Friday, September 30, 2016

Scattered Ramblings on the Second Coming and the Narrow Way

At church last week, the pastor was talking about the second coming of Christ.  He focused on Matthew 24:36-39, which states (in the KJV):

“But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only. But as the days of Noe were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, And knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.”

The pastor was relaying to us the different interpretative options of “marriage and giving in marriage.”  He said that the passage is essentially saying that life was going on normally before the Flood came.  But then he referred to the intermarriage between the sons of God (whom he interpreted to be angels) and the daughters of men in Genesis 6.

A key point that the pastor was making, though, was that only a few were saved during the Flood, and that only a few will be saved when Jesus comes back.  He exhorted us not to get ready for Christ’s return, but to be ready.  If we learned that Jesus would return tomorrow, what would we do?  Would we be on the phone apologizing to that person we cussed out?  The pastor’s implication seemed to be that we should have taken care of that by now!

The pastor said that people before the Flood were doing their own thing, without much thought towards God.  The pastor also said that we may hear his message, then its effect would subside during the week and we would go back to doing our own thing.

The message was not particularly comforting.  But, like the pastor said, over the week, the effect of the sermon subsides, and I go back to doing my own thing.  And what is wrong with me doing my own thing?  God destroyed the earth with the Flood because of the violence of its inhabitants (Genesis 6:11).  They were not just doing their own thing, but they were hurting others.

Suppose that Jesus were coming back tomorrow.  Would I make a special effort to appease those who don’t like me?  Maybe, if there was a suspicion on my part that I would go to hell otherwise.  Do I feel like trying to appease people now?  Nope!

The idea of only a few people being saved bothers me.  I would like to think that God loves everyone and knows where they are.  Still, Jesus did talk about the narrow way that leads to life (Matthew 7:13-14).  I am somewhat on an interfaith kick right now, reading the Bhagavad Gita.  I asked myself if the Bhagavad Gita is so exclusive.  Well, in a sense, it is.  In the Bhagavad Gita, people enter the Kingdom of God when they cease being attached to the material world, and most people are attached to the material world!  Of course, Hinduism has a concept of reincarnation until people get things right, and that, in my opinion, is better than hell.  Yet, there are also references to hell in the Bhagavad Gita (or, perhaps, Swami Prabhupada’s commentary on it).

The pastor said, if I recall correctly, that if Jesus came into the church, only a few of us would be saved.  That is mindblowing.  I doubt Bhagavad-Gita-reading me would be in that number, if that is the case.  Or a better question would be: Why me, and not these others?  I can’t think of anything that makes me better than them.

Maybe, my problem is with certain concepts that are in the Bible.  I would struggle to have a generous, empathetic attitude towards people, if my mind were tied up in either the elitism or the despair that the “narrow way” concept can bring.  I struggle with those things anyway, as someone who is rather liberal and inclusivist, but I suspect that it would be more of a struggle if I were to become more of an exclusivist.

Book Write-Up: Calvinism and the Problem of Evil

David E. Alexander and Daniel M. Johnson, ed.  Calvinism and the Problem of Evil.  Eugene: Pickwick Publications (an Imprint of Wipf and Stock), 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

Calvinism is a Christian belief system that holds that God, before the foundation of the world, predestined the specific individuals who would be saved and damned.  It thinks that people are so sinful that they are unable to repent and believe in Christ apart from God’s transforming grace, and that conversion is inevitable when God’s regenerating grace works on a person.  There are many Calvinists who also maintain that God foreordained everything that would happen.

The problem of evil is a philosophical problem that asks how evil can exist, if God is omnipotent and benevolent.  If God is both omnipotent and benevolent, would not God stop evil, which hurts so many people?

Many Christians address the problem of evil by appealing to libertarian free will.  The idea is that God allows people freely to make their own decisions, since they can only accept God authentically if that is the case.  Their version of free will is called “libertarian” because it presumes that people’s decisions are uncaused and that people were able to choose differently from the choice that they actually made; this, the idea goes, is why people are morally responsible.  Not only have many Christians appealed to libertarian free will to explain why God permits evil choices today, but they also believe that it is relevant to God allowing Adam and Eve to sin, in a sin that brought evil and chaos into the world.

Calvinism differs from this approach.  It tends to reject libertarian free will, embracing instead compatibilism, which holds that there are causes to (or, perhaps, influences on) the choices that people make.  Rather than regarding people as morally neutral and thus able to choose equally between good and evil, it holds that people have a propensity towards evil as a result of original sin, and yet that God can change the desires of those whom God elected unto salvation.

As David E. Alexander and Daniel M. Johnson state in their introduction to Calvinism and the Problem of Evil, Calvinism has been rather marginalized in Christian discussions of the problem of evil.  The reason is that many Christians think that Calvinism makes the problem of evil worse rather than solving it.  If Calvinism believes that God not only permitted, but foreordained, that evil should exist, does that not make God the author of evil?  Does Calvinism make people into robots rather than rational agents with choice?  Moreover, how can God send people to hell for something that they cannot control, namely, God’s decision to choose them for damnation rather than salvation?

This book interacts with these questions, and others.  In terms of another question with which the book interacts, there is the question of how Adam and Eve could sin, when God made them good.  Calvinists can understand how people born with original sin and a corrupt nature can sin: it is their nature.  But how could good people sin?

In this review, I will comment about each chapter.

Chapter 1, “Calvinism and the Problem of Evil: A Map of the Territory,” by Daniel M. Johnson, is lengthy, yet well-written and lucid.  Unlike some of the later essays, it tends to avoid arguments in which letters stand for concepts.  It lays out different Calvinist perspectives on such questions as how Adam and Eve could sin.  It said that God has a reason to damn at least some people as an object lesson of God’s justice, and the reaction that immediately occurred in my mind was: “But Calvinism does not just say that some people will be damned, but that a lot of people will be.  Why would God do that?”  A later essay in the book would address this question.

Chapter 2, “Molinist Gunslingers: God and the Authorship of Sin,” by Greg Welty, argues that Molinism has the same problem that many think Calvinism has.  Molinism holds that God foresaw different possible worlds and chose to create a world in which people freely sinned.  For Welty, one can accuse Molinism of presuming that God is the one who is responsible for sin, which is what critics of Calvinism say about Calvinism.  Welty perhaps could have made this point without all of the elaborate argumentation, but he still raises an interesting question, one that subsequent essays will raise, as well: Do non-Calvinist Christian beliefs run into the same problems that many think are inherent to Calvinism?  This chapter is also effective because it cites Scriptures in which God is portrayed as somehow causing, or being behind, people’s evil deeds, only God uses those deeds for a positive and just end.  The question that occurred in my mind was this: Even if there are cases of determinism or compatibilism in the Bible, does that mean that all decisions are foreordained or influenced by factors beyond the decider’s control?  Maybe God can use a person who has voluntarily become evil as a tool for God’s just purpose.

Chapter 3, “Theological Determinism and the ‘Authoring Sin’ Objection,” by Heath White, proposes that God foreordained evil but did not intend to do so.  This does not imply that evil was God’s accident, but rather that God had a just and righteous purpose in mind (God’s glorification and display of God’s righteous character), and God foresaw that a world that had evil would best achieve that purpose.  In my opinion, this model somewhat presents God as limited by the alternatives in front of God.  This chapter was rather helpful in concisely explaining the difference between supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism.

Chapter 4, “Not the Author of Evil: A Question of Providence, Not a Problem for Calvinism,” by James E. Bruce, concerns the thought of Francis Turretin (1623-1687).  According to Bruce, Turretin said that God acts on people, and yet people remain free and rational agents.  Like Welty, Bruce cites Scriptures in which God seems to cause certain people’s evil acts.  Of particular interest was Bruce’s discussion of Turretin’s interaction with Proverbs 21:1, which states that the king’s heart is like water in the hands of the LORD, who turns it wherever the LORD wills.  According to Turretin, God here is not tempting the king to sin, for that would be impossible: James 1:13, after all, emphatically denies that God tempts people to sin.  Rather, for Turretin, what is going on is that God is providing the king with righteous ideas knowing fully well that the king will use those ideas in wicked ways.  That view was new to me!

Chapter 5, “Orthodoxy, Theological Determinism, and the Problem of Evil,” by David E. Alexander, essentially argues that many Christian beliefs presume compatibilism or are more consistent with compatibilism than with libertarianism.  These are Christian beliefs that even non-Calvinist Christians hold.  They include such beliefs as original sin, the inspiration of Scripture, Christ’s sinlessness, and God’s sovereignty.  This is a legitimate point, yet questions can be asked.  Does God have to determine everything, to be sovereign?  Cannot God be sovereign over the big picture without controlling every little detail (even through secondary causes or means)?  Cannot God mitigate original sin and provide people with more ability to choose with prevenient grace, or common grace?  This chapter also addresses the topic of hell and proposes that God shows some love to people in hell by keeping them alive there.  This is a difficult concept for me, since they are being eternally tormented in hell.

Chapter 6, “Discrimination: Aspects of God’s Causal Activity,” by Paul Helm, likens God’s love for the elect to people legitimately loving their own family more than outsiders.  Helm seems to question whether a world in which there is absolute equality among people is even possible.  Helm also challenges the idea that Calvinists believe that God forces the elect to convert, or brainwashes them: it is rather a matter of enlightenment, of awakening.

Chapter 7, “On Grace and Free Will,” by Hugh J. McCann, is noteworthy because it recognizes and wrestles with different dimensions of human decisions.  On the one hand, we did not technically decide what the desires that influence our decisions would be: those desires are just there.  On the other hand, it does appear that our decisions are spontaneous and that we are active in making them.  McCann seemingly attempts to posit that determinism and compatibilism can co-exist with human free will.  Another noteworthy element of this chapter is that McCann rejects any idea that God deliberated prior to creation, for McCann believes that God knew what was correct and made what was correct, without really needing to deliberate.  That seems to differ from Heath White’s model (chapter 3) of God surveying various options, depending on how literally White took this model.

Chapter 8, “The First Sin: A Dilemma for Christian Determinists,” by Alexander R. Pruss, engages the question of how Adam and Eve could sin, being good.  This chapter is detailed and complex, but it is still useful because it interacts with options.  Pruss does appear to have a problem with Jonathan Edwards’ model, in which God somehow influences Adam and Eve to sin by withdrawing grace from them.  This shows that there is diversity among Calvinists.  (UPDATE: Actually, Pruss is a Catholic.)  Pruss also seems rather open to libertarian free will being something that Adam and Eve possessed.

Chapter 9, “Calvinism and the First Sin,” by James N. Anderson, also addresses how Adam and Eve could sin, being good.  Anderson relays a helpful analogy from Alfred Mele, in which an ordinarily self-controlled woman named Ann gives in to alcohol when she is pressured.  Anderson also elaborates on the authorial model of God’s providence, a model that was briefly mentioned by previous contributors, but which Anderson explained more fully.  In this model, God is likened to an author: a character is acting as he is acting because of what the author wrote, and yet the character is still acting according to his own free will.  In reading this, I thought of the show, Once Upon a Time, in which an author wrote what the characters did, and they did it, while acting freely.  Moreover, Anderson interacts with Molinism, the belief that God foresees but does not foreordain evil, and open theism, which denies that God even knows the future.  These are non-Calvinist views.  Anderson believes that divine foreknowledge is rather deterministic itself, for, if God foresees something, does that not make it inevitable?  (I one time debated this question with an Intervarsity sponsor, and his answer to the question was “no.”)  Anderson also holds that open theism presents God as a gambler.  To that, I ask this question: Can one legitimately believe that God does not know every detail of the future and yet still exercises sovereignty over the big picture?  God can control how God will act, after all, whether or not God entirely knows how we will act.

Chapter 10, “A Compatibicalvinist Demonstrative-Goods Defense,” by Christopher R. Green, explores interesting questions.  Green interacts with the question of whether God could have used nightmares to teach people about God’s righteousness and justice rather than actual evil.  He makes a point about animal suffering, contending that it may be an example of God showing God’s consistency and faithfulness through the regularity that exists in nature, which Jeremiah 33:20 states is the case with the day and the night.  (As an animal lover, I consider that to be a grisly way for God to demonstrate God’s nature; still, animal suffering is a theological problem.)  Green also talks about how God can use a person’s story for future generations, without that person’s knowledge, as God did with the characters in the Bible.  One’s participation in the divine drama, in which evil is a reality with which people deal, may show people what God is like and edify future generations.

Chapter 11, “Calvinism and the Problem of Hell,” by Matthew J. Hart, articulates the thoughts of Jonathan Edwards to argue that so many people are damned to hell to edify the glorified elect: to enhance their appreciation of their redemption, as they realize that they themselves could have been damned, apart from God’s grace.  To this, I ask whether glorified Christians will have any love for the people in hell.  Are we not on earth, after all, to learn to love others, and is that not more important than for us to relish our own advantages?  Hart also addresses the question of whether God is responsible to love everyone God brought into being and sustains, even the non-elect.  Hart invokes an analogy in which a capsule produces adult males.  Are the creators of the capsule required to love those adult males, to the same extent that they love their own families, even though they technically created the adult males?  Hart’s answer seems to be no, and he believes that this resembles God’s stance towards the non-elect.  This analogy made me question the effectiveness of analogies in explaining the Bible: Is a sci-fi analogy, like this one, a bit anachronistic?  Should not something on the radar of the biblical authors be cited, instead?

Chapter 12, “Calvinism, Self-Attestation, and Apathy toward Arguments from Evil,” by Anthony Bryson, challenges an idea held by some Calvinists that the Bible is self-attesting: that Christians know it is true because it is God’s word, period!  According to this view, to appeal to, say, reason or evidence to substantiate the Bible is to say that there are criteria for truth above God’s word, and this is wrong.  For Bryson, this belief influences some Calvinists to conclude that the problem of evil is not a significant problem.  If we know that God is real because the Bible is God’s word, after all, then the problem of evil cannot challenge God’s existence.  Bryson disputes this.  This chapter will be challenging and difficult for those who are unfamiliar with epistemological externalism and epistemological internalism.

Overall, this book does provide food for thought.  It explores and interacts with various possibilities.  A possible disadvantage is that the book was rather clinical and abstract in its discussion of evil, rather than acknowledging the real-life damage that evil brings.  Whether the book successfully makes the God of Calvinism look any better is a subjective judgment: I did not always think that it did.  A definite positive of the book, however, is that it shows how diverse Calvinism can be, and it highlighted some interpretations that were new to me.

I apologize for any unintentional distortions on my part in describing Calvinism or the views of these authors.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Book Write-Up: The Summoned King, by Dave Neuendorf

Dave NeuendorfThe Summoned King: Book One of the Kalymbrian Chronicles2016.  See here to purchase the book.

The Summoned King is a Christian fantasy book.

High school student James Madison Young ends up in the fictional country of Kalymbria after cramming in the library for a chemistry exam.  He was brought there by the wizard Maynard, and Jim is appointed king.  Kalymbria prefers to “avoid problems inherent in a hereditary monarchy” and thus summons its kings from other planets, after a process of observing them (page 8).  Jim is given a wife, Julia, who is from the peasant class, and Jim has to become accustomed to that, since he is rather awkward around the opposite sex.  Julia has the potential to become powerful in the usage of magic, but she is gradually feeling her wings, under Maynard’s tutelage.

Jim has to contend with a Council of Advisors, which expects him to rubber-stamp its every decision and is the real power in Kalymbria.  Jim devises strategies to gain more power and to create a just system in the country, against much opposition.  Meanwhile, there is the looming threat of war, and the witch Ruingia is making attacks.

If you like political science, then you will enjoy this book.  The book is detailed about the political, social, and religious system of Kalymbria and surrounding countries.  The book is also detailed about aspects of technology.  While that could be slow and tedious, in areas, it did add greater believability to the story.

Politically, Jim is rather progressive in Kalymbria, since Jim abolishes slavery, challenges human sacrifice, eliminates state support for religion, and attempts to create a republic.  The book seems to reflect a rather conservative political stance, in terms of American political ideology, since Jim supports the gold standard and institutes the right to keep and bear arms.

There are action scenes in the book, and they enhance the story, but the political, social, and religious aspects of the book’s world were what especially intrigued me.

A question that occurred to me was why Maynard would choose a teenager to be king, of all people.  But it actually makes sense.  Maynard wanted to effect reforms in Kalymbria.  Perhaps he felt that Jim was impressionable and teachable enough to do what Maynard advised, while having enough intelligence to be an effective ruler.

One of my favorite scenes is when the witch Ruingia sends Jim a message, and the message was like Princess Leia’s message to Obi-Wan in Star Wars (a hologram, of sorts).  Jim sees Ruingia, and she does not look like a hag at all, but rather like a grandmother.

This is the first book of a series, and I hope to read subsequent books.

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

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Book Write-Up: The Wish, by Beverly Lewis

Beverly Lewis.  The Wish.  Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

The Wish is the latest Amish fiction novel by Beverly Lewis.  It is largely set in Lancaster County, where there is a sizeable Amish community.

Leona Speicher enjoyed spending time with the Gingeriches more than her own family, for she felt accepted among the Gingeriches.  Leona especially had a bond with Gloria Gingerich, the daughter of the family.  When the patriarch of the Gingerich family, Arkansas Joe, was shunned by the Amish community, he and his family left.  Leona did not hear from Gloria for years, until one day, she received a letter from Gloria.  Leona paid a visit to the Gingerich family, which had ceased being Amish and had instead embraced mainstream ways.  When Gloria visits the Amish community with Leona, Gloria comes to terms with what she left behind, and her regret that her family left the Amish community.

This book covered beautiful themes.  There is Leona’s eventual embrace of her own taciturn family, and her parents’ acceptance of her.  Gloria’s visit to Lancaster County evoked a profound sense of nostalgia and longing, though those elements were drawn out a bit too much.  The novel effectively conveyed Gloria’s feeling of being at home within the Amish community.  And the book was moving when it covered the themes of accepting people on a different path, and making restitution to those one has harmed.

The scene in which Leona visits the post-Amish Gingeriches and sees them sitting at the table in the same order that they sat at it back when they were Amish was rather eerie.

The book also had interesting details: there are Amish farmers who follow the biblical land Sabbath by allowing their land to rest every seventh year, for example.

Whereas a number of Amish fiction novels, including some of the ones by Beverly Lewis, have a lot of characters and things going on, this novel had a manageable number of characters, while still staying interesting.

In terms of critiques, the book would have been better had it gone more deeply into certain spiritual themes.  The question of whether one needs to be Amish to be a Christian is raised in this book, but the book should have at least attempted to provide an answer to that question, or at least more wrestling with it.  Gloria was drinking in from an Amish devotional, and the book could have had more of a spiritual content had it informed readers about what themes Gloria was learning from her devotions.

The book was somewhat confusing in its characterization of Gloria.  On the one hand, the book portrays her as a devout, spiritual person: she went to church after her family had ceased going, for instance.  On the other hand, the book depicts her as wanting to return to the Amish to be with Leona, rather than for any spiritual reasons, and that contradicted the book’s portrayal of Gloria elsewhere: as a spiritual person who felt at home with Amish ways.

The book is still beautiful, however.

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

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Book Write-Up: Sunlight, by Julius Buchanan

Julius Buchanan.  Sunlight: Acts of the United Sceptres, Book One.  Julius Buchanan, 2015.  See here to purchase the book.

The back cover of this book says that Julius Buchanan “writes fantasy novels that drill into the deep questions of life and faith.”  It goes on to say that Buchanan “doesn’t just want to entertain you” but “aims to leave you relishing life and finding your purpose for waking up tomorrow.”

Overall, that accurately characterizes this book.  Sunlight explores spiritual territory and offers constructive advice.  One character continually focuses on what she cannot do and what is impossible, and she is exhorted to look for the possibilities.  Another character was abused and unwanted when he was younger and still deals with the effects of that rejection; he is encouraged to forgive in order to find his destiny.  Different characters in this book fight a spiritual, not just a physical, battle.  They are challenging Marduk, a demonic entity who has taken over their country and has obscured sunlight, and yet a significant part of this battle is their war with their own inner demons.

Three of the characters need to undergo tests before they can use their gifts in battle.  One of them learns that failure and humility is a way to pass the test.  There is also the issue of weaponry: the heroes refuse to use the weapons of the enemy, for those weapons are evil, and how one fights is just as important as winning.
All of these are edifying themes, which can provide readers with a constructive outlook when they wake up in the morning.  They also enhance the story, in that they allow readers to know and identify with the characters.

There are aspects of the book’s world that are enchanting, or intriguing.  There are giant birds, who have a story in their own right.  The book also includes biblical-like accounts of the world’s past.  Perhaps the book could have been less obvious about this, as opposed to, say, using the name “Najo” for “Jonah.”  Still, its presentation of the land’s mysterious past added intrigue.

The book’s plot was dry and plodding, however, and there was a lot of focus on technical details.  The book also should have reiterated more often what the mission of the gifted children was, in case some readers did not pick up on that the first time.  Aspects of the book could have been better integrated into the plot.  The book did well to highlight some of the weapons that the heroes refuse to use, for example, but what weapons were they to use instead, and how were they effective?  The children had their gifts, but one of the heroes still used a sword.

In short, the homiletical parts of the book were the parts that I understood the best and enjoyed the most.  The fantasy plot, not so much.  The book edified me somewhat, but it did not entertain.  It had potential, though!

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

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Ramblings on Music and Worship

Now for my church write-up!  I attend church every Sunday, and, each week, I write a post about something that I got out of the service.

Warning: scattered ramblings ahead!

At church last week, the pastor in his sermon was talking about how he and his wife were watching The Voice on TV.  On that show, a woman was singing on stage, and the people in the audience were waving their hands.  Some were closing their eyes and enjoying the music.  That reminded the pastor of church.

The pastor was drawing some conclusions from this.  One question he asked was why people cannot be as excited about God, as they are about a singer who does not even know them!  The pastor made clear that he does not want us to wave our hands in worship just to please him, but he asked us to consider his question.

That got me thinking about music.  Here are some thoughts:

A.  I do not think that The Voice was counterfeiting the church.  Rather, I think that music is a powerful force, and that is why it has been incorporated into worship throughout history.

This is not an absolute statement, for some biblical scholars have noticed that there is no reference to musical accompaniment in the priestly sections of the Torah.  Biblical scholar Israel Knohl wrote a book entitled The Sanctuary of Silence.  I say in my post here, as I interact with Knohl’s book: “For Knohl, the priest’s ideal was for people to be silent before a majestic God.  Knohl cites Psalm 65:2: to you (God), silence is praise.”

But there is a lot in the Bible about praising God with music!  To quote Psalm 150:4: “Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs” (Psalm 150).  King David in I Chronicles 25 is credited with establishing Temple musicians, but the Bible depicts music in worship before then: in Exodus 15, the Israelites sing after their Egyptian adversaries are thrown into the sea, and Moses’ sister Miriam plays the timbrel.

Music is a way for people to express their happiness and their longings.  The church uses music so that people can express their happiness and longings towards God, in the context of worship.

B.  The Church of Christ does not include musical instruments in its worship.  The people sing at Church of Christ services, but without accompaniment by musical instruments.  There were church fathers and Christian thinkers who were likewise critical of using musical instruments in worship.  See here for some passages that are critical of musical instruments, but also here for patristic passages that are more supportive of them.

A criticism that some Christians have employed against using musical instruments in worship is that instruments appeal to the flesh.  Their argument is that Old Testament religion was very physical and thus incorporated musical accompaniment to appeal to worshipers, whereas New Testament religion is supposed to be spiritual.  Yet, even those who use this argument seem to acknowledge a place for music in worship, so long as it is sung vocally.  Ephesians 5:19, after all, encourages “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (KJV).

Personally, I do not see what the big deal is when it comes to using musical instruments in worship.  If we are allowed to enhance or manifest our appreciation of God with singing, why not add instrumental accompaniment to the mix?  And is it so wrong to appeal to the physical senses in worship?  Nowadays, many Christian thinkers are rejecting the anti-physical, ultra-spiritual orientation that has characterized elements of Christianity throughout history, noting that God loves God’s physical creation and plans to renew it and dwell in it.

C.  A while back, I was reading Dan Barker’s deconversion testimony.  I cannot find what exactly I read, but here is wikipedia’s page about Dan Barker, in case you want to know more about him.  Essentially, Dan Barker was an evangelical musician who became an atheist.  And my understanding is that there was a season in which he was still singing Christian music, even though he was no longer a believer.

When Dan came out as an atheist, many of his Christian friends and acquaintances were shocked.  One friend asked Dan how Dan made such beautiful, heart-felt music, without believing a word that he was singing.  Dan replied that it was the music that was making him happy, not the words to the songs.

I can somewhat identify with this.  One of the things that I especially like about the church that I attend is its music.  The church is an African-American church, but there are people of other ethnicities and races who attend, as well.  The music is a force of nature!  And, in contrast to some of the other churches that I have visited, the congregation at this church actively participates in the singing: they clap, they wave their hands.  I have visited other churches, and I often feel unsatisfied with the music at these places: perhaps I want to hear more, or I wish that I could display enthusiasm without being looked upon as a nut.  At the church that I am currently attending, I feel fed by the music, and I leave the services feeling full.

But here is a question: am I excited by the music, or by the God towards whom that music is directed?  I cannot deny that I love the music.  I like to clap my hands and sing and bop my head, even when there are times that I am not sure what I believe or feel about God.  I don’t think that is horrible.  I just hope to feel good about God, too.

Whether I display that sort of enthusiasm at secular concerts or when I am listening to secular music, that is a good question.  I suppose that it depends on whether I like the music!  I one time attended a secular concert and I did not care for the music.  But I will say this: I do like art that actually makes a valuable or an edifying point, and that is one reason that I tend to gravitate towards worship music, or Christian music.  I still enjoy the secular stuff, but its lyrics do not edify me that much.  If I were to go to church, and the music there lacked any reference to God, I would be disappointed.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Book Write-Up: The Book of Mormon

I recently finished the Book of Mormon!  Here are some thoughts:

A.  Let’s start with a summary of what the Book of Mormon is about.

Jerusalem is about to be destroyed by the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C.E..  Lehi, who lives in Jerusalem but is descended from Jacob’s son Joseph, leaves Jerusalem on a ship with his family.  Lehi is a righteous man.  His son Nephi is also righteous.  But his son Laman is not: Laman resents Nephi, loves riches, and does not want to leave Jerusalem.

Lehi’s family arrives in America.  The Lamanites descend from Laman, and the Nephites descend from Nephi.  The Lamanites are warlike and desire power.  They carry around a distorted memory that their ancestor Nephi deprived them of what was rightfully theirs.  The Nephites are somewhat like Israel in the Old Testament: they have the truth, and there are times when they are fairly righteous, but they often stray from the straight and narrow.

A lot of the Book of Mormon describes conflict between the Lamanites and the Nephites.  God often uses the Lamanites to punish the Nephites when the Nephites are unrighteous; the Nephites do well, however, when they trust in God to help them in battle.

At one point, some Nephites send missionaries to the Lamanites.  A group of Lamanites convert, and they decide to forswear war, at great cost to themselves.  God does not require pacifism in the Book of Mormon, but these Lamanites want to repudiate their warlike past, so they covenant with God not to fight in wars anymore.

Zarahemla is a region in America.  My impression is that it was started by other Jews who left Jerusalem when Jerusalem was about to be destroyed.  Nephites offer to rule Zarahemla, and Zarahemla accepts their rule.

Jesus Christ comes to America in the first century C.E. and preaches to the Nephites, the Lamanites, and Lehi’s other descendants.  Jesus preaches some of the things that are in the New Testament, such as the Sermon on the Mount, and pieces of his last speech in the Gospel of John.  Jesus also establishes a church in America.

At this point, the distinction between the Nephites and the Lamanites becomes rather confusing.  On the one hand, there are indications that the Nephites and the Lamanites are no longer racial or ethnic groups, but rather religious groups: the Nephites are those who accept Jesus Christ, regardless of what their nationality may be, whereas the Lamanites are those who reject Jesus Christ.  On the other hand, there also seem to be indications that the distinction between the Nephites and the Lamanites is still ethnic, or racial.  There was a prophecy before Jesus came to America that the Nephites would be exterminated in four hundred years on account of their sin, and, when this prophecy was made, the Nephites were still Nephites in a racial or ethnic sense.  And, four hundred years later, long after the coming of Christ, the Nephites were fatally defeated because they had fallen into deep iniquity.  This prophecy-and-fulfillment would make more sense if the Nephites remained an ethnic group before and after Christ came; maybe the solution is that most of the ethnic Nephites accepted Christ, whereas most of the ethnic Lamanites did not.

Mormons consider the Lamanites to be the ancestors of at least some of the Native Americans.  In the Book of Mormon, the Lamanites receive dark skin twice: one time before Christ came, and the other time after Christ came.

There is another group in the Americas, and it is discussed in the Book of Ether.  These people descended from Jared’s family, which came to America after God scattered the people at the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11.  The Jaredites had successions of righteous and wicked kings, and there was political infighting.  Centuries later, the Nephite Moroni, who also hid the Book of Mormon, read the Jaredites’ records.

B.  There were a lot of surprises in the Book of Mormon.  Mormons are often associated with polygamy, on account of their history.  But the Book of Mormon condemns polygamy!  In terms of their view on the Godhead, Mormons are usually labeled as tritheists: people who focus on the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being three distinct beings rather than their unity in one Godhead.  In the Book of Mormon, however, there are places in which Jesus seems to be equated with God the Father, as if the two are the exact same person; that would be modalism, not tritheism!  (There are also places in which the Father and Son appear to be distinct.)  Mormons fall on the continuationist side of the cessationist-continuationist debate.  On the one hand, that is not much of a surprise: after all, they believe that Scripture was written after the time of the New Testament, so, in their mind, prophetic gifts must not have ceased after the completion of the New Testament canon!  On the other hand, it is surprising because I never thought that Mormons believed in speaking in tongues or the continuing existence of miraculous healing!  The Book of Mormon says that these gifts remain and that, if they are not around, it is due to a lack of faith.

Some friends who have read about Mormonism helped me out on some of these items.  One said that Mormonism changed its position on polygamy and noted that the Book of Mormon is not the final authority within Mormonism, since there is the Pearl of Great Price.

(UPDATE: Something else that surprised me about the Book of Mormon was that it lacked the heresies or oddities that many say are characteristic of Mormonism: Satan and Jesus being brothers, God the Father once being a baby on a planet, human beings becoming God, people being married in the afterlife, etc.)  

C.  There seemed to me to be some interaction in the Book of Mormon with nineteenth century thought.  Universalism, the idea that all people will eventually be saved, is criticized in the Book of Mormon.  There is also a criticism of atheism, as a hero uses the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, and the idea that people should have faith to support belief in God.  Another idea that gets criticized a couple of times is the idea that God could not become flesh; perhaps the Book of Mormon, in that case, is arguing against a nineteenth century idea that Jesus was merely a man.  The Book of Mormon also takes a swipe at people who form secret societies to overthrow kings.  Could that reflect concern about Masons or the Illuminati, or something like that?  (I am just speculating here.)

D.  Related to (C.), one indication to me that the Book of Mormon was written in the nineteenth century, as opposed to having authentic pre-Christian documents, is that its prophecies about Jesus are so heavy-handed and specific!  In the Book of Mormon, people in the B.C. era knew who Christ was, and some were even converting to Christ in the Christian sense.  The Old Testament is not that heavy-handed and specific when it supposedly predicts the advent of Christ!

E.  In the Book of Mormon, salvation comes by faith, repentance, and baptism.  It does not believe in once-saved-always-saved, for it maintains that a person can fall from the faith and become worse than he was before, even more hardened to God and morality.  My impression (and this is subject to correction) is that it held that Christians need to uphold their salvation through continued repentance.

F. The Book of Mormon is against the baptism of children because it believes that children are innocent, perhaps in the sense that they are not yet accountable.  In fact, the Book says that those who promote the baptism of children will themselves go to hell!

G.  A question that I had in my mind is whether the Book of Mormon maintains that only those who accept the Book of Mormon will be saved.  There is a sense in the Book of Mormon that the Gentile world, or Christendom, has the truth, on some level, for there is a prophecy that the Gentiles will bring the New Testament to America.  At the same time, Christendom is deemed to be corrupt and immoral; there seem to be a couple of swipes in the Book of Mormon against Christians who preach grace-only!  There do appear to be statements that true Christians will accept the Book of Mormon.  The argument for the Book of Mormon in a few of these passages is that it encourages people to do good, and this shows that it is from God.  But couldn’t the same be said about the Bhagavad Gita?  And suppose that people do good without guidance from the Book of Mormon.  Why wouldn’t God accept them?  What would Mormonism say about that?  The Book of Mormon may be edifying, but what does it add, that is not already in the Old and New Testaments?

H.  There is a passage in the Book of Mormon that appears to suggest that everyone is invited to attend services; I thought that Mormons were more secluded or mysterious than that, but I am open to correction.  While all can attend services, however, communion can only be taken by actual believers, who are also subject to church discipline.

I.  On the Calvinist-Arminian spectrum, the Book of Mormon seems to me to fall more on the Arminian side.  There appears to be an acknowledgment of prevenient grace, and a belief that Christians can lose their salvation.  At the same time, in an enigmatic passage, there seems to be an indication that the Fall of Adam and Eve was a necessary part of God’s plan.  In 2 Nephi 2:23-24, we read that, had Adam and Eve not sinned, they would have had no children.  V 4 then says, “But all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things.”  This reminds me of the Calvinist view that God decreed the Fall, yet I do not want to say that Calvinists and the Book of Mormon are exactly alike in regarding the Fall as positive.  I should also note that there are places in the Book of Mormon in which the Fall is treated as negative.

J.  2 Nephi 18:19 intrigued me.  It is drawing from Isaiah 8:19, yet diverges from it on a significant detail.  Isaiah 8:19 states: “And when they shall say unto you, Seek unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto wizards that peep, and that mutter: should not a people seek unto their God? for the living to the dead?” (KJV, emphasis mine).  2 Nephi 18:19 states: “And when they say unto you: Seek unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto wizards that peep and mutter—-should not a people seek unto their God for the living to hear from the dead?”  (Emphasis mine)  Do you see the difference?  Isaiah 8:19 forbids consulting the dead.  2 Nephi 18:19, however, seems to say that consulting the dead is acceptable, as long as people do so through God.  Why would the Book of Mormon change Isaiah 8:19?  My speculation is that it did so because of its belief that Moroni, long after his death, appeared to Joseph Smith and told him where he (Moroni) buried the plates.  Joseph Smith heard from a dead person, but not by going to wizards or fortunetellers.  Maybe I am reading too much into 2 Nephi 18:19, but its difference from Isaiah 8:19 certainly stood out to me.

A final word: I apologize for any distortions or important omissions in this book write-up.  Any distortions are not intentional.  This write-up is my informal general impression of the Book of Mormon.   

Friday, September 16, 2016

Book Write-Up: War Against War, by Michael Kazin

Michael Kazin.  War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918.  Simon and Schuster, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Michael Kazin teaches history at Georgetown University and co-edits the publication DissentWar Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918 is about the American anti-war movement during World War I.  The book talks about who was involved in the anti-war movement and why, chronicles the events that led up to American intervention into the war, and discusses the attempts by the U.S. government to suppress anti-war dissent through such measures as the Espionage Act.

A book that was continually on my mind as I read Kazin’s book was William P. Hoar’s Architects of Conspiracy, which I read back when I was in the sixth grade.  Hoar’s book was published by Western Islands, which was the publishing arm of the ultra-conservative John Birch Society, and my understanding is that some of the chapters of Hoar’s book also appeared in the Bircher periodical American Opinion.

Why was Hoar’s book on my mind as I was reading Kazin’s book?  In a sense, much of what I knew about World War I and the players involved came from Hoar’s book, and I have not read much about World War I since then.  The school that I attended as a child covered the high points of World War I, such as the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the sinking of the Lusitania, and the Zimmermann telegram.  But it did not talk much about the prominent personalities who had an opinion about the war: Woodrow Wilson, Charles Lindbergh, William Jennings Bryan, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, Jane Addams, Eugene Debs, Henry Cabot Lodge, and the list goes on.  Hoar’s book covered a lot of those personalities.

But, in significant areas, the narrative in Hoar’s book was different from the narrative in Kazin’s book.  Both clearly overlapped in that both were highly critical of American entry into World War I.  But Hoar talks about World War I within the context of his sweeping narrative about how the rich Insiders were trying to create a one world government.  In the course of Hoar’s narrative, there are heroes and villains.  Woodrow Wilson was a villain because he broke his promise not to get America into war, and because he promoted the League of Nations after World War I.  Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan was a hero because he valiantly opposed American entry into the war.  Charles Lindbergh, Sr. (father of the famous pilot) was likewise a hero because he opposed American entry into the war (and also the Federal Reserve, which is another story).  Henry Cabot Lodge was a hero because he stood against American entry into the League of Nations.  Henry Ford was a heroic anti-Internationalist.  Andrew Carnegie was a villain because he supported a one-world government.  Jane Addams was a villain because of her left-leaning stances.  The progressives were bad because they wanted socialism.

Kazin’s book presents a picture that is more complicated.  Woodrow Wilson emerges as a figure who was trying to keep America out of war as long as he felt he could, and he had reservations even after the U.S. got into the war.  William Jennings Bryan was largely critical of American intervention, yet, at the same time, like many in the anti-war movement, he supported a globalist system to keep the peace, the sort of system that many Birchers would find abhorrent!  Charles Lindbergh was critical of American entry into the war, but he was one of the few Republicans to oppose it: in Kazin’s telling, many Republicans wanted a stronger military and supported the war because that would benefit their wealthy corporate backers.  Henry Cabot Lodge supported American entry into the war.  Henry Ford was against the war and sided with leftists who wanted a one-world government, or something like that.  Andrew Carnegie and Jane Addams opposed American entry into the war, as did the progressive Robert La Follette.  Hoar’s heroes were not entirely heroic, by Bircher standards, and his villains were not entirely villainous.  At the same time, while Kazin talks a lot about the leftist opposition to American involvement in World War I, Kazin also tells the story of Southern conservative Democrats who were against the war.

(This is not to suggest that I had a Bircher view about World War I until I read Kazin’s book, but rather that Hoar’s book was on my mind when I was reading Kazin.)

Kazin is a compelling narrator and storyteller.  He gives the background of many of the people who opposed World War I, and their reasons for opposing American entry.  Among the criticisms of American entry was a sense that it would benefit wealthy capitalists rather than workers, a belief that negotiation could alleviate the international tension, a utopian desire for a globalist sort of system to maintain the peace, a recognition of the horrors of war, and a sense that America need not worry about foreign conflict because America was invulnerable to outside attack, since two oceans protected it.  Moreover, for a while, President Woodrow Wilson was reluctant to create a standing army or to boost U.S. military spending because he preferred the Jeffersonian Democratic aversion to a strong military.

Kazin also talks about the rationale of Americans who supported the war.  There was a sense that war brought out the best in people, giving them the opportunity to think beyond themselves and to exercise such virtues as courage.  There was some fear that Germans could attack America’s cities, and the Zimmermann telegram confirmed in some minds that the Germans had hostile intentions towards the United States and could attack from Mexico.  Germans were interfering with U.S. and British trade by sinking ships.  Some American labor representatives thought the the war could boost the economy and help workers.  There was a desire for the U.S. to be strong: Theodore Roosevelt especially articulated this, as he portrayed Wilson as a weakling.  Among certain leftists, there was concern that Germany could threaten the newly emerging Soviet Union, which they saw as the beginnings of a model and just society.

In reading Kazin’s narrative, I had difficulty identifying a clear event that got America into the war.  Even after the Germans sank the Lusitania, Wilson was still dragging his feet.  There were anti-war people who considered the Zimmermann telegram a fake.  But, as Germans continued being aggressive and rejected peace overtures, more and more Americans got tired and thought that the U.S. should enter the war.  Wilson later targeted the anti-war activists whom he once embraced because he thought that they were undermining morale.

Kazin explores interesting historical topics: how women conducted the anti-war movement in a different manner from men; the different attitudes toward the war within the African-American community, as some championed the war as an opportunity for African-Americans to support freedom and demonstrate their valor, whereas others contended that it was hypocritical for America to fight for freedom abroad while neglecting it at home; and how anti-war legislators sought to modify American entry into the war, by attempting to impose a heavy tax on wealthy industrialists to pay for it!  Kazin also discusses the role of Helen Keller in opposing the war, and Henry Ford’s unsuccessful and derided attempt to negotiate a peace settlement.

In addition, Kazin provides a helpful timeline and list of books at the end.

In terms of critiques, Kazin perhaps could have been clearer about what specifically precipitated American intervention.  Moreover, although Kazin effectively described the motivations of so many people, he also should have gone into more detail about German motivations: why were the Germans doing what they were doing?

Overall, though, this is an informative, interesting, and engaging book.

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

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Book Write-Up: He Will Be the Preacher, by Erwin W. Lutzer

Erwin W. Lutzer. He Will Be the Preacher: The Story of God’s Providence in My Life.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

Erwin W. Lutzer pastors the Moody Church in Chicago, and he has written a number of books.  The title of this particular book, He Will Be the Preacher, comes from something that the wife of the pastor who married Erwin Lutzer’s parents said about Erwin when Erwin was a baby: “Er wird der Prediger sein.”

This book is somewhat of an autobiography.  Lutzer talks about his parents’ backgrounds, aspects of his childhood, his time in college and seminary, how he met his wife, his role as pastor at the Moody Church and his challenges there, his children, how he became an author, the times that he interacted with his hero Billy Graham, and the time that he visited Wittenberg in German, where Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses.  The last chapter of the book contains reflections on preaching: the call of preaching, and how to be effective at it.

I was hesitant to read this book, at first, probably because I wondered if Lutzer was famous enough to write an autobiography.  There are plenty of people who have written books, preached in churches, and been on the radio, but they have not written a book about themselves!  But I was in the mood for a spiritual autobiography, and I had read some of Lutzer’s other books.  He struck me as a lucid, inviting, and thoughtful writer, so I decided to read He Will Be the Preacher.

The book was good, overall.  Lutzer told personal stories, while interspersing them with spiritual reflections and discussions.  He saw spiritual significance in many of the stories that he told, and that does give the book substance.  Lutzer also shared about how his personal time with God has evolved over the years and his witnessing to others.  Occasionally, Lutzer interacted with thorny, difficult questions regarding divine providence or the Christian faith.  He talks about how he feels that God did not want him to marry a particular woman and put roadblocks in his path to prevent that, but then he wonders why God allows other people to enter into bad marriages.  His personal story about how he asked Christ into his heart and did not feel any differently soon after that is also noteworthy.

The book seemed rather sugary at times, since there were so many things in Lutzer’s life that fell into place, or good things that just fell into his lap.  The book perhaps could have been better had Lutzer talked more about attempts to overcome personal flaws: he said that he was shy as a youth, for example, and, as a shy person myself, I wonder how he became less shy.  The book also had some name-dropping, and it could be tedious, in places.

Still, to say that Lutzer presents himself as perfect would be a mistake, for Lutzer is candid about the differences he had with his wife and the errors he made as a parent.  He does come across as humble in this book.  Lutzer in this book also does not shy away from the trials or tribulations of life.

In addition, the book offers sensible advice about evangelism, parenting, and preaching.

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

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Pentecostal/Name-It-Claim-It Remnants?

The church that I attend is Baptist, and the pastor, of course, is Baptist.  Yet, he has a name-it-claim-it Pentecostal sort of background.  At times, he argues against that background.  In his sermon last Sunday, for example, he was saying that people can glorify God even when they’re sick.  In making that point, he may have been disputing a name-it-claim-it idea that God always wants to heal us when we are sick, but we need to muster up enough faith for God to do so.  There are times when the pastor is more explicit in his criticism of name-it-claim-it.

At times, though, the pastor seems to reflect his Pentecostal upbringing: it’s still a part of him, even though he is now a Baptist.  In his prayer before his sermon, he prays that God might use his sermon to minister to the person who is in danger of losing his soul.  Does that imply that a Christian can lose his or her salvation?  But the pastor does not believe that a Christian can lose his or her salvation.  He believes in once-saved-always-saved!  I listened to a sermon of his online in which he tried to reconcile once-saved-always-saved with Jesus’ statement in John 15 that unfruitful branches will be taken away, and that branches that remain not in Jesus are burned in the fire.  The pastor’s conclusions in that sermon were pretty disturbing (i.e., I understood him to be saying that God may prematurely kill unfruitful Christians in this life because they are not making a difference for God on earth, even though they are still saved and will go to heaven after death).  But the effort that the pastor took to reconcile John 15 with once-saved-always-saved shows that he takes once-saved-always-saved seriously!  My understanding is that many Pentecostals, by contrast, believe that Christians can lose their salvation (their soul), through persistent backsliding, for instance.

Is the pastor talking about non-believers losing their soul, not believers losing their salvation?  But non-believers are already lost when it comes to their souls, aren’t they, according to his religion?  They cannot lose something that is already lost!  Or maybe I am being too literal.  Jesus in Mark 8:36 and Matthew 16:26 says that it does not profit a person to gain the whole world, yet to lose his own soul.  Jesus was not only talking to believers there, I don’t think, but he was saying that those who do not follow him are forfeiting their souls.  They have a choice: to follow Jesus and to find their souls, or to reject Jesus and to lose their souls.  They have the potential to find their souls, so being lost is not inevitable; if they choose poorly, however, they will lose their souls.

Before the sermon, we recite “This is my Bible.  I am what it says that I am.  I can claim what it says I can claim.”  And the recitation goes on.  Those who watch Joel Osteen or have seen sermons by his father, John Osteen, will recognize that recitation.  The Osteens are often associated with the Word of Faith movement, which is similar to name-it-claim it.

The pastor is often critical of the prosperity Gospel.  In the sermon last week, he was saying that being promoted for a job is not God’s will for us, if that job will take us away from God: from church, from small group, from reading the Bible, etc.  And yet, the pastor seems to believe that God can and does bless people in their businesses.  But, come to think of it, that is not necessarily a distinguishing mark of Pentecostalism, for much of North American Christianity, maybe even world Christianity, believes along those lines.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Book Write-Up: Vos' Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 1, Theology Proper

Geerhardus Vos.  Reformed Dogmatics, Volume One: Theology Proper.  Translated and edited by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr, with Kim Batteau, Annemie Godbehere, and Roelof von Ijken.  Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012-2014.  See here to purchase the book.

Geerhardus Vos lived from 1862-1849.  According to the back flap of this book’s cover, Vos was a “Dutch American theologian.”  He “is considered by many to be the father of modern Reformed biblical theology,” and he “held Princeton’s new Chair of Biblical Theology from 1893 until his retirement in 1932.”  Plus, his “thinking and scholarship deeply influenced the biblical and theological work of Cornelius Van Til, John Murray, Herman Ridderbos, and Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.”

Volume 1 of Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics concerns “Theology Proper.”  The book’s format is one in which Vos responds to questions.  Some of the answers are brief, and some contain lengthy paragraphs.

Chapter 1 is the briefest chapter in the book, and it concerns God’s knowability.  Vos disputes a pantheistic view that God is unknowable, maintaining instead that we can know God from God’s revelation to us, even if that knowledge is not comprehensive.  Chapter 2 is entitled “Names, Being, and Attributes of God.”  In this chapter, Vos discusses God’s incommunicable and communicable attributes.  Among the attributes that Vos discusses are God’s infinity, immutability, simplicity, eternity, love, righteousness, freedom, holiness, and wrath.  Vos also addresses the reasons for God’s punishment: are they punitive, or educative?  Chapter 3 is about the Trinity.  Vos depicts the Son as dependent on the Father for his existence, and the Holy Spirit as dependent on the Father and the Son.  Yet, Vos still maintains that the Son and the Spirit are eternal and possess the same divine substance as the Father.  Vos holds that there is still subordinationism within the Trinity, however, as the Son is subordinate to the Father in terms of work and function, and the Spirit is functionally subordinate to the Father and the Son.

Chapter 4 is about “God’s Decrees in General.”  In this chapter, Vos elaborates on sentiments that he has expressed elsewhere in the book.  Vos rejects the notion that anything can occur outside of God’s decree, as if such a notion compromises God’s sovereignty and posits a “second deity” (page 83).  Vos then has to wrestle with the question of whether God decreed evil, and is thus the author of evil, a question that he continually revisits throughout the book.  Vos believes that God decreed evil for God’s wise purposes but is not its author, and he calls God’s decree of evil a “permissive decree.”  Vos also maintains that God is free: God did not have to decree things as God did and could have decreed them differently.  At the same time, Vos denies that God is arbitrary in God’s decree, for God is righteous, ethical, wise, and rational.  Chapter 5 concerns “The Doctrine of Predestination.”  Vos in this chapter addresses whether divine foreknowledge in Scripture means that God merely foresees who will be saved rather than predestining the saved individuals.  Vos also goes through Romans 9 and pieces of Romans 11, addresses whether Ephesians 1:10 and Colossians 1:20 present the salvation of angels, and discusses the differences between supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism.

Chapter 6 is about “Creation.”  Vos in this chapter addresses details about Genesis 1, disputes the idea that the creation is an eternal emanation from God, and discusses the role of each person of the Trinity in creation.  Chapter 7 is entitled “Providence.”  Here, Vos appears to argue from Scripture that God is intricately involved in the sustenance and functioning of every detail of creation, and yet that God respects secondary causes and the natural powers that God has given to the aspects of creation.  Vos realizes that he is walking a fine line between deism and pantheism: Vos does not believe that God wound up the natural clock and walked away to let the clock work on its own, but neither does Vos want to make God’s involvement in nature so overbearing that natural laws are irrelevant, non-existent, or unnecessary.

This book has many positives.  First of all, while many might expect a Reformed Dogmatics to be predictable, this book was not.  The prose was not too difficult, and yet I had to follow Vos’ reasoning very closely, as I took notes in the margin.  I could not simply take for granted that Vos would argue according to my stereotype of what Reformed people believe.  To cite some examples, Vos wrestles at length with the part of Romans 9 about God forming some lumps of clay for honor and other parts for dishonor, and Vos even goes so far as to say that the analogy itself has limits.  While Vos does say at one point that God owes nobody salvation, a point that Reformed people often make, Vos still wants to see God as ethical rather than cruel and arbitrary; Vos, in fact, critiques certain views (i.e., pantheism, suffering being educative) on the ground that they make God look cruel, promote pessimism rather than optimism (in the case of pantheism), or disregard the value of human beings by treating them as means to an end (as treating people’s punishments as educative for other people arguably does).  (NOTE: This is not to imply that I think Reformed people view God as cruel or arbitrary.)  Moreover, Vos defined supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism in ways that overlapped somewhat with my understanding of them, but also differed dramatically.

Second, Vos’ Scriptural interpretations were good, at least overall.  Vos argues that God’s foreknowledge of the elect is consistent with predestination and means that God looked on those whom God predestined to salvation with love, not that God merely foresaw that they would believe and be saved.  As Vos notes, I Peter 1:20 states that Christ was foreknown, and certainly God did more than merely foresee that Christ would come and die for people’s sins!  God actually planned it!  Vos’ Scriptural support for God being intricately involved in nature seemed to be sound.  Vos interacted with the question of whether the days of Genesis 1 were literal days, as Vos judiciously presented both sides of the issue and offered his own opinion.  Vos also addresses the question of whether God changed God’s mind when God told King Hezekiah that he would die soon, and Hezekiah then went on to live a while longer.  According to Vos, God did not change God’s mind but rather was highlighting that Hezekiah’s disease was deadly.  That is not entirely convincing, but it is a nice try!  One interpretation that was unconvincing was Vos’ discussion about whether the warning to Gentile Christians in Romans 11 that they could be broken off if they become too proud means that Christians can lose their salvation, which Reformed Christians deny is even possible.  Vos argues that Paul is talking about the Gentiles as a race or nation, not as saved individuals.  What does that mean, exactly?  That God will stop reaching out to non-Jews and including them in God’s church, if they become too proud?  That Christianity would revert back to being a Jewish movement?  Vos should have elaborated on his interpretation.

Third, Vos engages difficult questions.  How could Adam be good and yet sin, when it will be impossible for the perfected saints in the eschaton to sin?  If God is infinite, does that imply that all is God (pantheism), and that there is nothing distinct from God?  How can God be outside of time and yet create a world that exists within time?  In many cases, Vos says that the answer is a mystery!  That may sound like a cop-out, but Vos often extensively wrestles with the questions before he takes that route.

Fourth, Vos referred to other Christian thinkers.  He disagrees with Augustine’s view that God foreknew but did not decree evil.  He disagrees with Calvin’s apparent rejection of the eternal generation of the Son.  He rejects Jerome’s view that God would not degrade God’s majesty by being concerned about mosquitoes.  Vos also expresses agreement with historic Christian thinkers.  This aspect of the book was informative and educational, and it added more nuance to the book.

In terms of criticisms, there were places in which Vos could be rather elliptical.  Vos’ chapter on God’s attributes could have been clearer, and he should have defined the meaning of communicable and incommunicable.  Moreover, even after looking up those terms on the Internet, I still am unclear about how some of those attributes that Vos lists as incommunicable are incommunicable.  Vos asserts that God’s eternity is incommunicable—-which means (I think) that God alone possesses it and does not impart it to others.  But does not God impart eternal life to believers, which would make eternity communicable?  Or is God’s eternity incommunicable in the sense that it is inherent to God alone?  Here, my knowledge is incomplete.

There were times when Vos seemed rather contradictory.  He seemed open to saying that the “us” who create in Genesis 1 is a plural of majesty, then he disputed that shortly thereafter.  He contended that one can only know of creation ex nihilo from revelation, rather than from nature or reason, but later he appeared to be saying that one could deduce from nature that the Trinitarian God created the cosmos.

Vos supported many of his views with Scripture, but there were occasions when he did not.  While his model of the roles that each person of the Trinity played in creation appeared sensible and may be helpful, he did not offer Scriptural support for that.

In some cases, Vos was more sensitive to the diversity of Scripture than in other cases.  Vos astutely noted that God as Father means a lot of different things in the Bible, not just God’s Fatherhood in the Trinity.  Yet, Vos seemed to think that Jesus being the Son of God means the same thing throughout the New Testament: that it relates to Jesus being eternally begotten.  This, even though there are a variety of meanings of “son of God” in the Bible (i.e., the Davidic king as God’s son, etc.).  How can Vos be so sensitive to nuance in one area, and apparently oblivious to it in another?

Vos could have demonstrated more knowledge about evolution and the reasons scientists were accepting that view, as opposed to casually dismissing it.

Finally, Vos struck me as rather absolutist, in areas.  Does God have to decree every little thing to be sovereign?  Is there no middle ground here?

Overall, though, this is a thought-provoking book.

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

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Book Write-Up: What Does the Bible Say About Suffering?

Brian Han Gregg.  What Does the Bible Say About Suffering?  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

Brian Han Gregg has a Ph.D. from Notre Dame and teaches biblical studies at the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota.

In What Does the Bible Say About Suffering?, Gregg discusses the Bible as it addresses the issue of human suffering.  Often in the book, Gregg prefers to interact in an in-depth manner with specific biblical passages rather than covering the topic of suffering in the Bible in a comprehensive sense.  Among the topics with which Gregg interacts are: God’s reward of the righteous and punishment of the wicked in the Hebrew Bible; Cain’s choice to do evil in the Book of Genesis; God using evil for good, as in the biblical story of Joseph; suffering as an attack by Satan, which occurs in the Book of Job and is mentioned in the New Testament; suffering as a test or as a means to assist people in their spiritual growth; suffering as a way for Christ to make himself known to others through us, amidst our weakness and vulnerability; God’s comfort of believers amidst their suffering, and their comfort of others; and Christ’s suffering acts of sacrificial service, which believers are to follow.  Gregg believes that all of these biblical interactions with suffering should be considered, and that to focus on one alone to the exclusion of the others disrupts the symphony that the Bible conveys.

Here are some thoughts about the book:

A.  Chapter 2 was excellent.  This chapter was about God rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked.  Gregg astutely notes that this is a significant theme in the Hebrew Bible, but that the New Testament shifts reward and punishment more to the afterlife, or to the eschaton.  Gregg also effectively addresses a question: How can we tell if our suffering is God punishing us for our sins?  Gregg responds that God does not send us on a wild goose chase to identify some sin for which God is punishing us, but that God often tells people explicitly when God is punishing them for a sin.  This chapter was sensitive to problems and potential objections, and it was biblical.

B.  Chapter 2 was the strongest chapter in the book, and the chapter after that was all right.  In Chapter 3, Gregg shows how God reached out to Cain in love even after rejecting Cain’s sacrifice, and he briefly addresses thorny topics surrounding human free will (i.e., mental health issues).

C.  It was at the end of Chapter 5 that I began to be disappointed with the book.  Chapter 5 had good points: for example, Gregg argues that Satan in the Book of Job appears rather sinister, perhaps to argue against biblical scholars who regard Satan in the Book of Job merely as God’s prosecuting attorney.  Near the end of the book, Gregg was astutely discussing the weaknesses that can accompany blaming Satan for our suffering.  Then, Gregg was about to address a question: How can we tell if our suffering is from Satan?  I was expecting for Gregg to knock this question out of the park, as he did with the question in Chapter 2.  But he did not; my impression is that he felt that he could not, and that we really cannot make that determination, apart from God’s guidance.

D.  In the final chapter of the book, Gregg attempts to address the larger question of whether believers can identify the reason for their suffering.  Is it a test?  Is it punishment?  On page 164, he says, “There is no formula for discernment, but God has promised to lead his children through the valley.”  Gregg says that Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and insight from others can assist one in discernment.  There may be some wisdom to this, but it is not iron-clad.  The appeal to Scripture leaves us exactly where we started: Scripture has all these rationales for suffering, and believers want to know which rationale fits their situation.  Regarding the Holy Spirit, there are Christians who claim some pretty wacky things that they attribute to the Holy Spirit!  And insight from others can be helpful, but not necessarily: Gregg is aware of how unhelpfully Job’s friends advised Job!  My hope was that more of the book would be like Chapter 2, but it was not exactly.  Granted, no formula or criterion for religiously accounting for suffering is perfect, but the book would have been better had Gregg offered more guidelines.

E.  People who have already read a lot about theodicy or religious explanations of suffering may not find much that is new in Gregg’s book.  Gregg did well, though, to share stories about suffering, including his own.  And there were areas in which the book was edifying: when he talked about how his wife as a hospital chaplain “bore witness” to people’s pain (page 157), and how quadraplegic Joni Earickson Tada felt a deep need for Christ after her accident, a need that she did not feel before.

F.  Not long ago, I read the book Between Pain and Grace, by Gerald Peterman and Andrew Schmutzer, and something that I liked about that book was that it taught me things I did not know about the thought of Augustine and John Calvin.  Gregg’s book would have been better had it done something like that: peppered his insights with references to theologians.

G.  Gregg often felt a need to stress that God does not cause certain forms of suffering, but that God can use suffering for our benefit, or can bring good out of suffering.  Occasionally, Gregg’s insight was supportable by Scripture: for instance, God in the wilderness did not directly cause the Israelites’ harsh surroundings, but he used those surroundings for their spiritual benefit.  Often, though, Gregg did not really support this insight with Scripture.  The insight is understandable, for God would look horrible if he were to be deemed the cause of certain forms of suffering.  And yet, Gregg should have wrestled with Scriptures such as Exodus 4:11, which seems to say that God makes people deaf, mute, and blind.  Randy Alcorn, in his lengthy tome If God Is Good, actually interacts with this verse.

H.  Chapter 12 was all right: it talks about service, and how Jesus tried to “redirect” his disciples’ “ambition” for greatness rather than suppressing it (page 148).  That may qualify the biblical passages that exhort people to deny themselves, and it presents Jesus as one who realistically recognizes and acknowledges human egoism.  At the same time, on page 146, Gregg states that those who “looked not to [their] own interests but to the interests of others” “will partake of the glory of the resurrected Christ.”  Does that imply salvation by works?  Gregg most likely believes in salvation by grace, which means that people cannot earn their salvation.  Still, he should have addressed the question of how what he says on page 146 would relate to salvation by grace.

I.  In Chapter 13, Gregg wrestles with the enigmatic statement in Colossians 1:24 that Paul is completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.  Gregg could have been more direct in saying what exactly was lacking in Christ’s afflictions.  Gregg does say that Paul can “bear [suffering] in the flesh in a way that the risen Jesus no longer can” (page 156), and Gregg does say beautiful things in his interpretation of that verse.  But, overall, I am still unclear about what Gregg thinks that Colossians 1:24 means.

J.  Gregg uses the word “symphony” more than once in this book.  After reading this book, how the Bible addresses suffering does not strike me as a harmonious symphony.  Rather, the Bible says different things about suffering, and people can take those different things in helpful and unhelpful directions, as Gregg shows.  I would not necessarily go to the other extreme and embrace Bart Ehrman’s view that the Bible is contradictory and discordant.  Still, after reading Gregg, I do wonder how many of these biblical ideas on suffering can fit together.  Something else to add: Gregg himself may not have been using the word “symphony” to imply harmony, as much as to argue that we should take everything in the Bible under consideration, as opposed to focusing on only one thing in the Bible.

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

Another Phyllis Schlafly Recollection

After I wrote and published my blog post about the late Phyllis Schlafly a few days ago, I recalled two other interactions that I had about her.  These interactions converged around a particular issue: the U.S. Patriot Act.

It was my third year at Harvard Divinity School.  The school year started with the horrible events of September 11, 2001.  The Patriot Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 26, 2001.  And I learned that Phyllis Schlafly and the American Civil Liberties Union—-two organizations that rarely agreed on anything—-were united in their opposition to the Patriot Act, fearing that it would threaten the civil liberties of American citizens.

That made sense to me, as a conservative, since such a position was consistent with conservatism’s suspicion of government.  Shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing, during the Presidency of Bill Clinton, a number of conservatives were concerned about the anti-terrorism legislation that was being proposed, fearing that it would be a pretext for the government to threaten people’s civil liberties.  Would not such a position coincide with opposition to the Patriot Act?  And yet, there were many conservatives who supported the Patriot Act, since they believed that 9/11 changed everything, and they thought that the Patriot Act was necessary for national security.

I was eating dinner at a restaurant in Cambridge, and I was talking with an elderly lady.  Somehow, we got on the topic of politics.  I told her that I was a conservative Republican.  When I told her that I had problems with the Patriot Act, she said, “You’re not really a conservative.”  Then I told her that Phyllis Schlafly was against the Patriot Act, too.  The elderly lady had a look of disgust on her face, which was not surprising, considering that Cambridge was a liberal Democratic area, and most of the people there who knew who Phyllis Schlafly was probably had a negative opinion of her.  Still, the lady seemed pleasantly surprised that Phyllis Schlafly was against the Patriot Act: it’s as if the lady was thinking that even a broken clock can be right twice a day!

As the years went by, I came to embrace the Patriot Act.  I figured that it would protect the United States, and I considered it to be a success on the part of President George W. Bush, in terms of keeping the country safe.  President George W. Bush was a polarizing figure at the time, and I wanted to side with him rather than his liberal critics.  I tended to swallow his agenda whole, as a result.

What was ironic was that, one night during Bush’s second term, I was watching Phyllis Schlafly on C-Span, when the telephone rang.  It was someone from the left-wing!  He was asking me to oppose George W. Bush’s wiretapping program, and I was telling him off.  I was saying that we need to keep the country safe.  He was responding that the best way to oppose terrorism was to stand by the U.S. Constitution.  The conversation became friendlier near the end.  I told him that I was a lost cause, that I was right-wing, and that I was watching Phyllis Schlafly when he called.  He obviously did not approve of her, but we ended the conversation cordially.  After I hung up the phone, it dawned on me: on the particular issue that we were debating, Phyllis Schlafly would probably agree with the person rather than me!

I decided to Google “Phyllis Schlafly Patriot Act” tonight, just to see if there was evidence that she opposed the Patriot Act.

In this September 18, 2002 column, she stated: “The Administration demanded and Congress passed without reading, the USA PATRIOT Act. Its principal operative section expands the power of the federal government for surveillance of Americans without proper search warrants, as required by the Fourth Amendment.”  Progressives will undoubtedly be appalled by other things that she says in that column, but they can find common ground with her on that statement.

In this June 14, 2005 Washington Times article, we read that Phyllis Schlafly opposed renewal of the Patriot Act.  This was 2005, which was well into George W. Bush’s Presidency.  Even after a polarizing 2004 election that pitted left against right, Phyllis Schlafly criticized a salient aspect of President George W. Bush’s agenda.

Whether the Patriot Act was a good idea or not, I do not know.  There is a part of me that believes that wiretapping may be necessary for national security, and that those who are innocent need not fear their phone calls being overheard.  (Michael Moore would disagree!)  Still, I have to respect conservatives who go against other conservatives by questioning the national security state.  They follow their heart and stand for what they think is right, rather than being caught up in fear and hysteria.  On the Patriot Act, at least, Phyllis Schlafly was  such a conservative.

UPDATE: In this April 8, 2003 interview, Phyllis Schlafly said the following about the Patriot Act: "I think there are problems with it, but nobody really knows how it’s playing out. I do think the government should go after these potential terrorists. There are 70,000 people--aliens who have been ordered deported who the government can’t find--I think they ought to go out and find them. But again, the real problem is at the border. Unless the government takes steps to keep out people who hate us, we’re in real trouble. Under the Ted Kennedy visa lottery, 50,000 people from nonwestern countries are let into this country every year. This includes all the countries that sponsor terrorism."

Friday, September 9, 2016

Lots of Time Before the Wiping Away of Tears

At church last Sunday, the pastor offered an interesting interpretation of the Book of Revelation.

The pastor’s text actually was not from the Book of Revelation, but it was from the Epistle to James.  James 5:9 warns the recipients of the letter not to grumble against each other or they will be judged.  The text then says that the Judge stands at the door.

That led the pastor to talk about the judgment of believers.  Will God judge believers?  Does not John 5:24 say that whoever believes Jesus’ word will not be judged but has eternal life, having passed from death into life?

The pastor acknowledged that, yes, faith alone is required for salvation.  Believers will not experience the Great White Throne Judgment of Revelation 20:11-15, when God will judge the dead of the second resurrection according to their works and will throw them into the Lake of Fire if their names are not found in the Book of Life.  For the pastor, whether believers will go to heaven or hell is not in question: they believe, so they have eternal life, period.  And they can be certain right now that they have eternal life: they fulfill the requirement of belief, and they have eternal life.  There is no “might” or “maybe” about it.

Still, the pastor said that believers will experience some form of judgment.  This judgment will not be to determine whether they go to heaven or to hell, for that has already been settled: they have eternal life, since they believe.  Rather, the judgment of believers will be to determine what kind of reward they will receive.  The pastor referred to II Corinthians 5:10, which states: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad” (KJV).

This sort of message is not new to me.  It was not exactly the Christianity with which I grew up, but I have encountered this idea quite a bit.  This church that I have been attending for some time is Baptist, and many Baptist churches convey this kind of message.

What was new to me was when the pastor got into Revelation 21:4.  Revelation 21:4 states: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (KJV).

The pastor said that a lot of time passes in the Book of Revelation before we get to Revelation 21:4.  And his point here is understandable.  Revelation 21:4 talks about what will happen in the new heavens and the new earth.  The new heavens and the new earth take place over a thousand years after Christ returns to earth (assuming one takes the millennium in Revelation 20 in a futuristic, literal sense, which not all Christians do).  So we have a thousand years after Christ returns when God will finally wipe all tears from people’s eyes.

The pastor was saying that his impression is that a lot of believers will be crying, for a long time, before God finally wipes tears from their eyes.  Why would they be crying?  For the pastor, it will be because so many of them failed to use their spiritual gifts and to serve God in this life, and God will be expressing disapproval of them for that and will deprive them of certain rewards at the judgment of believers.  God will let them into heaven, since they believe, but God’s attitude towards them at the judgment of believers will be a frustrated “Oh all right, come on it.”

My guess, and I could be wrong on this, is that the pastor believes in the pretribulational rapture, which would mean that believers would go to heaven and be judged prior to the Great Tribulation, the second coming of Christ, and Christ’s millennial reign on earth.  That will be a lot of time for them to weep!

The pastor goes into this spiel about using spiritual gifts quite a bit.  The reason that his interpretation of Revelation stood out to me is that I have struggled, somewhat, with Revelation 21:4.  Some people interpret that to mean that God will erase people’s memory in the new heavens and the new earth.  I have wondered how that could be.  It makes sense to me that there would be some connection between the next life and this life, otherwise why are we here, building character for the next life?  What would be the point of that if we would forget this life, anyway?  But suppose that a lot of time passed between believers’ resurrection and the time that God will wipe tears from their eyes?  What would make a little more sense.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Book Write-Up: Outlaw Christian

Jacqueline A. Bussie.  Outlaw Christian: Finding Authentic Faith by Breaking the “Rules.”  Nashville: Nelson Books, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

Jacqueline A. Bussie teaches theology and religion at Concordia College.  In Outlaw Christian: Finding Authentic Faith by Breaking the “Rules,” Bussie challenges what she believes are myths: about God, suffering, and whether people can make a positive difference in the world.  Instead of embracing these myths, she advocates being an “Outlaw Christian.”

What is an “Outlaw Christian”?  Bussie is dissatisfied with a lot of the pat answers that Christians have given to the problem of evil, the question of why a good God allows evil and suffering.  She supports being honest with God and other people about pain.  The lament Psalms, the Book of Job, and Jesus’ cry of abandonment from the cross are cited as biblical justifications for her position.

Bussie also challenges the myth that people cannot successfully fight injustice or make a positive difference, as she refers readers to books that tell a different story, while sharing with readers what those books are about.  And, while Bussie struggles with thanking God for her food, when there are so many people in the world who are starving, she still advocates an attitude of appreciating the good things in life, and even seeing those things as gifts from God.

Here are some thoughts about the book:

A.  Bussie’s stories made the book effective.  She talks about how Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel had a negative image of God yet remained an observant Jew.  She relayed a Buddhist tale about a woman who lost someone and learned that her suffering was not unique, for everyone else had lost someone, too.  She shared about a horrible experience that her husband had, and his attempts to move past that.  And, since she is a teacher, she told stories about her teaching experiences: the insights that she gained from her students and imparted to them.  The book was honest, thoughtful, and eloquent.

B.  The book may appeal to people who, like me, get a little irritated when people spit out the theologically correct answer and high-five each other or pat themselves on the back after doing so.  In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with embracing these answers, as long as there is sensitivity to the fact that not everyone finds them convincing or helpful.

C.  A possible disadvantage to the book is that Bussie does not really offer a robust explanation as to why God permits suffering.  She does not wrestle with the Scriptural passages that offer an explanation for some forms of suffering: that God rewards and punishes, that God disciplines Christians to improve their character, or that suffering is part of God’s plan.  Bussie appears rather skeptical of those explanations, as they have been offered by Christians, but she never wrestles with biblical authors’ endorsement of them (at least not in this book).

D.  When Bussie does attempt to reconcile God’s existence with the reality of suffering, she says things that may be controversial.  Bussie seems to compare God with a parent who unintentionally hurt his or her child.  Elsewhere, Bussie says that our prayers to God can actually teach God something.  The book could have been better had it tried to develop these thoughts, or referred to theologians with similar ideas.

E.  At the same time, there is a part of me that can understand why Bussie may have chosen to take the route that she did.  Bussie is dissatisfied with a lot of the religious solutions that have been offered for the problem of evil, for she does not believe that those are good enough reasons for God to permit evil, considering how horrible evil is.  And, even though she offers some speculation of her own, she herself cannot find a solution that satisfies her.  Instead of trying to find an answer to the problem of evil, therefore, she does something else.  She acknowledges that evil exists and that the religious solutions that people have offered to explain its existence fall short.  She appears to embrace that she does not know why evil exists, and she turns her attention to the question of where people should go from there.

F.  I recently read another book on suffering and criticized it because, while it discussed the importance of lament, it failed to offer ways to incorporate lament into worship services.  Bussie actually did this, on some level, when she raised the possibility of using lament Psalms in worship services.  That is a good idea.  Worship services should not consist solely of lament, for they should also include rejoicing.  But there are plenty of Scriptures that express lament, and they should be incorporated into worship services as examples of the experiences that people have had in their relationship with God.

G.  Bussie stressed the importance of community.  For Bussie, community can be a place where people give and receive comfort, and community can be a force for societal improvement.  At the same time, she acknowledged that there is a dearth of community in the United States, especially in comparison with the Third World.  Bussie should have rigorously and specifically addressed the question of how community can be fostered in the United States, considering the importance that she places upon it.  She does mention insights that may intersect with that: how one can sit with someone in pain, for example.  Still, due to the dearth of community, many people may be unaware that someone is in pain.

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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