Monday, July 31, 2017

Church Write-Up: Lots on Encouragement

For church last Sunday morning, I went to the “Pen Church,” an evangelical church where I get a free pen every time I attend.  The preacher was the pastor’s father-in-law, who used to pastor the church.

What I will do in this post is identify three things in the sermon that rubbed me the wrong way, but, for each of these items, I will mention a related aspect in the sermon that especially resonated with me.  Then I will comment on two additional items in the sermon.

A.  The preacher said that Christians should be multiplying themselves.  That means that they should go out and try to convince other people to become Christians.  That sort of terminology makes Christianity look like a mass sales project, a copy machine, or people trying to make others into their own image (ever hear the phrase “cookie cutter Christian”?).  I see faith as more personalized than that: people have their own reasons for believing in God.

The preacher told the story, though, of when he was a young man and a new Christian, and two Christian men mentored him in the faith.  They gave him suggestions on how he could have personal time with Jesus each day, and he has been doing that for fifty-five years.  That resonated with me: people passing on something that they do that they have found helpful, such that it helps and guides somebody else.

B.  The preacher was exhorting us to be encouragers.  He asked us how we would feel if nobody comes to our funeral.  The implication was that, if we encourage people and invest in them, they will be more inclined to come to our funeral after we die.

I was actually thinking about this topic earlier this week.  I was thinking about how I cannot imagine too many people coming to my funeral after I die.  I then thought about those “inspirational” stories in such periodicals as Our Daily Bread, which talk about someone who helped other people, and it was standing room only at their funeral after they died, as people packed into the room to honor the person who helped them.

I hate those stories.  Believe me, I respect the people who helped others, but, speaking for myself personally, I am not that extroverted.  I will try, in my own way, to show concern and support for people, probably online, since I doubt it would be socially appropriate for me to stop random people on the street and ask them if they need help.  Will encouraging people online make enough on an impression on them, that they will attend my funeral after I die?  I doubt it.  But I don’t think that should be the main reason that I help people.

Those kinds of stories may be helpful in that they can encourage us at least to try to be better.  They are somewhat of a turn-off to me, even though, again, I am glad that there are people in the world who have helped others.

C.  The preacher was saying that encouragement should be sincere, specific, and regular.  I agree with him.  But, if I am encouraging others because I am obeying some divine commandment that I believe I have to follow to please God, does that undermine the encouragement being authentic?

At the same time, maybe it needs to be a commandment, otherwise some people simply will not do it.  The preacher was talking about how his parents never encouraged him: for example, they never thanked him and his brother for chopping the wood that would keep the family warm that winter.

Maybe we can encourage others in obedience to a divine command, while also providing encouragement that is sincere and authentic.  The pastor talked about looking for the good in people and telling them about it: the good is there, but we need to take the initiative of looking for it and acknowledging it.  Encouragement can also entail telling others that we are praying for them when they are in need.  That is not necessarily offering false hope, but it is showing concern.

D.  On that note, the preacher said that we should give people what they need, not what they deserve.  He said that twice.  That stood out to me on account of my own resentful thoughts.  “So-and-so does not deserve my encouragement,” I thought.  And, indeed, I would feel phony encouraging a person against whom I have feelings of resentment.  I do not know if the preacher’s statement will influence my actions, but I hope in can influence my attitude: I can try to see all people as people with needs, like me.  And maybe that can influence me to act with charity and forgiveness.

E.  The preacher was talking about constructive criticism.  He said that, in his earlier years of preaching, he received constructive criticism about his homiletical approach.  Essentially, he made powerful points with his fists clenched.  But he was advised to open his hands, since that communicated love.

That sounds like tactful constructive criticism.  How have I taken constructive criticism?  Well, it varies.  I remember giving a sermon, and a lady told me afterwords that I spoke too fast (I know that should be an adverb, but “fastly” does not sound right).  I was befuddled and replied, “Well, I was nervous!”  But I went home, took what she said to heart, and before my next sermon told her that I would try to follow her advice and speak more slowly.

Another time, I did not take constructive criticism that well.  A colleague was critiquing my paper, and he meant well.  He gave me solid advice.  He was making his critiques for my benefit: he knew what professors wanted, in terms of research and papers, and he wanted my paper to be good.  I followed a lot of his advice.  But his tone was often derisive, as he talked to me as if I was an idiot.  I was trying to think of where I was at fault: maybe I was defensive, and that sparked his derisive tone.  I don’t know.

The pastor of the church that I attended this last Sunday morning, in a sermon a while back, talked about giving people an encouragement sandwich when we are offering constructive criticism.  We say something good about a person, a paper, or a sermon (whatever we are offering constructive criticism on); we mention an area that we think needs improvement; and we follow that up with encouragement.

I have a writing coach, and it seems that this is her approach to me.  She shares extensive critiques, but she also says good things that I have done in my writing, acknowledges that I have worked hard (rather than calling me lazy), and offers me suggestions that can encourage me to keep on keeping on, in terms of my writing.

When I have critiqued others’ writings, at their request (I am not talking about my reviews of books), I often say things that I liked, but I may have come across as harsh in my critiques.  Not that I intended to do so, but I can come across as blunt and terse.  Maybe I should structure my praise and critique as an “encouragement sandwich.”

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Book Write-Up: Spirit-Empowered Theology

Charles Carrin.  Spirit-Empowered Theology.  Chosen, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Charles Carrin is a minister.  He has a D.D., and his education was from the University of Georgia and Columbia Theological Seminary.  Spirit-Powered Theology is a book that addresses questions about various topics, including (but not limited to) theology, Christology, anthropology, the church, spiritual gifts, demonic possession and influence, historic revivals, Israel, science, and cosmology.  Carrin writes from a charismatic perspective, one that believes that spiritual gifts such as tongues and healings did not cease with the New Testament church but exist even today.

Here are some of my thoughts about the book:

A.  The book was rather meandering and elliptical in places, at least in some of the early parts, and I wondered how exactly some of the answers addressed the questions.  The book was clearer and more direct as it progressed.  The elliptical parts were still interesting, though.  When reading those parts, I had to pay close attention to follow what Carrin was saying.  Plus, Carrin in those parts seemed like he had something important and profound to say yet had difficulty putting it into words.  Or, sometimes, he appeared to find a more interesting tangent that distracted him from the question.

B.  What makes the book distinct, perhaps, is its focus on charismatic issues.  It covers other issues, though, such as text criticism, biblical inerrancy and inspiration, and covenants.  In some cases, it was not entirely clear why he was including certain pieces of information.  Why discuss one pope, for example, but not others?

C.  The book is informative and educational about charismatic and Pentecostal history.  What is the difference between charismatics and Pentecostals?  What is being slain in the Spirit like?  What are soul ties?  Who were prominent charismatic and Pentecostal figures throughout history?  I learned a lot in reading this book.

D.  While the book contains material that one can find in other Christian books, it also contained interpretations that were new to me.  Carrin interprets Jesus’ cry on the cross (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) as Jesus’ response to the Holy Spirit departing from him.  Carrin seems to regard the physical heart as an actual, literal seat of emotions and states that it is not enough to believe in Jesus with our minds, for we need to believe in Jesus with our hearts.  On that note, Carrin in his anthropological sections made intriguing points about the interrelationship among the body, soul, and spirit.  Carrin observes that I Kings 18:36 notes that Elijah’s sacrifice at Mount Carmel occurred when the evening sacrifice was being offered at Jerusalem; Carrin relates this to the importance of church unity.  That was an element of the story that had not stood out to me before, and it gives the story a cozy feel: Elijah seems to be isolated in standing up for God in the North, and yet he offers a sacrifice at the same time that people in the South are offering them.  (Could that part of the story have been added after the Northern Elijah traditions reached Judah?)

E.  According to Carrin, most charismatics and Pentecostals have believed, and Carrin seems to agree, that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is a second blessing: that people become saved and receive the Holy Spirit, but later they may receive a baptism of the Holy Spirit, a filling that may manifest itself in tongues.  My understanding is that this position implies that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is not required for salvation.  In places, though, Carrin said that one should believe in Jesus with the heart, not just the head, and should actually experience God.  Otherwise, one has an empty intellectual faith.  Are spiritual experiences required for salvation, according to Carrin?  What if one lacks those sorts of experiences?

F.  Some parts of the book made me uncomfortable.  For instance, according to Carrin, if you have a bad or self-pitying attitude, you may be opening yourself up to demonic influence.  Maybe there is some Scriptural basis to that: Ephesians 4:26-27 exhorts people not to be angry or give place to the devil.  Does the first entail or lead to the second?  But does being human truly make a person vulnerable to spiritual forces that can influence a person, even beyond that person’s control?  Can anyone truly say “The devil made me do it?”, or does free agency always exist?  I do not know if Carrin was saying that, say, being angry can lead to a person losing his or her free will at the hands of a demon, for he did differentiate between demonic possession (which he denies can happen to believers) and demonic influence; he also said that a demon can make a person ill, without necessarily possessing that person (i.e., the woman in Luke 13:16).  Still, he did at one point present a scenario of believers getting over their head and needing outside intervention to be freed from demonic influence or oppression.

G.  Overall, Carrin appeared knowledgeable, though he was overly dismissive of evolution, in my opinion.  The book also may have benefited from documentation.  Carrin’s case that spiritual gifts such as healings remain today was somewhat convincing; Carrin cites church fathers who believed that such gifts existed in their day (albeit without documentation).

H.  The page about the author states that Carrin ceased being a cessationist after a “Spirit-anointed prisoner in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary” laid hands on him.  More detail on that would definitely have enhanced this book, making it more personalized!

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

Monday, July 24, 2017

Church Write-Up: Spiritual Pride and Humility

For church Sunday morning, I attended what I call the “Pen church” (since I receive a free pen when I go there).  The pastor started a six-week series entitled “No Perfect People Allowed.”  That is the motto of the church, and I figured that such a series would edify me.

Here are some points that the pastor made in today’s sermon, followed by my personal reflections at the end:

A.  The pastor was preaching about Jesus’ Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican in Luke 18:9-14.  A Pharisee and a publican were at the Temple praying.  The respected Pharisee was thanking God that he (the Pharisee) was not like other people—-extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like that publican.  The Pharisees bragged that he fasted twice a week and gave tithes of all that he owned.  In contrast, the publican, who was in a despised profession (tax-collector), beat his chest and said, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”  Jesus said that the publican, not the Pharisee, went home justified before God, for those who exalt themselves will be humbled, while those who humble themselves will be exalted.

The pastor made a variety of points.  First, he said that many of us size people up in our minds according to how important we think that they are.  Some people who are rough around the edges may come to church, and they are scared off from following Jesus because a pompous Christian judges them.  The pastor referred to the 1995 movie Dangerous Minds, in which Michelle Pfeiffer played a teacher at an inner-city school.  The teacher started all of her students out with an “A,” and that brought the best out of the students, many of whom had never received an “A” before.  The pastor asked what would happen in our relationships if we started people out with an “A”: if we treated them as valuable and important, rather than requiring them to appease and to please us, only to get up to a “D” in our eyes.

Second, the pastor talked about how many of us pat ourselves on the back when we do something good.  The pastor was imitating God applauding the Pharisee while the Pharisee was bragging about his deeds.  The pastor, obviously, was being sarcastic: Why would God be impressed by the Pharisees’ deeds, when God’s deeds are so much greater? God created the heavens and the earth and selflessly sent God’s Son to die for the sins of the world.  The pastor quoted Romans 12:3, in which Paul exhorts the Roman Christians not to think more highly of themselves than they ought.  God values people as created in God’s image, but people should have a sober, modest, level-headed conception of themselves.

Third, the pastor talked about how the publican confessed that he had issues.  We all have issues.  It is when we are honest about that before God that God profoundly works in our lives.

B. The pastor quoted James 5:16, in which James exhorts people to confess their sins to one another.  According to the pastor, confessing our sins to one another is not what gets us forgiveness, for we need to confess our sins to God for that to happen.  But confessing our sins to one another can be valuable: we show others that we have weaknesses, and that encourages others to confess their weaknesses.  People can then encourage each other.

C.  At some point, the pastor quoted II Corinthians 5:19, which states (in the KJV): “To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.”  The pastor was saying that this is the New Covenant.  He did not explain how he understood this verse, at least in this sermon.  He seems to believe that people need to believe in Jesus to arrive at the state in which God does not impute their trespasses against them.  After that, he said in another sermon, people are free to learn and grow, without fearing that God is judging and condemning them.  I wonder if he can reconcile this picture with what he was saying in (B.): that we confess our sins, then God forgives us.  And, presumably, if we sin again, we need to confess that sin to receive God’s forgiveness, and so on.  It sounds like a treadmill, unlike what II Corinthians 5:19 appears to imply.  Christians have had their ways of harmonizing these concepts.  A prominent solution is to say that Christians have been forgiven and are considered righteous by God, even if they fail to confess every single sin in the course of their lives.  Confession, however, is still useful because it can help their relationship with God: we feel closer to God when we confess our sins.  The pastor may believe that way, but I do not know for sure.

D.  The pastor was talking about how the church is successful this year, more successful than it has been in the past, and yet he is apprehensive that the church will become “the man” and that new people will be reluctant to come.

Here are some personal reflections:

A.  I fear, at times, that people see me as a Pharisee (as stereotyped by Christians): one who keeps the rules yet is cold towards people.  I wish, though, that they would accept me as a person with issues, just like they are.

B.  Conversely, I have judged certain Christians as Pharisees (again, as stereotyped by Christians).  I one time confessed something to a Christian, and he gave a smug response.  Has he never made a mistake?  He just strikes me as a person who loves righteousness and talks about how he loves righteousness, yet there is no humility there; at the same time, his approach is a refreshing contrast to Christians I have known who beat up on themselves before others, parading their “humility,” as if that shows how righteous they are.  I do wish that more Christians would be humble when they hear of somebody’s struggles or vulnerabilities.  Yet, I have to remind myself: can I legitimately judge that someone else is a Pharisee?  It is not as if I spend 24 hours a day with him.  Perhaps he has been humble.

C.  What the pastor said about being honest before God stood out to me, in light of my experience the night before.  I was griping in my mind about God and God’s standards (according to my understanding of them).  But I decided: Why not bring my struggles and my needs before God, rather than griping?  I did that, and I felt better: more at peace and more charitable towards others.

D.  I did not entirely understand what the pastor meant about the church becoming “the man,” but I thought about a church that I attended at one time.  A lot was going on there, and it was active.  It was like a force of nature.  I respect and admire that, but I was unsure where I fit in, or if I even could.

I’ll stop here.  I could interact with the question of whether I start people out with an “A,” but I am not inclined to be that vulnerable, right now.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Book Write-Up: Egypt's Sister, by Angela Hunt

Angela Hunt.  Egypt’s Sister.  Bethany House, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

Egypt’s Sister is the first book of Angela Hunt’s “The Silent Years,” which concerns the so-called “Intertestamental Period,” the time between the Old and the New Testaments.  This first book is about Cleopatra VII, the Greek queen who ruled Egypt during the first century B.C.E.  The next book, apparently, will be about the Maccabean revolt.

Chava is a Hebrew in Alexandria, Egypt.  Her father, Daniel, is a royal tutor and the author of the “Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs” (not in real life, but in this story).  As a child and an adolescent, Chava is friends with an Egyptian princess named Urbi, who will become Queen Cleopatra.  Chava has a vision in which God tells her that her friendship with Urbi rests in God’s hands, that Chava will be with Urbi on Urbi’s happiest and last days, and that Chava will know herself and will bless Urbi.  Chava interprets that to mean that she (Chava) is to serve Cleopatra rather than get married and have children, a view with which her father Daniel disagrees.

Well, not to give away any spoilers, but Chava’s interpretation of the vision gets disrupted by real life.  I mean Radically disrupted.  Chava’s charmed life comes to an end.  The story took a Joseph (from the Bible) and a Ben Hur sort of turn.  Cleopatra is still looming in the background, however, and Chava’s destiny will intersect with that of her childhood friend.

A salient aspect of this book is that it contains a lot of information.  To quote Angela Hunt, “Egypt’s Sister is one of the most difficult books I have ever written, not because I lacked material, but because I had so much.”  There is, of course, the story of Cleopatra: her rise to power, her political struggles, and her international intrigue.  Hunt provides charming descriptions of the city of Alexandria and the distinct elements of Alexandrian culture.  She talks about what slavery was like and how Roman society regarded slaves, Roman views on sex and marriage, and the attempts of Jews to live according to their laws in a world that had contrary worldviews and policies.

The book did read like a textbook at times, but I actually liked that, since such an approach educated me, in areas, and would probably educate others as well.  This approach did not detract from the story, either, for Hunt struck a balance between telling and showing, and she presented compelling historical protagonists responding emotionally and realistically to the events of which they were a part.  Moreover, Hunt did not simply relay information but engaged it thoughtfully.  Daniel, for example, offered Cleopatra advice on political strategy when she was learning the ropes.

Some of what Hunt presents is debated by historians.  She covers some debates in the appendix, but a debate that she did not mention concerns whether Josephus was correct that Julius Caesar granted the Jews of Alexandria citizenship because they helped him take over Egypt.  Hunt assumes that he was, but scholars have questioned and challenged that view.

Not to give away spoilers, but I am conflicted over how believable one of the character’s motivations were when she made a specific decision, in light of what Hunt says about ancient views on sex and marriage.  From a certain perspective, though, the rationale that Hunt provides for that decision makes a degree of sense.

I am giving this book five stars for two reasons.  First, there is the information.  I have not read every Christian work of biblical fiction, but, of all the ones that I have read, Egypt’s Sister is the most informative.  It also has a bibliography.  Second, there is the story.  The most moving theme, in my opinion, concerned how one could be hardened by the challenges of political life, and yet still have some humanity that remains.

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

Monday, July 17, 2017

Church Write-Up: Unity, For Me and Against Me, and Prayer vs. Protest

For church this morning, I attended an African-American Baptist church.

The pastor was preaching about unity among believers, as well as Jesus’ statement in Matthew 12:30 and Luke 11:23 that whoever is not for him is against him.

The pastor was saying that those who are not for Jesus—-in that they believe that Jesus is the Son of God and follow him—-will not go to heaven after they die.  They are actually against Jesus, even if they may think that Jesus is a nice guy or an insightful religious teacher.  According to the pastor, we should be rooting for Jesus.  We should not be like we’re watching a ball game and we do not care who wins.

Regarding unity, the pastor seemed to be treating unity among believers as a criterion for salvation.  He said that there will be unity in heaven, so how will Christians fit in when they go to heaven if they are not united on earth?  The pastor did not explicitly try to reconcile this position with justification by grace through faith alone, but perhaps there are ways to harmonize the two.  There is, of course, the usual way that a number of Christians smuggle works into salvation, namely, to say that the works and attitudes of love that are conducive towards Christian unity are an inevitable outgrowth of authentic saving faith.  Another way is to say that the believers are unified around faith in Christ: in heaven, they will be united in being “for” or “with” Jesus (to refer back to the pastor’s point about Matthew 12:30 and Luke 11:23), as they acknowledge that Jesus is the Supreme Son of God and praise and worship him accordingly.

The pastor shared that the council of elders’ meetings, even though they have minor disagreements, have always ended in enthusiastic unity.

The pastor was also commenting on the current political scene.  He criticized the protests in the streets, saying that believers should pray instead.

The pastor also spoke in favor of unity in the home, encouraging people to seek therapy if they struggle with issues in their family.  He admitted that he himself has sought therapy in the past and was helped immensely by it.

Here are some points:

A.  I struggle with Christian exclusivism, and I cannot picture a way out of that for me.  I wondered why exactly Jesus put things in such stark terms: why is a person who is not for him against him?  I looked at some commentaries: the Word Biblical Commentary and a Hermeneia commentary on the Gospel of Matthew.  Most of the comments focused on Jesus’ exorcisms and his gathering of the people of Israel, since the context of the passages is Jesus’ exorcisms, and Jesus in the passages contrasts gathering with scattering.  The Israelites who are not repenting in response to Jesus’ message are not contributing to Jesus’ gathering of Israel unto God; they are, in effect, contributing to the scattering of Israel, since they are creating a situation in which some are gathered, and some (namely, they) are not.

B.  On the current political scene, I remember watching a documentary on the Bible, hosted by Christiane Amanpour.  The last segment of the documentary was about IHOP, the International House of Prayer.  I do not recall if I learned this from the documentary, or from online reading, but I heard that there were people who left Ivy League programs in political science so they could devote time to prayer at IHOP.  They figured that prayer would improve the political and international situation more effectively than any contribution they could make as advisors and experts.  I initially thought, “What a waste!”  Since then, my response has been ambivalent.  Maybe prayer has worked: prayer can soften leaders’ hearts, or God can place roadblocks in the path of certain disastrous plans.  Could these Republican health care plans have been stalled because some Christians have prayed for that?  On the other hand, do we not need moral advisors and experts?  Daniel and Joseph were political advisors.  And do we not need peaceful protest to express to leaders what we support and oppose?  I would say that the Civil Rights movement was good, to cite an example.

I’ll stop here.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Wisdom of God, by A.W. Tozer

A.W. Tozer.  The Wisdom of God: Letting His Truth and Goodness Direct Your Steps.  Compiled and edited by James L. Snyder.  Bethany House, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

This book is a collection of A.W. Tozer’s reflections on the wisdom of God: God’s wisdom, Christ as the wisdom of God, and how people are saved so that they can walk in God’s wisdom.  The cover of the book says “never before published.”

Here are some reactions:

A.  Tozer stresses that the divine Logos of John 1 is based, not on Greek philosophy, but rather on Hebrew thought.  As examples of Hebrew thought, Tozer refers to the Wisdom of Solomon and the Wisdom of Ben Sira.  What Tozer neglects is that these works themselves drew from or engaged Greek thought.  Tozer also discusses Heraclitus, acting as if Heraclitus’ insights on the Logos resembled that of John 1, on some level.  Tozer’s argument on John 1 was not particularly convincing, but he does well to ask if the Logos of John 1 is similar to the Logos of Greek philosophy.

B.  As examples of the benefits of possessing divine wisdom, Tozer talks about believers knowing when God is disciplining them (as opposed to their misfortunes being caused by the devil), and believers being able to identify the hand of God in everything.  These are indeed desirable gifts to have: as Tozer says, being able to identify what God is doing will save one a lot of struggle and trouble.  But how many believers truly have these gifts?  I do not.  And I question whether people should be overly dogmatic about what God is doing.

C.  I identified with something that Tozer said on page 105: “Personally, I have always been afraid of souring down and hardening up into a self-assured, clever man who has seen all kinds of religion.  I know just where to put it, classify it, and what to do with every flash of fire that I see and every gust of heavenly wind, and every shining countenance.  I have always been afraid that I would get into that place and find myself, unknown to me, sitting in the seat of the scornful.”  I do not think that I know everything, or even most things, about religion.  But I do think that I have been around the block, and that new strands of thought that I hear can probably be categorized into what I already know.  It is easy for this attitude to lead me to a clinical view of religion, and that kind of view appeals to me because it can allow me to protect myself from religious tyranny.  But can such an approach insulate me, also, from spiritual wisdom?

D.  At times, Tozer came across as anti-intellectual, but Tozer went out of his way to say that this was not his intention.  Tozer believes that spiritual wisdom is accessible to everyone, whatever his or her level of education.  I hope so.  Would not one want and expect a loving God to act that way?  But what can check the tendency of some Christians to go overboard with their claims of spiritual revelation: to dogmatically claim that God is speaking to them, even though their supposed “revelation” goes against the Greek and the Hebrew, or what science demonstrates (not that science is infallible)?  Perhaps spiritual revelation is appropriate for certain areas, such as living the spiritual and moral life.  (And people can nitpick that claim, but I am not intending the claim to be the final word.  I’m just thinking here.)

E.  Throughout the book, Tozer contends against the misconception that Christianity is solely about escaping hell and going to heaven.  According to Tozer, it is about much more than that, and it includes walking in wisdom under God’s guidance.  Tozer is not for cheap grace, for he states that any Gospel that lacks repentance is a false Gospel.  As one who spiritually struggles, I tend to gravitate towards “grace” Gospels, yet Tozer does make a compelling point that faith should influence our lives.  Tozer presents scenarios of people who hear the Gospel, accept it, then forget about it, and people who are double-minded in the faith.  While the book could have used more grace, Tozer occasionally spoke to people who struggle.  He said that there is hope for seemingly impossible cases, that those who want to hear from God should take a spiritual retreat, and, quoting Thomas Aquinas, that “If thou lackest strength to take high flights to spirituality, then hide thee in the wounds of Jesus.”

F.  Appealing to John 20:29, Tozer highlights the importance of believing in God without proof.  Tozer argues that those who believe will then get the proof (or evidence) that they need, as they experience God.  What is the value of believing without proof, though?  Why does God value that, or want that?  Tozer should have addressed such questions.

G.  Tozer employs allegorical approaches, at times.  For example, in discussing Lady Folly in the Book of Proverbs, he talked about Queen Jezebel.  This added color and a stream-of-consciousness texture to the book, which enhanced it.

I am giving this book five stars.  It is thoughtful, and it comes across as concrete rather than vague, even though there are questions that I wish Tozer had addressed.  Tozer comes across as someone who has experienced the wisdom of God.

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

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Book Write-Up: Let There Be Light

Mark Leonard.  Let There Be Light.  WestBow Press, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

Let There Be Light is a young-earth creationist science fiction novel.  It focuses on two scientist friends: Bill, an atheist with a Jewish upbringing, and Michael, who presents Bill with creationist arguments and arguments that are skeptical of human-caused climate change.  Bill invents a time machine and ends up shortly before the time of the Flood.  He observes that dinosaurs and humans co-existed, meets Egyptians and learns how and why the pyramids were built, and gets trapped in the Flood.  How will he get out of this?

Let’s start with the positives.  The book was enjoyable.  Bill and Michael were likeable characters, and they were given a back story, which allowed them to appear real and developed.  The book also advances arguments: that the atmosphere was different prior to the time of the Flood, allowing people to live longer and throwing off conventional dating methods;  that fossils of supposedly different time periods have been found together; and that mountains were lower in the time of the Flood, meaning that the Flood was not exactly covering Mount Everest.  In presenting these arguments (however incorrect), the book at least was giving readers something to consider.  The military is upset by Bill’s time machine, and a crusty colonel gives legitimate reasons to fear time travel.  There were vivid scenes in the book, as when Bill looked outside his time machine and saw waves depositing fossil layer on top of fossil layer.  Even after Bill becomes a creationist, he believes in some form of natural selection.  And, notwithstanding the book’s climate-change denialism, Bill makes a robust case for taking care of the environment.

Now for the negatives.  The book would have been better with footnotes, particularly for the claim that fossils from supposedly different time periods have been found together.  There could have been a greater spiritual element.  Bill’s conversion was somewhat rushed, and there were very few references to why Noah was building the Ark and what that said about the character of God; the book lightly touched on whether God wants the truth to be overly evident to people, and how some will not want to believe the truth even when they know it is the truth, but the spiritual element of the book could have been developed more.  There was a materialistic character who thought Noah’s construction of the Ark was a waste of time, and he was an asset to the story, yet (except perhaps for the king of Egypt) the characters were not particularly wicked, as Genesis 6 depicts the antediluvian age as being.  And Bill’s defense of environmentalism was somewhat spoiled by his claim that Christ will come back when things get too bad.

As far as the book’s arguments go, responses to them are out there.  Talk Origins has an “Index to Creationist Claims” that succinctly responds to several of those arguments. The book also presents everyone speaking Hebrew prior to the Flood, which is likely unrealistic.

In terms of whether there were contradictions in the book, the book alleges that conventional dating methods are unreliable, yet they were only a few millennia off when Michael used them to locate Bill in time; one would expect greater discrepancy, the way some creationists talk!  The book claimed that there are cases in which fossils from supposedly different time periods are found together, yet it also held that, generally-speaking, less developed animals are found in the lower layers and more developed animals in the upper layers.  This may not be a contradiction, however, since the book presented different fossils being juxtaposed together as an exception.  The book maintains that the animals in the lower and upper layers were contemporaneous, as the developed animals were able to rush to higher ground.  A response to this creationist argument is that there are fossils of developed animals that are rather deep in the ground and fossils of marine animals that are higher up, and that one can observe development in marine animals from one strata to another.

This book is entertaining, with a compelling story.  In terms of prose, the book is clear, well-organized, and well-written.

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

Monday, July 10, 2017

Church Write-Up: Encouragement and Moving On from Misfit Status

I went to two church services this last Sunday morning.  The first was an African-American Baptist church, and the second was an evangelical church, which I call the “pen church” because I get a new pen there every time that I attend.

Here are some items:

A.  Both pastors made a similar point about encouragement.  The topic of the first pastor’s sermon actually was encouragement.  He was saying that church should be a place where people encourage and express concern for one another, for there are not too many places in the world where people can receive encouragement.  The topic of the second pastor’s sermon was not encouragement, per se, but it talked more about finding one’s calling.  Still, the second pastor was saying that people who find their calling encourage others.  The second pastor went on to talk about how there is so much negativity in the world.

A while back, a preacher wrote to me that I should spend my time and energy encouraging people in the body of Christ rather than nitpicking sermons.  I think that he misunderstood my purpose in writing these Church Write-Ups (see here for my post on that), but his comment did make me think some about Christian encouragement.  How do I do it?  And what exactly am I supposed to say to people?

A lot of times, Christian encouragement comes across as phony and artificial: as saying nice things to people in order to fulfill some divine command.  The pastor at the first service that I attended Sunday morning touched on that.  If memory serves me correctly, he was saying that he would like encouragement, but he does not want fifty people lining up to tell him that he preached a nice sermon.  For one, he said, his number one critic was sitting in the front row, and that is his wife.  His wife and God will tell him if he was too prideful in giving the sermon.  (On a side note, back when I was listening to his sermons on the Internet, he said in one message that his mom, when she was alive, rebuked him for being too prideful and showing off when giving a particular sermon.)  Second, he said that many people will probably tell him that they liked his sermon because they have nothing else to say!

One thing that I can say about negativity is that at least it’s authentic: when people are saying something negative, they are usually saying what they actually think!  While I struggle myself with how to “encourage” people in the body of Christ, though, I would rather deal with fake positivity from others than negativity.  A person I know posted a status that asked if we prefer affability or authenticity.  I said affability: if someone does not like me, that is his or her business, but I want to be able to interact with that person comfortably.  I can do so when the person is affable.

I am not sure how to encourage people in a church setting when I do not know them.  The pastor at the first service gave some examples, such as telling a person he or she looks good this morning, or that it is good to see him or her.  I do not quite have the social courage right now to do that!  (Plus, I do not want to come across like I am hitting on someone!)  His sermon did sensitize me, a bit more, to the importance of showing concern for people, of caring about what they are going through and rooting for them.  I can do this online and in more personal settings, with people I know.  I struggle with the Christian teaching, or the implication that some Christians make, that Christians are supposed to be friends with everyone.  At the same time, I do remember that even those from whom I am alienated, for whatever reason, are human beings, in need (or at least in want) of encouragement.

Of course, one struggle that I had when walking from one church to the next was with the tension between focusing on giving (which is good) and self-pity over not receiving.  “I don’t get much encouragement from people,” I thought.  “Why should others’ experience be any different?  It’s a cold world.  We all must learn to deal with that!”  I have to fight against this.  The pastor at the first service talked about finding encouragement from God through spirituality: prayer and Bible reading.  He said that Satan tries to discourage us by telling us that God does not love us, that we are not as good as so-and-so.  Reading the Bible does not always make me feel good about myself and about God, and the pastor may have been acknowledging that there are helpful and unhelpful ways to read the Bible, spiritually-speaking, when he suggested that, rather than focusing on how bad the Bible characters were, we try to find what God is trying to teach us.

B.  The pastor at the second service raised a very poignant question.  He was talking about Tim Ferriss, a successful author and entrepreneur.  According to the pastor, Ferriss used to be a misfit: he was the last picked in gym class for teams, he did not have too many friends, etc.  Yet, Ferriss became successful later on.  The pastor inquired what exactly moved Ferriss from being a misfit to finding his niche in life.

The myth that I often heard growing up was that nerds may be disliked now, but they will be successful when they grow up and make lots of money.  “You better be nice to nerds,” one adage goes, “since you may end up working for one.”  Meanwhile, I heard that the popular, attractive girls will grow up to be fat and ugly.

Well, life sometimes does work out that way, but it does not necessarily, or even often.  Maybe the STEM nerds did go off to become successful engineers and made lots of money.  But, just speaking for myself, I still feel like a misfit.  And, by the way, the girls who were attractive in high school are still attractive as adults.

The pastor was presenting answers to his question.  People move from being a misfit when they find God’s calling for their lives.  They do so when they are supported and mentored by others.  The pastor referred to two examples.  First, since he is preaching a series on movies (as he astutely said, Christians should engage pop culture), he talked about the recent Wonder Woman movie: Diana was forbidden by her mother, a queen, to fight, but Diana’s aunt saw potential in Diana as a warrior, so the aunt trained Diana.  During a battle, the aunt died to save Diana, and in her last breath she encouraged Diana to fight.  I was crying (not in an overly obvious sense) when I heard this story, and I want to see the movie when it comes out on Netflix.  Second, the pastor relayed a story from a woman in the church.  The woman was not close to her mother and her sister when she was growing up, and she wanted female friends.  Eventually, she found the friendship that she was seeking in a women’s group.

Nowadays, I try to cope with my feelings of being a “misfit” by focusing on my dissertation work.  I do not always enjoy doing it, but, when I do it, I feel as if I am doing what I am supposed to do at this stage in my life.

That’s all for today.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Book Write-Up: Jesus, by A.W. Tozer

A.W. Tozer.  Jesus: The Life and Ministry of God the Son.  Chicago: Moody, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

This book is a collection of works by A.W. Tozer on Jesus Christ.  At least one of the chapters was a speech, for Tozer shares in that chapter that he just said something that he was not initially planning to include!  The book occasionally looks at Jesus’ life, in terms of highlighting that Jesus did miracles with the power of the Holy Spirit, was loving and compassionate towards people, and secluded himself, not out of misanthropy (unlike Timone of Athens), but to serve humanity.  Mostly, however, the book does not focus on details from Jesus’ life and teachings; rather, it explores Jesus’ significance as God (both pre-existent and incarnate), atoning sacrifice, high priest, coming king, and initiator of the new creation.

Here are some reactions—-positive, a few negative, and mixed:

A.  The book had a charm to it.  Tozer had folksy anecdotes and analogies that explained the significance of the topics that he was exploring.  While the book did not raise anything that was earth-shakingly new to me, there was an eloquence and a thoughtfulness to it, such that it was not boring.  Tozer was also self-deprecating at times in this book, such that his human side came out, even though his usual spiritual intensity also shone through.  Moreover, Tozer criticized what he considered to be popular Christian misconceptions, such as the ideas of God being different in the Old Testament and the New Testament, God’s justice and God’s mercy being contrary divine attributes that were resolved at the cross, and the atonement being like a business transaction.

B.  Tozer said some things that I did not like, as when he criticized a geology book that disagreed with a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis.  (I wrote “It’s called science” in the margin.)

C.  In one case, Tozer was criticizing people who did not interpret Genesis 1-3 as literal and historical, but he actually took his point in a profound direction.  He observes that even those who do not interpret the Fall as literal and historical live under a lesson that Genesis 2-3 highlights: that we all die.

D.  In another case, Tozer made a beautiful point but took it in a direction that was rather cold.  He said that everyone has access to Jesus, which means that Jesus is equidistant from everyone and is available to everyone.  What about those who do not accept Jesus?  Tozer attributes that to their love for their sin and desire to be without a moral authority.  Perhaps some empathy would have been better, or at least reflection on the question of how God interacts with those who never heard the Gospel.

E.  There was one occasion when Tozer was making an important point, but he did not really flesh it out.  On page 89, he says, “The idea that the cross wiped the angry scowl off the face of God and He began grudgingly to smile is a pagan concept and not Christian.”  Tozer accepted penal substitution but was trying to argue that God’s mercy and God’s justice are not in conflict, contrary to how some Christians try to explain the substitutionary atonement.  But Tozer did not explain how God punishing Jesus in place of sinners was just.

F.  In another case, Tozer made a point that put other books that I have read of his into perspective.  In his books about the Holy Spirit, he practically suggests that people need to be spiritually perfect to be filled with the Holy Spirit.  (He does not use those actual words, and he would probably deny that he believes that way were he alive today and asked about it, but those books can give one that impression.)  In this book on Jesus, he made a similar point: that Jesus was empowered by the Holy Spirit to perform miracles (as opposed to performing miracles through his own deity, which he retained even as a man) because of his perfect submission to God.  Tozer acknowledged that other human beings have not arrived at the level of submission that Jesus did.  Tozer’s reflections here put his points about the Holy Spirit in other books into a sensible context, one that can encourage people to submit to God in attitude, as Jesus did.

G.  One of his discussions had potential to generate more research.  For instance, Tozer was interpreting John 1:17, which states that the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.  Tozer disagreed with Marcionite-like interpretations that present God in the Old Testament as a God of wrath and law and God in the New Testament as a God of grace and love.  He argued instead that the passage is saying that the law gave commands, but only Jesus could give grace (forgiveness and transformation).  That is a standard Christian view, but an area of research would be whether that accords with Johannine themes.

H.  There were times when it was unclear what exactly Tozer was addressing.  Tozer was talking about people who see different nuances in Jesus’ appearances (at the second coming, I presume).  Perhaps a footnote about the context of these comments would have been helpful.  Maybe Tozer was addressing dispensationalism.  He had harsh words for prophetic scenarios in this book!

I.  This book contained a few elements of Tozer’s thoughts that were previously unfamiliar to me.  Tozer seemed to speak in favor of once-saved-always-saved in speaking about Jesus’ high priesthood.  He also maintained that God had beneficent plans for physical Israel in the eschaton, which means that Tozer did not exactly hold to replacement theology.

J.  There were examples of compelling imagery in this book.  Tozer, for instance, likened Christians who were wasting their potential to Einstein making paper dolls.  He was almost like Joel Osteen there: encouraging people to live according to their potential!  I am sure that Tozer would disagree with Osteen on significant issues, though.

Notwithstanding my critiques, I am still giving this book five stars because it was an edifying, thoughtful book.

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

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Book Write-Up: Heart on the Line

Karen Witemeyer.  Heart on the Line.  Bethany House, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

Grace Mallory works at Harper’s Station in the late 1800’s.  She is a telegrapher.  She has been having telegraphic conversations with Amos Bledsoe, who works at Western Union over a hundred miles away from her.  Amos is a bit of a misfit: he is thin, wears glasses, and rides his bicycle.  He does not attract the ladies of his town, who prefer the muscular type.  Amos wonders if Grace could be the one.  Meanwhile, Grace enjoys hearing Amos’ stories about his family.

Grace has been keeping a low profile.  Her father was shot not long before, and she suspects that his murder had to do with the wealthy Chaucer Haversham.  Chaucer’s father, Tremont, had a daughter from a previous marriage, a marriage with a woman who was not of his socio-economic class.  The precise location and identity of this daughter is unknown, since she was given away soon after her mother’s death.  Tremont’s will left a lot of money to his daughter, and Chaucer does not like that because, of course, he wants all of the money.  Chaucer wants to find that will and destroy it.  But Grace’s father hid it in a book and absconded with it.  That was why he was shot, right after giving the books to Grace, who has diligently hid them since then.

Another character is Helen.  Helen dislikes and distrusts men, on account of her own experience growing up with an abusive father.  Helen finds a wounded man, and the wounded man rambles in his state of delerium about protecting his sister Rachel.  That indicates to Helen that he may be a man she can trust.  But who is he?  And does his story intersect with Grace’s story?

This book is the second book of the Harper’s Station series.  It was preceded by Book 1, No Other Will Do, and a novella.  Characters from both works appear in Heart on the Line, but readers can probably understand Book 2 without reading the others because Book 2 focuses primarily on Amos, Grace, and Helen.

I liked the first half of the book more than the second half.  The first half had reflections on the part of the characters and a sophisticated prose, and the author really drew me into the story by highlighting the characters’ vulnerabilities.  The stories about the past and the flashbacks made the characters more realistic and sometimes provided a mysterious aura to the story.

The second half had the obligatory action scenes and got rather mushy towards the end.  Perhaps it would have been better had there been more things going on, or mysteries to solve, or journeys.
The book’s description contained a sentence that made me want to read the book: “…Amos must shed the cocoon of his quiet nature to become the hero Grace requires.”  I did not see much of that in this book.  Amos was a nerd, but he was not exactly timid.  He knew who he was and did not hesitate to protect those he loves.  Maybe I would have preferred more of a struggle on Amos’ part: an attempt to overcome fear and to be a hero.  But, as the story stands, Amos is still lovable on account of his strengths, particularly his unpretentious nature.

Helen’s story was good because, although she was a Christian, she had to struggle with her distrust of men.  She has flashbacks that indicate the source of that distrust, and her faith struggles are highlighted.  That said, her trust of the man she found was a little rushed.  Perhaps the book would have been better had he told more of his own story.

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

Monday, July 3, 2017

Church Write-Up: Tie a Knot and Hold On

For church Sunday morning, I visited a local United Methodist church.  When I visited it last Easter, the pastor shared that she was thinking of retiring.  At church this morning, I learned that the church is currently without a pastor and was expecting to be without one for a while.  She must have retired.  The announcer was saying that all hands need to be on deck, and, indeed, they were.  The church was friendlier than it had been in my past visits, since people were standing by the door greeting people, and I was greeted and handed a hymn book when I sat down.

The person giving the sermon was an elderly gentleman who was the church’s pastor sometime in the past.  His sermon was a cozy feel to it, kind of like a Guideposts article.  He related a lot of anecdotes: the plight of the IWW union (well, then again, I doubt the conservative Norman Vincent Peale would have a pro-union element to his sermons, especially when it concerns a controversial union!), Norman Rockwell’s struggle to cope with his wife’s alcoholism, David moving on after the death of his son with Bathsheba, the procedure pilots follow when their plane is shot down in battle, and a prominent psychiatrist who recommended that people do service work to solve their problems.

Essentially, the sermon was about what to do when one is at the end of one’s rope.  The answer is that one ties a knot and holds on!  And what are those knots?  Performing one’s daily routine, service work, and devotions.

I thought about a United Methodist woman I knew.  She lost her husband to leukemia, and that really shook her.  She did not talk to anyone for a year.  She did not go to church during that time.  She did pray, but she expressed her anger at God to God.  Eventually, she came back to church and resumed her service work.  She did not exactly do what the pastor recommended, but she got through, and eventually she got back to her routine, her service, and her peace with God.  She must have felt that she needed space before returning to that, though.

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