Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Book Write-Up: An Amish Summer

Shelley Shepard Gray, Amy Clipston, Kathleen Fuller, and Kelly Irvin.  An Amish Summer: Four Novellas.  Thomas Nelson, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

An Amish Summer contains four novellas about the Amish that are set in the summer.  Here are my comments about each novella.

“A Reunion in Pinecraft,” by Shelley Shepard Gray.

Sharon and Sherilyn Kramer are sisters.  Sherilyn is outgoing and makes friends easily.  Sharon is reserved, but she is considered to be more attractive.  Graham Holland meets Sharon and likes her, but he ends up writing to Sherilyn, thinking that Sherilyn is Sharon on account of their similar names.  Graham visits and has to deal with the awkwardness.  Accompanying him is his friend Toby.  Toby is tall and muscular, so a lot of women flirt with him, but he is awkward socially and thus has difficulties establishing romantic relationships.

This is the only work by Shelley Shepherd Gray that I have read thus far.  I liked something that she said in the Acknowledgements: that she has wanted to be part of an Amish novella collection for some time, and she is glad that her work is included alongside the best authors of the Amish genre, namely, Amy Clipston, Kathleen Fuller, and Kelly Irvin.  The story itself ended differently from what I expected.  It also included an Amish proverb, which may not absolutely be true but still could be edifying, in situations: “Things turn out best for those who make the best of the way things turn out.”

“Summer Storms,” by Amy Clipston.

Arianna is engaged to Jesse.  But Arianna’s brother Tobias has a buggy accident while drinking, and Jesse is with him.  Arianna’s father blames Jesse, in part, and ends Arianna’s engagement.

Like a lot of Amy Clipston stories, this one seemed to dwell on the same theme over a long period of time.  Tobias’ personal pain was a compelling aspect of this novella, however: he was jealous of Jesse because things came easily for him and fell into his lap.  Tobias also had his dreams, which Tobias’ father refused to understand.  The novella does not entirely end on a happily-ever-after note, but there is a limited degree of reconciliation.

“Lakeside Love,” by Kathleen Fuller.

Esther has long loved Judah.  Judah, however, has eyes for Esther’s pretty younger sister, Sarah, and he sees Esther merely as a friend.  Rhett is an Englisher who has come to stay among the Amish, in order to learn more about them for his studies.  His presence gets Judah to think about how he (Judah) really feels about Esther.

This story had similar themes to the first story: Who is really the underdog?  What does one truly want in a romantic partner?  There is also the theme that people who appear to have everything together may be dealing with their own insecurities.  “Lakeside Love” was my favorite story in this collection, though.  Rhett is a sincerely kind person, even when people suspect him.  And I liked who Sarah eventually married: you would not expect such a marriage to occur, but it did, and it works.

“One Sweet Kiss,” by Kelly Irvin.

Jacob King and Martha Byler have a romantic attraction, on some level.  Both share the common experience of having lost a parent.  But Martha is reluctant to pursue a relationship with Jacob because she feels that he has not grown up.  Jacob is on his rumspringa, hanging out with his foolish friend Dwayne.

I read this story, but I had some difficulty getting into it.  Part of my problem may have been the high number of characters: I was glad that Irvin included a character list at the beginning, but it was rather daunting.  And Dwayne’s character made me feel as if I was at a long frat party.  The novella had interesting themes, though: the theme of maturity, and the question of romantic relationships among developmentally-delayed people.  The romance between the two developmentally-delayed people was sweet, even if it struck me as too convenient for the story.

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

Monday, August 28, 2017

Church Write-Up: Preconditions, Acts 15 (Again), Personal Not Lonely, Complexity

I attended the “pen church” last Sunday, and it was starting a new series on keeping things simple.  I may or may not stick around for the series, but here are some thoughts about last Sunday’s sermon:

A.  The preacher was talking about how we like to establish preconditions for serving God.  “I can’t lead a small group because I do not know enough of the Bible.”  “I need an M.Div. in order to serve.”  “I cannot do that because I am a Level 8 Christian,” which is lower than a super-Christian.
I can identify with that.  I have an M.Div., and I can think of reasons that I either cannot serve, or do not want to serve.  “I am not enough of a believer—-I am too much of a skeptic to toe the party line.”  “Sure, I know the Bible, but there are a lot of questions that I cannot answer, and I cannot parrot the standard Christian ‘answers’ with a straight face.”  “I am not profound enough.”  “My training was in academics, not trying to derive practical application from (or project it onto) the Bible.”  “I do not want to tell people to do things that I do not do myself, and do not even want to do, for that matter.”

These are valid reasons, I think.  But at least one of my excuses was nullified.  I did not go to the church’s service projects a few Sundays ago for a variety of reasons: not knowing anybody, social anxiety, etc.  But one of my excuses was that I have no handyman (or handy-person) skills.  I watched the pictures from the service projects, though, and I saw that kids were painting.  Apparently, the jobs were not that complicated.  There was a way that everyone could contribute.  I cannot say that I regret skipping the service projects, but I will keep in mind that the people participating in them did things that I can do, and maybe that will encourage me to participate in the future.

B.  Like the pastor at one of the churches that I visited a few Sundays ago, the preacher at last Sunday’s service commented on the requirements for Gentile Christians in Acts 15.  Gentile Christians were forbidden to eat meat offered to idols and blood, and they were admonished to stay away from fornication.  The preacher said that they were forbidden to eat meat offered to idols because that could give Jewish Christians the impression that the Gentile Christians were worshiping those idols.  He said that the prohibition on eating blood was so that Jews and Gentiles could eat together: the Jewish Christians could eat with the Gentiles without having to worry about consuming bloody meat, meat that had not been properly slaughtered.

On the meat offered to idols, I remember hearing Tim Keller offer a different interpretation.  The preacher last Sunday was saying that the Gentile Christians wanted to eat the meat but the Jewish Christians did not want them to do so due to their (the Jewish Christians’) stance against idolatry.  Tim Keller, by contrast, speculated that the Jewish Christians were the ones who thought it was all right to eat the meat offered to idols, whereas the Gentile Christians did not.  The Jewish Christians, like Paul in I Corinthians 8:4, would have believed that the idol is nothing, since it neither was a god nor represented a real god.  Consequently, according to Keller’s speculation, they would see nothing wrong with eating meat that had been offered to a non-deity.  The Gentile Christians, by contrast, had just come out of idolatry, so the idol was not entirely nothing to them.  Out of deference to the Gentile Christians, the Jewish Christians were to refrain from eating meat offered to idols: the Gentile Christians may get the idea that the Jewish Christians are worshiping idols or are encouraging idolatry.  It would be like not drinking around someone who was in fresh recovery from alcoholism: you don’t want to tempt him or her to relapse.

I do not know which interpretation is correct.  Certain questions would need to be addressed in order to make a determination: for instance, what did Judaism teach about eating meat offered to idols?  (I doubt that their stance was positive, in light of their strict kashrut standards and rabbinic Judaism’s negative policies towards things used in idolatry, or by Gentiles.  How far back such policies go, though, is another question.)  I tend to prefer Tim Keller’s interpretation, from an emotional standpoint.  Tim Keller’s interpretation holds that Christians were to have compassion for Christians who were struggling, since they just came out of idolatry.  The other preacher’s view, in my opinion, tends to cast the Jewish Christians as legalists who assumed that, just because they did not like something, nobody else should be allowed to do it (not that this was the preacher’s intention).  It comes down to the difference between the weaker brother and the professional weaker brother (see here).

On what the preacher said about the prohibition on eating blood, I have a question about that.  If the goal were to enable Jewish and Gentile Christians to eat together, why did the Jerusalem conference not forbid Gentile Christians to eat pork and other meats prohibited in Leviticus 11?  Can Jewish and Gentile Christians eat together, if Gentile tables have pork?  Some argue that Peter’s vision in Acts 10:9-16 abrogated the food laws of Leviticus 11, thereby allowing Jews and Gentiles to eat together.  I am not entirely convinced by that interpretation, however, for Acts 21:20 refers to Jewish Christians who were zealous for the law: it was apparently understood that Jewish Christians kept their laws (including the food laws, presumably), and there was no suggestion, at least there, that they should abandon those laws.

I think that one factor behind the prohibition on eating blood in Acts 15 was that God in the Torah forbade Jews and Gentiles from eating it (Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 17).  On Jewish and Gentile Christians eating together, perhaps they could have, even though Gentile Christians ate pork and Jewish Christians did not.  Jews and Gentiles ate together in the “Letter of Aristeas.”  And, as Derek Leman narrates, there are scholars who doubt that the incident in Antioch (in which Peter stopped eating with Gentile Christians when the party of James came; see Galatians 2) even related to the Leviticus 11 food laws.

C. The preacher was saying that we should coach people rather than trying to make them into our image.  He told a story about a person who came up to him and was thinking of joining the church.  This person wanted the preacher to convince him that baptism was necessary, for this person was not yet convinced that it was.  The preacher replied: “I am not going to try to convince you.  What I will suggest is that you go home, read the Gospel of John and the Book of Acts, and come back and tell me what you think about baptism.”  The person followed that advice and concluded that baptism was important.

I am ambivalent when people respond to my concerns with “Read this book.”  On the one hand, I like that approach because it holds that my spiritual life is my own: it is not up to somebody else to believe for me or to think for me, for that is my responsibility and privilege.  On the other hand, I do feel as if such an approach throws me out into the cold: I am seeking relationship or interaction, and I am told to “Read this book.”  Maybe there is a medium somewhere: a way for faith to be personal and individual, but not lonely.  If I had to choose between the two extremes, though, I would choose to read and draw my own conclusions.

D.  I like complexity because I like depth.  If I were to believe that a few simple concepts was all that there was to Christianity, then I would be bored indeed.  There are times when I should stop overthinking, though, and let things be.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Book Write-Up: Shattered

Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes.  Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign.  Crown, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

As the title indicates, this book is about the 2016 Presidential race, primarily from the perspective of Hillary Clinton and those who were involved in her campaign.  In the notes, the authors say that they drew their conclusions about what the people thought “from interviews in which a source said he or she thought something, those in which sources described what someone else said about his or her thinking, or documents that suggest what a person was thinking.”  Although the book focuses on the perspective of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, it occasionally probes other people’s perspectives, such as that of Joe Biden, when he was deliberating about whether or not to throw his hat into the ring.

The book has a few elliptical sentences and there are occasional incidents of salty language in the narrative, but it is still an enjoyable read.  It goes behind the scenes.  You get to read about who likes whom, who dislikes whom, campaign strategy, and people’s reactions to what was occurring, as opposed to the sunny-side-up demeanor that they try to convey to the public.  Some of what the book says is common sense: I would not be surprised if Barack Obama found Elizabeth Warren a bit annoying, considering that she challenged one of Obama’s nominees and opposed Obama on the TPP.  Some of the books details were new to me: I did not know that many in Hillary’s campaign disliked Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, before she became a politically radioactive figure.

There were characters whom I found endearing.  There was the prominent speechwriter for Obama’s successful presidential campaigns, who had a reason to be arrogant yet was humble and deferential when he served on Hillary Clinton’s campaign.  There was the person who played Donald Trump in Hillary’s mock debates; not only did he deliver better lines than the real Donald Trump in the debates, but he also had to struggle to prove himself and to be taken seriously.  According to the book, Hillary wanted to fire him many times, but she kept him on because he was blunt to her.  Of course, I liked Bernie, who entered the race because he had problems with Hillary’s campaign and was the last person one would expect to be politically successful.  And, much to my surprise, I liked Bill Clinton in this book.  Bill still comes across as a know-it-all who likes to say “I told you so” (not an exact quotation), but he encouraged Hillary’s campaign to reach out to working class whites and to put Hillary on the ground meeting voters.  Unfortunately, his advice was largely ignored, and this was because he advocated an old style of politics, whereas much of Hillary’s staff preferred a new style, one that relied on technology and political diagnostics.

The book is slightly contradictory on Hillary Clinton’s expectations.  On the one hand, the book seems to suggest that she was expecting to win and was surprised when she did not.  On the other hand, she appeared to have greater insight than that.  She realized that Bernie could pose a potential threat, before he began drawing massive crowds.  She knew that he was hitting a political nerve and wondered how she could speak to those concerns.  The book also portrays her as one who continually expected the other shoe to drop.  She had a realistic perspective, yet, according to the book, her campaign was divided and lacked access to the candidate, she was unable to come up with an appealing message, and she was distrusted and disliked.

While the book does portray Hillary as a flawed candidate, it still appears to be largely sympathetic towards her, in that it depicts her as well-intentioned: as a person who wanted to help others, but bumbled along her political journey.  Maybe there is something to that.  On the other hand, my impression is that she was not always candid about what she truly believed, particularly about free trade, a policy that many working-class whites concluded was economically deleterious to them.
Donald Trump comes across as smarter in this book than I assumed.  My assumption was that he was surprised that he won and somewhat bumbled his way into the Presidency, but, according to this book, he apparently had political awareness about where the country was and how to formulate his political strategy in light of that: he was deliberately targeting the Rust Belt states and was making a conscious attempt to break through the Blue Wall.

Good book!

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

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Book Write-Up: Forgiveness and Justice

Bryan Maier.  Forgiveness and Justice: A Christian Approach.  Kregel, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Bryan Maier has a PsyD from Wheaton College Graduate School and teaches counseling and psychology at Biblical Theological Seminary.  In Forgiveness and Justice: A Christian Approach, Maier seeks a definition of forgiveness and critiques prevalent approaches to it.

Maier is critical of approaches to forgiveness that focus on the personal healing of the victim.  Examples of such approaches include highlighting the positive consequences of forgiveness on one’s mental and physical health and saying that people should forgive for their own benefit, whether the offender repents or not.  Such approaches present forgiveness as a solitary act that victims do by themselves, without necessarily entailing participation of the offenders.  For Maier, by contrast, forgiveness should involve the offender, as well, and genuine repentance on the part of the offender is a prerequisite for forgiveness to occur.

Personal healing of the victim is not absent from Maier’s conceptualization of forgiveness, for Maier maintains that genuine repentance by the offender can contribute to the victim’s healing.  If the offender does not repent, Maier argues, the victim can find comfort in the biblical ideas that God is just (the hope of the imprecatory Psalms and the Book of Revelation), may bring about the repentance of the offender, and will bring good out of evil (as occurs in the Joseph story).  Whereas many approaches to forgiveness regard negative feelings on the part of the victim as unhealthy, Maier maintains that they are appropriate: the victim is legitimately angry at injustice and sin, as God is.  At the same time, Maier’s hope seems to be that the victim will move towards concern for the offender and hope for the offender’s repentance.  According to Maier, forgiveness in the Bible is not just about healing for the victim but also the benefit of the offender.  This is the case with God’s forgiveness of people, on which believers are to model their own forgiveness of others (Ephesians 4:31-32; Colossians 3:12-13).  But Maier contends that the prerequisite for forgiveness is sincere repentance on the part of the offender.  And, even after forgiveness occurs, that does not necessarily mean that the relationship goes back to what it was prior to the offense.

One might think that this book would stress the importance of victims confronting their offenders.  Maier mentions that occasionally, and one can perhaps assert that this theme is implicit in Maier’s presentation of forgiveness.  What is remarkable is that it is not a salient theme in the book, at least on the explicit level.  Maier says that there are cases in which confrontation of the offender may not be wise, and, at times, Maier presents concern for the offender as a personal process: a person praying for the offender’s repentance, for instance.

One might also think that this book would stress the importance of victims and offenders reconciling with each other and restoring their relationship.  Indeed, Maier does talk about the disruptive, tragic effects that offenses and unforgiveness have on relationships, and he believes that forgiveness should lead to celebration at the offender’s repentance.  At the same time, Maier appears to accept that things do not necessarily work out that way.  He encourages offenders to give victims the space to forgive at their own pace; acknowledges that victims may not want to form a relationship with the person who offended them, in cases where there was no prior relationship; and states that some relationships may find their healing only after death, in heaven.

The book would have been better had Maier wrestled with certain questions.  Maier should have discussed when confrontation is appropriate, while offering suggestions about how victims can confront their accusers.  That would have added more moral support for people who struggle with confrontation.  Maier should have wrestled with Jesus’ statement in Luke 17:4 that people should forgive someone who repents seven times a day.  If a person repents seven times a day, does that not indicate that the person is not sincerely and authentically repentant?  Maier demonstrates awareness of this question, but he does not attempt to answer it (as far as I remember).  There is also Jesus’ troubling statement that God will not forgive us if we do not forgive others (Matthew 6:15; Mark 11:26).  Does that leave room for forgiveness to be a process that may take a while, as Maier depicts?

The book has strengths, though.  Maier does well to ask what exactly forgiveness is.  As Maier observes, clear definitions of forgiveness are rather scarce.  While I still see wisdom in the approaches that Maier critiques, Maier’s critiques are effective.  Downplaying or excusing sin is a flawed approach, and we cannot always empathize with the offender because we do not know why the offender did what he or she did.  Maier attempts to get inside of the head of victims, however, in that he probes their desire for a just world, as they cope with a world that is often unjust.  Maier’s discussion of this point made sense to me.

The book is heavy, even though it is a mere 154 pages.  It was depressing to me, since I recoil from the idea that I have to interact with people, period.  Still, Maier made good points.

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

Monday, August 21, 2017

Church Write-Up: Ten Items for 10/20/2017

For church on Sunday, I visited two services.  One was at the church that I often call the “Word of Faith” church, a label that sometimes fits and sometimes does not.  The other was at a Missouri Synod Lutheran church.

Here are some items:

A.  The current series at the Word of Faith church is about hot-button issues.  The topic of Sunday’s sermon was gender.  The pastor made clear that he had the positions that he was about to share since he first became a pastor: they are not a response to culture, and they were his positions before his daughter was born and became a leader in the church.  The pastor then articulated some of the greatest egalitarian hits: I Timothy 2:12 was criticizing heretical women in Timothy’s time rather than making a blanket prohibition of women preaching and teaching in church; Romans 16:7 refers to a female apostle, Junia; and I Corinthians 11:3 means that man is the source of the woman that that women should honor men as their historical source, not that man is the authoritative head of the woman.  See here for links about this issue.  The pastor also played a clip of N.T. Wright defending the idea that Junia was an apostle who did more than make tea, and that women were prosphesying in the early church, since I Corinthians 11:5 implies that they should do so with their head covered.

B.  Interestingly, both the pastor and N.T. Wright seemed to be making gender essentialist statements, while defending egalitarianism.  N.T. Wright on the clip said that Paul’s point in I Corinthians 11:1-16 is that women should pray and prophesy while looking like women.  The pastor opened his sermon by criticizing transgenderism, saying that God created us with the gender of our birth.  The pastor was also saying that women, in general, have a strong work ethic and can be formidable in arguments and in defending the people they love.  I could identify with what he was saying about women there, in terms of the women I have known.  But is that universal?  And could it be that society pressures women to do a lot of work?  I think of Peggy Blumquist’s statement in Fargo, Season 2 that women are expected to do so much, with only so many hours in the day.

C.  The pastor made the point that love eclipses legalism.  (And he used the term “eclipses,” since, as you know, an eclipse is coming up!)  He quoted I Corinthians 10:23-24, which states: “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not.  Let no man seek his own, but every man another’s wealth” (KJV).  The pastor said that God could have given us thirty-seven rules, but instead God gave us a general criterion: we need to love God and neighbor.  “Does that mean that I am allowed to see such-and-such a movie?”, the pastor rhetorically asked.  The pastor’s answer was that there was no law against it, but if seeing such a movie were to hinder our relationship with God, we should not see it.  One can argue that Paul in I Corinthians 10:23-24 is quoting his libertine opponents rather than offering his own view—-his libertine opponents are the ones who are saying that all things are lawful, not Paul himself.  That is probably so, yet Paul in Galatians 5:13 seems to imply that believers have a liberty, which they should take heed not to abuse: “For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another” (KJV).  One can make a case that Paul does not believe that Christians have a liberty to sin, since, in both I Corinthians 6:9-10 and Galatians 5:19-21, Paul is clear that certain sins can bar a person from the Kingdom of God.  Still, he does seem to maintain that believers have a liberty, which they should use for good and not for evil.

D.  In making the point that love eclipses legalism, the pastor referred to the requirements for Gentiles in Acts 15.  The ruling of the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15:28-29 states the following about what is required of Gentiles: “For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well” (KJV).  The pastor said that the first two requirements are cultural, whereas the last one is universal.  Essentially, the pastor said, the only “rule” that Gentiles have to follow is to abstain from sex outside of marriage.  (On that note, see my post here about a manuscript that has a more expansive Acts 15 list of requirements for Gentiles: it includes the Golden Rule.)  I can understand the pastor’s point that the rule against eating meat offered to idols is cultural, for Paul in I Corinthians 8 seems to suggest that believers can eat meat offered to idols, but they should take heed not to use their liberty in a manner that causes other Christians to stumble.  (Perhaps this kind of concept illuminates I Corinthians 10:23-24 and Galatians 5:13: Christians are free from certain requirements, such as dietary regulations, but they should not use their freedom unwisely, in a manner that causes other Christians to stumble.)  Paul appears flexible on the prohibition of meats offered to idols.  One can make a case, though, that the Bible regards the prohibition on eating blood as a universal prohibition.  All people, Jews and Gentiles, are prohibited from eating blood in Genesis 9:4.  Leviticus 17 prohibits Israelites and Gentile resident aliens to eat blood.  The reason, as the pastor said, was that blood was regarded to be the life of the animal (Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 17:11, 14; Deuteronomy 12:23).  His implication seemed to be that we do not believe that anymore, so this particular prohibition does not apply: it was merely cultural.  Such an argument can invite debate about the authority of Scripture and whether God culturally accommodates people in giving God’s revelation.  I wonder if a case can be made that Paul was flexible on the anti-blood rule, too.  Paul says in I Corinthians 10:27: “If any of them that believe not bid you to a feast, and ye be disposed to go; whatsoever is set before you, eat, asking no question for conscience sake” (KJV).  What was the likelihood that such meat was not slaughtered in a perfectly kosher manner?

E.  The pastor said that people love to criticize: they criticize the past, they criticize the present, etc.  He said that it would be wonderful if someone were to proclaim by faith that God is going to do a great thing.  Criticism and historical retrospective are essential.  The pastor himself offered his own historical retrospective when he shared his belief that racial problems are rooted in gender problems: men treated women as slaves, and that desensitized men to treating others as slaves, too.  (Whether there is anything to that, I do not know.)  Still, it is also important to have faith and hope.

F.  Moving on to the Missouri Synod Lutheran service, the youth pastor was talking about having differences of opinion.  He asked the kids to take sides on questions, and to justify their positions: Which are better, cats or dogs?  Which do you prefer, tacos or hamburgers?  (He then said that their answer may determine where they eat after church: McDonalds or Taco Bell.  When he said that, I thought, “Well, I prefer tacos, but not Taco Bell tacos!  Offer the best examples of each choice, please!)  Do you like animal crackers or goldfish crackers more?  The youth pastor’s point was that we can still be friends, even when we disagree.  Maybe.  Of course, there are unpleasant ways of sharing differences that can muddy the waters and hinder positive relationships.

G.  The youth pastor also said that we should keep talking to God, even when we disagree with God, for that can open us up to God’s wisdom.  The youth pastor was talking primarily about times when God does not answer prayer as we like: we want a person to be healed, but the person is still sick.  I personally applied that to the need for me to keep praying, even when I recoil from God’s commands, or a certain understanding of God’s commands.  I am reading a book about forgiveness, which stresses the importance of confronting people and restoring relationships.  Yikes!

H. The pastor made the case that the Wizard of Oz is about the salvation of Toto.  Toto was saved from being put to sleep for biting Elvira Gulch.  Dorothy ran away from home to protect Toto.  When Dorothy wanted to go home, she asked, “And Toto, too?”  As an animal lover (though I am more of a cat person), I appreciated that observation.

I.  The pastor preached about Matthew 18:21-28, in which Jesus casts a demon out of a Canaanite woman’s daughter.  Jesus praises the Canaanite woman’s faith, even though, previously, he told her that his mission was to the Israelites.  The pastor was saying that the Canaanites were condemned to death in the Torah (see, for example, Deuteronomy 20:17).  Yet, Jesus was including a Canaanite woman, as a result of her faith.  In Lutheran fashion, the pastor related this to a Gospel: we are condemned to death because of our sins, but God has forgiven and included us by grace, which we receive by faith.  But many scholars contend that the Canaanites that the Torah discusses did not exist in Israel’s post-exilic period.  When Ezra 9:1 mentions the Canaanites, they argue, it is comparing the non-Jewish (and even some of the Jewish) people of the land with the Canaanites rather than positing that they were directly descended from the Canaanites.  The woman in Matthew 18:21-28 was not related to the Torah Canaanites, according to this view.  Why, then, is she called a Canaanite?  Was that what Phoenicians were called then, even if they were not literal Canaanites?  Or was Matthew 18:21-28 calling her a Canaanite for homiletical or religious purposes, as Ezra 9:1, in a sense, was?  Ezra 9:1 was tarring the people of the land by likening them to the Canaanites, but perhaps Matthew 18:21-28 is making the point that God includes the previously excluded.  This is just speculation.  There are scholars who have argued that the Gospel of Matthew is rather hostile towards Gentiles.

J.  In listing the Canaanites, the pastor mentioned the “Mizriamim.”  Mitzraim is the Hebrew word for Egypt.  Ezra 9:1 refers to the Egyptians among the nations of Canaan.  I wonder where the pastor got “Mizriamim.”  Was it from a literalistic (if that is the correct word) translation of Ezra 9:1?
I’ll stop here.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Assault

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

The Assault is the second volume of the “Harbingers” series.  As in the first volume, authors Bill Myers, Frank Peretti, Angela Hunt, and Alton Gansky each contribute a section, from the perspective of a main character.  Bill Myers conveys the perspective of Brenda, a tough tattoo artist who has premonitions of the future.  Frank Peretti contributes the perspective of the professor, an atheist ex-priest.  Angela Hunt writes from the point-of-view of Andi, the professor’s assistant, who is Jewish.  And Alton Gansky shares the viewpoint of Tank, a lovable ex-jock, who is probably the most Christian character in the book.  Another character is Daniel, who hears from invisible people.  Brenda is a mother-figure to him.

The second volume is better than the first volume.  There was a greater educational element in the second volume, in that the first section talked about the Spear of Destiny, the spear that supposedly killed Christ, which Hitler wanted when he was alive.  There was also more intrigue.  The Harbingers were contending against the Gate, which was like the Illuminati (as many modern conspiracy theorists portray it), but was from another dimension (or so I understood).

Like the previous volume, this volume was somewhat difficult to follow.  The prose was simple, but putting together the big picture from the dialogue and the action and horror scenes was a challenge.  This volume was a step up from the previous volume, however, because this volume presented the characters summing up what came before, on occasion, and Tank offered his impressions of the other characters.

The characters are likable.  The professor is crusty and misanthropic, but he has some level of affection for the other characters.  The Harbingers fight evil, even though not all of them are Christians, which is interesting, for a Christian novel.  The professor remains an atheist.  My favorite part of this book was when an ascended spirit being claiming to be a god was telling the professor that he (the professor) was God, and the professor replied, “That would mean I don’t believe in me, which is absurd!”

I would have liked more information about the Gate, but that may come out in a subsequent volume.

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

Monday, August 14, 2017

Church Write-Up: People Are Lions (and Other Items)

Last Sunday, I went to the evangelical “pen church,” where I get a free blue pen every time that I visit.  Here are some points that the pastor made in his sermon:

A.  The overarching theme of the sermon was unity.  The pastor said that the world tends towards negativity and fragmentation.  The church, however, can show people the validity of faith through its unity.  The pastor alluded to John 13:35, in which Jesus said that people will recognize Jesus’ disciples when they love one another.  Next Sunday, this church will be doing service projects in the community, and the pastor expressed hope that this can show people an example of the church being unified around a common cause, a positive cause, a cause that shows what Christ is about.

B.  The pastor said that a contributing factor towards disunity in church is that people are jealous that someone has something that they lack.  When we realize, though, that God’s table is super-abundant and there is a lot to go around, we will not be afraid to let others go before us, or to give credit to others when credit is due.  Someone else being blessed does not detract from us being blessed.

C.  The pastor mentioned a person in the church who has become a supervisor at a bank.  Her boss offered her advice on how to relate to those she would be supervising: see them as kittens.  The pastor contrasted this with how many of us see people: as lions.  We approach them with our table and whip, at odds with them from the get go.  I certainly identified with him there.  I have been treated like a lion, and I have seen people as lions.

D.  The pastor said that, when we are at odds with someone in the church, we should not gossip about him or her.  Rather, we should go to that person directly to work things out.  This is intimidating, the pastor acknowledged, but we can ask God for wisdom about the appropriate words to say.  If that does not work, bring someone the person respects.  And, if that does not work, inform the church.  The pastor, of course, was drawing from Matthew 18:15-20.

E.  The pastor was saying that bragging repels people from us, whereas humility draws people to us.  He also suggested that we should own up to our mistakes when we make them, rather than telling people we hurt, “I’m sorry that you feel that way, but that was not what I meant.”

F.  The pastor said something that a therapist once told me.  When we are 18, we are obsessed about what people think of us.  When we are 40, we do not care so much.  When we are 65, we realize that people are not thinking about us but about their own problems.

Here are some of my responses:

—-When I hear these sorts of sermons, I wonder: “Why exactly do I have to be friends with everyone?  A lot of Christians don’t want to be friends with me!”  Some people just do not like each other.  I think there is wisdom in what the pastor is saying.  Just because someone hurts my feelings, that is no reason for me for gossip about that person and turn others against him or her.  And, if I hurt someone, I hope that I would apologize, assuming that I think the person’s criticism is fair.  But Christians being friends with everyone, particularly Christians?  That strikes me as idealistic.  I fall vastly short of practicing that, and so do other Christians.

—-(B.) may sound prosperity-Gospel-ish to some.  One can sarcastically ask, “Where is God’s ‘abundant table’ for people suffering from poverty in (such-and-such a place)?”  Some may see what the pastor says as practically unrealistic.  “Let others go first or take credit?  I can’t do that!  If I don’t advocate for myself, nobody else will!”  Part of me is cynical.  On the other hand, there is a part of myself that identifies with what the pastor is saying.  I am limited, so I do depend on God rather than my own ability to pull myself up by my bootstraps.  The possibility that God can provide, therefore, resonates with me.

—-Bringing (C.), (D.), and (E.) together, one reason I would be hesitant to go directly to a person who hurt me to communicate my hurt is that I fear that he or she will throw my vulnerability in my face.  People ARE lions!

—-Humility can draw people.  Confidence does too, though.  People like humility in others because others are making them feel important or valued, and because people can identify with those who share similar vulnerabilities.  At the same time, people are drawn to leaders, to people who seem like they have answers.

—-(F.) gets me thinking.  Part of me, of course, cares about what people think.  I feel better when people like me than when they do not (though, nowadays, I think when that happens, “This is too good to be true”).  Part of me realizes, though, that I have responsibilities to do in life, and things to enjoy in life, even when people do not like me.  I had these thoughts, in some way, shape, or form, when I was 18, and now.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Whispering of the Willows

Tonya Jewel Blessing.  The Whispering of the Willows.  Capture Books, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

The Whispering of the Willows is set in Appalachia during the late 1920s.

Here are some of the main characters:

Emerald, or Emie, is in the eighth grade.  She is the main character of the book.

Emie’s father, Ahab Elijah, is abusive, but he was physically crippled in World War I, so he is limited in his ability to physically abuse his older boys.

Alma is Emie’s mother.  She endures her husband’s abuse and does not stand up to him.

Ernest is Emie’s older brother.  He is a good brother, who cares about his siblings.  He is a devout Christian, and he feels called to teach African-American children.

Lester is Emie’s other older brother.  Lester is a trouble-maker and a tough guy, but he converts to Christ and leaves the area.

Coral is one of Emie’s sisters.  She is quiet and shy.

Pastor Eugene is Ahab’s cousin.  He is a fire-and-brimstone preacher, teaches that women should obey their husbands, and preaches that African-Americans are cursed under the curse of Ham, even though he is also the pastor for the African-Americans of the community.

Charlie is Pastor Eugene’s son.  He is a wicked character, though heroism shines through, at least once.  Ahab promises Emie to Charlie, who does something horrible to Emie.

Justice is a kindly African-American man, who is threatened to take the blame for what Charlie did.
Mercy is Justice’s daughter.  She is the love interest of Ernest, though, back in this time, interracial marriage was against the law.

Auntie Ada is the kindly aunt of Emie.  She helps Emie during extremely difficult times, when Emie’s parents have forsaken her.

Doctor Bright was a love interest to Ada when they were younger, but Ada abandoned the romance after a confusing experience.  Will their love for each other blossom again?

Sheriff Robbins is a fair sheriff, overall.

Rudy, or “Red,” has had a crush on Emie since he first met her.  He is a decent fellow.

Each chapter is introduced with an “Appalachian Folk Belief,” which gave the book some authenticity.  Old time hymns are interspersed throughout the book, and they provide comfort and guidance to the characters, as well as nostalgia to me as a reader.

The first half of the book was better than the second half (though the first half did have a very disturbing scene).  The first half really got into the Appalachian world and the characters were realistic, and there were wise reflections.  The second half seemed to be moving along for the sake of moving along and was rather scattered.  At the same time, there was in the second half an honest look that Ernest took at himself, which led him to a particular decision.

More detail may have made the book better, on such topics as why Lester converted to Christ, how Ahab Elijah was a complex character, and why exactly Ernest felt led to teach African-American children.

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

Monday, August 7, 2017

Church Write-Up: Service and Faith

The sermon at church last Sunday was about service.  It was delivered by a layperson, but it was very well-delivered.  There were a lot of moving stories.

Here are some thoughts:

A.  The preacher had two biblical texts.  The first was Jeremiah 29:7, in which God exhorts the Jews in exile to seek the peace and prosperity of the city of their exile.  They are to pray to God for it, for, when it prospers, the exiled Jews will prosper.

The other text was Acts 8:4-8.  Philip the deacon goes to Samaria, preaches Christ, casts out demons, and heals the paralyzed and lame.  V 8 then says that there was great joy in the city.

The preacher appealed to these texts to justify Christians reaching out to the local community.  Usually, these are the sorts of texts that are cited to support that.  I worked at a mainline Protestant church a while back, and it had a lot of outreach programs to the community.  The assistant pastor cited the ministry of Jesus and Jesus’ disciples in the synoptic Gospels to heal and cast out demons as biblical support for the outreach.  They are not entirely the same, but both are acts of compassion, and ways to enhance the lives of others.

B.  The preacher told a story about a homeless person he encountered last week.  Last week was hot, and I mean very hot, but a homeless person was wearing long sleeves.  The preacher asked the homeless person why he was not wearing short sleeves and shorts, and the homeless person replied that the shelter only had long-sleeved shirts.  The preacher then said that there is often an over-abundance of winter clothes at shelters during the summer, and of summer clothes during the winter.  That is convicting.  It is good to give clothes to charity, but are we primarily doing so to get rid of clutter, or do we think of what is actually useful and helpful for those who will wear the clothes?

C.  The preacher was talking about the importance of Christians sharing why they are doing good: because of their faith.  He told a story about a friend who went to work and tried to live in such a way that people would ask him why he was so different, and then he would be able to tell them about his faith.  He tried to live in such a way, and, after two years, a coworker said to him, “You know, you are different from others,” in a positive way, of course.  The co-worker then said: “I know why you are so different.  You’re a vegetarian!”

The preacher said that Christians can share their faith in a manner that does not make them look weird or off-putting.  For example, if a Christian is building houses at Habitat for Humanity and is working alongside a Hewlett-Packard executive, the Christian can say, “I’m here because I believe God wants me to help our community.”  That sounded reasonable.  And I am saying this as someone who kept coming up with “Yes, but”s throughout the sermon, as he preached about service.

UPDATE: It turns out that I reviewed a book that the speaker co-wrote: Contagious Disciple Making.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Book Write-Up: 40 Questions About Church Membership and Discipline

Jeremy M. Kimble.  40 Questions About Church Membership and Discipline.  Kregel Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Jeremy M. Kimble has a Ph.D. from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and teaches theology at Cedarville College.

As the title indicates, this book is about church membership and discipline.  According to Kimble, the New Testament presumes that the church consists of regenerate people who know one another and care about each other’s spiritual lives.  A person becomes a member of a church through baptism and partakes of the Lord’s supper.  If a member of the church sins and is unrepentant about that sin, Kimble argues on the basis of Matthew 18:15-18 and other biblical passages, church members have a responsibility to confront the sinning member in a loving manner.  If the sinning member does not repent, then excommunication can result.

People have questions about this scenario.  Is a member required to confront every single sin that a fellow member commits?  If that is the case, would not a person be confronting and confronted all of the time, since everybody sins?  When Jesus says that the excommunicated member is to be treated by the church as a heathen and a tax collector (Matthew 18:17), what does that mean exactly?  Does it mean that church members should shun the excommunicated member?  But did not Jesus reach out to tax collectors?  When Jesus says that the church’s decisions are bound in heaven (Matthew 18:18), does that mean that God binds Godself to follow the church’s fallible judgments?  And does excommunication imply the loss of salvation of the excommunicated person, or (since Kimble seems to follow the Reformed tradition) that the unrepentant member may not have been a genuine Christian at the outset?

Here are some thoughts:

A.  The book is repetitive, but it is eloquent and thoughtful.  An asset to this book is that it discusses Christian approaches to church discipline throughout church history, from the church fathers to the twenty-first century.

B. The author could have been clearer about baptism.  The book, as it stands, can give one the impression that baptism initiates a person into a local congregation.  But what if a baptized Christian moves to another area and wants to join another church?  Does she need to be baptized again?  Kimble probably would not go that far, but he could have been clearer about this.

C.  Kimble recommends an article about legal issues surrounding church discipline.  I read the article that he recommended, as well as other articles.  Essentially, church discipline can bring legal charges such as invasion of privacy and defamation, since the church is being told about the sin of the unrepentant church member.  The article Kimble recommends seems to imply that a signed consent form should obviate that problem.  Some sites said, however, that a signed consent form means nothing, once a person leaves the church.  I am not a lawyer, so I do not know which interpretation is more consistent with the law.  I am just saying that one may want to read more than the article that Kimble recommends.

D.  Kimble tries to be specific in his answers, and, in some cases, he is helpful.  On page 231, for example, he provides Scriptural references about how members can address various struggles that other members face.  The book would have been helpful had it been more specific, however.  Case studies would have made this book better.  Case studies not only would have elucidated what sins require church discipline and what church discipline looks like (questions that Kimble addressed, but not with enough precision), but they could also show how to avoid abuses that have come with church discipline.  And the horror stories are many!  They could also address some of the thorny social questions that accompany church discipline.  On page 218, for instance, Kimble says that “there are situations where lack of relationship or the right circumstances make it unproductive to approach a brother about sin,” but he did not elaborate or offer suggestions about what to do about this.  In the chapter about how to interact with the excommunicated member, Kimble advised church members to exhort the excommunicated member to repent if they see him or her at the grocery store or the gas station.  Really?  Are those appropriate places to give someone a mini-sermon?

E.  In one chapter, Kimble discusses the procedure for allowing a repentant excommunicated member back into the church.  Kimble suggests interviewing the member’s “friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, and other church members” to determine if the member has truly repented (page 240).  That sounded a little too FBI-ish to me.

F.  Related to (E.), it seemed to me in reading this book that church discipline is a push for outward conformity.  You put people out of the church, and, somehow, that is supposed to change people’s hearts.  Kimble denies that church discipline is about outward conformity, and one can make a case that church discipline is designed to change a person’s attitude.  It can serve as a wake-up call that a sinful action is serious.  It can be a warning that God will judge unrepentant sin (as Kimble argues).  And being exposed to Satan and the world through excommunication can destroy the flesh of the excommunicated member, a la I Corinthians 5:5 (and Kimble interprets the destruction of the flesh as the undermining of the sinful nature, which Paul often calls the flesh).  Another consideration that Kimble raises is that true believers have the Holy Spirit, which influences them to hate sin and to love righteousness.  Church discipline still strikes me as pressuring a person to conform outwardly by twisting his or her arm (not literally), rather than producing a genuine conviction of sin and love of righteousness.  In my opinion, this is not necessarily wrong, for a church should be able to set moral standards and boundaries for members as well as maintain internal order.

G.  In Matthew 16:19 and 18:18, Jesus affirms that what the disciples (Peter in 16:19) bind and loose on earth will be bound and loose in heaven.  Kimble refers to scholar Daniel Wallace’s argument that we see proleptic perfects in these verses: “will have been bound” and “will have been loosed.”  Kimble concludes on page 152 that Jesus “is not stating that the church has the power to determine what will later be decided in heaven,” but rather that “as the church functions on the authority of Scripture, what it determines will have already been determined in heaven.”  That sounds reasonable: it is certainly better than saying that God will honor an unfair, politically-motivated excommunication and send the excommunicated person to hell!  I am not entirely convinced by the grammatical argument, though.  I did a BibleWorks search of Septuagint and New Testament passages in which a verb in the future tense is followed by a perfect passive participle, and the passages did not seem to concern something preceding something else, or something already being the case.  I am open to correction, though.

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

Search This Blog