Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Book Write-Up: Death at Thorburn Hall

Julianna Deering.  Death at Thorburn Hall.  Bethany House, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

This is Book 6 of the Drew Farthering Mysteries.  It is also the first Drew Farthering book that I have read.  There were details of the book that I probably would have appreciated more had I read the previous five books.  Still, the book had a warm, comfortable feel to it.  A large part of that was due to the friendships among the main characters.  The characters are British and speak rather formally, yet they are honest about their struggles and emotions.

Drew Farthering is a British detective, and his wife is Madeline.  His friend is Nick, and their friendship goes back to when they were two.  Drew sometimes calls Nick names (I thought “Yikes!”), but the brotherly-like friendship is still there.  Nick is infatuated with Carrie, but both of them are dealing with insecurities that make one wonder if their relationship will survive.  Drew is dealing with his own issues, as he is curious about his real mother, whom he has not seen since he was a child.

Drew and company go to Scotland for the 1935 British open.  Their host is Lord Rainsby at Thorburn Hall.  Lord Rainsby confides to Drew that he has suspicions about his business partner, MacArthur, who has expressed sympathies for the Nazis.  Lord Rainsby then has a riding accident, which looks like it was not really an accident.  Who caused it?  Was it MacArthur, who looks like he may be part of an espionage ring supporting the Nazis?  Is it Lady Rainsby, who was reportedly cut out of her husband’s will?  Is it the playboy Russian count (or so he seems), whom Lord Rainsby wanted out of his mansion?  All of these are explored as possibilities.  The author made an attempt to provide a surprising ending, but the culprit was not too great of a surprise.  Not to give away the ending, but a key question is, “Who controls the narrative?”

There was a sweet surprise near the end: a character is unexpectedly looking out for Drew and contains the key to the answers that Drew is seeking.  That is actually a significant element of this story: people are not entirely as they seem.

The book is not heavy in its religious emphasis, but there are words of wisdom.  Madeline offers Carrie helpful advice on taking a leap of faith.  Drew and company resolve to help someone who may not have too many helpers once the fanfare has passed.  Unconditional love also appears in the story.

I cannot say that the book overwhelmingly impressed me, but it had a comfortable feel to it.  I am open to reading other books in the series.

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

Monday, November 27, 2017

Church Write-Up: Ministry Stories, Pastoral Unforgiveness, Christmas, Breed That Cow, Fellowship, Delivering Safely

For church last Sunday, I went to the “Word of Faith” church and the Missouri Synod Lutheran church.  Here are some items:

A.  Both pastors shared stories about their experiences in ministry.  The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church reflected on when he was a pastor in his 20s.  He made a lot of mistakes, and there were people in the congregation who wanted him to leave.  He met with those people, and he resolved to listen to what they had to say, without offering a defense of himself.  One person went there with him, and this person would evaluate whether the pastor had a future at that church.  This person judged that the pastor did have a future, and he calmed down those who were upset at the pastor.  That person’s son was in the congregation last Sunday morning.

The Missouri Synod pastor talked about the days when he was a seminarian, and an elderly gentleman told him that he would be eaten up alive at a conference, over some political reason or technical distinction.  But, if the pastor said he was with this elderly gentleman, things would go more smoothly for him at the conference.  The pastor likened that to us claiming that we are with Christ when the last judgment occurs.  But he also said that there is more: Christ is with us.

B.  The Missouri Synod pastor talked about the time when he was an associate pastor, and the senior pastor had a falling-out with a member of the congregation.  The senior pastor refused to visit the member in the hospital and to officiate at the person’s funeral.  That reminded me of a Touched by an Angel episode that I watched a while back, entitled “The Grudge.”  Robert Prosky plays a minister, and Bonnie Bartlett plays a medical doctor, and the two of them are at each others throats over an unresolved issue from their past.  Tess, an angel, asks the minister how he can preach about love and forgiveness every week at church, when he has so much hatred in his heart.

When I saw that Touched by an Angel episode, I identified with the minister.  He was imperfect, but he had a job to do, so he did his job, even if he fell short of the righteousness that he preached.  At church, though, I was baffled by how a minister could preach one thing and do something else.  Maybe I have become prouder and more judgmental as of late.  I myself struggle with relationships, and yet, nevertheless, it baffles me that a minister of all people could refuse to forgive, without even batting an eye.

C.  The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church talked about how he struggled over whether he should observe Christmas when his daughter was a child.  Christmas, after all, is deemed to have pagan roots.  The pastor concluded that he should observe it because that could challenge him to look at Jesus’ nativity afresh every year.  This stood out to me, of course, because I grew up in a Christian movement that did not observe Christmas.  And we were considered weird on account of that.

D. The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church was talking about how sanctification can be a slow process.  We like things to be quick, he said.  Making an analogy, he said that we like our McDonalds burgers prepared and warm within minutes, but God wants us to start by breeding the cow.  How does sanctification take place, according to the pastor?  We meditate on the word of God, and that is a seed within our heart, a seed that will grow over time.

I often wonder how one can tell if Christian growth is taking place.  I remember when I expressed my bitterness towards a fellow Christian, and he told me that he wonders how, or if, I grew at all spiritually, with all that bitterness in my heart.  That is a good question.  At the same time, bad experiences, and even bad emotions, can make me humbler and more dependent on God, and even more compassionate and less judgmental towards others.  Another observation: maybe I was happier and more carefree and loving before I felt the bruises of life.  Can I say that I was maturer then than now?  Well, Jesus did exhort us to become like children.  But I see myself as more naive then, not more spiritually advanced, necessarily.

Sometimes, my sanctification seems to be a step forward and a step back.  I think that I have learned compassion through my experiences, then I turn right around and judge somebody else.

E.  In Luke 1, Mary goes to her cousin Elizabeth after Mary learns that she, as a virgin, will give birth to the Son of God.  Elizabeth has had her own supernatural experience, as she has become pregnant with a son in her old age.  The “Word of Faith” pastor said that, when we experience something supernatural, God may send us to someone who can understand and confirm what we are experiencing.  The pastor also said that the virgin birth was as strange then as it would be today.  He said that the incarnation would be inconceivable within Judaism, and he disputed that the virgin birth can be likened to the Greek legends about gods having sex with women who then had god-men.

I recall a conference about Christian community that I attended years ago, and the speaker there appealed to the Mary and Elizabeth story to argue that Christians should be in community.  We were asked to consider what keeps us from seeking out our Elizabeth.  I had issues with that: the speaker was essentially making a story into a law.  But the way that the pastor at the “Word of Faith” church addressed the story made more sense to me: Mary went to Elizabeth because Elizabeth was one of the few people who could understand what Mary was experiencing.

F.  The “Word of Faith” pastor said that Yeshua, the Hebrew name of Jesus, means “to deliver safely.”  He said that we should recognize our fragility, and that Jesus wants to deliver us safely through our psychological problems and our debts.  A lady later talked about her own deliverance from financial debt.

Some argue that we cannot expect God to deliver us from financial debt.  Not only may we be setting ourselves up for disappointment, the argument goes, but for God to deliver us from our debt would be for God to enable us in making irresponsible decisions.  I do not know if we can expect this of God: there are plenty of people who experience bankruptcy.  Also, God has more things on God’s mind than our financial comfort.  But I will not say that God never, ever delivers people from debt.  There may be a place for hope.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Book Write-Up: Refugees, by R.A. Denny

R.A. Denny.  Refugees (Mud, Rocks, and Trees, Book 1).  2017.  See here to buy the book.

Refugees is a work of fantasy.  The chapters are in the first person and alternate among different characters.

I am not sure how exactly to dive into this review, so I will start by commenting on some of the characters who stood out to me.

Emperor Zoltov: Zoltov is the emperor of the Tzoladians.  There is a prophecy, and he interprets it to mean that his deposed brother will rise from the grave, gather together the mud, rocks, and trees, and defeat him.

Baskrod: Baskrod is a fisherman and a prophet.  He is unpopular because he worships the high god Adon, whereas others worship other gods (as well?).

Amanki: Amanki is friends with Baskrod.  He loses the woman he believes to be his mother at the hands of mud beasts, who are vicious horsemen sent by Emperor Zoltov.  Amanki is handed a seal by a woman, and the seal, the woman, and Amanki all turn out to be important.  Zoltov wants that seal, thinking it is the key to treasure.

Brina: Baksrod tells Brina that she has a destiny.  She is to travel to Tzoladia, in accordance with the prophecy.  The problem is, she has to tell a council this to get its permission, and the council does not believe her.  One of the councilmen gives her the sort of speech that God gave to Cain in Genesis 4!

The book has an intriguing premise, and R.A. Denny’s creativity is evident.  The prose is not compelling, but it is formal.  The book was not exactly my cup of tea.  Part of that was my fault.  I read a few pages each day, and maybe that led me to lose sight of the big picture; sometimes that happens when I read books that way, and sometimes it does not.

But I do not think that my reading strategy was the only reason that this book was not my cup of tea.  What are other reasons?  Maybe I felt jolted continually by the alternating perspectives.  R.A. Denny did well to mark the character narrating each chapter (some authors are not so generous, unfortunately), but it was difficult enough for me to become acquainted with a new fantasy world, so maybe I preferred a smoother ride.  Perhaps the book would have been smoother had its prose been in the third-person omniscient and there were fewer main characters.  I also wondered, at times, what was holding the whole story together.  And there never was a time when the story came alive to me—-though the story of Zoltov and his royal family was definitely interesting.

Then there was the religious angle.  I do not mind that, as it is to be expected in a work of Christian fantasy.  But this is about the fourth Christian fantasy book that I have read in which someone is considered controversial or bizarre for worshiping Adon, or Adonai, or Elohim.  Maybe I feel that this theme has gotten old.  Or—-and this is what I would prefer to say—-perhaps there is a way to explore that theme in a fresh manner.  I do not recall much in Refugees about what the characters believe is at stake in terms of their religious beliefs.  That may have improved the book (and, if that was there and I missed it, its salience would have improved the book).

Finally, while Denny did well to have a map and a list of characters, she would have done better to place those at the beginning of the book rather than the end.  As I said, jumping into a new world and trying to figure out what is going on can be daunting.  Putting those things at the beginning could have gently introduced readers to the fantasy world.

I read this book and wrote this review at the request of the author.  My review is honest.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Church Write-Up: Resolution, Mystery, or Both?

On Thanksgiving, I went to the Missouri Synod church’s Thanksgiving service.

The pastor talked about a movie from the 1980’s entitled The Big Chill.  The pastor was saying that it is about University of Michigan students, and, while he himself liked the movie, he could see Roger Ebert’s point that the movie had no resolution.  It was aimless.  The pastor cited this as a movie that asks the right questions, but does not quite get to the correct destination.

I read up on the movie when I got home.  It is about people who were college students, but they got older and reached middle age, dealing with the problems and the challenges of that.  One of them (played by Kevin Costner) had committed suicide, and that drew the former classmates together.  From the wikipedia description, it appeared that the movie had a lot of sex: looking to sex to find fulfillment.  This may be part of what the pastor meant when he said that the movie asked right questions but fell short in its answers.

The movie may not arrive at a resolution, but I doubt that it is like some comedies I have seen: going nowhere, such that I could not care less about where they go.  They’re just a bunch of silliness!  An existential piece about people coping with challenges, like Sisyphus rolling that stone endlessly uphill, sounds interesting to me.  I hope, though, that the movie is not just about sex.

Do movies or TV shows need resolution to be any good?  I think of the show Touched by an Angel.  There was a time when I absolutely loved that show.  Nowadays, while I still like it, I like it less than I did (and I mean at least a year ago).  You have people with these agonizing problems, and a minute-long speech by Monica, Tess, or Andrew changes their perspective and solves their problem.  Maybe I am selling that short: if I absolutely knew that God existed, and that an angel was offering encouraging, consoling, loving words from God that I could trust as true, then perhaps that would change my perspective.  Some may not be satisfied, though.  I think of some characters in the show who say, “You think I feel better now that I know that God exists?”  But Monica’s speech changes their mind, in the end.

I recently watched a movie that I really liked.  I saw Tess Harper in a Touched by an Angel episode, and, while I had seen her in a variety of things (i.e., Christy, Breaking Bad, No Country for Old Men), I wondered what it was that she was especially known for.  I found a movie from the 1980’s entitled Tender Mercies, which received Academy Award nominations and victories.  Robert Duvall plays a washed-up country-music writer named Mac.  Mac was an alcoholic, had been abusive to his first wife, and had not seen his daughter in over a decade.  He meets a woman (played by Tess Harper), and he attends church.  Still, even after his conversion to Christianity, his life is not rosy.  I liked this part of the wikipedia article about the movie:

“However, in the face of the loss of his daughter, Mac learns, in Briley’s words, that ‘his life as a Christian is no more sheltered from this world’s tragedies than it was before.’ Before finding redemption, Sledge questions why God has allowed his life to take the path it has and, in particular, why his daughter was killed instead of him. Commentators have described this as a prime example of theodicy, the question of why evil exists that is commonly faced by Christians.  Scholar Richard Leonard writes, ‘For all believers, the meaning of suffering is the universal question. … No answer is completely satisfying, least of all the idea that God sends bad events to teach us something.’ Following the death of his daughter, Mac moves forward with uncertainty as the film ends. Jewett writes of this conclusion, ‘The message of this film is that we have no final assurances, any more than Abraham did. But we can respond in faith to the tender mercies we have received.'”

This movie ends on some note of resolution, since Mac found some constructive way to approach life.  But it also ends on a note of mystery and bafflement.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Book Write-Up: Is This the End?, by David Jeremiah

Dr. David Jeremiah.  People Are Asking…Is This the End: Signs of God’s Providence in a Disturbing New World.  W Publishing Group, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

Dr. David Jeremiah pastors the Shadow Mountain Community Church in San Diego, California.  This book is about America’s moral decline (in Jeremiah’s estimation), the possibility of revival, and the end times, specifically Gog’s attack of Israel (Ezekiel 38-39), the pretribulational rapture of the saints, and the Great Tribulation.

Here are some thoughts:

A.  Jeremiah criticizes real problems, such as the epidemics of pornography and sex trafficking.  At the same time, Jeremiah seems to criticize the Left as a source of the moral relativism that afflicts the U.S.  Maybe he is correct that there have been prominent left-wingers who have embraced and promoted moral relativism.  Has he ever considered, however, that the Left has also stood up for moral absolutism?  It has challenged greed and war when they hurt innocent, powerless people.  It also has stood up against racism and discrimination.  Perhaps elements of the right-wing are the ones who are accommodationist, on certain moral issues.

B.  Some chapters were more balanced in their depiction of issues than others.  The chapter on immigration was all right.  Jeremiah accepts the right-wing narrative that illegal immigrants are a drain on the American system, but he also favorably quotes people who support compassion for them.  His chapter on Islam said that there are Muslims who seek to create sharia law in the U.S. through infiltration, yet he still encouraged love towards Muslims and acknowledged that most Muslims are peaceful.  His chapter on intolerance towards Christians in the U.S. raised important issues, and it at least was aware of the legal rule that the state cannot promote religion, but individuals can (some right-wingers do not understand this).  The chapter would have been better, however, had Jeremiah acknowledged that homosexuals in the U.S. themselves have felt persecuted.  The chapter on Israel was very one-sided, in favor of Israel.

C.  The book was informative on the history of revivals in the U.S. (and elsewhere, such as Wales), the history of Isis, and the political career of Putin.

D.  Jeremiah argues that Gog’s invasion of Israel will occur during the Great Tribulation, between the Antichrist’s peace treaty between Israel and the Arab world, and the Second Coming of Christ.  He appears to treat the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 as the prophesied return of the Jews to the Promised Land.  There are problems with this view, in my opinion.  The chapters about Gog’s attempted invasion of Israel are Ezekiel 38-39.  They come after Ezekiel 37, which concerns God’s restoration of Israel to her land.  What happens when Israel returns to her land, according to Ezekiel 37?  For one, not only the Jews return there, but the Northern tribes do, as well.  Also, the Davidic monarchy is restored.  God spiritually renews Israel.  And God makes God’s home in her midst.  Has any of this happened since 1948?  Jeremiah himself complains that most of Israel is secular, which, in his mind, is probably the opposite of being spiritually renewed.  Does Jeremiah believe that Ezekiel 38 describes what will happen after the events of Ezekiel 37?  If so, then he should place Gog’s invasion of Israel after Christ’s second coming (when Christ will rule Israel as Davidic king), not before.  Jeremiah wrote a study Bible, so he may address this issue somewhere.  But perhaps he should have discussed it in this book, at least in a note.  He adeptly addressed other questions about prophecy: How should we understand Ezekiel’s description of an end-time war in terms of the weapons of his own time?  Why does the Old Testament not predict the rapture?

E.  This book provides a lucid and informative explanation and defense of the pretribulational rapture.  Some of Jeremiah’s arguments were more effective than others.  One argument that I did not find very convincing was his argument that Christ will rapture the saints before the Great Tribulation because the saints are not supposed to experience God’s wrath, which is the point of the Tribulation.  After all, Christ suffered the wrath of God in believers’ place.  How would Jeremiah account for the Tribulational saints, the people who convert during the Great Tribulation?  Will they experience the perils that God will pour out on the earth, or will they be exempt from them—-protected from them when they are on earth?

F.  The book had some moving and compelling anecdotes.  People who watch Jeremiah’s TV program will not be surprised by this.

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

Monday, November 20, 2017

Church Write-Up: Surprised Not Shocked; Imputed or Practical?; Avoiding Hell by Productivity?

Last Sunday, I went to what I call the “Word of Faith” church, and also the Missouri Synod Lutheran church.  Here are some notes:

A.  There is a new sermon series at the “Word of Faith” church.  It is about being surprised by God.  The pastor was saying that we can either be surprised by God, or we can be shocked, which leads to emotional pain.

I am not sure what entirely the pastor has in mind when it comes to the latter (shock leading to emotional pain).  But he cited Zechariah in the Gospel of Luke as an example of the latter.  Zechariah in Luke 1 was told by an angel of God that his wife would bear John, even though she was barren and elderly.  Zechariah, out of disbelief, asked for a sign, and the angel told him that the sign would be that Zechariah would keep his unbelieving mouth shut until John was born (or so the pastor paraphrased the text!).  The pastor said that Zechariah, had he been allowed to speak, would have talked his wife Elizabeth out of having sex, and John never would have been born.  Whereas Zechariah doubted God and experienced shock, Mary was surprised by God, but she still believed that God could do what God said and assented to what God wanted to do.  The pastor was likening that to God using us, with our limitations.

Do I want for God to surprise me?  On the one hand, I would love to be assured that God knows my address and would use me for something important.  I would feel validated.  Plus, adventure sounds appealing, on some level.  On the other hand, I would like a quiet, predictable life.

B.  The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church commented on Luke 1:6, which says about Zechariah and Elizabeth: “And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (KJV).

I had not thought about this verse for a while.  I called Harold Camping (remember him?) on his radio show over a decade ago and asked him about it.  “How can this say that Zechariah and Elizabeth kept the commandments and were blameless, when Paul says that there is none righteous, no not one (Romans 3:10)?”  Camping replied that Zechariah and Elizabeth had imputed righteousness: God reckoned them as righteous, even though they (like all people) were sinful, because they had faith in the Christ who was to come.  In short, they were justified by grace through faith, not works.

Over the past week or so, I have been listening to a Lutheran podcast that goes through the Bible.  The hosts were talking about II Peter 2:8, which says regarding Lot from the Book of Genesis, as he dwelt in the wicked city of Sodom: “For that righteous man dwelling among them, in seeing and hearing, vexed his righteous soul from day to day with their unlawful deeds” (KJV).

The hosts struggled with the reference to Lot as righteous.  They rejected the idea that Lot was righteous on account of his good works, for they believed that Lot, like everyone, had to be justified by grace through faith.  Plus, when one reads the Book of Genesis, one reads that Lot did things that we might consider unrighteous: he selfishly picked the better land for himself, he dwelt in wicked Sodom, and he offered his daughters to the wicked Sodomites.  Righteous Lot?  For these hosts, Lot’s righteousness was imputed: it was not something that he possessed on account of his good works, merit, or lack of sin, for he was sinful; rather, God reckoned him as righteous on account of his faith.

The hosts made a similar point about Noah.  Genesis 6:5 states regarding the antediluvian people: “And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (KJV).  The hosts were saying that such a description fits, not only the pre-Flood people, but every human being.  That would include Noah.  According to the hosts, Noah was saved, not because he was righteous in his deeds or merited salvation, but because he found grace in the eyes of the LORD (Genesis 6:8).  Noah had faith: he believed God.

Getting back to Zechariah and Elizabeth, the pastor at the “Word of Faith” church was interpreting Luke 1:6 to mean that Zechariah and Elizabeth were connected to God and were comfortable in their own skin in that relationship.  “Blameless” means this, the pastor said, not that Zechariah and Elizabeth were morally and spiritually perfect.

I have problems with the idea that these biblical figures’ righteousness was imputed rather than practical.  II Peter 2:8 highlights Lot’s righteous soul and how it was grieved over the sinfulness of the Sodomites.  Luke 1:6 focuses on the religious walk of Zechariah and Elizabeth: they walked in God’s commandments and ordinances.

Yet, they obviously were not perfect.  Lot had his character flaws.  Zechariah stumbled in his faith.  Plus, even though Luke 1:6 states that Zechariah and Elizabeth walked in God’s commandments and were blameless, Luke in Acts 13:38-39 depicts Paul saying that forgiveness comes through Christ, and that the Jews could not be justified through the law of Moses.  The law of Moses was a dead end, in terms of becoming righteous.

Perhaps one can say that these figures had faith, and good works flowed from it.  Their faith was what saved them and led to their righteous status before God.  Maybe.  I will not deny that they had faith, even though they stumbled over it quite a bit (and the hosts of the podcast had an interesting discussion about why it is wrong to make faith into a law, for most of us fall short of even the mustard-seed faith that moves mountains or trees, a la Matthew 17:20 and Luke 17:6).  Faith probably formed the basis for their works.  Still, the biblical passages seem to focus on their deeds or attitudes (i.e., love of righteousness and hatred of wickedness) when it calls them righteous.

C.  The theme at the Missouri Synod Lutheran church was Jesus’ Parable of the Talents, which is found in Matthew 25:14-30.  You can read the parable here.

I liked how the speakers were conceptualizing the lesson of the parable: we should make use of the gifts that God gave us to help others, or to accomplish something good.  And we all can give something, even if it’s just a smile.

The Parable of the Talents troubles me because the servant who hides his talent in the ground is sent into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  The place of weeping and gnashing of teeth is arguably hell (see Matthew 13:42, 50; Luke 13:28).

I would say that I am a productive person.  I am not a people-person, but I try to do something.  Getting back to that Lutheran podcast, the hosts said on one episode that there is such a thing as passively serving one’s neighbor: a sick person in the hospital is serving the doctors and nurses by giving them the opportunity to use their gifts.  By that standard, I serve others by being a consumer: by watching TV, reading books, etc.

Maybe I am not like the unprofitable servant who does absolutely nothing with the talent that is given him.  Still, I think it is wrong for the master to cast him into hell.  Should heaven-and-hell decisions be based on a person’s productivity or accomplishment?  That strikes me as rather grisly.  What if a person cannot do anything?  What if he or she is blind and cannot read?  What if he or she does not feel like smiling?  What if I do not feel like blogging?  And, before I had Internet connection, there were times when I did not interact with human beings.  Did God condemn me as an unprofitable servant in that time?  Can’t God just let me be (by which I don’t mean leaving me alone, but accepting me even when about the only thing I do is exist)?

I have had a similar issue with Jesus’ statement that God will not forgive us if we do not forgive others (Matthew 6:15; 18:35; Mark 11:26).  Lately, I have done better in the forgiveness department than I usually do.  A resentful thought enters my head, I think to myself “I forgive that person or that deed,” and the resentment fades.  I am not sure how long this will work, but it works for now.  Still, I have issues with God conditioning God’s forgiveness of people on their forgiveness of others.  I think that God should cut people more slack than that.  “But how canst thou expect God to cut thee slack, when thou wilt not cut slack unto thy neighbour?” (I am watching the American Experience documentary on the Pilgrims as I write this.)  Because he’s God.  I am just a human being.

D.  I will leave the comments open, in case someone wants to shed light on these issues.  Just please don’t get into lewd or controversial territory.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Miracle Worker and the Misfits

Dixie Koch.  The Miracle Worker and the Misfits.  Revival Waves of Glory Books & Publishing, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

The characters from this book who are presently in my mind are as follows, though I realize that there were more characters in the book and that those characters were important.  Some character stuck with me more than others.

Abby: Abby suffered abuse as a child with her sister, Julie.

Julie: Julie has been murdered.  She left behind letters talking about her conversion to Christ.

Charley: Charley is Julie’s son.  He was a demoniac, and his story is similar to that of the demoniac in Luke 8.  The demons are cast out of him and go into a neighbor’s cows (rather than pigs, as occurs in Luke 8).  Psychiatrists are claiming that Charley had a psychological condition, not demon possession.

Pastor Paul Marvel: Pastor Paul preaches that miracles are possible today and that Jesus wants to set people free from what afflicts them.  He is the hero of the book.  Yet, he is accused of Julie’s murder.
Pastor Richard Staunch: Richard Staunch is a powerful minister in the community, and he does not believe that God works miracles anymore.  He despises Pastor Paul and does not believe that Charley was demon-possessed.

John and Phillip: I cannot recall much about who they are and what they did, but, on pages 164-166, they do have an interesting discussion about demon possession and how that contrasts with being led by the Spirit of God.

Jezra: Jezra is a witch who leads a coven.  She is one of the book’s villains.  The sequel to this book, The Way Maker and the Scarlet Cord, appears to be specifically about her.  I am intrigued!  A daughter of one of the characters is drawn to Jezra and wants nothing to do with God.

The book has an intriguing premise.  The theme of learning how to love when one has been unloved was certainly compelling.  I am open to reading the sequel.  But here are some of my problems with the book:

—-The book was somewhat like Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness books, and in a bad way.  Let me explain what I mean by that.  I am not saying that the plot of this book is similar to that of the Darkness books.  But the whole tone of the book is that one side is right and the other side is wrong, sinister, and conspiratorial.  Occasionally, there is acknowledgment of nuance.  Abby has her struggles to believe and to forgive.  People wonder why God does not heal everyone if God is still doing miracles.  We get a faint glimpse into what makes Jezra tick.  But these things were not developed that much.  This criticism is not intended to suggest that Dixie Koch should compromise her beliefs in writing her fiction.  This is a book that has a particular Christian worldview, and there is nothing wrong with that.  But people who believe differently have their motives for thinking as they do, right or wrong, and that should be acknowledged more.

—-At times, the characters spoke in sermons.  There is nothing wrong with characters in a Christian book talking about religion.  That is to be expected.  But perhaps they could have done so more naturally.

—-The prose was adequate.  There were no grammatical mistakes that I found.  But it did not compel me.  I think of the novels of Frank Peretti and Lynn Austin: with the exception of Peretti’s Darkness books, their works compel me.  Their works are preachy, and, as is the case in The Miracle Worker and the Misfits, their spiritual and religious message is not earth-shakingly new.  But their prose and their story are compelling.  Some of this is because they know how to get inside of a character’s mind and to unveil the character’s motivations.  They are also vivid.  The Miracle Worker and the Misfit lacked that.  At times, it seemed to be moving along just for the sake of moving along.

The premise of the book was intriguing, like I said, and I am somewhat open to reading the sequel, though I fear that it will be uninteresting: I envision it simply saying that Jezra sought an alliance with dark forces out of a desire for power.  I do think that Dixie Koch tried to write a book with suspense and characters who struggle to find hope in the midst of hopelessness.  But the book did not make much of a connection with me.

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

Monday, November 13, 2017

Book Write-Up: Dynamics of Muslim Worlds

Evelyn A. Reisacher, ed.  Dynamics of Muslim Worlds: Regional, Theological, and Missiological Perspectives.  IVP Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

This book contains papers that were presented at the Missiology Lectures of Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of Intercultural Studies on November 3-4, 2016, along with three other chapters.

David L. Johnston’s contribution makes a point that I think summarizes the book.  On page 176, Johnston states:

“…Western Christians especially must educate themselves about the pluralistic nature of Muslim society and about Islamic law in particular.  This will provided a needed antidote to the current wave of Islamophobia that clearly contributes to the recruitment of young Muslims by terror organizations and, more importantly, dehumanizes our Muslim neighbors.”

The “pluralistic nature of Muslim society” looms large in this book, and the book does much more than make the simple observation that there are moderate Muslims.  Rather, the book highlights numerous examples and facets of Islamic diversity, including reformist movements and different trends in Quranic interpretation.  Although the book labels ideas and movements as “traditionalist” and “reformist,” it occasionally reveals where the situation is more complex than that, as when it shows that the movement that led to ISIS initially had more liberal tendencies.  The book also distinguishes between text-centered Islam and popular Islam, and it explores the question of why people join ISIS.  The book is educational in its description of Islamic diversity, and also in its analysis of Islam in different regions, including Europe, West Africa, and South Asia.

Missiology is another prominent feature of this book.  The approach of the book seems to be to help Christians to understand the perspectives and trends within Islam so that they can better love Muslims, encouraging them to have a relationship with Jesus Christ.  Among the missiological approaches discussed in this book are debates, service to Muslims, finding common ground (e.g., on revelatory dreams and a belief in miracles), and inductive Bible study, which encourages Muslims to read the Bible themselves and to draw their own conclusions.  The book shuns any approach that seeks to impose Western Christianity on Muslims.

In terms of critique, the book seems to suffer from the same problem that other writings about this subject face, and that is the issue of boundaries.  One paper in the book, for example, appeared to imply that Christians in reaching out to Muslims should not emphasize the technicalities of the Trinity, and should be open to Muslims believing in Jesus within the context of their Islamic faith.  Does that imply that believing in the Trinity is non-essential to being a Christian?  The book could have wrestled with this more.

The book deserves five stars on account of its vast supply of information.  It is scholarly, and it is not exactly the sort of book that spoon-feeds readers the information.  Even those who know some basics about Islam may find themselves treading water as they read about the nuances and diversity within Islam.  Still, the book is understandable and, in its own way, down-to-earth.  While it does not tell too many anecdotes as it speaks about people and movements, it depicts real people experiencing real situations.

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

Church Write-Up: Home

I went to the “Word of Faith” church and the Missouri Synod Lutheran church.  Here are some notes:

A.  Eschatological hope was a theme in both services.  The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church was talking about how this world is not our home and cannot bring us fulfillment, and how we would be naked and “not us” without bodies, explaining why we will have new bodies at the resurrection.  The pastor at the Lutheran church was preaching about I Thessalonians 4:13-18 and Paul’s exhortation that Christians not grieve the dead as if they have no hope (which is not to say that they should not grieve, but that they should have hope in their grief).  During the children’s part of the service, the youth pastor was saying that being a Christian means never having to say “good bye.”  There is an afterlife.

B.  The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church said that young people look at elderly people, notice their pain and disease, and wonder why the elderly people would want to live, with all the bodily problems that they have to endure.  The pastor said that such young people will feel different once they become elderly: those who reach that age want to live every extra day that they can.

C.  The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church asserted that sexual promiscuity is a misguided search for home, which only Jesus can fulfill.  He provided a quote by John Steinbeck in East of Eden, which said that the brothel and the church attempt to satisfy a similar need, an escape or a relief from the burdens of life.  Steinbeck may have a point.  Is sexual promiscuity necessarily a search for home, though?  I can picture it not being that: it could be based on attraction or appetite.  For some, though, it may be searching for love in the wrong places.

D.  The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church was talking about the Garden of Eden.  It was a sanctuary for God, but Adam and Eve were expelled from it on account of their sin.  Later, God dwelt with Israel through the Tabernacle, which was decorated with images of fruits and cherubim, perhaps echoing Eden.  While God dwelt with Israel and blessed her, access to the Tabernacle was limited and required a strict decorum, due to people’s human limitations and sinfulness.  In the eschaton, God will dwell with people more fully and directly.  A lot of Christians believe this.  It makes sense, but I wonder if it can be consistent with the Documentary Hypothesis.  Maybe it can, if P (who wrote of the Tabernacle) knew of J (who wrote Genesis 2-3).

E.  The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church said that, had Adam and Eve stayed in the Garden of Eden in their sinful state, they would have been on a futile search for home for all eternity, devouring the fruit from the Tree of Life.  It would have been a bottomless pit.  Still, the pastor said that Adam and Eve, after their expulsion, should have stayed right by the Garden of Eden, affirming that God was the home that they desired.

F.  The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church interacted with Hebrews 11:9-10: “By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.  For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (KJV). The pastor was saying that Abraham did not just want land: he wanted God as his home.  At times, the pastor said something else: it’s not so much that God belongs to us, but we belong to God.

G.  The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church was talking about his personal walk with Jesus.  He testified that Jesus is not some dictator towards him.  Rather, Jesus often asks him, “What do you think you should do?”

Monday, November 6, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Hollywood Commandments, by DeVon Franklin

DeVon Franklin (with Tom Vandehy).  The Hollywood Commandments: A Spiritual Guide to Secular Success.  HarperOne, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

DeVon Franklin is a producer.  I think I watched an interview of him a while back, since I remember seeing an interview of a Hollywood producer who observed the seventh-day Sabbath.  That stood out to me, on account of my seventh-day Sabbatarian background.  Franklin’s wife is actress Meagan Good.  She has a lengthy IMdB, but where I remember her is from the 1997 movie Eve’s Bayou and an episode of Touched by an Angel entitled “The Pact.”

This book is about professional success: finding and pursuing one’s path to serving God through one’s profession, as one uses his or her talents.  Because of Franklin’s Hollywood background, Hollywood is the focus in this book.  Franklin candidly shares his ups and downs, his successes and mistakes.  He supports his insights with anecdotes, both personal and about others, and also with biblical stories.  His biblical support for his insights flow smoothly, without coming across as artificial.

As a person with Asperger’s, I wonder if I will achieve professional success.  Networking is difficult for me, and it is significant in terms of going anywhere professionally.  Much to my surprise, though, I actually liked this book.  What impressed me was how sensible and attainable Franklin’s suggestions are, even for me.  There are things that people can do in solitude to prepare themselves for what they believe is God’s calling, such as research and following those who have reached professional success.  People can serve others, even in small ways, and those can be learning opportunities.  They can keep on working, despite setbacks, disappointment, negative feedback, and obscurity.  And what makes a person unique can be what allows that person to make a fresh, original contribution.

And what if one reaches success?  Franklin discusses how to navigate that success humbly, for believing one’s own press is not only misguided but also can hinder one from making future contributions that are fresh and original.

Franklin talks about the importance of taking bold risks rather than playing things safe, and he offers advice about how to discern whether that is God’s will.  Franklin also provides advice about questions to ask when one is seeking to determine whether to move on to something else (i.e., another job, another career).

Much of the book was common sense, yet it was worth reading.  Franklin comes across as a friendly coach, and his advice was realistic, practical, constructive, motivating, and reasonable.  His anecdotes about how Hollywood works were interesting, for it does not always work as one might think.  In terms of critique, what Franklin says about Hollywood being a place of integrity (though Franklin occasionally acknowledges examples of the opposite) is somewhat challenged by the scandals of sexual harassment and misconduct that have been uncovered in Hollywood.  Franklin is likely correct that people in Hollywood want to work with those they can trust, people with integrity, and yet he should have acknowledged more the bad side of Hollywood.

An interesting observation, and I am noting it because it is interesting, not to be critical: my understanding is that Franklin is a Seventh-Day Adventist, yet he helped make the movie Heaven Is For Real.  Seventh-Day Adventists do not believe in the immortality of the soul but rather maintain that the dead are unconscious until the resurrection.  In Heaven Is For Real, however, a child goes to heaven and sees his dead grandfather.  Perhaps this issue would have been too academic, technical, or distracting for Franklin to address in this book, but it does raise the question of where the line should be when one makes movies that conflict with one’s beliefs (assuming Franklin accepts soul sleep).

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

Church Write-Up: Prophetic Authority and the Compassionate Epistle to the Hebrews

For church last Sunday, I went to the church I call the “Word of Faith” church, and also the Missouri-Synod Lutheran church.

The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church was continuing his series on the Elijah-Elisha stories.  He focused on II Kings 6, specifically the story of the floating ax-head, and the story of God’s invisible army of fiery chariots.  In the story of the floating ax-head, some prophets are cutting down trees, and a borrowed ax-head falls into the river.  Elisha causes the ax-head to float to the surface, and it is retrieved.  The pastor treated this story as an allegory: when people act outside of their gifts, as the prophets did when they decided to work in construction, they may lose their gift, as the ax-head was lost.  The pastor affirmed that encouragement can bring that gift back, lifting up the person and the gift.

II Kings 6:8-23 is about how the Aramean army surrounded Israel, and Elisha revealed to his frightened servant something that the servant could not initially see: a host of fiery chariots and charioteers sent by God.  The pastor stated that Elisha, as God’s prophet, has control of this army, and the pastor referred to the statement in II Kings 13:4 that Elisha himself was God’s chariot, as well as the possible implication in II Kings 2:12 that Elijah, too, was this.  The pastor said that this is true of believers, who prophesy (Acts 2:17-21; cp. Joel 2:28-32) and have the authority to bind and to loose (Matthew 16:19; 18:18).  The pastor seemed to take this into a health-and-wealth (or, more accurately, financial provision) direction, saying that believers have authority over disease and that God provides for their needs.  The pastor emphasized, however, that earthly prosperity does not bring fulfillment, for, ultimately, our fulfillment comes at our resurrection in the eschaton.  Still, we can have a foretaste of that in the here-and-now.

The pastor at the Missouri-Synod Lutheran church focused on Hebrews 12:1-3.  He discussed the importance of encouraging others so that they keep on keeping on, and laying aside the inhibiting burdens of guilt and grief.  The pastor stated that Jesus was more than a moral example, for a moral example would not help us, if we are unable to follow that example.  The start, the end, and everything in-between in the Christian life is based on and flows from Christ.  The pastor also seemed to imply that the author of Hebrews had more sensitivity towards human weakness and the need for God’s grace than the apostle Paul.  Whereas the apostle Paul talks about beating his body into submission (I Corinthians 9:27), the pastor noted, we do not see anything like that in the Epistle to the Hebrews.

To comment on the first sermon, there may be something to what the pastor said about the prophetic authority of Elijah and Elisha, the authority of Jesus on earth, and the authority of the apostles and disciples.  The logical question when it comes to believers, of course, is “Where is it?”  Christians can pray for people to be healed, yet they still may die (as occurred recently to someone for whom I prayed for at least two years).  Christians hope for protection, yet a person still enters a church in Texas and shoots them.  Yet, I read the synoptic Gospels and I observe that Jesus frequently talks about the importance of faith: for healing, for walking on water, for casting out demons, for moving mountains.  I wonder what the significance is of Jesus’ teaching on faith in the synoptic Gospels.  Conventional Christian treatments of this subject have not satisfied me, for they often focus on explaining why Jesus’ statements cannot be taken as absolutes, rather than on the purpose and meaning behind Jesus’ statements on faith.  (I acknowledge, though, that there is much remaining for me to read on the subject.)  Some hyper-dispensationalists have another solution, though: that those particular words of Jesus, and a number of Jesus’ teachings, related to the time of Jesus on earth and not the church age.  In the church age, Christians can get sick and not receive healing (II Timothy 4:28), and they have to work for a living (I Thessalonians 4:11) rather than leaving all or selling everything to give it to the poor (i.e., Luke 12:33).

Regarding the second sermon, the pastor has a point when he says that the author of Hebrews is sympathetic towards human weakness (see Hebrews 4:15-16).  But I recall a scholar telling me over a decade ago that Martin Luther had a problem with the Epistle to the Hebrews, for it appeared to imply that Christians could lose their salvation (i.e., Hebrews 6:4-6; 10:26).

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Book Write-Up: Irenaeus of Lyon, by Simonetta Carr

Simonetta Carr.  Irenaeus of Lyon.  Christian Biographies for Young Readers.  Reformation Heritage Books, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Irenaeus was a Christian leader and thinker in the second century C.E.  This book is a biography of him for children ages 7-12.  Matt Abraxas contributed illustrations, and the book also contains maps and photographs.  Many of the photographs are of representations of the people discussed in this book, and the book provides the disclaimer that the people may not have actually looked like that.

Simonetta Carr explores the controversies in which Irenaeus participated and what was at stake.  Such controversies include the debate over which day to observe Easter, Passover or Easter Sunday, which is known as the Quartodeciman controversy, as well as Irenaeus’ polemics against Gnosticism.  Carr’s treatment of the latter is especially impressive, as she lucidly lays out Gnostic beliefs and Irenaeus’ specific arguments against them.  Carr also tells stories about the Roman treatment of Christians, explaining the rationales behind the Romans’ tolerance and intolerance.  Moreover, Carr paints a picture of what life was like in Irenaeus’ time, on such topics as education (i.e., who was educated, how they were educated, and what they were taught) and seafaring.

Carr occasionally sifts through historical sources, evaluating what is historical and non-historical.  Some may claim that she does not do this enough.  At least in this book, she seems to accept uncritically the traditional story of Polycarp’s martyrdom, which scholar Candida Moss argues is anachronistic.  Carr also accepts uncritically Irenaeus’ claim that his teachings can be traced back to the apostles, when Gnostic Christians made the same claim.  And, on page 38, Carr, as she relays Irenaeus’ argument, asks, “More importantly, why would Jesus teach something to the apostles and then reveal a different secret knowledge to others?”  That is an excellent question, but perhaps Gnostic Christians can be pardoned for concluding that Jesus had such a modus operandi, as Jesus in the synoptic Gospels often shares with his disciples information that he does not share with the general public.

Another question that came to my mind in reading this book is whether Carr’s Protestant perspective influences her portrayal of Irenaeus.  Carr emphasizes the centrality of Scripture in the second century Christian church and Irenaeus’ polemics, whereas a Catholic might stress instead the centrality and authority of the church.  Ecclesiology still looms large in Carr’s book, however, as she discusses the apostolic heritage of Irenaeus’ beliefs, Irenaeus’ argument from the widespread Christian acceptance of the Rule of Faith, and Irenaeus’ endorsement of the bishops.

The book would have been better had it gone more deeply into Irenaeus’ view of recapitulation, his belief that Christ succeeded where Adam failed and renewed humanity through the incarnation.  This topic occurred to me as I read Irenaeus’ summary of the Christian Rule of Faith, which Carr includes near the end of the book.  In reading the Rule, I noticed the absence of doctrines that are central to conservative Christianity today, such as penal substitution (which is not to suggest that ancient Christians did not hold to such a doctrine).  More discussion of Irenaeus’ view of salvation may have enhanced the book.  The book also should have been more specific in its citation of primary sources, using endnotes so as not to distract young readers.

Would children ages 7-12 appreciate this book, or would it be too deep for them?  I think that many Christian children would appreciate it.  Carr builds on basic Christian doctrines, such as the idea that God created the world, and she clearly explained a Gnostic objection to that doctrine, namely, that the world has imperfections.  The Quartodeciman controversy may not interest most Christian children (though it interested me when I was a child, since I grew up in a Christian church that observed the Jewish Passover).  Still, they can be edified and instructed by the church’s tolerance of differing perspectives, out of love for fellow believers (not that the church has always done this).

Critiques notwithstanding, this book deserves five stars.  It is educational and, at times, nuanced.  Christian children reading this book will receive a solid foundation to study patristics.  Also, the physical appearance of the book is beautiful, such that it would make a good decoration.

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

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Book Write-Up: Where We Belong, by Lynn Austin

Lynn Austin.  Where We Belong.  Bethany House, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

Where We Belong is set in the nineteenth century.  Two sisters, Rebecca and Flora Hawes, live with their wealthy father in Chicago.  They are based on Agnes and Margaret Smith, twin sisters who discovered a manuscript of the Gospels (dating to 500 C.E.) at the traditional Mount Sinai.  Accompanying Rebecca and Flora are Soren Petersen, who is a servant, and Kate, who came to be with them after trying to steal from them.  The book alternates between their adventures at Mount Sinai and their personal backgrounds.

The adventures at Sinai got rather tedious, but the personal backgrounds were compelling.  Rebecca is an intelligent, scholarly, and deeply-spiritual person, afraid that she will be pressured to marry a man who does not share her passions and is only interested in money.  Flora is a beautiful yet modest lady with a heart for helping the poor.  A love triangle (sort of) develops among Rebecca, Flora, and Edmund, a bumbling, likeable scholar from Cambridge with a solid Christian faith.  Petersen lost his mother when he was a boy and ended up in an orphanage with his little brother, Gunnar, whom he tries to protect.  After a tragic incident, Petersen steers off onto the wrong path, until he is shown grace.  And Kate has an attitude and has experienced downsides of life.  Another character, who does not get his own section but is still a significant figure in the story, is Timothy, a scholar from the University of Chicago with curiosity and a romantic interest in Rebecca.  Timothy is a content agnostic and skeptic, and Rebecca, a devout Christian, struggles over whether she should marry him.

A key subject in this book is Christian apologetics: should Christians attempt to persuade non-Christians of the truth of Christianity through appeals to reason and evidence, or is living a righteous life and encouraging people to listen to God’s voice sufficient?  The book leans towards the latter, while implying that Christianity can stand on its own two feet in terms of the former.  Timothy was not exactly the strongest opponent in his debates with Rebecca, but he had a good retort about Noah’s Ark, after Rebecca had made a snarky comment about Darwinian evolution.  Rebecca seemed to suggest that archaeological finds confirming the historicity of aspects of the Bible supports the religious and spiritual outlook of the Bible; to her credit, though, Lynn Austin referred to archaeological confirmation of Homer’s tales.  The book leaned heavily on the stability of the New Testament text: that the New Testament has been largely unchanged over the centuries.  Even if that is true, does that demonstrate the truth of Christianity?  Austin raises other considerations, as well, but the prominence of manuscripts in the book stood out.

As always, Lynn Austin is an effective storyteller.  Some things were rather rushed (e.g., Timothy could have been better developed), and the end got a little preachy, as Petersen and Kate essentially delivered to Timothy a sermon.  The book was insightful, though, about how God creates people with talents and passions, and ways that people can cope, in a godly manner, with the disappointments of life.

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

Search This Blog