Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Book Write-Up: The Ancient Path, by John Michael Talbot

John Michael Talbot, with Mike Aquilina.  The Ancient Path: Old Lessons from the Church Fathers for a New Life Today.  New York: Image, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

John Michael Talbot is a Christian musician who became a Catholic.  In The Ancient Path, Talbot tells some of his own story and talks about the church fathers.

Talbot covers a range of topics: the importance of having spiritual fathers, the sacraments, the Catholic hope that humans can become like God (deification), fasting, how one church father used a short Jesus prayer to keep his congregants from falling into heresy, Mariology, charity and asceticism, God’s gift of the physical world, church tradition, and the use of music by the church fathers and their opponents.

There are many parts of the book that strike me as an apologetic for Catholicism.  There were times when I wondered why Talbot considered certain aspects of Catholicism to be important, in terms of their practical value to human beings, and Talbot did not really cover that.  He believed in those aspects because he thought that they were true and went back to the apostles (though, occasionally, he offers a messier view of Christian history).

Sometimes, however, Talbot offers practical reasons for certain doctrines or practices, and he makes interesting points in so doing.  He argued that the Eucharist and charity go together, since both stress physicality.  He also said that some of the church fathers fasted to prepare themselves to be committed to Christ even in tough times, when they may have to choose between Christ and eating.

I was also interested to learn from this book that the desert fathers practiced charity for the poor and sick.  Some Protestants stereotype monastics as people who escape the world and do not have a redemptive effect on it, but that is not the case.

While Talbot denies that his work is an academic introduction to the church fathers, it can be useful to people with an academic interest or to students, for Talbot offers documented quotes from the fathers, recommends secondary sources in the notes, and even has a helpful timeline of events in church history.

My favorite passage in the book is on pages 189-190.  Talbot has just talked about Mary’s pervasive presence throughout the New Testament, and he looks retrospectively at his time in the Jesus Movement: “Maybe it was so quiet, and I—-at least in my Jesus Movement phase—-was always ready with an argument backed up by twenty proof texts.  While I was reaching into God’s Word for artillery and ammunition, I missed her quiet but constant virginal presence.”  That is the beautiful passage.  The ironic thing is that, even in this book, Talbot seems to be in argument mode, and I wished that he spent more time expressing why he found certain Catholic doctrines to be important, inspiring, and beautiful, not just true.  Still, he did do that occasionally, and his book is a useful resource on the church fathers.

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

Book Write-Up (Loosely-Speaking): Thoughts in Solitude, by Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton.  Thoughts in Solitude.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1956, 1958, 1982.

Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk.  Not long ago, I blogged about a biography about him, Michael Mott’s The Seven Mountains of Thomas MertonThoughts in Solitude is from notes that Merton jotted down in 1953 and 1954, when he had “special opportunities for solitude and meditation” (page 11).

I cannot pretend to have understood everything in this book, even though its prose was not particularly difficult or complicated.  Actually, the prose was pretty simple.  I just did not always know what Thomas Merton was talking about.  That’s how it is with some books: I have to go through certain experiences or be in a certain place or frame of mind to understand what they are saying.

Still, there was plenty in the book that ministered to me.  Merton talked about how we can come to God in our poverty and our flaws, and how we can use our flaws in positive ways.  That is how I try to approach life, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing: to use my flaws as a reason and an opportunity to draw closer to God.  I am not talking about sinning boldly, doing evil that good may come (Romans 3:8), or sinning that grace may abound (Romans 6:1), for sin is destructive and hurtful.  What I am saying is that I am a human being, not an angel.  I have human needs for acceptance and validation, and I struggle with resentment and anger.  Because I am extremely introverted and struggle to practice social skills, I can easily fall into the trap of feeling that I have nothing to contribute, and that there is nothing about myself that can attract people to me.  Rather than continually beating up on myself for this, I can use my flaws and my poverty as an opportunity to draw nearer to God.  I can come to God empty and needy, and walk away full.  Or, better yet, I can come to God empty and needy, and let God stay with me continually.

Merton talks a lot about not deserving certain things—-that, even if we do not deserve love on account of anything that is in ourselves, we should still ask to be loved.  Merton emphasizes the importance of gratitude, and he contrasts that with a feeling of entitlement.  He may have a point.  His point can be abused, as it is when some evangelicals say that God is doing us a huge favor by letting us breathe rather than snuffing us out for our sin: if we’re going to walk around with a conception of God in our minds, why focus on that, of all things?  Moreover, I would not count on always receiving unconditional, undeserved love in this world.  Still, I would say that everyone deserves love simply for being, and that we should appreciate our blessings rather than taking them for granted.

Merton also talked about the discipline of focusing on God in meditation, how God shows up when God wants rather than when we want, the importance of being open to what God says rather than what we want to hear, and the edification that comes when one approaches Scripture, not to be intellectually stimulated or entertained, but to find life.

How do I do on these things?  Well, on focusing on God in meditation, I have done all right on that lately.  I read a passage of the Book of Jubilees, comment on it, then pray for people on my church’s prayer list, which I think is focusing on God because I am asking God to manifest his goodness in people’s lives, and that cultivates within me an appreciation for God’s goodness.  A lot of times, though, I do talk with God about what is going on in my life or what I watched on TV or read, and some of what I talk about may not fit into Merton’s style of disciplined prayer.  It’s still what I do, though.

On God showing up when God wants, I thought about how I would not do well as a desert monk.  Yeah, I would go out there feeling empty and hoping that God would show up and give me some profound revelation, while filling me up with love, joy, and peace.  But I can picture myself easily becoming bored and drawing on my own limited thoughts and reservoirs, and probably even degenerating into stinking thinking—-resentment about the past and present, and fear about the future.  I like my diversions—-books, TV—-so that I can fill my mind with new things.  Still, I can appreciate times of quiet and solitude—-of taking a breather and simply resting, of not being complicated but being simple, or simply being.  Merton talks some about this, but he seemed to be contrasting it with the sort of solitude that he is talking about.  He is talking about a solitude that is permanent.  And, in this case, I doubt that he is suggesting that he should never be with people, but rather that he can carry solitude wherever he goes: he can be continually centered, unperturbed, and at rest.

On being open to what God says rather than what I want to hear, I am not that good at that, to tell you the truth.  The reason is that I am afraid of what God will tell me, and that I will then feel as if I have to obey God to stay on his good side.  Will God tell me to be more of a people person, or to try to reconcile with some jerk whom I’d rather not interact with?  Will God make me feel as if I cannot have peace with God unless I obey?  And will the “voice” that I hear from God be my own negative repertoire and understanding of who God is, based on what I have heard and Scriptures I have read, rather than anything constructive, encouraging, and edifying?  Still, I sense that I should be open to outside counsel, for my own repertoire is not always helpful.  I can tell myself to be at peace, when that “peace” is really apathy, and I should be challenging myself.  I can “challenge” myself in a manner that is abusive or that takes away my hope.

On reading the Scripture, I admit that I do so primarily for intellectual stimulation, but that does overlap with a desire to be spiritually edified.  On arriving at the point where I depend on Scripture and it becomes life for my soul, that does appeal to me, and I have read Christian authors who have offered suggestions on how to do that.  I have not been ready to take that plunge, though.  I do not want to be like a lot of evangelicals in how they approach Scripture: suspending their critical faculties, reading into the biblical text their own beliefs and concerns rather than honestly grappling with what it says, especially when it does not mesh with their beliefs on what the Bible is and should be.  I think, though, that, more often at least, I should approach Scripture from a standpoint of quiet and openness, rather than just running off my mouth interpreting it and talking God’s ear off.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Book Write-Up: Transcending Mysteries

Andrew Greer and Ginny Owens.  Transcending Mysteries: Who Is God, and What Does He Want from Us?  Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

Andrew Greer and Ginny Owens are Christian musicians.  In Transcending Mysteries, they tell their stories and offer theological reflections, as they draw from the Old Testament.  They take turns speaking, share an Old Testament passage (usually in The Voice translation), and sometimes even include a song that they helped write that is relevant to the topic.

The back cover of the book asks, “Is our Jesus the same as the God of the Old Testament?”, and it says that Greer and Owens “take readers on a journey to help Christ-followers reconcile a New Testament Redeemer with an Old Testament Judge.”  The book somewhat explores that territory, but it is not exactly a work of apologetics.  Sometimes, it leaves questions unanswered.

Overall, the book is a collection of musings, a dialectic between passages in the Old Testament and the experiences that Andrew Greer and Ginny Owens narrate.  In some cases, I wondered if perhaps their God is a bit more loving than the God in the Old Testament.  Moreover, when Ginny said that most scholars believe that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, I had to groan, for that is not the case; she should have said that Moses was traditionally regarded as the author of the Pentateuch.

Still, the reflections in the book are thoughtful and insightful, and Ginny and Andrew are vulnerable about their disappointments, their faith struggles, and their hopes.  If I have a favorite story, it is Ginny’s story about when she was in college and was friends with a popular girl, even though Ginny herself was not popular.  The popular girl liked Ginny because Ginny was not trying to get into the cool group, so they could talk honestly with each other, without hidden agendas.

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

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Ramblings on Love, Palm Sunday, and Church

We celebrated Palm Sunday at church this morning.  A key theme was how our love falls short, whereas Jesus’ love does not.  Palm Sunday is about how people were cheering for Jesus when he entered Jerusalem, but they would turn against Jesus during his trial and crucifixion.

Things are arguably more complicated than that when one reads the Gospels or attempts to reconstruct what really happened in history.  There are scholars who contend that Jesus was popular with the people, and that was why the plot against Jesus was so surreptitious.  Moreover, is there any way to know for sure that the people who cheered for Jesus on Palm Sunday were the same people who rejected Jesus and called for the release of Barabbas?

Still, in the Gospel stories, we do see people failing.  Peter denied Jesus.  Disciples fled from Jesus in his hour of need.  There were people who called for his death.  Jesus had to have a lot of love to see past that and to die for people’s sins.

Our prayer of confession: “We are astonished at the complete and utter failure of human love.  In the light of our failure, we are even more astonished that through You, God’s love for all humanity is made manifest.”

One of our readings this morning: “But the cheers were shallow and the celebration was short-lived…”

Our Daily Bread had a good devotion today: Jesus did not come with a sense of self-importance or entitlement, unlike those who insecurely paraded their importance.  Rather, Jesus obeyed the Father and was thinking of others besides himself.

One can question the historicity of these stories.  One can even question whether they are an accurate picture of God and Jesus!  God is not self-important?  But he demands worship!  I also sometimes feel—-right or wrong, I do not know—-that God’s love is rather brittle.  God won’t forgive us if we don’t forgive others?  God won’t forgive us if we don’t believe certain things?  God won’t forgive us unless we properly repent?  God won’t hear our prayers if we hold on to certain sins?  God won’t forgive us unless our sins are covered by the blood of Christ?  Then there is the whole factor of hell.

I am aware that Christians have their explanations for these things.  What looks like God’s self-importance to one person may look like God selflessly sharing himself to another person.  Sometimes, putting these things into a larger context that makes sense can be helpful.

All of that said, I do appreciate a theme in Palm Sunday: God loving us, even though our love is shallow and fails.  I know that my love falls short.  But I am also reminded that I should appreciate the strength of other people’s love, especially in times when someone manages to show me love that is not brittle.

But I am for cultivating love rather than berating myself when falling short.  I think of what Paul says in Romans 12:15: Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.  That is an act of love and being concerned about other people.  This morning, during the prayer part of the service, we got to do that.  We sang “Happy Birthday” to people.  We rejoiced when a young man told us that he has been accepted to the University of Massachusetts Amherst to study veterinary medicine.  That has been his dream.  He went to community college for two years to prepare himself.  He interned at the Animal Hospital.  After struggling to find work, he found a job in the pet supplies department.  I am happy that things are working out for him.

I am moving across the country soon, and I will miss that sort of community, in which people rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep, and know each other, even if it is not too intimately.  I hope that my next church will be like that.  I am not too optimistic, and my standard is lower than what my current church meets: in my experience, it is rare to find a place where people are happy to see others rather than being in their own little worlds.  But who knows what can happen?

I may write a rambling post in the future about searching for churches, and how my current church will be a tough act to follow.  Right now, I am trying to finish and schedule my II Chronicles posts before I leave, and that has left me little time for free posts.  But stay tuned!

Saturday, March 28, 2015

II Chronicles 26

II Chronicles 26 is about King Uzziah of Judah.  He was righteous, but God punished him with leprosy because he went into the Temple to offer incense, which only the Aaronide priests were allowed to do.

Here are some thoughts:

1.  II Chronicles 26:2 states: “He built Eloth, and restored it to Judah, after that the king slept with his fathers” (KJV).

Other translations say that the king rebuilt Eloth, and I was confused.  He rebuilt Eloth and restored it to Judah?  Wouldn’t it be more logical for the king to restore Eloth to Judah first, and then to rebuild it, since it is only after Judah possesses Eloth that the King of Judah can have the authority over Eloth to rebuild it?  Can a king of Judah rebuild Eloth in a time when Eloth does not even belong to Judah?

The Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary, drawing from Radak and Metzudos, says that Eloth could only be fully restored to Judah after it had been rebuilt.  Judah could have taken Eloth, but, if it was in ruins, it was not fully restored to Judah.  Only once it was rebuilt could it be said to be restored to Judah, as a functioning city.  It was captured, rebuilt, and then restored to Judah.

2.  II Chronicles 26:21 states: “And Uzziah the king was a leper unto the day of his death, and dwelt in a several house, being a leper; for he was cut off from the house of the LORD: and Jotham his son was over the king’s house, judging the people of the land” (KJV).

The KJV says that Uzziah after getting leprosy dwelt in a “several” house.  Other translations say that he lived in a separate house.  The Hebrew word relates to freedom, so the idea may be that Uzziah dwelt in a house that was free, or separate from, others.

What is interesting is that the text says that he was separate because he was cut off from the house of the LORD.  How would being cut off from the house of the LORD cause Uzziah to live in a separate house?

The idea could be that, because Uzziah was a leper, he could not defile the Temple by being close to it.  Thus, Uzziah had to live far away from it.  And Uzziah not being near the Temple could have led him to retire from being king and thus to separate himself from others (Artscroll), since he arguably could not be king without having access to the Temple.  Could a king who is cut off from the Temple seek strength and guidance from God to rule, or represent the people of Israel in festivals and at sacrifices, which took place at the Temple?  Not really, I would say.

Maybe one could have had a relationship with God apart from the Temple in Hebrew Bible times, for David, when he was away from the Tabernacle, still found strength in the LORD (I Samuel 30:6).  Yet, David had a priestly ephod, so he was not entirely cut off from ritual access to God in his time of exile (I Samuel 23, 30).  Moreover, when David was driven out of Israel, God’s inheritance, he felt like he was being pressured to worship other gods (I Samuel 26:19).  Perhaps David could honor God anywhere, but there was something special about being in God’s presence in Israel and the Temple, something that one did not obtain outside of them.  Maybe Uzziah, years later, could not have a full relationship that a king needed with God apart from the Temple, so he retired from being king to a place of separation.  He had sought access to the Temple that was not permitted to him and was stricken with leprosy; now, as a leper, he had no access to the Temple, and that contributed to his further isolation.  He could not fulfill his role—-as the city of Eloth did not fulfill its role as a city, and thus was not restored, until it was rebuilt.  Depressing!

Rashi understands the verse differently in his attempt to account for the causal relationship.  According to Rashi, the verse means that it was decreed from the house of the LORD that Uzziah had to be separate from people.  The word that the KJV and other versions translate as “cut off” in “cut off from the house of the LORD,” “nigzar,” means “decreed” in Esther 2:6.

3.  II Chronicles 26:23 states: “So Uzziah slept with his fathers, and they buried him with his fathers in the field of the burial which belonged to the kings; for they said, He is a leper: and Jotham his son reigned in his stead.”

II Kings 15:7 says that Uzziah was buried with his fathers in the city of David.  Was he buried with the other kings, or not?  Somehow, his leprosy had something to do with where he was buried, for II Chronicles 26:23 says, “for they said, He is a leper…”  The usual explanation is that Uzziah was buried near his fathers, but not directly with them, on account of his leprosy.  There was a Hasmonean ossuary said to contains the bones of Uzziah, and some (the scholars who write about Chronicles in the HarperCollins Study Bible and the Jewish Study Bible) appear to see that as evidence that perhaps there is some historical authenticity to the story in Chronicles about Uzziah’s burial (or such is my impression).

4.  In studying this chapter, I was thinking about Mishnah Kelim 1.6-9, which talks about gradations of holiness: the cities of Israel are holier than other cities, which means that the Israelite cities must expel lepers; Jerusalem is even holier; and the Temple is holier still.  Of course, the Mishnah was much later than I-II Chronicles, but could Kelim 1.6-9 be relevant somehow to what is in II Chronicles 26?  Leviticus 13:46, which probably existed prior to I-II Chronicles, says that lepers must dwell alone and outside of the camp.  Obviously, Uzziah in II Chronicles 26 had to be separate from the Temple because he was a leper.  Yet, in some way, Uzziah the leper was still buried in the holy city of Jerusalem, the city of David.  Go figure!

Friday, March 27, 2015

Book Write-Up (Loosely-Speaking): The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, by Robert M. Price

Robert M. Price.  The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition?  Amherst, New York: Prometheus, 2003.  See here to buy the book.

Robert M. Price is often characterized as an atheist biblical scholar and a Christ myther, one who does not believe that Jesus historically existed.  In The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, Price goes from Jesus’ birth to his resurrection and essentially argues that there is not a whole lot—-if anything—-that we can know about the historical Jesus, from the Gospels or any other source.  This book is 354 pages, which is not particularly massive, and yet there is so much in it.  I will list some of my reactions to the book in this post, but I can guarantee that, after writing and publishing this post, I will think of some topic in the book that I should have addressed.  I do not want to keep editing and re-editing this post, nor do I want to do a series on this book (though I may refer to items in it in future posts), so this post will have to suffice, at least for me.

That said, here are some items:

1.  Let me start by saying that I often feel uncomfortable reading Christian apologetic and atheist books.  When I read Christian apologetic books, I feel as if my free will is being restrained, and that I absolutely have to deal with a biblical God whom I do not find overly appealing.  When I read atheist books, I feel as if whatever faith and hope I have are being shown to have no basis in fact whatsoever.  Contrary to what many might think, I am not some wide-eyed Christian who gets bent out of shape and thrown into an existential crisis any time someone shows me an error in the Bible.  I have read my share of biblical criticism, from both maximalists and also minimalists; some of what Price said was stuff that I had heard or read before, and some of it was completely new to me.  For some reason, though, reading this book by Price was a rather exhausting and disturbing process for me, and I wonder why.  Maybe it was because I thought that, even if the Bible has errors, there are still things that we can historically take for granted about Jesus, things that are edifying to my faith, and Price was dismantling (or trying to dismantle) this view, page after page after page.  Perhaps my reaction was due to all of the Christian books I have been reading lately!  I still have faith, on some level, for I believe in certain values, and I regularly call out to a higher power to help me.  This book, however, is still a challenge to me.

2.  I am often reluctant to read and blog about books that promote Christ-mythicism, even though I have written blog posts in the past that are relevant to that debate (i.e., Was Christianity influenced by the mystery religions or the belief in a dying and rising god?  Was the reference to Jesus in Josephus’ Antiquities 18.3.3 authentic?).  Why have I been reluctant?  It is because I am afraid that I will not know enough to refute the Christ-mythicist arguments, and thus I will look bad to other biblical scholars or budding biblical scholars, many of whom see Christ-mythicism as the equivalent to young earth creationism.  I am just being honest and vulnerable here!

3.  Did I know enough to refute any of Price’s arguments?  Well, Price’s book would take a lot of time for me to try to refute or critique.  Price referred to so many primary sources, from Hellenistic, classical, Jewish, Buddhist, and ancient Christian literature, and it would take me a long time to look at each reference that he cited, to find the sources that he mentioned but did not explicitly cite, to find the dates for the references and sources for which he did not provide a date (we’ll see later why that is important), and then to determine if Price is interacting with those sources fairly and accurately.  Then there are some of the secondary sources that Price mentions, for which Price tells us their conclusion but not the arguments that led to the conclusion.  Price referred to a scholar, for example, who argued that Mark 13 reflects the destruction of Jerusalem in the second century C.E. rather than the first century C.E., and Price mentioned a scholar who made a case that Slavonic Josephus (which many date to the sixteenth century) may contain material going back to Josephus himself.  Trying to evaluate Price’s argument would take a lot of work!

But back to my original question: Was I able to refute any of Price’s arguments?  Well, there were cases in which I knew enough to realize that there was another side to the debate.  Price said more than once that there were no Galilean synagogues during the time that Jesus allegedly lived, and I did a research paper on synagogues for a graduate level class some years ago.  There are scholars, such as Lee Levine, who posit that there were pre-70 synagogues, and they appeal to scant archeology and references in Josephus.  Some have argued that the pre-70 synagogues did not necessarily meet in a building, and that the synagogue was the meeting itself, not the building.

There were also times when I identified (or believed that I identified) possible contradictions among some of Price’s arguments.  Price argued, on the one hand, that Jesus was not originally believed to have performed miracles, and one piece of supporting evidence (among others) that Price adduces is Paul’s implication in I Corinthians 1 that Jews look for a sign, and that they reject Jesus because Jesus did not give them one.  Paul upholds the crucified Christ, not miracles.  On the other hand, Price seems to argue that the super-apostles who were emphasizing Jesus’ miracles, against whom Paul contended in II Corinthians, may have had the earlier tradition about Jesus.  Price explores the possibility that maybe earlier traditions about Jesus did not even hold that Jesus was crucified, and that Paul was responding to this view by emphasizing the importance of Jesus’ crucifixion.  Is Price contradicting himself?  Did the super-apostles believe in an earlier view of Jesus, or is the contrary view that Paul embraces earlier?

And have I effectively presented a “Gotcha!”?  Price is not always being dogmatic about his arguments; sometimes, he simply seems to be exploring possibilities and pointing out anomalies.  Moreover, noting a contradiction in Price’s book does not overthrow everything Price says.

4.  I want to explore another possible contradiction, and that concerns whether Price is truly a mythicist, at least in this book.  He does believe that there are earlier and later traditions about Jesus, but he backs away from saying that the earlier traditions were necessarily authentic to the historical Jesus.  They could have just been earlier traditions, reflecting the views of certain Christians (e.g., that the Messiah would not be a son of David, that Jesus was a sinner who needed to be baptized), as far as he is concerned.  Price also makes certain arguments that other mythicists have made: that there are traditions about Jesus being crucified by the supernatural archons (I Corinthians 2:8; Colossians 2:14; cp. Galatians 3:19-20) and that these were later historicized, and that Jesus’ brothers do not necessarily refer to his family but could refer to missionaries who proclaimed Christ (Matthew 25:40).  (I am not convinced by the former argument because I think that early Christians could have believed that Jesus was crucified by archons, and also by the flesh and blood people who crucified him: that, for Paul, there were supernatural realities behind what was occurring on earth.)  In the conclusion, Price appeals to the hymn in Philippians 2 and says that the hymn may be saying that the figure became known as Jesus after his exaltation to heaven, and thus that stories about a man named Jesus living before that are just that—-stories.

While some of the things that Price says sound mythicist or consistent with mythicism, however, Price does compare the Jesus movement with historical figures who led religious movements; would this be appropriate, if Jesus were not a historical figure?  Price also seems to lean in the direction of saying that John the Baptist was historical, but that John the Baptist and his followers did not believe that they were setting the stage for Jesus.

And yet, again, Price may just be exploring different options.

5.  There were times when Price provided references for his primary sources, and sometimes even quotations of them, and there were times when he did not.  In the latter cases, I wish that he did.  For example, Price refers to rabbis who believed that one could nullify a vow to honor one’s parents, which is different from how Jesus characterized the Pharisees’ position in Mark 7:10-12.  Price may be right on this, but I wish that he said where specifically I can find those statements in rabbinic literature.

6.  There were times when Price provided the date for primary sources, and times when he did not.  In the latter cases, I wish that he had.  This is particularly the case with Price’s argument about miracles, as Price noted similarities between the miracles of Jesus and miracles performed by other figures.  But Christian apologists, and even some mainstream scholars such as John Meier, argue that Christianity was not ripping off other religious figures’ miracle stories, but that some of the other religious figures’ miracles stories came later and could have been influenced by the Christian stories.  I doubt that was always the case—-Price is probably correct that there have been non-Christian miracle stories (i.e., perhaps the Ascepius ones) before and during the time that Jesus allegedly lived.  Still, Price should have provided the date for some of his primary sources, for that is relevant to the question of who influenced whom: did Christianity borrow from non-Christian stories, as Price usually seems to argue in the book, or did the influence go in the other direction?  It was probably both.

7.  I may someday buy Price’s book, and the reason is that it is practically an encyclopedia of ancient Christian lore, and stories from other traditions (i.e., Judaism, Buddhism, Hellenism, etc.).  Price mentions Latin versions of the New Testament that ascribe Mary’s Magnificat to her cousin, Elizabeth.  He refers to Slavonic Josephus’ portrayal of John the Baptist as an insurrectionist (yet, Price does not explore Arabic and Syriac versions of Josephus’ milder, low-key references to Jesus, which some believe are authentic to Josephus).  He mentions pagan stories about an empty tomb and a philosopher who tries to assure his disciples that he is not a ghost (cp. Luke 24:39).  And that is only scratching the surface.

8.  Related to item 7, Price highlights that there are odd traditions about Jesus, traditions that seem to go against what is in the Gospels.  While Price says that the church father Irenaeus talked about the Gospels that are in the Bible, for example, Price wonders why Irenaeus presents Jesus as dying around the age of fifty.  Why, Price inquires, is there a Jewish tradition that places Jesus a century earlier than when the Gospels say that Jesus lived?  I am not entirely sure what to do with this.  Perhaps people just made mistakes because they did not have their own copy of the Gospels, or because they knew of Christian tradition indirectly.  (That may not work with Irenaeus, though.)

(UPDATE: Steve of Triablogue states in the comments: "Regarding point #8, I assume that's simply an Irenaean gloss on Jn 8:57. That's not an independent tradition. Rather, that's how Irenaeus (mis-)interprets the Johannine reference."  In John 8:57, the Jews tell Jesus that he is not yet fifty years old.  I vaguely recall Price addressing that verse, saying that, if Jesus were in his thirties (Luke 3:23 says Jesus was about thirty when he began his ministry), why wouldn't the Jews tell him he is not yet FORTY years old.  Price's point may have been that there were different traditions.  At the same time, Price at one point does wonder if Irenaeus knew the Gospels, and part of that (if I recall correctly) is that Irenaeus misidentifies the emperor during Jesus' death.  I returned the book to the library, so I can't check out what exactly Price said, but I do plan to buy the book sometime.)    

9.  There were many times when I was not persuaded by Price’s argument yet was intrigued.  Price raises the possibility, for example, that Josephus’ reference to John the Baptist was a Christian interpolation, one that disagreed with the Gospel of Mark.  Whereas Mark’s Gospel presents baptism as an atoning ritual and downplays Herod Antipas’ role in John the Baptist’s execution, Price argues, the Josephus reference stresses that the repentance is what atones for sin as well as blames Herod Antipas for John’s death.  I was not convinced by this argument, but it did intrigue me, since Josephus’ portrayal of John’s baptism has long stood out to me.

10.  Price frequently uses the scholarly criterion of dissimilarity, which states that the things about Jesus that are dissimilar from Judaism and Christianity are more likely to be historically authentic.  While I have seen scholars use this criterion, Price provided a rationale for it.  Christians could have put their own ideas into the mouth of Jesus, Price argues, so that is why we should evaluate if a tradition is similar to Christianity and dismiss it if it is.  Why evaluate if a tradition is dissimilar from Judaism, which was Jesus’ own context?  Appealing to Bultmann, Price argues that the early Christians probably would not have remembered the sayings of Jesus that were similar to what other Jews were saying—-those sayings would not have stood out to them as unique, and thus they would not have remembered and recorded them.  I am not entirely persuaded by that argument, for people record all sorts of things that are not original or fresh.  Why couldn’t early Christians have done that with Jesus?

11.  Price often argues that Gospel stories that are similar to Old Testament stories are most likely not historical.  Many mainstream scholars believe this, too, even if they may conclude that some of Price’s connection of Gospel stories with Old Testament stories are a bit of a stretch.  (That is for the reader to decide—-see here for a blog post that extensively critiques Price on this.)  Personally, I do not dismiss the historicity of Gospel stories just because they are similar to Old Testament stories, for Jesus could have decided to do things that Old Testament figures did, such as multiply loaves; when other characters, however, unintentionally imitate Old Testament characters, then perhaps Price has a point that the story is made-up and modeled after the Old Testament stories, unless one wants to say that history can repeat itself, or that God is writing the course of the events and causing similar things to occur.  Price also says that Gospel passages in which Jesus has a far-reaching perspective on his life and mission are probably not authentic to Jesus but were written later by Christians.  That is understandable, yet I wonder if that approach should be automatic: maybe Jesus could have had a far-reaching perspective on his mission.

12.  I Corinthians 15:3-9 is a popular passage among Christian apologists.  It presents Jesus appearing to his disciples and eventually to five hundred witnesses, some of whom are still alive when the passage is written.  Moreover, Christian apologists, and even many mainstream scholars, hold that it is an early tradition, since Paul says that it was passed down to him.  Price, however, deems it to be a later interpolation, and he offers some reasons.  He asks why the Gospel writers did not refer to the five hundred witnesses, if that was an earlier tradition.  Moreover, Price believes that the statement in v 8 that Paul was born out of due time reflects a later Gnostic story.  Someone referred me to an article Price wrote that argued that I Corinthians 15:3-9 was an interpolation, but I never found the time to read it; I was glad, therefore, to read a succinct version of this argument in Price’s book.  Am I convinced?  Well, not really, but I cannot disprove that the passage is an interpolation, and, that being the case, I wonder how much weight it should have in Christian attempts to prove the truth of Christianity.

13.  Price was most convincing to me when he was highlighting the diversity of thought within the Gospels and early Christianity.  Did Jesus perform signs or not?  Did Jesus believe that the Kingdom of God comes with observation or not?  Did Jesus believe that the Messiah would be the son of David or not?  As Price astutely notes, there are different ideas within the Gospels.  Some try to harmonize them, and maybe they do well to look at context and possible intention behind the statements.  Perhaps they would have a point to contend that Price is being too wooden, literal, or absolutist in his interpretation of the passages.  Whether one finds them convincing is a personal judgment.

14.  In reading Price’s book, I wondered how exactly he would account for the origin of Christianity.  Suppose he is right that we cannot know anything about the historical Jesus.  Suppose that virtually everything about Jesus is from the hands of later Christians with different ideas.  Why would people start a movement around a figure named Jesus?  Was there anything about Jesus that inspired them to do so?  Price talks a little about his own ideas on this in the conclusion, speculating that mystery religions may play a role.  My impression is that another book of his, Deconstructing Jesus, may offer a fuller explanation of his views on the origin of Christianity.  I do plan to read that, at some point, and also his book on Paul.

15.  Was there anything in this book that I found religiously edifying?  Yes.  Price’s statement that people feel good after praying, even if their prayers are not answered, resonated with me.  I also enjoyed his comparison of Christianity with Buddhism, specifically his argument that, within early Christianity, there were exemplary Christians who gave up all of their possessions, and there were regular Christians who lived normal lives and tried to follow ethical guidelines.  I agree with Price that we see this within the Gospels, even though I would also say that there are some cases in which Jesus seems to suggest that all Christians should be of the exemplary variety—-that their entrance into the Kingdom depends on it.  Yet, the New Testament does recognize, and often seems to approve of, the existence of regular Christians, and that takes a load off my mind (though I believe that I should still be challenged by the exemplary passages, and learn from them).

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Book Write-Up: When Calls the Heart, by Janette Oke

Janette Oke.  When Calls the Heart.  Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1983.

When Calls the Heart is the first book of Janette Oke’s Canadian West series.  I recently read the first two books of the Return to the Canadian West series, which Janette Oke co-wrote with her daughter (see my reviews here and here).  The Return to the Canadian West series focuses on Beth, who went to the Canadian West to teach in a poor mining community, inspired by the example of her aunt (or, technically, according to some reviews I have read, her cousin) Elizabeth.  The Canadian West series is about Elizabeth going to the Canadian West to teach.

In reading When Calls the Heart, what first struck me was the similarity in names between Elizabeth’s family members and Beth’s family members.  Both Beth and Elizabeth have a sister named Margret and a winsome, adventurous sister named Julie.  The main difference, as far as I could see, was that Elizabeth had brothers.  One of them, Jonathan, is in the Canadian West and invites Elizabeth there to teach and to find a husband.

Something else that struck me in reading When Calls the Heart—-and, incidentally, in reading When Courage Calls (the first book of the Return to the Canadian West series) and Catherine Marshall’s Christy, which is about a young woman who goes to the Great Smokies to teach—-is that the protagonist does not seem to be inspired to go teach the poor out of some profound sense of religious or moral idealism.  I am not saying that such a motivation is completely absent, for one reason that Elizabeth goes to the Canadian West is that she realizes that it needs a teacher.  But that appears almost to be an afterthought, for she has other reasons: she feels restless, and her mother wants her to go out there to support her brother Jonathan.  Why do some of these kinds of stories depict the heroine going to a poor region without much of a sense of idealism?  Perhaps it is to set the stage for her personal growth, or to highlight that she may not entirely know what she’s getting herself into.  (The latter theme is in Christy, but not so much in When Calls the Heart.)

In terms of spiritual or religious lessons, I preferred the Return to the Canadian West series to When Calls the Heart, and the reason is that the former focused more on doing good, getting along with people, and having a personal relationship with God, whereas the latter had more about sin and atonement and heaven being a place where people are not sick.  There was one theme in When Calls the Heart that I found to be profound, however: when a father tells his erring son that there is nothing hurtful within God.  Personally, I wonder how that could be reconciled with the concept of hell being a place where people are eternally tormented, but Christians have their prepackaged answers to that, and I do not particularly want to get into that debate.

I could identify some with Elizabeth’s attempts to be social, and I actually admired her in one situation.  Elizabeth, like a lot of characters in fictional books I have read, seems to be a bit of an introvert (and the reason that I encounter so many introvert characters in fictional books may be that the authors themselves are introverts).  I am not saying that she is an extreme introvert, for she does say in one place that she preferred dining and laughing with others to dining alone.  Yet, she also said that she preferred when the children were around because then the people with whom she was dining could focus on the children rather than asking her a bunch of questions; I could somewhat identify with that.  In terms of where I admired her, I think of the scene when she is critical of the young men flirting with her, wondering why they have to be so silly.  She says, however, that she took special care not to humiliate them.

The book was slow and it did not knock my socks off, but it was an okay read.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Book Write-Up (Loosely-Speaking): Where Trust Lies

Janette Oke and Laurel Oke Logan.  Where Trust Lies.  Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

Where Trust Lies is the sequel to Where Courage Calls, which I wrote about hereWhere Courage Calls is about Beth going to the Canadian West to teach children in a mining community.  Where Trust Lies is about Beth returning to her well-to-do family and going on a steamship cruise.

My reading experience of Where Courage Calls was not that good, as I explained in my review.  I was not always following what was going on.  I picked up that there was conflict between two groups, but I was not entirely sure who the two groups were.  Maybe my problem was that I was going through the book too quickly because I was in a hurry to finish it, or my bad mood was hindering my focus.  In any case, while my reading of that book was not positive, the book did have snippets of spiritual wisdom that I appreciated.

One of the Amazon reviewers who gave Where Courage Calls a low rating speculated that perhaps Where Courage Calls was largely written by Janette Oke’s daughter, and that this would explain why it is not as strong as other Janette Oke books.  Let me say, though, that I just finished Where Trust Lies, which was also written by Janette Oke and her daughter, and I really enjoyed it.

On some level, Where Trust Lies has plot elements that are in other books and stories.  A well-off woman goes to an economically poor region and then, changed by the experience, interacts with her well-off family.  Kidnappers gain someone’s trust then hold him or her hostage for ransom.  Sometimes, in books, movies, and TV shows that have these plot-elements, the plot is executed in a manner that really grabs me as a reader and generates suspense; sometimes, that is not the case.

Where Trust Lies, in my opinion, did execute the plot well.  I could identify with Beth after her sister Julie was kidnapped: wanting to be with people, yet wanting to be alone.  Beth’s mother, far from being an upper class snob who disdained Beth’s occupation in the West, was a woman of spiritual wisdom.  My favorite passage in the book is something that Beth’s mother says to Beth as Beth’s mother remains fairly calm in the crisis: “It’s something so personal that perhaps only God’s Spirit can speak to your heart in His own way” (page 281).

That passage appeals to me because it highlights how personal faith and one’s experience of God is.  Yet, although the book does not emphasize church a great deal, it does acknowledge the importance of community.  Beth gives Julie a good speech about the importance of family as Julie tries to pull away from her family to be with her new “friends” (or so she thinks).  After Julie is kidnapped, family and friends pull together their resources to help find her; Edward, a mountie and friend of the family whom Beth dislikes and sees as pompous, contributes his expertise to the search.  And Jarrick, Beth’s love interest, points Beth to God’s comfort, and later says that she could do the same for him when he has a crisis.

The book was not always interesting, but what made it good was the discussions about literature and spirituality.  Beth is plodding through Herman Melville’s Redburn, and she talks about it with a new “friend,” Nicky.  Nicky says that he likes adventure stories, whereas Beth says that she likes stories in which she can take her time and appreciate the plot and the characters (and my impression is that, by and large, Where Trust Lies aims to be the latter kind of book!).  Beth is disturbed by the scenes of poverty and suffering in Redburn, and she has a discussion with Nicky about the importance of helping others; Nicky, by contrast, lives by the rule that he needs to grab what he wants as quickly as possible before anyone else grabs it, and he wonders why God does not help the suffering himself, if God is so concerned.

I also appreciated how Beth tried to reach out to the lonely.  One teenage girl, Victoria, was reclusive and a bit morose, and she was rebuked by her mother for that.  Beth reached out to Victoria, though, and asked Victoria about Victoria’s areas of interest.  Beth also figured that Nicky needed a friend.  Julie, too, reached out to the two young women who would later kidnap her, and Julie after that horrible experience wondered if she would ever trust anyone again.  Beth reassures Julie that Julie was right to reach out to the two young women.

In Where Trust Lies, Julie is kidnapped, and people pray.  Nicky is one of the kidnappers, and Beth prays that Nicky might have a change of heart, which he does.  That is well and good, but I wonder about the times when there are no happy endings.  Where is God then?  Jarrick raises the possibility to Beth that Julie may have been sold into slavery, and Beth is surprised that this happens in the world.  Beth also reads about suffering in Redburn, and, although I have not read the book, I doubt that all of the sufferers in that book had a happy ending.  If God is a caretaker, as some in Where Trust Lies believe, where is God for the sufferers who do not find a happy ending?   That is a question that I cannot answer, because I do not know the answer.  I do believe in the value of prayer, however, and of helping those who are disadvantaged.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

My Sermon Today: The New Covenant----Already and Not Yet

I preached (or, actually, read) the sermon at my church this morning.  I will post it here.  It was helpful to me to write it because the process allowed me to clarify to myself what my religious and theological views are right now in my life.  Some readers may think my sermon is simplistic; some readers may think it is unnecessarily complex.  Some readers may think that I stray from the Christian path in what I say; some readers may think that I stick to much to the Christian path and that makes me biased.  But here my sermon is!  Enjoy!

Our Old Testament reading is from Jeremiah 31:31-34:

31 Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah:
32 Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD:
33 But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.
34 And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jer 31:31-34 KJV)

For our New Testament reading, we will read John 12:20-33:

20 And there were certain Greeks among them that came up to worship at the feast:
21 The same came therefore to Philip, which was of Bethsaida of Galilee, and desired him, saying, Sir, we would see Jesus.
22 Philip cometh and telleth Andrew: and again Andrew and Philip tell Jesus.
23 And Jesus answered them, saying, The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified.
24 Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.
25 He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.
26 If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be: if any man serve me, him will my Father honour.
27 Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour.
28 Father, glorify thy name. Then came there a voice from heaven, saying, I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.
29 The people therefore, that stood by, and heard it, said that it thundered: others said, An angel spake to him.
30 Jesus answered and said, This voice came not because of me, but for your sakes.
31 Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out.
32 And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.
33 This he said, signifying what death he should die. (Joh 12:20-33 KJV)

Prayer: Father, please bless and anoint the message that I am about to deliver. Help its hearers to hear something from it that helps them. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Jeremiah predicted the coming of a New Covenant. In this message, I would like to do three things. First of all, I will look at the concept of the New Covenant within the context of the Book of Jeremiah, the larger story of Israel in the Old Testament, and Old Testament Messianic and end-times predictions. Second, I will comment on how Jesus and New Testament authors believed that these end-time predictions were fulfilled, at least partially, in the life and work of Jesus. Third, I will offer some concluding reflections and suggestions for spiritual application.

Let’s first look at the concept of the New Covenant in the Book of Jeremiah, the larger story of the Old Testament, and Old Testament predictions about the end time. A lot of times, Christians read about the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34 and they say: “This is a prediction of what Jesus would do: Jesus would write God’s laws on our hearts and our minds.” My purpose here is not to dispute that—-actually, I will be arriving at that sort of conclusion in the course of this sermon—-but rather it is to try to appreciate the Old Testament on its own terms, before we get to the New Testament. That is how many people read a story or watch a movie: they read or watch the earlier part before they get to the later part. What was the significance of the New Covenant within the context of the Book of Jeremiah and the larger story of Israel in the Old Testament?

Who are the recipients of the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34? You will notice that it is the house of Israel and the house of Judah. The text says that the ancestors of these recipients of the New Covenant were taken out of Egypt, and God made a covenant with them of laws and commandments, which they broke. This is the nation and people of Israel in the Old Testament, of whom the Jews are a part. The text, at least here, does not say that Christians are part of the New Covenant—-which does not mean that Christians are not part of it, but simply that they are not mentioned here in Jeremiah 31:31-34. The focus of Jeremiah 31:31-34, like a lot of the Old Testament, is on Israel and Judah, and God’s interaction with them.

In the Old Testament, God gave Israel and Judah laws to obey soon after God delivered them from Egypt. These laws would make Israel a holy and righteous people, who worshiped God. God’s covenant with Israel was that, if she obeyed, God would bless her and she would stay in the Promised Land. If she disobeyed, however, God would punish her, and she would not stay in the land but would go into exile. Well, a lot of Israel’s story in the Old Testament was one of disobeying God. She worshiped other gods, or worshiped God in ways that God did not approve, or sacrificed her children to earn a god’s favor, or practiced policies that were socially unjust and that oppressed the poor and the needy.

God’s system with Old Testament Israel did include God’s forgiveness of sin. Israelites could offer a sin offering for unintentional sins, and a guilt offering for certain specific sins. Every year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would cleanse the sanctuary of the defilement from people’s sins so that a holy God could continue to dwell within Israel. God also forgave Israel, and individuals within Israel, of sin whenever they repented and turned to God seeking forgiveness. Moreover, while the Old Testament presents Israel as sinful, there were people within Israel who were righteous. While some of them tried to get Israel on the righteous path, however, their reforms were not long-lasting, for people relapsed back into their old sinful ways. Forgiveness was important, but was it enough, if Israel kept relapsing into the same sins over and over, sometimes coming to her senses and repenting for a short term, and sometimes not?

The people of Israel needed a new heart, a spiritual transformation. Jeremiah 13:23 states: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil” (KJV). They could not just have God’s law, because God’s law simply condemned them for their habitual disobedience. God loved Israel, but God, as a holy God, saw a need to punish sin. The law only told Israel what was wrong and right, but it did not enable the Israelites to desist from sin and to do what is right instead.

When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and took a number of Jews into exile, it really hit home for a number of Jews that their disobedience had led them to disaster. Jeremiah recognized that, for Israel to have a future, God needed to address her spiritual condition. God needed to write God’s laws on people’s hearts and minds so that the Israelites would be inclined to obey them and thus stay in the land. Jeremiah envisioned this taking place after God returned the Israelites from exile to the Promised Land, as God reconstituted the Davidic king and dynasty and the Levitical priesthood, making Israel into a nation again, with its own land, king, and cult.

Jeremiah was not alone in this hope, even though he expressed it differently from other biblical writers and prophets. Deuteronomy 30:6 says that, after Israel turns to God in exile, and God brings her back into her land, “And the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live” (KJV). Ezekiel’s vision of Israel’s restoration from exile differed a bit from that of Jeremiah, for Jeremiah envisioned the Levites having the authority in the Temple, whereas Ezekiel privileged specifically the Zadokite priesthood. Still, Ezekiel envisioned God performing an act of grace that would enable the Israelites to obey God’s laws: God would give Israel a clean heart, or God would take away Israel’s heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh, or God would put God’s spirit in the Israelites and thereby enable them to obey his laws. Jeremiah described a new covenant, whereas Ezekiel talked about an everlasting covenant, but both envisioned God performing an act of grace on Israel’s heart. That did not necessarily imply complete sinlessness, for Ezekiel predicted that the new Temple that would be rebuilt after Israel’s restoration would have sin offerings. It did, however, imply Israel’s heart being generally inclined towards loving God and neighbor and doing what is right.

Well, Israel returned from exile, and things did not exactly turn out as the prophets envisioned. Jeremiah and, on some level, Ezekiel, had predicted that the Davidic monarchy would be restored, and that did not take place. Zerubbabel was a governor of Judah after the exile and a descendant of David, and there was hope that he would be a Davidic king, but he mysteriously vanished. Some say that the Persians, who ruled over post-exilic Judah at the time, got rid of him. The priesthood, at least, was re-established, but some biblical scholars have argued that we see traces in the Hebrew Bible of disputes among priests about which families should be privileged in the Temple. Israel was not an independent nation but was under the authority of the Persians, and, whereas the prophets depicted Israel’s restoration from exile as a fresh start, a new beginning, a time that marked the end of God’s punishment of Israel because Israel served her time and received forgiveness, the post-exilic priest and leader Ezra still felt that Israel was being punished by God.

What’s more, where was the new heart that God promised? Granted, the Israelites after the exile were more obedient to God than were the Israelites before the exile: the Israelites after the exile at least respected and honored God’s law as the constitution of Israel. But there was continual danger of relapse into paganism, as Israelite men married foreign women. In the Book of Nehemiah, rich people were exploiting and oppressing the not-so-rich. According to the Book of Haggai, the returned Israelites for a while were neglecting the reconstruction of the Temple and focusing on their own lives instead. According to the Book of Malachi, some of the priests were showing disrespect to God by offering deformed sacrifices. Isaiah 56-66 is believed to have been written during Israel’s post-exilic period, and we see there an interaction between God and Israel. Israel wonders why things have not turned out glamorously for them, and God responds that their sins and oppression of others has created a barrier between them and God. When the returned Israelite authorities sought to correct the problems of their sin, they tended to overcorrect by becoming exclusive towards outsiders and by elevating law over love.

What the prophets predicted about Israel after the exile did not take place immediately, or for a long time. Jeremiah said that God’s law would be written on the hearts of Israelites, but it was not, or at least that did not appear to be the case, for people still seemed to have a propensity towards sin. Jeremiah said that God would forgive Israel’s sin, but Israelites still felt unforgiven, or not completely forgiven. God felt distant. Jews held out hope from generation to generation that these promises from the prophets would one day be fulfilled. Many were looking for a Messiah, a coming Davidic king who would deliver Israel from the Gentile powers and inaugurate a reign of righteousness and peace.

In the first century, there was a teacher from Galilee named Jesus of Nazareth, and there were events in his ministry and thereafter that convinced his followers that he was the fulfillment—-at least partially—-of what the prophets had predicted. There were prophecies about people being healed after God restored Israel—-Isaiah 35:6 says that the lame will leap like the deer—-and Jesus was healing people. A number of prophets in the Old Testament envisioned Gentiles coming to worship the God of Israel after God restores Israel to her land, and, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, a number of Gentiles were becoming Christians, worshipers of the God of Israel. Some of the prophets, particularly the prophet Joel, envisioned an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and something like that occurred in the Book of Acts, on Pentecost. In Ezekiel 36:27, God says he will put his spirit in the Israelites and that will move them to obey God’s laws. The apostle Paul was saying that believers—-the remnant of Jews who believed in Jesus, and the Gentiles who had joined them—-had God’s Holy Spirit and could produce spiritual fruit that accorded with God’s law, particularly the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Isaiah 54:13 predicted that Israelites after the exile would be taught by God. Jesus in John 6:45 says this was happening as people heard from the Father and came to Jesus. The apostle Paul in I Thessalonians 4:9 told the Thessalonian Christians that God had taught them personally to love one another. The Old Testament prophets envisioned a time of forgiveness of sin, and Isaiah 53 depicted a righteous figure who would die to atone for the sins of others. Early Christians maintained that this found its fulfillment in Jesus.

But all of this was seen as a partial fulfillment, not as the totality. The Old Testament prophets also envisioned a time when there would be no war and people would be at peace. Two thousand years after Jesus came, there is still war. They envisioned a time when Israel would be free of her Gentile captors, and that did not happen when Jesus came: the Jews would try to become independent from the Romans twice in the first two centuries C.E., and both times would be crushed. In a sense, Jesus brought blessings of the Kingdom of God, but not all of them have been realized.

Within the New Testament, we see struggling with this. There are voices in the New Testament that seem to believe that Jesus would return and set up paradise soon, within their very own lifetimes, in the first century. After all, they had already experienced some of the Kingdom blessings that the prophets foretold, so it was only a matter of time before they would experience the rest of them, right? As time went on and Jesus had not returned, there were voices that said that Jesus may delay his coming. The Gospel of Luke, in parables, depicts the master, who represents Jesus, being away on a long journey before he comes back. II Peter 3:8, perhaps drawing from Psalm 90:4, said that a day in God’s eyes is as a thousand years, so the apparent delay of Christ’s return does not mean that Jesus won’t come back; God is giving people time to repent. There is a view within Luke and Acts that God could have sent the Messianic paradise soon, had Israel repented in response to Jesus and the early Christians, but she did not do so. Paul really struggles with how many within Israel—-the very recipients of God’s promises—-did not believe in Jesus as the Messiah. Paul concludes that all of this is a part of God’s master plan to save everyone, Jews and Gentiles. Paul held out hope that all Israel would be saved when Christ returns, and so the vision of the Old Testament prophets that Israel would be spiritually renewed would find fulfillment.

A number of Christians wonder why so many Jewish people do not believe that Jesus is the Messiah. I would say that there are at least two reasons. One reason is that Jesus, as far as they could see, did not bring about the world peace that the Messiah was supposed to bring. Another reason is that, for them, Christianity contradicts aspects of their own Scriptures. Many Old Testament prophecies envision Gentiles coming to Israel to worship God, but they do not go so far as to suggest that the Gentiles will become an actual part of Israel—-part of Abraham’s seed—through faith, as parts of the New Testament say; Isaiah 14:2, actually, predicts that Israel will make slaves of their Gentile captors after Israel is restored. Jeremiah and Ezekiel envision the continued existence of sacrifices, a Temple, and a priesthood, but many Christians believe that these things were nullified by Christ. Judaism largely believes in one God and thinks that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity contradicts that.

Granted, Christians, and even the New Testament, had its explanations for these things. The Gospel of John says that the Temple predicted in the Old Testament would be symbolic, not literal, and that it would be fulfilled in the individual believer having the Holy Spirit and eternal life. Paul appears to go this route in places, treating the church as God’s temple. The Epistle to the Hebrews goes another route as it tries to argue that the Levitical priesthood and the Old Covenant were intended to be temporary, and that Christ is part of another priesthood, the priesthood of Melchizedek, the priest who—-before there even was a Levitical priesthood—-blessed Abraham in the Book of Genesis. Old Testament prophecies predicted that Israelites would be returned to the land of Israel and that would accompany or be followed by paradise; some New Testament writings interpret that literally and assume that Israel will play a significant role in the Messianic paradise: Jesus told his disciples that they would rule the land of Israel, and Jesus and the early church often followed the pattern of preaching to the Jews first, then to the Gentiles. Other New Testament voices, however, expand the Promised Land to include the entire world: Jesus said that the meek would inherit the earth, and the apostle Paul said that God promised Abraham that he would inherit the world—-which is broader than the land of Israel—-through faith. Christians have had their ways of interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures, but people who do not share Christian presuppositions can read the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and not see what Christians claim to see. In Colossians 1:26, as a matter of fact, the author says that God’s plan to include the Gentiles in the church was a mystery unknown for many generations. Do not be surprised, therefore, that people can read the Old Testament and not see what Christians believe. The Old Testament was around for centuries, and people could read it and not anticipate that God would create a church and include Gentiles as his people.

Now for some reflections. I think that the Bible is a book about people struggling with God, who still acts. When I read the Bible, I do believe that I am seeing different points of view from different writers. Some had such-and-such a political agenda and religious beliefs, and some had a different viewpoint. Still, there was a belief within them that they were called be a holy people—-a people who worshiped a loving and just being who was greater than themselves, a people who loved their neighbors and opposed oppression and injustice. They may have expressed their laws and their ideas in different ways—-the Covenant Code in the Book of Exodus, for example, may be different from the Book of Deuteronomy and the Holiness Code in Leviticus—-but I believe that their belief that they should be a holy people, and that the Jewish people were chosen to be a holy people and an example to the nations—-came from God, in some sense, whether through direct revelation, God moving their hearts, or some other experience with the divine.

There were biblical writers who had dreams that seemed to go unfulfilled. Prophets in the Old Testament, in their various ways, believed that God would restore Israel to her land and that would be followed by paradise, but that did not happen right after Israel returned to her land. Early and later Christians continually hoped that Christ would return soon, and that they should be ready, but two thousand years have passed and Christ has not returned. Still, these people of faith held on to hope. And I would say that their suffering with hope was not in vain. Jesus said in our New Testament text in John 12, before he would suffer humiliation and death, that a seed must die in order to bear fruit. That could be a reason for the situation in which many of us are finding ourselves—-trying to hold on to hope, even as we suffer and endure a life that falls short of what we understand to be God’s purposes—-of health, of prosperity, of love. There are times when these sorts of experiences can produce fruit—-they can be times to rely on God, for introspection, for developing compassion for others. Several powerful parts of the Old Testament came about when Israel was in exile or was experiencing disappointment after the exile.

But suffering without hope can lead to bitterness. And that is why I say that I do not believe that the Old Testament authors and the early and later Christians were holding on to an empty hope, or to wishful thinking that had no substance. I think that their hope, in some way, came from God, and that God has acted in history to demonstrate that their hope has substance. Israel was in exile, but God moved King Cyrus of Persia to allow the Jews to return to their land, and the Jews have survived for centuries, notwithstanding persecution. God was with Israel after the exile as she dealt with threats—-people kept trying to undermine them, to obstruct their work, and to turn the authorities against them, but God saw Israel through these challenges. Years later, in the first century, Jesus was here, and miracles, healings, and changed lives convinced people that their hope was being fulfilled. I believe that God intervenes at times to show us that he is still there, that he loves us, and that we have good reason to hope.

And there are practical ramifications to this hope. In our New Testament reading in John 12, Jesus talks about the prince of the world (the devil) being driven out, and he says that this is a time for service, for being where Jesus is, caring about people, for self-denial. God and righteousness are the wave of the future—-and, in some sense, Jesus was saying in John 12 that the seeds of that are in the present—-and we get to act on that belief when we serve others, and when we choose love rather than hatred and lust.

And yet we are human, and that brings me back to the need for a changed heart. In Jeremiah 31, we see the hope that God will write God’s law on Israel’s heart and mind, and Jeremiah says this will be a new covenant, different from the old covenant that God established with Israel at Sinai—-an old covenant that offered law, but not a way for Israel to become transformed so that she could keep the law. Even under this old covenant, though, David in Psalm 51, after his sin with Bathsheba held a mirror to him as to how far he had fallen, asked God to create in him a clean heart, to wash him, so that he would be whiter than snow. This was not how the old covenant normally operated. And yet, I would like to believe that God still honored David’s prayer for a clean heart, on some level, that David’s hope for personal spiritual renewal was not in vain. God is always happy when someone recognizes his or her dependence on him. So if you find that you wrestle with sin—-impatience, hatred, or maybe not hatred but selfishness and a lack of love for others—-go to God, the source of love. Depend on God continually. God will create in you a clean heart. It may be a long process. People may not always notice the change in you, or they may not notice the change for a while. But God will still create that clean heart. Amen, and amen.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

II Chronicles 25

II Chronicles 25 is about King Amaziah of Judah.  The Chronicler says that Amaziah was a righteous king, but his heart was not perfect.  Amaziah’s father, King Joash, had been killed, and Amaziah as king obeyed the Torah by executing the men who killed his father but not their sons, for the Torah says that children shall not die for the sins of their fathers, but each shall die for his own sins (Deuteronomy 24:16).  Amaziah decides to go to war, and he hires men from Northern Israel to help him in this.  A man of God comes and tells Amaziah not to enlist the help of the Northern Israelites, for God is not with them.  Amaziah points out that he has already paid a hundred talents to the soldiers from Northern Israel, and the man of God responds that God is able to give Amaziah more than that.  Amaziah sends away the Northern Israelites, who now are angry with Judah.  Amaziah proceeds to kill Edomites and even to throw ten thousand of them over a cliff.  The upset Northern Israelite soldiers return to the scene and capture Judahite cities, kill Judahites, and take a lot of spoil.  Amaziah decides to worship Edomite gods, and a prophet tells Amaziah that this makes no sense, for the Edomite gods could not deliver Edom from Amaziah and Judah, so why would Amaziah worship them?  The chapter then talks about a conflict between Amaziah and Northern Israel.

I have four items.

1.  Why did Amaziah decide to go to war against Edom?  The Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary says that Amaziah did so because Israel being over Edom was an indication of Israel’s spiritual preeminence.  Did not Isaac in Genesis 27 tell Jacob (the ancestor of Israel) that he would rule over Esau (the ancestor of Edom)?  Was not Amaziah affirming God’s promises to Israel?  Yes, but Jacob also said that Esau would break the yoke of Jacob from off his neck (v 40).  God in Deuteronomy 2:4ff. instructed the Israelites to leave the Edomites and their land alone.

I cannot say that the Chronicler disapproves of Amaziah’s war, however, because the man of God does promise that Amaziah will succeed in this endeavor.  Amaziah’s attack of Edom appears unprovoked in II Chronicles 25, but maybe it wasn’t.  II Chronicles 20 presents a situation in which the Edomites were attacking Judah, notwithstanding God’s instructions to the Israelites years earlier not to take Edom’s land; the Edomites, there, were the ones attacking when unprovoked.  Or perhaps the Chronicler actually thought that Judah was entitled to Edom, and that Edom only became independent because Judah disobeyed God.  II Chronicles 21 appears to have this kind of story.

2.  Amaziah throwing Edomites over a cliff appears very brutal.  Some commentators seek to explain or to justify this action.  The Artscroll says that Amaziah was resorting to brutality to keep the brutal and obscene nation of Edom in line: he was speaking to them in a language that they could understand, namely, brute force.  The Artscroll also suggests that Amaziah may have been applying against the Edomites God’s command in Deuteronomy 25:17 to blot out the wicked nation of Amalek, for Josephus in Antiquities 9 alternates between Edom and Amalek.  The Sages, however, considered Amaziah’s act to be cruel.

In reading this story, I thought that, if it is true, then it is no wonder that the Edomites were so cruel to the Judahites when the Babylonians came and destroyed Jerusalem.  The Edomites blocked the Judahites way of escape during this disaster (Obadiah 1:14).  God condemns the Edomites for doing this, and Ezekiel 35:5 criticizes the Edomites for their perpetual wrath.  Perhaps the Edomites should have forgiven and forgotten, but I can see why that may have been difficult for them.

3.  Amaziah does what God wants by dismissing the Northern Israelite soldiers, and the man of God tells Amaziah that God can compensate Amaziah for this act of obedience on his part.  While Amaziah indeed does defeat Edom and take spoil, not everything goes well for him.  The Northern Israelites whom he dismissed return and attack Judah.  This is puzzling, in light of the Chronicler’s view that doing the right thing leads to rewards.  Raymond Dillard suggests that the Chronicler may have included this story to set the stage for Judah’s conflict with Northern Israel later in the chapter.  Matthew Henry speculates that God allowed the Northern Israelites to afflict the Judahite cities because those particular cities were close to Northern Israel and thus were influenced by Northern Israelite idolatry.  Henry, like the Chronicler, may have found it odd that Amaziah was suffering for doing the right thing, so he proposed that some sin on the part of the Judahite cities brought about their affliction.

A lesson that I can glean could be that things do not always go well when we do the right thing, for the world is full of covetous, resentful people.  But God is with us through it all, working good, and hopefully our story will have a happy ending.

4.  Amaziah decided to worship the gods of Edom, the nation that he just defeated.  Why would he do that?  The Artscroll says that Amaziah feared that the Edomite gods would take revenge against him on account of his atrocity against the Edomites, so he tried to placate them.  John MacArthur, similarly, says that Amaziah could have been seeking to prevent an Edomite threat in the future.  The commentator on I-II Chronicles in the HarperCollins Study Bible, however, says that Amaziah believed that the Edomite gods assisted him in defeating Edom.  That sort of view was common in that day.  The Babylonian captain of the guard, Nebuzaradan, for example, attributed Babylon’s success against Jerusalem to the God of Israel’s anger at Judah’s sins (Jeremiah 40).

For some reason, though, this possibility did not enter the Chronicler’s mind, for the Chronicler presents a prophet who thinks it absurd that Amaziah would worship Edomite gods, after defeating Edom.  Perhaps the lesson that I can glean from all this is that I should worship God and trust in God rather than being afraid of what might happen.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Book Write-Up: Faith, Freedom and the Spirit

Paul D. Molnar.  Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology.  Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2015.  See here for Intervarsity Press’s page about the book.

Paul D. Molnar teaches Systematic Theology at St. John’s University, which is located in Queens, New York.  Faith, Freedom and the Spirit seems to build on an earlier book that Molnar wrote, Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity: In Dialogue with Karl Barth and Contemporary Theology (New York: T&T Clark, 2002).  Molnar also responds to certain critiques of that work.

I had heard the terms “economic Trinity” and “imminent Trinity” before, and I had a vague idea what they meant.  A theology student told me years ago that God the Son (who became Jesus Christ) is equal to God the Father in terms of his nature and power, yet submits himself in obedience to the Father in terms of his function, role, and activity.  The latter, according to this student, is the economic Trinity.  I still felt that I should probably look up these terms in order to understand Molnar’s book.  Here is what wikipedia says (and please don’t chew me out for using wikipedia!): “The economic Trinity refers to the acts of the triune God with respect to the creation, history, salvation, the formation of the Church, the daily lives of believers, etc. and describes how the Trinity operates within history in terms of the roles or functions performed by each Person of the Trinity—God’s relationship with creation. The ontological (or essential or immanent) Trinity speaks of the interior life of the Trinity—the reciprocal relationships of Father, Son, and Spirit to each other without reference to God’s relationship with creation.”

How exactly does this relate to Molnar’s Faith, Freedom and the Spirit?  The economic Trinity describes the roles that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit perform in their relationship with creation, especially humanity.  God the Son as Jesus, for example, submits himself to the Father’s will and dies for our sins, and so Jesus fulfills a role as redeemer in his relationship with certain human beings.  The Holy Spirit indwells believers.  The immanent Trinity, however, concerns the relationship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit with each other, apart from their roles in relating to creation.  The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit existed eternally, long before creation, in a relationship of love.

According to Molnar, there are theologians who are trying to collapse the economic Trinity into the immanent Trinity, and they are saying that the influential twentieth century theologian Karl Barth actually came to do the same thing in the course of his thought.  One view is that God the Son was always incarnate, even before Jesus was born.  After all, one can argue, there is no before or after with God, since God is eternal and outside of time, so can we legitimately say that God the Son was fleshless, then became a human being in the first century and learned about human suffering so he could relate to us better, then went back to heaven with resurrected flesh, and the insights that he gained from the incarnation?  No, some seem to say: there is no before or after with God, so God the Son was always incarnate, always carrying that knowledge of what it means to suffer!  Another view is that God somehow decided to fashion the Trinity because God was planning to relate to human beings as a Trinity: as Father, as Son, and as Holy Spirit.  The Trinity, according to this view, does not seem to be something that God intrinsically is and always has been, but rather is something that God decided to become in light of how he would relate to his creation.

Molnar emphatically disagrees with these views, and he argues extensively that they are not faithful to what Karl Barth actually taught.  Molnar does believe that Karl Barth went off the right path, in some instances.  Barth seemed to imply that God the Son becoming a human being was inevitable, which arguably undercuts God the Son’s freedom by saying that he had to do something.  According to Molnar, Barth also occasionally leaned in the direction of treating God the Son as naturally inferior to God the Father, rather than as equal with God the Father in his nature.  Still, Molnar does not think that Barth went as far as some theologians think, and he maintains that, in many respects, Barth is consistent with the Bible and the overall stream of historical orthodox Christian theology.

Molnar also interacts with the views of Barth and theologian Thomas Torrance about divine revelation.  Molnar highlights that, for Barth, God reveals himself to people through the Gospel and person of Jesus Christ, and God through the Holy Spirit convinces them thereby about the truth of the Gospel and their need for salvation from sin.  According to Molnar, Barth is different from theologians who believe that humans can find God through self-acceptance, by listening to their conscience, or by looking to nature or philosophy.  No, Barth believes that God must reveal himself to sinful human beings through Christ and the Holy Spirit for them to know God.

These topics of the nature of the Trinity and divine revelation look like two different topics, and one can ask how Molnar believes that they intersect with each other.  One can also inquire why Molnar thinks that they are important.  Why should I care, for example, whether or not God the Son was always incarnate?  Is this debate and the others Molnar discusses substantially equivalent to the debate over how many angels can dance on the head of the pin, or do they have profound, significant ramifications?

Well, one topic that flows through the book is that of freedom: God’s and ours.  Molnar seems to argue that God has freedom in the sense that God chose to redeem human beings.  God did not have to do so, and his plan to do so had nothing to do with how he instrinsically is in the Trinity.  God chose to love us.  I have heard more than one preacher say something similar: that God did not love us out of any neediness on God’s part, for God was already giving and receiving love within the Trinity.  Somehow, in this argument and in the arguments that Molnar makes, there is a sense that God cannot be dependent on us, that it compromises God’s honor and majesty to say that he is.

Regarding our freedom, Molnar appears to agree with Barth that God by revelation frees human beings from their slavery to sin and thus inspires them to obey God.  Do these inspired human beings then have the freedom to sin?  It is hard to tell from Molnar’s discussion.  On the one hand, such a model presumes that the humans receiving divine revelation get a new worldview, one that yields them to God.  On the other hand, however, Barth acknowledged that even Christians can fall into the temptation of trying to dodge the challenges of the Gospel by substituting for Jesus their own version of God.

Molnar did try to pull the different pieces of his book together in his conclusion, and I do give him credit for his attempt, even if I am not entirely clear how they hold together.  Still, I have questions.  Why can we not say that God had to redeem us?  Perhaps God’s love compelled him to do so.  Molnar says in one place that he is open to saying that the love that the Son has for the Father is related somehow to the love that God the Son has for us (i.e., Christ redeemed us out of his love for the Father, or God extends the love that exists in the Trinity to us); Molnar says elsewhere in the book, perhaps quoting a theologian with whom he seems to agree, that freedom for God does not mean that a variety of alternatives are equally on the table for God to pursue.  God is righteous and acts righteously.  Maybe love is so much a part of who God is that God could not just sit back and let humanity fall into oblivion, but God felt compelled to save us.

I also wonder how Barth would address why some human beings appear to receive God’s revelation, while others do not, for Barth places a lot of emphasis on God’s agency in the revelation and conversion of people, while saying that we cannot climb our own way to a knowledge of God.  Some characterize Barth as a universalist, so perhaps Barth thought that, eventually, God would reveal Christ to everyone, who would then be inspired to turn to God.

This book was very repetitive, in that it continually repeated certain themes.  I do not entirely fault Molnar for this, for he was extensively trying to document and to show that certain theologians have Barth wrong.  I wish, though, that he spent more space explaining why he thought his discussions were so significant.  I will add that the book did have an interesting discussion of God’s passivity and impassivity.  This is relevant to the issue of Christ’s suffering, for an aspect of God is that God does not suffer: God cannot be hurt by human beings but is always happy and at peace.  Molnar seems to contend that passivity and impassivity are both part of God—-that, yes, Jesus suffered, and yet there is a peace that exists within God that God imparts to us.

I apologize for any misunderstanding of Molnar on my part!

I received a complementary copy of this book from Intervarsity Press in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Book Write-Up: How to Be Pentecostal Without Speaking in Tongues

Tony Campolo.  How to Be Pentecostal Without Speaking in Tongues.  Dallas: Word Publishing, 1991.  See here to buy the book.

Tony Campolo is a preacher and a sociologist, and he was a spiritual adviser to President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.  Campolo is an evangelical Christian, but he holds a number of progressive political positions that are sensitive towards the poor, so he is considered to be a leader of the Evangelical Left.

How to Be Pentecostal Without Speaking in Tongues is about Pentecostalism, but it is also about the work of the Holy Spirit and spiritual warfare against demons.  According to Campolo, the Holy Spirit guides Christians and encourages them.  For Campolo, those who want a more intimate relationship with God through the Holy Spirit can personally throw their sin and negativity onto Christ, who absorbed it at the cross, and Christ will replace the bad within them with good.  They should also confess and apologize for sins they have committed against others and become a part of a community, however small, in which they can share, pray for each other, and hold each other accountable on living the Christian life.  Campolo also contends that those who are spirit-filled are committed to social justice and environmental preservation.

Regarding spiritual warfare, Campolo talks about the demonic in culture and institutions.  Campolo does not reject rock music, for he mentions rock musicians whose concerts have a positive effect on people, one that uplifts people and engenders within them a spirit of love and peace.  But he also contends that certain negative forms of rock music have had a negative effect on the young, one that makes them sullen, depressed, and rebellious.  In addition, Campolo discusses the involvement of young people in certain forms of witchcraft, as they attempt to gain power in a society in which they feel powerless, victimized, and rejected.  Campolo also focuses on world events and how demons encourage conflict and resentment, and that, according to Campolo, is why being a peacemaker is such an essential aspect of spiritual warfare.

The book contains a number of interesting stories and insights.  Campolo tells a story at the beginning of the book about Pentecostalism in an area of Latin America and how it was encouraging morality and a better life, as people formed co-ops that served themselves economically.  Campolo later tells a story about how he and other religious leftists challenged a corporation about its policies regarding the Dominican Republic, only to learn that their accusations were not entirely fair.  The corporation invited them to propose policies that it could enact to help the poor in the Dominican Republic, and Campolo learned from this the possibility of principalities and powers doing good rather than evil.  Campolo also talks about Billy Graham and how there is a power in Graham’s preaching that encourages people to accept Christ.  It is not because Graham is presenting anything earthshakingly original, and some people who accept Christ in response to Graham’s preaching report that they cannot even remember anything specific that Graham said; but they were still moved to go forward and accept Christ.

Campolo distinguishes between the gifts and the fruit of the Spirit.  For Campolo, the fruit of the Spirit is character that emerges as a result of the Spirit and the Christian’s participation in discipleship, including social justice.  The gifts are gifts of service in Christian ministry.  They include preaching, but they can also include making sure that the church runs smoothly (the gift of helps in I Corinthians 12:28).  According to Campolo, one can have gifts of the Spirit without having fruit, and one can have fruit of the Spirit without being successful in the gifts.  Campolo tells the story of a preacher who was having an affair with an organist, yet his preaching brought a lot of people to God.

There were areas in which Campolo seemed to contradict himself.  He appeared to imply that everyone who is saved and is a child of God experiences the tangible ministry of the Holy Spirit, and yet, in discussing the people in Acts 19 who repented and were baptized yet were unaware of the Holy Spirit, Campolo seemed to believe that they were saved and forgiven even before Paul laid his hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.  Campolo in one place depicts interaction with the Holy Spirit as something that can be done in solitude, and he relates that he does so while lying in bed at night.  Later, however, he says that Christianity is not about seeking God in solitude but in community, for the Spirit shows up when believers are together.  Appealing to Matthew 5:23-24, Campolo says that Christians should not meet God until they have made amends to those against whom they have sinned, and he critiques the idea that reconciliation with God must precede reconciliation with others, saying that Jesus appears to teach the opposite.  Later in the book, though, Campolo praises the Psalms as examples of people honestly venting before God about the people in their lives.

Some of Campolo’s interpretations of Scripture were rather interesting.  Romans 8:19 says: “For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God” (KJV).  I have long seen that as eschatological—-as something that will occur after Christ comes back—-but Campolo applies it to Christians doing works of social justice and contributing to the healing of creation in the here and now.  I am not sure if I agree with Campolo’s interpretation, but I do agree with his point, for, so often, the Spirit in the Bible inspires people to be concerned for the poor.

Because Campolo presents the Spirit as tangibly guiding believers, one may wonder if that means that we cannot question anyone who says God is speaking to him or her.  Campolo does express skepticism about some claims.  He talks about a woman who said that God told her to tell Campolo to read certain anti-feminist books, after Campolo had delivered a pro-feminist message, and Campolo was skeptical that God told her this, since he had already read the books.  Campolo also notes that there are many who claim to be speaking under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, yet they focus on end-time scenarios rather than what the Bible focuses on, such as the poor.  In one chapter, Campolo criticizes the excesses within Pentecostalism (i.e., preachers interested in money, people coming up with off-the-wall ideas and attributing them to the Spirit), preferring the Anglican and Catholic varieties that honor tradition and thus weed out the excesses.

This was an enjoyable book to read, and there was so much more in the book that I did not mention.  I struggle with some things that Campolo says.  His point about the importance of reconciliation before meeting with God challenges me, as one who has difficulty with this, and yet that does not mean that this standard is entirely wrong.  There are many Christians who do not experience God in a tangible way, but who may rely on the Bible or experience God as aloof, and I wonder how Campolo would account for that.  I am also not sure if I agree with him about God blessing preachers who are immoral and lack the fruit of the Spirit: on some level, it makes sense, since we can see that there are immoral preachers who are successful in gaining converts, and moral preachers who are not as successful.  And yet, I Timothy 3 and II Timothy 2 emphasize that good character is a criterion for those who want to be spiritual leaders in the community, so why would God honor an immoral preacher?

Surprisingly, Campolo’s description of his own small group did not particularly scare me, as one who is socially anxious and who cringes at the word “accountability” because it sounds cultish.  Campolo describes his group as three people gathering together, sharing, and praying the Psalms.  It’s rather simple, and yet, as Campolo states, the Spirit meets them.

Overall, this book helped me to appreciate the Holy Spirit, as one who encourages Christians personally and communally while bringing forth good into the world.  Reading this book made me want to read more by Tony Campolo.

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