Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Book Write-Up: 90 Days in John 14-17, Romans, James, by Timothy Keller and Sam Allberry

Timothy Keller and Sam Allberry.  90 Days in John 14-17, Romans, James.  The Good Book Company, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Timothy Keller and Sam Allberry are pastors.  As the title indicates, this book goes through John 14-17, Romans, and James.

An advantage to this book is that it clarifies biblical passages.  For example, Romans 14 discusses how stronger Christians who eat meat are to respect the scruples of the weaker Christians who do not eat meat.  Paul in v 15 exhorts the stronger Christians not to destroy the weaker Christians for the sake of meat.  How can eating meat around weaker Christians destroy them?  According to Keller and Allberry, if the weaker Christians violate their conscience and eat meat just to fit in, then they are placing themselves on the slippery slope of disregarding their conscience.  That is a helpful way to make sense of the passage.

The interpretation of James 1:5-8 was also helpful, at least in its main point.  James 1:5-8 says that people who ask God for wisdom will receive it, unless they waver or are double-minded.  Keller and Allberry state that the passage does NOT mean that “If you have ever questioned or struggled or wrestled, don’t expect God to give you anything.”  Rather, they think it means that “If you come to God hedging your bets—-asking for help while also looking elsewhere for help—-then don’t expect to find help from the Lord.”  This is unclear: are Keller and Allberry saying that a person should just ask God for help, wait, and do nothing else practically to solve their problems?  Their main point, though, is that a person should be sincere in asking God for wisdom: a person should not just be hedging his or her bets, merely sampling God.  That makes sense.

The book also wrestles with the question of whether James 1:14-15 means that every sick Christian will be healed after being anointed with oil.  Overall, this is an edifying book, which addressed thought-provoking issues.

The book was not exactly academic, though.  It largely focused on the text of Scripture and Scripture application instead of quoting secondary sources or renowned Christian thinkers.  That is all right, but readers should keep in mind that there are more interpretations out there.  For instance, Paul in Romans 2:21 is discussing the hypocrisy of certain Jews, and he asks them if they claim to abhor idolatry, while robbing temples.  Keller and Allberry state that “there is no record of Jews taking idol-statues from pagan temples,” so they interpret Paul as figurative in this verse: “They may ‘abhor idols’ outwardly, but if inwardly they find meaning in power, comfort, possessions, sex etc., then they are idolaters.”

The thing is, there is a legitimate way to interpret that passage that is literal.  Lloyd Gaston, on page 231 of Paul and the Torah, offers his view of what Paul may have had in mind in Romans 2:21:

“[Josephus] uses the hierosyl- root to refer to robbery from the temple contributions of Jews from Asia in Ant. 16.45, 164, 168; to describe robbery from the Jerusalem temple itself in JW 1.654 (=Ant. 17.163), 5.562, and Ant. 12.359; and in referring to Manetho’s accusation that Jews robbed Egyptian temples before the Exodus (AgAp 1.249, 318f).”

There is a possibility that Gaston, Keller, and Allberry are all correct: the Jews who robbed from the Jerusalem temple were idolaters in the sense that they valued money over God’s commandment not to steal.  Still, the treatment of Romans 2:21 by Keller and Allberry highlights that, overall, this book is more of a homiletic commentary than a historical commentary.  Some may like this.  Personally, I think the book would have been richer had it been a mixture of both.

The book contains a tension that is characteristic of many Reformed books, and even Christian books that address grace and assurance of salvation.  On the one hand, Keller and Allberry stress that salvation is a gift of grace: we do not have to scale a mountain to receive it; we are accepted by God when we have faith in what God has done; and we cannot trust our own efforts to keep God’s standards to earn salvation, since we fall short.  On the other hand, Keller and Allberry say that obedience to God is a sign that we have genuinely been saved and that not all who profess to be Christians are actual Christians.  I think that the two ideas run contrary to each other, at least in terms of the psychological effect that they can have on the believer.  The first idea is comforting, the second, not so much.  The tension is understandable, though, considering the different biblical texts with which Keller and Allberry are interacting, and the co-existing themes of grace and practical righteousness within the Bible.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Cross Focused Reviews.  My review is honest!

Monday, January 30, 2017

Not Exactly a "Prosperity Gospel" Church

I visited another church last Sunday.  I got up early, and I figured that I might as well attend the church’s early service, since I had a lot to do that day and I wanted to free up more time in the afternoon.

I have visited this church before.  Usually on this blog, I have called it the “Word of Faith church.”  That is not its official title, but the reason that I have called it that is that I have heard Word of Faith or prosperity-like teaching from its pulpit.  A guest preacher there actually referred positively to Kenneth Hagin as he talked about the power of words, so I placed the church in the “Word of Faith” box.

After visiting the church last Sunday, though, I question my assessment that the church preaches the prosperity Gospel.  I heard the opposite, actually.  The pastor was saying that our lives become a testimony when we are moving upstream.  He said in his opening prayer that God has redeemed us from a world of always wanting our own way and having our own god.  He criticized those whose primary goal is a prosperous retirement, where they relax and play golf; as far as he is concerned, our vision for life should be so much larger than that.  He stressed eternal riches.  Preaching through the Book of Joshua, he noted the repeated statement that the Levites will not get land because God is their inheritance, and he said that the reason this statement was continually repeated was that God was reminding the Israelites that, ultimately, God was their inheritance, too, not just the inheritance of the Levites.  Preaching about the story of Dan’s idolatry in Judges 18, the pastor said that idolatry competes for our devotion, and he mentioned aspects of a comfortable middle-class lifestyle as examples of that.

The pastor’s daughter went up to speak near the end of the service, and she was saying that it is difficult for her to tithe.  Her family tithes, and she compares their financial situation with that of her friends from work, who do not tithe.  Her friends have such luxuries as boats and big campers.  She believes, however, that tithing is importance because it allows her to be part of what God is doing.  Her testimony differed from the prosperity narrative of “I tithed, and God provided me with more money!”

On what exactly they believe that God is doing, they were not overly specific.  The pastor said, though, that our life should include working with other people in God’s work.  Another speaker mentioned people associated with the church who were assisting Syrian refugees.  I needed to be reminded of that basic Christian truth: to provide for people who are in desperate need.  I am not endorsing a specific political stance in this post on President Trump’s policy regarding the Syrian refugees, but it is easy for me to become so preoccupied with political debates and the political figures I like and dislike, that I can forget or compromise basic Christianity.

I am not saying that prosperity preachers cannot assert the sorts of sentiments that I heard at church yesterday.  But they do focus a lot on God prospering people materially, or God helping people to actualize their dreams and hopes.  The focus was different at the church that I attended yesterday.

NOTE: I’m shutting down comments for this post because I don’t want comments on the Trump policy.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Book Write-Up: Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature, by Richard A. Taylor

Richard A. Taylor.  Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature: An Exegetical Handbook.  Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

Richard A. Taylor teaches Old Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary.

Apocalyptic literature can include such features as visions, a human taking a trip to heaven, revelation from an angel, predictions of eschatological salvation and the defeat of evil, the usage of symbols (i.e., beasts), and past or current events written as if they were foretold long ago as prophecies.  Apocalypses often seek to reassure suffering people that God will intervene, defeat evil, and vindicate the righteous.  According to Taylor, apocalyptic literature “contains a significant proportion of those features that define an apocalypse, whether or not the writing in question fully qualifies as an apocalypse” (page 202).   Examples of apocalyptic literature are I Enoch, the biblical Book of Daniel, and the Book of Revelation.

The advantages of Taylor’s book are many.  Taylor’s book can provide an introduction to apocalyptic literature, as it discusses its features, summarizes apocalyptic books, and interacts with specific passages from the literature itself.  Taylor also refers to secondary literature, translations, and language guides (i.e., to Hebrew and Aramaic), explaining what those resources are and, in some cases, their reception within scholarship (i.e., is the resource considered out of date?).  This can assist those who want to go deeper and explore apocalyptic literature further.  At the same time, Taylor’s book itself has depth, in areas, as Taylor summarizes and evaluates scholarly debates about such topics as the definition, milieu, and origin of apocalyptic literature.  His Appendix, “Antecedents of Apocalyptic Literature,” is especially noteworthy, as Taylor identifies, explains, and evaluates scholarly ideas about the sources for apocalyptic literature, which includes the following proposals: Canaanite mythology, Akkadian prophecy, Mesopotamian traditions, Egyptian apocalypticism, wisdom literature, different theological views about the Temple (i.e., should it be rebuilt, or will God provide a new Temple from heaven?), Hellenistic syncretism, Persian religion, opposition to imperial authority, and prophetic literature.  Many believe that Jewish apocalypticism resulted from Persian influence, but Taylor explains the limitations of that view.  Also, Taylor provides a helpful glossary at the end of the book.

In terms of critiques, I have a few.  Taylor spent a lot of space defining and illustrating grammatical concepts such as metaphor and simile, and I questioned how necessary that was to understanding apocalyptic literature.  Taylor had a chapter on preaching about apocalyptic texts, but he seemed to avoid theological questions that might trouble conservative Christians.  Does apocalyptic literature contain wishful thinking and unfulfilled prophecy, a hope for an eschatological salvation that would soon materialize but actually did not?  Does that show that biblical apocalyptic literature is the work of human beings rather than divine revelation?  Is apocalyptic literature a pious fraud, since it is attributed to people who lived a long time ago but did not actually write it?  Such questions are not only relevant to whether one should see biblical apocalyptic literature as sacred or as divinely-inspired, but they also raise interesting questions about apocalyptic literature itself: Did, for example, the authors of apocalyptic literature believe what they were writing, as they wrote history as prophecy and attributed their writing to a figure of the past, or were they writing the document as a pious fraud that would give people some hope, or influence them to behave in a certain way?  The book would have been better had Taylor explored such issues.

In addition, while Taylor briefly mentioned the difference of opinion between Paul Hanson and Stephen Cook, Taylor should have explored that territory further.  Instead, Taylor often assumed that apocalyptic literature came from marginalized and suffering communities, whereas Cook presented a case that it could come from establishment circles.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest!

Friday, January 27, 2017

Book Write-Up: Bible Studies on Mark, by William Boekestein

William Boekestein.  Bible Studies on Mark.  Reformed Fellowship, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

William Boekestein pastors the Immanuel Fellowship Church, which is located in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  His book, Bible Studies on Mark, goes through the Gospel of Mark, reflecting on stories and sayings of Jesus that are presented in that Gospel.

Here are some thoughts:

A.  Boekestein says that he will focus primarily on the Gospel of Mark, rather than what other Gospels present.  Occasionally, he does quote other Gospels, and he seems to have a rather harmonizing approach to the text, treating all of the Gospels as consistent and as containing the same Christian message.  Boekestein interprets the Gospel of Mark in reference to his larger Christian theology, which includes seeing the Kingdom of God as a spiritual kingdom and Jesus being God incarnate.  There are biblical scholars who argue that such themes are foreign to the Gospel of Mark.  Boekestein does not usually highlight what is distinct to the Gospel of Mark itself, as the stories that he discusses are found in the other Gospels, as well.  Overall, though, Boekestein comments on the stories and sayings of Jesus as they appear in the Gospel of Mark.

B.  The book was a thoughtful and an engaging read.  I agree with Jason Van Vliet’s statement on the back cover of the book that “Boekestein dishes up a delicious and nutritious spiritual meal.”  A recurring point that I appreciated was that we should not idolize people’s approval.

C.  There were parts of the book that made me wince.  On pages 74-75, Boekestein states: “When churches really begin to imitate the apostles, they find themselves dealing with the occult, with drug addicts, pedophiles, homosexual offenders, pornographers, and the like (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9-11).”  Boekestein was saying this in the context of discussing the church’s war against spiritual darkness.  Perhaps he could have made this point without demonizing homosexuals, many of whom are good people coping with a sexual orientation that they did not ask for.  Moreover, in my opinion, Boekestein also should have highlighted sins that left-wingers condemn, such as greed, exploitation, and oppression.

The book also displays a Christian anti-Judaism stance (which is critical of the Jewish religion, not the Jewish people).  That made me wince, since there were Pharisees, such as Hillel, who said beautiful and spiritual things, and rabbinic literature has its share of edifying insights.  Perhaps Boekestein felt that he was being faithful to the ideology of the Gospel of Mark, and that could be, though there are interpreters who highlight the continuity between Jesus and Judaism in the Gospel of Mark.  The book would have been better had Boekestein acknowledged that Judaism taught good things while saying that there was corruption within its midst, as occurs in many religions.

On page 128, Boekestein states that “Thoughtful reflection on hell should rattle a believer out of sinful self-absorption.”  There was some fire-and-brimstone in this book, and I do not fault Boekestein for that, since there is fire-and-brimstone in the Gospel of Mark.  Boekestein’s focus in the book was not on fire-and-brimstone.  Still, I question whether thinking about hell is a psychologically healthy way to become less self-absorbed.  I can somewhat understand Boekestein’s point: that thinking about hell can get our minds off ourselves and our own glory and shake us out of self-absorption, but it can also lead to a lot of fear.  Plus, why do believers have to worry about hell, when Jesus has saved them?  Boekestein says that thinking about hell can encourage believers to witness to others, but he also seems to imply that believers, on some level, should have some fear of hell.

On page 135, Boekestein states: “Sadly, those who with an unbelieving heart do such ‘big-ticket’ activities as worshiping, tithing, witnessing or volunteering will still hear Christ say those dreadful words: ‘I never knew you’ (Matt. 7:23).”  Wouldn’t that lead to people second-guessing themselves when they try to do the right thing?  Is that really necessary?

D.  Boekestein writes from a Reformed perspective, which holds that God must spiritually resurrect people from spiritual death for them to believe.  At times, this allows Boekestein to take parts of the text seriously, such as Jesus’ statement in Mark 4:11-12 that he is telling parables to confuse unbelievers.  Boekestein explained that passage well.

E.  There were occasions when this book taught me something, in terms of information.  This was particularly the case on page 160.  On that page, Boekestein addresses the question of whether Jews were allowed to execute people in first century Palestine.  He says that they could and cites a secondary source.  Although there are scholars who assert the contrary, perhaps there were different rules at different times.  In any case, Boekestein provides a piece of the puzzle.  Also on page 160 is a quotation of Augustine, who says that Christians submitted to the pagan emperor Julian out of obedience to God.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Cross Focused Reviews.  My review is honest!

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Guest Post: Mesothelioma Doctors and Specialists, by Ashley Stafford

Ashley Stafford is a volunteer online blogger for treatmesothelioma.org.  She has a very special interest in helping Veterans as her father served in the Navy.  Along with donating her time to help our armed forces, she has an extreme curiosity in all types of rare diseases, especially cancer. One of her goals is to learn as much about cancer and the various treatments available in hopes raise more awareness on what may or may not be kept secret to the general public.

Mesothelioma Doctors and Specialists
In the unfortunate circumstance of being diagnosed with mesothelioma, the patient should absolutely consider an oncologist as well as a mesothelioma specialist (if they haven’t been referred already).  When it comes to treating mesothelioma, it is not uncommon for the treatment process to encompass a team of professionals with multiple doctors in order to come up with the best possible treatment plan. 

These medical professionals include but are not limited to several types of specialists whom are capable of specifically treating mesothelioma because their field of expertise overlaps between all of the mesothelioma treatment options available:

·         Thoracic Surgeons (chest surgeon)
·         Oncologists (cancer specialist)
·         Pulmonologists (lung specialist)
·         Chemotherapy and radiation specialists
·         General Surgeons
·         Physical therapists
·         Mesothelioma specialists 

Most leading mesothelioma specialists have their clinical degree in thoracic oncology (which concentrates on lung, mid-section, and esophageal malignancies). 

Mesothelioma doctors and specialists are also knowledgeable in modern clinical trials, medicines and surgeries.  With all of these options on the table, they will be able to tailor a treatment plan specifically for each particular case and patient.

Mesothelioma Cancer Is Diversely Young

Current medical understanding of malignant mesothelioma is still in its infancy. Specialists have recognized this and have stated that research still needs to be continued in the following areas:

·         DNA and molecular damage
·         Possible combination of asbestos and another cause
·         The speed and warning signs
·         Prognosis accuracy
·         Information about how the disease spreads
·         Better treatment options and control

Well Known Mesothelioma Specialists

As mentioned earlier, in most cases the best path for treatment is with a team of specialists that provide interdisciplinary care for mesothelioma patients. The best strategy for treating mesothelioma depends on the specific type, which is basically the specific organ in the body where it is developing.  That being said, below is a list of the top mesothelioma specialists in the country, organized by the type of mesothelioma they specialize in.


·         Dr. Bueno
Brigham and Women’s Hospital

·         Dr. Joseph S. Friedberg
Penn Presbyterian Medical Center

·         Dr. David Harpole, Jr.
Duke Cancer Institute

·         Dr. Raffit Hassan
Center for Cancer Research/National Cancer Institute

·         David Sugarbaker, M.D.
Lung Institute at Baylor College of Medicine

·         Dr. David M. Jablons
UCSF Medical Center at Mount Zion

·         Dr. Lary Robinson
H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute

·         W. Charles Conway, M.D.
Ochsner Cancer Institute


Other Great Surgeons With Experience in Treating Mesothelioma

·         Paul Sugarbaker, M.D.
Washington Cancer Institute

·         Prashant Shah, M.D.
Fox Chase Cancer Center

Questions To Ask Before Making Your Decision

You are putting your life in a doctor’s hands, so how do you decide which one is right for you? The following questions may help you make a better and a much more informed decision:

·         Does the doctor have experience in treating mesothelioma? How much experience? How many cases has he/she treated in the past year?
·         Does he/she have the education to be considered a specialist?
·         Are your concerns addressed?
·         Are you encouraged to ask questions?
·         Did the doctor listen with concern and respect?
·         Does the doctor actively participate in clinical research?

It might also be helpful to know if the doctor has experience in treating mesothelioma at every stage of the disease. The reason this could be important is because specific treatments are administered based on what stage of cancer you are in.

Ultimately, you will have to decide who will treat you. You should feel comfortable with the doctor you choose and believe they are equipped to handle your disease. You and your family should have a good working relationship with your doctor and always be involved in the treatment decisions.

Final Things To Consider
You also may want to consider:
·         Are you willing to travel? Some top cancer treat centers may be a great distance from you. Travelling while undergoing treatment can be stressful and time consuming. Find out what treatment center your doctor collaborates with.
·         Is there financial aid available or travel and lodging accommodations? Some organizations offer grants for mesothelioma patients to travel to a top treatment center as there are a limited number of specialists available to treat mesothelioma. One such organization is the Meso Foundation.

Making sure you get the best care takes a little effort, but with the right team of doctors, your prognosis could improve significantly.

Scattered Ramblings on Time Out, Unity, Preservation, and Marriage

I went to church last Sunday.  The church had been closed for two weeks due to inclement weather.

The man who was leading worship last Sunday was telling us that he found the time off to be edifying.  He is often busy, and his time at home from church gave him an opportunity to hear from God.  He said that he wouldn’t have been as prepared to lead worship without that time.  I could somewhat identify with what he was saying, only it was the opposite for me.  Going to church gave me an opportunity to stop, take a breather, and think, since I spent time walking to and from church and was thinking during that time.

The sermon was about unity.  The pastor said that he will do a series on this topic.  What has inspired it has been the political divisions among people.  The pastor was promoting unity around the commands of Christ.  Political divisions have been on my mind as of late.  I get frustrated when I read political debates, and I have to take heed not to demonize those who believe differently from me.

The pastor was also saying that the Godhead itself is united, in that it works together harmoniously in the work of salvation.  He said that the Father sent the Son, the Son paid the price for our redemption, and the Holy Spirit preserves us.  That made me think: Do I really believe that the Holy Spirit preserves believers?  What about Christians who leave the faith, and who wonder where God was when they were departing?  Why didn’t the Holy Spirit preserve them in the faith?  I suppose one can say that the Holy Spirit tried to do so, but the apostates resisted the Holy Spirit.  I cannot read the apostates’ mind, but I tend to accept their word that they wanted to stay in the faith, but they just couldn’t because there was no proof for it, and God was doing nothing to reveal Godself to them or to keep them in the fold.  Actually, I cannot speculate about what God was and was not doing, but they felt abandoned, or at least alone.

Do I rule out that the Holy Spirit ever preserves believers in the faith?  No.  I just wonder how much of a rule of thumb it is, and how to account for apparent exceptions.

After church, I saw that Great Clips was offering $7.99 haircuts.  I needed a haircut, so I decided to take advantage of this deal.  The people around me were talking about marriage.  The hair stylist beside me was saying that she tried marriage, and it just didn’t work out.  The person whose hair she was cutting talked about his two marriages, both of which were for ten or more years.  My hair stylist was saying that she was married to her second husband for seventeen years, and now she is married a third time and is seeing how that will turn out.  She told me that her second husband was verbally abusive to her, but her third husband sticks up for her.  I asked her how she gets along with her third husband’s children, and she said they are like the Brady Bunch!

In these sorts of situations, I am hesitant to “witness.”  I am afraid that people will think that I as a Christian judge them, or that I criticize them for failing to live up to a high standard.  The night before, I was reading the Catholic catechism and what it said about divorce: it is against it and expects married couples to stay married, with the help of the Holy Spirit.  But I could not judge the woman styling my hair.  I myself wait and see how things will turn out.  I am not married to the church that I currently attend.  I don’t think one should be flippant, bailing out at the least offense.  But is there anything wrong with keeping one’s options open?  Some environments are healthier or better than others.

In any case, I’m sure what I just said can be critiqued, and rightly so.  Something that I found myself feeling, though, was empathy and hope that things would work out for the hair stylist—-that she would find compatibility with her husband, whatever trials may come.  I believe in cultivating a desire for somebody else’s well-being.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Current Events Write-Up: The Trump Inauguration, and the First Days of the Trump Presidency

Time for another Current Events Write-Up, where I link to news and opinion pieces and comment on them!  As you might expect, the focus this week is on Trump: the inauguration and his first days in office.

The Trump Inauguration

Christianity Today: The Story Behind Trump’s Controversial Prayer Partner, by Kate Shellnut.
Paul White-Cain is a controversial pastor who delivered a prayer at President Trump’s inauguration.  In this Christianity Today article, she defends herself against criticisms and clarifies her stance on the prosperity Gospel.

Progressive former Democratic Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich found things to praise in President Trump’s inaugural address!  And why not?  Trump was criticizing the outsourcing of American jobs, calling for more and better infrastructure, condemning bigotry, and saying that we should leave other countries alone.  Sounds progressive to me!  At the same time, Kucinich was also criticizing transferring money from cities to the federal government, which sounds rather conservative.

Trump’s use of the term “America First” in his inaugural address was controversial.  For critics, Trump is echoing the America First Committee of the 1930’s, which opposed American entry into World War II.  For many critics, the America First Committee was an anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi organization.

Let’s respond to that!  First of all, a rabbi delivered one of the prayers at Trump’s inauguration.  Why shouldn’t that be considered when we deliberate on whether or not Trump is anti-Semitic?

Second, Trump does not always know the historical significance of the catchphrases that he uses.  He just uses them because he likes them.  See Jonah Goldberg’s article here.

Third, the America First Committee was not, in itself, anti-Semitic or pro-Nazi, even though there were anti-Semites in its midst.  To quote Bill Kauffman’s article:

“In September 1940, Bob Stuart and several Yale Law School classmates—including future President Gerald Ford and future Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart—founded the America First Committee, the largest antiwar organization in American history…Speaking of which, there were Kennedy footprints all over America First…Joe Kennedy kicked in a few bucks, and John F. Kennedy sent the AFC a check for $100, with a note reading ‘what you all are doing is vital.’ Mr. Stuart’s long-time friend Sargent Shriver, Kennedy in-law and the last pro-life Democrat to run on the national ticket, was present at the creation…The America First story has been told well by historians Justus Doenecke and Wayne Cole. Its personalities ranged from Main Street Republicans to prairie populists, from pacifist novelists to Midwestern manufacturers. Behind its banner stood figures as various as Socialist Norman Thomas, American Legion commander Hanford MacNider, and Sears Roebuck chairman Robert E. Wood. And, of course, Charles Lindbergh.”

Fourth, Pat Buchanan’s column explained what Trump meant by “America First,” as it quoted excerpts from Trump’s inaugural address.  What does “America First” mean for us and for other countries?  Read Pat’s column and find out!  Pat also responds to the charge that Trump’s inaugural was dark by saying: “Indeed, it carries echoes of FDR’s second inaugural: ‘I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished. … The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.'”

The Early Days of the Trump Presidency

I was depressed to read this Mother Jones article, which said that one of Trump’s first acts as President was to suspend an Obama Administration policy that helped low-income homeowners with their mortgages.  I mean, did not Trump just give a speech about the forgotten Americans?  Why make things more difficult for economically struggling people?

Fortunately, the Trump Administration quickly reversed its own policy, according to this CNBC article.  The CNBC article explains the rationale behind Trump’s initial move to suspend the Obama Administration’s policy: there was concern among Republicans that the program would have to be bailed out.  But the Trump Administration caved in to pressure and reversed what it was about to do.  Criticisms of Trump do get on my nerves, but they may be necessary to keep him on track, from a progressive perspective.

There was the hooplah over how many people were at President Trump’s inauguration, and how that compares with the number of people at President Obama’s inauguration.  I liked something that Cokie Roberts said on last Sunday’s ABC This Week:

COKIE ROBERTS, ABC NEWS POLITICAL ANALYST: But see, that’s what I think we’ve done is right. We shouldn’t take the bait. And what — here we are, having a whole conversation and leads in the papers and all of that about what Trump said…
STEPHANOPOULOS: I couldn’t disagree more.
ROBERTS: Well, no, no, no, no.
STEPHANOPOULOS: He doesn’t tell the truth…
ROBERTS: But — but…
STEPHANOPOULOS: — what are we supposed to do?
ROBERTS: I know. But — but — it — what he’s managed to do was to minimize the incredible demonstrations yesterday all over the world of women turning out by more than a million and instead of that being what everybody is talking about today, it’s Donald Trump again…

This raises interesting questions.  On the one hand, I don’t like how the media make every little thing Trump says and does into Watergate.  On the other hand, one can argue that the media, in doing so, actually helps Donald Trump by making the entire news cycle about Donald Trump.  On the PBS documentary “The Choice 2016,” someone commented that Trump actually liked the coverage when his past marriage was crumbling because at least people were talking about him: he loved the attention!  It is obvious that Trump creates hooplah, and media reaction plays a role in this.  I hope that this can be channeled into productive directions, though: that Trump’s hooplah can challenge the establishment, start important discussions, and accomplish needed reforms.

Over at Townhall, Rachel Marsden has an article about Trump’s move to abandon the TPP.  Marsden agrees with Trump on this, but her article highlights a variety of nuances, some of which favor the TPP.  For one, the TPP could undermine China’s unfair protectionism and give the U.S. a greater foothold in Asia, undermining Chinese economic dominance there.  (On the latter, John McCain made a similar argument.)  Second, trade between China and the U.S. benefits the wealthy of both countries, and that has sometimes defused tensions between the U.S. and China.  Although she raises these nuances, Marsden ultimately opposes the TPP because she believes that it undermines American manufacturing and benefits Wall Street rather than Main Street.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Book Write-Up: Finding Forgiveness, by Stanley D. Gale

Stanley D. Gale.  Finding Forgiveness: Discovering the Healing Power of the Gospel.  Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

Stanley D. Gale pastors the Reformed Presbyterian Church in West Chester, Pennsylvania.  His book, Finding Forgiveness, defines forgiveness and interacts with difficult questions surrounding it.

Here are some thoughts:

A.  The book offered helpful insights about forgiveness.  Two in particular come to mind.  First, Gale used the analogy of his son having a piece of pork on his cheek.  Gale and his wife listened to their son as he was talking about something serious, but they were trying not to laugh at the pork on his cheek!  Similarly, Gale argued, forgiveness may entail interacting with an offender, without thinking about his or her offense while doing so.  That is an important point: Do I see people primarily in reference to their offenses against me? 

Second, Gale said that the process of forgiveness, repentance, and reconciliation is two people sitting on the same side of the table, looking at the offense.  Both the offender and the victim agree that the offense was wrong, and they are trying to do something about it.  Both concepts painted a picture of forgiveness, clarifying what forgiveness is.

B.  Gale makes clear that forgiveness is not necessarily forgetting an offense or being gullible.  Gale would have strengthened this point had he provided Scriptural references to support it.  Yvonne Ortega did so in a book that she wrote about forgiveness, entitled Moving from Broken to Beautiful through Forgiveness (Salem: Trinity Press International, 2016).

C.  In Matthew 18:21-35, there is the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.  A king forgives the debt of a servant who owed him lots of money, the servant turns around and refuses to forgive someone who owed him a small amount of money, then the king retracts his forgiveness of that servant.  Gale asks if this teaches that God will take away the salvation of a person who refuses to forgive.  Gale rests on the answer that, if a person refuses to forgive, then that may indicate that he or she has never been truly saved in the first place.  The problem with this, however, is that the parable states that the servant had been forgiven of his debts, before the forgiveness was rescinded.  That means the servant had been saved, right?

D.  Related to (C.), Gale does well to stress that we should not immediately jump to the conclusion that a person who refuses to forgive is not truly saved.  Rather, he says that it is a possibility to consider.  This reflects the book’s compassionate and a pastoral tone, one that recognizes how difficult forgiveness can be; for Gale, one needs God’s help in order to forgive.  It also highlights the importance of reflection in trying to forgive, as people think about why they find forgiveness to be so difficult, while meditating on God’s mercy towards them.  That theme recurs in Gale’s book.

E.  Gale quotes Charles Spurgeon’s troubling statement that “Unless you have forgiven others, you read your own death warrant when you repeat the Lord’s prayer.”  After all, the Lord’s prayer states, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).  That is a difficult statement, and I have sometimes thought of excluding it from my own recitation of the Lord’s Prayer!  But I have kept it in because I can use the daily reminder that I need forgiveness from God for my sins, and that I need to forgive others.  I hope I am not reading my own death warrant in doing so!  In any case, Gale’s inclusion of that Spurgeon quote did provoke thought, on my part.

F.  There were cases in which Gale was telling a compelling story or addressing a compelling question, but his conclusion was rather lackluster.  Two examples come to mind.  First, Gale told his conversion story: he went to church for a long time and failed to understand the Gospel’s relevance to his own life, but then, due to God’s effectual grace, he came to understand it and was saved!  I could understand his pre-conversion narrative, but he could have given the reader more details about what led him towards salvation: what insights or experiences did God use to enlighten his heart?  Second, Gale was interacting with Jesus’ difficult statement in Luke 17:4 that, if a brother sins against us seven times a day and says to us “I repent,” we are to forgive that brother.  Gale asks a very good question: if the brother is sinning against us seven times a day, does that indicate that this brother is not truly repentant?  Should we forgive that brother if that is the case?  Gale lands on the answer that we should be open to reconciliation.  That may be a sensible resolution, on some level, but I was hoping for a little more after all that wrestling!

G.  If you are looking for comprehensive OSHA-like regulations on forgiveness, then this book may be somewhat of a disappointment to you.  Allow me to illustrate.  You want to get forgiveness right, because God won’t forgive you if you don’t forgive others (Matthew 16:14-15); you don’t want to read your own death warrant when you recite the Lord’s Prayer, as Spurgeon said!  Okay, Jesus says that, if our brother sins against us, we are to go to him and rebuke him (Luke 17:3).  All the time?  Should we rebuke someone every time our feelings are hurt?  Could that make matters worse?  What about Proverbs 9:8, which advises against rebuking a scorner?  Gale does not mention this verse, but is it relevant?  Gale does say, though, that we can forgive a person apart from rebuking that person or that person repenting, but his hope is that such unilateral forgiveness will set the stage for reconciliation, if God provides the opportunity.  If God provides the opportunity?  Aren’t we supposed to “go” rebuke that person, as Jesus says, which seems to be different from waiting for God to provide an opportunity?  And do we have to spend a lot of time with that person as a friend, after “reconciliation”?  On the one hand, Gale says that we should not be “hardened” and “standoffish” (page 77).  On the other hand, Gale says that Jesus’ command for us to love our enemies does not mean that we have to be buddy-buddy with them, but rather that we are to “treat fellow sinners as image bearers of God rather than as objects of our disdain (see Luke 6:27-36)” (pages 85-86).

I’ll be candid: part of my concern may be a desire on my part for some sort of loophole to the requirement to forgive others.  At the same time, I do think that the book would have been better had Gale explored more nuances, thorny issues, or possible exceptions to the rule.  And yet, I still should give honor to whom honor is do: I applaud Gale for the wrestling with issues that he does do in this book, as well as the helpful insights that he presents, including those that I mention in (G.).

I received a complimentary book from the publisher through Cross Focused Reviews.  My review is honest!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Book Write-Up: Jesus' Terrible Financial Advice, by John Thornton

John Thornton.  Jesus’ Terrible Financial Advice: Flipping the Tables on Peace, Prosperity, and the Pursuit of Happiness.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

John Thornton is a licensed accountant, has a doctorate in Accounting from Washington State University, and teaches Accounting Ethics at Azuza Pacific University.

I’d like to talk briefly about the description of the book on the back cover and on Amazon, then I will discuss whether the book conformed to my expectations, and whether that was a good or a bad thing.

John and his wife experienced an 80 per cent reduction in income because they were pursuing educational goals, yet they went on to have kids, had freedom from debt, took vacations, and saw their net worth double.  John wanted to write a book about how they accomplished this, sharing what he considered to be biblical principles.  But a problem arose: John looked at over 1,300 Bible verses on money, and they challenged what he believed about money and ran contrary to the book that he intended to write.

After providing this background information, the back cover goes on to say about the book that John actually did write: “While it answers many of the practical questions we have—-like does Jesus want me to be rich or poor?  Should I give to everybody who asks?  Is it wrong to save?—-it goes beyond these concerns.  It asks bigger questions, gives bolder answers, and offers a more comprehensive view of stewardship.”

After reading the book’s description, my expectation was that the book would be about how Christians should not be trying to attain financial success and comfort but rather should give more of their money away, particularly to the poor.  I was also hoping for insightful, sensible, and yet faithful-to-the-biblical-text answers to perplexing questions.  Such questions include whether Jesus really expects us to give to everyone who asks us for something, a la Matthew 5:42 and Luke 6:30, and whether Jesus in Matthew 6:19-21 forbids people to have a savings account when he exhorts them not to lay up treasures on earth.

That’s the back cover!  Here are some of my reactions to the book itself:

A.  The book was sometimes disappointing in addressing perplexing questions about biblical passages.  On whether Jesus expects us to give to whomever asks, Thornton essentially said that he did not know.  Yet, Thornton did well to raise additional considerations: he noted, for example, that God does not give us everything that we request.  While there were disappointments in the book, there were also times when Thornton offered a profound look at Scripture.  Thornton interpreted Jesus’ exhortation to the rich young ruler to sell all that he had and give it to the poor in light of Job’s statement in Job 13:15 that, even if God slays him, Job will trust in God.  Job lost everything, yet he still had God, and that was what mattered.  Also, Thornton’s interpretation of the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-13) in light of Jesus’ exhortation to the rich young ruler was masterful!

B.  On the one hand, Thornton wants to take Jesus’ difficult statements seriously.  Thornton is critical of Christian attempts to downplay Jesus’ “turn the other cheek” command, noting that Jesus took that literally at his own trial and crucifixion.  Thornton also criticizes Christian attempts to downplay or soften Jesus’ statement to the rich young ruler to sell everything and follow him.  On the other hand, Thornton says that wealth in Scripture is a blessing from God and that is is all right for a Christian to be wealthy, as long as that Christian does not idolize the wealth.

Thornton is integrating into his presentation a lot of Scriptural teachings on wealth, and some of these teachings appear different from one another.  Proverbs, for example, has passages about how people can gain wealth, and Thornton appeals to those.  Yet, there are passages in the New Testament that seem to be down on wealth.  Overall, I think that Thornton integrates these passages into a reasonable picture: that it is acceptable to have money, yet we should look to God alone for our provision and security, avoid greed, and give money to those in need (i.e., the poor).  One may think that Thornton is surrendering to a comfortable suburban Christian mindset, but that would be unfair.  The back cover is accurate when it says that the book “asks bigger questions, gives bolder answers, and offers a more comprehensive view of stewardship.”

C.  What about people who don’t have anything to give?  On the one hand, Thornton refers to Jesus’ statement in Luke 16:10 that those who are faithful with little will be given more.  Thornton states that those who fail to give with the little that they have usually will not give when they have a lot of money.  On the other hand, Thornton says that people who have nothing can give other things besides money, such as forgiveness.  The advice appears contradictory, but both ideas have merit, and people can wrestle through these issues with reason and in prayer.

D.  Thornton recognizes that many people, and even many Christians, do not rush to give.  Thornton appeals to them with compassion and empathy, encouraging them that they have so much to gain (and it is not primarily financial) by following God’s principles on stewardship, including the principle of giving.  Thornton attempts to influence people’s attitudes, while avoiding guilt-trips.  The picture that he painted was not only reasonable, but also compelling.

E.  The book is not as neat as I expected it to be, but that was part of its appeal.  Thornton was engaging messy issues and different Scriptural teachings, and I was eager to see what his conclusions would be.

F.  The book also had some funny stories.  I think of Thornton’s friend who asked awkward questions and went to Thornton’s dissertation defense!

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest!

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Book Write-Up: Companion to the Old Testament, by Ted Leach

Ted Leach.  Companion to the Old Testament: For the Interpreter Within Each of Us.  Bloomington: WestBow Press, 2013.  See here to buy the book.

Ted Leach was a United Methodist pastor for four decades.  His book, Companion to the Old Testament, is a survey of the contents and historical context of the Hebrew Bible, as well as various issues surrounding it.

Here are some thoughts about the book:

A.  Leach is sensitive to the different interpretations of the Hebrew Bible among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and even the different interpretations within each religion.  His discussion of different ideas on Messianism within Judaism was impressive, as he surveyed different modern Jewish ideas on Messianism and also talked about Maimonides’ views on the Messiah, as well as the concept of a suffering Messiah in rabbinic passages.  In my opinion, an introduction or a companion to the Hebrew Bible should make readers aware that different communities interpret the Hebrew Bible in different ways, since that can help them to understand the world around them.  Leach did not discuss every issue that pertains to this, but his book can serve as a friendly introduction.

B.  A point that Leach makes more than once is that a Christian need not interpret all of the biblical stories as historical to receive spiritual edification from them.  Leach did well to share how this is the case in his own spiritual life, especially when he discussed his personal interaction with the story of Moses’ rod becoming a serpent.  The book would have been better, perhaps, had Leach addressed the question of whether the biblical stories’ writers deemed their stories to be historical.  There are things that Leach says that intersect with this question: he echoes scholarly arguments, for example, that the priestly author of Genesis 1 interacted with a Babylonian creation story and transformed the Babylonian concept of the Sabbath.  Leach also refers to some of the biblical stories as camp-fire stories, which may imply that the ancients saw the stories as just that, stories.  Still, one can easily get the impression in reading the Hebrew Bible that its authors believed that its narratives  represented God’s activity in history, or historically accounted for how the Israelites arrived at their current state (i.e., exile).  By wrestling more with this issue, Leach could have reinforced his argument that the Bible is not just about our concerns and preconceptions but reflects an ancient mindset.

C.  The book is an effective introduction and companion to the Hebrew Bible because it makes readers aware that modern biblical scholarship has questioned the historicity of certain narratives in the Bible, while also explaining why.  Conservatives may consider Leach’s use of scholarship to be one-sided, in that it primarily refers to scholars whom conservatives would consider to be liberal, and that would be a valid point.  Leach should have mentioned that there are scholars who believe differently, while also saying that he himself accepts certain conclusions.  In some instances, Leach fails to integrate or reconcile his conclusions.  For instance, Leach says that there may have been some sort of Exodus from Egypt, yet he also appears to agree with the scholarly idea that the Israelites were originally native Canaanites.  On this issue, some scholars have suggested that ancient Israel may have consisted of different groups of people: Semites who came from Egypt and also native Canaanites, who moved to the central hills from Canaanite cities.  According to these scholars, the Semites from Egypt contributed to ancient Israel the Exodus story, even though many Israelites did not descend from those who came from Egypt.  Similarly, the Pilgrim story became part of the founding tradition of the United States, even though most Americans do not descend from the Pilgrims.  Leach’s inclusion of such a point would have held together his arguments about the Exodus and the Conquest.

D.  In one place, Leach proposes that the Ten Commandments may not have been from the mouth of God, but were a Midianite priestly document discovered by Moses at what was previously a Midianite holy place.  Leach states that “This kind of miracle, rather than deMille’s magic, seems more in keeping with the way God works in human history.”  Readers may wonder why we should entertain such an idea about the Ten Commandments: is there any reason to believe that it was a Midianite priestly document?  Leach tossed that out as a possibility, but he did not explain the grounds for the possibility.  Leach could have strengthened his argument by mentioning the Kenite hypothesis, by showing how Moses or Sinai in the Bible relates to the Midianites, or by arguing that the view that all of the Torah was spoken by God on Mount Sinai is problematic, since the laws sometimes contradict each other.  There are ways for Leach to do this without writing an extensive, distracting thesis: perhaps he could introduce his discussion by mentioning Moses’ interaction with the Midianites, or include a brief discussion of the Kenite hypothesis in an endnote.

E.  Related to (D.), Leach should have attempted, in some manner, to offer a model of divine revelation.  People reading his book may wonder how exactly the Bible is a revelation from God, if it reflects different human viewpoints, as Leach sometimes argues.  Is the Bible the word of God, the word of human beings, or both?  Leach was exploring this territory, somewhat, when he contrasted the deMille version of divine revelation with the possibility that the Ten Commandments were a Midianite priestly document that Moses found.  But more could have been said.  Perhaps Leach could have said that God is with God’s people and guides them, even if it’s not through a dictation model of divine revelation.  This is a thorny and a difficult issue, and it would probably have been difficult for Leach to do complete justice to it in a book that had other goals: to introduce people to the Old Testament, for example.  Still, some discussion of the issue would have been helpful, even if that discussion would have been imperfect.

E. Leach was effective in placing many of the stories of the Hebrew Bible within their historical context and the geo-political situation of their time.

F.  Leach’s discussion of Second Isaiah and Isaiah 53 was intriguing, yet I was unclear about how certain details held together.  For Leach, Second Isaiah was written in Judah during the exile, not in Babylon.  The prophet in Judah was proclaiming the coming return of the Jews from exile, and his preaching of repentance was alienating fellow Jews in Judah.  That was why this prophet suffered, as is depicted in Isaiah 53.  In my opinion, R.N. Whybray’s view on Isaiah 53 makes more sense: the Servant was a prophet in Babylon proclaiming that the Persians would conquer Babylon and the Jews would return to their land, and that upset the Babylonians.  I have difficulty envisioning why the prophet in Judah would be persecuted.  I do not casually dismiss what Leach is saying, though, for some scholars have embraced the idea that Second Isaiah originated in Judah.

My critiques notwithstanding, I am still giving this book five stars.  It had a clear and friendly tone.  Its occasional pop-cultural references (i.e., to Superman, and how he fit the time of the Great Depression) made the book more relatable.  It models how a person can embrace critical scholarship of the Bible, while still being a person of faith.  It can also be a helpful introduction to the Hebrew Bible: its contents, its historical context, the development of biblical ideas throughout history, the diverse interpretations and applications of the Hebrew Bible, and the questions many scholars have had about its historicity.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through BookLook Bloggers.  My review is honest!

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