Thursday, June 30, 2016

Does God's Knowledge Mean God's Justice?

Is God right just because God knows more than we do?  That question entered my mind years ago when I was reading the Book of Job in the Bible.  And it entered my mind recently when I was going through two books in volume 1 of James Charlesworth’s Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: the Greek Apocalypse of Ezra and the Apocalypse of Sedrach.

Michael Stone in the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha dates the Greek Apocalypse of Ezra to the second-ninth centuries C.E., and S. Agourides dates the Apocalypse of Sedrach to the second-fifth centuries C.E.  The English translations that I will quote in this post are those in the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha.

In both the Greek Apocalypse of Ezra and the Apocalypse of Sedrach, the protagonists (Ezra and Sedrach, respectively) wrestle with God on such issues as hell and God’s judgment of sinners.  They question God’s fairness in these areas.  Both think that the animals are in a better position than humans, since at least animals do not suffer God’s judgment!  Ezra and Sedrach try to intercede for the sinners, that God might have mercy on them.

God sometimes offers an answer to their questions, but God also says that God knows more than they do, and so they are not particularly qualified to be in the discussion.  God says to Ezra in the Greek Apocalypse of Ezra 2:32: “Count the stars and the sand of the sea and if you will be able to count this, you will be able to argue the case with me.”  In Apocalypse of Sedrach 8, God asks Sedrach a variety of questions: How many people have been born?  How many people have died and will die?  How many hairs did the people have?  How many trees have there been in the world?  How many trees will fall and come to be?  How many leaves did the trees have?  How many drops of rain have fallen?  God also asks questions about the different waves and the winds at sea.  And, of course, Sedrach did not know the answers to these questions.  (Note: I draw some, but not all, of the language of the questions from the translation in the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha.)

The Greek Apocalypse of Ezra and the Apocalypse of Sedrach are probably basing these scenes on the Book of Job in the Hebrew Bible.  Throughout the Book of Job, Job is questioning God’s fairness, not only regarding Job’s own suffering after Job had tried to be righteous, but also concerning the perceived unfairness in the world.  In Job 21 and 24, Job wonders why oppressors get off scot-free; live long, happy, and prosperous lives; and die in a state of peace.  In Job 38-41, God confronts Job and essentially argues that God has been around longer than Job, made things the way that they are, can do more than Job can, and knows more than Job does.  God asks Job some questions about nature: for instance, does Job know when goats and deer give birth?  Job, of course, cannot answer God’s questions.

When I read Job 38-41 years ago, I had a problem with God’s argument.  So God has been around longer than Job has, made things the way that they are, can do things that Job cannot do, and knows more than Job does.  Does any of that necessarily mean that God is right?  Just because God made and runs the world a certain way, that does not necessarily mean it is the best way.  Might does not mean right.  And knowing a bunch of trivia about nature does not necessarily mean that one is right, moral, or just.  That was what was in my mind when I was going through the Greek Apocalypse of Ezra and the Apocalypse of Sedrach: God knowing all those details about life and nature does not mean that hell is just.

I might as well incorporate my church write-up into this post, since it is relevant to this topic.  The pastor at the church that I attended last Sunday was preaching about James 3:13-18, which contrasts two types of wisdom.  The wisdom from below leads to envy, strife, and self-glorification, whereas the wisdom from above is about purity, peace, gentleness, and mercy.  The pastor was saying that wisdom and intelligence are not necessarily the same thing, for a person can be intelligent and use his intelligence for evil ends.  What is important is the goal towards which one’s intelligence is being applied.

That said, how can God appeal to God’s intelligence as justification for God’s actions?  If intelligence by itself does not necessarily entail morality or wisdom, can God’s intelligence truly justify God’s actions?
One can make a case that we should not dismiss the value of God’s intelligence too quickly.  A person who knows more about a machine than I do is more competent to use that machine in a productive manner.  Similarly, one can say that God is more qualified to run the universe than humans beings are, since God knows more about it.  In addition, while Job could look around and see things in life that struck him as unfair or as just plain wrong, Job may have felt that, overall, the cosmos ran rather well.  The animals got fed.  The birds flew.  Job may have believed that there was some wisdom and order in the course of nature, so God could appeal to that in defending Godself before Job.  We, too, can point to strange and seemingly wrong details of life and nature, but nature does work for our benefit, on some level.

But perhaps there is another way to understand how God’s superior knowledge can justify God’s actions.  Maybe God’s point to Job, Ezra, and Sedrach is not that God knows more than they do, and thus God is right, and how dare they question God!  Maybe God’s point is that God has this intimate knowledge of God’s creation because God cares about it.  Job, Ezra, and Sedrach are questioning whether God cares and is truly good. God’s response may be that God knows God’s creation better than they do, so they cannot accuse God of not caring.  Like many of us, God intimately knows and pays attention to what is important to God.  To quote Matthew 10:29-31:

29 Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.
30 But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.
31 Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows. (KJV)

The point could be this: God’s knowledge is an indication of God’s love, so God was not being flippant when God constructed hell or does anything else that puzzles us.  God does these things for a reason.

The question would then be whether one can make a case for this interpretation from the Book of Job, the Greek Apocalypse of Ezra, and the Apocalypse of Sedrach.  In all honesty, it is ambiguous.  The Book of Job could lean in that direction, for God’s maintenance of the cosmos is arguably an act of love.  God could be saying to Job that God lovingly maintains nature, and thus Job is wrong to argue that God is unjust.  The Greek Apocalypse of Ezra is rather punitive.  So is the Apocalypse of Sedrach, and yet its opening chapter is about the beauties of love.

Still, seeing God’s knowledge as an act of love could help us better understand the way that God is: God is not one who bullies people with God’s knowledge, but one who knows because God cares.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Struggling Jesus and Word of Faith Christology

A couple of comments about Christology stood out to me recently.  This post is not entirely about the debate in the theology-blogosphere about whether God the Son is eternally subordinate to God the Father, in a functional sense.  But it will intersect with that debate, somewhat.  This post concerns Word of Faith Christology, or, more accurately, the Christology of some within the Word of Faith movement.

I was listening to a sermon online that was given at a church that I have attended occasionally.  The church can probably be associated with the prosperity Gospel and the Word of Faith movement.  At the same time, it does not just preach that believers can prosper financially or influence reality by speaking words of faith out loud, for it also talks about God’s broader work in the world.  The church talks about other topics besides how God can bless me, me, me.

The preacher is going through the Book of Ezra.  In Ezra 4, adversaries of the returning Jewish exiles approach the Jewish leaders and offer to help the returning Jews to rebuild the Temple.  The Jewish leaders reply as follows:

“Ye have nothing to do with us to build an house unto our God; but we ourselves together will build unto the LORD God of Israel, as king Cyrus the king of Persia hath commanded us” (v 3, KJV).

The lesson that the preacher got out of this passage was that the Jewish leaders were being a bit presumptuous.  We will build, they say?  Apart from God, they can do nothing!

The preacher then talked about Jesus.  Jesus on the cross prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34 KJV).  Why did Jesus ask his Father to forgive the people who were putting him to death?  Why didn’t Jesus forgive them himself?  According to the preacher, Jesus was not making the same mistake that the returning Jewish exiles made in Ezra 4.  Jesus realized that he by himself could do nothing.  He by himself could not forgive those who were putting him to death, for, according to the preacher, Jesus was struggling with resentment and unforgiveness.  Jesus, in light of his own limitations, was leaving forgiveness to God, the only one who could forgive.

How orthodox that view is, well, that is a good question!  Christians believe that Jesus never sinned (II Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15; 9:28).  Could Jesus experience resentment and feelings of unforgiveness, without technically sinning?  On the one hand, such feelings would arguably go against love, which is part of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).  Forgiveness of sins was also a significant aspect of Jesus’ ministry, and Jesus exhorted his disciples to forgive seventy times seven (Matthew 18:22; Luke 17:4 mentions the criterion of repentance to receive forgiveness).  On the other hand, if Jesus had any feelings of resentment and unforgiveness, perhaps they could count as righteous indignation, which is arguably not sinful.  God often expresses that kind of frustration in the Old Testament.

There is also the issue of Jesus being God, even when he was a human.  Jesus had to depend on God because he by himself could do nothing, the preacher says?  But Jesus was God!  And yet, as seems fairly clear in the current Trinitarian controversy in the theological-blogosophere, orthodox Christianity seems at least to acknowledge the possibility that the situation with the incarnate Christ is not entirely the same as the situation with God the Son before he came to earth.  That is because the incarnate Christ had a human nature along with a divine nature, whereas the preincarnate Christ only had a divine nature.  Many who deny that God the Son was eternally subordinate to God the Father in function would say that such a concept of subordination posits two contrary wills between the Father and the Son, and that would be incorrect because the Father and the Son are united in their will: if the Son has to consciously obey and submit to the Father, does not that imply that the Son technically has a will that runs contrary to the Father’s will, and that the Son needs to subordinate that contrary will in obedience to the Father?  That cannot be, they say!  At the same time, those who deny eternal functional subordination on the part of the Son still have to deal with biblical passages about the Son submitting to the Father in obedience (Matthew 26:42; John 5:30; I Corinthians 11:3; Hebrews 5:8).  The route that they often take is to say that the Son, as a human being, submitted to the Father.  The Son did not submit to his Father before coming to earth, according to them, for the Son and the Father were united in will at that time.  But they maintain that the Son did submit to the Father in obedience after coming to earth and taking on human nature: Christ’s human nature adds something significant to the equation.  This, many of them say, is the orthodox Christian position.

That said, would such a position be consistent, on some level, with what the preacher was talking about in his sermon?  Jesus, in his human nature, had to depend on the Father because he was inadequate in himself to do anything.  Jesus still had a divine nature, though, but there are Christians who say that Jesus gave up certain divine privileges in being a human: those divine capacities were still present, but Jesus was not using them.  I cannot be too dogmatic here, however, for I would not be surprised if Christians would tell me that what the preacher said was unorthodox and that the church fathers would be appalled at his comments.

Now for the other comment on Christology!  I was home alone for the past few days, so I watched some things on television that I do not ordinarily watch, because they are not exactly the cup of tea of others in the household.  I was watching Joyce Meyer.  She has been associated with the Word of Faith movement, and, indeed, she has spoken about the importance of words and speaking words of faith out loud.

Joyce was talking about how Jesus at his trial did not say a word.  She said that this long puzzled her, but then it dawned on her why Jesus remained silent: Jesus was in a trying time and did not want to give the enemy (Satan) a foothold by speaking words of complaint and bitterness.  That reminded me of what that preacher said in that sermon that I heard.  Of course, there are other explanations for why Jesus was silent at his trial.  Jesus had a mission to die for our sins, so he did not fight his execution.  I Peter 2:23 states: “Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously” (KJV).  Can this intersect, at least somewhat, with what Joyce was saying?

In terms of Christian living, what the preacher and Joyce said resonates with me.  I recognize my own limitations: I by myself cannot forgive, and thus I need to rely on God’s power and activity.  Or, at least, there are some days when it is easier for me to think good, loving, peaceful, forgiving, and compassionate thoughts, and some days when that looks like an impossibility.  Jesus in John 15:5 says, “without me ye can do nothing” (KJV).  And, in reference to what Joyce was saying, I may be simmering on the inside, but I have to watch what I say in those situations.  Often, it may be better for me to say nothing.  To speak in such a situation could disrupt my own peace and the peace of others (which is not to dismiss the appropriateness of confrontation, in certain situations).

But was Jesus on earth in the same boat that I, and many others, are in, in such cases?  Is it unorthodox or heretical to suggest that?  Jesus had a walk with God.  As a human, he showed us how to walk with God.  Did Jesus struggle, like we do?  Hebrews 4:15: “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (KJV).

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Scattered Ramblings on Contentment and Hope

A few weeks ago, I watched the 1955 movie, A Man Called Peter, which was about Peter Marshall, a preacher and Senate chaplain.  I did not know much about Peter Marshall himself, but I enjoyed his wife Catherine’s book, Christy, along with the TV series and the movies that were inspired by it.  And, a decade ago, I listened to a cassette tape in which his son, Peter, Jr., was vigorously arguing that America was a Christian nation.

But let’s not get on that controversial tangent!  In this post, I want to use as a starting-point a story-line in the movie.  Catherine in the movie gets tuberculosis and is bedridden.  She and her husband pray continually for her to be healed, but to no avail.  Peter wonders if God is punishing him for being prideful, on account of his numerous followers and his prestigious contacts.  At one point, though, Catherine simply accepts her condition.  She tells God that, if she is to remain an invalid for the rest of her natural life, then so be it.  It is at that point that she is healed.  She and Peter both agree that God decided to heal her after she finally accepted her condition.  It’s as if God was waiting for her to stop striving, to make peace with her lot, and to let go.

The theme that I want to highlight is the tension between contentment and persevering in faith.  Both themes are found in Scripture.  On contentment, the apostle Paul says in Philippians 4:11-13:

11 Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.
12 I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.
13 I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.  (KJV)

To quote the old hymn, “Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well, with my soul!”

And yet, there are also Scriptural passages about persevering in prayer and in faith, which implies not accepting the status quo.  Luke 18:1 introduces a parable by saying: “And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint” (KJV).  The parable is about an unjust judge who finally gives a woman justice after she has repeatedly asked him for it.  Similarly, in Luke 11, Jesus teaches his disciples to seek and to ask, and he tells them a story about a person who begged his friend at night to give him three loaves.  He got what he wanted, after his frequent requests.

Many Christians apply the theme of perseverance in prayer and faith to their own desires.  They are believing God for a good job, or a spouse, or healing.  Whether they are justified to apply these passages to these kinds of desires is a good question.  The passages themselves relate to something rather specific.  The story in Luke 18 is about God coming to avenge God’s elect, presumably for the persecution that they have received (Luke 18:7).  Essentially, the afflicted Christians are to pray continually for the coming of the Son of Man, to hold on in faith that the Son of Man will come and bring justice.  In Luke 11:13, Jesus says that God will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.  What are people supposed to seek, knock, and ask for, in Luke 11?  The Holy Spirit.  Within Luke-Acts, that was probably fulfilled in Acts 2, when God poured out the Holy Spirit onto the Jewish Christians on the day of Pentecost.

But can one believe God for other things?  There are passages in the Bible about God providing for people, or God blessing people with good things.  Who is to say that this cannot include a job, or healing?  So often in the Gospels, sick people are healed according to their faith.  One should not condemn people who remain sick or who die in sickness by telling them that their faith was not strong enough.  Bad fruit has come from that approach.  But why can’t people continually hold on to God in faith, keeping hope alive that God may heal them, or grant them the longings and desires of their heart?

In the 1990’s, there was a television show, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman.  In a very depressing plot-line, the town’s pastor, Timothy Johnson, was going blind.  The Christians of the town continued to pray for God to heal him, and Timothy was trying to hold on to some hope that this healing would occur.  But Sully wanted Timothy to prepare for his coming blindness, and he made Timothy a cane so that Timothy could get around once he became blind.  Dr. Quinn transformed something that she heard from her Native American friend Cloud Dancing into a Christian message for Timothy: that trials occur because God is preparing us for a new stage in life.  (Cloud Dancing said “the spirits” did this.)  The show presented a question: Should Timothy hold out hope and continually pray for God to heal him, or should he simply accept his condition and try to cope with it?  The show supported the second option.

Accepting one’s condition and trying to be happy or content with it can make one feel better.  Being consumed with continuous, unmet desires can lead to feelings of restlessness, discontent, and unfulfillment.  Acceptance, by contrast, can bring a person inner peace.  At the same time, do we truly want to say that God is against us dreaming and hoping?  Life would be boring without our dreams to keep us going.

I was listening to a sermon yesterday.  This was from the prosperity church that I occasionally attend.  The pastor in that particular sermon, however, was preaching contentment rather than hoping for prosperity or increase.  He was saying that, if we find that Jesus is not enough for us, then we are making that something else that we “have” to have into an idol.  He was saying that we should find our contentment and joy in our personal relationship with Jesus.  We should have contentment, because Jesus should be enough.

In terms of my own personal journey, in some areas I have accepted my situation, and in some areas I have not.  I am content with remaining single for the rest of my life.  Maybe there is some hope for a romantic relationship somewhere in my mind, but it is not as consuming as it was back when I was in my twenties.  I have more contentment and acceptance now, in that area of my life.  At the same time, as my student loans loom in the background, I am trying to believe God that, at some point, God will provide for me financially, through employment.  (Of course, I have to do my part, too.)  In some cases, the status quo is tolerable.  In other cases, change is necessary.

On finding contentment in Jesus, that is something I struggle to do, from my Christian agnostic perspective.  I was reading an article yesterday, though, about academic envy, and it sensitized me to how even secular people need something to hold onto for their feelings of self-worth, apart from the vicissitudes of feast and famine, success and failure.  To quote from the article:

“Another friend and colleague said she relies on work-life balance to avoid feelings of envy in the first place. From her perspective, it’s far easier to avoid the traps of professional envy if you don’t rely on your academic successes to define who you are as a person. ‘My self-worth isn’t defined by how many articles I’ve published,’ she told me.”
Contentment.  Dreams.  Holding on to something larger or broader than success or failure.  All of these are important for a healthy outlook.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Book Write-Up: The Mosaic of Christian Belief, by Roger Olson

Roger E. Olson.  The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity.  Second Edition.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

Roger Olson teaches theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary, which is at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.  The book that I am reviewing here is the second edition of a book that was released in 2002.

In the "Acknowledgements" section of this second edition, Olson states that he wrote this book to be a "very basic, relatively comprehensive, nontechnical, nonspeculative one-volume introduction to Christian belief."  Olson felt a need to write such a book after "teaching introductory courses in Christian doctrine and theology in university, college, and seminary."

The book is topical rather than chronological.  It surveys the theological lay of the land on such issues as how the Bible is divinely-inspired; the Trinity and the incarnation; whether humans consist of body and soul or body, soul, and spirit, or neither; the church and the sacraments; salvation, faith, and works; the afterlife; and the Kingdom of God.  Olson interacts with the arguments of prominent historical theologians and thinkers, but also with denominations and sects such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Seventh-Day Adventists.  Pelagianism, universalism, Arianism, the filioque, psychological and communitarian conceptions of the Trinity, and open-theism all receive treatment in this book.

Olson's survey is judicious and informative.  He displays a grasp of nuance, while keeping his narrative clear and down-to-earth.

Here are some further thoughts about this book:

A.  The book is introductory, so those who have done a lot of reading in theology may not learn much that is new from this book.  They may still find the book to be helpful as a reference work, however, that lays out different beliefs and who held them.  Yet, there were areas in which the book did give me a new or a fresh understanding of certain issues.  For example, Olson talks about the relationship between general revelation (i.e., God's revelation of Godself through nature and conscience) and special revelation (i.e., the Bible).  Olson states that general revelation is unclear, but it sets the stage for special revelation by nudging people towards asking certain questions.  Olson's discussion of the filioque was also informative.  The Western church believes that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (which is in the filioque clause), whereas the Eastern church lacks the "and the Son" part.  Olson discusses the possible origins of the filioque, and the problems that the Eastern church has with it.  According to Olson, the Eastern church believes that it lessens the dignity of the Holy Spirit.  Olson also talks about changing Catholic views on purgatory.  Looking at the book broadly, it covers a lot of familiar territory; yet, there are times when Olson peppers this territory with some nuance or pieces of information that may not be readily familiar to a lot of readers.

B.  While the book may be helpful as a reference work, it could have been more helpful at that had it provided a bibliography, or more references to works in footnotes or endnotes.  Olson occasionally referred to theologians' books in the text, but he often would discuss a person's thought, without telling the readers the exact books or articles where they can read those thoughts.

C.  The book is topical, and several of the topics intersect with each other.  Therefore, there are times when Olson rehashes previous discussions in the book.  These rehashings are far from boring, however, for Olson manages to highlight a new dimension that he did not discuss in his previous discussions.  At times, Olson compensates for inadequacies in previous discussions.  For example, in initially discussing why many church fathers believed that Jesus' divinity was necessary for the salvation of humans, Olson was unclear about what exactly was at stake in that debate.  Later, in discussing Jesus' incarnation, Olson was clearer and more specific.  Some may think that Olson should have been clearer in the first discussion, and that would be a legitimate criticism.  Still, the book did tie up loose ends as it proceeded.

D.  Olson speaks in support of Christian consensus throughout history, since that determines what views Christians should accept, and which views deserve to be on the margins.  Olson wrestles with apparent problems in this position.  For example, Olson believes in justification by grace through faith alone, even though many church fathers may have had a different position.  Olson's initial discussion of this problem was not very good, but his chapter on salvation being a gift and a task compensated for that, as Olson showed that seeing salvation as a gift from God is part of the historical Christian consensus.
E.  One can ask if Olson believes that the consensus can ever change, and if the change can become authoritative, or at least allow certain beliefs to become acceptable within Christian orthodoxy.  Olson states on page 199, for instance, that "so far there is no good reason to condemn [open theism] as heterodox; open theism deserves to be treated as one legitimate option for interpreting and envisioning divine sovereignty and providence."  Open theism maintains that God does not know the future, and it is a new view.  Since it is new, can one argue that it goes against historical Christian consensus, and thus should be marginalized?  Olson states that it "may be only an adjustment to limited providence," the idea that God imposes limitations on Godself, and limited providence has received more support in the history of Christian thought.  That could be why Olson is reluctant to dismiss open theism as heterodox, that, and his possible view that it needs development before judgment can be passed on it.  That said, my impression is that Olson did not consistently follow a firm criterion as to what is acceptable within Christian thought.

F.  Overall, the book is accurate in its presentation of different thinkers and points-of-view, at least in terms of my understanding.  In his discussion of eschatology on page 381, however, he seems to confuse historicism with preterism.  He states that historicism "sees the symbols and images [in Revelation] as codes for persons, entities and events contemporary with the apocalypticists."  That sounds more like preterism.  Historicism, by contrast, holds that the Book of Revelation has been fulfilled throughout history, even after the first century.  I base my understanding of historicism on Revelation, Four Views: A Parallel Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997).

G.  The book is introductory, but would it be a useful text for undergraduates?  It depends.  Undergraduates with some knowledge of theology, who have wrestled with some of the issues that the book discusses, may find the text useful.  Those without much exposure to Christian theology may find that the book goes over their heads.  When I was an undergraduate, we used William Placher's History of Christian Theology: it was lucid, and it provided a chronological history of Christian thought.  I would recommend Placher's book, but chapters from Olson's book may be helpful as a supplementary tool for teaching undergraduates.

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

Friday, June 24, 2016

Identity, Service, Law, and Donation

This post will be about two services from last Sunday: one at a Presbyterian church, and one at a Catholic church.

At the Presbyterian church, the pastor artfully tied together three biblical texts.  The first text was I Kings 19, which was about Elijah fleeing to Horeb and God asking him what he was doing there.  The second text was Galatians 3:23-29, which talks about how the Galatian Christians are clothed with Christ, are children of God, and are Abraham’s seed.  The third text was Luke 8:26-29, which was about Jesus casting demons out of a man, and the exorcised man was then clothed and in his right mind.

The pastor was uniting these three texts around the theme of identity.  Elijah was running away because he was scared, and God gently reminded him of his identity.  Similarly, the pastor said, when we run from God, God reminds us that we are his children.  Galatians 3:23-27, too, is about identity, as Christians’ identity is in Christ and not whether they are Jews or Greeks, free or slave, male or female.  They are children of God, Abraham’s seed.  Luke 8:26-29 was about a man receiving a new identity: he went from being possessed and oppressed by demons, to becoming his old self, clothed and in his right mind.  We sang a hymn, “Silence! Frenzied, Unclean Spirit,” which was about God delivering us from our inner demons, including our fears.

The pastor made a few points that particularly stood out.  For one, he was telling the children the story of Jesus healing the demon-possessed man, and he said that Jesus brought the man clothes after cleansing him of demons.  That makes sense, since Jesus was around for a while after the exorcism, and the man did come to be clothed somehow, so why not conclude that Jesus was the one who brought him the clothes?  Jesus clothing the man may look like a small, insignificant detail, but it is not.  Jesus does not just cleanse the man of demons and move on, but Jesus, ever a servant, continues to help the man on his journey back to normalcy.  May God help us to have that kind of servant attitude, continually looking for and seeing ways to help.

Second, in talking about Galatians 3:23-27, the pastor was referring to the part of the passage about people being under the custody of the law until Jesus came: they were under the supervision of a tutor, until Jesus came and God took a different approach.  The pastor compared the law with Maria on the Sound of Music: she taught the children the basics of singing, the notes to sing.  But the children would move past that. They would mature.

Questions or objections can emerge in response to this.  Of course, many adherents to Judaism would disagree with any Christian characterizations of the law as a stepping-stone to Christ, or as a temporary stage of religion for the spiritually immature until Christians would come with their supposedly mature spirituality.  Plus, are not Christians themselves still under some sort of law, since God has requirements, and God wants for Christians to practice certain disciplines, such as prayer and attendance of worship?  Is that necessarily a bad thing?

Adherents to Judaism may have a point and be justified in their disagreement.  Yet, from a Christian perspective, the coming of Jesus makes a difference, such that people need not have the same relationship with the law that they had before.  They possess the Holy Spirit inside of them, so they do not necessarily need for the law to hover over them, telling them what to do and what not to do.  They will still try to do what is right and avoid what is wrong, but they do so with a new perspective, from a different standpoint: a standpoint of being at a new stage of what God is doing, of being accepted by God, of the Holy Spirit being inside of them.

At the Catholic church, the priest was trying to raise money for air-conditioning for the church, and for a chapel where people can come to pray.  People in the church had actually requested these things.  The priest said that he has the money for this, and it is in our pockets!  Some may sneeze at this: why not give the money to the poor, instead of to enhance the church?  But it is still good to be able to worship in a state of comfort, and to have a place where people can gather to pray.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Book Write-Up: Land of Silence, by Tessa Afshar

Tessa Afshar.  Land of Silence.  Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

In Matthew 9:20-22, Mark 5:25-34, and Luke 8:43-48, there is the story about the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment.  The woman had an issue of blood for twelve years, and she had spent a lot on physicians, to no avail.  When she touched the hem of Jesus’ garment, she was healed.

In Land of Silence, Tessa Afshar provides a back story about this figure in the Gospels.  In Afshar’s story, the woman is named Elianna, and she runs her father’s textile business.  Her sister is Joanna, who is mentioned in Luke 8:3 as a wife of Herod’s steward Chuza and as one who financially supported Jesus’ ministry.

When a bee fatally stings Elianna’s brother in Elianna’s presence, that disrupts Elianna’s relationship with her father, who accuses her of negligence.  Elianna’s father withdraws from life in his grief, so Elianna runs his textile business, which prospers under her direction.  In the course of the story, Elianna develops an issue of blood, which isolates her from the Jewish community, due to the requirements of Leviticus 15:25-26.  She spends a lot of money on physicians, who try techniques that do not work, yet charge her anyway.  She hears about a prophet with the gift of healing, and while she is initially hesitant to learn about this prophet, she becomes curious about who he is and what he is about.  Not only does she receive physical healing, but she also receives spiritual healing: from her wounded feelings due to her alienation from her father, and from her unforgiveness.

Afshar’s portrayal of the woman with an issue of blood is plausible.  She may very well have been prosperous, since she had money to spend on physicians.  Jesus calls her “daughter,” and Afshar interprets that in light of the absence of a father in Elianna’s life.  (Jesus may have been calling her "daughter" because she was a daughter of Israel, but Afshar's proposal is intriguing.)  The book captures the powerlessness that many Jews (and even some Romans) felt under the Roman empire, as challenging injustice or standing up for oneself against the Romans could have dire consequences.  As Afshar does in other books that she has written, Afshar in the appendix discusses the historical plausibility of her narrative and the judgment calls that she as an author made.  One issue that she discusses in the appendix is the influence of Levitical ritual laws in first century Palestine.

Readers of other works by Afshar will encounter familiar themes and features in this book.  A wounded person is in need of healing.  Religious discussions enter the picture.  In this book, Pharisees disagree with each other about why people suffer.  Elianna also shares the Jewish faith with a Roman friend, who talks about Roman religion.  That discussion was not as good or as in-depth as the comparative religion discussion about Judaism, Greek religion, and Zoroastrianism in Afshar’s Harvest of Gold, but it still added an intellectual component to the story.

The book was plodding in some places, but intense in others.  In terms of the characters, Elianna was endearing on account of her vulnerability.  Joanna was a sweet person.  Ethan genuinely loved Elianna, yet he could be rather controlling, and that was a turn-off.  Viriato is a Roman slave whom Ethan saves from the mining pits, and he is a cheerful, accepting person.  He reaches out to Elianna, in her time of isolation.

Readers familiar with the Bible will recognize other characters in this book: the Pharisee Gamaliel (Acts 5:34), and Lydia the seller of purple (Acts 16).  Mary Madgalene tells her story to Elianna.

Overall, this is an enjoyable book.

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

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Movie Write-Up (Sort Of): The Keys of the Kingdom

I mentioned yesterday that I watched some faith-affirming films last week.  I watched three of them that I want to discuss on this blog.  The first one was the 2014 romantic comedy Christian Mingle, which I wrote about yesterday.  The second is the 1944 movie The Keys of the Kingdom, starring Gregory Peck as a progressive priest.  I will write about that movie today, in this post.  The third is A Man Called Peter, a 1955 film about the preacher Peter Marshall.  I will probably write about that movie next week.  I have a book review to write tomorrow, my church write-up to write on Friday, and another book review to write on Monday, so I will most likely write my post on A Man Called Peter on Tuesday.

The Keys of the Kingdom!  Like I said, Gregory Peck plays a progressive priest, Father Francis Chisholm.  The movie had familiar faces: Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who was on the Ten Commandments; Vincent Price, who was also on the Ten Commandments, and many horror movies; Thomas Mitchell, who played Uncle Billy on It’s a Wonderful Life (but he was without the pet bird in Keys of the Kingdom).

Francis Chisholm was a progressive priest.  What’s that mean, exactly?  Well, he was somewhat of an inclusivist when it came to salvation.  In a comical scene, he asks if God really values believing in doctrines, when such a belief is largely a matter of where a person was born.  The priest sternly retorts, “The answer to your question is ‘Yes!'”

Father Chisholm wonders if he can find a place to fit in, and he goes to China to minister there.  There are many events in this movie, and I won’t discuss all of them here.  In this post, I want to focus on Father Chisholm’s relationship with the Reverend Mother Maria-Veronica.  I will use that as a starting-point for further discussion.

Father Chisholm and the Reverend Mother did not get along at first.  A significant factor was that she and her fellow nuns arrived in China before Father Chisholm was even expecting them, so Father Chisholm was greeting them in his dirty clothes!  He didn’t make a very good first impression! They started their relationship off on the wrong foot!

Father Chisholm offers to help the nuns, but the Reverend Mother continually spurns his offers of help.  She and her fellow nuns want to keep to themselves and contemplate.  When Father Chisholm’s atheist doctor friend Willie Tulloch (Uncle Billy) is on his deathbed and Father Chisholm refuses to shove religion down his friend’s throat, the Reverend Mother leaves the room in disgust.

In the course of the movie, we learn of the roots of the Reverend Mother’s disdain for Father Chisholm.  Essentially, she envies him spiritually.  She grew up in a privileged background and was somewhat of an elitist, so she looked down on the economically impoverished Chinese.  But she hated her elitist attitude, for she thought that she as a Christian should be better than that.  She envied how easy humility and service came to Father Chisholm.  She believed that he was closer to God than she was, and she resented him for that.

Father Chisholm’s old friend Monsignor Angus (played by Vincent Price) comes to visit Father Chisholm in China.  Angus is rising quite well in the Catholic hierarchy, and Father Chisholm feels a bit inadequate in comparison to his friend on account of that.  Angus downgrades the lowly Chinese and suggests that Father Chisholm befriend the wealthier Chinese, since they can benefit Father Chisholm and the church.  Father Chisholm refuses to do so and criticizes Angus’ attitude.

After this encounter, the Reverend Mother confesses and apologizes to Father Chisholm about her elitism and her resentment of him.  Perhaps Monsignor Angus’ attitude reminded her of the attitude that she was fighting within herself!  She tells Father Chisholm that Monsignor Angus is not worthy to kiss Father Chisholm’s shoes!  Father Chisholm tells her that there is no need for her to apologize.  Later in the movie, Father Chisholm and the Reverend Mother are old, and Father Chisholm is jealous about Angus becoming a bishop.  He feels that Angus has accomplished something with his life, whereas he has not.  The Reverend Mother replies that Father Chisholm is closer to God than Angus is.

I could identify with the Reverend Mother, in the sense that she was trying to be a good Christian but realized that she fell short, and she resented someone because she thought that Christianity came so easy to him.  Later in the movie, she arrives at a greater sense of peace with herself and with Father Chisholm: she serves however she can, and her admiration of Father Chisholm no longer entails her beating herself up for falling short.  Father Chisholm’s acceptance of her most likely played a role in her growth.  He did not berate her for her spiritual shortcomings but was an accepting presence in her life.

Do we see something similar in Christian communities today, or in the world in general?  There are many Christians who look down on others for their shortcomings, when they themselves have their own share of shortcomings.  The reason for their attitude may be that they try so hard to be righteous, to walk on the straight and narrow, so they have disdain for those who do not seem to try as hard, or who fall short.  They are not like Father Chisholm, loving and accepting people where they are.

Conversely, when someone tries to manifest a Father Chisholm-like attitude, many people may not feel that the person is being real or authentic.  No one is that good, right?  There must be some resentment underneath that Pollyannish attitude!  And, in many cases, there may be!  The person is trying his best to manifest a proper attitude, against emotions inside of himself that rush in the opposite direction.

Hopefully, we can become more loving and accepting of others, where they are.  May God grant me the strength to have that kind of attitude!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Movie Write-Up (Sort Of): Christian Mingle

I watched some faith-affirming movies last week.  Today, I will comment on the first one that I watched: the 2014 romantic comedy Christian Mingle.  Christian Mingle is a Christian dating site.

Gwyneth Hayden is disappointed with the dating scene and is looking for a relationship that has substance.  Although she is not a Christian, she goes onto the dating web site, Christian Mingle, and pretends to be one.  She meets Paul, a goofy, likable guy.  She tries to imitate the evangelical lingo, and that can get pretty unconvincing and awkward.  Paul’s mother Lacie, played by Morgan Fairchild, suspects that something is wrong.

Gwyneth joins Paul’s family in Mexico on a mission trip.  They are installing a church bell after disaster had struck the Mexican community.  At a Bible study with the Mexican children, a Mexican child asks why God allowed that destruction to hit her community.  Lacie, knowing by this point that Gwyneth is only pretending to be a Christian, volunteers Gwyneth to answer that question.  Gwyneth says that is a good question, and that there must be some answer to it somewhere in that beautiful book, the Bible.  Lacie responds, “How about James 1:2-4?”  We learn later in the movie that the Mexican little girl was actually satisfied with the answer that people experience trials to become stronger.

Paul later confronts Gwyneth and asks her if she is a believer.  She is curious about what exactly that means.  After all, she says, she has been baptized, and she believes in God.  Paul attempts to define where she is spiritually—-to paint her a picture, and to see if that resonates with her.  He proposes that she realizes that there is something bigger, and she gives it the name “God” to conceptualize it.  But she has heard negative things about religion and has seen and experienced bad things in life, and then she doubts God.  She vacillates between belief and non-belief.

Gwyneth tries to be religious after her break-up with Paul: she starts attending an enthusiastic church and serves in the soup kitchen.  She begins a dialogue with God.  She has been working for an advertising agency that tries to make things look good (by the way, Peterman from Seinfeld is on this movie, playing a Peterman-like character!), and, in the midst of that, she develops a genuine desire for truth.  Notwithstanding all of that, her Christian co-worker tells her that she still has a long way to go.  What more does she need to do?  It seems that she needs to tell Jesus that she wants him in her life.  But didn’t she already indicate that, by going to church, talking to God, serving in the soup kitchen, etc.?  She still needed to make that formal commitment.  She needed to want Jesus in her life.

On that scene about the Bible study in Mexico, I am not sure how I would have responded had someone asked me about the problem of evil.  Most likely, I would have replied that it is a mystery.  Because I did not care for the Morgan Fairchild character’s smug attitude in that scene, I would have probably even gotten belligerent: “Unlike some people here, I am not going to parrot some evangelical pat-answer to one of life’s biggest mysteries, from a hilltop of white privilege.”

At the same time, the scene did sensitize me to something that I knew, and yet it was not in the forefront of my mind as I was watching the scene: the Bible does have things to say about why people experience trials.  It is not as if the Bible leaves it a total mystery.  Granted, no answer is a one-size-fits-all, but it does provide something to think about, to grasp onto.

On Paul’s speech to Gwyneth, I can somewhat identify with where Paul suggested that Gwyneth was spiritually: vacillating between belief and non-belief.  I do not think that is entirely bad, per se, since we’re all human.  No one believes perfectly.  My hope is that God loves us, even when we waver.  At the same time, there should be room for commitment, for having a mission in life as opposed to sitting on the fence, for actually doing something with that sense of the transcendent and numinous, beyond just being inspired temporarily.  That is the only way to take it seriously, and for it to shape a person.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Reading Vanhoozer in Light of Ancient Aliens

I reviewed Kevin Vanhoozer’s Pictures at a Theological Exhibition a few days ago.  I forgot to include an item in that review that I was planning to include.  Maybe that’s for the best, as you will see below.

Basically, the deal was this: I was watching an episode of Ancient Aliens not long ago, and that was generating in my mind some theological questions.  Vanhoozer actually addresses similar questions and issues in an essay in his book.  The essay is entitled “Enhancement in the Cathedral: Power, Knowledge and Smart Pills.”

Let’s be clear: Vanhoozer does not interact specifically with Ancient Aliens.  I probably did well not to include a reference to Ancient Aliens in my review, since many scholars scoff at that show, or roll their eyes at it.  Just tossing out the term “Ancient Aliens” in my review would be poison.

But allow me to share my thought process.  I was watching an episode of Ancient Aliens entitled “The Next Humans.”  It was episode 3 of Season 11.  See here for somebody’s review of it.  On that episode, people were talking about how we may be on our way towards positive breakthroughs, in terms of our health, lifespans, and intelligence increasing.  Aging may be counteracted.  Organs can be replaced.  Cells will be repaired.  Technology can play a role in a lot of this.  According to the episode, we are actually moving in this direction right now.

How true this is, I have no idea.  My Mom’s husband is a scientist, and he was disputing what Ancient Aliens said on another episode, about human and rabbit DNA being mixed together.  He was saying that this was not what happened!  In addition, when I am watching Ancient Aliens and see a person labeled a “Futurologist,” I wonder what the heck that is.  Where do futurologists get their qualifications?

But suppose that there is some validity in what Ancient Aliens was saying about “the Next Humans.”  Would that be a good thing?  Would that be a bad thing?

I thought about the Tower of Babel story in the Book of Genesis.  God stepped in to stop the people from building a tower that would reach to heaven, saying that, if they have started to do that, nothing they imagine will be impossible for them (Genesis 11:6).

Then there is the question of whether we would want a world without any suffering and death.  You know the usual theistic theodicies: God permits suffering because that builds in us character.  It gives us depth.  People who have not suffered can be pretty shallow.  Suffering makes us more compassionate.  The possibility of death humbles us.  Our limitations, in general, humble us.

Then there is the practical issue of over-population.  If people are not dying, won’t there be too many people, but not enough resources?  Maybe our augmented intelligence will be able to find a solution to that problem!

But my mind had its share of “on the other hands.”  For instance, I have no objection to other inventions and devices that have reduced suffering and prolonged life.  I use soap.  I take an Aspirin when I have a headache.  Looking outside of myself, I am happy that more women can bear children and live through childbirth, rather than dying.  The mother can then enjoy her children.  The children can have a mother.  Should I oppose these things on account of some “no pain, no gain” belief system?  I don’t think so.

Another question enters my mind.  God is powerful, right?  God is far more powerful than we are.  Why, then, should God be intimidated by us trying to enhance ourselves?  God would still be more powerful than us, even after we enhance ourselves!  And, because of that, people may still feel some need for God in their lives, even after their enhancements.  Yet, God did seem to feel somewhat threatened in the Tower of Babel story, and this was at the prospect of building a Tower.  We know now that the Tower would not have even reached the heaven where God dwells, since there is so much outer space out there.  Why would a great God feel threatened?

Now for the Vanhoozer essay.  Like I said, Vanhoozer did not mention Ancient Aliens, nor did he really interact with anything that was on that Ancient Aliens episode.  But he was talking about attempts to enhance human nature.  He referred to smart pills, which would be like steroids for the mind.  Vanhoozer was critiquing enhancements from a Christian and a bioethical standpoint.

Vanhoozer took great pains to distinguish enhancements from healing or medicine.  Healing and medicine restore our bodies, rather than enhancing them.  For Vanhoozer, enhancement is a bad idea for a variety of reasons.  For one, God made us as we are, and we should not try to tamper with that.  Also, our limitations build in us character.  And, according to Vanhoozer, seeking to enhance ourselves in this life focuses on prospering in this life and this world, when we should be seeking treasures in heaven (a la Matthew 6:19-21).

I am still rather ambivalent in terms of how I feel about this issue.  I doubt that God is threatened by anything human beings can do.  At the same time, God may not feel that human beings are ready for certain things.  He may believe that they lack the character to handle certain things properly.  There are plenty of sci-fi stories about people attaining godlike powers, yet lacking the wisdom or the character to use them in a way that benefits themselves or others.  I think of the Star Trek episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”
The New Testament teaches that God has a plan to exalt human beings, at least the ones who follow him (see II Timothy 2:12, for example).  In a sense, Christianity itself is about human enhancement: God gives people the Holy Spirit, and they grow in wisdom and character and even gain eternal life.  But that is enhancement God’s way, and it entails having a good moral character.

I have no plans to oppose technological advancements, even those that can enhance human nature.  God will permit what God wants, and God will step in and stop what God wants.  That does not mean there should be no bio-ethics at all.  If we are to enhance our nature, we need to make sure that everyone gets enhanced, if possible, so that nobody is left out in the cold or gets stigmatized or marginalized.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Book Write-Up: Pictures at a Theological Exhibition

Kevin J. Vanhoozer.  Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of Church Worship, Witness and Wisdom.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.  See here to purchase the book. 

Kevin J. Vanhoozer is a theologian at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  He has a Ph.D. from Cambridge University.  Pictures at a Theological Exhibition is a collection of essays by Vanhoozer about theology, worship, and the church's witness to the world.  Some of the essays are sermons that he delivered.
Here are some of my reactions to the book.

A.  The book is thoughtful.  The conclusions, you can probably find in a lot of Christian writings and sermons.  But what makes this book worth reading is the journey.  Vanhoozer is an educated person exploring territory.  He interacts with prominent thinkers and trends of thought as he makes his points.  In talking about imagination, Vanhoozer addresses an argument some Christians make that imagination is wrong because it focuses on what is false (i.e., imagined).  In discussing Jesus' statement to the Samaritan woman that people must worship God in spirit and truth (John 4:24), Vanhoozer disputes the hyper-individualist application of this verse by Kant and other modernists.  In a chapter about the doctrines of angels, Vanhoozer explores what various New Testament passages say about angelic doctrine: Paul's statement in Galatians 1:8 about how the Galatians are to reject a message even from an angel from heaven when it contradicts the Gospel; Paul's statement in I Corinthians 13:1 that speaking in the tongues of angels is without value if one lacks love; and I Peter 1:12's statement that angels desire to learn more about people's salvation.

B.  There were times when the book offered me a fresh understanding.  In Vanhoozer's discussion of Jesus' interaction with the Samaritan woman in John 4, for example, Vanhoozer interprets Jesus' reference to God being a spirit, not in reference to God's bodily composition or immateriality, but rather in reference to the activity of the Holy Spirit in animating and renewing.  In discussing Jesus' reference to living waters, Vanhoozer refers to passages from the Hebrew Bible about springs and living waters, as well as rabbinic Judaism's likening of the Torah to waters of life.  Vanhoozer mentions and addresses what interpreters have said about the Samaritans and how that may be influencing the content of John 4.  For example, Vanhoozer states that some early commentators interpreted Jesus' reference to the woman's husband and the man she was living with who was not her husband in light of Samaritan religion: the Samaritans had worshiped five gods, and now they were worshiping YHWH, yet they were not exclusively committed to him.  Vanhoozer disagrees with this interpretation, saying that the Samaritans were monotheists by this point.  It is still an intriguing interpretation.

C.  Vanhoozer talks about why he believes that theology is important.  He quotes skeptic Richard Dawkin's statement that theology is utterly unimportant.  Vanhoozer makes a variety of interesting and profound points.  He notes that, in the New Testament, sound doctrine is often contrasted with sin, not doctrinal heresy.  He states that doctrine has to do with spiritual health, not just truth.  He says that theology is important because it can counteract the tendency of today's knowledge to be vast, while not really going anywhere.  That last point resonates with me, for I do think that there is more to life than survival and machines running smoothly.  At the same time, Vanhoozer may have done well to have explored how (or if) certain academic discussions of theology have any relevance to people's lives.  In short, are these discussions about esoteric and arcane trivia, or are they about something relevant that can impact people's perspective and life?

D.  Many of the essays were inspiring.  Vanhoozer had thoughtful things to say about beauty and the church's mission to point people to God's reconciliation with humanity.  Vanhoozer talks about the importance of narrative and how that can show Christianity being lived, not just contemplated.  The chapter about the inerrancy of Scripture was somewhat lackluster, and Vanhoozer perhaps should have wrestled more with the problems the Bible has, in the eyes of many people.  At the same time, those looking for a reasonable perspective on inerrancy, one that is not rigidly fundamentalist, may find Vanhoozer's insights helpful here, in terms of providing a starting-point or food for thought.

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

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Book Write-Up: The Rector, by Michael Hicks Thompson

Michael Hicks Thompson.  The Rector: A Christian Murder Mystery.  Memphis: Shepherd King Publishing, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

The Rector is set in 1950’s Mississippi.  David Baddour, the pastor of an Episcopalian church in the small town of Solo, has died at the young age of thirty-two.  Martha McRae, who owns a boarding house and a newspaper, suspects that he was murdered.  The church gets a new rector, Thomas Bain, but there are indications that he is not as he seems.

The book is competently written.  It has its share of likable characters.  Martha is humble and level-headed.  Her friend Oneeda becomes infatuated too easily, but is a cheerful person.  Mary is trying to move on from her past and to be a good Christian.  Freddie works at the post office and is the town drunk.  John “JJ” Johnson makes honey and is a big wooly man; he is devout and donates ten percent of his income to the Episcopalian church.

The Amazon note about the book says: “Set in the 1950s, the key figures are Martha, Mary Magdalene, John the Baptist, Satan, and Jesus.”  The Christian allegory in this book is not as overbearing as, say, the Christian allegory in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  But it is still there.  I was wondering who the John the Baptist character was in the book, then it dawned on me: honey, wooley man, JJ!  That, by the way, accounts for a scene in the book that I initially thought was unnecessary and gratuitous.

Occasionally, the book has theological discussions.  They mainly revolve around the problem of evil.  One of the rectors tries to explain the existence of evil by talking about how God gives people free will, but he also says that God needs to enable a person to come to God if that person is to believe.  That seems like a mixture of Calvinism with a belief in libertarian free-will.  Maybe that is contradictory, or maybe the author believes that the two concepts can fit together, somehow.

One of the themes in the book reminds me of a theme in that awful 2005 miniseries, Revelations: a Satanic sort of person is in jail, inciting prisoners and orchestrating disaster and mayhem in the outside world.  Come to think of it, didn’t Andre Linoge do some of that in Stephen King’s Storm of the Century?  There is also that Twilight Zone episode in which Satan is in jail.  I guess it’s a motif.

Comparing and contrasting the teachings of the Satanic sort of character with those of the good rector would make for an interesting discussion.  One preached prosperity and God giving people what they want; the other preached justification by grace through faith alone.  Both did their share of good for the community, in their own way, but the Satanic character obviously produced bad fruit, in the end.

The first two thirds of the book were really good, perhaps because I was enjoying the characters and wondering how mysteries would be resolved.  The resolution to the mystery was a bit “meh” to me.  It reminded me of a Matlock or Perry Mason episode, only the way of arriving at the truth did not strike me as that much of a slam-dunk.  I also thought that the book was hastily trying to tie one of the characters to Jesus in the end.  That in itself raises questions: Was that character Jesus?  Can Jesus come back and die again?  And, on a related note, was the Satan character really Satan?  He had his own human history, so there are arguments for the “no” answer.

I did like this book, and I am open to reading the book’s sequel when it comes out.

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

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Church Write-Up: God as the Center

I visited two churches last Sunday.  The first church was a non-denominational Christian church that I have liked and have visited four times.  It feels like more, since I sometimes listened to the church’s sermons during the week!  The second church was a small Baptist church.  We sang old hymns, and that felt nostalgic.  I also noticed that on one wall there were prayer requests, and on the opposite wall there were pieces of paper about answered prayer.  I thought that was cool!

If there was a common theme in the two services, it was about making Christ the center of one’s life.  At the non-denominational church, the pastor’s daughter was preaching.  (And, by the way, it does impress me that two of the pastor’s children are serving God as pastors of this church.)  She was going through the Book of Ezra.  She was talking about how the Jews returning from exile wanted to create a community that worshiped God, and they were disciplined and fully committed to that vision.  This church does have its share of prosperity Gospel rhetoric, but the speaker was saying that life is not about making money and having a good job and living in a nice house.  It is about worshiping the God who made us.  She told us about a book that she was reading, in which the author lamented that so few people are willing to commit to a cause larger than themselves.  She said that Christians have as part of their DNA (figuratively speaking) a desire to be part of something larger, of bringing others to the worship of God.

She also said that many Christians like to box up their Christianity and treat it as something that they do on Sunday mornings, when it is supposed to permeate their entire lives.  That reminded me of a sermon that her dad preached, which I heard earlier that week.  He had an interesting interpretation of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis 2-3, and why God forbade Adam and Eve to eat from it.  He said that eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil put Adam and Eve in the position of deciding for themselves when they wanted God to be a part of their lives, and when they did not.  And that reminds me, somewhat but not totally, of what Abraham Kuyper said about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in his book Common Grace: that it had to do with Adam and Eve deciding for themselves what was good and evil, rather than accepting God’s standard.

The pastor at the Baptist church was preaching about Matthew 6:19-21, which states (in the KJV):

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:  But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

The pastor was saying that we should place our current desires and the things that we treasure within the context of eternity.  We should value eternal things, because eternity lasts forever.  He painted a pretty compelling picture of how short this life is.

Ordinarily, I get defensive when I hear sermons about being 100 per cent committed to God.  I doubt that is even possible: after all, we cannot spend all of our time in prayer, or in church, or reading the Bible.  Many of us have to work!  And is it wrong to have time that is non-religious?  Do we have to be thinking about religion all of the time?

These sermons did not put me on the defensive, though.  It’s all right to have a job and hobbies.  But I believe that people should also devote time to the spiritual.  And, yes, I would also say that all that a person does should proceed, in some sense, from a person’s spiritual life.  A Christian employee should be a hard worker.  When a Christian watches a TV program, she does so from a Christian worldview, one that is in reference to God.  When a Christian plays, at some point he should give thanks to God for giving him the ability and opportunity for recreation.  A Christian should continually place life in a larger context, and God should be an integral part of his or her everyday life.

The part about being committed to a larger cause, which was in the first service, certainly stood out to me.  There was a time when I was a committed evangelical, rooting for people to come to Christ.  Nowadays, I am not so much.  I wonder if I truly am rooting for a larger cause, at this stage of my life.  Part of me fears people converting to conservative Christianity: will they become right-wing zealots who think it’s their way or the highway?  I don’t particularly want to wrestle with that struggle right now, so I will stop here!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Book Write-Up: Representing Christ

Uche Anizor and Hank Voss.  Representing Christ: A Vision for the Priesthood of All Believers.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

In Representing Christ: A Vision for the Priesthood of All Believers, Uche Anizor and Hank Voss explore the concept of the priesthood of all believers. This concept states that all Christians are priests, including those who are not in the clergy.  It is held by many Protestants, but Anizor and Voss state that even Roman Catholicism has a notion that laypeople are priests, on some level.

Anizor and Voss contend that the priesthood of believers is a biblical concept.  They go back to Adam and Eve, who functioned as priests in Eden and had the responsibility of spreading God’s glorious reign throughout the earth.  Humans, in short, have a priestly responsibility.  Anizor and Voss refer to ancient Israel, which is called a priesthood in the Torah; all of the Israelites were priests, in some sense, even those who were not officially holding an office.  Anizor and Voss contend that Jesus functioned as a priest, even in the synoptic Gospels, and they maintain that his followers in the New Testament have a priestly task as well.  For Anizor and Voss, the priestly task for God’s people throughout the Bible includes worshiping God and teaching others about God.

Anizor and Voss trace the separation between the clergy and the laity in Christian history.  Clergy-people in the New Testament are never called priests but often have other titles, such as bishops.  Some of the church fathers move in the direction of treating the clergy as if it had a priestly task, similar to the official priesthood of Old Testament Israel, but the entire congregation still had responsibilities and authority in the conduct of the church.  Anizor and Voss argue that the separation between clergy and laity occurred in fuller force due to the influence of Cyprian bishop of Carthage in the third century C.E.  There was a desire for church unity for the sake of continuity, and Cyprian believed that an official authority structure within the church could help guarantee that.  Cyrpian advocated giving the clergy more power, and he drew from the political structures of ancient Rome as a pattern for what the church should be like.

While Roman Catholicism believes that believers are priests, on some level, Anizor and Voss note that there were times in history when the Roman Catholic church inhibited believers from functioning as priests.  Many believers could not read the Bible, for example.  Martin Luther would proclaim the priesthood of believers as part of the Protestant Reformation.

Anizor and Voss attempt to dispel misconceptions about the priesthood of all believers.  Against the notion that it means that believers can do their own thing, for example, Anizor and Voss hold that the priesthood of believers entails being part of the body of Christ, the church.  It includes service and edification of people inside of the church and outside of it.  Anizor and Voss also discuss how the concept of the priesthood of believers can be applied to the ways that Christians understand, approach, and interact with the sacraments and Christian disciplines.

The book is worth reading on account of its biblical defense of the priesthood of believers and its exploration of church history on this topic.  It gets into specifics as it looks at Christian thought, especially when it describes what Martin Luther meant when he referred to the priesthood of believers.  Those interested in a profound look at the Bible will enjoy this book, as will people who are interested in church history, as long as they remember that Roman Catholic perspectives are probably different from that of this book.

Some of the book’s biblical interpretation is not based on what is explicitly in the text, but perhaps it is implicit in the biblical text, or it is a legitimate conclusion that can be drawn from biblical passages.  Some of the arguments in the book are stronger than others.  Saying that Jesus is depicted as a teacher in the synoptic Gospels and that priests are teachers is not a strong argument that the synoptic Gospels depict Jesus as a priest.  Comparing Jesus’ baptism with the washing of priests in the Torah may have some merit, but it is not explicit in the biblical text.  Jesus’ claim in Matthew 12:6 to be greater than the Temple, however, may point in the direction of Jesus being depicted as a priest in the Gospel of Matthew.

The book was not always specific in offering practical steps that Christians can take to implement what it is saying.  But it does offer a compelling and a beautiful vision of what church and Christians should be about, and it does so with elegance.  This book is an edifying read.

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

Monday, June 13, 2016

Book Write-Up: Christ and the Hindu Diaspora

Paul Pathickal.  Christ and the Hindu Diaspora.  Bloomington: WestBow Press, 2012.  See here to buy the book.

In Christ and the Hindu Diaspora, Paul Pathickal discusses ways that evangelical Christians can share the Gospel with Hindus in the Diaspora.  Pathickal provides background about the history and religion of Hinduism.  He also talks about reasons that Hindus have migrated to the West, their experiences as immigrants, and where many of them are religiously.  He bases his knowledge about where they are religiously on surveys.

Here are some of my thoughts about the book:

A.  The section that provided background information about Hinduism was helpful and interesting.  While I have learned about Hinduism from classes and reading, the information that Pathickal provided helped me to place what I knew in a context.  This was particularly the case with Pathickal’s discussion of three Hindu deities.  According to Pathickal, underneath the impersonal Brahman (ultimate reality, or universal spirit) are three deities: Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu.  Brahma was the creator, and afterwards he was inactive, so Pathickal states that Brahma is “the least worshiped of the three gods” (page 21 of the mobi version).  Shiva is a god of destruction, but he destroys to clear the way for new creation, and Hindu ascetics are devoted to him because they want their lower selves to be destroyed.  Vishnu is a beneficent god and (according to Hindu legend) has appeared in many incarnations throughout history.  This description corrected misconceptions I had about Hinduism, placed things I knew in a context, and helped me to understand Hindu beliefs.

B.  Pathickal states that, for a number of Hindus, many Hindu deities are not as powerful in the Diaspora as they are in India.  In the Diaspora, the belief goes, Hindu deities would have to compete with other deities on those other deities’ turf.  Pathickal talks as if this is a widespread belief among Hindus in the Diaspora, even though his own survey indicates that it is not the majority belief among the Hindus that were surveyed.  Pathickal may be saying this to argue that a significant number of Hindus in the Diaspora are not overly attached to the Hindu religion, and thus they may be open to something else (i.e., Christianity).

C.  Hinduism is often seen as a tolerant religion, one that believes that there are many paths to the divine.  One of my favorite quotes in the book is a passage that Pathickal actually argues against: “The firm soul hastes, the feeble tarries.  All will reach the summit snows” (page 116; Pathickal cites a work by Edmund D. Soper).  I was thus surprised  to learn from Pathickal’s book that many Hindus are against Hindus converting to Christianity.  They are open to including Jesus in the pantheon of gods, but they are against Hindus rejecting the Hindu gods to become Christians.  A factor that Pathickal mentions is the responsibility of Hindu firstborn to honor certain Hindu gods and to support the family’s ancestors.  According to Pathickal, many Hindus have a problem when the Hindu firstborn become Christian and no longer practice these rites.

D.  Why does Pathickal believe that Christianity is true and Hinduism is false?  Pathickal occasionally uses apologetic arguments, such as the fulfillment of biblical prophecies.  Mostly, however, his argument appears to be that Christianity can meet people’s needs better than Hinduism can.  For example, Pathickal contrasts the rather bland, vague (from a certain perspective) afterlife of Hinduism (after one has passed through various incarnations) with the joy that Christians think believers will experience in the afterlife.  I take some issue with Pathickal’s arguments.  For one, the fulfillment of biblical prophecies is disputable, or at least it is not as obvious as Pathickal presumes; many scholars argue, for example, Ezekiel foretold that events would transpire a certain way, but they transpired in a different way.  Second, just because a belief is unattractive, does that make it false?  Some Christian apologists would contend that a belief being unattractive may show it is true, for why would humans make it up?  Why would that not apply to the bland, vague (from a certain perspective) afterlife that many Hindus posit?  At the same time, I have to admit that there are features of Christianity that I think are fairer or more humane than Hinduism: Christianity lacks the caste system, for example.

E.  Speaking of unattractive beliefs, Pathickal talks about the Christian belief in hell.  Pathickal addresses the fear of ex-Hindu Christians that their ancestors are in hell for not believing in Jesus.  Pathickal assures them that we do not know what their ancestors’ eternal destiny is, but he also says that people’s ties to their family will not matter to people as much in the afterlife.  Pathickal refers to Scriptures to support this claim (i.e., Jesus’ statement in Matthew 22:23-46 and parallels that there will be no marriage in the resurrection, and Jesus’ statement in Matthew 12:48 and parallels that those who do his Father’s will are his family, more so than his natural family).  But that argument does not entirely rub me the right way.  If we are on earth to become more loving, as many Christians say, why would God want us to be less caring about our families in the afterlife?

F.  Pathickal wrestles with whether Hinduism is demonic, or a fruit of the human search for the divine.  He seems open to seeing it as demonic, in one place in the book, though he says that, out of love, a Christian should refrain from telling Hindus that.  Overall, though, his stance appears to be to treat Hinduism as part of the human search for God.  Humans want to bridge the divide between the human and the divine, Pathickal maintains.  Pathickal also states that some of Hinduism’s claims flow from a recognition of the truth.  According to Pathickal, the Hindu belief in multiple reincarnations before one arrives at union with the ultimate is rooted in the knowledge that humans in their sinfulness cannot be in the presence of a Holy God.  For Pathickal, Christians have the correct solution to that problem (i.e., atonement provided by Christ), whereas Hindus have a false solution (i.e., purification through reincarnations).

G.  Related to (F.), Pathickal’s approach to reincarnation aims to build bridges with Hinduism: to contend that Hinduism is aiming at something true or has a valid insight, yet Christianity is true.  While some may see that as rather condescending, the book would have been better, I think, had Pathickal used that approach more often.  Rather than saying that Jesus is better than Hindu gods and heroes, as Pathickal does, why not say that the self-sacrifice and fight against evil by Hindu gods and heroes are done more fully by Christ?

H.  Pathickal’s suggestions on how Christians can interact with Hindus and share the Gospel with them is helpful, overall.  He talks about how Christians can be good neighbors to Hindu immigrants, who are trying to adept to their new environment.  He informs Christians about Indian customs: for instance, he says that Christians should accept a drink when they visit an Indian house, since Indians offer guests a drink as an act of friendship and hospitality.  Pathickal states that Christians should attempt to clarify Christian teaching and tactfully correct any misunderstandings Hindus have about Christianity: a number of Hindus, he claims, judge Christianity negatively on account of how the British acted as colonizers of India.  There is nothing wrong with being a good neighbor, knowing others’ customs, and correcting misconceptions.  I am leery of the term “friendship evangelism,” which Pathickal uses, because it seems to me to be friendship with an agenda, or friendship with strings attached, or friendship that treats people as projects.  I read a quote that said “friendship evangelism is neither,” and I can identify with that!  Pathickal would undoubtedly deny that he is promoting this sort of friendship evangelism: he wants to love others genuinely, and to let people receive Christ when they are truly ready.  Fair enough.  But friendship evangelism can run into problems, if one is not careful.

I.  The book is well-written.  It can be repetitive, at times: Pathickal would discuss a topic or respond to an objection, then he would do so again later in the book.  Also, the part of the book that presents an example of how Christians can interact with Hindus had strengths and weaknesses.  The strength was that it presented Christians being polite and caring.  The weakness was that the dialogue eventually degenerated into a lengthy monologue in which the Christian was presenting Christian doctrine, with little interjection from the Hindu.
Overall, I found this book to be an enjoyable and informative read.

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

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