Friday, July 31, 2015

The Unborn, Alcohol and Scripture, and the Afterlife

My church’s Sunday School class is going through the United Methodist Church’s Social Principles.  We had a lot of good discussions last Sunday: about pay disparity between men and women, alcohol, eugenics, the unborn, rights and responsibilities, the afterlife, and the list goes on.  In this post, I will concentrate on three topics: the unborn, alcohol and Scripture as a guide, and the afterlife.

1.  We did not have an extensive discussion on abortion, per se, but we did get into issues regarding the unborn.  The pastor has a Ph.D. in genetics from Yale, and she was addressing some of what the Social Principles have to say about genetics.  Although she is politically progressive, she was expressing concern about the unborn.  She was saying that certain fertility procedures result in the creation of numerous unused embryos, and she was questioning whether that was right.  She also told us a story about Saudi couples who wanted to see their child inside of the woman’s womb, and their real reason for doing so was to determine if the child was a female, and to abort the child if that was the case.

After the pastor left the class to prepare for the church service, we stayed behind and continued the discussion (or, actually, I just listened).  One lady, who was raised in a conservative Catholic home and has an ambivalent attitude towards her Catholic upbringing (i.e., her attitude is negative, but she still seems to embrace some of its ideas), appeared to be saying that life begins at conception.  Another lady, who is a progressive activist, said that, if that is the case, then society should care about the well-being and provision of the unborn, just as it cares about children after birth.  A man in the group then said that the reason that the unborn do not have rights is that such rights conflict with women’s rights—-or, rather, the unborn’s rights are being undermined in the name of women’s rights.  His comment was rather controversial among the women in the group, including (it seemed to me) his wife!

I was wondering if it really was the case that the unborn have no rights at all in the United States.  I am aware that abortion is legal, but my understanding was that society still had some concern for the unborn: there are calls for prenatal care in health care policies, and I thought that there were legal penalties for harming a fetus—-if a mother drank and had a child who had fetal alcohol syndrome, for example, or if a man harms a woman and ends up harming her fetus as well.  I later did a search online, and the issue of fetal rights does appear to be rather complex, as far as the law is concerned (see here and here).

When the pastor made that point about embryos, my thought was: “Well, what would be the big deal?  If the embryo is just a blob of tissue, does it matter if there are a lot of them that are unused?”  But even progressive people can believe that human embryos have some special human significance—-that they are more than blobs of tissue.  I recall an online discussion that I had a while back about abortion.  A progressive was saying that she was against abortion personally, but that she still was pro-choice.  I asked her why she was against abortion personally, and she replied that she thinks that, in many cases, abortion is the easy way out—-that there should be some gravity in the decision on whether or not to abort.  Many would say that there already is gravity—-that abortion is not a decision that is made lightly.

I could go on to detail my annoyances with Christian right-wing pro-lifers, particularly the types who proclaim that liberal Democrats are not true Christians because of their abortion stance.  (No one in the group espoused this view, fortunately.)  Personally, I am not satisfied with either side: I believe that the unborn are more than blobs of tissue, but I also think that laws against abortion are too inflexible and can place the health and economic livelihoods of women at risk.  Anyway, I don’t want to write myself into a pit, so let’s move onto the next item.

2.  On alcohol, the Social Principles gave a nod to the traditional Methodist belief in abstinence, but they went on to say that, if people decided to drink, then they should drink responsibly, and with Scripture as a guide.  The pastor thought that the part about Scripture being a guide on alcohol was a bit laughable.  “What Scripture is supposed to be the guide?,” she asked.  “Jesus turning barrels of water into wine?”

That part in the Social Principles stood out to me, too.  Initially, I thought that Scripture could be a guide.  The Bible does condemn drunkenness (I Corinthians 6:10), and the Book of Proverbs depicts negative consequences of drinking too much.  As I reflected on my life, however, I realized that those passages did not exactly convict me in the days when I was drinking.  I assumed that they were talking about something different from what I was doing, that they were not talking about me going out and getting drunk, but rather concerned people who drank all day, or who got into fights as a result of drinking.

It is interesting to me that, overall, the Social Principles do not quote biblical proof-texts for their position.  They refer to Ezekiel 34:4 in arguing for a universal right to health care, but I cannot think of too many other instances like that.  For example, the section on divorce was reasonable, I thought, but it did not interact with biblical passages about divorce.  That is a refreshing contrast to some things I have seen on the Christian right: I remember one magazine quoting biblical proof-texts to argue that God supports President Reagan’s Star Wars program!  I am not in favor of that extreme, but I am curious as to why Scripture does not play a prevalent role in the Social Principles.  Are they trying to avoid simplistic proof-texting?  Do they believe that applying Scripture as a guide is complex?  Maybe their authors would say that they are drawing from the principles of Scripture, even if, as a general policy, they are not quoting explicit texts.

3.  Someone in the group referred to the section of the Social Principles about suicide.  While the section discourages suicide, it states that “A Christian perspective on suicide begins with an affirmation of faith that nothing, including suicide, separates us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39).”  (Okay, there is another reference to Scripture in the Social Principles!)  The ex-Catholic lady then said that, according to Catholicism, people who commit suicide go to hell.  The reasoning for that position, in my understanding, is that suicide is murder, a mortal sin, and a person who commits that sin cannot repent of it and receive forgiveness because he or she has died.  Both the ex-Catholic lady and the lady who referred to the section on suicide preferred what the United Methodist Church’s Social Principles had to say about the subject.

The lady who referred to the section, however, then said something that took me aback.  She said that nothing can separate us from the love of God, but that we can separate ourselves from the love of God.  She probably meant that we can separate ourselves from God’s love by not believing in him, for she went on to say that we should not worry about the soul of a non-believing friend or loved one who died, for that person may have accepted Jesus before dying.  Impending death, she said, can put people in a spiritual state of mind.  I was a bit surprised to see United Methodists wrestling with this question.  I realize that there are conservative United Methodists, but my understanding was that this particular church had recently gone through Rob Bell’s Love Wins, which some say is universalist, and which supposedly argues against the idea that people will go to hell if they fail to accept Jesus in this life (not that Bell would say that spiritual decisions in this life are unimportant).  I’m wondering how people in the church processed the book (which, to be honest, I myself have not read).

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Book Write-Up: God Against the Gods, by Jonathan Kirsch

Jonathan Kirsch.  God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism.  Viking Compass, 2004.  See here to buy the book.

I enjoyed Jonathan Kirsch’s History of the End of the World (see my review here) because I found it to be informative and intriguing, and I appreciated Kirsch’s interaction with scholarly sources about the Book of Revelation.  I figured that I might enjoy his God Against the Gods, as well.  I wanted to learn more about paganism, ideas about the origins of monotheism, and Akhenaton’s monotheistic crusade in Egypt.  I read some of the Amazon reviews of God Against the Gods and saw that the book also discussed Constantine and Julian, and I was not as interested in those topics, since I read a biography of Constantine not long ago (see my review here).  I still decided to read God Against the Gods because I thought I might learn something; plus, Kirsch is a compelling storyteller!

On the one hand, I was very disappointed by the book’s treatment of Akhenaton and Josiah.  I do not feel that I have a greater understanding after reading the book of why these figures decided to pursue and to promote monotheism.  Some of that may be due to the paucity of primary sources, particularly about Akhenaton, but I do feel a need to read more about him to understand him more, and to see how his monotheism interacted with his Egyptian context—-or at the very least to read ideas and speculations about these things.  I also did not find in Kirsch’s book much of a description of ancient Near Eastern paganism or many ideas about how monotheism originated.

On the other hand, I was very impressed by the sections in the book about Constantine and Julian.  Kirsch’s clear telling of the story of Constantine placed in context some of the things that I had read in David Potter’s biography of the man.  Kirsch referred to the idea, for example, that some people in the Roman empire had an almost monotheistic adoration of the sun, and that this could have served as a cover for their belief in Christianity, and Kirsch also discussed the origins of the idea that the Roman empire should have multiple rulers.  Kirsch also portrays Julian as one who embraced paganism because of his disillusionment with the Christians he knew, such as Constantius II, who murdered Julian’s father; Julian’s belief that such people should not receive cheap grace, which Julian thought that Christianity offered, but that paganism did not; and the comfort that Julian received from pagan philosophy during the difficult years of his life.  There may have been additional factors behind Julian’s adherence to paganism, but Kirsch’s telling of the story of Julian really humanized the man.

Overall, I did not find what I was looking for in the book, and I actually enjoyed the sections that I was not expecting to enjoy.  Another impressive section of the book was Kirsch’s discussion of paganism, and his attempts to address Jewish and Christian charges that pagans engaged in human sacrifice and had orgies.  Kirsch argues that human sacrifice came to an end in paganism a couple of centuries before the common era, that the Romans themselves could be rather prudish when it came to sex, that there were pagan cults that prized virginity, and that there are other ways to account for some of the sources that associate prostitution with worship (i.e., some pagans may have associated with prostitutes after worship, but those prostitutes were not necessarily associated with the cult).  Kirsch is not always nuanced in his discussion of paganism, as when he says that pagan worshipers sought a good afterlife, or that pagans had an ethical consideration for the poor, like the Christians did.  Still, Kirsch’s section about paganism was informative.

One may think in reading this book that Kirsch believes that polytheism was good and that monotheism was bad, and that he wishes that polytheism had won out.  Kirsch does give that impression, for he portrays monotheism as historically intolerant and polytheism as tolerant, overall, of different religions and ways to worship.  Kirsch also seems to defend polytheism against charges of intolerance: he says that a number of stories about Christian martyrdom are exaggerated, and that there were cases in which Roman authorities actually begged Christians to offer incense to the gods because the Roman authorities did not want the Christians to be killed.  Still, Kirsch cannot escape the fact that even polytheism has been intolerant, as he points to Antiochus Epiphanes, Diocletian, and even Julian, on occasion.  (Julian was not intolerant, according to Kirsch, but he did turn a blind eye when pagans persecuted Christians.)  In the end, Kirsch acknowledges the contributions of monotheism and polytheism, hopes that they can learn from each other, and expresses a wish that they had reached an armistice, rather than for monotheism to have triumphed.  Kirsch refers to Constantine and Julian as people who supported tolerance for different religions.

After reading this book, I am encouraged to read Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which Kirsch quotes and references, and I may do that someday. I realize that the book is dated, that some of its conclusions have been questioned (i.e., that Rome fell due to moral reasons), and that its biases (i.e., its arguably Enlightenment, anti-Christian bias) have been noted.  Still, I would like to read it sometime.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Story Write-Up: For This Child I Prayed, by William Gage

William Gage.  “For This Child I Prayed.”  2015.  See here to buy the story.

“For This Child I Prayed” is a short story about the biblical story of Hannah in the Bible.  Hannah is barren and prays to God for a child, and God blesses her with Samuel.

There were parts of Gage’s retelling that I particularly liked: Hannah thinking about how her life was not exactly how she envisioned it when she first married Elkanah and was looking forward to children; the children begging to hear Bible stories; and Eli no longer officially serving as priest yet giving the sanctuary a certain dignity with his presence.  The story also effectively portrayed Hannah’s loneliness during the festivals because she did not have a child.

I was a bit dissatisfied with the story’s portrayal of the relationship between Hannah and her husband Elkanah.  In the Bible, in I Samuel 1:5, we read that Elkanah gave Hannah a double portion and loved her, even though God closed her womb.  A few verses later, Elkanah is upset because Hannah is not eating, and he asks Hannah if he is not worth more than seven sons.  Elkanah’s favoritism towards Hannah may have been one reason that his other wife, Peninnah, taunted Hannah for being barren.  In Gage’s short story, however, Elkanah does not appear to me to be as sensitive, supportive, or loving towards Hannah as he is in the Bible.  They do have a romance that goes back a long time in Gage’s story, and that was sweet, plus Elkanah gets Hannah a dog so that she would be less lonely.  But, overall, Elkanah does not shine in Gage’s story.  Elkanah strikes me as rather cold and insensitive towards Hannah.

Something else that dissatisfied me about Gage’s short story was that it did not really go into the political situation in the time of Hannah.  The priesthood was corrupt, and the Philistines were a threat to Israel.  These things are arguably relevant to the birth of Samuel, for Hannah’s joyful prayer in I Samuel 2 says that Samuel’s birth relates to the dethroning of princes and the lifting up of the needy.  Gage did present Hannah as sacrificing her son when she fulfilled her vow of giving him to the Tabernacle, but I wish that he had explained more what the sacrifice was for: so that Samuel would become a leader of Israel, one who would deliver Israel from afflictions.

I give this story 3.5 stars.  3 is too low because it did have excellent scenes, but 4 is too high because I was hoping for more depth.

The author asked me to write a review of his short story, and I thank him for doing so.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Book Write-Up: The Sons of Isaac, by Roberta Kells Dorr

Roberta Kells Dorr.  The Sons of Isaac.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1995, 2014.  See here to buy the book.

The Sons of Isaac is Roberta Kells Dorr’s retelling of the stories of the biblical characters Isaac and Jacob.  A while back, I read and reviewed her book about Isaac’s parents, Abraham and Sarah, and I really enjoyed the book.  The Sons of Isaac was good, too, but I liked Abraham and Sarah a lot more, perhaps because it was chalked with more historical information.  One could say that there is only so much historical information that one can draw on in telling the story of Isaac and Jacob.  Abraham dwelt in the populous area of Ur and traveled to Egypt, where he interacted with the Pharaoh.  Isaac, by contrast, spent most of his time in Canaan, pasturing his flocks and interacting with King Abimelech, whom historians know nothing about.  At the same time, it’s not as if Canaan was a wasteland.  Cities and kings were there, and scholars have sought to learn about Canaanite religion through Ugaritic literature.  Dorr did talk about Canaanite religion, including the deities of El and Baal, but Abraham and Sarah was a lot fuller in terms of historical information.

The Sons of Isaac continues a prominent theme that was in Abraham and Sarah: Why do God’s chosen people have to wait through long seasons of apparent fruitlessness and barrenness, whereas things seem to be much easier for those outside of God’s chosen community?  The Sons of Isaac focuses more, however, on what being chosen entails.  The son of the promise inherits most of his father’s possession and carries with him the promise of his seed becoming populous and inheriting the land of Canaan.  At the same time, there is a deeper spiritual significance to being chosen: becoming a means by which God will bless the world.  A relationship with God is a key element of being chosen, and that is why Isaac was nearly sacrificed in Abraham’s act of obedience whereas Isaac’s brother Ishmael was not, and why Isaac could not marry the Canaanite women whereas his son Esau freely did.  In The Sons of Isaac, the unchosen sons are very practical rather than reflective.  Esau manifests some sensitivity towards the covenant when he seeks to marry a Hittite woman, who deems circumcision to be abominable, for Esau at least recognizes that circumcision is important to his people.  Yet, Isaac and Jacob, the chosen ones, are the ones who are more reflective about life and its larger questions, and that makes them suitable for being the sons of the promise (not that God chose them on that basis, but it does make them suitable).

The Sons of Isaac also attempts to explain certain odd details in the biblical narrative.  Why did Abraham send his servant to find a wife for Isaac, rather than sending Isaac himself?  (Dorr’s answer: Abraham was afraid that his brother Nahor would keep Isaac in Haran, rather than allowing Isaac to return to Canaan.)  Why did the Philistines stop up the wells that Isaac dug in Genesis 26, rather than using those wells for themselves in that time of famine?  (Dorr’s answer: the Philistines opposed the wells because they believed that the wells were trying to circumvent the will of the gods, whom they believed sent the famine, and the Philistines sought to appease the gods to bring the famine to an end.)  Why did Reuben sleep with Rachel’s servant, Bilhah?  (Dorr’s answer: Reuben felt neglected by his father, and Bilhah was lonely now that Rachel had died.)  There was one question that Dorr did not really address: How could the Philistine king Abimelech believe that Rebekah was Isaac’s sister and thus available to him, when Isaac and Rebekah at the time both had children, children who were near or in their teens?  Maybe Abimelech did not notice them, or he concluded that they were someone else’s children!

The Sons of Isaac had some details that struck me as contradictory.  On the one hand, Abraham reflects on his grandchildren Jacob and Esau, and how Jacob is ignored by his father Isaac yet is more like Isaac in being reflective.  You would think that Abraham has somewhat of a preference for Jacob, and yet Abraham is disappointed when he learns that Jacob will be the one taking care of him in his old age.  On the one hand, Jacob appears to be sensitive to spiritual things, for he asks Abraham why he left Ur.  On the other hand, Rebekah reflects that even Jacob did not care much about God.  On the one hand, Laban tries to discourage Jacob from leaving him by saying that Jacob will be departing in poverty.  On the other hand, we are told that Jacob had become rich when he was with Laban.  These may be contradictions, or they may reflect nuance.

The book had beautiful passages.  There was the scene in which Rebekah was finally giving birth to children, after a long time of barrenness, and everyone is paying attention to her firstborn son, Esau.  She, however, falls in love with her second child, Jacob, as he sucks her thumb.  There was the scene in which Rebekah reflected on how she had fallen from being the cheerful, giving woman who watered the camels of Abraham’s servant, to becoming one who would deceive her husband Isaac so that the blessing would go to Jacob.  As in the Book of Genesis, Jacob’s wives, Leah and Rachel, have a fierce rivalry  because Rachel is Jacob’s favorite wife, whereas Leah is having a lot of children.  But a small part of Leah is actually happy for her sister Rachel when Rachel finally has a son and needs to learn the ropes of motherhood.

How The Sons of Isaac handled the story of Dinah (Genesis 34) particularly interested me.  Whereas Genesis 34:2 presents Shechem raping Dinah, Dorr seems to present the act as consensual.  After Simeon and Levi slaughter the Shechemites, Dinah cries and says that Shechem loved her.  Overall, while Dinah’s sex with Shechem is presented as irresponsible in Dorr’s book, Dorr tends to side with the view that Simeon and Levi were wrong to slaughter and plunder the Shechemites.  Jacob actually instructs his sons to return the Shechemite women and the plunder to Shechem, and Jacob feels bad for the Shechemite women who have lost their men.  There are different interpretations of who was right and who was wrong in this story.  Jewish pseudepigraphical literature tends to side with Simeon and Levi, who avenged the rape of their sister.  Other voices have been critical of them.  A famous book about the story that I should probably read is Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent.

In terms of spiritual lessons in the book, a point that I appreciated was that we should go to God with our requests, especially in times of fruitlessness, so that, when our prayers are finally answered, we will give glory to God.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Resentment and Persevering Love

I did not write about church yesterday afternoon because I went to see some beautiful waterfalls and saw some beautiful scenery.  Maybe I’ll talk about that later this week, or next week, looking at the question of how that relates to God.  Today, I’ll write about yesterday’s church service.

The theme of yesterday’s service was love.  The pastor found a prayer online about love, and it asked that we might let go of our grudges and reach out in love.  During the prayer part of the service, the band was playing and singing a song that was written by Sara Groves, “Miracle.”  See here.  Allow me to quote from the song:

Lay down your arms.
Give up the fight.
Quiet our hearts for a little while.

Things have been spoken,
Shouldn’t be said,
Rattles around in our hearts and our heads.

Let’s feel what we cannot feel,
Know what we cannot know,
Let’s heal where we couldn’t heal.
Oh, it’s a miracle, it’s a miracle.

The singing of the song was beautiful, and I would say that most of the song is accurate, at least where I am concerned. Letting go of grudges is indeed a miracle.  And, speaking for myself, a lot of my grudges are about things that people have said.  And, yes, those things do rattle around in my heart and head.  The first stanza seems to imply that I am the one swinging and fighting when I relive bad memories.  Sometimes that is true, and sometimes it is not.  Sometimes I feel as if the bad memories and the negativity are attacking me, and my role in the combat begins when I try to counter them, primarily through taking a breather and praying.  But there have also been times when I have been the one agonizing and wrestling in my bitterness, and, yes, I find rest when I lay down my arms and give up the fight—-my fight in my mind with people, that is.

The sermon was delivered by someone in the congregation.  She was talking about a cheerful lady at work who said “Good morning” to a grumpy man for seven years before he finally returned the greeting.  That does encourage me to persevere in love.  At the same time, speaking for myself personally, I usually do not experience a lack of reciprocal love from grumpy people.  The people who throw my friendliness in my face are stuck-up people, or cliquish people, or people who do not seem to think that I am good enough.  I am tempted not to acknowledge them at all rather than to give them the satisfaction of thinking that I want to be their friend.  But may God give me the strength to persevere in love!

May God give me the strength to have an attitude of love towards those who have offended me—-to see those people as people, like me.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Book Write-Up: One Church, Many Tribes, by Richard Twiss

Richard Twiss.  One Church, Many Tribes: Following Jesus the Way God Made You.  Ventura, California: Regal Books, 2000.  See here to buy the book.

I wrote about Richard Twiss’ posthumous 2015 book, Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys, in my post here.  Richard Twiss was a Native American evangelical who advocated contextualization: Native Americans worshiping Jesus according to Native American rituals, such as pow-wows, sweat lodges, dances, and drums.  This view is in contrast with the view of those evangelicals, including some Native American evangelicals, who regard such customs as pagan or demonic and believe that Native Americans should leave them behind when they become Christians.

While I thought that Twiss made important points in effective ways, I was not entirely satisfied with Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys.  There were some things that I was hoping he would flesh out more, such as the differences between Native American religion and white Christianity, and the original meaning of certain rituals in their Native American context and how Twiss believes that Native American evangelicals can appropriate them, without falling into paganism (which Twiss, too, believes would be a bad thing).  In short, I needed an introduction to the issue, whereas Twiss in Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys seemed to me to be building on previous discussions.  In addition, while Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys did manifest a passionate opposition to historic injustice and included anecdotes, it often used academic language that was rather abstract.

I searched on Amazon, and I came across a book by Twiss that came out over a decade earlier, in 2000.  This book is One Church, Many Tribes: Following Jesus the Way God Made You.  I wondered if this book would have more of what I was looking for, and I requested it from a local library.
One Church, Many Tribes was what I was looking for.  It is introductory, inviting, and down-to-earth.  Twiss includes a number of stories, both fictional ones to illustrate his point, and factual ones.  Twiss had a chapter enumerating differences between Native American culture and spirituality and white Christianity.  In another chapter, he explains how Native American evangelicals can worship Jesus through their own cultural expressions without being syncretistic.  Twiss did not really flesh out the original meaning of Native American rituals and how that differs from the meaning that Native American evangelicals ascribe to them when appropriating them, but this did not dissatisfy me as a reader.  Essentially, it seems to me, Native Americans would do certain rituals in honor of other gods before they became Christians, and they would do those rituals to honor Jesus after becoming Christians.

I still have questions, though, or there are areas in which I am still unclear.  For one, Twiss seems to believe, in accordance with certain Native American cultures, that nature has a personality.  In a poignant passage, Twiss remarks that Native Americans, in reading the story in Numbers 22 about Balaam’s ass talking, would not be surprised that the ass spoke, but rather they would inquire what the ass had to say.  Twiss also appeared to be open to the possibility of trees talking.  (I think of the Disney movie Pocahantas.)  On the one hand, Twiss seemed to be suggesting that nature was an expression of the creator, and that this was how nature could have a personality or speak: it was essentially channeling God.  Twiss was saying that not all Native American beliefs are “spiritistic, pantheistic or animistic” (page 94), for there was a monotheistic component to Native American spirituality, a belief in a supreme being.  On the other hand, Twiss seemed to suggest that nature itself had a personality, in its own right, and that this is consistent with Scripture: the winds and waves obeyed Jesus (Luke 8:24-25), and Romans 8:19-21 presents nature groaning as it awaits and desires release from decay.

Second, on pages 132-133, Twiss talks about burning incense.  On the one hand, Twiss seems to believe that burning incense can have a symbolic value for Native American evangelicals: that it can remind them that their prayers are going to heaven, through faith in Jesus.  As Twiss notes, Revelation 8:3-4 likens prayer to incense.  On the other hand, Twiss refers to Plains traditions that the smoke itself can cleanse, purify, and take prayers to heaven.  Twiss does not comment about whether he considers that belief to be right or wrong, but it does seem to me that this manifests a difference between a Native American tradition and Christianity: the former is saying that the smoke itself cleanses, purifies, and takes prayers to heaven, whereas the latter would say that Jesus cleanses and purifies, and that through him the prayers of believers go to God’s throne.  I am not saying this to be closed-minded, but rather to note that this issue would make a good case study for the larger issue of appropriation versus syncretism, which Twiss addresses.

Third, Twiss refers to Native Americans who predicted the coming of white people who would teach them Christianity.  I do not know how reliable these legends are historically. Could they have been developed after white people came?  I vaguely recall reading about white people who would arrive, and they got the impression that they were expected.  I did an Internet search, and most of the sites that I found took these legends for granted.  Are there any scholars who question them?

One Church, Many Tribes discusses other issues as well.  There is the issue of reconciliation, not only between whites and Native Americans, but also between other people-groups, and even among Native Americans themselves.  According to Twiss, a number of Native Americans have been prejudiced against African-Americans, one reason being that Native Americans felt excluded from the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.  There is also the issue of how Twiss believes that Native American evangelicals will be instrumental in carrying the Gospel to other lands.  Many people regard Native Americans as interesting and exotic, as a result of Hollywood.  Communist countries sympathized with Native Americans because they could point to the United States oppressing Native Americans whenever the United States talked about Communist abuses of human rights.  Plus, there are many people who want to believe that they can worship God without completely giving up their own culture, and a message of contextualization might appeal to them, according to Twiss.  For Twiss, such indicators, and more, not only indicate that Native Americans may be instrumental in carrying the Gospel in the future, but Native American evangelicals have already been carrying the Gospel to other countries and cultures.  This overlaps with a key theme throughout the book: that Native Americans have something valuable to contribute, within God’s purposes, and that their contribution should be welcomed rather than dismissed.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Book Write-Up: Keynes Hayek, by Nicholas Wapshott

Nicholas Wapshott.  Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics.  New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2011.  See here to buy the book.

John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek were economists who profoundly impacted the twentieth century, and whose influence is still present today.  In Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics, Nicholas Wapshott discusses their economic views, their personalities, their relationship with each other, and their influence.

Keynes was a British economist who believed that the government should attempt to create full employment through public works programs.  He also supported low-interest loans for businesses and tax cuts to stimulate demand.  For Keynes, if people had more money in their pockets, then they would spend more, and that would stimulate the economy.  While Keynes thought that the government should resort to deficit spending in slow times to improve the economy, he believed that the government in prosperous times should step back and focus more on paying off its debt.  For Keynes, the government spending a lot in prosperous times could contribute to unnecessary inflation.  Keynes’ thought influenced the Presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon.  Even Presidents who shied away from Keynesian principles in their rhetoric—-such as Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush—-still had policies that could be described as Keynesian, at least partially.

Hayek was  an Austrian economist, and he was skeptical of Keynesian principles.  For one, Hayek thought that giving low-interest loans to people and businesses that did not save enough could prove disastrous, for what would happen when the loans stopped coming?  Would the businesses go belly-up?  Second, Hayek feared that Keynesian policies were inflationary in their support for deficit spending and artificially stimulating demand.  According to Nicholas Wapshott, Hayek was averse to inflation, having experienced its negative effects in Austria.  And third, Hayek did not support Keynes’ belief that the government should seek to influence or tinker with the economy.  For Hayek, the government should stay out of the economy in times of slowdown or catastrophe and allow it to arrive at a state of more equilibrium.  Hayek also believed that the economy was too complex of an animal for the government to successfully shape, meaning that government influence could have unforeseen, and potentially negative, consequences; for Hayek, prices were the best indicator of what consumers wanted and what the market was willing to produce, and they were the ground at which consumers and producers found agreement.  Moreover, in his influential, and controversial, book, The Road to Serfdom, Hayek argued that government attempts to command the economy could lead to totalitarianism, for, if the government could control people’s economic livelihood, what else could it control?  Hayek appealed to Nazi Germany as an example of the kind of danger that he was warning about.  Hayek was marginal for some time because people were enamored with Keynes, plus Hayek’s economic works could be pretty abstruse.  The Road to Serfdom gained Hayek more fame and renown, but it also alienated him from academia due to its controversial nature.  Yet, Hayek would have a profound influence on Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and later the Tea Party movement in America.

To associate Hayek with the political right would be too simplistic, however, for a variety of reasons.  Hayek was supportive of the government having social programs for society’s vulnerable, and he also embraced some form of national health insurance.  At the same time, Hayek was very libertarian in areas and did not think that Reagan and Thatcher went far enough (even though Thatcher practically worshiped the ground that Hayek walked on!).  Hayek was rather critical of conservatism on account of its nationalistic impulses.  Although Hayek and Milton Friedman overlapped in supporting less government, there were differences between the Austrian school of which Hayek was a part and Friedman’s Chicago school.  Hayek focused on microeconomics, whereas Friedman believed that society could influence the economy by regulating its money supply; for Friedman, the Federal Reserve could stimulate the economy by increasing the money supply, but it should not do so too much lest it cause hyper-inflation.  And Ayn Rand considered Hayek’s work to be rubbish (for some reason)!

In addition to describing their economic thought, Wapshott paints a picture of Keynes and Hayek as people.  Keynes for a long time had homosexual relationships, yet he fell in love with a Russian ballerina.  Keynes was a compassionate man: he hated war, he thought that the Treaty of Versailles harshly punished Germany, and he wanted everybody to have a job.  Keynes could also be intimidating and make people feel inadequate, and yet, as Wapshott states, Keynes was open to changing his mind and admitting when he thought he made a mistake.  Hayek was the sort of person I wanted to root for, for he had somewhat of a rags to riches story, in terms of his journey from relative obscurity to growing influence.  That gives a lot of us hope, doesn’t it?

There were parts of the book that I found particularly interesting.  For one, Wapshott said that Dwight Eisenhower put into effect Keynesian principles, but he did so by appealing to national security: let’s build a national highway system, because that will allow us to transport military supplies during the Cold War!  Second, Wapshott referred to Hayek’s response to a critic.  A critic was pointing to Sweden as an example of a country that had strong government influence in the economy and yet was prosperous and far from authoritarian.  Hayek responded that Sweden was prosperous because it was untouched by World War II, and he argued that there was less freedom in Sweden than many may think!  Overall, the critiques of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom were intriguing to me, for the claim that large government influence in the economy could lead to authoritarianism, or even totalitarianism, is widespread in conservatism and libertarianism (or such is my impression).  Some critics of Hayek argued that this would not be the case in countries that had strong democratic traditions; some contended that the private sector, too, could be rather authoritarian.

In terms of which economic perspective I agree with more—-Keynes or Hayek—-I will say that I can understand Keynes’ logic more than that of Hayek after reading Wapshott’s book.  There are still gaps in my understanding of Hayek’s thought.  I can understand Keynes’ rationale that giving people more money to spend will stimulate demand, and that it is better to give people public sector jobs to do useful work than for them to be on the dole.  At the same time, Keynesian policies can be risky, in my opinion: the government is going into debt, with the hope that the debt will somehow improve the economy and pay for itself down the road.  That is not a sure thing.   Keynesian policies can also be inflationary if they stimulate demand without also trying to increase supply.  The existence of stagflation in the 1970’s—-high unemployment and high inflation—-makes me wonder if perhaps Hayek was correct in saying that there are so many considerations when it comes to the economy, and so we cannot package everything into a neat Keynesian package of cause and effect.  And yet, I liked Wapshott’s quotation of someone who said that we are all Keynesians in foxholes: that, in times of economic catastrophe, few politicians want to let nature take its course, but they would prefer for the government to do something to stimulate the economy.

I was surprised to learn that I had already read another of Wapshott’s books: Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: A Political Marriage.  The book had long been in my mind as an excellent book, on account of its stories and discussion, but the name of the author was not in my mind.  I was glad to read another of Wapshott’s books.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Sinister Pious Fraud?

I have been reading the Sibylline Oracles for my daily quiet time.  The Sibylline Oracles were pagan prophetesses, but Jews later composed an edition of their prophecies that were in line with Jewish thought, and Christians added Christian elements to some of the books.

What continually occurs in the books of the Sibylline Oracles is that they are purporting to predict the future about world figures and world events, and yet many scholars would say that the books are “prophesying” after the fact: that someone is putting words into the mouths of ancient figures, making it appear that these ancient figures were predicting the future, when that “future” is actually the past and present of the person putting the words into the ancient figures’ mouths.  The Oracles predict, for example, that such-and-such a Roman leader will come, and that such-and-such will happen to him.  They call the Roman leader by a number that can be decoded, or they refer to him by the first letter of his name, so scholars are often confident about the identity of the Oracles’ reference.  Overall, what the Oracles said would happen is what happened in history, though things are not always that neat.  In a number of cases, the writers’ knowledge of what happened or was happening appears to be skewed or inaccurate: they may say that the Roman leader would die in a certain way, for instance, when actually he died in another way.  And, when they predict an eschatological intervention by God that would precede an eschatological paradise, scholars would not say that the Oracles were prophesying after the fact in those cases, for such a dramatic intervention by God followed by an eschatological paradise did not historically occur.  Rather, the scholars would say that those writers of the Oracles expected such a dramatic intervention to occur in their own time—-the time of the Roman leader, or Nero.

As I was walking to church and thinking about the Sibylline Oracles one morning, I was wondering how exactly I should see the work.  Prophesying after the fact—-acting as if one is an ancient writer predicting the future, when actually one is a current writer describing the present and the past as if they are the future—-sounds pretty shady and fraudulent, doesn’t it?  So does putting Jewish and Christian words into the mouths of ancient pagan prophetesses.  Was the goal of these authors or editors to make people believe that these renowned ancient prophetesses agreed with Judaism and Christianity and should be taken seriously because they accurately predicted the future?  That is rather deceptive, isn’t it?  Can I read such a work sympathetically?  I usually try to give what I am reading the benefit of a doubt: to assume that the authors at least had a good motive.  I would especially like to believe that the authors of the Sibylline Oracles had a good motive, since they say such profound things about the futility of war, and the rest and equality that will exist in the age to come.  But if they were concocting a fraud to deceive people, does that imply that they did not even believe their own message?  I have a hard time accepting that authors would write something that they do not even believe.

I wonder if there is a way to accept that the Sibylline Oracles were prophecies after the fact, while also acknowledging that their authors and editors sincerely believed what they were writing, regarding it, in some way, as divine revelation.  They may have genuinely thought that God was at work in the manner that they were describing, and they wanted people to accept their message—-perhaps to gain hope that God was in control.  They realized, however, that they were not important enough for their words to be taken seriously, so they put their words in the mouth of the ancient Sibylline Oracles.  See here.

Or perhaps they actually believed that they were writing down the words of the ancient Sibylline Oracles: that God was telling them what the Sibylline Oracles said, or that they were somehow in touch with the Sibylline Oracles.  Philo said that the composers of the Septuagint were in touch with the spirit of Moses when they were translating the Pentateuch into Greek (Philo, Life of Moses 2:40).  There is a rabbinic tradition that even a question that a student asks was delivered to Moses on Sinai years before (Midrash Rabbah 47:1).  In these cases, a person is saying something, and yet what that person said somehow coincides with something that a revered authority said years before.  Could that be what is going on with pseudepigraphic writings, or what the writers of those writings believed was going on: that they were somehow channeling (if that is the right word) or mediating the words of Abraham, or Moses, or the Sibylline Oracles?

It gets difficult to believe that when we are dealing with glosses and insertions.  A Jewish edition of a Sibylline Oracle may be going on about events, and a Christian glossator decides to insert a brief remark about Jesus, giving the impression that the ancient Sibylline Oracle was predicting Jesus.  That does sound rather deceitful.  At the same time, could the Christian glossator have believed that the Sibylline Oracles must have said something about Jesus—-which, in the Christian glossator’s mind, was the most significant thing that God had ever done in history—-and thus the Christian glossator, in his own mind, was simply returning to the text what he thought had originally been there?  I don’t know.  Maybe that is a stretch.  On the other hand, the Christian glossator may have sincerely believed in Jesus and was open to convincing others of what he believed was the truth through fraudulent means, so he depicted the ancient and respected Sibylline Oracles as predicting Jesus.

This issue applies to the Bible, too, at least if you agree with the scholars who believe that Moses did not write Deuteronomy, or that Daniel did not write the Book of Daniel.  Someday, I may read Bart Ehrman’s Forged, which is about pseudepigraphy in ancient times.  Ehrman has a more scholarly version of the book, but I would like to see how he explains to layreaders why writers resorted to pseudepigraphy.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Listening, Sharing, and Desiring Good for Others

Last Sunday at Sunday School, the pastor played for us an excerpt of a sermon by Richard Rohr.  Rohr was essentially saying that, instead of trying to prove that we’re right in arguments, we should listen to the other side and learn from it.  Otherwise, nothing new happens to us: how can we learn anything new if we are not willing to learn from another perspective?  The reason that the pastor played this for us is that we are going through the United Methodist Church’s Social Principles, which covers a lot of hot-button issues.

Somehow, we got on the topic of the importance of not thinking that we are the center of the universe.  The pastor was saying that a key stage of transition for children is when they enter kindergarten.  Before that time, many of them are the center of attention in their homes.  In kindergarten, however, they are not, and they have to share attention with other children.  The pastor was saying that a similar thing occurs for a number of adults when they first go to church.  Human nature wants to be the center of attention, but, at church, as in kindergarten, people have to come to terms with the reality that they are not the only people—-that there are other people, too.

The pastor made another point, as well.  We went through the section of the Social Principles about the nurturing community.  The pastor was saying that we have to feel good about ourselves before we can feel good about others.  We have to believe that we are worthy of good things, if we are to believe that others are worthy of good things.

There’s a lot there!  I’ll post some brief reactions.  I can probably write an exhausting treatise about each one, but I don’t want to do that!

1.  Listening to others.  Sure, I do that, in my own way.  Others may not be satisfied with how I do it, or the extent to which I do it.  But I do read different perspectives.  On the other hand, I am not particularly eager to change my mind.  Plus, certain perspectives simply disgust me.  And I would prefer to read other perspectives than to talk about issues with people in acrimonious political discussions.  Yet, I am pretty choosy in what I read, for some voices—-even voices on the other side from where I am—-strike me as more reasonable, thoughtful, and intelligent (maybe even friendlier) than other voices.

2.  Part of life is learning that you are not the center of the universe.  I know that I struggle with this; I am glad that it is human nature, which means that I am not alone in this struggle.  I think that I am perfectly willing to share attention with others.  At the same time, feeling totally alone or ignored is not good, either.  In my opinion, many people do not necessarily want to hog the whole show, but they do want to feel that they are part of the show.  I am just saying this, and I am not commenting on the church that I am attending.  I will say, though, that I feel more integrated into the church now that I have started to attend Sunday school.  At least I know more people, and they are aware of me.  Last Sunday before church started, I had a conversation with someone, and that was good.

3.  Do I believe that I need to feel good about myself before I can feel good about others?  Should I convince myself that I deserve good things, before I can believe that others deserve good things?  I am not sure if this is entirely a problem with me.  Notice the word “entirely.”  I would say that, in my mind, I do deserve good things.  My problem is that there are others who do not necessarily think that.  Do I feel good about myself, then?  Well, no, for I do wish that I were “more” this or that—-smarter, better at socializing, better at knowing that to say, more engaging as a writer, etc.  If I think that I deserve good things, does that make me desire good things for others?  It can, but it doesn’t necessarily.  If I am not faring well, then I have a hard time rooting for others to fare well, especially if they are people whom I do not like.  At the same time, experiencing a lack of success myself can make me more empathetic towards others, and perhaps make me happy when something good happens in another person’s life, especially if that person has been struggling.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Book Write-Up: God's Other Children, by Bradley Malkovsky

Bradley Malkovsky.  God’s Other Children: Personal Encounters with Faith, Love, and Holiness in Sacred India.  New York: HarperOne, 2013.  See here to buy the book.

Bradley Malkovsky teaches comparative theology at the University of Notre Dame.  God’s Other Children is about his spiritual pilgrimage and his experiences in India.  Malkovsky as a teenager became a Catholic after looking for the meaning of life, but he would later observe a confidence and a wisdom among teachers and practitioners of other religions.  Malkovsky came to believe that God reveals himself to people in other religions, even though he also holds that Jesus Christ was a unique revelation of God and God’s love, that it offers the hope of God renewing the cosmos, and that liberation theology provides important insights on God’s love for the poor.  Malkovsky went to India for academic research purposes, and he interacted with Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims while he was there.  It was also there that he met the woman who would become his wife, a woman from a Muslim family who converted to Catholicism after meeting him.

The book had a number of interesting stories and items.  It talked about the practice of the caste system even within Indian Christianity, the discrimination against the Muslim minority in India, the existence of miracles (or things that are difficult to account for naturally) within Indian Christianity and Islam, and the difference between earlier and later yoga.  According to Malkovsky, earlier yoga was about shedding the ego and getting in touch with the part of the self that was not subject to the changing material world, whereas later yoga was about getting in touch with the divine, the ground of being that pervades and underlies all. 

Malkovsky contrasts yoga and meditation with Christianity, saying that the former two emphasize hard work, whereas Christianity is about God’s gracious revelation.  Malkovsky believes that meditation can cleanse the mind, get one in touch with certain truths about oneself (even bad memories), and heighten one’s focus and sensitivity towards others and to God; at the same time, Malkovsky also attempts to justify the idea of God’s grace, that God reveals Godself freely to whomever God chooses, not necessarily in response to people’s hard work.  In addition, Malkovsky thoughtfully addresses the claim among evangelicals and some Catholics that yoga can open one up to demons.  Malkovsky does not casually dismiss that claim, for he does acknowledge that people can become spiritually proud as a result of their success with yoga, and that this can be a response to the demonic.  Yet, Malkovsky sees spiritual value in yoga.

There were two parts of the book that I particularly appreciated.  First, Malkovsky was explaining why he partakes of food that has been sacrificed to Vishnu, something that some of his fundamentalist relatives believe is wrong.  He states on page 60: “But the God to whom the coconut was offered, according to this Hindu theology, was the supreme Lord and Creator of the universe, an infinite and eternal God of mercy and love, a God who, Hindus believe, periodically incarnates into the world to relieve humanity of its suffering and to guide it to the peace of liberation…In many ways, Vi[shn]u was my God, the God of Jesus Christ.”

Second, Malkovsky discussed the views of the late Father Bede Griffiths.  For Father Bade, all are saved in Christ, and all in some way receive the benefits of Christ’s work.  Father Bede said that “The grace of Christ is present in some way to every human being from the beginning to the end.”  This is an intriguing concept, and yet I wonder if it can mesh with the opposition to idolatry throughout the Bible, or the traditional Christian practice of trying to persuade others to convert to Christianity.  Still, I do believe that non-Christians and non-Christian religions can manifest wisdom, peace, love, and humility, and that they may very well be attesting to an experience with a power greater than themselves.

This is a well-written book, and it has other stories and reflections that I have not mentioned.  Malkovsky writes as a Christian who has been informed and edified by other religions.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Talking Like Evangelicals? Being Like Evangelicals?

People were talking like evangelicals at the United Methodist Church that I attended this morning.  More than one person talked about God speaking to them and being led by the Holy Spirit.  Someone else was claiming Hebrews 13:2, which talks about entertaining strangers and angels unaware.  The man’s son was recently in an accident, and he was talking about how angels were helping him and his wife on their journey to their son.  You usually hear people claiming Bible verses in charismatic Christianity!

I actually like these displays of energetic, enthusiastic faith.  Of course, a lot of my reaction depends on the context.  If people are talking about the times that they believe that God has helped them, how they think God has guided them towards positive and righteous decisions and outlooks, and their sense of wonder when people at church are getting along in love, harmony, and purpose, then my reaction is rather favorable.  If people use “God told me” to rubber-stamp their peculiar ideas or opinions, to try to control me or others, to aggrandize themselves, or to force conformity, then I tend to recoil from that.  What I saw at church this morning was the former.

Of course, am I really that surprised that people at a liberal mainline Protestant church see God as a real, active person?  The pastor is a fan of Christian mysticism!  Maybe the church is liberal on social justice, and it does not necessarily embrace an inerrantist view of the Bible.  Still, it sees God as real—-as one with whom people can have a relationship.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Book Write-Up: The Age of Atheists, by Peter Watson

Peter Watson.  The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God.  Simon and Schuster, 2014.  See here to buy the book.

There are many who believe that, without God or religion, there is a huge hole in people’s lives.  Some go so far as to say that atheism does not provide any basis at all for morality, and some maintain that life would be meaningless and hopeless if God did not exist.  Even some atheists have wondered how we can have hope if we only have ourselves to fall back on.  In The Age of Atheists, Peter Watson explores how atheists during and since the time of Friedrich Nietzsche have sought to have a good live, and to encourage others to do the same.

Watson profiles a variety of prominent figures throughout history—-poets, philosophers, playrights, scientists, psychologists, artists, and writers of fiction.  Not all of the people whom he profiles are technically atheists—-some are deists, some believe in an energy underneath nature, some want to commune with a version of God (Timothy Leary sought to do so through LSD), and some believe in a God who is wholly other and distant.  Their view of God is not exactly consistent with Jewish and Christian monotheism, though.

How have people tried to find meaning without God, according to Watson?  Some looked to dance to find an authentic expression of humanity.  Some have sought inspiration, a different perspective, a sense of order, or empathy for others in poetry or fiction.  Some look to nature itself, or the universe, to find a sense of wonder.  Some try to transcend themselves by showing concern for others and by emphasizing the community above themselves.  In contrast to believing in an unchanging God and unchanging moral principles, many of the people Watson profiles maintain that life is changing, and they either embrace that as a possible sign of hope, or they exhort people to cope with it.  Watson is largely sympathetic to these enterprises, yet he acknowledges times when such enterprises have gone in horrible directions (i.e., Alfred Rosenberg’s attempts to provide an intellectual foundation for Nazism).

Because a lot of the same ideas appear throughout the book, the book could be rather repetitive.  Still, Watson does highlight the differences between various thinkers in his conclusion, on such issues as whether science is sufficient to provide people with a sense of awe or a moral basis, and whether language is limited in expressing certain realities (for Watson, science has made more things explainable).  Moreover, the book may be helpful to people who are seeking a lucid summary of the philosophies of various prominent thinkers.  One challenge for me was that I would read Watson’s summaries and be a bit disappointed because I was hoping that the thinkers would have had deeper thoughts.  “That’s it?”, I wondered after reading some of Watson’s summaries.  But the thinkers may have had deeper thoughts than what Watson presents, and Watson’s summaries may be helpful in providing context, a framework, or an introduction for those wanting to study these thinkers further.  I did not know enough about a lot of the thinkers to evaluate Watson’s summary of them, but I have read a lot about Karl Barth, and I can say that there is more to Barth’s thought than what Watson presents.  Maybe that is true with the other thinkers Watson profiles.

I could identify with some of the thoughts that Watson was presenting.  For example, my Grandpa Pate’s favorite play is Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, and Watson quotes someone who comments about O’Neill’s work by saying that various factors have shaped who we are and have often moved us away from being the types of people we want to be.  I can identify with that in the sense that circumstances (or my reactions to circumstances) have made me bitter and jaded in areas, and that can make it difficult for me to be the open, winsome person I was in my younger years.

There were also parts of the book that I found very intriguing.  Watson profiles a couple of scientific thinkers who maintain that, not long prior to the destruction of the earth by the sun, human beings will be able to enter a virtual reality and will experience eternity there.  Their views have been controversial, and yet they have sought to back them up with scientific reasoning.

I am not surprised that people are able to find beauty, a sense of morality, inspiration, profundity, and inspiration, without embracing a fundamentalist theistic creed.  In my opinion, God has put these things into the universe and they are good for human beings to follow, and I am not astonished that people can find them apart from an explicit acknowledgment of God.  Why should we assume that our only choice is between believing in God, and a barren, meaningless existence?  Yes, I believe in God, but I am not shocked that people can find meaning or arrive at values apart from believing in God.

I also appreciated that many of the atheists whom Watson profiled were not entirely negative about religion: they have acknowledged that religion has played a useful role for humans throughout history, in terms of providing them with a framework of meaning, community, morality, encouragement, and just plain survival.  That is true with me, personally.  Others can find meaning outside of a theistic context, but I do so within a theistic context.  Plus, I cannot give up on believing in a personal God who cares for me and can intervene in my behalf.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Social Principles: The Natural World

The Sunday School class at my church is going through the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church.  Last week, we discussed the section on “The Natural World.”  Here are three items:

1.  One issue that we talked about was climate change.  I cannot say that I was particularly optimistic after that discussion.  I wondered if we are doing enough to combat or reverse climate change.  We are still a fossil-fuel based economy, and renewable energy is on the margins in the United States.

2.  There is a libertarian in the group, and he has attended Sunday School at this church for years.  He was saying that the government should get out of agriculture and let the free market handle it.  I was wondering what that would look like.  Farm subsidies are necessary to help farmers (or at least big farmers) produce more crops; without them, I have heard, the price of food would skyrocket.  Was the libertarian envisioning keeping things small and local: farmers would produce crops but would sell them to local people?

3.  Our pastor is politically liberal.  But she was telling us that people may have different perspectives on the Social Principles, based on their context.  The Social Principles are opposed to nuclear power, for instance.  United Methodists in France may disagree with the Social Principles on this because their country is powered by this source of energy.  And United Methodists in Third World countries that are offered cheap nuclear power may also be hesitant to embrace what the Social Principles say about it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Book Write-Up: Fool's Talk, by Os Guinness

Os Guinness.  Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion.  Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

How can Christians persuade people to accept their faith, when there are many today who are hostile or indifferent towards Christianity?  Os Guinness addresses this question in Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion.

The book is not really a how-to manual on witnessing.  Guinness talks, for example, about the importance of asking questions, as Jesus (and even the serpent in the Garden of Eden) asked questions that influenced people’s thought processes.  But I cannot recall any specific questions that Guinness recommended that Christians ask atheists or non-believers in interpersonal interactions or online forums.  Guinness did talk about the importance of trying to show atheists what he believes are the logical conclusions of their belief system, which he deems to be quite negative.  I cannot envision such an interaction going smoothly, however, especially since the atheists might not agree with Guinness’ premises.

Maybe it is a good thing that the book is not a how-to manual, I thought.  After all, people are individuals, not projects.  Guinness said that Jesus did not talk to two people in the exact same way.  Maybe.  At the same time, it did seem to me that Guinness was making assumptions about atheists and unbelievers.  He had a chapter about how certain prominent atheists admitted that they did not want God to be real because that could cramp their style and keep them from doing what they wanted.  What is Guinness implying in saying this?  That Christians should approach atheists with that conception of them in mind?  How does that respect them as individuals?  Guinness does acknowledge that things are not that simple, for there are atheists who may hold to morality or a belief in order; for Guinness, though, they are being inconsistent to their atheist convictions.  Many atheists would probably disagree with him on that, though.

The book also did not make a positive case for Christianity, at least not in the sense of offering iron-clad evidence for it.  I do not know enough about Guinness to be aware of what kind of apologist he is, but he does say in the book that Christians should be open to classical apologetics, which is evidentialist, and presuppositional apologetics.  At the same time, Guinness also cautions that God’s existence does not depend on apologists’ arguments, and he says that certain classical arguments for the existence of God historically tended to make apologetics a matter of philosophy, divorced from everyday people.  These are thoughtful observations, and maybe I like the book better as it is than I would have had Guinness regurgitated the usual classical apologetics spiel.  Still, should he not have provided some argument or piece of evidence for Christianity being true, since part of his project in the book is showing Christians how they can persuade non-believers of the truth of Christianity?  Guinness does refer to times when even sophisticated non-believers had transcendental experiences—-things that make them aware that there is more to life—-and, while that was a good discussion, I do not think those transcendental experiences provide solid evidence for Christianity.

There was one part of the book that I especially rolled my eyes at, even if Guinness, as he usually does, said something intriguing in that discussion.  Guinness was saying that mainline Protestants try to keep up with the culture.  My reaction, of course, was: “And right-wing evangelicals do not imitate the culture?  They act as if God is a free-market-loving, militaristic right-wing conservative!”  I cannot say that Guinness himself is this, for Guinness, to his credit, does take somewhat of a swipe at Adam Smith; moreover, Guinness is honest about the historical flaws of Christendom.  Still, I am wary of conservative Christians criticizing mainline Protestants for reflecting their culture.  I doubt that it is even possible for Christianity NOT to reflect its culture, on some level, and that includes conservative Christianity.  Does Guinness think that conservative Christians today have the same worldview that the biblical authors had?  I doubt that they did, for times change; science changes; cosmologies change.  What did I find intriguing in this discussion, then?  Well, Guinness did point to liberal Christians criticizing their liberal Christian predecessors for reflecting the culture of their day.  That, in my opinion, was a pretty good move on Guinness’ part: don’t just trust Guinness’ critique of liberal Christianity, but see how liberal Christians have criticized their liberal Christian predecessors!

My disagreement with Guinness notwithstanding, I still give the book four stars.  I appreciated its intellectual and meandering tone, as well as its anecdotes and its quotations of renowned Christians and non-believers.  The book had gems—-about humor being a way to cope with a life that one cannot control; how one can be dissuaded from a position by reading what its defenders have to say; how many people’s intellectual struggles have their origin in college (that is true of me!); and how one can arrive at the point where one concludes that God was always a part of one’s journey towards God.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

UPDATE: Steve Hays recommended this 2001 interview with Os Guinness.  Guinness does comment about apologetics in that interview, and it was a good read, period.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Book Write-Up: Joy in the Journey

Steve and Sharol Hayner.  Joy in the Journey: Finding Abundance in the Shadow of Death.  Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

Steve Hayner had been a professor, a minister, a president of a seminary, and a president of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship.  He had a Ph.D. in Hebrew and Semitic Studies.  But he had pancreatic cancer and had only months to live.  Joy in the Journey is about how he, his wife, and his family and friends tried to cope with this.

To my surprise, the parts of the book that I enjoyed the most were about how Steve poured his life into others, and gave them the space to be themselves.  I was not expecting to like these parts of the book, to be honest.  Perhaps that is because I feel inadequate when I compare myself to such people.  I am resentful when I read Christian material that asks us to consider what people will say about us after we die, and that hold up as a standard some super-spiritual person who had lots of friends showing up at his funeral because he was such a great person.  What about those who don’t have too many attendees at their funeral?  Does God love them less?  I was expecting this book to be along the same lines as the Christian material that I resent, but it wasn’t really.  I do not have the same intense energy that Steve Hayner had in his hay day, but I can still learn lessons from his life: the importance of giving space to people so that they can be themselves, the value of mentoring and rooting for others, how honesty can be refreshing, and the value of sharing one’s platform with other people.

In terms of the theological lessons that Steve Hayner drew from his experience, maybe I was hoping for deeper insights, since he did have a Ph.D. in Hebrew and Semitic Studies.  But perhaps my hope was displaced.  The thoughts that I so easily dismiss as Christian cliches or platitudes can be a life-raft to people in distress, and even to myself in times of trial.  And, while I thought that Steve in the book focused a lot on himself, his own suffering, and his own attempts to find joy, perhaps I was not fair in thinking that.  Steve in the book did think about God and others.  Naturally, when a person is in pain, it is hard for that person to turn his or her thoughts away from that pain, and Steve in the book probably did so as well as, or better than, many people.  In many cases, Steve wanted to be with his friends, but he was just too tired.

The book did teach me about what many people go through when they have cancer—-the sickness, the fatigue, the hopes and the shattered hopes that accompany that.  I respect Steve’s account of how he, as an energetic, active person in the service of God, sought to cope with not being able to be as active anymore, and the valuable experience he gained from slowing down.  I also respect Steve’s attempt to find joy and purpose in his negative experience.  As his wife reflected on his contributions to life, she saw his death as such a waste, and she struggled to hold on to faith in the midst of that.  Moreover, people were asking questions about the value of praying for the sick, when it was not apparent that Steve was getting any better.  Steve reflects on that.

I cannot say that reading this book gave me a great deal of pleasure, per se, but I do think that it was important for me to read.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Church 7/12/2015: Forgiveness and Wrestling

At church this morning, some of the songs ministered to me.  We sang a couple of different songs from what we normally sing, and we even sang a song from our hymnbook!  Here are some lines that especially resonated with me:

“Everyone needs compassion.  Love that’s never failing.  Let mercy fall on me.  Everyone needs forgiveness….So take me as You find me.  All my fears and failures.  Fill my life again.”

Source: “Mighty to Save,” by Reuben Morgan and Ben Fielding.

“Great is your faithfulness, O God.  You wrestle with the sinner’s restless heart.”

Source: “Your Grace Is Enough,” by Matt Maher.

The pastor’s sermon was about seeing God.  According to the pastor, God is in nature, but God sent Jesus to reveal God to us because many of us miss God in nature.  The pastor also said that God is as near to us as our next breath.  Moreover, she said that many of us are afraid to go deeper when it comes to God because we are afraid, but that going deeper into God results in transformation.

I am not sure how to process a lot of this.  On the one hand, the pastor portrays God as close to us already.  On the other hand, she says that we need to see God, and that it is up to us whether we go more deeply into God.  I was contrasting the pastor’s message with the message that I so often hear in Christianity: that we somehow need to bring God’s presence to us, through faith, or being good.  Many evangelicals have pointed out that humanity is in a state of alienation from God—-that God condemns us for our sins, but that God will forgive us if we accept Jesus’ death in our place.  Is that reconcilable with thinking that God is as near to us as our next breath?  But even the pastor this morning seemed to be pointing to a conditional element: we are the ones who need to see God, and it is up to us whether we go deeper.

Is God in my life?  In some seasons, it is really tough to tell, especially when things are just not clicking, and it is difficult to identify anything tangible that can be attributed to God.

The first song ministered to me because it said that we all need compassion and forgiveness.  True.  Can that be reconciled with all of the conditions that the Bible places on being forgiven—-repent, believe, forgive others, confess?  Well, that depends.  If repentance means that I have to completely stop sinning before God forgives me, if forgiving others means that I have to put a grudge out of my system before God forgives me, if believing means that I have to accept a bunch of doctrines without a shadow of a doubt before God forgives me, and if confession means that I have to present God with an exhaustive list of my sins and God won’t forgive me if I leave one out, then I am simply unforgiven.  I don’t know what to say.  These models do not present God’s forgiveness as a free gift, or even as something overly attainable, for they require work that is either difficult for me, or impossible.  But if repentance means at least wanting to be oriented in the right direction, if forgiving others means being willing to show compassion to others and to acknowledge that we all have flaws and need mercy, if belief means turning to God for mercy (which is more relational than intellectually assenting to doctrines), and if confession is being willing to talk with God about my flaws so that God can shed God’s light on them, then God’s forgiveness looks more within my reach.  I do not have to arrive at a state of perfection to receive God’s forgiveness; I do, however, need to humble myself before God, which I do when I acknowledge my flaws, turn to God for mercy, and rely on God’s love.

The second song ministered to me because it perhaps highlighted what God does in my life, and in the lives of others.  God may be as near as my next breath, but that does not tell me much about God, does it?  What does God do?  Well, according to that second song, God wrestles with the sinner’s restless heart.  I am a sinner, and my heart is restless.  I have desires, both good and bad.  I can start out the day, carefree and without animosity, and, before you know it, my mind degenerates down the path of resentments (old and new) and fear.  I know that I wrestle with my restless heart.  Does God, though?  So often, I envision God sitting in heaven and condemning me for what is in my heart.  But I at least go to God in prayer to show God that I want him to put my heart at peace.  Could God be somewhere in this process, actually wrestling with my heart and not merely sitting on the sidelines?  Maybe God is somewhere there—-telling me there is another way, or reminding me that I need to take a breather and go to the throne of grace.

I’ll write about this morning’s Sunday school class later this week, probably on Wednesday.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Book Write-Up: Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi

Anthony R. Petterson.  Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.  Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2015.  This book is part of the Apollos Old Testament Commentary series, which is edited by David W. Baker and Gordon J. Wenham.  See here to buy the book.

Anthony R. Petterson’s commentary on the biblical books of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi is a conservative Christian commentary.  Whereas more liberal scholars have maintained that Zechariah 1-8 and Zechariah 9-14 have different authorships, Petterson believes that they are by the same person (even if that person, Zechariah, was not the one who actually wrote them down), and Petterson tends to dismiss source criticism of the Book of Zechariah as rather speculative.  Whereas many liberal scholars have seen Haggai and Zechariah as works that predict an imminent apocalypse, a prediction that historically failed to materialize, Petterson maintains that this is not the case: that Haggai was not necessarily suggesting in Haggai 2:23 that his contemporary Zerubbabel would be the Messiah, and that a fulfillment in the future is consistent with certain prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah.  Some liberal scholars downplay or reject the notion that certain passages in Zechariah predict a Davidic Messiah: they say that the high priest Joshua in parts of the Book of Zechariah is crowned as king (which differs from expecting a Davidic king), and that the pierced one in Zechariah 12:10 is not necessarily the Davidic Messiah, notwithstanding what a number of Christians have claimed.  Petterson disagrees, as he looks closely at the passages themselves, while also setting them within the context of previous prophetic books, which, according to Petterson, Zechariah affirms and upholds.  For Petterson, the books of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi not only talk about a Davidic Messiah, but they actually foreshadow, even predict, the work of Jesus Christ.  A number of liberal scholars would doubt that Satan in the Book of Zechariah is the archenemy of God that he would become, seeing Satan rather as a prosecuting attorney, or as part of the divine council; Petterson, by contrast, believes that seeing Satan as the archenemy of God in the Book of Zechariah makes sense, from a canonical perspective, and on the basis of what Satan in the Book of Zechariah does.

Did I find Petterson to be convincing?  His arguments definitely deserve consideration.  I do have questions about some of his scenarios, especially as he meshes the Books of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi with Christianity.  Why would Haggai focus so much on rebuilding the physical temple because it is a significant aspect of God’s plan, if Jesus would be the new temple, anyway?  How would Jesus fit the literal picture in the Book of Zechariah of a man being wounded in eschatological battle, as enemies prepare to attack Jerusalem, when that is not exactly what happened to Jesus?  Taking these books literally, in my opinion, does not always mesh that well with Christianity.  Petterson sometimes reconciles these books with Christianity rather well—–as when he says that the rejection of Jesus is similar to the rejection of God and the prophet in the Book of Zechariah, a view that honors the Book of Zechariah’s literal meaning, while also deeming that relevant to Christianity.  Sometimes, Petterson’s attempt at reconciliation strikes me as a stretch, even if I find it intriguing: Petterson says that Matthew 24 may not be about the attack of Jerusalem, but rather the attack on Jesus, who embodies Jerusalem, and that this may solve the problem of Jesus wrongfully predicting the end of the world in Matthew 24:34.

Petterson does interact with scholarship and present the different views of what various verses mean, sifting through them and offering his own opinion.  Overall, he does this well.  There were items in the commentary that I found particularly interesting.  Petterson, for example, contrasts the Hebrew Bible’s approach to divorce with that of the Code of Hammurapi, and he also notes that the Book of Malachi is not the last book of the Hebrew Bible, in either the Septuagint or the Masoretic Text.  He still believes that it providentially came to be the last book of the Hebrew Bible, however, thus serving as a smooth transition between the Old Testament and the New Testament.  But he acknowledges facts that indicate that this was not always the case.

Not everything that Petterson argued convinced me, but I still give this commentary five stars because I found it to be meaty and informative.

Intervarsity Press sent me a complimentary review copy of this commentary, in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Book Write-Up: A Simple Prayer, by Amy Clipston

Amy Clipston.  A Simple Prayer.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

A Simple Prayer is Book Four of the Hearts of the Lancaster Grand Hotel series.  I have to admit that I have not read the previous three books of the series.  I was not lost when following the plot of A Simple Prayer, and I still enjoyed the book, but I probably would have appreciated some scenes more had I read the previous three books.  For example, Hannah, who left the Amish community to marry Trey in a previous book, finally became reconciled with her Amish daughter Lillian in A Simple Prayer.  Saul and Madeleine continue their romance, which began in a previous book.

A Simple Prayer is about Aaron, who left the Amish community seventeen years ago and is returning after learning that his mother has had a stroke.  Aaron left the community in disgrace after running with a wild crowd and inadvertently setting fire to the bishop’s barn.  Aaron’s brother Solomon is not happy about his brother’s return and refuses to forgive him.  Another significant character is Linda, who lost her parents in an accident when she was young and now takes care of her sour Uncle Reuben.  Aaron and Linda develop feelings for each other as they share their problems and offer each other advice, and Linda wants Aaron to stay rather than returning to his business in Missouri.  While the book does drag on a bit in rehearsing these problems, we learn that there is actually more to the problems than meets the eye.

There were many aspects of this book that interested me: How can people forgive?  How can a person be pious and read the Bible, on the one hand, yet refuse to forgive, on the other?  There are also themes of loneliness and finding confidence and self-esteem.  And there is a poignant passage in which Aaron contrasts his mother after her stroke with his memories of his mother.  It was easy for me as a reader to empathize with the characters: Linda in her bashfulness, Aaron in his loneliness, Uncle Reuben and Solomon in their bitterness, the bishop in his forgiveness, and Lillian in her desire to become reconciled with her mother, yet not quite knowing how to do so.

There are a lot of books out there with themes of return, forgiveness, and romance.  I am unable to understand or articulate what exactly sets A Simple Prayer apart from them, in my mind, but I did enjoy the book, even if there are similar stories out there, some told well, and some told not-so-well.  I think that what I especially appreciated about the book was that there was a quiet dignity about it.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from BookLook Bloggers, in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

O'Kane's Response to My Review of Kirsch's A History of the End of the World

Author Kevin Timothy O’Kane sent me a response to my review of Jonathan Kirsch’s A History of the End of the World.  I wrote a review of O’Kane’s Instigators of the Apocalypse last month, and O’Kane’s book engages with Kirsch’s book.  See here, here, and here for background information.

O’Kane has given me permission to post his response to my review.  Here it is:

James, I found your take on Jonathan Kirsch’s A History of the End of the World worth considering. But let me expand a little on what you wrote about it in relation to my book.

First, let’s look at the discussion around literal and symbolic approaches to Revelation.

You wrote: “That raises questions in my mind about what is a literal and what is a symbolic or allegorical approach, and how that fits into O’Kane’s thesis. While O’Kane does have problems with the allegorical approach to Revelation and does well to argue that it contributed to the idea of a church triumphant (with the persecutions that would accompany that), not all of the eschatological views that O’Kane critiques are necessarily allegorical, for they believe in a literal Antichrist. They may not be entirely literal, either, for they do not appear to take what Revelation says about the millennium at face value, at least not entirely.”

Actually, none of the interpretations I define as Hyper-symbolic are completely symbolic, just as literal interpretations are never completely literal. Postmillennialism, for example expects a literal return of Christ in the flesh, but only after a symbolic reading of the millennium which places Christ’s return at the end of the millennium. Amillennialism expects a literal, physical day of the resurrection of the body. Historicism accepts the notion of a literal Antichrist, but symbolizes the reign of the Antichrist to last 1260 years and further symbolizes that whoever sits on the papal throne is the Antichrist at any given moment. While I believe historicism is a false interpretation, it was historicism coupled with symbolic views of the millennium that initiated a great deal of violence. As I indicated in my book, it was the symbolizing of the millennium which is most at fault in leading the church to embrace physical force against its enemies.

Next, in discussing Kirsch, I define his overall thesis by this one statement:

“When they cautioned good Christians to engage in a spiritual rather than carnal reading of Revelation, they were struggling to make it safe for human consumption-and thus began the long, ardent, but failed enterprise that one scholar calls the ‘taming’ of the apocalyptic tradition,” A History of the End of the World, p.118.

In context, Kirsch was referring to the allegorist fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries, for he follows the statement with discussions of Tychonius and Augustine. This implied that the literalists (futurist premillennialists) of the first three centuries made the Revelation “unsafe” for human consumption and inspired the church down the road to violence. You will notice, however, that Kirsch can give no primary sources from the early literalists that advocate violence. In fact, it’s just the opposite; the documents we possess, including what we know of the Montanists, advocate pacifism in relation to persecution. However, what I find most astonishing in Kirsch is that he completely ignored the fourth century allegorist, Eusebius of Caesarea. Eusebius, along with Augustine, was, perhaps, the biggest culprit in pushing the church to accept the notion of Christian holy war when he wrote that Constantine won his civil wars by having the symbol of the cross painted on his army’s shields before going into battle. One can only surmise that Kirsch’s failure to engage Eusebius in any discussion at all is because he didn’t do the proper research, or worse, he purposely left Eusebius out because the allegorist contradicts his thesis. This brings me to my final point and complaint about Kirsch’s book.

You wrote: “I appreciated how Kirsch interacted with critical scholarship about the distinction between eschatology and apocalypticism, and also the Book of Revelation itself: John Collins, Adela Yarbro Collins, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, and J. Massyngberde Ford are scholars with whom Kirsch interacts.”

In reality, this is one of the glaring weaknesses of Kirsch’s book. Kirsch relies too heavily on secondary sources and spends too little time in the primary. This leads him into a number of errors on history that are less than correct. An example of this is in his treatment of the Fifth Monarchists, where the author insinuated that the Monarchists expected a return of Christ in the flesh to lead them into battle: “Church and government alike . . . would be replaced once and for all by a biblical theocracy under King Jesus himself” (p. 176). Sharan Newman, who followed up on Kirsch’s book with her own in The Real History of the End of the World, was even more direct: “While most who take part in a rebellion think God must be on their side, few expect him to bodily lead an army. The Fifth Monarchists did.” (p. 169) The fact is, most of the secondary sources on this subject got it wrong. If either of these authors bothered to read the actual sources written by Fifth Monarchy members, they would have understood that the Monarchists’ eschatology was in line with postmillennial theology where Christ returns in the flesh only after the spirit of “King Jesus’ had indwelt the monarchists and given them the ability to conquer all Catholic monarchies.

Within the weakness of relying mainly on secondary sources, Kirsch painted the Book of Revelation’s influence in history with a broad brush. While he mentions the existence of various interpretations, he failed to show what interpretation led to what war or revolution. This leaves the reader with misperceptions and portrays the book itself as the villain of western civilization rather than the interpreters. I assume this was in keeping with his agenda and why readers should take new theories about history with a certain grain of salt: always look for the primary sources and look them up on your own when feasible. And half-quotes of the primary taken out of secondary sources should also be looked upon with suspicion, which are prevalent in Kirsch’s book. This is part of what I set out to correct in writing my own book. I placed an emphasis on the primary whenever possible, and in some cases, gave fuller quotes than Kirsch.

Regards, Kevin Timothy O’Kane

Search This Blog