, and I do them myself.  But I believe that the Christian life should be about more than me getting private inspiration: it should involve me showing love to others.

In some settings, this is easier than others.  I go to a small and friendly church, and that works out for me.  Going to a large church, a church where people are not particularly friendly, or a church that has cliques may be a challenging place to show people love.  It can still be done, on some level.  Something else for me to remember is that, as much social anxiety that I have, there are people with more!

Some Christians would probably critique the level of love that I show to people.  They would say that I am not in deep, vulnerable community, or that I am not self-sacrificial.  I am not particularly interested in beating myself up over failing to meet their standards.  I am just saying that, for me, I should value my personal relationship with God, but I should also take that relationship out into the world, by showing love to others, on some level.  Church is a place where I try to do that.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Book Write-Up: Love's Pursuit, by Siri Mitchell

Siri Mitchell.  Love’s Pursuit.  Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2009.  See here to buy the book.

Love’s Pursuit is set in seventeenth century Massachusetts, the time and place of the Puritans in America.  I decided to read this book for two reasons.  First of all, I enjoy reading about the Puritans.  And second, I recently read another book by Siri Mitchell, Like a Flower in Bloom, and I found it to be a worthwhile read (see my review here).

Love’s Pursuit is narrated from two perspectives.  The first perspective is that of Susannah Phillips, a young woman in the Puritan community who follows the rules, while her sister Mary is more on the wild side.  The second perspective is that of Smallhope Smythe, the quiet and timid wife of the blacksmith, Thomas Smythe.  The book does not explicitly mark when Susannah is narrating and when Smallhope is, so readers pretty much have to intuit that themselves.  If Susannah is mentioned in the third person and Thomas is a central character, then you can be fairly sure that you are reading Smallhope’s account!

I could describe the plot to you before I offer my impressions, but that is not really what I feel like doing here.  Rather, I want to mention the parts and themes of the book that were especially meaningful to me.  In the course of that discussion, I will mention elements of the plot, but my focus will be on the themes.

The most meaningful part of the book, for me, is the question of how one should see God.  Should we boldly assume that God passionately loves and pursues us and has given us grace, since Christ died for us, or is that stance too presumptive on our part?  Should we instead have a hopeful uncertainty about whether or not we have God’s grace or God loves us?  Should we look inside ourselves for signs of transformative grace before we can have any assurance that we are part of God’s elect?  Or is it enough to seek God for spiritual help, to believe that God is the only one who is truly good (whereas humans are all imperfect), and to trust in God’s goodness?

In this book, the more uncertain stance is that of the Puritans, whereas the more positive stance is that of Daniel—-an official of the hated king of England who comes to Massachusetts—-and, eventually, of Susannah, leading to her being ostracized by her fellow Christians.  The positive position is probably the view of Siri Mitchell herself.

In the course of reading this book, I was asking myself if Siri Mitchell was being a bit unfair towards the Puritans.  She seems to portray Puritanism as an attempt to be righteous and to impress God by good works, while, for her, the proper position is to trust in God’s grace through Jesus Christ.  Based upon my reading of the Puritans, I would say that they believed in God’s love and grace.  And yet, at the same time, many of them were uncertain about whether or not they were saved, and they emphasized good works and looking for signs of inner transformation in their search for some measure of spiritual assurance.  Such issues were a significant part of the antinomian controversy.  I would say that, here, Siri Mitchell’s portrait of the Puritans is fair, but I would also say that there is more to the story.

I would say that about other elements of Mitchell’s portrayal of the Puritans as well.  She portrays them as hardworking, whereas Daniel was trying to encourage Susannah to enjoy a sunset and to take time to smell the roses.  Granted, the Puritans did believe in hard work, but they also had a fun side, as Bruce Daniels argues in his book, Puritans at Play.  I also think that the Puritans could enjoy nature as God’s creation.  Jonathan Edwards came later than the seventeenth century, but he partook of Puritan thought, and he spent a lot of time in nature, which played a significant role in his spiritual epiphanies.

The book had other interesting parts.  There was the part in which a child in Susannah’s house was dying, and Susannah was clinging to Psalm 91:10, which states that no plague shall come to your dwelling.  Susannah was questioning whether she truly believed in that verse, since a plague had come into her dwelling!  Yet, she did not know what else to do, so she continued clinging to Psalm 91:10 for hope.

There was also the debate between Daniel and Susannah’s father about Christmas.  Daniel wanted to celebrate it with all of the trimmings, whereas Susannah’s father, a typical Puritan, was treating it as any other day: no ham, just the usual porridge!  The rationale of Susannah’s father was that the Bible does not tell us to celebrate Jesus’ birth. (Daniel’s response was that the Bible does not command us to do a lot of things that we do, even though Daniel later presented himself as the believer in Sola Scriptura and the Puritans as the ones whose theology had non-biblical aspects).  This interested me on account of the reasons that my family did not observe Christmas when I was younger: we believed that it was pagan in origin and that Jesus was most likely not born on December 25.  Susannah’s father, however, seemed to concede that Jesus was born on December 25, but he was against Christmas because the Bible does not command us to observe Jesus’ birth.  According to this article, Puritans disliked Christmas because it was non-biblical and they believed it to be pagan.

Overall, I enjoyed Love’s Pursuit.  The book gets into other issues that I did not talk about, such as abuse, and it has a bittersweet ending.  There were times when I was not particularly comfortable with the book: I was not always following the plot, or I did not understand what exactly people were saying when they were responding (I thought to myself, “Huh?”).  But the book had plenty of gems.

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