Friday, March 31, 2017

Church Write-Up: We Are Privileged to Pray

At church last Sunday, the pastor continued his series on prayer.  His Scriptural text was Jesus’ parable about the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8), who continually pleaded with the unjust judge until he granted her what she needed.

The pastor told some funny stories about his struggles with modern technology and bad service at restaurants.  I usually don’t hear these kinds of stories when I watch his sermons on the Internet.  The live stream service is the 11:30 service, and the service that is put on the Internet is the 7:30 service.  The service that I attend, which is closer to where I live, is the 10:00.

The pastor was effectively conveying how privileged we are to pray.  We cannot just walk into the Oval Office to see the President of the United States.  But we can talk to God anytime, and God is above all Presidents.

The pastor also said that God is the only one who can give us what we need.  God can touch our heart, and the hearts of those for whom we pray.  I can identify with this.  I am all for taking medication for depression and talking with an understanding friend.  But there are times when other people cannot make us feel better.  At those times, I know that I need God to touch my heart.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Current Events Write-Up: Feud, Tim Keller, Benedict Option, Deficit Hawks, Introverts, Billy Graham Rule

Time for a Current Events Write-Up!  I missed last week because I was writing book reviews.

Romper: Is Pauline from "Feud" Based on a Real Person? The Ambitious Assistant Is a Fan Favorite, by Caralynn Lippo. 

I have been watching "Feud," which is about the conflict between actresses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford during and after the making of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?  Last Sunday's episode was especially good.  In that episode, Pauline, who was director Robert Aldrich's assistant, was trying to get people to read her script, and she expressed a desire to be a director herself.  But women being directors at that time was extremely uncommon.  Pauline was discouraged, but then she talked with Mamacita, Joan Crawford's personal assistant.  Mamacita talked about how women are increasing in population, and there will be a greater demand for women directors who can help make films and shows that appeal to women.  "Your time is coming," Mamacita solemnly tells Pauline.  That made me wonder if Pauline ever became a successful scriptwriter and director.  And that led me to this article.

Wikipedia: B.D. Hyman.

Another character in the "Feud" series was B.D. Hyman, who was Bette Davis' daughter.  She had a brief role in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?  I was curious to learn more about her, and I found that she became a born-again Christian, who wrote a book about the rapture. 

DalyFocus: Tim Keller's Reward Is In Heaven. It's Princeton that Loses the Prize, by Jim Daly.

Pastor Tim Keller was about to receive Princeton Theological Seminary's Kuyper award, then Princeton decided not to give him the award on account of his controversial stances.  I loved the last line of this post: "Princeton can keep its award, but in how he’s handled the 'slight,' Tim Keller is rewarding us by showing the Christian how best to respond in a post-Christian world."  That is something that I like about Tim Keller: he doesn't take himself too seriously.  As Daly says, "...the people who know and love Tim Keller are likely more bothered by this 'snub' than he is." 

Bob on Books: Review of The Benedict Option.

This is a good summary, review, and critique of Rod Dreher's The Benedict Option.

The Baffler: The Wrongest Profession: How economists have botched the promise of widely distributed prosperity—and why they have no intention of stopping now, by Dean Baker.

This is a critique of deficit hawkishness. 

Thought Catalog: 10 Things Being an Introvert Is Not an Excuse For, by Heidi Priebe.

Things for me to keep in mind!

Relevant Magazine: Twitter Tangles with the Billy Graham Rule.

When I saw this article, I thought, "Why can't Mike Pence set the boundaries that he wants, without having to put up with a bunch of leftist snark?"  But critics do well to highlight a possible problem: if men avoid women (i.e., not having a meal with them alone, not being in the same room with them alone) because they fear falling into an affair, will that close women off from job advancement opportunities?  I can still see a rationale for the Billy Graham Rule. When I was at Harvard Divinity School, we had a session on how pastors should not date parishioners, and we were encouraged to set boundaries.  But I can understand some of the concerns about the Billy Graham Rule.  Is there a reasonable middle ground?

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Book Write-Up: North American Indian Mythology

Cottie Burland.  North American Indian Mythology.  Paul Hamlyn, 1965, 1970.

I checked this book out from the library.  Lately, I have been reading about different religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.  Their overlaps with Christianity have stood out to me, and I have been tempted to see this as confirmation that everyone has a sense of God, a la Romans 1:19-20.  I wondered if I would draw a similar conclusion after reading about Native American religion.  After all, have not Native Americans referred to the “Great Spirit”?

Did I draw a similar conclusion after reading Cottie Burland’s North American Indian Mythology?  What I learned was more complex than I expected.  Allow me to comment on a few select passages:

Pages 18-19: “The Eskimo had no hierarchy of gods.  They relied on the generalised power of spirits to guide them.  It was only natural that they felt that the spirits of the grandparents would look after the children left upon the earth.  The nearest thing to a true deity was the Old Woman who lived under the sea.  In various parts of the Eskimo lands she was known under different names.  Sedna was the one in use in the central areas.”

Burland then proceeds to tell the story of Sedna.  Sedna was the daughter of two giants, who threw her into the sea when she was a child and just left her there.  They abandoned her because she had a voracious appetite and was eating them.  They cut off her fingers, which then became the whales, fish, and seals of the sea.  The giants grew old and died.  Sedna also grew old and became a sort of goddess for the Eskimos.  She would guide them through a Shaman, force them to move when that was her desire, and provide for them.

This story exemplifies a lot of the creation tales that were in this book.  Occasionally, the book referred to a Native American belief that a god or gods created human beings to serve the divine.  In most of the creation stories in this book, however, there was already a world and creatures (often animal-like creatures) in it before the world was created, and these creatures brought the present world into being.  One of the creators is a trickster.  Some are creatures looking for someplace else to go.

Perhaps the themes of spiritual ancestors guiding people and a goddess in the sea reflect a human thirst for the divine, which God placed in all people.  But the story of Sedna, and other creation stories in the book, are so different from Jewish and Christian conceptions of the divine, that I wondered if they were even in the same ballpark.

I would also like to add that, at least in this book, I did not see in the stories much of a concept of ethical monotheism, or even ethical polytheism, in which a god rewards morality and punishes immorality.  In the chapter on “Fishermen of the North West Coast,” the statement is made that “The powers of nature were personified and as such they took revenge when creatures of the natural world were deliberately injured” (page 29), but that was the closest I found to an idea that a moral system was enforced by higher powers.  That is my impression, and maybe I would draw a different conclusion were I to reread this book.  As I take another look at some of the stories, after all, I see that themes such as honor and helping others occur in them; yet, I also see stories that seem to have nothing to do with morality.  I have read Amazon reviews of other books on Native American spirituality, and the reviewers state that such books spiritually enriched them.  My understanding of Native American religion may be incomplete, but my point is that I got a different feel from these Native American myths from what I get in reading the Bible.

Page 29: “The Lord of the Sky is referred to in some of the tales as an old chief.  Once the sky was much nearer to the earth than it is now, and this old chief was sometimes annoyed by the constant shouting of children, the beating of drums, and the hullabaloo of war parties.  Unable to rest, he would cause the mountains to move or induce earthquakes, with the intention of destroying the offending tribe or giving it a fright.

“These characteristics are not unreasonable if one is postulating a sky god.  However, it is possible that these legends are derived ultimately from the talk of European visitors.  There is something unnatural in this idea of the elderly chief living in his house above the skies.  Much more natural myths are those of Raven and the Old Woman who had the sun in her house, or of the wondrous land under the sea where the killer whales and sea birds had their ceremonial homes.  These are more authentic Indian beliefs.”

Burland actually speculates that Native Americans got the idea of a supreme god from Europeans a couple of times: here, and when discussing the Northwest Coast Native Americans.  For Burland, the supreme being appears unnatural in certain Native American traditions, whereas the stories about talking animals are more authentic.  Does that dispel any notion that Native Americans had an innate sense of God, since they got the idea of a supreme being from the Europeans?  Well, I question how unnatural the belief is to Native American mythology.  The concept of a god who punishes human beings for keeping him awake sounds more like Mesopotamian traditions than Christian European beliefs about God.  (Why there is a Native American tradition that resembles Mesopotamian stories, I have no idea.  Is it a coincidence?)  These particular Native Americans could have borrowed the belief from Europeans and taken it in their own directions, but the direction they took it differs so much from European Christianity, that I wonder if it truly was imported from there.  I am not the expert, though!

It is interesting that Burland never says that the Plains Native Americans got their idea of the Great Spirit from the Europeans.  What is more, there are more parallels between Plains traditions and the Bible: giants afflicting people (as in Genesis 6), a Flood, etc.  When Burland discusses where they got the idea of giants, however, Burland never mentions the Bible or Europeans.  Burland mentions dinosaur bones in North America!

The stories in this book were rather strange, from my perspective.  When I read about Buddhism or Confucianism, I feel there is more common ground between me and these traditions than I found in reading this book.  Perhaps it is because Buddhism and Confucianism are more existential or philosophical, which Western Christianity has also been.  I may revisit Native American traditions in the future, though.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

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

Michael Hicks Thompson.  The Actress.  Shepherd King Publishing, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

The Actress is the sequel to Michael Hicks Thompson’s The Rector.  The setting is still 1950’s Solo, Mississippi.  Hollywood people, including the famous actress Tallulah Ivey, have come to Solo to make a movie about the events in The Rector.  A local cotton farmer, Andrew Dawkins, is shot outside Tallulah’s window, with a note attached to his hand.  Tallulah shot him, but was it deliberate?  Martha McRae, the small-town newspaper publisher from the previous book, investigates.

I wrote a review of The Rector a while back, and some of what I said about The Rector is applicable to The Actress.  This novel was somewhat like a Matlock or Murder, She Wrote episode.  It did not go too deeply into probing and characterizing the protagonist, but Martha was still a likeable, level-headed character.  As far as theology is concerned, The Actress, like The Rector, seems to combine Calvinism with a belief in libertarian free-will.  The priest in the books is Episcopalian, so perhaps he reflects a Reformed version of that tradition.  (I learned of such a version from one of Joni Eareckson Tada’s books.)  The resolution of the mystery was somewhat implausible: why would such-and-such a character even think to do such-and-such?  (I do not want to give away the plot, so that is why I am avoiding specificity here.)

The Rector was an allegory.  While the description of The Actress on Amazon calls this book “a Paulinian allegory,” how that is the case is not readily apparent to me.

Another difference between The Actress and The Rector is that The Actress struck me as a tighter, neater book.  Mary and Oneeda are in The Actress, but they do not show up that often.  They had excellent scenes in The Actress, but I was glad that I did not have to read about Oneeda falling in love so easily!

The Actress had a list and description of the characters at the beginning and a court case near the end.  Both were helpful.  The court case was helpful because it regurgitated details from earlier in the story, explaining their significance.  Granted, the story explained those details earlier, but the court case was a way for the reader to take a step back and look at the big picture.

I also appreciated the wry commentary, here and there.  In the book, Hollywood was making the movie to portray the residents of Mississippi as uncivilized rubes.  Martha reflected on how ironic this was, since many Southerners in Mississippi saw themselves as more refined than others!

I actually learned some things from The Actress, or, at least, I was encouraged to look some things up.  I looked up who was Governor of Mississippi at that time!  There were parts of the court case that struck me as hearsay, yet it was accepted.  I looked “hearsay” up and learned that there is acceptable hearsay and unacceptable hearsay.  A prominent feature of the book is The Devil tarot card.  The card’s meaning, in the book, is that one can use one’s negative characteristics to promote oneself and to pursue one’s ambitions, so long as one is careful.  That differs from what the priest advocates, which is to put oneself in God’s larger plan.  I do not know if Thompson was drawing from a Tarot book to explain the card’s meaning, but, when I looked up The Devil tarot card on the Internet, the meanings that I found were much more negative about the devil.

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

Monday, March 27, 2017

Book Write-Up: Achaia, by Ronald Beckham

Ronald Beckham.  Achaia: The Days of Noah.  WestBow Press, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

Achaia is largely set in antediluvian times, but it ends with the Flood.  Ronald Beckham depicts the antediluvian period as one of technological advancement.  In Beckham’s telling, there were radios, bombs, and missiles that were launched into outer space back in those days.  There was also aircraft, some of which consisted of flying dinosaurs.

This aspect of the book intrigued me, though I think that it went too far.  I remember listening to a sermon a while back, and the preacher speculated that God destroyed the animals in the Flood because people had been cross-breeding them.  Some—-not experts, mind you, but armchair interpreters of the Bible—-have speculated that the antediluvian period may have been more advanced than people think.  There may be nothing whatsoever to that idea, but it can provide fodder for the imagination.  I wonder if Beckham could have explored that idea, without going as far as he did.

Portraying the antediluvian period as technologically advanced—-as advanced as today—-is not very realistic.  If people were so advanced back then, why couldn’t they survive the Flood?  To his credit, Beckham actually addresses this question.  Elihu, of Book of Job fame, invents his own craft to survive the Flood, just in case Noah is right.  But meteors are falling from the sky, after people of earth destroy the planet Ariel in fear that there was life there, and Elihu’s craft gets destroyed.  Okay, fine, then why was Noah’s Ark safe from all that?  I suppose the answer would be divine protection!

The book depicts conflicts among Sethites, Cainites, and Nephiliim.  Their conflicts with each other were bloody, since Genesis 6 depicts the antediluvian time as a time of violence.  But, in Beckham’s telling, they also had their own ideological approaches to religion, history, and their own identity, as they took the Adamic religion in their own directions.  Meanwhile, there were Cainites who were trying to get back into the Garden of Eden.  And not all of the Cainites were bad people.  All of this was intriguing, but there could have been more of this sort of thing in the book.  Elihu was a character in this book, for example, and I don’t recall reading any of his theological reflections, though he shared a lot of them in the Book of Job!

Regarding the Nephiliim, Beckham went the route of portraying them as the offspring of the Sethites and the Cainites.  For some reason, the Nephiliim thought they were superior to others.  This would have made more sense, had Beckham portrayed them as the offspring of divine beings and human women!

The prose of the book was fine, but the organization of the book had its pluses and minuses.  The book was organized rather episodically.  There would be a short section about a character, and the section would share his or her reflections.  On the one hand, this allowed the book to present a variety of perspectives.  On the other hand, it hindered the book from flowing smoothly.

One part of the book that I particularly liked was when Noah brought sources onto the Ark: Adam’s creation hymn (presumably Genesis 1), the Book of the Generations of Adam (which is in Genesis), and the Book of Job.  Some conservative scholars say that Moses used sources in writing the Book of Genesis, which advocates of the Documentary Hypothesis would dispute.  Beckham obviously went with the former view.

Beckham’s book is a good idea, even if it could have been better.

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

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Book Write-Up: Treasured Grace, by Tracie Peterson

Tracie Peterson.  Treasured Grace.  Bethany House, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

Treasured Grace is set in the mid- to late-1800s.  Grace Martindale’s husband, a harsh pastor, has recently died.  Grace and her sisters Hope and Mercy travel west, to the area that is now Oregon.  They stay at Dr. Marcus Whitman’s mission, and Grace upsets Dr. Whitman because she tries to help the sick with natural healing remedies.

Grace meets Alex Armistead, a fur-trapper who is dealing with guilt and anger due to events in his past.  The two clash somewhat, since Alex is opinionated, and Grace has a rather patronizing attitude towards the Native Americans, which Alex does not share.  Meanwhile, Grace is being pursued by Nigel, a nice man, but she does not love him.

A measles epidemic is breaking out, and many in the nearby Cayuse tribe are blaming the whites for giving it to them.  Alex’s friend Sam, who has Cayuse background, has a more balanced perspective.  The Cayuse raid, and others get hurt or killed in the process.  Victims struggle with their faith in God, after having such experiences.

There are many assets to this book.  The contrast between Native Americans’ interactions with Catholics and their interactions with Protestants was interesting, as was the detail that some of the white settlers married Native American women.  Tracie Peterson put research into this book and painted a picture of that complex historical setting.

The spiritual element was good, too.  Alex had to deal with his own guilt and alienation from God.  Alex and Grace also have discussions about the problem of evil.  God’s activity is acknowledged as a hopeful possibility, and yet the salient theme is that this is a fallen world, in which Satan is active.  One of the characters takes comfort in a sermon in which the preacher highlights the biblical characters who suffered, as God was with them.

I do not feel attached enough to the characters to rush to read the next book of the series.  But I am at least open to reading the sequel, or the many other Tracie Peterson books that have been written.  The prose is somewhat dry, but there is enough reflection on the part of the characters to make the book interesting.

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

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Church Write-Up: The Imperfect and the Stunted

I have two items for my Church Write-Up this week.

A.  Last Sunday, I visited a Missouri Synod Lutheran church.  The theme of the service was lament.  Preaching about Psalm 31:9-16, the pastor said that the Psalmist offers to God his sadness.  The pastor remarked that this is odd: Are we not supposed to offer God our best?  Why is God willing, even eager, to take the Psalmist’s sadness?  The answer is that it’s because God loves us.

The Psalms are raw and honest.  The Psalmist does not always manifest a joyful, forgiving attitude!  And this is ironic, considering that God in the Book of Leviticus desires pure, unblemished sacrifices.  Moreover, Jesus in Mark 11:25 tells his disciples to forgive as they stand praying, and God will forgive their trespasses.  Does this imply that God needs to forgive us to hear our prayers, and God will forgive us only if we forgive others?  On that note, see Tim Challies’ Six Ways to Hinder Your Prayers.

Is there tension within the Bible, on this issue?  On the one hand, God hears imperfect people, with imperfect attitudes.  On the other hand, God desires perfection.

Christians may respond to these questions in a variety of ways.  One way is to say that God hears the prayers of sinners when they are covered with the blood of Christ.  We are imperfect, but Christ our sacrifice is perfect, and that is how God hears the prayers of sinful people.  Another way is to say that God will hear us if we are on the right track, or at least try to be on the right track.  To refer to the Challies post, many Christians will find that they fall short on that list.  Their obedience is partial and imperfect.  Their forgiveness falls short.  They cannot eradicate every trace of doubt.  They fail in being perfectly kind to others.  But are they at least trying to do the right thing?  Are they growing in doing the right thing?  For many Christians, God honors such an attitude and hears the prayers of those who hold it.

Speaking for myself personally, I know that I fall short, even in trying to have the right attitude and to do the right thing!  I am grateful for God’s law because it challenges me and upholds a righteous standard, but I know that I need God’s mercy.  I do not know if my attitude is good enough for God to hear my prayer, but my policy is to pray, and whether God listens to me or not is in God’s court.

B.  I also listened to a sermon delivered at the church that I normally attend.  The pastor was continuing a series on prayer.  He was baffled that a person can be a Christian and yet not pray.
I have actually thought about this issue before.  Years ago, I read a blog post by a woman who had been a Christian for decades, and yet she confessed that years went by in which she did not pray or read the Bible.  That baffled me.  How can one be a Christian without cultivating one’s relationship with God in prayer, or deriving nourishment from the Scriptures?

I can ask that question, and yet other Christians can look at me and find my Christian practice deficient.  Prayer and Bible study come easy to me because I can do those things by myself: they do not necessarily involve interpersonal interaction.  But I struggle with the practices that involve interpersonal interaction.  Consequently, Christians can ask: How can James be a Christian and not reach out to others with love?  How can James be a Christian and not be motivated to serve?

I learned a while back that there are plenty of Christians who struggle with prayer.  They do not know what to say to God.  It is awkward for them.  They may excel at serving or reaching out to others or witnessing, but personal prayer is a challenge to them.  That Christian woman who went years without prayer may have felt that she was practicing her faith in other ways: by being a kind, loving person, and by basing the way that she lives her life on the love of Christ.

I am reading a book called The Teaching of the Buddha.  On page 178, we read: “Therefore, to believe in the Dharma and to cherish the Brotherhood is to have faith in the Buddha, and to have faith in the Buddha is to believe in the Dharma and to cherish the Brotherhood.”

The Dharma is the path that the Buddha commands, and the Brotherhood is a group of people who are committed to following those commands.

That passage reminds me of certain Scriptures.  Love for God entails love for one’s brother or sister (I John 4:21).  Jesus in John 14:23 says that those who love him will obey his teaching.

It sounds automatic, doesn’t it?  And, on some level, that makes sense.  If I love God, I will value those God loves, God’s people.  If I am secure in God’s love for me, that will enable me to love others, even if they hurt me.  In Buddhist terms, if one walks the Buddhist path and becomes clean of greed and covetous desires, one will get along better with those in the Brotherhood.  The human flaws that hinder relationships will not be a problem.

But this is easier said than done, and people, in their own lives, may not find that B naturally follows A, assuming one can even get A right in the first place!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Resurrection Fact

John J. Bombaro and Adam S. Francisco.  The Resurrection Fact: Responding to Modern Critics.  New Reformation Publications, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

Allow me to quote the description of the book on Amazon, before I offer my thoughts about it.  The description says who wrote the book, the book’s general perspective, and the book’s intended audience.

“As this team did with the book, ‘Making The Case For Christianity’ (CPH), Drs. Bombaro and Francisco bring together a variety of contemporary Lutheran apologists to respond to a wide array of challenges to the heart of the Christian Faith. Each chapter addresses a specific argument from a popular, non-Christian author and offer a clear and concise rebuttal and argument for the resurrection. The editors have found able representatives from the disciplines of biblical studies, history, philosophy, and the legal profession to write each chapter. The book is accessible, written for a broad audience, and is ultimately designed to equip its readers for the apologetics task.”

Now for my thoughts:

A.  Whenever I see a book like this, I wonder if it will contribute anything new to the discussion.  So many Christian apologetic books have already been written defending the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection.  Does this book contribute anything new?  I will later detail what I learned from this book, but, in response to the question of whether it contributes anything earth-shakingly new to the debate, I would say that it does not.  It responds to skeptics with the usual apologetic spiel, even though many of those skeptics have already raised objections to that spiel.  How about responding to their objections to the spiel, rather than regurgitating the spiel itself?  I will address how they could have done this in the next item.

B.  I have heard that, in writing a book review, I should avoid talking about the book that I wish the authors had written and instead focus on the book as it is.  I am going to depart from that rule in this item because I do believe that there are things that the authors could have done to make this book better.  This book could have responded to skeptics without regurgitating the usual apologetic spiel, while still being accessible to a broad audience who would not want to get lost in scholarly minutiae.  It could have done so by interacting with specific topics.  For example, there is the debate about whether Jesus’ resurrection in Paul’s writings was an exchange of a physical body for a spiritual body (while the physical body remains in the grave) or a resuscitation and transformation of a body: the latter option implies the empty tomb, which apologists deem to be physical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, whereas the former does not.  There is debate about whether Second Temple Judaism had a conception of resurrection that was a bodily exchange rather than a bodily transformation; this is significant because apologists in this book assert that Second Temple Judaism only conceived of resurrection as physical transformation of a dead body into a living body.  On that basis, they argue that Jesus’ resurrection was physical, meaning early Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection arose from Jesus’ resurrection itself and not from seeing a ghost.  Another debate is whether there are parallels between the Gospels’ resurrection stories and themes in Greco-Roman literature; one author in the book briefly touches on this, but more discussion would have been helpful.  And, if one wants to respond to Bart Ehrman’s textual critical arguments, how about engaging some of the texts that he cites—-the texts that he believes reflect theological revision on the part of the proto-orthodox scribes—-rather than casually dismissing Ehrman’s argument by saying that most of the differences among New Testament versions are theologically insignificant?  Such discussions would have responded to skeptics in a fruitful, engaging, fairer, and more interesting manner.  It also would have brought these debates to a broader audience.

C.  The description of the book highlighted that the apologists were Lutheran, and that made me wonder if they would add a distinct Lutheran perspective to the debate.  I saw that in this book occasionally.  The author of the introduction lists among his pieces of evidence for Jesus’ resurrection “the continual assertion by the disciples and apostles that the living Christ was with them in the Eucharist and governing them by his Spirit…”  I vaguely recall a reference to baptismal regeneration.  There was also a discussion of Martin Luther’s conception of faith.  Overall, though, the distinctly Lutheran references were  rare.  Much of the book was the usual apologetic spiel!

D.  I did learn things from this book.  A few of the authors referred to scholar Craig Evans’ scholarship on Jewish burial.  They argued that the Sanhedrin ensured that crucified Jewish bodies were disposed of properly, and that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus may have been commissioned by the Sanhedrin to ensure Jesus’ burial.  That may differ from seeing Joseph and Nicodemus as nobly stepping forward out of devotion to Jesus (see John 19:38-39), but it does coincide with Acts 13:28-29’s statement that the Jewish leaders as a whole buried Jesus.
Mark Pierson refers to a scholarly source that disagrees with the idea that Papias was historically unreliable.  Papias is a significant figure in debates about whether the Gospels are based on eyewitness testimony.

Another author referred to a book about rabbinic views on Jesus’ resurrection, and another author mentioned Christian writings as early as the sixteenth century (maybe earlier) that tried to harmonize the Gospels’ resurrection stories.

C.J. Armstrong and Andrew DeLoach explore the nuances of mystery religions, including the question of whether they focused on the afterlife.  They also discussed the difficulty in ascertaining what the Mithra cult actually believed.  Their essay was probably the best in the book, even though it could have been more consistent.  (Was Jesus myth entering historical reality, or was Jesus different from other mythical figures?  The authors claimed both.)

E.  Back to the issue of Jewish burial practices, John Bombaro states in the book that “Scholarly opinion agrees with Craig that the Jews of Jesus’s day fastidiously observed Torah burial mandates regardless of the deceased’s economic status and circumstances.”  Relying on the synoptic Gospels, however, a number of Christians believe that the Jewish authorities transgressed a lot of Passover laws in trying Jesus (Craig Parton refers to this issue in an endnote).  Were the Jewish authorities fastidious in their Torah observance or not?

F.  I think that the book based some of its prominent arguments on certain assumptions.  More than one author said that the disciples could not have stolen Jesus’ corpse from the tomb because guards were at the tomb site, as the Gospel of Matthew states.  That assumes that the Gospel of Matthew was historically accurate on this detail.  The Gospel of Mark, which many scholars believe is earlier, does not say there were guards at Jesus’ tomb.  More than one author said that the Roman and Jewish authorities would have presented Jesus’ corpse to the public to refute the emerging Christian movement, had Jesus’ tomb not been empty.  That assumes that the Roman and Jewish authorities were preoccupied with Christianity.  A few authors said that early Christian eyewitnesses would have prevented historically-inaccurate details from getting into the Gospels, but were things really that neat?

G.  A few authors attempted to refute the skeptical idea that people in the first century were especially gullible, and thus we cannot trust the early Christian claim that Jesus rose from the dead.  They did not engage the examples that Richard Carrier has cited of this.  And yet, one of the authors did well to observe that the disciples in the Gospels were initially skeptical after hearing that Jesus rose from the dead.  Granted, Jesus seems to rebuke their skepticism (Luke 24:25; John 20:29), but the Gospels present the disciples as the opposite of gullible, perhaps showing some respect for critical thought.

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

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Book Write-Up: Reclaiming Hope, by Michael Wear

Michael Wear.  Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House about the Future of Faith in America.  Nelson Books, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Michael Wear was a staffer in the Obama Administration.  The inside flap of the cover states that Wear was “Appointed by the president in 2008 to the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and later directed faith outreach for the president’s 2012 election campaign…”

If there is a theme in this book, it is that Wear was initially drawn to Barack Obama because Obama was reaching out to evangelicals and was seeking common ground with social and cultural conservatives (i.e., pro-lifers).  Over time, however, Wear became disillusioned with the Obama Administration, as it embraced polarization rather than seeking common ground.

Here are some of my thoughts about this book:

A.  Barack Obama in this book is somewhat like the man behind the curtain.  On the one hand, Wear seems to defend Barack Obama as a man of genuine Christian faith.  On the other hand, Wear appears rather cynical: if Obama sincerely embraced same-sex marriage as early as 2007, for example, why did Obama appeal to his religious beliefs in his public rejection of it for so many years?  Isn’t that shamefully and insincerely exploiting religion for political purposes?  Wear himself seems to wonder what exactly made Barack Obama tick.  There was an occasional glimpse into Barack Obama, though: I think of Wear’s account of Obama expressing openness to an abstinence-only program, which may have shown that Barack Obama at one point sincerely sought to transcend polarization.

B.  This book only goes so far in being a behind-the-scenes account.  I do not recall too many accounts in the book of discussions that occurred inside the Oval Office.  Wear’s contribution was significant and valued, but my impression is that he mostly advised President Obama from a distance.  Wear said that Vice-President Biden was pushing for a stronger religious freedom exemption in the contraception mandate, and that is somewhat of a behind-the-scenes story, but that was briefly mentioned, without a whole lot of development.  In short, if you are looking for something juicy, or an inside account of the machinations of power, then this book is not for you.  Regarding political narrative, I did not find much in this book that was not also in the newspapers at the time.  At the same time, the book was rather eye-opening in describing how clueless some of the Obama staffers were about faith.  One of them had no idea what “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40) meant!

C.  Some of Wear’s policy discussions were better than others.  Wear offered a decent defense of the Affordable Care Act and weighed the positives and negatives of President Obama’s foreign policy.  His discussion of the effectiveness of faith-based initiatives and adoption reform was insightful and even beautiful.  But he did not really justify his apparent opposition to federal funding of abortion (or so I interpreted his position).

D.  Regarding Wear’s justification for his policy positions, my impression is that Wear believes it is better to bring people together rather than to tear them apart.  At one point, Wear seems to offer a political justification for such a stance, but then he has to admit that Barack Obama won in 2012 by being polarizing, so being polarizing did not hurt Barack Obama electorally!  But there are important things besides winning elections, as far as Wear is concerned.  Conservative evangelicals do a lot to serve people, and, in Wear’s opinion, it is better to seek common ground with them rather than to reject them out of ideological absolutism.  Moreover, political polarization has encouraged rancor and animosity.

E.  Wear does well to seek common ground, but he should have made more of an effort in the book to empathize with people on the other side.  What about a poor woman who cannot get an abortion because the federal government refuses to fund it?  What if the pregnancy takes time away from her job or hurts her health?  What about an LGBT person who is fired in the name of religious freedom?

F.  Wear probably is more conservative than I am on certain issues, but I did appreciate the times when he transcended the left-right dichotomy.  I liked something he said on page 225: “Christians cannot protest for their religious freedom one day and protest against a mosque opening up down the street the next.”

G.  Wear made an interesting point on page 222, in justifying government funding of religious organizations that embrace a conservative approach towards sexuality: “…to categorically deny federal funding and recognition to any group is to say to them and their fellow citizens that they are not a part of the American family.  That they are somehow beneath the nation, unfit to serve their neighbor in partnership with their government.  There may be circumstances in which as a nation we might want to send this message, but we should be careful when we do, and keep in mind the social ramifications of this position.”  Speaking for myself personally, I think it is problematic, on a practical level, when Catholic hospitals refuse to provide contraception.  On the other hand, I am also uncomfortable with saying that receiving government assistance means they have to surrender their religious freedom.  Wear on page 222 provided food for thought on such issues.

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

Monday, March 20, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Beloved Hope Chest

Amy Clipston.  The Beloved Hope Chest.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

The Beloved Hope Chest is Book 4 of Amy Clipston’s Amish Heirloom series.

Each of the previous three books ended with some sort of unresolved mystery.  In Book 4, those mysteries are resolved.  I cannot say that there were any surprises in Book 4, or that Book 4 was particularly eventful.  Yet, Book 4 tied up the series beautifully.  We got to see why Mattie was able to empathize with what her daughters went through in Books 1-3: because she had similar experiences.  One can understand Book 4 without having read the previous books, though.

Like many other Amy Clipston books that I have read, this one could get repetitive and drag on, a bit.  But it was slightly more variegated in its treatment of issues than other Amy Clipston books.  An asset to the book is that Clipston communicated the characters’ emotions well.  Mattie has just lost her husband Isaac and is nervous in her newfound marriage to Leroy: it is difficult for her to adjust to her new life, and she is unsure if she can be a good wife to Leroy.  Leroy has always loved Mattie and wishes that she would love him in return.  Clipston vividly conveyed Mattie’s sense of loss and worry, and Leroy’s sadness as a person with unrequited love.

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

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Articles: How Democrats Killed Their Populist Soul; Reading Little House as an Adult

I don't feel like doing an extensive Current Events Write-Up today, so I will just link to two articles that I found interesting.

This is a lengthy article, so I read it over the course of a month.  According to the article, a prominent plank among 1930's New Deal Democrats was a commitment to anti-trust policies: smaller business is better than big business.  In the 1960's, however, economist and Kennedy advisor John Kenneth Galbraith expressed hope that monopolies could promote social justice.  During the 1970's, when Democrats were elected to Congress in the aftermath of Watergate, many of these Democrats rejected the populist anti-trust beliefs of the 1930's Democrats.  Bill Clinton would amplify this 1970's non-populist stance as President.  

I've been watching the Little House TV series lately.  I was wondering if I would enjoy the books.  From this post, the impression that I get is that the books are not like the TV series!  I'd still like to read them for myself, sometime. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Hum of Angels, by Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight.  The Hum of Angels: Listening for the Messengers of God Around Us.  WaterBrook, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Scot McKnight teaches New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois.

Here are some of my thoughts about his book, The Hum of Angels.

A.  This book is more educational than other books about angels that I have read.  McKnight refers briefly to depictions of angels in other ancient Near Eastern cultures,  mentions thoughts about angels from such historic Christian luminaries as Origen and John Calvin, and quotes Jewish pseudepigraphical passages about angels.  This is not a surprise to me because, even though this book is on a popular level, McKnight is an academic and is thus sensitive to historical-criticism of the Bible and the history of Jewish and Christian thought.  That is what made this book interesting.

B.  That said, McKnight did not really integrate the historical considerations into faith and religious belief.  If angels are depicted outside of ancient Israel, and prior to the time of ancient Israel, does that mean that the ancient Israelites borrowed their belief in angels from outside cultures?  Would that mean that angels are not real but were invented by human beings?  Is there a purpose in quoting Christian luminaries, from a religious perspective?  Is what they say authoritative about angels, or mere assertion?  McKnight tried to justify quoting the pseudepigraphical sources by saying that they formed part of Christ's cultural milieu, and McKnight presumably deems Christ to be authoritative.  Does that make the pseudepigraphical sources authoritative about angels, though?

C.  McKnight disputes the common Christian idea that the Angel of the Lord in the Hebrew Bible was the being who became Jesus Christ, a Christophany, in short.  For McKnight, the Angel of the Lord brought God's presence to people but was still a separate being from God.  On the one hand, McKnight's stance appealed to me because it was a historical-critical interpretation, one that did not read Christianity back into the Hebrew Bible.  On the other hand, his stance left lingering questions in my mind.  McKnight did not address the claim in early manuscripts of Jude 5 that Jesus brought the Israelites out of Egypt (Michael Heiser, The Unseen Realm, page 270), which would be consistent with the Angel of the Lord in the Hebrew Bible being a Christophany.

There is also a possible discrepancy between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, which seeing the Angel as a Christophany can resolve.  In the Old Testament, the Angel of the Lord seems to receive worship or reverence (Joshua 5:13-15).  In Revelation 22:9, by contrast, an angel emphatically forbids John to bow down to him, telling him to worship God instead.  McKnight in the book shows familiarity with these passages, but he fails to address a question: Why was an Angel reverenced in the Old Testament, whereas worship of angels was forbidden in the New Testament?  One solution is to say that the Angel in the Hebrew Bible was actually Jesus Christ, who is God, and Christ can be worshiped.  Another solution is to say that the line of demarcation between angels and God became more firmly established over the course of biblical and Jewish thought, as a way to safeguard the uniqueness of God.  The latter solution can pose a challenge to faith, however: if biblical thought about angels changed and developed over time, does that imply that what the Bible says about angels reflects merely human ideas, rather than reality?

D.  McKnight seems to argue that angels will always glorify Jesus Christ.  McKnight does well to demonstrate that angels in the New Testament have an interest in Jesus Christ.  But does that mean that they always have to mention Jesus when they interact with people?  McKnight spends pages talking about angelic activity in the Hebrew Bible, and, obviously, angels did not mention Jesus in those cases.  If I am not mistaken, they did not always mention Jesus in the stories of angelic encounters that McKnight relays (but I am open to correction on this).  McKnight is trying to avoid a free-for-all when it comes to angelic encounters, to provide a means for people to discern which angelic encounters are real and legitimate.  Perhaps he could have attained this goal without saying that angelic encounters always have to be about Jesus.  He says throughout the book that angelic encounters are about God's love: God's commitment to be with us and to help us to become Christlike.  Angels can assist people on this path, even if they do not explicitly mention Jesus.  Angelic encounters can make people sensitive to the existence of the transcendent and the holy, and that is part of becoming Christlike.

E.  McKnight did attempt to support his claims with Scriptures.  He has a chapter about how angels are intercessors.  One passage that he cites,  Job 33:23-26, supports this claim rather well.  Other passages that he cites?  Maybe they support it, but not necessarily.  McKnight also should have tried to reconcile his belief that angels can be intercessors with I Timothy 2:5, which states that there is one mediator between God and humanity, namely, Jesus Christ.

F.  One thought that occurred to me in reading this book is, "Why hasn't an angel appeared to me?  Doesn't God like me?"  In light of that, I appreciated McKnight's statements that angels may appear to us, without us even knowing it.  And they are around us, anyway!

G.  I liked something that McKnight said in the After Words: that he misses his book on angels, after finishing it!  There is a close relationship between authors and the books that they write!

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

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Church Write-Up: Ripping Out Sins

Last Sunday, I visited what I call the "Word of Faith" church.  The label fits in some areas but not in others, but I don't want to identify the church by name, so that is the label that I will use.

The pastor was speaking about Jesus' exorcisms and the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  The pastor was discussing Jesus' exorcisms within the context of God delivering people from sin.

The pastor said that he believes that God will be ripping sins out of people's lives.  He gave some examples: deliverance from adultery, deliverance from pornography, deliverance from that glass of wine that one drinks before going to bed.  I thought of the Christian movie War Room, in which a woman is praying for her husband, who is having an intimate dinner with another woman.  Right when the woman is praying for him, the man gets sick and has to leave the date!  To quote Mr. Keating on Dead Poet's Society, "All I want to hear is RIP!"

Were Jesus' exorcisms about delivering people from sins?

There are indications in Scripture that Satan influences people to sin.  Ephesians 2:2 states: "Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience" (KJV).  Acts 5:3 has: "But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land?"

Is that the same as demon possession, though?  A person sinning is not the same as being inhabited and taken over by a foreign entity, as seems to be the case in the Gospels.

But then there is Matthew 12:42-45: "When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none. Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation."

That is parabolic, so one should be careful to avoid dogmatism.  But I have read commentators who interpret this passage in light of the sins of Jesus' generation: Jesus' generation largely rejected Jesus, and that made its spiritual condition worse than before, leading to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.  If that interpretation is correct, then Jesus is saying that sin can relate to demon possession, or at least Jesus is making an analogy between the two.

The pastor wrestled briefly with the issue of human responsibility.  On the one hand, he said, our sins are due to things that we did not ask for and that load the dice against us: our sinful human nature, the demonic, etc.  On the other hand, the Bible treats us as responsible for our actions.

The pastor eventually got to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  He said that we should focus on the positive in that passage: Jesus said that all sins can be forgiven.  The pastor interpreted "forgiven" there to mean that sins are leaving a person.  Indeed, the Greek word translated as "forgiven" in Matthew 12:31, "aphiemi," can mean leaving, departing, or sending away.  But the passage uses the passive of aphiemi with the dative, "to the men," instead of having "from the men."  Had the verse been making the pastor's point, my suspicion is that it would have had "from the men"----every manner of sin will be removed from the men.  Notwithstanding my disagreement here, I can, in a big picture sense, identify with what the pastor was saying: Jesus does not just want to save us from the penalty for sin, but from sin itself.

Regarding blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the pastor said that, when a person considers God's compassion towards people and deliverance of them to be evil, that is a spirit that God cannot remove.  He said that he doubts that anyone at the church has arrived at that point.  I had a variety of questions when he shared that interpretation.  First of all, does anyone really consider compassion and deliverance to be evil?  Maybe Jesus' critics prioritized other things above compassion and deliverance (i.e., their power), and such a stance can contribute to a spiritual deadness or hardness, but is that the same as deeming compassion and deliverance to be evil?  Second, why couldn't God cast out such a spirit?  Can't God soften people's hearts (i.e., Romans 11)?

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Book Write-Up: Sinai and the Saints

James M. Todd III.  Sinai and the Saints: Reading Old Covenant Laws for the New Covenant Community.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Are Christians obligated to obey the laws that God gave to Moses at Sinai?  In Sinai and the Saints, biblical scholar James M. Todd III tackles this question.  Todd's position is that the Old Covenant has passed away, so people are not obligated to observe the Mosaic law.  Rather, for Todd, Christians are under the New Covenant and are required to obey the law of Christ. 

To his credit, Todd wrestles with challenges to such a position.  Why does the New Testament quote or allude to Old Testament commandments and laws, if they are no longer authoritative?  What exactly is the law of Christ?  And what about Matthew 5:17-20, in which Jesus denied that he came to destroy the law?

Contrary to the book's title, Todd does not really attempt to read Old Covenant laws for the New Covenant community.  (At least that is my impression, and other readers may conclude differently.)  He actually advises against going overboard in focusing on each Old Testament law in an attempt to derive an application from it.  Rather, Todd focuses on what he considers the purpose of the Old Covenant: to use Israel as an example of how people cannot become righteous through obedience to the law, since they need a new heart.  For Todd, the Hebrew Bible points to a coming king who would bruise the serpent, a la Genesis 3:15.  

There were some issues that I wished Todd had engaged.  For example, how can Jewish-Christians be the weaker brethren of Romans 14, when Romans 14 says the weaker brethren eat only vegetables?  Jews, after all, eat kosher meat.  One answer is that Jews stayed on the safe side and ate only vegetables because most of the meat in the Diaspora was offered to idols or was non-kosher, but Todd never makes this point.  Another example concerns the sacrifices.  Todd notes that the Old Covenant had blood sacrifices for sins, and, of course, he believes that foreshadowed Christ's sacrifice.  But his discussion would have been stronger and more nuanced had it acknowledged that sin and guilt offerings were largely for unintentional sins and explored how that theme gets played out in the New Testament. 

Still, Todd deserves credit and praise for the issues that he does engage.  Since Israel's return to her land is a significant aspect of the Hebrew Bible's eschatological prophecies, where is the land promise in the New Testament?  Are the stipulations for Gentiles in Acts 15 still authoritative for believers?  And are Christians forbidden to represent God visually?  Todd's answer to that last question left lingering questions in my mind, since I wondered why God would change his stance on this from the Old Testament to the New (assuming that God did).  Overall, though, Todd's discussions were judicious and methodical.

Todd's approach to the biblical text was conservative, and there were cases in which that influenced his answers to questions.  A number of New Testament scholars maintain that the Gospel of Matthew was a Jewish-Christian Gospel, which held that the Torah was still authoritative for Jewish believers.  Todd never entertains this possibility, perhaps because he believes that the entire New Testament teaches the same thing about the Mosaic Torah: that it has been nullified and replaced with the law of Christ.  Diversity of Scripture has little place in that paradigm.  The result is a rather convoluted interpretation of Matthew 5:17-20, as commendable as Todd's discussion is for wrestling with the passage in light of the Gospel of Matthew as a whole. 

Did I find Todd's arguments convincing?  Partly.  On the one hand, to me at least, New Testament authors seem to be appealing to Old Testament commandments as divinely-authoritative.  In my opinion, that differs from Paul's reference to a Stoic poet in Acts 17, even though Todd appears to regard the two as analogous.  On the other hand, that leaves me with a problem: Which Old Testament commands are authoritative, and which are not?  Todd makes a convincing case that attempts to make such distinctions are problematic.  It is easier simply to say that the Mosaic Torah was replaced with the law of Christ.

Todd portrays the Old Covenant as a covenant of trying to become righteous through obedience to the law and receiving God's condemnation for disobedience.  The New Covenant, by contrast, holds that God's people are already a royal priesthood rather than trying to become a royal priesthood through obedience (cp. I Peter 2:9 with Exodus 19:6), and it affirms that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).  There may be something to Todd's argument here, and yet I wonder: If God's Old Testament wrath is no longer relevant for New Covenant believers, why does Paul appeal to God's Old Testament wrath as an example for the Corinthian Christians (I Corinthians 10:11)?

Notwithstanding my questions and critiques, I am still giving the book five stars.  It was judicious, meaty, and thoughtful.  And I want to see movie The Magnificent Seven after reading Todd's description of it!

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

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Book Write-Up: Faith in the Face of Empire, by Mitri Raheb

Mitri Raheb.  Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible through Palestinian Eyes.  Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2014.  See here to purchase the book.

Mitri Raheb is a Lutheran pastor in Bethlehem.  He was born in Bethlehem to a family of Palestinian Christians.  His father was Ottoman.  I learned about this book from Christena Cleveland’s post, 15 Books for Fighting for Justice in the Trump Era.  I hope to read more books on that list.

Here are some of my thoughts about the book:

A.  Raheb places Israel in the same category as the previous empires that occupied or controlled the land of Palestine and oppressed its inhabitants, such as the Roman empire.  In my opinion, what Raheb fails to appreciate, at least in this book, is the emotional and religious connection that Jewish people have with the land of Palestine.  They are not merely using the land of Palestine as a strategic buffer, as many of the previous empires did.  Rather, they consider Palestine to be their religious homeland.  For centuries, even prior to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, Jews at their Passover seders said “Next year in Jerusalem.”  Therefore, Raheb strikes me as overly optimistic when he forecasts that the Israeli empire will fall, as did previous empires.  The Israeli “empire” has a more intense and emotional connection to the land.

B.  Raheb effectively describes the oppression of Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli “empire.”  In Raheb’s telling, Israelis took the Palestinians’ land, in some cases by violence.  Israelis have settled in the West Bank, taking the best land.  They put Palestinians through long check-points every day.  They physically divide the Palestinians.  And Israel is backed by the military might of the West, making Israel militarily superior to the Palestinians, and it uses that might against even non-violent Palestinian protests.

C.  Raheb counters when he considers to be myths that have gained acceptance among Christians and in the West.  One myth is that the Israelis were like David battling the Goliath of the Arab world in the 1960s.  As Raheb notes, the Israelis had plenty of backing from the West!  Raheb also challenges the view that the Palestinians are the violent ones or the people who need to be taught non-violence, for he argues that the Israelis have been violent.

D.  Raheb is also critical of assumptions held by people who are sympathetic towards the Palestinians.  He refers to a woman who claimed that Israel should be kind to the Palestinians because the Torah commands kindness for the stranger.  While Raheb appreciates her compassion, he questions her assumption that the Palestinians are strangers, for they inhabited the land, until the Israelis took it.  Raheb refers to a cleric who wanted to bring together the sons of Isaac and the sons of Ishmael.  Not only did Raheb believe that this cleric had a Messiah complex, but he also questioned the cleric’s assumption that Palestinians see themselves as the sons of Ishmael.  Raheb also took issue with using the term “Middle East,” seeing that as a Western designation for the region: east in comparison to whom?  The West!  I could sympathize with Raheb’s point on the stranger and the sons of Ishmael, but not so much on the term “Middle East.”  I do not see that as an ideologically-loaded term that prioritizes the West.  Couldn’t one ask about the West, “West in comparison to whom?”

E.  Related to (D.), I was unclear about whom Raheb believed that the Palestinians and the Jews are, in relation to the Bible.  Does he believe that modern-day Jews are descended from the ancient Israelites in the Bible?  He does seem to believe that Palestinians are connected to the ancient Israelites, in some way.

F.  Raheb supports a non-violent resistance against the Israeli empire, and the New Testament plays a significant role in the strategies that Raheb promotes.  Jesus brought different kinds of people together (i.e., Zealots, tax-collectors), and Raheb supports bringing Palestinians together, when Israelis and the Western empire seek to divide them.  Jesus reached out, not so much to the centers of power, but rather to areas on the margins, and Raheb favors mobilizing people on the margins; he is critical of Palestinians who become educated in the West and then neglect the marginalized areas of Palestine.  Raheb also supports disinvestment campaigns and what he calls creative resistance, which includes artwork that expresses the Palestinian people’s suffering at the hands of the Israeli empire.  Raheb believes that a non-violent approach on the part of the Palestinian resistance can perhaps encourage the Israelis to desist from violence, or at least challenge their violence.

G.  Raheb notes that God has failed to intervene against empires throughout history.  At the same time, he also observes that empires have risen and waned, and that gives him hope that Jesus is correct in saying that the meek shall inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5).  Raheb believes that people today can still do their part to contribute to this vision, by having an alternative, non-violent society that brings people together, as Jesus had in the first century.  Does Raheb believe that this will organically lead to peace in the Middle East?  Does the Second Coming of Christ, in which Christ returns and overthrows evil, play a role in his vision?  The Second Coming was not a salient theme in this book.

H.  Raheb’s comparison of Palestinians and Muslims with the political landscape of first century Palestine was interesting.  Raheb compares violent insurgents to the Jewish insurgents against Rome in the first century.  The Pharisees sought to bring the Messianic Age by encouraging and practicing piety, and Raheb states that this is essentially what Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood are trying to do: to encourage God to favor them by being especially pious.  According to Raheb, while improvements in the political or economic situation are difficult to see, it is noticeable when more people are becoming religious.  There are Muslims and Palestinians who hold on to that as a sign that things will get better for them.

Book Write-Up: Lighthouse Faith, by Lauren Green

Lauren Green.  Lighthouse Faith: God as a Living Reality in a World Immersed in Fog.  Nashville: W Publishing, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Lauren Green is a religion correspondent for Fox News.  Many know her from her awful interview of Reza Aslan, in which she seemed baffled that a Muslim would write a book about the founder of Christianity.  That interview never comes up in her book, Lighthouse Faith, and that is probably for the best.  Rather than defending her interview and responding to critics, she shares her faith, and she does so in an intelligent, thoughtful, and eloquent manner.

Many of her points have been made in other books and evangelical Christian settings: we can only love others when we are secure in God’s love; we look to people and things for fulfillment when we should be looking to God; the universe had to have a cause; and God gives us free will because God wants us to love God freely.  That last one was rather ironic because she has long attended Redeemer Presbyterian Church, which has been pastored by Timothy Keller.  Keller leans in the Reformed direction, which tends to reject the idea that humans have libertarian free will.

While her points have been made elsewhere, Green’s book was still an enjoyable read.  Her prose was vivid and compelling, and her personal stories were genuine and heartfelt.  The book was also educational on account of its scientific element.  Green discusses such topics as nature vs. nurture and the God particle, explaining these concepts in a lucid manner.  Green draws from philosophers and scientists in such discussions.  Green also ties musical theory into her faith, which could get tedious to me as a reader, and yet Green should not be faulted for being passionate about her area of expertise (music).  Plus, her story about Handel was inspiring!

A compelling point that Green makes in this book is that God’s truth is built into the fabric of nature and who we are as people.  Within nature, we see that death can lead to life, and that life can follow death, which can remind one of Jesus’ death and resurrection bringing life.  That reminded me of a scene in Catherine Marshall’s Christy, in which Pastor David Grantland tried to reconcile a belief in the afterlife with his liberal seminary training.  Green also notes evidence that early man was religious, before human beings settled and became agriculturally-oriented.

Green elsewhere in the book talks about the Fall in Genesis 3, and she does not rigorously attempt to reconcile its historicity with her belief in early man and death being integral to nature rather than a product of the Fall (or such is my interpretation of her latter stance).  While her connection of the Pythagorean Theorem with the cross struck me as rather far-fetched, I appreciated her stance that God’s truth is a part of nature, as well as her acknowledgement that we have to decide for ourselves whether we find what she says to be convincing.

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

Monday, March 13, 2017

Book Write-Up: An Amish Home

Beth Wiseman, Amy Clipston, Ruth Reid, and Kathleen Fuller.  An Amish Home: Four Novellas.  Thomas Nelson, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

An Amish Home contains four novellas.  Each novella is by a prominent author of fiction about the Amish.

I have read my share of such collections, and this one stands out.  The other collections that I have read focus on romance.  An Amish Home, by contrast, looks at the problems that married couples experience, such as financial security and losing a baby.  The fourth story, the one by Kathleen Fuller, has more of a romantic focus, in that the two main characters are unmarried.  But they cannot stand each other throughout much of the novella, so calling that novella a “romance” may not be entirely accurate!  In short, the characters in this novel were real, and their struggles were multi-dimensional.  While I enjoy Amish anthologies, this collection was especially good.

The Amy Clipston novella stood out to me, for a variety of reasons.  For one, the two main characters in that novella are not even Amish.  The Amish element to the story is that an Amish couple is helping them.  Second, the story was different from the Amy Clipston stories and novellas that I have read.  How many other Amy Clipston stories have an antagonist?  I cannot think of any!  Amy Clipston’s stories also have a tendency to dwell on the same problem over and over, but her novella in this book had a little more variety in how it addressed the problems that the characters were facing.

If I have a critique, it is that the characters’ problems got hastily wrapped up near the end, and that looked rather artificial.  Life worked out a little too neatly!  Yet, I realize that the novellas could not go on forever but had to end at some point.  Moreover, the end of Amy Clipston’s novella, in which someone from the body of Christ reaches out to the vulnerable mother, was inspiring.  Real life can be like that, if people choose!

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

Movie Write-Up: The Unauthorized Full House Story

I recently watched the 2015 Lifetime movie, The Unauthorized Full House Story, which was about the actors in the hit ABC sitcom Full House.  The movie went from the actors’ rise from obscurity and disappointments to Candace Cameron’s wedding to Russian hockey player Valeri Bure.

I liked how the movie depicted the actors as tight-knit, in good times and bad. Another interesting detail was how the actors shaped their characters.  Bob Saget had the idea of making Danny Tanner a neat freak, and John Stamos proposed that Uncle Jesse be an Elvis fan.

In terms of negatives, the movie tried to cover too much, so pieces were left unresolved.  For example, in the movie, Jodie Sweetin was upset because Candace was becoming close to Andrea Barner (who played Kimmy Gibler) and felt left out, but that was never revisited.  As this Rolling Stone article notes, the movie lacked notorious Full House catch-phrases, such as “Have mercy!” and “You got it, dude!”  (I think it did have “You’re in big trouble, mister!”)  The movie also had a lot of silliness.  Some of that was necessary to show that Bob Saget was raunchier than his TV dad character, but there was just too much of that.

The movie still had its share of serious scenes, though, and that enhanced the movie.  Bob Saget and Dave Coulier were coping with the deaths of their sisters.  And Bob Saget worked a lot on Full House and America’s Funniest Home Videos, and that cost him his marriage.

Like The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell movie, The Unauthorized Full House Story touched on religion.  In my favorite scene in the movie, Candace Cameron and John Stamos are talking.  Candace is upset because a magazine called her chubby, and John laments that the tabloids portray him as a big-time partier, leading his dad to think that he is immature.  Candace says that her brother, Kirk (Kirk Cameron from Growing Pains), tells her that things will be become clearer when she has a relationship with God.  John replies that it’s good for people to find ways to keep their head straight—-Kirk has religion, John has his music—-and Candace needs to find what works for her.

Many Christians may disagree with John’s characterization of religion as one of many ways to keep one’s head straight, saying it is much more than that.  They would have a point, and yet I agree that religion is a way to keep one’s head straight, and that religion is a personal decision.  I also appreciate that John did not denigrate Kirk Cameron.  And the scene struck me as an Uncle Jesse moment, as if Stamos were like Uncle Jesse even off-screen!

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Book Write-Up (Loosely-Speaking): Catechism of the Catholic Church

I finished the Catholic catechism a few weeks ago.  This blog post is my informal write-up about it.  Here are six points that I want to make.

A.  What does Roman Catholicism believe about justification?  My understanding has long been that Roman Catholics believe that justification is the process of a believer becoming practically righteous, with God’s help.  Protestants, by contrast, hold that justification is God declaring the believer to be righteous, even though that person is actually sinful.  For Protestants, justification is God declaring the believer righteous, whereas sanctification is God making the believer righteous on a practical level.  Roman Catholics, I thought, conflated both under the category of justification.

My understanding was challenged when I went through the catechism.  There were places in which the catechism seemed to define justification as a person becoming a Christian and receiving forgiveness of sins at baptism, while treating sanctification as the believer becoming practically righteous and undergoing spiritual growth after conversion, with God’s help.  That sounds like Protestantism’s distinction between justification and sanctification.

My impression after reading the catechism is that it regards justification, roughly speaking, as conversion: a person officially becomes a Christian at baptism and is forgiven of sin.  But the catechism adds another important element to justification: that, when a person becomes a Christian, God infuses into that person a degree of practical righteousness, an inclination and desire, on some level, to will and to do the will of God.  In Catholicism, justification still entails a believer being practically righteous.

It seems also that the catechism maintains that justification—-which includes a person’s status as a forgiven Christian—-needs to be maintained, or even restored after a person commits a mortal sin.  The sacraments play a role in that, according to the catechism.

The catechism, as far as I can recall, did not address the relationship of Genesis 15:6 and Paul’s interpretations of that passage (Romans 4:3; Genesis 3:6-9) to justification.  Paul argued that justification comes through faith and not works: Abraham believed God, and God credited that to him as righteousness.  Justification appears to be God declaring a believer to be righteous when the believer looks to God who justifies the ungodly, and that is contrasted in Romans 11 with trying to be saved by doing good works.  How does Roman Catholicism reconcile that with its view that justification relates to practical righteousness?

I will add that the catechism also seems to define faith as more than simply receiving God’s free gift of salvation, which is how many evangelicals present faith.  Actually, in the catechism, faith sounds more like what many Protestants define as a living, saving faith: a faith that works in love, in contrast with easy-believism.

Maybe my initial understanding of the Catholic view of justification is still an accurate understanding of the view, on some level, for I recall listening to a debate between Protestant James White and Catholic Mitchell Pacuwa on justification, and Pacuwa seemed to speak of justification as more of a process of becoming righteous.  It’s just that, when I read the catechism itself, the catechism presented justification in terms of becoming a Christian, as the entrance into the Christian life.

B.  Even after reading the catechism, I am unclear about the exact distinction between a mortal and a venial sin.  I understand that a mortal sin is worse than a venial sin.  But I do not entirely understand what makes a mortal sin mortal, and what makes a venial sin venial.  The catechism said that a mortal sin was a sin against charity, and that would encompass serious sins such as murder.  But it also seemed to suggest that a mortal sin is committing a sin knowingly and intentionally.  The thing is, even mortal sins can be committed without full knowledge or intent, as when a person murders someone in the heat of passion.  My bet is that the Catholic church would still see that as a mortal sin, though.

C.  Jesus in Matthew 16:18 tells Peter that upon this rock Jesus will build his church.  My understanding has long been that Catholics believe the rock was Peter, whereas Protestants see the rock as Peter’s confession of faith, or as Christ himself.  What surprised me when I read the catechism was that it interpreted the rock in all three ways: as Peter, as Peter’s confession of faith, and as Christ!

D.  I Timothy 2:5 affirms that there is one God and one mediator between God and man, namely, Jesus Christ.  How would Catholics reconcile that with their view that Mary, on some level, is a mediatrix?  In 970, the Cathechism quotes LG 60 and 62, which attempts to argue that Mary’s role as mediatrix does not contradict Christ’s unique status as mediator:

“Mary’s function as mother of men in no way obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows its power. But the Blessed Virgin’s salutary influence on men . . . flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on his mediation, depends entirely on it, and draws all its power from it.”  “No creature could ever be counted along with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer; but just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by his ministers and the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is radiated in different ways among his creatures, so also the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source.”

The argument seems to be that Christ’s unique mediatorship makes possible Mary’s status as mediatrix.  Mary shares in Christ’s mediatorship, as the church leadership and laity share in Christ’s priesthood.  I can somewhat see the logic in that.  It doesn’t entirely set right with me, though.  It reminds me of legal obfuscation, or searching for legal loopholes.

I guess my question would be: Are there prerogatives that are truly unique to Christ, within Catholicism?  Mary praying for us does not bother me that much, for people can pray for others, but does Mary do anything salvific for people, according to Catholic thought?  I was not clear about this when I read the catechism.  The catechism says things like this: “In a wholly singular way she cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope, and burning charity in the Savior’s work of restoring supernatural life to souls. For this reason she is a mother to us in the order of grace” (968, quoting LG 61).  “This motherhood of Mary in the order of grace continues uninterruptedly from the consent which she loyally gave at the Annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross, until the eternal fulfilment of all the elect. Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this saving office but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation …. Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix” (LG 62).

Would Catholicism say that Mary could not pay for people’s sins through her death, for only Christ could do that, but that Mary can help bring us the beneficent consequences of Christ’s death?  So can the church, in a sense: the church could not procure anyone’s salvation, but the church can help bring people salvation by spreading the Gospel.

E.  I read a post by Steve Hays of Triablogue when I was going through the catechism, and his reference to apparent tensions within Catholic thought resonated with my own reading.  Steve says:

“It’s true that Catholic ethicists can argue with great precision and sophistication, but to what end? Their job is not to ascertain right and wrong, but to defend whatever the Magisterium deems to be right and wrong. They begin with the diktats of Rome, then cast about for supporting arguments to retroactively rationalize a foregone conclusion. And it can take tremendous ingenuity to defend Catholic moral theology. Consider the hairsplitting distinctions that are required to attack artificial contraception while defending natural family planning. Or to attack divorce while defending annulment, or to attack lying while defending mental reservations.”

I’m not necessarily endorsing everything that Steve says there, but my impression in reading the catechism is that the catechism contained tensions but did not always try to iron them out.  Maybe there are other sources that attempt to do that.

F.  I have long struggled with New Testament passages about forgiveness and reconciliation.

There is Matthew 5:23-24: “Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.”

Does that mean that I have to make people like me before I can worship God?  Good luck with that!

Then there is Matthew 6:15’s statement that God won’t forgive us if we don’t forgive others.  Does that mean that God will not listen to my prayer or have anything to do with me, if I dislike certain people?

That said, I found what the catechism said about forgiveness to be refreshing and helpful:

From 2843: “It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession.”

That is pastoral, understanding, and helpful, in that it presents forgiveness in the context of God working with us where we are.

From 2844: “Forgiveness is a high-point of Christian prayer; only hearts attuned to God’s compassion can receive the gift of prayer.  Forgiveness also bears witness that, in our world, love is stronger than sin.”

I can identify with the idea that, in praying to God, we should, on some level, be on the same page as God.  I would add, though, that there are times when we are not on the same page as God and still pray, in hope that God will help us to be on the same page as God.  I also like this passage because it offers a reason to forgive: to show that love is stronger than sin.

2845 quotes from St. Cyprian, De Dom. orat. 23:

“God does not accept the sacrifice of a sower of disunion, but commands that he depart from the altar so that he first may be reconciled with his brother.  For God can be appeased only by prayers that make peace.”

I may not be universally liked, but I do not deliberately try to show disunion, at least not now, when I am more mature.  And I do believe in praying for peace.

Anyway, I apologize for any misunderstandings on my part in this post.  I am a work in progress.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Current Events Write-Up: Surveillance of Trump's Campaign, Welfare, Health Care, and Robert Osborne

Time for my weekly Current Events Write-Up!

Surveillance of Trump’s Campaign?

Transcript: ABC This Week for March 4, 2017.

ABC This Week last Sunday, of course, was focusing on Donald Trump’s claim that Barack Obama in 2016 wiretapped Trump’s campaign.  After enduring the propagandists for and against Trump, I was pleased to listen to Michael Mukasey, who served as President George W. Bush’s Attorney General.  Martha Raddatz, who interviewed him, said that Mukasay brought some clarity to the issue.  Mukasey stated:

“I think the president was not correct certainly in saying that President Obama ordered a tap on a server in Trump Tower. However, I think he’s right in that there was surveillance and that it was conducted at the behest of the attorney — of the Justice Department through the FISA court…I base that on news reports that you mentioned in the last spot. I also base it on kind of inadvertent blurting out by Adam Schiff that his committee wants to talk to the counterintelligence agents at the FBI who were involved in this. Now, what that means is this is part not of a criminal investigation, but of an intelligence gathering investigation…They tried to get — apparently tried to get a wiretap based on their criminal investigation function in June. That was turned down. They then tried to get, and got, an order permitting them to conduct electronic surveillance in October. This is October of 2016…It means there were some basis to believe that somebody in Trump Tower may have been acting as an agent of the Russians, for whatever purpose, not necessarily the election, but for some purpose.  And the FBI keeps track of people who act as agents of foreign governments. They keep track of people who act as agents of the Chinese, the Russians, the Israelis, everybody.”

Mukasey also disputed that the Russians wanted to get Trump elected, arguing that they had an another agenda in orchestrating the leaks against Hillary:

“The only crime I that have heard about or seen of that was committed was committed by the Russians when they hacked the DNC. They hacked John Podesta, and they tried to hack the Republican National Committee. That’s the only crime that I’m aware of.  Now, the question is of course is why was it committed? Some people say it was committed to promote the election of Donald Trump. I happen to think that is ridiculous. Because at the time that it had happened, Donald Trump looked like a sure loser. And you’d have to believe that Vladimir Putin was an idiot trying to back a sure loser. I think much more likely he was trying to intimidate a sure winner, Secretary Clinton.”


Can Politicians Save the Welfare State by Urging or Even Subsidizing More Baby Making?, by Daniel Mitchell.

Libertarian economist Daniel Mitchell talks about how the welfare state in Europe may become unsustainable, since not enough babies are being born to support it when they become adults.  He doubts that government efforts there to encourage women to have babies will solve this.

Jacobin: The Myth of the Fiscal Conservative: Austerity measures don’t actually save money. But they do disempower workers. Which is why governments pursue them in the first place, by Amir Fleischmann.

Fleischmann makes the case that “Supporting social programs reduces government spending in the long run.”

Health Care

CNN Money: Republicans’ Obamacare replacement bill: The winners and losers, by Tami Luhby. 

This article breaks things down pretty clearly.

Reason: The one number that shows why any health care effort will fail.

I didn’t read the entire article, but the status explains why Obamacare has problems, and why the Ryan plan, if implemented, will have problems.  And people in the comments section tell their own horror stories about the American health care system.

Townhall: The Bizarre Regulatory Idolatry of the Patent Lobby, by Mytheos Holt.

I am pleased that conservative voices are challenging the high prices of big pharma, and the government policies that perpetuate them.


MeTV: R.I.P. Film Historian Robert Osborne.

I only watched Turner Classic Movies occasionally, but I always liked Robert Osborne’s humble, low-key, and yet interesting introductions and conclusions to movies.

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