Friday, April 28, 2017

Book Write-Up: Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview

J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig.  Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview.  IVP Academic, 2003.  See here to purchase the book.

J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig are reputable philosophers and apologists.  This book, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, covers a variety of philosophical issues and views and discusses how they can relate to a Christian worldview.

The book is 626 pages and has 31 chapters, along with “Suggestions for Further Reading” concerning each chapter.  I will not comment on all 31 chapters, but I will say something about each “Part,” as the book is organized into six Parts.  Then, I will offer some general impressions about the book.

Part I defines philosophy, justifies it from a Christian perspective, and sets forth rules of logic (in which you use letters and symbols to represent arguments).  My favorite passage in this Part is when Moreland and Craig respond to a Christian argument that human reason is corrupt as a result of the Fall, and thus philosophy is useless.  Moreland and Craig note that the Bible employs reason and logic, even when speaking to the sinful and unregenerate.

Part II concerns epistemology: can we know anything, and how do we know what we know?  It critiques skepticism and postmodernism, while also discussing Alvin Plantinga’s view that naturalism should logically lead to skepticism.  It discusses justification: are internal criteria (i.e., our senses, our minds) sufficient for us to say that we know something (i.e., that the ball is red), or are criteria external to us (i.e., we see a red ball because red light bounces off of the ball) essential?  This Part also explores religious epistemology: do we know that certain religious claims are true, and, if so, how?  The exploration of religious epistemology largely covers Alvin Plantinga’s work.

Some things stood out to me in this Part.  First, the authors said that skepticism and postmodernism are self-refuting because they make the truth claim that accurate truth claims are impossible.  I rolled my eyes at this, expecting that to be their sole attempt to refute skepticism and postmodernism, but I was wrong.  They justify this argument, addressing the counterargument that we should make an exception for the skeptical truth claim.  They also interacted with arguments for skepticism.  Second, the authors quoted a passage in which Charles Darwin expressed a fear that evolutionary naturalism challenges epistemology.  In a July 3, 1881 letter to William Graham Down, Darwin stated: “With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the conviction of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy.  Would anyone trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”  Third, in discussing Plantinga’s argument that naturalism can lead to skepticism about evolutionary theory, I saw that Plantinga employed a few bizarre hypotheticals (i.e., suppose you have an animal that feels pleasure when it is attacked).  Craig and Moreland themselves occasionally use bizarre hypotheticals.  It’s probably something that philosophers do.  It still strikes me as bizarre.

Part III is about metaphysics.  One chapter spent a lot of time on the different kinds of nominalism as they relate to the color red: can we say that there is a general category of red, or should we reject the concept of general categories because each object is unique?  In reading this, I wanted to throw up my hands and say, “Look, there are objects that have different shades of red!  Why does this have to be so difficult?”  This Part also discussed the mind-body problem: the question of whether humans have souls or just physical brains.  On page 300, Moreland and Craig state: “Just because computers can imitate intelligence, or because we continue to learn more about the brain and its interaction with the soul, it does not follow that there is no soul and no enduring self.”  I think these things should be taken very seriously, though, since they relate to the question of whether the mind can be attributed to the brain, and whether the brain can produce free thoughts (contrary to determinism, which Moreland and Craig believe materialism entails).  Another topic that this Part covered was “Free Will and Determinism.”  My understanding is that Moreland and Craig support libertarianism, the idea that humans have free will and are the authors of their choices.  Yet, they are fair to compatibilism (the idea that choices are caused) and wrestle with its arguments.  Do they present a libertarianism that acknowledges that certain factors influence our choices?  Maybe, but I do not clearly recall their presentation of it.

Part IV concerns philosophy of science.  I would like to make five points about this Part.  First, Moreland and Craig provide an effective section about the different conceptualizations of “laws” and “theories.”  As Moreland and Craig point out, most scientists reject the idea that theories are mere guesses, which become laws after being proven.  This section was informative.  Second, there were places in which I thought that Moreland and Craig were flirting with creationism, anti-evolutionism, and Flood Geology, but I could be wrong on this.  They may have just been using examples of arguments that they deemed relevant to the discussion: they also cited as relevant the view that nature has flawed design and thus probably was not designed.  Third, Moreland and Craig showed how empiricism and realism can run contrary to each other.  This can initially appear counter-intuitive, since do not both acknowledge the existence of an outside world and hold that we can arrive at fairly accurate knowledge about it?  Actually, because empiricism focuses solely on what we can see, that leaves out a lot of knowledge!  Fourth, I appreciated the authors’ engagement of anti-realist arguments.  On page 334, for example, Moreland and Craig refer to an anti-realist observation that “In the history of science, many theories have explained phenomena, generated fruitful research and accurate predictions, yet were later abandoned as false.”  Fifth, the authors discuss the role of Newton’s theology in some of his scientific conclusions, and how Einstein would later disagree with Newton.  That actually came out in the first episode of the National Geographic TV series, Genius!

Part V was about ethics.  Is there an objective foundation for ethics?  Are ethics relative or absolute?  Here, I think that the authors made a special effort to convey how the other side (from their standpoint) would respond to criticisms.  There were times in reading this book when I wondered if the authors’ presentation of a perspective was complete, if an actual adherent to the perspective would accept the authors’ conceptualization of their viewpoint, or if an adherent would be able to respond to the authors’ easy knock-down punch of their ideas.  In short, would the adherents say “Wait a minute!” after reading the authors’ presentation of their position?  There was a little more back and forth in the section on utilitarianism (though, of course, Moreland and Craig are the ones summarizing the different perspectives).

I am ambivalent about some of the authors’ arguments in this Part.  Against utilitarianism’s claim that we should do what maximizes our pleasure and minimizes our pain, Moreland and Craig ask about those who find immoral acts pleasurable.  Moreland and Craig also robustly argue that egoism by itself cannot be a foundation for ethics: it can be part of the equation, but it cannot uphold ethics on its own.  Maybe they have a point here, but I wonder: Is it too much of a stretch for me to go from saying that I want good things for myself, to saying that I should want good things for others, too, since the other is just as valuable as I am?  Moreland and Craig dispute utilitarianism’s claim that we should define ethics according to what is the greatest good for the greatest number by saying that we do not always know the long-term effects of certain actions, and whether those effects are good or bad.  Perhaps, but should consequences be considered irrelevant in defining an action as moral or immoral?  If we see that an action consistently makes people miserable, should we hold out hope that eventually it might have a positive effect, or can we arrive at a fairly safe conclusion that there may be something wrong with the action?  Moreland and Craig appeal a couple of times to the value of moral intuition, and yet, in arguing against relativism, they note cultures that have a different morality.  If we all have a reliable moral intuition, then how do we account for the cultures that have practices that are morally offensive, from a number of people’s standpoints?  Finally, Moreland and Craig are trying to argue that God needs to exist for there to be a foundation for objective morality.  I question how much the existence of God actually solves.  Granted, you have God, and God enforces morality, which comes from God’s character.  But we still have to figure out what God wants.  We have our own conceptions of God.  And there are passages in the Bible that many today find morally offensive.  Moreland and Craig undoubtedly would have their responses to these concerns: they believe that there is apologetic evidence for the biblical God, and they would have their explanations for the morally offensive passages of Scripture.  Still, I wonder: does believing in God result in an understanding of objective moral values, when there is still a lot of subjectivity in the world?  In areas, perhaps.

Part VI covers such topics as arguments for the existence of God, God’s attributes, the problem of evil, the Trinity, the relationship between Jesus’ divine and human natures at the incarnation, and Christian exclusivism.  I have some points.  First, the coverage of the cosmological and teleological arguments for the existence of God was effective.  Moreland and Craig argued that some of the models upheld by critics of these arguments themselves presume that the universe does not go back infinitely, or have some assumption of fine-tuning.  Moreland and Craig seem to consider the ontological argument to be a good argument, even though I still look at it and think, “What the heck?”  Second, Moreland and Craig were unafraid to think outside the box, and that is commendable.  They believe that God has existed in time ever since creating the universe, as opposed to being outside of time.  They also offer a rehabilitation of Apollinaris (whom has been considered a heretic) that they believe remains within orthodoxy: that Jesus can still be fully human when his mind is the divine logos, since humans are made in God’s image.  This is brilliant, but they did not offer a robust answer to the question of how Jesus’ mind can be the divine logos, and yet Jesus can still be tempted to sin, or can be afraid.  They tried to address this question, but they failed, in my opinion.  Third, I liked their argument in their discussion of the problem of evil that there are many good things in the world, that many of us, notwithstanding our suffering, consider life to be worth living.  Fourth, I did not care for their defense of Christian exclusivism.  They say that God loves everyone and wants everyone to be saved, and yet that God put those whom he knew would not believe in contexts in which they would never hear the Gospel.  Couldn’t God at least offer them an actual opportunity, if God loved them so much?

In terms of general assessments, this book is helpful in terms of the background information that it provides.  The back cover calls it an “introduction” to philosophy.  I am not sure if I would have understood it as well as I did had I not had previous exposure to the philosophical concepts in the book.  And, even then, there were parts that were over my head.  For me, the book put pieces of what I knew in context, while also exposing me to additional nuances and shades of thought.  The authors try to be lucid and in many cases succeed: I could understand the broad thrust of what they were saying, even if some of the details escaped me.  They also used examples and illustrations, which could be helpful.  Maybe a person with no exposure to philosophy could get something out of this book: he or she may have to read it slowly, though!

That said, I give the book five stars because it was informative and wrestled with different positions.

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

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Book Write-Up: Invitation

Bill Myers, Frank Peretti, Angela Hunt, and Alton Gansky.  Invitation.  Bethany House Publishers, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

Authors Bill Myers, Frank Peretti, Angela Hunt, and Alton Gansky have teamed up to write the “Harbinger” series.  This book, Invitation, is the first book.  Each author contributes a story, and each story is from the point-of-view of one of the characters.  In this book, four people come together in the midst of supernatural phenomena.  There is Brenda, a tatoo-artist; an atheist professor who used to be a priest; Andi, the professor’s assistant; and Tank, a high school football player with the ability to heal.

Had I just read the first two stories, I would have given this book three stars.  And I am saying this as someone who likes most of the Frank Peretti novels that I have read: I did not care for the “Darkness” series, but I loved The Visitation, Prophet, The Oath, and Illusion.  The first two stories had interesting details.  Bill Myers’ story talked about the professor’s preference for books over people and his bad relationships, and Frank Peretti’s contribution talked some about the professor’s struggle with God, whom the professor sees as overbearing and bullying.  That is why I would have given the book three stars rather than two or one.  At the same time, these two stories were rather scattered and confusing.  There was little development of the characters or sharing of their backgrounds, for so much of the focus was on the supernatural oddities.  I felt deprived of context as I was reading this book.

Angela Hunt and Alton Gansky rescued this book, though.  Especially Angela Hunt.  Hunt’s story spent a lot of time detailing Andi’s background, thoughts, and feelings.  I actually felt as if I knew the professor more after reading Hunt’s contribution than I did when I read Peretti’s, and Peretti’s story was the one that was from the professor’s point-of-view.  In Hunt’s story, the professor pontificated a lot, and he came across as rather reasonable, rather than as some bitter atheist with an axe to grind against God.

Gansky’s contribution could be hard to follow, in areas, and yet he developed Tank’s character.  Tank is likable.  And, incidentally, Tank is the main person who reflects theologically on the mission of the four.  Gansky’s contribution provided more context to the book as a whole.

There are things that would have made this book better.  Perhaps more reflections on supernatural phenomena or aliens would have enhanced the book.  I would also be interested in learning more about why the professor left the priesthood.  But maybe the sequel will flesh some of these things out.  And I am open to reading the sequel.

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

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Church Write-Up: Christ Sends Us

For church last Sunday, I went to the traditional Lutheran service.  The service focused on John 20:21-23, in which the risen Christ interacts with his disciples.  The passage states:

“Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.  And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.”

The children’s part of service was about how God sends us out to forgive others, and God’s Spirit goes with us.  When we find that we have difficulty forgiving others, God will hopefully remind us that God has forgiven us, and that will motivate us to forgive others.

The pastor’s sermon offered additional thoughts.  The pastor talked about the excuses that we have for not performing the mission that God has given us: I can’t speak in front of people; I am not good at caring for people; I don’t want to talk to people.  The pastor said that many of us do not want to give up doing what we want to do, when we want to do it.  He also offered suggestions of things that we can do: we can give people a ride to church; we can talk to the person sitting by himself or herself at coffee hour; we can sit with those who come to church by themselves, since coming to church alone can be difficult.

The pastor then went on to say that following rules can only get us so far.  He noticed that Jesus first said “Peace be unto you.”  The pastor acknowledged that this was a standard greeting in that day, but he believed that there is something deeper going on here.  According to the pastor, Jesus came to bring shalom.  I think where he was going with this is that we need to recognize God’s love for us first, and that can motivate us to love others.  We also need for God to bring shalom to our lives.

I’ll just leave it at that.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Tao Te Ching

I recently read the Tao Te Ching.  The version that I read was Dr. Wayne W. Dyer’s Living the Wisdom of the Tao: The Complete Tao Te Ching and Affirmations. Dyer draws from a variety of English translations.

The book is like a daily devotional.  You read a verse of the Tao Te Ching on one side of the page, and Dyer offers a take-home application point on the other side.  I decided to read this version because I expected the Tao Te Ching to be very abstruse and complicated, so I figured that it would help me if someone provided a concise take-home point, and Dyer seemed well-read on Taoism.

In this post, I will talk about my exposure to Taoism prior to reading this book, then I will list some of my reactions to the Tao Te Ching.

I first learned about the Tao Te Ching in college.  I was a Christian fundamentalist at the time, and a fellow student wanted to enlighten me about another religion, namely Taoism.  I was not as backward as he thought, though, since I was asking him questions about Taoism, and I observed common ground between Taoism and Christianity.  The theme of the Tao Te Ching that he emphasized was that of observing the natural order and gaining wisdom from that.  He said that he read the Bible and it never made a connection with him, but the Tao Te Ching made a connection.  When I asked him what a particular line of the first verse of the Tao Te Ching meant, he responded that he thought about that, and he shared with me his conclusion.  That reminded me of how Christians read and meditate on verses in the Bible.

My second exposure to Taoism was in a college philosophy class.  We were reading Lao-zu, and some of the students in the class were baffled.  Some thought that the reading was rambling.  Another student believed that it addressed an obvious and unnecessary question: Would you prefer a long life without fear or pain, or a short life with fear or pain?  “Of course I would prefer a long life without fear or pain!”, he said.  “A better dilemma would be whether you would choose a long life with fear or pain, or a short life without it!”  The question in the reading indeed looked obvious, and yet it reflects central themes of Taoism: going with the flow, not stressing out, and partaking of a lifestyle that can lengthen life and lessen pain, even if that lifestyle may look counter-intuitive to possessive, accumulating people like us.  The readings also shared a scenario of what one can do when one is experiencing illness and death: simply take a step back and say, “This looks interesting!”

My third exposure to Taoism was during my first year of divinity school.  One of my roommates had a copy of Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh.  Another roommate shared that he struggled to read the Tao Te Ching, so he fell back on The Tao of Pooh.  I borrowed The Tao of Pooh out of curiosity.  I wondered if Christianity was a better religion than Taoism, or if there were overlapping themes between Taoism and Christianity.  Hoff in the book treats Winnie the Pooh as a Taoist.  Whereas Tigger is high energy, Eyore complains, and Rabbit intensely calculates, Pooh just is.  Pooh is relaxed and has no pretense, and things usually fall into place when he is the protagonist.

This background equipped me to read the Tao Te Ching, without being utterly confused by what I was reading.  At least it provided me with an idea of some of Taoism’s basic beliefs.  Some passages still perplexed me, though, and I am sure that there are still gaps in my understanding.

That said, here are some of my reactions to the Tao Te Ching:

A.  According to the Tao Te Ching, where was the Tao, and the material world is a manifestation of the Tao.  That made me wonder if Taoism is panentheistic or pantheistic.  In reading the Tao Te Ching, I was reminded of Proverbs 8, which presents wisdom as a key figure in God’s creation of all things; wisdom, in a sense, is like the Tao: both are orderly, both bring shalom, both are moral, both relate to the natural order, etc.  The Tao Te Ching does not explicitly say that the Tao created the cosmos, however, but rather that the cosmos came from the Tao.  That could be consistent with emanationism: the idea that the cosmos is an emanation from God, rather than God’s creation.

B.  In reading the Tao Te Ching, I had “problem of evil” questions.  If Taoism regards the natural order as good, I inquired, how would it account for the apparent evils of nature: animal violence, sickness, earthquakes, hurricanes, etc.?  On one occasion, the Tao Te Ching seemed to regard vicious elements of nature (i.e., storms) as a brief gliche, as if the overall tone of the cosmos is one of peace and order and the violent elements are mere interruptions.  On another occasion, it said that humans interfere with the Tao and bring havoc as a result.  The Tao Te Ching has a clear answer for why there is human evil: humans disregard the Tao, with its path of peace, virtue, generosity, and humility, and they choose greed, violence, pride, and stress instead.  It was a little more obscure in accounting for natural evil.

C.  That said, there was an indication that people who are especially in touch with the Tao can manipulate nature.  Verse 50 says that, with respect to such a person, “tigers and bulls keep clear[,] weapons turn from him on the battlefield, rhinoceroses have no place to horn him, tigers find no place for claws, and soldiers have no place to thrust their blades.”  Dyer’s take-home application point is that “I am an immortal spiritual being having a temporary human experience.”  He may be interpreting this passage to mean that, when we do not fear death, we are invulnerable to threats: even if a tiger mangles us to death, so what?  We live forever anyway!  Indeed, eternal life and not being afraid of death are significant themes in the Tao Te Ching.  But, in my mind, verse 50 seemed to be saying more than that: that people can be so in touch with the Tao, that nothing in this life can hurt them.  They can be bullet-proof!  I thought of different things in reading this verse: the movie The Matrix (with the invulnerable Neo), the Star Trek episode “Spectre of the Gun” (bullets went right through the Enterprise crew at the OK Corral!), Psalm 91’s affirmation that God will preserve God’s people from destruction and pestilence, and a statement I once heard from a pastor that, when you serve God, all of creation will serve you.

D.  The Tao Te Ching exhorts people to look within.  A number of conservative Christians recoil from such advice.  Look within?  Does not the author know that the human heart is deceitful and desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9), that from it proceed all manners of sinful propensities and actions (Mark 7:21-23)?  Maybe, but the Bible also says that humans are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), and that the requirements of God’s law are written on people’s hearts and in their consciences (Romans 2:15).  In light of that, should we treat looking within as an utterly fruitless exercise?  In any case, in reading the Tao Te Ching’s exhortations to look within, I thought of the Hellenistic distinction between the logos within and the logos without: there is an order to the universe, but there is also an order inside of us that coincides with the order in the universe.

E.  Related to (D.), verse 67 has a puzzling statement: “The Tao is not something found at the marketplace or passed on from father to son.  It is not something gained by knowing or lost by forgetting.  If the Tao were like this, it would have been lost and forgotten long ago.”  I contrasted this passage with the Book of Proverbs, in which wisdom cries out in the marketplace and is passed down from parents to child.  There are some passages in the Tao Te Ching that reminded me of Proverbs—-verse 6, for example, presents the Tao as a female to which one should listen, which is similar to Proverbs’ portrayal of Lady Wisdom.  But verse 67 appeared different from Proverbs.  The Tao Te Ching may have a problem with wisdom being conceptualized as a path that is taught through tradition and family, seeing it instead as something that is inside of us and all around us.  At the same time, it does value teachers: humble people who highlight the way, often through their demeanor and their lives more than their words.

F.  The Tao Te Ching is critical of trying to become virtuous through rigorous obedience to rules.  It wants for people to yield to the Tao, which has a moral/ethical component, but it seems to believe that, if people have to obey rules to be moral, then something is wrong.  Virtue should flow more naturally than that.  There are verses that are rather explicit about this (i.e., 18, 67), but I think that this concept sheds light on an odd statement in verse 38: “When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.  When goodness is lost, there is morality.  When morality is lost, there is ritual.  Ritual is the husk of true faith, the beginning of chaos.”  In reading these passages, Pauline concepts come to mind: the idea that the law was a temporary measure to respond to, expose, and restrain sin.  The law could not cure sin, in Paul’s mind, but now believers have the Holy Spirit, who enables them to conform to God’s righteous requirements through a transformed nature.

G.  The Tao Te Ching struck me as politically libertarian.  I do not want to go so far as to suggest that it would support the government eviscerating the social safety net and allowing social Darwinism to take its course.  But it is critical of government intrusion.  To quote verse 75: “When taxes are too high, people go hungry.  When the government is too intrusive, people lose their spirit.  Act for the people’s benefit; trust them, leave them alone.”  Incidentally, the college student who exposed me to the Tao Te Ching was a libertarian Republican.

H.  That said, I have read concerns that Taoism slows economic progress and is incompatible with capitalism.  Taoism supports a relaxed attitude, which lets things happen rather than making things happen, and which is contrary to greed and ambition.  These attitudes arguably run counter to the rushed pace of dog-eat-dog capitalism.  In reading the Tao Te Ching, I wondered how practical it was.  It advocated keeping a low profile, painting a picture of the humble being exalted.  Can people truly succeed in this world without promoting themselves?  And do things really happen without us working and trying to influence them to happen?

There is overlap between Taoism and the Bible.  Proverbs 27:2 says that we should let others praise us and not our own mouth, and the Book of Proverbs often extols the virtue of silence.  Jesus in Matthew 6:34 says that we should not be worried about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of itself.  At the same time, the Book of Proverbs also stresses the work ethic, which can be reconciled with Western capitalism.

I think that there is some wisdom to the Tao Te Ching and the Bible, on these issues.  Humility can be attractive, for people may trust those who humbly desire to be of service rather than seeking their own exaltation.  I just wonder if such a path should be absolutized.  In this world, people who express and promote themselves are often the ones who advance.  And things do not always work well on their own, without some effort to influence things to happen through action.

I.    There is a lot of emphasis in the Tao Te Ching on emptiness.  A number of conservative Christians criticize Eastern religions for this.  “Eastern religion says that we should empty our minds, whereas the Bible says that we should fill our minds—-with God’s word.”  Some conservative Christians go so far as to suggest that emptying one’s mind creates a void that demons will be happy to inhabit!  The Tao Te Ching stresses positive concepts, such as virtue, generosity, and love for enemies.  It also suggests that people can enjoy the Tao, whatever their station is in life.  That sounds like something positive, not nothingness or emptiness.  Why, then, does the Tao Te Ching advocate emptiness?  I do not entirely understand this, but it may be using the concept of emptiness to highlight certain values: there is a value to clearing one’s mind every so often, for that can encourage relaxation; there is also the value of emptying oneself of pride.

J.  Verse 41 took me aback.  The first paragraph states: “A great scholar hears of the Tao and begins diligent practice.  A middling scholar hears of the Tao and retains some and loses some.  An inferior scholar hears of the Tao and roars with ridicule.  Without that laugh, it would not be the Tao.”

This may conflict with some of what I said in (E.), assuming I knew what I was talking about in (E.), which is not a guarantee!

This passage took me aback because it seemed to be criticizing the inferior scholar who laughs at the Tao, and yet it appeared to see value even in that laughter!  When a person laughs at the message of the Tao, then you know that you have the genuine article!  The reason may be that the Tao does advocate a counter-intuitive life, one of humility, generosity, and love for enemies.  Moreover, it maintains that such a path benefits the person who practices it.  A domesticated version of the Tao, which does not draw laughter or inspire a response of perplexity, is not the genuine article.  There are Christians who claim that the same can be said of Christianity.

K.  Verse 70 had some odd lines: “My words have an ancestor; my deeds have a lord.  The people have no knowledge of this, therefore they have no knowledge of me.  This is why the sage dresses plainly, even though his interior is filled with precious gems.”

How does the sage’s modest apparel relate to people’s lack of knowledge about the antiquity and majesty of the Tao?  If the sage wanted people to see the Tao as majestic, would he not wear fancy clothes rather than modest apparel?  Perhaps the passage is saying that the sage is approaching people where they are rather than attempting to dazzle them.  Dazzling them, when they are in no position to be dazzled, would be like throwing pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6).  Jesus himself came to the world as a humble human being, rather than parading his exalted status.  People could relate to that and be more open to his teaching.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Current Events Write-Up: Ann Coulter on the Bombing of Syria

I only have one article that I want to share for my Current Events Write-Up this week.

Townhall: Lassie Come Home, by Ann Coulter. 

Conservative columnist Ann Coulter criticizes President Trump’s bombing of Syria, and she expresses reservations about war in the Middle East, period.

This is ironic, since she was a strong supporter of the Iraq War during George W. Bush’s Presidency.  Has she changed her mind on that?

In this particular column, she does not explicitly say.  On the one hand, one can get the impression from this column that she believes that the Iraq War and the War on Terror were justified, but not the bombing of Assad’s Syria.  To quote from the column:

“Assad is one of the least bad leaders in the entire Middle East. He’s not a murderous thug like Saddam, has no rape rooms, isn’t into jihad, protects Christians and is fighting ISIS. He provided us with intelligence on al-Qaida after 9/11. He does not have crazy Islamic police slapping women around or throwing gays off buildings. (That would be our beloved ally, Saudi Arabia.)  Trump was also correct about Assad’s opponents being far worse, containing large helpings of both ISIS and al-Qaida.”

On the other hand, there seems to be some acknowledgment in the column that regime change and war in Iraq did not work:

“We have never succeeded at turning a Third World dictatorship into a paradise. The history of these things is that removing a Middle Eastern strongman always makes things worse — for example, in Iran, Iraq, Libya and Egypt.”

“Our enemies — both foreign and domestic — would be delighted to see our broken country further weaken itself with pointless wars.  Was America strengthened by the Iraq War? The apparently never-ending Afghanistan War? Vietnam? This is how great powers die, which is exactly what the left wants.”

Is there a change of position here, or ambivalence?

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Church Write-Up: Easter 2017

I went to two church services on Easter Sunday.  The first was the 8:30 am traditional service at a Missouri Synod Lutheran church.  The second was a United Methodist church service.

Here are some of my thoughts:

A.  I was expecting the 8:30 am traditional Lutheran service to consist mostly of elderly people, and for most of the people to be dressed up.  I also was not expecting too many people to be there, as I assumed that the 11:00 am contemporary service was what drew the crowds.  But the traditional service had a full house.  Most of the people there were elderly and middle-aged, but there were some young people.  And many people were not dressed up.  Some were, but the men who were not wearing a suit and tie wore khaki pants with their shirts tucked in.  (I don't recall if anyone wore jeans.)  I'll treat that as the dress code the next time I visit!

B.  I was unclear about what exactly to do during the communion part of the service.  Missouri Synod Lutherans serve closed communion, which means that not everyone can participate.  I read one Missouri Synod site, and it said the people who want to partake of communion should see the pastor beforehand so that he can know about them and their faith.  Our church bulletin said that, if we don't participate, we can go up anyway, cross our arms, and receive a blessing from the pastor.  I was not sure how exactly that worked, and I didn't want to do it wrong, so I stayed in my pew.  I was sitting near the back corner of the sanctuary, so I didn't expect any awkwardness.  I was quietly reading my bulletin, and an usher said, "Excuse me."  I looked up, he wanted to know if I was going up, and I just shook my head and said "No thank you."

C.  The pastor's sermon was about not being afraid.  There were two parts of his sermon that especially stood out to me.  First, the pastor was talking about the "nones," those who do not have a religion.  The pastor wondered what they were doing that Easter morning.  The pastor speculated that they were trying to get the most out of their day, dealing with the joys and trials of life, perhaps realizing somewhere in their minds that they would one day die.  The pastor's question struck me as rather odd, as if it was treating the "nones" as some mysterious other.  "Does he know any nones?", I wondered.  Perhaps he was raised in the Christian faith and thus had limited familiarity with non-believers.  I am only speculating here!

Second, the pastor was telling about a woman with a severe anxiety disorder who challenged him after he preached a sermon against fear.  She thought that his sermon was making matters worse for her!  She could not help that she was afraid!  My ears perked up when the pastor said this, since I myself deal with fear, especially social anxiety.  The pastor said that he told her a story about a young man with anxiety, who got up before the congregation and told them that his anxiety would not keep him from proclaiming his Savior.  Speaking for myself, I am more fearful of interpersonal socializing than I am of getting up in front of a congregation, so I wonder how what the pastor said would fit my own situation.  Still, I can appreciate his point, on some level: it's good to have someone or something that is beyond my fear, which I can grasp.

D.  I visited the United Methodist church about a year ago, after I moved to this area.  I was not expecting to be remembered after that long a time, but I walked into the church last Sunday and an older gentleman handed me a bulletin and said, "Did you have a good year?"  I said, "Thank you, sir," which was probably a bit off-putting, but what he had said to me only registered with me after I had taken my seat.  He remembered me from the last time I visited!

The pastor looked a lot different from how she looked the last time I had seen her.  And I mean that I could not even tell that she was the same person, except for her voice!  I looked up at the stage and wondered where the pastor was!  She was thinner, her hair was longer and grayer, and she was wearing a long dress rather than her pastoral robe.

E.  The pastor was preaching about the different reactions to Jesus' resurrection in the Gospels.  The disciple Jesus loved (whom she assumed was John) saw the empty tomb and believed easily.  Peter was confused.  Mary Magdalene wondered where Jesus' body was.

The pastor said that, at that service, there are as many reactions to Jesus' resurrection as there are people there.  And she acknowledged that believing in Jesus' resurrection could be difficult, since, in our experience, the dead remain dead.  That goes with people, and it goes with pets.  She asked us to consider what our response is to Jesus' resurrection, and, maybe this coming week, we can try to have a little more faith.

I liked the openness of that sermon.  I have inside of myself different reactions to Jesus' resurrection, positive and negative.  It can be used to support Christian exclusivism, which says that non-believers go to hell, and that frightens me.  But I appreciate the story itself: the disciples were saddened by Jesus' death, both because they lost their friend, teacher, and Messiah, and also because it looked as if evil and corruption had won out.  But it didn't, for Jesus rose.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Book Write-Up: Divine Will and Human Choice, by Richard A. Muller

Richard A. Muller.  Divine Will and Human Choice: Freedom, Contingency, and Necessity in Early Modern Reformed Thought.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

I will quote the description of the book on Amazon, then I will provide my impressions of it.

“This fresh study from an internationally respected scholar of the Reformation and post-Reformation eras shows how the Reformers and their successors analyzed and reconciled the concepts of divine sovereignty and human freedom. Richard Muller argues that traditional Reformed theology supported a robust theory of an omnipotent divine will and human free choice and drew on a tradition of Western theological and philosophical discussion. The book provides historical perspective on a topic of current interest and debate and offers a corrective to recent discussions.”

Here are some of my thoughts:

A.  Richard Muller addresses a variety of scholarly debates.  Was Thomas Aquinas a determinist or a libertarian?  Was John Calvin a fatalist, who believed that God caused every single event?  Are the terms libertarian and compatibilist truly helpful in conceptualizing Reformed thought, since the Reformers Muller profiles held a rigorous conception that the human will was free (like libertarians), while also believing that God foreordained human choices (like compatibilists)?  Were the Reformers drawing primarily from the medieval Catholic philosopher John Duns Scotus, or from a variety of medieval sources?  And how consistent are Reformed views on divine sovereignty and free will with Aristotelian and Catholic medieval thought?  The book also highlights diversity among the Reformers: for instance, not every Reformer thought that God was determined by nature to make certain decisions, for some maintained (as Aquinas before them) that God had free will and could glorify Godself in a variety of settings, not just the setting that God actually chose.  In addressing these issues, the book is informative and performs a scholarly function.

B.  The description says that the book concerns how Reformers “reconciled the concepts of divine sovereignty and human freedom.”  Based on my understanding of their attempts to reconcile these concepts, which Muller discusses, I would not say that their attempts were particularly convincing or successful.  Many of the attempts emphasized secondary causes, meaning that God does not directly cause every human decision but uses means.  Some stressed the dependence of the will on God for its existence.  Some probed the relation between the intellect and the will.  Some said that God could foreordain contingent choices.  In my opinion, these solutions did not directly answer a key question: If God foreordains that people make certain choices, how can they choose otherwise?

C.  The book is rather advanced and difficult, with elaborate prose.  Laypersons can still learn from this book, however.  The book does tend to repeat certain themes.  One such theme is that the decision that people make is the decision that exists, not alternative decisions, even though people had the potency to make those alternative decisions.  The book’s conclusion was also effective in tying themes together.

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

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Book Write-Up: Confucius' Analects

I recently read Confucius’ Analects.  Specifically, I read the Penguin Classics version, for which D.C. Lau was the translator.  Lau also provided an informative introduction.

Here are some of my thoughts:

A.  I will quote a paragraph from the back cover because that paragraph provides a cogent summary of Confucius’ thought.  I did read the entire book, though!

“‘How dare I claim to be a sage or a benevolent man?’

“By constructing the philosophy expressed through The Analects, Confucius might well dare to make such a claim.  The Analects are a collection of Confucius’ saying, compiled by his pupils shortly after his death in 497 B.C., and they reflect the extent to which Confucius held up a moral ideal for all men.  The aim is the perfection of one’s moral character, the method one of arduous pursuit of such moral attributes as benevolence, wisdom, courage; the result is no recompense in this life or the next—-to follow the Way must be its own reward.  A harsh philosophy perhaps, but shining through it is the splendid intellect and spirit of one of the most reasonable and humane thinkers of all time.”

B.  The Analects remind me of the biblical Book of Proverbs.  Proverbs instructs people about how to impress authorities and the importance of being humble.  As the summary above says, Confucius believed that people should follow the Way, even if they do not receive a reward in this life or the hereafter.  Yet, the Analects do contain a measure of “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” (not a quotation): a belief that following certain rules can bring a person advancement.  There is also a notion that, when the Way is prevalent in society, adherents to the Way should be prospering.  But there is also a belief in contentment where one is, as one is nourished by the Way itself and finds a home therein.

C.  An idea that appears more than once in The Analects is that a ruler can bring out the best in his subjects by being good and compassionate rather than attempting to inspire fear.  A ruler is to be concerned about the well-being of his subjects, whatever their stations in life, and Confucius also supported trying to reform convicts rather than hastily executing them.  As I read these passages, I was comparing them with the biblical portrayal of God.  Throughout the Hebrew Bible, God rules people benevolently, yet they respond with stubborn disobedience; the Bible appears more pessimistic than Confucius about human nature.  God also rules through fear, in a sense, since the Torah in the Hebrew Bible prescribes the death penalty for all sorts of offenses, and the prophets forecast woes as divine punishment for disobedience.  In the New Testament, beliefs about human stubbornness in the face of divine benevolence as well as divine retribution persist, yet there is also a notion that the law, with its condemnations, is a dead end in terms of encouraging people to change, so now God focuses on grace.

D.  I was comparing Confucius’ political philosophy with God’s governance according to the Bible, but what was Confucius’ theology?  Did he regard the divine realm as benevolent?  There is a passage in The Analects that states that Confucius did not discuss the gods.  Although Confucius does not present a theology, there are still assumptions about the gods in The Analects.  There are gods in heaven and below.  People should sacrifice to these gods, and sometimes this occurs at mealtimes.  People can displease Heaven, in which case they have nowhere to go with their prayers.  Overall, they should keep a respectful distance from the gods.  You would think that Confucius saw the gods as beings to appease, not so much as the embodiment of virtue.  Yet, Confucius states at one point that Heaven placed virtue within him.

E.  Another theme that recurs in The Analects is the importance of rites, which include sacrifices to the gods, honoring ancestors, and civic rituals.  For Confucius, the rites ground people in the essentials.  They humble those who are of high station.  In the Gospels of the New Testament, Jesus accuses scribes and Pharisees of legalism: of being rigorous in observing rites of the Torah while missing the point on such vital principles as justice and compassion.  The apostle Paul believed that the Torah served a purpose at one stage of God’s plan but with the coming of Jesus has been superseded, at least partially.  In The Analects, Confucius was sensitive to such concerns, within his own context.  In places, Confucius seemed to maintain that literal observance of the rites were not enough, that motivation and character were important.  Observing the rites in an obsequious manner was not the proper path, for Confucius.  Confucius also held that there could be flexibility in observing the rites and following the Way, since historical contexts and situations varied over time.

F.  In some places, Confucius could be quite rigid: be courageous!  In other places, though, he recognizes human flaws and foibles, both his own and those of his disciples.  He realizes that he is a work in progress.  But he also acknowledges what he believes to be his strengths.  Moreover, his compassion and mercy notwithstanding, he only spends his time teaching students who are willing to learn, and who demonstrate that willingness by trying to figure things out on their own.  Confucius’ disciples varied in their level of character and aptitude: some mastered virtue quickly, some missed the point at times and needed correction, and some failed to think before speaking or acting.  In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus’ disciples often did not understand what Jesus was saying.  The agenda behind the portrayal of a master’s disciples may be an interesting topic to research.

G.  I put a question mark beside some of Confucius’ statements.  I had to think about them, and sometimes I hit a dead end.  One passage that I contemplated is 4:3: “The Master said, ‘It is only the benevolent man who is capable of liking or disliking other men.”  How so?  The conclusion I reached was that, when we are benevolent, we judge people according to their character, how they are.  We like or dislike them, in short.  When we lack benevolence, by contrast, we value them according to how well they benefit us.  We are not liking or disliking them, per se, but rather are focusing on our own benefit.  I could be wrong on this, but that was my way of trying to make sense of what Confucius said there.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Book Write-Up: Christ among Other Gods, by Erwin Lutzer

Erwin Lutzer.  Christ among Other Gods: A Defense of Christ in an Age of Tolerance.  Moody: 1994, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

Erwin Lutzer is senior pastor as Chicago’s Moody Church and a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and Loyola University.  In Christ among the Gods, Lutzer argues that Jesus Christ in the New Testament makes unique and better claims than those made by other religions.  He criticizes the Jesus Seminar and New Age portrayals of Christ, defends the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection as an indicator for the truth of Christianity, and critiques Christian inclusivism, which holds that non-Christians can go to heaven without having knowingly accepted Christ in this life.  Lutzer goes through the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return of Jesus—-not so much in a biographical sense, but more to highlight the uniqueness and authority of Jesus, present the Gospel as one of grace and not works, critique relativistic pluralism, respond to criticisms of Christian doctrines (i.e., the virgin birth), and offer eschatological speculations.  On eschatology, Lutzer forecasts that the current push towards pluralism will lead to the Antichrist religion and the stigmatization of Christians as intolerant, even dangerous.

Here are some of my thoughts about this book:

A.  Lutzer often says that the biblical Gospels reflect eyewitness testimony, but he never defends that claim.  A lot of the biblical scholarship that he cites is dated: for example, he mentions Sir William Ramsay’s conclusion that the Book of Acts is historically trustworthy, and Ramsay lived in 1852-1916!  Lutzer still makes fairly decent arguments and asks good questions: Why would the Gospel authors invent an incredible virgin birth story to counter charges that Jesus was born illegitimately (for Lutzer, they did not)?    How would the notion of Jesus’ divinity arise in a strictly monotheistic Jewish culture (for Lutzer, the answer is that Jesus actually rose from the dead)?  Lutzer’s arguments are not infallible: the Gospel authors could have been modeling Jesus’ birth on miraculous births in the Hebrew Bible, and Bart Ehrman has argued that the raw materials for seeing Jesus as divine existed in Second Temple Judaism.  Still, there may be something to Lutzer’s argument: even Bart Ehrman maintains that the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection (obtained through visions) contributed to their belief in Jesus’ divinity!

How could Lutzer have made the book better, in terms of interacting with biblical scholarship?  He could have referred to N.T. Wright’s arguments on the resurrection, Ben Witherington III’s work on Acts, and Richard Bauckham’s work on the Gospels as eyewitness testimony and the early Christian conception of Jesus as divine.  Lutzer could have cited common ground between himself and Bart Ehrman on the significance of a belief in Jesus’ resurrection in conceptions of Jesus as divine.
Granted, Lutzer’s book first came out in 1994, before a lot of these books were even written.  Still, is it too much to ask that the book contain at least some updates when it is being re-released?  The updates would not entail a lot of revision: Lutzer can still make the same points, but he would cite additional (or, in some cases, different) scholars and elaborate, in places.

B.  Did Lutzer utilize or critique sources fairly and accurately?  He probably tried to do so.  I would be interested in tracking down some of his sources and reading the quotations in context (i.e., a New Age author’s defense of the plagues in the Book of Revelation, which Lutzer ties with the Antichrist’s coming persecution of Christians).  And, while Lutzer was rather dismissive of Clark Pinnock’s open-theism, treating it as Pinnock’s wishful thinking, Lutzer did address inclusivists’ Scriptural arguments.

In a few cases, Lutzer did seem to interpret sources in light of his agenda, when the sources may have been saying something else, or promoting a different ideology.  Two examples come to mind.  First, Lutzer refers to Augustine’s statement, “O, God, demand what you will, but supply what you demand!”  Lutzer states that Augustine “understood that we do not have to fear God’s high standard as long as He meets it for us” (page 151).  Augustine did not appear to be talking about Christ’s perfect righteousness being imputed to believers in that context (Confessions, Book 9, Chapter 29), however, but rather was expressing his wish that God would make him continent.

Second, Lutzer frequently discusses his experiences at the Parliament of World Religions.  Lutzer argues that pluralism will lead to an attempt to merge the world religions together, while stigmatizing religions (like Christianity) that are narrow in their conception of truth.  But the mission statement of the Parliament of World Religions presents another picture, supporting religious diversity, rather than trying to merge religions into one.  It states: “The problem with seeking unity among religions is the risk of loss of the unique and precious character of each individual religious and spiritual tradition; this understanding is key to our framework.”

C.  Lutzer makes one argument that is effective, albeit frightening.  In critiquing Christian inclusivism, Lutzer argues that God does not necessarily act according to our conceptions of fairness.  Therefore, God may condemn non-believers to hell, even if many deem that to be unfair.  Many of us would expect a fair or loving God to deliver people from pain and catastrophe, Lutzer argues, but God does not always do that.  God also permits inequalities, as some people have more access to the truth of God than others.  Lutzer makes a good point: If there is a God, God does not always seem to be acting according to what we believe is fair, at least not in a manner that is apparent to us.  Lutzer still believes God has done beneficent things, though.

D.  Lutzer’s book was not incredibly deep.  He criticized Lessing’s statement that he would prefer a search for truth rather than having the truth, as well as people who leave Christianity in search of something deeper (in their eyes).  Lutzer seems to believe that truth and error are black and white, while characterizing Eastern religions as more open to contradictions (with exceptions).  Lutzer’s arguments are good, but they are not incredibly satisfying, from an emotional standpoint.  Sure, one needs the truth to avoid falling into a ditch, but cannot one at least sympathize with Lessing’s desire for a search for truth, an intellectual adventure of learning, growth, and exploration?  Cannot one at least understand an openness to paradox, as opposed to strict binary thinking?  Christianity itself can be deep and paradoxical, in areas!

Still, I did gain some new and interesting insights from Lutzer’s book.  For example, Lutzer raises the possibility that there may have been multiple Antichrists throughout history.  Lutzer states that Satan does not know when Christ will return, so Satan may have attempted to raise up the Antichrist in the past.  Hitler may have been an example of this, for Lutzer.  I have questions about this proposal: Hitler did not try to make peace with Israel, which Lutzer believes the Antichrist will do, in fulfillment of biblical prophecy.  Yet, Lutzer’s proposal is intriguing, and perhaps tempting for one who wants to reconcile Christianity with historical criticism of the Bible (not that Lutzer has that agenda).  Maybe people like Nero, Domitian, Hitler, etc. were Satan’s attempts to raise up the Antichrist in the past!  Could we even go before the historical Jesus Christ with this proposal, seeing Antiochus Epiphanes as a similar Antichrist figure?  Could this be a key to seeing apocalyptic literature as discussing its own historical contexts, while still being divine revelation?

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

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Church Write-Up: Christ as Driver, Christ as Lifeguard

Last Sunday was Palm Sunday.  The pastor preached about Luke 19:28-44.  The theme was making Jesus the Lord of one’s life.

In Luke 19:28-44, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a colt, and a multitude of Jesus’ disciples acclaim his entrance, celebrating him as a king.  Jesus then sees Jerusalem and weeps for it, forecasting its downfall.  The reason for its downfall, according to the passage, is that it failed to know what made for peace and to recognize the time of its visitation.

The pastor was likening Jerusalem to Christians, or professing Christians, who fail to make Jesus the Lord of their life.  They want Jesus to ride around in the car with them as they are driving, but they do not want Jesus to be in the driver’s seat.  They do not want Jesus to lead them.  And the result has been disastrous: the pastor likened nominal Christians to people burning up the food on the stove, then burning up the stove itself, all because they are doing things their way rather than obeying Jesus as Lord of their life.

Similarly, the pastor said, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, people celebrated and acclaimed him, but they did not understand who he truly was.  They had their own conception of the Messiah as a political liberator from Rome, whereas Jesus came as a different kind of Messiah: one who wanted to rule people spiritually, such that they would become regenerated and righteous.  The crowds wanted to attach Jesus to their own agenda, whereas Jesus desired to set the agenda.

In reading the Gospels, I can sympathize with what the pastor is saying.  Jesus was calling people to repent.  If the Pharisees who were guilty of the sins that Jesus mentions in Matthew 23 repented of those sins, the world would have been a better place!  But there were obstacles that stood in the way of their repentance: some of the scribes and Pharisees were unwilling to relinquish their riches, their positions of power, and the religious interpretations that affirmed those positions, for that gave them their sense of worth and identity.  They would have to give up their sense that they were righteous and superior to others.  There were also Jews who wanted to overthrow the Romans, but Jesus was advocating another way.  Because Jews tried to overthrow the Romans, the Romans crushed Jerusalem.

I can look at the Gospels and say that it would have made sense for the characters to accept Jesus as Lord of their life, as difficult as that may have been.  In saying this, I am assuming the Gospel stories as they stand, particularly in their depiction of the Pharisees, although there are historians who will question the Gospels on this.  Maybe they are right and maybe they are wrong, but I am simply entering the world of the stories, seeing if they can spiritually instruct or edify me.

While I can read the Gospel stories and say that the characters should have accepted Jesus as Lord, following Jesus’ agenda rather than their own, I find such a proposition to be unrealistic in my own life.  Jesus’ commands look to unrealistic for me to follow.  Why can’t Jesus give me space to be human, rather than commanding perfection?  I have tried to be the perfect evangelical in the past, I think to myself, and I have fallen short.

I am currently reading Erwin Lutzer’s Christ Among the Gods, and Lutzer contrasts Jesus with other religious leaders.  Jesus claimed to be the sinless savior, Lutzer argues, whereas other religious leaders—-Buddha, Mohammad, the Dali Lama, etc.—-acknowledged that they were sinful.  I will add to that list Confucius, since I am reading Confucius’ Analects, and Confucius is quite candid about his own flaws and shortcomings (as well as his strengths)!  According to Lutzer, Jesus is not shouting commands to us on the shoreline while we are drowning, nor is Jesus drowning with us.  Rather, Jesus rescues us.  Jesus is the only one who can.

Maybe Lutzer’s argument can be nitpicked, but I can identify with what he is saying, since I have felt spiritually helpless.  Romans 5:6 comes to my mind: while we were still weak, Christ died for the ungodly.  So does Romans 8:3: the law was powerless because our flesh was weak, but Jesus came and condemned sin in the flesh.  I still feel weak, though.  God’s standards appear to me to be an impossibility.  And, to make matters worse, Paul and Christians seem to suggest that this should not be the case for those who have the Holy Spirit; or that depends on if you interpret Romans 7 as the thoughts of Paul before or after his conversion!

I’ll stop here.  I realize that this post ends on a downer!  At the same time, I will say that, at this moment at least, I see value in becoming more Christlike, even if I will fall short of perfection (or even a C-) in doing so.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Current Events Write-Up: Gorsuch and Garland, Mere Rhetoric, KFC, Medicaid Work Requirements, Syria, Hillary, Christian Seders, Hank Hanegraaff

Time for this week’s Current Events Write-Up, in which I link to articles and comment on them.

Reason: On Criminal Justice and Executive Branch Power, Neil Gorsuch May Be More “Liberal” Than Merrick Garland, by Damon Root.

Of course, Neil Gorsuch has been confirmed, via the nuclear option.  And I am not entirely happy about this, since his decision on that truck driver who was caught in the cold was, well, very cold.  But I found this article to be ironic.  It’s good to look for a silver lining!

Vridar: Reality Behind Arab Threats to Destroy Israel.

Neil Godfrey discusses Zeev Maoz’s Defending the Holy Land: A Critical Analysis of Israel’s Security and Foreign Policy.  The book addresses a question: If the Arab world truly wants to destroy Israel, wouldn’t it have done so already?  It is certainly powerful enough!  How does one account, then, for its rhetoric against Israel?  Godfrey quotes a passage: “The extremely hostile rhetoric was strictly for domestic and inter-Arab consumption; it was a weapon in the struggle for leadership in the Arab world. It was also an instrument for diverting domestic attention from the economic, social, and political problems of the regimes. Right from the start, the Arab leaders knew that destroying Israel was an unrealistic dream. At the same time, they could not afford to change the anti-Israel rhetoric from an extremely hostile one to a peaceful one; many of those who tried paid with their lives.”

Los Angeles Times: KFC Goes Antibiotic-Free, by Geoffrey Mohan.

Good for KFC!

Vox: Trump Wants to Make Medicaid Recipients Work to Get Benefits. That’s a Very Bad Idea, by Dylan Matthews.

The title gives you the idea.  The article explains why.  Here is a sample: “The majority of people benefiting from Medicaid are children, disabled, or elderly, and would be exempt from work requirements. If you exclude pregnant women and parents with young children, the number of affected people shrinks even more. The majority of the remaining non-disabled adults are working. And some of them can only work because they get Medicaid — such as people who have mental illnesses or struggle with substance abuse but who, with reliable health care, are healthy and stable enough to work. Making work a prerequisite for Medicaid could, perversely, wind up preventing such people from working.”

A silver-lining that I saw in Trump’s election was that he wouldn’t get the U.S. involved in Syria.  Then he bombed it.  Will this be another Iraq War?  This article makes a case that the U.S. bombing Syria does not have to entail pursuing regime change.  It could serve as a warning to Assad, to bring Assad to the negotiating table.  Regime change would be a bad idea.  As Trump has said in the past, getting rid of Assad could leave a void that radical jihadists would be too happy to fill.  On that note, see the transcript for last Sunday’s “ABC This Week.”  Secretary of State Rex Tillerson argues on the program against forcible regime change.  Sean Spicer and Nikki Haley, by contrast, seem to be singing a different tune.  Something else to note in this program: Thomas Friedman suggests ways that Trump can use his Twitter account to exert pressure on Russia!

Confession time: I wish I voted for Hillary.  (I voted for Jill.)  Yet, guess what?  This article reminds me of why I do not like Hillary!  I learned a lesson from the 2016 election, and I need to repeat it as a mantra, especially after seeing articles like this: “I do not have to like candidates and their supporters in order to vote for them.  I do not have to like candidates and their supporters in order to vote for them.”

There is criticism of Christians having Passover seders.  Jewish Christian Michael Rydelnik defends the practice.  See my past reflections on this issue here and here.

Hank Hanegraaff’s conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy is now all over the net.  I first learned of it from this article.  Engwer links to past episodes of the “Bible Answer Man” in which Hank was moving in that direction.  It has been a decade since I listened to the “Bible Answer Man,” so this was a surprise to me.  Yet, I receive articles from the Christian Research Journal in my inbox, and I occasionally read them.  I am wondering if there was anything in those articles that stood out to me as unusual.  Maybe there was, but I cannot cite anything specific.  On that note, see Hank’s response to the controversy here.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Book Write-Up: Eve's Daughters, by Lynn Austin

Lynn Austin.  Eve’s Daughters.  Bethany House, 1999.  See here to buy the book.

The year is 1980.  Suzanne is planning on divorcing her husband, Jeff, because Jeff decided to take a job in Chicago without talking to her.  Suzanne has her own career at a magazine, and she does not want to uproot herself and start over again in another location.  Suzanne gets together with her mother Grace and her eighty-year-old grandmother Emma.

The book covers four generations.  First, there is the story of Louise, who was Emma’s mother.  Her story is set in 1894-1904.  Louise’s husband Friedrich left Germany because he was a Christian pacifist: he opposed Germany’s militarization, and he did not want to fight in World War I.  He came to the United States and became a Protestant pastor.  Louise did not want to leave her friends and family in Germany to come to the United States.  She also struggled to adapt to her husband’s new vocation, as many did not deem her to be a suitable pastor’s wife.  Louise becomes friends with an immigrant named Magda.  Magda is married to Gus Bauer, a man with big dreams.

Second, there is the story of Emma, which is set in 1906-1924.  Not to give away any spoilers, but Emma falls in love with a Catholic named Patrick.  Emma’s father Friedrich opposes their relationship.  To please her father, Emma marries Karl Bauer, the stern son of Gus and Magda.  Emma leaves Karl after Karl tries to force her to have an abortion.

Third, there is Grace, the daughter of Emma.  Grace’s story is set in 1929-1943.  Emma is a single-mother, and people wonder about Grace’s father.  Grace is rather ostracized in the community.  Grace wishes that she had a father likes the other kids, but there are men who are father figures in her life: Booty, O’Brien, Black Jack, and Father O’Duggan.  Emma works at O’Brien’s speakeasy, playing the piano.  As World War II begins, Grace leaves so that she can train to become a nurse.  In the hospital, she meets Stephen, a confident, self-assured doctor.  Stephen is from a wealthy background and Grace is from a background of poverty, but they fall in love with each other and get married.

Fourth, there is Suzanne.  Suzanne’s story is set in 1950-1980.  Suzanne clashes with her parents, Stephen and Grace, because Suzanne is fiercely independent and wants a career.  She loves her mother Grace but looks down on her because Grace seems to be too submissive to her husband.  Suzanne goes to college and meets Jeff, a Christian hippie, who plans to desert to Canada if he is drafted to go to Vietnam.  Suzanne and Jeff fall in love and, surprise, her parents Stephen and Grace think that she can do better!  Grandma Emma, ever a free spirit, likes Jeff!  Suzanne and Jeff marry and endure poverty, yet they are happy because they love each other.  They become increasingly affluent, though, and they hardly see each other.  They become estranged.

There are a lot of juicy details that I left out, but I did not share them because I do not want to give out spoilers.  One scene that I especially liked was when Jeff and Stephen were debating about the Vietnam War, and Grace told her husband about her grandfather Friedrich, who left Germany to avoid fighting in World War I.

When the mysteries in the book got solved, some of the earlier parts of the book made sense in light of the resolution, and some parts did not.  I just had the same feeling that I have when I try to reconcile the original Star Wars movies with the prequels: the fit is a bit awkward, in areas!

At first sight, the book may look like it is saying that Suzanne should toughen up, return to her marriage, and become a submissive wife and mother, with God’s help.  I was afraid that the book would go in that direction when I read Louise’s story!  And that would be rather uncharacteristic of Lynn Austin, since her books have somewhat of a feminist edge, even though she is an evangelical Christian.  It turns out that this book, too, had a feminist edge.

The book was rather empathetic towards Emma and Suzanne when they distanced themselves from the Christian faith.  Emma did not feel like repenting for something for which she was not sorry, and Suzanne did not care for the perfect mother-types rebuking her at church.  Of course, since this is a work of Christian fiction, they find God in the end.  Emma reflected on the negative consequences of her sin.  Still, I am unclear about what she believed she should have done instead.  Stay with Karl?

Monday, April 10, 2017

Book Write-Up: Written in Love, by Kathleen Fuller

Kathleen Fuller. Written in Love.  Thomas Nelson, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

Written in Love is Book 1 of the “Amish Letters” series.  One of the book’s main characters, Jalon, was in Fuller’s “Amish of Birch Creek” series.  Readers can still understand Written in Love without having read the “Amish of Birch Creek” series.

Jalon and Phoebe are pen pals.  On some level, they are honest and vulnerable with each other in their letters.  Yet, they are not telling each other the complete story about themselves.  Jalon is a recovering alcoholic, and he is dealing with guilt because his friend, Adam, fell out of a tree and became crippled, when the two of them were climbing a tree.  Phoebe is an unmarried mother of a little boy named Malachi, and she lives with her stern, keep-up-appearances aunt after leaving her large family and the strict bishop of her family’s area.

The book was good, for a variety of reasons.  The style was an easier read than other Kathleen Fuller novels I have read, yet the book’s plot was variegated enough to stay interesting.  It did not dwell on the same themes over and over, but the themes were still there, as life occurred.  The book vacillated between a sense of safety, warmth, and acceptance and the characters’ struggles to find their place and to relate to one another.  The book ended well, as characters were allowed to contribute, according to their talents and the doors that were open to them.  The book also had religious themes, such as the question of whether bad times are an indication of God’s punishment, and the discipline of the Ordnung.  And, as a cat lover, I liked Blue, as Malachi did!

Any criticisms that I have of the book are minor.  There was one scene in which Phoebe is talking with her dad.  Phoebe seems to dismiss the bishop’s advice to her father, right before offering her father similar advice.  That made little sense to me!  But the book was good, overall.

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

Friday, April 7, 2017

Church Write-Up: Praying Anywhere, Romans 5:6

At church last Sunday, the pastor was continuing his series on prayer.  He said that people do not need to kneel and close their eyes when they pray, for they can pray anywhere, even while they are driving their car.  The pastor referred to Scriptural examples in which people prayed without kneeling.  Jesus, after all, prayed to God on the cross.

That was a good point, but what especially spoke to me was something that the person introducing the service said.  The person introducing the service was talking about times when he was disappointed with God because he was going through trials or not getting what he requested from God.  In these times, he said, he rests on Romans 5:6, which states that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.  That is how God commends God’s love, the passage states.  The person also said that Christ died for everyone, both believers and non-believers.  For this person, Romans 5:6 presents a truth that one can grasp throughout the vicissitudes of life.

This spoke to me, for a couple of reasons.  For one, I was frustrated with God that week.  Second, Romans 5:6 came to my mind one night.  I was reading Matthew Bates’ Salvation by Allegiance Alone, which was emphasizing good works as a condition for final salvation.  I felt that I fell short, and that amplified my moodiness towards God.  Like the person at church, Romans 5:6 was reminding me of God’s love: it was like an anchor.

And yet, Romans 5:6 can only be an anchor for a person who believes that Christ died for him or her.  If unlimited atonement is true, as the person introducing the service believed, then Christ died for everyone: even if I do not technically fall in the “saved” category, I can be assured that Christ died for me, that God loved me that much.  Suppose that limited atonement is true, though?  Suppose that Christ only died for the elect, for those God predestined to be believers?  In that case, a person who believes that he or she is among the elect can be comforted by Romans 5:6.  One may arrive at that assurance by looking at one’s spiritual fruits, by considering spiritual experiences, or simply by feeling that one is among the elect.

There are other passages that can assure a person of God’s love, though, whether that person is a believer or non-believer.  God loves those whom God created, for the reason that God created them (Job 10:3; Psalm 138:8; 145:9).  God loves God’s enemies and sends rain on the just and unjust (Matthew 5:45).  And I John 4:8 affirms that God is love.

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