Saturday, October 31, 2015

Movie Write-Up (Loosely-Speaking): Ed Wood

Last Saturday night, we watched the 1931 Dracula movie, which starred Bela Lugosi as the Transylvanian vampire.  I had never seen it all the way through, so I wanted to watch it.  It was hosted by Svengoolie, who gave us a lot of interesting trivia about the film, but who also told a lot of horrible, corny jokes.

My Mom’s husband was telling me about a movie that he saw a while back.  It was a 1994 Tim Burton film called Ed Wood.  Ed Wood was a film-maker in the 1950’s.  His movies have been panned as bad by many critics, yet they have gained a cult-following.  A number of people say that he had guts during the conservative 1950’s.

This is relevant to the 1931 Dracula movie because Wood recruited Bela Lugosi to act in a number of his movies.  This was when Lugosi was older and was largely considered to be a washed-up actor.  In the movie Ed Wood, Lugosi was played by Martin Landau, who received an Academy Award for this role.  Landau made a brief appearance on Svengoolie’s show last Saturday night.

I had to respect Wood because he kept on trying, even though success eluded him during his life.  In the course of all this, he recruited a number of interesting people as actors for his movie projects.  There was a depressed, washed-up actor, Lugosi, who was still somewhat of a legend.  Vampira, who hosted a Svengoolie-like show in the 1950’s (and did not care for her show’s corny jokes), was hired by Wood after her show was cancelled.  Wood recruited Tor Johnson, a wrestler.  There was also Tom Mason, a chiropractor, whom Wood hired to stand-in for Lugosi after Lugosi’s death.

Wikipedia’s article on Lugosi’s son states: “Bela Lugosi, Jr. has been among those who felt filmmaker Edward D. Wood, Jr. exploited his father’s stardom, taking advantage of the fading actor when he could not refuse any work.  Most documents and interviews with other Wood associates in Nightmare of Ecstasy suggest that Wood and Lugosi were genuine friends and that Wood helped Lugosi through the worst days of his depression and drug addiction.”  That was portrayed in the movie.

My favorite scene in the movie was when Wood talked with Orson Wells at a restaurant.  Wells, of course, was famous and successful, which Wood was not.  What I particularly liked, though, was that Wells was approachable and talked with Wood as an equal, as both commiserated with each other about the perils of movie-making (i.e., having to appease financiers, who want a say in how the movie is made).  Wells encouraged Wood to follow his vision.  I hope that scene really happened!

There was one thing that I was curious about, and I have not been able to find information about it on the Internet.  A Baptist church financed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, in hopes that it would generate enough profits so that the church could make a series of movies about the twelve apostles.  Did the church ever get to make those movies?

Friday, October 30, 2015

Nick Peters' Interview with David Wood on the Problem of Evil

I listened to another Nick Peters’ podcast last night.  This one was from November 2, 2013.  It was with David Wood, and it concerned the problem of evil: the question of whether the existence of evil is compatible with the existence of an omnipotent, benevolent God.  Does the existence of evil mean that an omnipotent, benevolent God does not exist?

See here to listen to the podcast.

Here are some thoughts:

A.  I first heard about David Wood when I read Nabeel Qureshi’s Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus (for my review of that book, see here).  Not only was David Wood a significant character in Qureshi’s personal story, but so were Christian apologists Gary Habermas and Mike Licona (the latter is Peters’ father-in-law).  To be honest, I did not care for them that much when I read about them in Qureshi’s book.  They just seemed to me to be smug, overly self-assured about their beliefs, and arrogant.

I have come to like them a lot more, however, after listening to them in online interviews, and the reason is that they come across as much humbler than they do in Qureshi’s book: they are sharing their personal journeys, and they appear (to me at least) to understand why people might object to certain Christian apologetic spiels.  In a recent episode of the British radio program Unbelievable, Gary Habermas was talking with skeptical scholar James Crossley about Jesus’ resurrection, and Habermas said that, while he includes the early Christians’ visions of the risen Jesus in the minimal list of things that the vast majority of New Testament scholars agree are historical, he does not include the empty tomb traditions in that list.  (If only William Lane Craig showed that same humility in his debates!)  In Lotharlorraine’s interview with Mike Licona, Licona acknowledged that there are other ways to account for the empty tomb and Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances besides saying that Christianity is true; one could say that space aliens did it (and yet Licona does not believe that is the best explanation).  And, in the podcast that I heard last night, David Wood was saying that he does not find every theodicy he has heard convincing, and that he is aware that some may not believe that free will is a good enough reason for God to permit moral evil.  When Christian apologists acknowledge difficulties and qualify their positions, I tend to be more open to what they have to say—-maybe because that sort of approach makes them look more open or smarter, or it preserves my own choice in evaluating evidence and arguments, something that beating me over the head with the “obvious truth” does not do.  It also shows more respect to those who disagree, since it acknowledges their points rather than treating them as stupid.

B.  Wood wrote a Ph.D. dissertation for Fordham University entitled, “Surprised by suffering: Hume, Draper, and the Bayesian argument from evil” (see here).  He is no intellectual or academic slouch!

C.  I have to admit that I was asleep sometime between Wood’s narration of his own personal story, and his arguments regarding the problem of evil.  This is not because the podcast was boring: it was the middle of the night, and it was time for me to sleep.  When I woke up, Wood was questioning whether atheists, within their naturalistic worldview, really have the authority to offer moral objections to how God does things, or, more accurately, to say that certain theodicies do not work or are inadequate.  I think that Wood was making a similar point to what I have heard other Christian apologists say: that atheistic naturalism does not provide an adequate basis for the existence of morality or the trustworthiness of human reasoning, and so it cannot legitimately offer a moral objection when it comes to the problem of evil.

I do not want to get into the question of whether atheistic naturalism provides an adequate basis for those things, at least not in this particular post.  Let’s assume for a minute that Wood and many Christian apologists are correct that it does not.  Would that invalidate the problem of evil?  Well, part of me can see how it could, but part of me is rather skeptical.  The reason part of me is skeptical is that the problem of evil strikes me as rather hypothetical (this may not be the proper use of the term “hypothetical,” but bear with me): IF there is an omnipotent, benevolent God, as Christian theism says, then why does this God permit evil and suffering?  Are the omnipotence and benevolence of God—-the picture of God that many Christians embrace and advocate—-inconsistent with what we see in real life, namely, evil and suffering?  Obviously, the atheists asking this question do not think that this God exists; they are not morally challenging a God whom they think is real.  The problem of evil appears to be raising the question of whether Christian theism is internally inconsistent in some of its tenets, or the implications of some of its tenets, and if reality accords with what Christian theism says about God.  In my opinion, atheists can legitimately ask this question, whether or not their naturalism provides an adequate basis for a belief in morality or the adequacy of reason.  Atheists can question the existence of God, not necessarily on the basis of their own moral convictions or reason, but on the basis of what Christians themselves say about God’s nature, God’s attributes, and morality: is the world as it should be if Christians are correct about the existence of those things?  I hope that I am making sense here, and that what I am saying is not too muddled.

D.  Wood was saying that God may allow the world to be as it is because that can produce character in us.  Wood made clear that he is not looking at this so much at the individual level: he is not saying that suffering people are guinea pigs for the moral maturation of the well-off people, as the suffering people provide the well-off people with opportunities to show compassion and to help.  Rather, Wood is looking at the group level.  He is asking what kind of world would be more conducive towards human beings working together and building character.

I actually like Wood’s way of looking at this.  One can ask, as some atheists have, whether the pain and suffering that exist in this world are overkill, whether, if there were a God, this God could accomplish the job of building character in us without allowing pain and suffering to the extent that they exist.  This is a legitimate question.  Where it boils down to for me personally is that I believe in God, and, that being the case, I feel as if I have to account somehow for why God allows pain and suffering.  Just saying that God is higher than we are and we do not know the reason for suffering is not sufficient for me, for this sort of agnosticism can be used to justify all sorts of positions; it comes across as a cop-out.  Saying that God allows pain and suffering for our moral improvement at least provides a reason for the pain and suffering, a reason that I think is plausible, on some level.

E. Wood was contrasting the world as it is with the hedonistic world that he believes atheists think would exist if there were a God.  Wood seems to believe that the world as it is is preferable, in terms of us developing morally.  My understanding is, however, that many Christians would say that a hedonistic world is not out of the question for God.  Many Christians believe that life was good before the Fall of Adam and Eve.  Many Christians, along with Jews and Muslims, conceive of an eschatological paradise, or paradise in the afterlife.  This should be addressed by Christian apologists.  From an evolutionary standpoint, I have issues with the historicity of a literal Adam and Eve, and I can conceive of God making a world that falls short of our standard of perfection, since such a world would allow us to grow and to develop morally.  Can I envision an eschatological paradise?  Yes, in a sense.  I believe that the world is as it is for a reason, because this is how it is supposed to be at this stage of history, but that God may have a legitimate reason for the world to be different in the future—-maybe because God will conclude that we no longer need to be in the school of suffering, or that we have learned lessons from it to teach our children and grandchildren.

F.  Wood was also saying that God is not obligated to help the world, since the world is in rebellion against God.  I am not entirely convinced by this: God commands us to love our enemies, so is it not reasonable to expect God to live up to the same standard?  Moreover, there are enough times in the Bible when God does help people, so God is not choosing to be entirely aloof from the world on account of its sins.  At the same time, I wonder if there is something to what Wood is saying.  Whether or not one believes in a literal, historical Fall, could our sins be one reason that we do not have the divine protection that we, as a world, may want?  I would rather not see God as overly punitive; at the same time, I can understand why God may choose not to honor sin.

Again, I do not think that Wood is looking at this on an individual level: I am suffering because God is punishing me for a sin that I personally committed.  Rather, Wood seems to be looking at the issue communally: we as a world have sinned, and God may be responding to that by becoming more aloof, by not extending the level of divine protection that we may like, or by allowing the consequences of our sins to play out.

G.  Wood made the interesting point that the problem of evil emerged with Epicurianism (at least that is my understanding of what Wood was saying).  Epicurus placed a high value on hedonism.  If we are not happy, does that cast questions on the existence of God, who is supposed to make us happy?  (My understanding is that Epicureans believed that the gods were aloof anyway, but Wood’s point seems to be that an emphasis on hedonism set the stage for the problem of evil to become a problem, in terms of leading people to question the existence of God.)  According to Wood, the apostle Paul did not wrestle with why a good God was allowing him to suffer.

I had to think some about Wood’s point here, in terms of the Bible.  I would say that, in an overall sense, Wood may be on to something.  Job and the Psalmist lamented about their sufferings, and maybe even went so far as to question God’s love and justice.  They did not conclude, however, that God did not exist.  At the same time, when Israel suffered, other nations would ask them, “Where is your god?”  Israel’s suffering reinforced in the other nations’ minds that Israel’s god was not as powerful.  (At least that was one take on it: other nations also believed that Israel was suffering because her own God was punishing her for her sins.)  That, in my opinion, may be a little closer to the problem of evil: casting question on the legitimacy of a religion, because the adherents to that religion are suffering.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Nick Peters' Interview with Marcia Montenegro

I have had some insomnia recently, so I have been listening to things online while trying to sleep.  I mainly listen to religious things: Unbelievable with Justin Brierley, sermons, etc.  It just dawned on me when I was trying to sleep one night, and the hours were going by: why not use this as an opportunity to learn something?  And, if I fall asleep and do not get to finish what I am listening to, as has happened in the past, then so be it.  Part of my goal is to get to sleep at nights.

Last night, I was listening to one of Nick Peters’ podcasts.  Peters is a Christian apologist who has Asperger’s Syndrome, and his podcasts often feature interviews of high-profile people from the realm of biblical scholarship and Christian apologetics.  See here for his web site.

The podcast that I was listening to last night featured an interview with Marcia Montenegro.  Montenegro used to be involved in Eastern religions, New Age spirituality, astrology, and the occult.  She was talking in the interview about her past experiences in that, and how she became a Christian and left those things behind.  See here for the podcast, and see here for her web site.

There were many things that she had to say that I found interesting.  For one, she struck me as an intelligent, well-read person.  She spoke for most of the two hours, and she was enjoyable to listen to.  Second, while she was definitely not intending to promote her old beliefs in the interview, I found what she had to say about them to be interesting: about how different beliefs are facets of the one truth, how Jesus came to teach self-sacrifice and how that related to Pisces, how we all become one with an impersonal God and lose our individuality (she said that this idea bothered her even when she believed it, but she hoped that she would arrive at the point of desiring such a union), etc.  Obviously, there are things about the occult and the New Age movement that I would rather avoid: as Montenegro was saying, even many occultists are wary of oija boards, believing that they can attract malevolent spirits; what she was saying about the Seth revelations and channeling discouraged me from wanting to pursue those things further, lest I come into contact with a demon (as Montenegro was saying, Jane Roberts’ face was contorted when “Seth” spoke through her).  I have to admit, though, that I read more about the Seth revelations this morning, and they seem to me to be typical New Age (i.e., Jesus as an ascended consciousness, positive thinking).  In any case, I can understand Montenegro’s point that New Age teachings can be pretty seductive, even for Christians.  I would add that they can also be seductive for people burned out with conservative Christianity, like yours truly.

Third, I enjoyed listening to Montenegro’s story about how she became a Christian.  Essentially, she felt led to go to a church, so she attended a liberal Episcopalian church.  While at a service, she was flooded with a feeling that she was loved by a personal God.  She came to be convicted that the occult was wrong, and, when she was reading Matthew 8 and the story about Jesus’ control of the wind and the waves, she accepted him as her savior.  She later learned that a Christian she worked with and his small group were praying for her, even though the Christian was not overtly trying to convert her.  She offered advice on how to engage people involved in New Age spirituality or the occult—-learn about their views on God and Jesus, and do not stereotype them inaccurately (i.e., she said that Wiccans do not believe in Satan and thus are not Satanists).  She also said, however, that trying to convert them probably will not work, since they are not particularly receptive to the Gospel, even though many may have positive views of Jesus.

A question that was in my mind concerned religious experience.  Both Peters and Montenegro did not care for how many people make their religious experience the criterion of truth, when they should be interpreting their experience in light of Scripture.  My problem with this aspect of the discussion was that Montenegro herself seemed to believe in Christianity on account of her own religious experiences.  What makes those valid, whereas experiences that do not fit a conservative Christian mold are invalid?  And does not Peters, on some level, highlight the importance of religious experience in discerning truth when he appeals to the disciples’ experience of Jesus’ resurrection as a reason that we can believe that Christianity is true?

In any case, I am reluctant to engage the occult because I do not want to play with fire.  At the same time, I am somewhat drawn to the pluralistic aspects of New Age beliefs, especially since there are times when Christian conceptions of God do not look, well, all that lofty or appealing to me.

I do not want to encourage people to check things out that may be harmful.  I just felt like writing this post because I found the podcast to be interesting.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Seventh-Day Adventist Candidate

I’ve been wanting to blog about Presidential candidate Ben Carson being a Seventh-Day Adventist.  Now that it is in the news quite a bit, I figure that now is a good time to write this post.  Here are some ramblings.

A.  It interests me that Dr. Ben Carson is a Seventh-Day Adventist, because I myself have a background in seventh-day Sabbatarianism.  I grew up in an offshoot of Herbert Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God, and I attended Seventh-Day Adventist churches from my time in college until 2004.  People who observed the seventh-day Sabbath and went to church on Saturday were definitely a minority where I grew up: many people where we lived attended church on Sundays and scheduled events on Saturdays.  I was also aware of people in the U.S. who were forced to choose between keeping the Sabbath on Saturday and keeping their jobs, which pressured them to work on Saturdays.  We were marginal and considered strange; in some places, seventh-day Sabbatarians were persecuted.  That is why I feel somewhat of an affinity towards Dr. Ben Carson, even though I am no longer a seventh-day Sabbatarian, and I think that Dr. Carson says some pretty strange things.

B.  In New York City, I attended a liberal Seventh-Day Adventist church.  In 2004, Joe Lieberman was running for the Democratic nomination for President.  Lieberman, of course, is an orthodox Jew, who observes the Sabbath on Saturday.  Someone in my church was doing a presentation on how Lieberman’s Sabbath observance conflicted with his Presidential campaign: Lieberman, for example, could not participate in debates that took place on Saturdays.  Nowadays, it seems to me, that is not a big problem.  I do not know if Dr. Carson does anything for his presidential campaign on Saturdays, or if he takes a break from it on those days, but my understanding is that the Republican debates so far have not taken place on Saturdays, but rather during the week.

C.  Dr. Carson is winning support from evangelicals.  He speaks like he’s a part of the religious right.  From a certain standpoint, that is rather odd for a Seventh-Day Adventist.  For decades, Seventh-Day Adventists have feared that the United States would pass a National Sunday Law that would require people to honor Sunday.  They associate this with the Mark of the Beast of Revelation 13.  While some Seventh-Day Adventists have expected this to occur within a multicultural context of trying to bring the world’s religions together, a number of them have feared that the religious right would bring it about, with all of its attempts to make the United States a Christian nation.  Consequently, SDAs have supported the separation of church from state.  I remember my pastor at an SDA church that I attended in the 1990’s forecasting that the American electorate would be upset at President Bill Clinton on account of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and they would sweep the Republicans into power.  The Republicans then, to appease their religious base, would enact a National Sunday Law.  Well, the Republicans did have a lot of power from 2001-2009.  There was no National Sunday Law.

Is this characterization of the SDAs absolute, though?  Not exactly.  There are exceptions.  I know of someone who visited an SDA church shortly after 9/11, and the pastor there was preaching that 9/11 happened because America took prayer out of public schools.  I should also note that many SDAs are strict young-earth creationists and anti-evolutionists, and that overlaps with elements of the religious right.

In terms of Dr. Carson, he does express support for the separation of church and state.  Still, he speaks like he’s part of the religious right, in terms of the things that he says and the stances that he takes, and he has been gaining support from conservative evangelicals.

D.  I know a Roman Catholic who used to be a Seventh-Day Adventist.  One concern that she has about her former denomination is the performance of abortions at Seventh-Day Adventist hospitals (see here).  At the liberal SDA church that I attended, some lauded the SDA church for having a nuanced stance on abortion (see here), while expressing a wish that it would convey the same sort of thoughtfulness in its stance on homosexuality.  What this has to do with Ben Carson, well, I find it interesting to note.  I do not know how long Dr. Carson has been an SDA; this article says that his mother is an SDA, so maybe he has been an SDA for a long time.  I was watching the news yesterday, and Dr. Carson was talking about how he came to be pro-life on abortion.  I can envision an SDA physician performing abortions, only later to conclude that abortion is wrong because it is taking a human life.  Maybe that fits Dr. Carson, but I do not know for certain.

E.  I do not know for sure if SDA politicians tend to vote or to govern as liberals or as conservatives, but my impression is that there is diversity.  At the first SDA church that I attended, there were political liberals and political conservatives, though one of the political conservatives was concerned that the Christian Coalition could help bring about a National Sunday Law.  When I attended the liberal SDA church, an aide of the mayor of Philadelphia at the time, John F. Street, an SDA, came to speak to us.  My impression was that Mayor Street was liberal on economic issues, but rather conservative on same-sex marriage.

F.  I came across an article yesterday—-and, unfortunately, I cannot find it now—-and it said that it is ironic that Dr. Carson is gaining support from evangelicals, when his own denomination believes that many evangelicals will go to hell for not keeping the seventh-day Sabbath, and for observing Sunday.  There are SDAs who believe that way (of course, they would see hell as a future place of annihilation rather than a place of eternal torment); there are also SDAs, however, who are more tolerant than that, who believe that there are genuine Christians who observe Sunday.  Ellen G. White, the prophetess of early Adventism, expressed a belief in The Great Controversy that there were sincere Christians among Protestants and Catholics, who were keeping Sunday out of ignorance.  The Great Controversy, as a matter of fact, heroized many Protestant heroes in history, such as Martin Luther.   Did White write anything that could form the basis for the views of the SDAs who believe that true Christians observe the Sabbath, and that Sunday-keeping Christians are not true Christians?  It would not surprise me.

I’m sure that more can be written and researched about the relationship between SDAs and politics.  I just wrote this post to convey my own experiences and understanding, based on what I currently know.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Temptation and Spiritual Warfare (with LOST, the Bible, and Testament of Solomon Thrown Into the Mix)

I am plowing through a 1000-page book on the New Testament, so I won’t be writing any book reviews for at least a week.  In this post, I want to write about a scene in the Testament of Solomon, which I read sometime back.  According to the Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha, the Testament of Solomon dates from the first century C.E. to the third century C.E.  D.C. Duling was the translator of the Testament of Solomon for the Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha, and it is from his translation that I will be quoting.

The Testament of Solomon is about King Solomon’s power over demons.  Specifically, Solomon captures demons who are having an adverse effect on humanity and makes them work on the construction of the Temple.  The idea that Solomon had power against demons is also present in Josephus’ Antiquities 8.2.5, which dates to the first century C.E.

In Testament of Solomon 1:8-13, Solomon gives a boy a signet-ring to capture a demon.  Solomon instructs the boy to thrust the ring into the demon’s chest and to say to the demon, “Come!  Solomon summons you!”  The boy immediately after this is to run away from the demon before the demon can say anything frightening to him.

The demon Ornias shows up to take away the boy’s pay, as he usually did, and the boy does as Solomon instructed, thrusting the ring into the demon’s chest and ordering the demon to come.  The boy then runs away, and the demon calls after him.  The demon says that, if the boy removes the ring from his chest, he will give the boy all the earth’s silver and gold.

The boy responds to the demon: “As the Lord God of Israel lives, I will never withstand you if I do not deliver you to Solomon.”  The boy then tells Solomon: “King Solomon, I brought the demon to you just as you commanded me; observe how he is standing bound in front of the gates outside, crying out with a great voice to give me all the silver and gold of the earth so that I would not deliver him to you.”

I thought about the TV series LOST when I read this story.  In the last season of LOST, the smoke monster was appearing in the guise of John Locke.  Someone who was being instructed to kill the smoke monster was told to thrust the knife into the smoke monster’s chest before the smoke monster could speak.  Once the smoke monster speaks, the battle is lost.  Why was this suggested?  Because the smoke monster was wily.  He could get inside of a person’s head.  He knew what made a person tick, and what he could appeal to or exploit to get his own way.  If allowed to speak, the smoke monster might end up convincing the person that he, the smoke monster, is the good guy, whereas the other side is the enemy.

Some Christians have suggested that we should take the same approach when it comes to Satan, or temptation in general.  Do not engage Satan in conversation!  I remember reading one homiletic commentary that said that Eve in Genesis 3 was wrong to answer the serpent’s question and attempts to engage her: that gave the serpent an opportunity to get inside of her head, to get her to doubt God’s word and love for her, and to encourage her desire for wisdom and Godhood.  What did this commentator think she should have done instead?  She could have just left, I suppose.  Or she could have been like Jesus in the temptation story in Matthew 4: she should have stood by the word of God.  Jesus in Matthew 4 did respond to Satan, but that does not initially strike me as a give-and-take interaction, in which Jesus evaluated Satan’s arguments and offered a rebuttal to them.  Rather, Jesus stood by the word of God: “it is written!”

Like the boy in the Testament of Solomon story, I can understand that I am vulnerable.  I can be frightened.  There are things that I desire that a malevolent force can appeal to if he so desires.  In those cases, I think that the approach that Solomon advised is wise: don’t engage the temptation!  Just say “no!”  The boy in the story fled to Solomon to tell Solomon what was going on.  The boy probably did not want to be alone in this troubling, disturbing, challenging situation.  Similarly, we do not have to be alone when we are tempted.  Maybe we can talk to someone who can help us or be there for us.  Or we can talk to God.

Where I get a little leery is when some of these insights are applied to the intellectual arena.  “Don’t read or engage that atheist book.  That is from Satan!  It will hinder or damage your spiritual life!  It will undermine your faith and trust in God!”  I think that is essentially putting on blinders, closing one’s eyes to what is really out there.  I suppose that Satan conceivably could have put into the ground the fossils that support evolution, or that God could have done so to test our faith.  But would God operate that way: allowing or making the world to appear a certain way, when it is actually different?  Isn’t that deceptive?  Would a God who appeals to people’s reason or experience in the Bible do that as part of his M.O.?  Moreover, many scientists have said that there is evidence for evolution at the DNA level.  Satan burying fossils is one thing; Satan tampering with our DNA is something else.  DNA is part of how God himself made us.

Let’s return to the temptation story in Matthew 4.  Maybe Jesus, in saying “It is written,” was not like Matthew Harrison Brady on the witness stand in Inherit the Wind, offering an empty response of “I believe the Bible” or “the Bible says” in response to Henry Drummond’s poignant challenges.  Perhaps Jesus actually was engaging Satan’s points, challenging their assumptions, showing that there was more to the story.  Satan tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread to assuage his hunger in the desert, and Jesus thought back to the Deuteronomy story: the Israelites learned in the wilderness that life was not just about eating but entailed learning to obey, trust, and rely on God.  The story of Scripture, not an empty and mindless appeal to Scripture, was upholding Jesus when Jesus was faced with temptation.

I’ll stop here.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Principalities and Resurrection

I have two items in my write-up about church this morning.

A.  We sang a song that we sang last week, “Heart Won’t Stop.”  The song appears to be based on Romans 8:38-39: “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (KJV).

The part of the song that stood out to me said:

“There is not an angel of the stars.
“There is not a devil in the dark,
“Oh, nothing that could change the way You are,
“The love You have for me.”

But why would an angel of the stars want to change the way that God is, the love that God has for me?  Angels are the good guys, right?  Hebrews 1:14 calls them “ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation” (KJV).

Of course, one can ask about other things on Paul’s list.  Paul says that no other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ.  The song states that “There is not a man or a beast, nothing on the land or underneath, oh, nothing that could ever come between the love You have for me.”  But why would a beast want to come in between the love that God has for me?  A beast wouldn’t care one way or the other, right?

One could say that Paul, and the song, are expressing a merism: their point is that nobody or nothing, ever, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.  One could say that I am being too literal.

Perhaps.  But maybe Paul was mentioning what he was mentioning for a reason.  Why would one conclude that a beast would be able to separate one from the love of God?  Christians had to fight wild beasts in the arena.  Paul himself says in I Corinthians 15:32 that he fought beasts at Ephesus.  Paul’s point in mentioning beasts in Romans 8:39 could be that, even if a Christian has to fight with wild animals and ends up scarred or dead, that person has not been separated from the love of God in Christ.  Death, and not even the perils of life, can separate us from the love of God.

Why would Paul mention angels or principalities?  I have been continuing my reading of Charleworth’s Pseudepigrapha.  I recently finished the Apocalypse of Adam, which has Gnostic elements.  I then started the Apocalypse of Elijah, which is not Gnostic and which actually honors the creator God rather than portraying him as a sub-deity trying to hold people back.  Both books are rather critical of heavenly powers.  Such a theme does seem to go back to the Bible.  Isaiah 24:21 affirms that God will punish the high ones on high.  Ephesians 6:12 states that our battle is against wickedness in the heavenlies.

One could be tempted to conclude that these heavenly beings are demons.  Not necessarily, or at least not according to one ancient source.  Testament of Solomon 20:11-17 seems to distinguish the principalities and authorities, who are worthy to enter heaven, from the demons, who are not.  Still, the demons appear to fall from heaven, so maybe they at one time were principalities and powers.  There are spirit beings in the underworld, according to Revelation 9:11.  Maybe that is why Paul said that no depth will be able to separate us from the love of God.  But Paul also says that no height will separate us.  Are there heavenly powers that are adverse to God?

Maybe they are not particularly adverse to God, but they have their own agenda.  I think of the sons of God in Genesis 6, who slept with the daughters of men.  According to I Enoch, these sons of God were consigned to the underworld, and II Peter 2:4 and Jude 6 appear to affirm this tradition.  Yet, Paul may acknowledge that there is still a possibility that heavenly angels could sin: I Corinthians 11:10 states that women are to wear authority on their head on account of the angels, and some suggest that Paul is exhorting women not to tempt angels to want to sleep with them.  I find this a bit unbelievable, though.  I should also note Paul’s warning in Galatians 1:8 that, even if an angel of heaven preaches a different Gospel, the Galatian Christians are not to accept it.  Could that be exaggeration, not to be taken literally?  Maybe.  Still, there are things in the Scriptures that seem to suggest that some heavenly powers act contrary to God.

B.  The pastor this morning preached about the resurrection.  I liked the entire sermon, but I would like to highlight a couple of things that he said.  First of all, he referred to the women who followed Jesus to the end, and he said that they came to conclude that they needed to keep following Jesus after learning that he was still alive.  They were continuing Jesus’ mission of bringing good to the world.  Second, the pastor said that Jesus’ resurrection was God saying that you can’t get rid of him that easy—-that he loves us that much.  We threw the worse that we could at Jesus, and that did not keep God down.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Book Write-Up: Spiritual Companioning

Angela H. Reed, Richard R. Osmer, and Marcus G. Smucker.  Spiritual Companioning: A Guide to Protestant Theology and Practice.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015.  See here to purchase the book.

Spiritual Companioning is about both one-on-one spiritual relationships and also small groups.  The purpose of having a spiritual companion is to find affirmation and to explore with someone where God may be in one’s life.  While the book is leery about spiritual mentors offering people advice, advocating instead non-judgmental listening and hearing people’s stories, encouragement to perform spiritual practices and good works, accountability, and even tactful confrontation (depending on the level of trust in the relationship) are still part of the equation.

The book contains stories about spiritual companioning and small groups, as well as suggestions on how to be a spiritual companion or to facilitate a small group.  People who are interested in this will probably find this book helpful.  The book does not exactly hold people’s hand and tell them exactly what to do, but it does present a picture of what spiritual companioning looks like, what a spiritual mentor should aim to be and to do in the relationship.  The book especially shone in its suggestions on how to facilitate a small group, such that people feel included and are learning from the Scriptures.

There were parts of the book with which I especially identified.  There was a statement about how difficult it is to form a bridge and connect with another human being—-to know truly another human being—-and I especially identify with that, as a person with Asperger’s.  There was a statement about moving the focus of Bible study in a small group from people showing off how much they know to listening to the Scriptures in silence and humility.  There was also a challenging reference to a point that Dallas Willard made.  Willard’s point was that “focusing only on securing our own comfort, safety, and righteousness makes it impossible for us to receive God’s guidance” (the book’s paraphrase of Dallas Willard, on page 107).  In addition, the book told a story about a person’s refreshing honesty: a married man was sharing that he was attracted to a married woman at work.  I cannot picture too many Christian small groups where a Christian man could be that open and vulnerable!

In reading this book, I thought about my own experiences in small groups, some bad and some good.  I was also thinking about whether I can envision myself within a spiritual companioning relationship.  What the book presents appears non-threatening: I like the idea of everyone feeling included in a small group, people sitting in silence for a brief time, and people sharing how they identify with certain biblical characters.  I cannot think of too many Christians with whom I would want to have a spiritual companioning relationship, since I know a number of Christians who are dogmatic and opinionated.  There were times in reading the book when I thought that human interaction or relationships may be messier than the book may think.

The book does present a picture of what people should aim for: openness, learning people’s stories, etc.  Still, the book could have done a better job in addressing what happens when one has a round peg and a bunch of square holes: What should one do in messy situations?  The book referred to a person who came to a small group to debate theology, and it says that the group loved him.  It should have been more specific about how the group addressed this situation.  The book talked about service projects and the group not becoming self-focused, but what if someone in the group does not want to participate in a service project?  What if someone in the group is on a different page—-religiously, spiritually, and personally—-from others in the group, such that he does not share the group’s views about how to live and what to believe?  Is the assumption that this person will simply not show up at the small group?  But, as the book acknowledges, different people attend small groups or desire spiritual companionship, for different reasons.

In addition, I think that the book could have been clearer in explaining what God’s activity in a person’s life might look like.  I, personally, am very reluctant to identify certain things in my life as God’s activity, or to predict what God may do in my life.  I am just not that dogmatic.  But a significant part of spiritual companioning is encouraging people to identify what God is doing in their lives.  The book should have fleshed out more what that means, and it should have recognized that some people may struggle with that question.

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

Friday, October 23, 2015

Book Write-Up: A Graceful Uprising, by Jonathan Jones II

Jonathan Jones II.  A Graceful Uprising: How Grace Changes Everything.  Dallas: Start2Finish Books, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

A Graceful Uprising is about God’s grace, and it focuses on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.  In terms of uniqueness, its main points are not radically different from other evangelical books about God’s grace, even though these points are worth reading, reviewing, and internalizing.  What sets this book apart, however, is that it presents a Church of Christ perspective on Romans.  Its author, Jonathan Jones II, attended Freed-Hardeman University and preaches at a Church of Christ congregation.

What is a Church of Christ perspective, or the Church of Christ perspective that is manifest in this book?  It believes that water baptism is required for salvation.  Jones argues that water baptism is where God’s powerful work of salvation takes place, and where the sinner confesses sin and calls out to God for salvation.  Jones cites Scriptures that he believes support that point (Acts 22:16; Colossians 2:12; I Timothy 6:12-13; I Peter 3:21).  This perspective is non-Calvinist: it does not believe in predestination, and it thinks that Christians can lose their salvation by leaving the faith.  (God does not leave Christians, but Christians can leave God, according to Jones.  Moreover, on the basis of Romans 11, Jones argues that a Christian who apostasizes can return to the faith.  I wonder how Jones would interpret Hebrews 6:4-6, which states that it is impossible to renew to repentance certain people who fall away.)  In contrast to Calvinists, Jones interprets aspects of Romans 9 as God using people’s free choices for or against him, not as God somehow causing those choices.

Most surprisingly to me, there were things that Jones said that struck me as rather postmillennialist.  Postmillennialism asserts that Christians will make the world a better place, then Christ will return.  Jones emphasized more than once how Christians can transform the world through the Gospel and the example of their self-sacrificial love.  He presents God’s righteousness as something that is imputed to individual believers, but also as something that God introduces into a sinful world that changes it, perhaps even cures it.  I wondered if postmillennialism were a part of the Church of Christ’s teachings: I was aware that preterism was a part of its eschatology, on some level, but postmillennialism?  I did a search on the Internet, and I found a forum in which people were saying that Churches of Christ have both amillennialists and postmillennialists attending them.  I learned something new!

I did learn new things from this book, as Jones offered his interpretation of certain Scriptures.  I appreciated Jones’ points about the Holy Spirit’s intercession for believers in Romans 8 (according to Jones, the Holy Spirit hears our prayers, determines what we need spiritually, and brings his assessment of our needs to God), and also about the weaker brother in Romans 14 (according to Jones, Romans 14 exhorts the weaker brother to tolerate the practices of the stronger brother rather than expecting everyone to cater to him to avoid offense).  Questions emerged in my mind, though.  These are not necessarily questions that I would expect Jones to address, but they were still in my mind.  For example, Jones states that one should not be causing others to be spiritually lost (Romans 14:15).  Would this include expressing doubts about the Bible, or presenting conclusions that question a Christian fundamentalist view of reality?  In my opinion, if God did not want us to question or to arrive at non-fundamentalist conclusions, then God should have made the “truth” clearer.

I think that Jones’ book runs into some of the same problems that many other Christian books on grace run into: there always seems to be a catch to God’s free grace.  It does not look entirely free.  On the one hand, Jones presents grace as something that produces spiritual security within the believer.  The believer does not have to fret about being lost or losing his or her salvation (provided he or she has faith), even if he or she may stumble.  It is like being on a ship, Jones states: a person may stumble on the ship, but that is not the same as falling overboard.  Appealing to Paul, Jones depicts grace as conducive to liberty and joy.  On the other hand, I see indications that Jones’ approach could be conducive to spiritual insecurity.  Jones states in an end-note that, not just faith, but also repentance is a condition for salvation.  Jones affirms that those who have truly received grace will walk in the Spirit.  Jones also places emphasis on faith—-trusting God—-as a condition for receiving and maintaining salvation, and this may trouble those who have difficulty believing, or holding on to belief.  When we introduce subjective criteria into salvation, or require people to assess their salvation according to the quality of their spiritual lives, does that make grace less free?  It can make it feel less free!  I cannot fault Jones for any of this, for I do believe that he is reflecting what is in the New Testament.

I will also say that, on some level, I can understand and appreciate the perspective that grace should make people more righteous—-not just in terms of their standing and position before God, but also in terms of what they think and how they live.  As I was reading Jones, a question that occurred to me as Jones presented the usual evangelical version of the Gospel was, “What is the point?”  Jones, like many other evangelicals, presents God as an utter perfectionist regarding God’s law before people are saved, which is why people cannot be saved by obeying God’s law; after people are saved by grace, however, God is not that kind of perfectionist.  Why, though?  Why would God change his M.O. like that?  Is God’s holiness or righteousness somehow lessened once a person accepts Christ?  It sounds rather arbitrary to me, though I am aware that many evangelicals would assure me that it is not.  To his credit, however, Jones did balance that out with his presentation of grace as something that transforms, as something that makes people new and practically righteous.

I give this book five stars because it was a delightful read, and I did learn new things from it.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book through Bookcrash, in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Book Write-Up: The God You Thought You Knew, by Alex McFarland

Alex McFarland.  The God You Thought You Knew: Exposing the 10 Biggest Myths About Christianity.  Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

Allow me to quote from the back cover of the book, and this will set the stage for me to explain why this book disappointed me:

“Many of us believe the Christian God is far away and unapproachable, that we have to be good to be accepted by him, and that the Bible is just an antiquated list of do’s and don’ts.  But maybe none of that is true.  Maybe we’ve gotten it wrong.  Instead of proofs for God’s existence, what we really need are compelling reasons to want to know him, and those reasons are more personal than we sometimes think.  Through sharing his story, author and speaker Alex McFarland shows how the God you thought you knew actually cares about you—-about the rejection and loneliness you feel.  It’s time to replace the half-truths and lies we believe about ourselves with his overwhelming love and forgiveness.  We all want acceptance and purpose.  Let this book teach you how to be anchored in the security that comes through knowing God for who he really is.”

That is beautiful!  One problem that I have with classical apologetics is that it tries to offer evidence for the existence of God, but it leaves me scratching my head wondering why I would even want for the Christian God to exist!  I thought that this book would be different.

But it isn’t.  Yes, Alex McFarland shares his personal story in the first chapter, and it is a moving story.  Alex dealt with rejection from his father, and his father on his deathbed called Alex a dumb ape.  Alex smiled and responded, “Well, I’m your dumb ape.  And I love you.”  That made me cry.

But the rest of the book is not really like that.  Rather, it is a rehearsal of the usual classical apologetic arguments.  McFarland has already written those kinds of books, so why this book is even necessary, I have no idea.  Some may get use out of it.  It is a fairly decent and lucid introduction to the usual classical apologetic arguments, the bibliography in the back looks good, and I liked many of the quotes that McFarland had throughout the book (though he should have cited the source for them for those who want to track them down).  One should remember, though, that there are arguments for the other side, and I think that McFarland would have done well do have engaged those more rather than to imply that atheists are bitter or hurt people. While McFarland did make an effort to sympathize with people’s hurt regarding Christianity and the church, I felt that he was trying to soothe their pain with short pat answers.  Those pat answers may have some wisdom to them, and they may offer people something to think about, but I do not think that they by themselves are an adequate response to people’s pain, or that they take people’s pain seriously enough.

In talking about the bad things that Christians have done, McFarland says that this does not mean that Christianity is untrue.  Fair enough, but it does make me wonder: If Christianity changes people’s lives and makes them new people, then why do we see so much bad among Christians?  What are they doing wrong?  Why doesn’t Christianity appear to be working as advertised in their lives?  I do not mind McFarland’s pat answers, but I wish that I saw a more thoughtful wrestling with issues in this book.

This book did not present me with much that I did not already know.  Those who have been in evangelical Christianity probably will not learn from this book much that is new.  “Well, how is the author supposed to know what you know and don’t know, James?”  Fair question, but I think that one can tell that McFarland is repeating the usual classical apologetic spiel, and at a very basic level.  Repeating this spiel is not wrong, per se, but at least I learn something new when I read other apologists, such as William Lane Craig or even Lee Strobel, perhaps because they engage scholarship more.  McFarland could have made this book more interesting than it is.  I did learn one thing that was new to me from this book, though: that there was a view in eighteenth-nineteenth century England that the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20 and Mark 16:15 (to preach the Gospel to all the world and make disciples) only applied to the first century apostles.

I cannot give this book one star because it is not horrible.  As I said, some may find it useful.  Plus, the back cover and Alex’s story are gold.  There were also a few good anecdotes (such as the story of how Jerry Falwell befriended Larry Flynt).  I am just saying that my reading experience of this book was not that positive, and that the book could have been better.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from Bethany House Publishers, in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Book Write-Up: Hoping Against Hope, by John D. Caputo

John D. Caputo.  Hoping Against Hope (Confessions of a Postmodern Pilgrim).  Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015.  See here to purchase the book.

John D. Caputo is a philosopher, a theologian, and an author.  Hope Against Hope contains some of his musings about religion.  Caputo dialogues with different aspects of himself: Jackie, who was Caputo as a child; Brother Paul, who was involved in a religious order; and Caputo as an academic.  Caputo also interacts with a variety of thinkers: Meister Eckhart, Marguerite Porete, Martin Heidegger, Paul Tillich, Jacques Derrida, and others.

Caputo expresses a number of views that would probably be controversial among evangelicals.  For example, Caputo expresses doubt about (maybe even disbelief in) eternal torment in hell, and perhaps even the afterlife, for that matter.   This is surprising to me, since I received a review copy of this book through Cross Focused Reviews, which strikes me as conservative Christian.

Overall, I enjoyed this book.  It has a musing quality to it, and I appreciated that Caputo wove different thinkers into the discussion, while sharing his own faith journey.  Caputo also has a sense of humor, and I laughed out loud at some of his wry reflections.

I did not find some of his main points to be particularly new.  For example, Caputo essentially says that God has no hands but our hands, and no feet but our feet.  I was not entirely clear if Caputo even believes that God exists, for, on the one hand, Caputo seems to suggest that God makes Godself aloof to give us choice and the opportunity to act, yet, on the other hand, Caputo addresses the question of why we should even pray when we are unsure if someone is really listening.  Still, for Caputo, we, through our actions, make God present.

While I was not particularly floored by Caputo’s main point, I did enjoy some of his illustrations: the priest who had doubts about God yet remained a priest because he was helping people; how Martha may have been serving because she was spiritually secure and did not need to sit at Jesus’ feet listening (the text is Luke 10:38-42); how hope is not allowing past negative experiences to get one down (Caputo said this in discussing whether artificial intelligence could ever have hope); that Derrida, an atheist, was a man of prayer; and how the Bible is a book of suggestions that paints a picture of what life under God’s rule could be like.

Caputo discusses other issues, such as inter-religious dialogue and the question of whether we have the religion that we have on account of where we were born.  Caputo believes that different cultures may have received their own revelations, and that we should celebrate differences.  Caputo’s approach is rather post-modern.

Some parts of the book resonated with me, and some parts did not so much, but I found that being in a critiquing (or heresy-hunting) mode was not the best way for me to read and appreciate this book.  A poet on a movie that I recently watched told a friend that she should not worry whether she understands the poetry or not, but should simply let it wash over her.  That was how I approached Caputo’s musings.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book through Cross Focused Reviews, in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Book Write-Up: Tough Questions about God and His Actions in the Old Testament

Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.  Tough Questions about God and His Actions in the Old Testament.  Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. is a biblical scholar, who has taught the Old Testament and has written many books and articles.  In this book, Kaiser addresses tough questions about God in the Old Testament.  Kaiser also interacts with the New Testament, including passages that many consider misogynistic, as well as passages about food.

Overall, this is a good book.  It offers some of the stock apologetic answers about God in the Old Testament, yet I still learned from the book.  Kaiser also wrestled with questions, and the Discussion Questions at the end of each chapter were thoughtful and open-ended and did not assume that one had to agree with Kaiser.  There were times, however, when I wished that Kaiser provided actual documentation for claims that he was making—-about Canaanite life and religion, about the dating of the Book of Job, etc.

I can better critique the book by going through each chapter.  I will not be exhaustive, but I will convey some of Kaiser’s points, and my reactions.

In the Introduction, Kaiser talks about Marcion, an ancient Christian who distinguished between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament.  Kaiser also referred to biblical scholars and theologians who portrayed the God of the Old Testament as harsh, in contrast with the loving and merciful God of the New Testament.  Kaiser, of course, disagrees with such views.  I appreciated Kaiser’s academic discussion of this issue.  At the same time, I doubt that Marcion or the scholars whom Kaiser critiques were getting there impressions from nowhere: Paul himself appears in places to contrast the old covenant with the new covenant, presenting the former as a ministry of condemnation, discipline, and wrath, and the latter as a ministry of grace.

Chapter 1 is entitled “The God of Mercy or the God of Wrath?”  Kaiser argues in this chapter that God is rightfully angry at sin, and yet God’s anger is small when compared with God’s vast love.  I did not learn anything radically new from this chapter, and I think that Kaiser’s points are valid.  At the same time, I do not think that Kaiser’s insights will eliminate all feelings of discomfort that one may have when reading the Old Testament, particularly when God’s wrath appears to hit innocent people (through collective punishment, arguably, or when God kills children through the Flood and the Conquest).

Chapter 2 is entitled “The God of Peace or the God of Ethnic Cleansing?”  In this chapter, Kaiser addresses God’s command for Israel to kill all of the Canaanites and take their land.  Kaiser essentially argues that the Canaanites were sinful and that God was punishing the Canaanites through the Israelites.  Kaiser refers to a Ugaritic writing about a bloodthirsty deity, maintaining that the Canaanites were imitating the depraved actions of their gods.  Kaiser’s argument is consistent with elements of the biblical narrative.  Yet, I still have questions.  Would the Canaanites or their gods look so one-sidedly bad if we looked at Ugaritic literature without the agenda of wanting them to look bad so that God looks good?  Is not the slaughter of Canaanite children a moral problem?  Moreover, while Kaiser contrasts the biblical Conquest with Islamic jihad, they look to me like they overlap: both portray people as instruments of God.

Chapter 3 is entitled “The God of Truth or the God of Deception?”  In this chapter, Kaiser addresses biblical passages in which God appears to deceive or to command deception.  Kaiser also interacts with the question of whether it is ever legitimate for a person to lie, referring to biblical passages in which righteous people lied, dissimulated, or concealed information for a righteous or a practical end.  Kaiser appears to take a strong stand against lying: Rahab and the women who delivered the Israelite babies were wrong to lie, as far as Kaiser is concerned, even if their actions were protecting life.  But Kaiser is rather tolerant towards Samuel telling Saul that Samuel was going off to sacrifice, rather than telling Saul that he was going off to anoint a new king to replace Saul.  Regarding divine deception, Kaiser maintains that God permits deception but does not command it, even though Kaiser acknowledges that God’s permission can be portrayed as God’s activity or command.  Kaiser likens this to Jesus telling Judas to betray him quickly (John 13:27): Jesus was not really commanding, authorizing, or endorsing his betrayal, but was giving Judas permission, and yet it comes across in the form of a command.  In the Discussion Questions, Kaiser asks if misleading an opponent as part of a sport or war is permissible.  That is a good question, and it made me think about times when God’s people in the Old Testament misled their enemy (i.e., Gideon arguably did so).  Kaiser is a bit too absolutist, in my opinion, but he did make me think about how literally we should take passages about divine deception.

Chapter 4 is entitled “The God of Evolution or the God of Creation?”  In this chapter, Kaiser argues that God in Genesis 1 created ex nihilo, that the biblical creation account differs from other ancient Near Eastern ones, and that Genesis 1 is inconsistent with evolution.  This chapter was interesting for two reasons.  First, Kaiser referred to how interpreters have addressed the question of why God in Genesis 1 created light on Day 1, but the heavenly bodies on Day 4.  Second, Kaiser notes that each day of creation is punctuated with “and there was evening, and there was morning, (such-and-such day).”  Kaiser asks why this punctuation does not mention the afternoons.  I had never thought about that.  While I understand that the Jews have long counted each day as beginning at evening and lasting until the next evening, I wonder after reading Kaiser if there was a different Israelite tradition: that the day actually ended on the morning of the following day.

Chapter 5 is entitled “The God of Grace or the God of Law?”  In this chapter, Kaiser argues that God’s grace and God’s law are present in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.  Kaiser also wrestles with the question of which aspects of the Old Testament law Christians are supposed to keep.  Kaiser argues that Christians are supposed to keep the Ten Commandments, that they do not have to observe the ceremonial “patterns” that Christ fulfilled, and that they should abide by the principles behind all of the laws, even those they do not literally observe.  This chapter was good in laying out different positions on law and grace.  Kaiser did not always offer support for what he was saying (i.e., that the Ten Commandments are eternal), however, plus, as far as I recall, he did not explain how Christians should relate to the Sabbath commandment, which is part of the Ten Commandments.

Chapter 6 is entitled “The God of Monogamy or the God of Polygamy?”  In terms of argumentation, this was probably the best chapter in this book.  Kaiser argues that God’s standard was and is monogamy (even though Kaiser can understand the rationale for polygamy in an ancient cultural setting), and Kaiser argues against the view that God in the Torah permitted polygamy.  For example, Deuteronomy 21:15-17 says that a man with two wives has to honor the firstborn son of the unloved wife, and Kaiser argues that the man does not have the two wives simultaneously, but rather that his first wife died, then he married again.  I do not know how well Kaiser’s interpretation here works, but I do respect him for addressing that passage.  Kaiser also argues that II Samuel 12:7b-8 does not mean that David married Saul’s wives because that would mean that David married his mother-in-law, which is a capital offense in Leviticus 20:14.  (Plus, Kaiser states, Saul’s wives in the biblical text do not appear in the lists of David’s wives.)  Kaiser’s conservative approach to the Bible is manifest here, since Kaiser presumes that the Book of Leviticus preceded the time of David, something liberal scholars going back to Wellhausen (maybe beyond) would dispute.  I wonder, though: if God’s standard in the Old Testament was monogamy, why did so many righteous people in the Old Testament, David included, transgress that standard, without batting an eye?

Chapter 7 is entitled “The God Who Rules Satan or the God Who Battles Satan?”  This chapter did not seem to me to be a direct answer to that question; rather, Kaiser was going through the portrayal of Satan in the Old Testament.  Kaiser was arguing against liberal scholarly views, such as the view that the serpent in Genesis 3 was not the devil, and the view that Satan was not always conceptualized as God’s adversary but rather as God’s prosecuting attorney.  Regarding Genesis 3:1, Kaiser argues that it means that the serpent was craftier than the creatures God made, not that the serpent was one of the creatures that God made in the Garden; the former is more consistent with seeing the serpent as the devil.  This chapter offered me things to think about: Kaiser said that the story in Isaiah 14 (Helel, translated in the Latin as “Lucifer,” trying to take the throne of God) was unparalleled in the ancient Near East (even if some of the names appear in ancient Near Eastern literature), and that there is evidence that Tyre peacefully surrendered to Babylon (which is relevant to Ezekiel 28, which prophesied the destruction of Tyre, but which many maintain was not fulfilled as the text prophesied).  I tend to go with the standard historical-critical views that Kaiser critiques.  For example, I tend to interpret the serpent in Genesis 3 in light of ancient Near Eastern depictions of serpents at the time, not in light of the devil, which seems to me to be a later development in Jewish religion.  (Kaiser in this chapter does not support his claim that the Book of Job, in which ha-Satan is a character, dates to the second millennium B.C.E.)  God can reveal things to people that are beyond their historical context, but would God do so, if God’s aim is to communicate to people within their historical context?  Would not God do so in terms that are familiar to them?  Kaiser himself, in questioning whether the food laws in Leviticus 11 relate to health, states that “If the distinctions between clean and unclean were based on science, then the reasons for those distinctions were unknown for thousands of years” (page 161).  Is Kaiser implying here that God’s revelation occurs within the context of where people are and what they already know?

Chapter 8 is entitled “The God Who Is Omniscient or the God Who Doesn’t Know the Future.”  Kaiser argues that God is omniscient, and Kaiser disputes open-theism, the idea that God does not know the future.  Kaiser takes a position against open-theism, but he does not casually dismiss it; rather, he wrestles with it, acknowledging reasons that people may arrive at such a conclusion from the Bible.

Chapter 9 is entitled “The God Who Elevates Women or the God Who Devalues Women?”  Kaiser appears to take an egalitarian position here.  He offers an interesting history of the interpretation of I Corinthians 11 in light of a veil, and an interesting take on I Timothy 2:11-15.  (In his view, it does not forbid women to teach but requires them to learn first, so that they are not like Eve, who sinned in ignorance.  I am not entirely convinced, but it is an interesting interpretation.)  Kaiser does well to note the times when women are treated with dignity in the Bible.  At the same time, he seems to ignore, in this chapter at least, the aspects of the Torah that are patriarchal (i.e., husbands or fathers can nullify women’s oaths, but women cannot nullify their husband’s oath, Numbers 30; daughters can only inherit if their father does not have sons, Numbers 26-27).

Chapter 10 is entitled, “The God of Freedom with Food or the God of Forbidden Food?”  This chapter took me by surprise, for Kaiser appears to argue that the New Testament does not nullify the food laws of Leviticus 11, and that Christians today should observe them.  I heard this view during my time in Armstrongism and Seventh-Day Adventism, but I did not expect to read Walter Kaiser supporting that kind of view!

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

Monday, October 19, 2015

"That's Not Me. I Don't Need That Today."

I subscribe to Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation.  I liked the following part of today’s meditation:

“For example, in centering prayer, you observe the hurt as it arises in your stream of consciousness, but you don’t jump on this boat and give it energy. Instead, you name it (‘resentment toward my spouse’), then you let go of it, leave it on the boat, and let it float down the river. You say, ‘That’s not me. I don’t need that today. I have no need to feed this resentment. I know who I am without it.’ This is the beginning of emotional sobriety. Many are converted to Christ, but without this emotional conversion their behavioral reactions remain much like everyone else’s. Thus the importance of contemplative prayer.”

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Authenticity, Choice, and Free Will

For my blog post about church this morning, I would like to use as my starting-point the stanza of a song that we sang.  The song is entitled “All That I Am.”  The stanza goes as follows:

“All that I am for all that You are my Lord,
“All that I have for all that You are.
“You’re the pearl beyond price greater than life.
“All that I am for all that You are.”

This reminded me of something that I heard John MacArthur say in a sermon a while back: that true Christians exchange all that they are for all that Christ is.

It sort of rubs me the wrong way, to tell you the truth.  I believe that God made each of us unique.  Each of us is one of a kind.  God doesn’t want us to be Jesus-clones.  God wants us to be like Jesus in terms of Jesus’ love and compassion, yet to have our own personalities.  Why should we have to surrender all of what we are for all that God is?  What is wrong with all that we are?

I may be misinterpreting the stanza.  I know plenty of evangelicals and other Christians have said that God created us unique, with our own personalities, gifts, and ways to contribute.  I just get leery at this kind of surrender talk.  I am not sure what to do with it.

I recall M. Scott Peck’s book, People of the Lie, which was about evil.  Peck was talking about a woman he counseled whom he considered to be evil.  This woman was responding to the Christian line that we were created to glorify God and enjoy him forever, and she was baffled by it.  She wondered what room there was for her in that.  Peck seemed to be presenting her as a self-centered narcissist.  I think she was asking a good question.

Another hymn I think of is “Draw Me Nearer.”  It has a line about my will being lost in the will of God.  That turns me off, too.  Losing my will?  That sounds like me losing myself and becoming programmed by God!  Don’t many Christians like to say that God gave us free-will because God doesn’t want robots, but people who freely love him?

A thought has occurred to me more than once as of late.  Yesterday, this thought somewhat intensified, so I wrestled with it more than I usually do.  I was upset with God, and I wondered why I should pray.  I concluded that I should pray for others because I wanted to be a more caring, compassionate person, and that I should ask God to make me that.  But then I had a thought: do I want to be a Christian because I want to be caring or compassionate, or because God wants me to be caring and compassionate?  Who sets the agenda in my life: me or God?  Whom am I trying to please: myself or God?  Where I settled was to say that being caring and compassionate is a good thing—-for me and others—-so it is not just a matter of my personal preference.  I cannot deny that personal preference plays a role, though.  And, to be honest, I do not really feel bad about that.  Maybe my attitude makes me look like a consumer.  Oh well.

Worship can be a bit of a challenge for me.  I do not consider it to be as great of a challenge for me as, say, socializing in unstructured social situations.  The latter is like me as a handicapped person trying to walk.  Regarding worship, I am able to sing songs and to read prayers.  But I am required to get into a mood of getting outside myself and proclaiming that someone, God, is greater than I am.  The attention is going to God.  It is not that I think that I deserve worship.  I realize that there are people who are better in character and talent than I am, that I am far from being the greatest power of the universe, that I am powerless in many areas, that I am a blip in the vast history of the universe, and that there are beautiful and fearsome things in nature that can make me feel small.  Still, getting outside of myself and worshiping God can be difficult.  Yet, I think it is necessary, at least for me.

The pastor’s sermon was interesting.  The pastor was preaching about Mark 12:38-44, in which Jesus criticizes the teachers of the law who devoured widow’s houses, right before pointing out a poor widow who gave everything she had, as small as it was, to the Temple.  The pastor mentioned a variety of issues: how the early church gave to widows; how Jesus and his brother James (who, in James 1:27, saw caring for widows as part of the essence of true religion) may have had a special concern for widows because their mother Mary was one; how giving to the church pays the pastor to do the things that he does (i.e., preaching, counseling); how there are pastors who try to guilt people into giving by saying the people should be self-sacrificial, as Jesus was on the cross; and how the pastor gives to the church because it was a friend to him when he did not have too many friends.

This intersects with what I am talking about: certain moral standards being beyond ourselves, and yet we can authentically embrace them; caring about God and others, even as we and our self-interest do not vanish from the picture; giving as an expression of who we are and where we have been; having and expressing gratitude.  I guess what I long for is personal and spiritual authenticity: doing right out of who I am, out of my personality.  There is a place for doing right out of obligation or obedience to God’s commandments—-certainly one would do well to avoid doing wrong whether that feels authentic or not!  But there is something special about authenticity.  I have long rolled my eyes at the standard Christian explanation (or, rather, A Christian explanation) for why God permits moral evil: God gave us free-will because God doesn’t want us to be robots but beings who freely love him.  Even if that theodicy does not solve everything or make me feel totally better about God or the evil in the world, there is something to it, in my opinion; at the very least, I like its valuation of authenticity, choice, and free-will.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Book Write-Up: The Analogy of Faith, by Archie J. Spencer

Archie J. Spencer.  The Analogy of Faith: The Quest for God’s Speakability.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.  See here to purchase the book.

In The Analogy of Faith, theologian Archie J. Spencer discusses the question of whether humans can “speak meaningfully of God” (to quote from the back cover).

According to Spencer, a prominent trend in the history of Christian theology has been to say that humans can understand God, on some level, because God is like humans, in certain areas, and there is something within or about humans that helps them to understand God: both have being (existence), both have wisdom, etc.  As Spencer narrates, Augustine went the route of saying that humans have a soul that is like the Trinity, and that enables them to understand the Trinitarian God, on some level.  Spencer contends that some of the roots of the idea of divine-human analogy go back to Greek philosophy and Neoplatonism, but he also refers to Scriptures that adherents of this view have relied on: Genesis 1:27’s statement that God created human beings in God’s image, and Paul’s statement in Romans 1:20 that aspects of God are understood by the things that are made.  Spencer believes that there are many problems with the divine-human analogy: that it can conceptually bring God down to the human level, that it can conceptually elevate humans to the divine level, that nature by itself does not provide a clear portrait of God but requires the drawing of conclusions, and that a focus on nature detracts from God’s revelation through Christ.  Spencer offered other reasons within his discussion, reasons that were rather abstract and philosophical.

At the same time, there has been within the history of Christian theology another belief: that God is radically different from human beings, and that God is incomprehensible to them.  Such a belief does not reduce God, but a concern one may have, Spencer notes, is that it can make God overly transcendent and actually be conducive to atheism.  What can one do in reference to a God of whom one cannot meaningfully speak, because this God cannot be understood?

Drawing on Karl Barth, Eberhard Jungel, and other theologians, Spencer believes that a solution to the theological difficulty of knowing God is to focus on the incarnation: God’s self-revelation of Godself in Jesus Christ.  John 1:18 affirms that Jesus Christ has made God known.  Spencer refers to other ideas as well: that God can make use of human words to make Godself known, and that God can be known through the drama of God’s acts and people’s testimony to those acts.

I do not recall Spencer proposing or referring to a proper way to interpret Romans 1:20 (proper in light of his beliefs about natural theology and preference for looking to the incarnation as God’s revelation).  He did, however, refer to a point that Karl Barth made in reference to Genesis 1:27: that God’s image can be defaced in human beings, but is truly manifest in the person of Jesus Christ.  Barth saw Genesis 1:27 through the lens of the incarnation.

Spencer’s discussion raises questions in my mind.  Did Jesus Christ truly reveal God as God is, since God is above and beyond human beings?  In what sense did Jesus reveal God?  Did Jesus reveal what God wants us to know about him, and yet we should remember that there is so much more about God?  My hunch is that Spencer would answer “yes” to the third question.

Do we need to choose between natural theology and specially revealed theology?  Can we have both?  The believers in natural theology whom Spencer profiles did not think that we should just go with natural theology and dismiss God’s special revelation or supernatural intervention (i.e., the incarnation, Scripture, supernatural grace).  Were they inconsistent to believe in natural theology and special revelation at the same time, or did they acknowledge that natural theology, though useful, is still limited and inadequate for knowing God?

The asset to Spencer’s book is that is does provide a history of the concept of analogy, as it looks at Plato, Aristotle, the Neoplatonists, Augustine, and others.  My problem with the book was that it was difficult to read: it was highly abstract, and Spencer could have done a better job in breaking down the concepts.  I understand and appreciate that Spencer is contributing to a specific academic discussion and may not be writing for a popular audience; still, there are theological books that IVP Academic has published, including one in the Strategic Initiatives in Evangelical Theology series (of which this book was a part), that are much more lucid.  And yet, Spencer’s book does give an impression of being deep, and I am tempted to revisit it sometime in the future, in hope that I will understand it better.

Spencer’s discussion did make me more sensitive to the issue of natural theology and special revelation.  After reading Spencer’s book, I came across a blog post by Bobby Grow about natural theology (, and I appreciated one of Grow’s points about why he (Grow) and Barth have issues with it: when we combine special revelation with natural theology, we are essentially combining special revelation with our own subjective inferences from nature, as opposed to allowing God to confront us through Christ and Scripture.  Barth pointed to the Nazis as an example of how natural theology can lead to problems.  I like many of Grow’s posts, but I especially appreciated this post because of the reflection that Spencer’s book inspired within me.

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

Bobby Grow on Barth and Natural Theology

I found this post useful because I am about to review Archie Spencer’s The Analogy of Faith, which addresses some of the same issues.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Book Write-Up: On This Foundation, by Lynn Austin

Lynn Austin.  On This Foundation.  Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

On This Foundation is the third novel of Lynn Austin’s Restoration Chronicles, which is about Israel after the exile.  One can read, understand, and appreciate On This Foundation without having read the previous two books of the series.  Still, I do recommend the previous two books because they are so good!

On This Foundation is set during the time of Nehemiah.  Ezra, the main character of the previous book, is now an old man.  Nehemiah’s father was killed during the time of Esther, and that makes Nehemiah obsessed with security, both that of the king of Persia whom he serves as cupbearer, and also that of Jerusalem, whose fallen walls leave her vulnerable to attack.  The king of Persia permits Nehemiah to go to Jerusalem, to serve as the governor of Yehud, and to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls.  While Nehemiah is in Jerusalem, enemies are trying to undermine Nehemiah’s attempts.  These enemies seek to sow and exploit discord and to make Nehemiah look bad to his people and the king of Persia.  These enemies are intermarried into prominent Jewish families, so it is difficult for Nehemiah to know whom to trust.

Yehud is also beset by drought, and indebted Jewish families are losing their land to Jewish nobles.  People are becoming slaves to pay off their family’s debts.  One of these nobles is Malkijah, who comes across as a compassionate man.  Nana is sold into slavery to Malkijah to help pay off her father’s debt, and Nana worries that she will never be able to marry her sweetheart Dan.  Meanwhile, Malkijah’s son Aaron is continually leering at her.

There is also Shallum and his daughters.  One of Shallum’s daughters is Chana.  Chana’s husband Yitzhak was murdered, and Shallum wants for Chana to marry Malkijah.  Chana is bitter about her late husband’s death and is determined to see Jerusalem become secure, so she assists in the rebuilding of the walls, to the consternation of Nehemiah, who thinks that is too dangerous for a woman.  Lynn Austin actually draws the idea that Shallum’s daughters helped repair the walls from the Bible (see Nehemiah 3:12).

I do not want to give away too many spoilers, for I want other readers to enjoy seeing the mysteries resolved for themselves.  One question that kept me reading was what kind of man Malkijah was: Was he outwardly good while inwardly bad?  Was he a good man, yet one blinded by his privilege, wealth, and elitism?  Was he a good man who had legitimate reasons for refusing to forgive people’s debts and release his slaves?

I was also wondering whom Chana would marry in the end.  Lynn Austin actually surprised me here.  Not all of her mysteries surprised me that much: for example, why did Malkijah’s servant Shimon decide to stay with Malkijah for life, as opposed to being released, and why has he covenanted to pray for Malkijah and Malkijah’s sons?

The book had somewhat of a C-SPAN feel to it in places, since it went into the technicalities of political intrigue.  Some may find those parts dry; others may find them authentic, believable, and, well, intriguing.

The book also went into the complexities of the Torah: how the Torah can promote compassion and justice, and yet how it could be used in an oppressive manner, particularly when it came to slaves.  My hunch is that Lynn Austin believes that, taken all together, the Torah promotes compassion and justice.

In this book, Nehemiah struggles with the question of whether God wants him to be king.  Nehemiah wants more for his people Israel, and part of him wants more for himself.  I do not know how realistic this is (i.e., was Nehemiah a descendant of David?).  But it was an interesting dynamic, as Nehemiah interacted with issues such as a desire for God’s glory, a desire for his own glory, and acceptance of God’s plan.

This book did not sweep me off my feet to the same extent as other Lynn Austin books, particularly the ones that won Christy Awards.  It is still an excellent book.

Bethany House Publishers sent me a complimentary review copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.

What Does It Mean to "Receive" Forgiveness?

I would like to interact with a couple of statements that I read recently about forgiveness.

A. Christian apologist Nick Peters wrote a post entitled “Can I Be Forgiven?”  Peters refers to Jesus’ parable about the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21-35.  In this parable, a king forgives the debt of a servant who owed him ten thousand talents.  That very same servant then turned around and refused to forgive a fellow servant who owed him a much smaller amount.  When the king heard this, he was outraged at the unmerciful servant and handed him over to torment in jail.  Jesus says that God will do this to those who do not forgive their brethren from the heart.

Peters says the following:

“The servant in this case was forgiven by the king of a debt that he could never ever hope to repay. It was totally canceled and what is the response by the servant? He shows unforgiveness to another servant. Why would he do this? Chances are he didn’t really believe the king had forgiven him so he did not really receive the forgiveness. This can remind us of what was said in the sermon on the mount after the Lord’s prayer. If you do not forgive others their sins, your Father in Heaven will not forgive you your sins. As C.S. Lewis says, there is no indication he does not mean what he says. This is because this is the ministry of reconciliation that’s taking place.”

Peters questions whether the unmerciful servant had truly believed that the king had forgiven him of his debt, and Peters believes that this may be why the unmerciful servant was unwilling to forgive.  The unmerciful servant could not pass on what he did not believe he himself had received: mercy.

B.  I reviewed a book, The Christian Life, by Steven A. Hein.  The book is a Lutheran discussion of salvation.  My impression, right or wrong, was that the book was contradictory, in areas.  The book was saying that people in hell are actually justified and forgiven.  “Why are they in hell, then?”, was the question that was in my mind.  A Lutheran, Bror Erickson, commented as follows under my Amazon review:

“It’s objective justification. There isn’t anything contradictory about it. It is just the fact that Jesus died for all the people that inhabit hell. They are forgiven. They are justified. But they refuse it. It’s like having money in a bank account you don’t know about, and so you are still in debt. The people are justified, they aren’t sanctified.”

C.  Did the unmerciful servant truly not believe that he had received the king’s forgiveness?  Are people in hell forgiven?  I have my doubts.  In my opinion, the unmerciful servant was aware that the king had forgiven his debt: as far as the unforgiven servant was concerned, he did not owe the king money anymore, and he went happily on his way.  The problem with the unmerciful servant was that he failed to extend that same kind of forgiveness to someone else.  The unforgiving servant failed to internalize the forgiveness that had been shown to him.

What about the people in hell?  I have a hard time accepting the concept that they are suffering punishment in hell, while in a state of being forgiven.  If they were forgiven, why would they be suffering punishment in hell?  If I no longer owe a person money, that person will not exact my debt from me, right?  Even if I refuse to be forgiven and still think that I have to pay the debt off myself, that person will not exact my debt from me, for, as far as that person is concerned, I do not have to pay.  I guess I would be punishing myself in that case, rather than being punished by the one I owed.  Is that what Lutherans think is going on in hell?

D.  I think that what often happens is that evangelicals try to reconcile different passages of Scripture.  For example, II Corinthians 5:19 states that God “was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them” (NIV).  I can understand how a Lutheran like Steven Hein could conclude from this that God has forgiven everyone on account of the death of Christ: that God no longer holds sin against people.  At the same time, you have Jesus’ statement that God will not forgive us if we do not forgive others (Matthew 6:15; Mark 11:25-26).  Is that consistent with the idea that God has forgiven everyone?  Not really.

I do not want to imply that all, or even most, evangelicals believe that everyone has been forgiven, or to lump Peters together with Steven Hein and Bror Erickson.  For many evangelicals, people actually receive forgiveness when they trust Christ for salvation, indicating that not everyone has been forgiven by God, that unbelievers are still in their sins.  Still, even these particular evangelicals have to address apparent tension within Scripture.  There is Paul’s presentation of justification (forgiveness) as something a person enters at faith (maybe baptism, depending on how one interprets Romans 6), something that entails a change of status in which a person goes from being a child of wrath to being a child of God.  And there is Jesus’ statement that God will not forgive us if we do not forgive others. A number of evangelicals interpret Paul to be saying that forgiveness is a free gift that one can receive by faith, by simply accepting God’s free gift.  Jesus, however, seems to suggest that strings are attached.

Are these two concepts consistent?  Many Christians would say that they are, and their reasons for their positions are not too bad.  I am not entirely convinced by evangelicals who try to mesh Jesus with Paul by saying that those who do not forgive others have not truly accepted forgiveness from God.  But there are Christians who question whether Paul viewed grace as truly free, or who note that even Jesus manifests a belief in forgiveness coming through the death of Christ.

There may be overlap between Jesus and Paul on forgiveness.  There are many times, however, when I identify with what a skeptic (or spiritual person burnt out by Christianity) one time posted: that part of the problem is that people are trying to harmonize Jesus and Paul, when the two of them are saying different things.

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