Monday, November 25, 2019

Book Write-Up: Twelve Ordinary Men, by John MacArthur

John MacArthur. Twelve Ordinary Men: How the Master Shaped His Disciples for Greatness, and What He Wants to Do with You. W, 2002. See here to purchase the book.

John MacArthur is a pastor and author as well as the President of Master’s Seminary. Twelve Ordinary Men is a profile of each of the twelve disciples. MacArthur looks at everything that the New Testament says about the disciples and draws conclusions about their character from that. He also considers various ancient Christian traditions about what happened to them.

Here are some thoughts and observations:

A. MacArthur paints a coherent picture of each disciple, pulling together the various things that the New Testament says about them. To use an example, Thomas was willing to go to Jerusalem and die with Jesus (John 11:16), but he also doubted that Jesus rose from the dead (John 20). In addition, shortly before Jesus’s death, Thomas said he did not know where Jesus was going and wondered how the disciples could know the way (John 14:5). What do all of these statements have in common? Some think that the common theme was that Thomas was a dunce, or that Thomas had his moments of faith and his moments of doubt. More plausibly, MacArthur proposes that Thomas was a pessimist, yet a pessimist who wanted to be with Jesus.

B. MacArthur continually says that the disciples demonstrate that God uses the weak things of the world for God’s glory (I Corinthians 1:27). Yet, MacArthur also thinks that the disciples had natural talents that God used. Peter, for instance, was an apt leader because he was curious and unafraid to ask questions, rushed to be in the middle of things, and boldly got in the forefront and talked. God refined Peter’s character yet used who Peter basically was. MacArthur does not think that everyone has to be like Peter, though. He notes that Andrew quietly brought individual people to Jesus. James the Less and Judas (not Iscariot) were perfectly willing to stay in the background, yet God used them to do great things, just as God used the other disciples.

C. In a few cases, MacArthur tries to work with what little details the New Testament provides. Based on details in the New Testament, MacArthur explores the possibility that James the Less was Matthew’s brother, or Jesus’s nephew. MacArthur acknowledges that these are mere possibilities and is not dogmatic about them. Some details were puzzling: is John 19:25 suggesting that Mary’s sister was also named Mary? What was particularly interesting about James the Less was that his mother and others in his family were followers of Jesus.

D. There were cases in which MacArthur illuminated the Scriptures, or at least offered plausible proposals and interpretations. Why did the Samaritans in the Gospel of Luke have a problem with the disciples passing through Samaritan territory to get to Jerusalem? According to MacArthur, the Samaritans disliked that Jews were going to Jerusalem to worship, when the Samaritans believed that God’s legitimate sanctuary was at Mount Gerizim. How was Jesus responding to the question from Judas (not Iscariot) about why Jesus shows himself to the disciples and not the whole world (John 14:22)? Jesus’s response was that the Father and Jesus appear to anyone who loves him.

E. On pages 98-99, MacArthur contrasts Paul with John. Paul, according to MacArthur, acknowledges that believers struggle with sin (Romans 7), whereas John presents things in black and white: believers obey the commandments, love, do not practice sin, walk in the light, etc. MacArthur states: “From reading John, one might think that righteousness comes so easily and naturally to the Christian that every failure would be enough to shatter our assurance completely. That is why when I read heavy doses of John, I sometimes have to turn to Paul’s epistles just to find some breathing space.” That is a telling statement, since MacArthur’s writings have challenged my own spiritual assurance in the past. Apparently, MacArthur has a similar struggle, at times, and feels a need for breathing space as he reads and processes Scripture.

F. Some of MacArthur’s harmonizations of Scripture are fairly plausible, whereas others are not so much. MacArthur tries to harmonize the different accounts of Jesus’s calling of the disciples. He says that Jesus called them when they were disciples of John, then called them to deeper levels of service, then chose them among other disciples to go out and preach the message of the Kingdom. That makes a degree of sense, for Peter in Luke 5 obviously already knew Jesus. MacArthur’s attempt to reconcile the different accounts of Judas Iscariot’s death was a bit of a stretch, though. What MacArthur seems to be saying is that the priests bought Judas a field with the money that Judas returned to them, and Judas hung himself then collapsed there (cp. Matthew 27:8; Acts 1:19).

G. MacArthur says that Judas left before Jesus and the disciples ate the last supper. This is a significant topic because it is relevant to debates about closed versus open communion. Did Judas partake of communion with the other disciples? For MacArthur, there was no way that Jesus would allow Judas, a greedy, hateful man who had opened himself to Satanic influence, to partake of the holy sacrament of communion. Looking at the Gospels, MacArthur’s interpretation makes sense if one wants to compare John with Matthew and Mark. John lacks a communion service, but it does depict Judas leaving right after Jesus confronts him about the impending betrayal (John 13:21-29). Matthew and Mark depict the last supper occurring after Jesus confronts Judas (Matthew 26:21-29; Mark 14:18-25), so, when one juxtaposes the three passages, it is plausible that Judas left after the confrontation and before the last supper. In Luke 22:15-22, however, Judas appears to be still at the table after Jesus consecrates the bread and the wine, which would imply that he did partake of communion.

H. MacArthur presents an intriguing, albeit distressing, picture of Judas. Judas followed Jesus out of a desire for money and power and was preoccupied with that, even though Jesus continually showed him kindness and spoke spiritual truths to him. Judas was even able to hide his wickedness and to blend in with the other disciples. MacArthur’s picture of Judas was extensive, yet missing a significant element. Why did Jesus make Judas the treasurer (John 12:6; 13:29), when he knew that Judas was a thief? MacArthur does not say. Ellen G. White, a founder of Seventh-Day Adventism, proposed that Jesus was trying to ween Judas from greed by placing Judas in charge of helping the poor.

I. MacArthur assumes that Matthew wrote the Gospel of Matthew. According to MacArthur, Matthew was so knowledgeable about the Old Testament because he studied the Scriptures on his own, since, as a hated tax-collector, he could not hear them read at the synagogues. How plausible is it that Matthew would have his own copy of the Torah, though, when Torah scrolls were expensive and rare? And not only the Torah, but different versions of it, including the proto-MT and the Septuagint? Perhaps that could have happened eventually, since the Scriptures were read in churches and Matthew could have had access to them that way, but I wonder if Matthew, during the lifetime of Jesus, could have had his own copy of the Torah. MacArthur says that Matthew was a lower-level tax collector, so he was not as well-paid as a chief tax collector. Could Matthew still have afforded a Torah scroll, or attained a copy of that and variants through his extensive economic contacts?

J. MacArthur seems to assume that the Old Testament directly predicted Judas’s betrayal of Jesus, even though there are challenges that can be made to this position. John 13:19 applies Psalm 41:9 to Judas’s betrayal of Jesus: “Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me” (KJV). The problem with applying Psalm 41 to Jesus is that the Psalmist confesses sin against God in Psalm 41:4. Jesus, according to Christian teaching, never sinned. MacArthur should have wrestled with this question, at least briefly, since he goes deeply into Old Testament background throughout this book.

K. There is not a whole lot of application in this book, but that is all right with me, for constructing a bunch of artificial rules would make the book look, well, artificial. The book is a compelling picture, though, of how a loving and righteous God mentors and uses different kinds of people, as well as the importance of valuing God’s purposes rather than simply how God can meet one’s own needs.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Church Write-Up: Loving God More than Anything Else?

At church this morning, one of the themes was that, when we worship anything or anyone other than God, we will be disappointed. We trust in our 401K for life, meaning, and security? Tell that to people whose 401Ks were wiped out in the 2008 financial crisis!

I have heard this sort of message for years. My problem is that it tries to legislate affection for God. “You have to love God more than anything or anyone else.” What if you don’t? How can that even be commanded? You love what you love.

One way to follow it, perhaps, is to remember and find strength in what God has provided: God has given us eternal life, and the hope of eternal life, in Christ. Christians are righteous and forgiven before God in Christ. God is also the provider, using means to bring blessing to people.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Church Write-Up: Christ as King on the Cross

This week’s Bible study was entitled “Jesus as King” and focused on Luke 23. The reason that the church studied that topic this particular week is that next Sunday is Christ the King Sunday. Here are some items:

A. Even at his crucifixion, Jesus was king. Jesus did not stumble into his arrest and crucifixion but deliberately and willfully laid down his life out of love of his Father and us; Jesus was in control of the situation. At his trial and his crucifixion, Jesus’s enemies spoke the truth, albeit sarcastically. They sarcastically affirmed that Jesus saved others and was king of the Jews, so God’s truth was being proclaimed in this dark time. Jesus on the cross was able to extend membership in the Kingdom of God, as Jesus did to the malefactor on the cross. According to Luke, the Kingdom is wherever Jesus is, for, in Jesus, the Kingdom of God is in people’s midst (Luke 17:21). The Kingdom was present even when Jesus was on the cross. The pastor speculated that this may be why Matthew and Mark specify that one malefactor was on Jesus’s right and another on his left (Matthew 27:38; Mark 15:27; see Luke 23:33): it is a reference to someone sitting at Jesus’s right and left hands in his Kingdom (Matthew 20:20-23; Mark 10:35-40).

B. Jesus told the malefactor on the cross, “Today you shall be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). There is, of course, the view that the malefactor went to heaven that very day and was with Jesus. The pastor, however, went through a more spiritual interpretation of Jesus’s statement. The malefactor’s confession of faith (however incomplete), Jesus’s word of assurance to him, and the presence of Jesus with the malefactor made the malefactor a Christian, and, due to that, the malefactor became part of the new creation, paradise, the Eden that Jesus was restoring in himself. Jesus said “Today” because that term has salvific import in the Bible: today is the day of salvation (II Corinthians 6:2; Isaiah 49:8).

Monday, November 18, 2019

Book Write-Up: Jesus Before the Gospels, by Bart D. Ehrman

Bart D. Ehrman. Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior. HarperOne, 2016. See here to purchase the book.

Bart Ehrman teaches religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. A religious agnostic, he is renowned for his controversial books about the New Testament and theology. Jesus Before the Gospels essentially critiques the idea that the biblical Gospels are historically accurate because they reflect eyewitness testimony.

In this review, I will be laying out key aspects of Ehrman’s argument. Then, I will evaluate it.

Ehrman’s argument:

A. Ehrman refers to memory studies and argues that people often misremember what they hear and see. He cites examples of this, such as John Dean’s inaccurate testimony during the Watergate scandal. Dean was not entirely lying, for Dean said things that made himself look bad. Yet, when the audio recording came out of Dean’s conversations about which he testified, they were revealed to be quite different from how Dean remembered them. Ehrman cites studies about memory that indicate that people fill in the gaps of their memory with similar experiences they have had, that their present influences their memory of the past, and that the power of suggestion and imagination can even influence them to “remember” things that did not actually occur. Being in a group among people who shared an experience does not necessarily guarantee an accurate memory, either, for people can easily subordinate their distinct memories to the memory of the group, or the most assertive person in the group.

B. The transmission of memories, too, leads to inaccuracies. This is like the “telephone game,” in which one person tells something to someone, who then tells someone else, who then tells someone else, etc. Once the story gets to the end of the line, it is vastly different from how it initially was. But do not pre-literate societies accurately pass down oral traditions, since they cannot rely on books to preserve the past? Ehrman argues in the negative. Against a scholar who cited a tribe’s transmission of a tradition as an example of rigorous memorization, Ehrman refers to a study that demonstrates that this tribe’s transmission of the tradition was inaccurate, based on comparison with other primary sources. Ehrman doubts the accuracy of much of the Gospels, too, for at least forty years separate the life of the historical Jesus and the writing of the Gospels. During that time, traditions got altered and embellished, and stories were invented. Against those who argue that students of rabbis could remember vast amounts of their teacher’s teachings, Ehrman notes that the Gospels contain discrepancies about what Jesus said and did, undermining the possibility that disciples were remembering and transmitting Jesus’s teachings verbatum. Ehrman does not believe that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, for the disciples spoke Aramaic rather than Greek, the language of the Gospels; moreover, the disciples were illiterate and uneducated (Acts 4:13), not the sorts of people who could write Gospels.

C. Scholars and apologists who believe that the Gospels reflect eyewitness testimony like to cite Papias, an early second century Christian, who states that Matthew wrote a Gospel and that Peter relayed information for Mark, who wrote a Gospel. Ehrman does not find Papias to be overly reliable, however: “Writing many years later (as much as a century after Jesus’s death), he indicates that he knew people who knew people who knew people who were with Jesus during his life. So it’s not like having firsthand information, or anything close to it” (page 112). Ehrman also compares the Gospels of Matthew and Mark with what Papias says about them and concludes that Papias does not necessarily have in mind the Gospels in our New Testament. If Papias was aware of the Gospel of Matthew’s statement that Judas hanged himself (Matthew 27:5), for example, why did Papias narrate that Judas died by swelling and collapsing on the street? Ehrman is open to the possibility, however, that church fathers based their ascription of the biblical Gospels to Matthew and Mark on what Papias says about the writings that he is discussing. Papias says Matthew wrote teachings of Jesus in Hebrew, and the Gospel of Matthew is a Jewish Gospel with a lot of teachings from Jesus. Consequently, church fathers concluded that the Gospel of Matthew is the the writing that Papias means.

D. Ehrman does not think that the biblical Gospels were written by the people to whom they are ascribed. When quoting sayings of Jesus that are found in the Gospels, church fathers prior to Irenaeus (second century) never cite the authors of the Gospels by name. Justin Martyr refers to the memoirs of the apostles, which is not very specific. Here, I will interject Larry Hurtado’s observation that Justin in Dialogue 103.8 says the memoirs were written by apostles and those who knew apostles. Hurtado thinks that is consistent with the traditional ascriptions of the biblical Gospel, for John and Matthew were apostles who knew Jesus, and Mark and Luke were not apostles themselves but knew apostles. Hurtado, in contrast with Ehrman, thinks that Justin was referring to the biblical Gospels and was assuming their traditional ascriptions.

E. Ehrman defines “memory,” not just in terms of recollections of what one personally experienced, but also as a community’s statement about what happened in the past, even if that community did not live during that past. Ehrman does not believe that the authors of the biblical Gospels, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Judas personally knew the historical Jesus, but he still calls their writings “memories” because they are making a statement about the past. Their “memories,” Ehrman argues, is their response to what they themselves are experiencing, such as alienation and persecution.

F. Ehrman maintains that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet calling fellow Jews to repent in light of the impending Kingdom of God. Later, as this apocalyptic cataclysm failed to materialize, Christians talked about delay in the second coming of Christ and even came to de-emphasize eschatology. John’s Gospel lacks imminent eschatology, focusing instead on believers going to heaven after they die. In contrast with many scholars, Christian and non-Christian, Ehrman doubts that the historical Jesus even performed miracles, such as healing and exorcism. In part, this is because Ehrman is skeptical about miracles: he refers to an odd occurrence in the Gospel of Peter and simply dismisses it as unlikely. As a historian, Ehrman maintains that historians make judgments about what is likely in the past, and miracles are off the table because they contradict common experience and natural law. Ehrman also notes that miracle stories developed over time and became embellished within Christianity, as can be seen in Christian writings such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and he thinks that sort of thing could also have happened by the time that the biblical Gospels were written. In addition, Ehrman observes different views of miracles among the Gospels. The Gospel of John presents miracles as ways that Jesus proved to others his divine identity. The synoptic Gospels, by contrast, deny that Jesus would perform signs to prove his identity (except the sign of Jonah) and instead present his miracles as acts of compassion. Ehrman also refers to synoptic passages, however, in which miracles are indications that the Kingdom of God has come.

G. I am reading John MacArthur’s Twelve Ordinary Men, which is about the twelve apostles, and MacArthur tries to harmonize the different stories about Jesus’s calling of his disciples. For MacArthur, many disciples followed Jesus voluntary, but Jesus later called some of them to deeper levels of commitment (i.e., leaving their jobs) and even sent some out as apostles, proclaiming the coming Kingdom and doing miracles. Ehrman rejects this approach because he believes it compromises the distinct voices of the Gospels. Jesus in the Gospel of Mark tells people to leave all, and they follow, and this demonstrates Mark’s belief that Jesus has an authority that compels people; that cannot be reconciled with John’s belief that people followed Jesus voluntarily and initiated the discipleship.

My evaluation:

A. Conservative scholars have their counter-arguments to the sorts of arguments that Ehrman presents. Against the claim that the disciples could not have written Gospels because they were illiterate and did not know Greek, scholars such as Donald Guthrie have contended that Greek was known in first century Palestine and that some of the disciples, as businessmen, may have been more sophisticated and fluent in it than people realize. Regarding Acts 4:13’s claim that Peter and John were illiterate, Jennifer Dines, who (as far as I know) is not a conservative Christian scholar, points out in her book The Septuagint (pages 112-113) that the Greek word agrammatos refers to a lack of sophistication in writing, not necessarily a complete inability to read and write. Theophilus of Antioch in the second century C.E. says people were saying that the biblical prophets, who wrote books, were agrammatoi; they were obviously literate, since they wrote books, but their books were not deemed to be refined. Conservative scholars also say that the apostles, even if they themselves could not have produced beautiful works, could have had professional writers write down their testimony in a more refined manner, as occurred in antiquity. Ehrman seems to question that Palestinian Christians would be in other countries writing in Greek, but is that so implausible? Paul attests that Christians traveled.

B. Ehrman critiques the work of scholars who hold that the Gospels contain eyewitness testimony, such as Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Ehrman does not engage many of Bauckham’s arguments, such as the argument that the Gospel of Mark is similar to how other ancient sources present the testimony of eyewitnesses. This is not to suggest that Ehrman should have engaged that. Ehrman’s book is popular, and Ehrman manages to pack a punch with the arguments that he does make. Still, readers should know that there may be more to the story than what Ehrman presents.

C. A question that I had in reading this book is what Ehrman thinks got the ball rolling. If Jesus did no miracles, how did people come to see him as God? I have read his book, How Jesus Became God, and he attributes it to early Christians’ belief that Jesus rose from the dead, which was based on visions that they had. I just wonder if that, by itself, would be sufficient to give people such an exalted notion of Jesus. Why wouldn’t they just see him as some prophet who rose from the dead?

D. Christian apologists have argued that the apostles, who had been with Jesus, would have been able to have suppressed any inaccuracies. I decided to read Ehrman’s book to see an alternative scenario to this. The picture I get from Ehrman’s book is that, yes, the apostles were around, but stories got told and retold. Invention and embellishment occurred. The apostles may have heard the story about Jesus walking on water and thought, “You know, I think I do remember that happening,” even if it did not. Their exalted picture of Jesus after Jesus’s resurrection could have influenced them to “remember” such an event. Although the Romans, not the Jews, crucified Jesus, early Christian conflicts with mainstream Judaism could have influenced them to “remember” Jewish authorities playing a greater role in Jesus’s execution. Stories spread, grew, and came to be, and, by the time that people sat down to write the Gospels, the authors drew from those stories, true and false, to paint a picture of who Jesus was. There is a middle ground between saying that the Gospels reflect verbatum what Jesus said and did, and saying that Christians simply made things up, and knew they were making things up. Ehrman presented what that middle ground could have looked like.

E. Ehrman offers explanations as to how the biblical Gospels came to be ascribed to those who bear their names. Luke-Acts, for example, was ascribed to Luke due to parts of Acts that seemed to suggest that the author was a companion to Paul. The Gospel of John appears to refer to eyewitness testimony (John 19:35; 21:24). Ehrman did not adequately address why these factors do not indicate that Luke and John wrote those writings. He may do so in other books, though. A lot of ancient Christian writings purport to be by eyewitnesses to Jesus, even if they were not, as Ehrman talks about in Forged.

F. I am not sure what to do with Ehrman’s argument that eyewitness testimony is unreliable. Even Ehrman does not depict it as thoroughly unreliable: we do remember some things accurately, especially the gist. But there are limitations to our memories. The question is: are those limitations in memory enough to cast doubt on what the Gospels say about Jesus?

G. Do I find Ehrman to be persuasive? He does raise a lot of considerations that make his arguments persuasive. When I read the Gospels, I seriously doubt that they are direct transcripts of what Jesus said and did. There are discrepancies among them. The authors’ distinct theological perspectives influence what they include and how they organize the stories. There are aspects of the Gospels that appear to speak to events after the death of Jesus, such as the persecution of Christians. Apologists have their arguments, though, as to why the Gospels are historical, such as the McGrews’ argument of undesigned coincidences in the Gospels, and those deserve consideration.

H. Ehrman closes the book by saying that the Gospels are still valuable, even if they are historically inaccurate. I was not clear as to whether he thinks they can still be religiously valuable to Christians. Obviously, their interest to him is more historical, since he is an agnostic. Can the Gospels be religiously valuable, even if Ehrman’s portrayal of them were to be correct? Well, they teach good values, such as love for others, including enemies. But I am not sure if their religious worldview—-about God, God’s activity—-can be reliable and authoritative, if the historical foundation of that worldview is inaccurate, if it is solely the product of human beings. I am not saying that the Bible has to be inerrant for Christianity to be true, but certain details should probably be historically accurate, at least.

I checked this book out from the library. My review is honest.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Book Write-Up: The Lost World of the Torah

John H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton. The Lost World of the Torah: Law as Covenant and Wisdom in Ancient Context. IVP Academic, 2019. See here to purchase the book.

Biblical scholar John Walton and his son, theologian J. Harvey Walton, argue that the Torah was not originally understood to be “law,” but rather wisdom.

The Waltons advance a variety of arguments for this claim. First, ancient law codes, most notably the Code of Hammurabi, are not cited in ancient court cases. According to the Waltons, this is because they were not deemed to be “laws,” but they were general guidelines of wisdom that may still have guided society, on some level. Second, biblical law is far from comprehensive, which would be odd, if it were considered to be a set of rules that people were literally required to obey. And, third, in the biblical narratives, the characters after the giving of the Torah hardly ever base their decisions on the Torah, even when addressing issues that the Torah explicitly comments on.

Believers in the Documentary Hypothesis can probably answer that last argument by saying that the reason biblical characters seem unaware of the Torah is that the Torah had not been written yet: the biblical narratives about David and Solomon were composed prior to the composition of the Torah. Regarding the second argument, one may inquire if law codes needed to be comprehensive to be actual law. Does a law code need to cover marriage, for example, when local clans and families may have been handling that issue quite well, according to their customs? However, the first argument, about why the Code of Hammurabi is not cited in Babylonian court cases, is a weighty challenge to the idea that ancient law codes were actual law.

The strength of this book is that the Waltons are unafraid to tackle difficult questions and to forge a way forward from the standpoint of Christian theology. The Waltons argue that Paul understood the Torah to be actual law, even if that was not its original function. What, then, can Christians do with Paul: was Paul wrong? The Waltons attempt to offer a solution; how convincing it is would be up to the reader.

The Waltons also honestly challenge the idea that the Torah was a step up from the rest of the ancient Near East, morally speaking. There are aspects of the Torah that appear to be an advancement, from a modern progressive perspective, but there are also elements that seem to be regressive, in comparison with ancient Near Eastern ideas.

The Waltons engage questions that have been in my mind lately, as I have been reading the Book of Exodus. Did the authors of Exodus understand the details of Exodus the way that many contemporary evangelicals do, or were their cultural presuppositions radically different? If the Covenant Code resembles the Code of Hammurabi, does that lessen its spiritual value? And why would the Torah have Ten Commandments that appear to state the obvious: many cultures exhort people not to steal or kill. The Waltons’ answers to these questions make for engaging and thought-provoking reading.

A disadvantage to this book is that the Waltons seem to be inconsistent and nebulous on some issues. For one, was the Torah intended to be implemented, on some level? Parts of this book lean in the “yes” direction, and parts lean in the “no” direction. Second, does the Torah demonstrate the character of God? There is some ambiguity here, too.

It is also difficult to get around the frequent exhortations in the Torah, particularly in the Book of Deuteronomy, that the Israelites are to do it. Here, the Torah sounds like law.

My reservations notwithstanding, this is my favorite book thus far of the “Lost World” series.

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

Church Write-Up: Praying for Storms?

One point made at church this morning, in both the service and Sunday school, was that God works in the midst of life’s storms. Maybe we should pray for storms, the youth pastor said, because that would be a time to see God work. Something that is inspiring about being part of a church body is that I encounter people who are faithful to God, even though they have experienced difficult times. One lady I know lost two of her children years ago, and only one survives. I do not pray for storms, though. I want things to run at least fairly smoothly. I know people who have lost loved ones to cancer, and I am glad that I have not lost loved ones to cancer.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Book Write-Up: The Spirit of Methodism, by Jeffrey W. Barbeau

Jeffrey W. Barbeau. The Spirit of Methodism: From the Wesleys to a Global Communion. IVP Academic, 2019. See here to purchase the book.

Jeffrey W. Barbeau teaches theology at Wheaton College. This book is somewhat of a primer on Methodism. Barbeau begins by profiling contemporary Methodism and the landscape of Methodist churches. He then provides a history of Methodism, as he provides biographies of key Methodist figures and discusses Methodist beliefs. Barbeau distinguishes between Methodism and Wesleyanism, and he also talks about the ambivalence within historical Methodism towards slavery. The book also looks at international Methodism, as when Barbeau discusses significant figures in Asian and South American Methodism.

This book is an inviting and friendly introduction to Methodism. The human element is prominent in this book, both when Barbeau tells personal stories and also when he relays the stories of historical Methodists. The part near the beginning, when Barbeau narrates how young John Wesley was saved from a fire, had the feel of a PBS American Experience episode. Particularly compelling was the thirst of people, even religious people, for a personal encounter with God. In the case of John Wesley, he initially was a person who did the right religious things, but he felt something was missing. In another story, a person wrestles with historical criticism of the Bible and seeks authentic spirituality.

The book would have been stronger had it gone into more depth about the divisions within Methodism, particularly over homosexuality. The Social Principles are rather left-wing, yet there are churches and individuals who are more conservative. Notwithstanding this lack, the book was enjoyable to read.

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

Monday, November 11, 2019

Book Write-Up: The United Nations Exposed, by William F. Jasper

William F. Jasper. The United Nations Exposed. John Birch Society, 2001. See here to purchase the book.

William F. Jasper has served as senior editor of The New American, which is published by the conservative John Birch Society. In The United Nations Exposed, Jasper argues that the United Nations is part of a conspiracy to create a one-world socialistic government.

Here are some thoughts and observations about this book:

A. Before reading this book, I read another Birch Society book against the UN: G. Edward Griffin’s The Fearful Master: A Second Look at the United Nations, which was published in 1964. Of course, Jasper’s book, being published in 2001, has a lot more information than Griffin’s book, for a lot has happened since 1964. Griffin focuses on Katanga and the Korean War, but there have been more UN-directed military interventions since then. Environmentalism has emerged as a cited reason for nations to cooperate with each other and impose regulations on capitalism. Discussions have occurred about a UN Treaty on the Rights of a Child and an arms control treaty, which Second Amendment advocates think can lead to a suppression of the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. There is an International Criminal Court. The World Trade Organization undermines U.S. sovereignty by telling the U.S. which laws constitute an unfair trading practice, and the European Union imposes rules on member nations. Jasper engages many of the 1960’s UN and U.S. documents that Griffin does, but also documents from the four decades since then. Jasper’s book is far more extensive, but Griffin’s book talked more than Jasper about the governmental structure of the United Nations.

B. Something else that occurred after 1964 was the end of the Cold War. Griffin’s book, consequently, focused more on Communism, but Communism still exists as a problem in Jasper’s book. Jasper cites quotes from Mikhail Gorbachev that, in his mind, support a one-world socialist government. Jasper believes that Vladimir Putin is a threat. That is interesting because, nowadays, anti-globalist conservatives lend to lionize Putin as a bulwark against a one-world government and a protector of traditional values against liberal hegemony.

C. An overarching question in Jasper’s book is whether we can seriously believe that the UN will take over the world. The UN looks so weak, like a paper tiger. One person I know who worked as an intern at the UN remarked, “The UN can’t even start a meeting on time, so I doubt it will take over the world!” Jasper argues, however, that prominent people in the U.S. government and the UN desire a one-world government. They would like for the UN to have more power than it currently has. Whether the documents that he cites point to an organized plot, that is for readers to decide. The documents express a desire for greater global cooperation to solve problems, and even that such cooperation be facilitated by binding agreements and governmental structures. There is a feeling among utopians, some New Agers, and even some in the UN that nationalism creates conflict among nations and should be undermined. The desire for globalism has been out there, but how seriously has it been taken, and how feasible is it believed to be? As one politically-minded person retorted when I told him about State Department document 7277, which talks about the nations disarming and being unable to challenge the UN police force, “There are all sorts of government documents out there.” What is more, how coordinated is the so-called conspiracy? Indeed, there are people in the Communist Party USA who argue that capitalism hurts the environment, but are they seriously in league with powerful elites, or are they people on the margins complaining about the system?

D. Jasper, of course, depicts the UN as part of a conspiracy to create a one-world socialist government. My problem with the Bircher scenario is that it depicts the alleged conspiracy as monolithic. Yes, there are environmentalists who would like more global cooperation and regulations on capitalism. But another challenge to national sovereignty has been neoliberalism, which seeks to undermine national regulations for the sake of global capitalist ambitions. There may be people in the U.S. government who see the UN as a solution to global conflict, but there are also high-ranking people, including people Jasper cites as parts of the conspiracy, who pursue U.S. hegemony and seek to undermine left-wing governments because they are a bulwark against capitalist interests.

E. Jasper talked about Dixy Lee Ray, a scientist who served as Democratic governor of Washington, and who later wrote books against environmentalism. An interesting ally! Jasper also tells a story about how he asked Al Gore about scientists who do not believe in climate change, and Al Gore’s response.

This is a well-written and well-documented book, and, notwithstanding my questions, I enjoyed reading it.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Church Write-Up: Contentment and Provision

Here are some items from church this morning:

A. Psalm 23:1 says “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” When the pastor was a child, that puzzled him because he thought it was saying “The Lord is my shepherd and I shall not want him.” But a Sunday school teacher helpfully informed him that it means “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be IN want.”

B. Why would we not be in want? Is it because God provides all of our needs? Or is it because we are content with God and our inheritance in Christ and thus find ourselves content with what we have, no matter how much or how little? The latter seemed to be the theme coming out in the service and in Sunday school. I have a problem with the idea of contentment, if contentment is understood as not wanting more than one currently has. If I were homeless, of course I would want a home. As the teacher said, nobody has a goal to be homeless, even though he or she may have made decisions that led to homelessness. But Christians already have been given so much in Christ, so they need not be greedy and materialistic. The teacher quoted a statement by Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychologist who lost family in the Holocaust: I may lose everything, but no one can take away my faith.

C. God leads us to rest and green pastures, spiritually-speaking, and we can return to those anytime. The shepherd had to prepare the way for his sheep to enjoy those green pastures. He would irrigate the field, clear the bushes, and protect his sheep from predators. The sheep enjoyed the pastures due to the work of the shepherd. Similarly, it is through the work of Christ that Christians can enjoy spiritual green pastures.

D. Because God fills our cup to the brim, that can spill out onto others. A bus driver shared a story about people knowing where our church is because the church opens its facilities to the community, for example, by hosting AP tests. We want to pay down our debt so we can serve the community in other ways.

E. God will equip believers to do God’s will. If one wonders what God’s will is, see what God has equipped you to do. Jesus instructed his disciples to take no provisions for their missionary journeys so they can rely on God (Mark 6:8ff). There appears to be a contradiction about whether Jesus permits them to take their staffs (see Matthew 10:10; Mark 6:8; Luke 9:3). Someone read from his study Bible that these may refer to different kinds of staffs: a club for self-protection, a shepherd’s staff, and a walking stick.

F. God gives grace, but grace is a means. One goal of grace is eternal life, but it is also to strengthen people in the here and now for life, work, and service. God provides abundant grace, but people need to make us of it by availing themselves of opportunities to receive it (i.e., word and sacrament).

G. It is tempting to be self-sufficient, but, when we look to God as our shepherd, that deepens our relationship with him.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Church Write-Up: Psalm 23

I did not go to church last Sunday because I attended orientation for a new job. I said that I will listen to the sermon and read the Sunday school notes and write a blog post about them. I listened to the sermon and read the Sunday school notes, but I do not feel like blogging about them. But here is my post about the Wednesday Bible study that I attend.

The study today was about Psalm 23. Here are some items:

A. Psalm 23 is probably not David’s reflections about his time as a boy shepherding sheep in the green meadows, for the meadows were not green in Bethlehem, a dry and arid place. It may have been written when David was on the run from his son Absalom. Absalom killed his half-brother Amnon for raping Absalom’s sister Tamar. Ordinarily, those in and near Jerusalem would bring their cases to King David, but Absalom preempted that by judging the cases himself at Jerusalem’s gates, alienating people from David and attracting them to himself. David wrote a psalm about God’s provision when it appeared that he had nothing. David had lost the throne, which he possessed by God’s promise. A lady read in her study Bible that David courageously backed down from a conflict with Absalom for the sake of others, for a direct battle with Absalom would have been bloody; David abandons his throne and his land out of love for his son and his people.

B. God possesses all things and provides for people through means: through government, the economy, and workers. But our portion as God’s people is also God himself. God has given himself to us. And, when we are in God’s word, God’s word is our desire (Psalm 119).

C. V. 2: The Judean countryside was dry and arid, but there were oases that had water. Shepherds would lead their sheep to these oases. Still waters were essential because sheep could drown in rapidly moving water, since they did not know any better. Similarly, David, on the run from Absalom, was looking for an oasis, both literally and figuratively. He undoubtedly needed a place that had water in a dry countryside, but he also sought a place of safety and rest.

D. V. 3: God as shepherd is like the ultimate GPS. God directs us on where to go and how to get there. Similarly, sheep were trained to know and to respond to their shepherd’s specific voice. God’s word is what guides us, not merely some vague mysterious urging that can coincide with rationalization. Eve herself could have rationalized that God was the source of the forbidden fruit so it must not be bad, coming from God, but she was wrong.

E. God values the sheep and seeks them out because he values them. God also acts for his name’s sake, which refers to his reputation. As the nations hear about God’s reputation as shepherd, provider, and guide, they may be encouraged to learn more.

F. V. 4: The shadow of death refers to utter darkness. A lady read in her study Bible that darkness coincides with something being secret or closed, or a person being blinded. The pastor referred to a friend who described a dark veil in his heart between wanting to believe and where his heart actually was; I identify with that.

G. The rod and the staff in v. 4 does not refer to the staff of a pilgrim on his journey, but the shepherd’s rod protecting and guiding, sometimes with a poke or a jab. This brought to mind my reading of Exodus that morning: God in Exodus 4 rebuked Moses for offering all these excuses not to go to Egypt to deliver Israel. Sometimes, a rebuke is necessary to motivate us into action.

H. The pastor said that God is not like Father Time, waiting at the end of the journey to greet us with outstretched arms. Rather, God is with us in the journey, calming either the storms or the child in the midst of the storms.

I. There is scholarly debate about whether the Psalmist in v. 5 sticks with the shepherd metaphor or switches to a new metaphor, that of a host providing for his guest at the banquet. According to the shepherd interpretation, God as shepherd guides his sheep to the best pasturage land (“table”), especially in the hot summer, and protects them from their enemies, who look on but are too fearful to attack. The oil of anointing is to heal the wounds of the sheep and to keep insects out of them. According to the banquet interpretation, people are in a hostile country, eating from the banquet as their enemies look hungrily on. The anointing oil is so that the guests smell nice and do not alienate fellow guests through rustic odor. The cup runs over because the host keeps the cup of the guest filled.

J. V. 6: God’s love and mercy follow David, even as he flees from Absalom. David still longs to return to God’s sanctuary, where God is especially present; David desires the assurance of God’s presence in Jerusalem, where God promises to meet God’s people.

K. The pastor drew a distinction between two Greek words for life. Bios refers to biological life and physical sustenance and survival; from it we get the term biology. Zoe is life in God’s love, covenant, and grace, from this we get the term zoology. I did not do an exhaustive word study to evaluate the pastor’s claim, but I looked at lexica and the occurrence of the terms in the New Testament. Bios largely has a this-worldly sense: it can refer to physical survival but also the goods that one possesses in this life. Zoe, too, can occasionally refer to physical life in the here and now in the New Testament (Luke 16:25; I Corinthians 15:19), but it is the term that is used for eternal life or life in relationship with God; when discussing eternal life, the New Testament uses zoe, not bios.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Book Write-Up: The Fearful Master, by G. Edward Griffin

G. Edward Griffin. The Fearful Master: A Second Look at the United Nations. Western Islands, 1964. See here to purchase the book.

G. Edward Griffin is affiliated with the conservative John Birch Society and has served as the Contributing Editor of its New American magazine. He is known primarily for his critique of the Federal Reserve System in The Creature from Jekyll Island, which Glenn Beck popularized. Griffin has written for decades, however, and one of the books that he wrote was The Fearful Master, published in 1964. Whereas The Creature from Jekyll Island is a second look at the Federal Reserve System, The Fearful Master is a second look at the United Nations. In Bircher fashion, Griffin depicts the UN as part of a sinister plan to create a one-world government.

Griffin starts by telling the story of Katanga, an anti-Communist country that seceded from the Congo in the early 1960’s. The UN brutally forced Katanga to reunite with the Congo. Griffin fears that we will see more of this in the future, and that the UN may even use such force against the United States.

Griffin proceeds to make other arguments about the United Nations. He contends that Communists, Communist sympathizers, and leftists possess an enormous amount of power and influence in it. That enables Communists to direct world events to their advantage and to have spies in the U.S., since the UN headquarters is on American soil.

Griffin looks at the UN charter and other UN documents and concludes that their endorsement of “rights” takes a remarkably different form from that of the United States. The U.S. sees the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as gifts from God. The UN, by contrast, fails to honor Christianity in its chapels and treats rights as the gift of the State, thereby lessening their value. Moreover, the UN recognizes rights to economic provision (i.e., food, shelter), which not only encourages socialism but may also be cited to compel the U.S. to send aid to Communist countries.

Griffin looks at UNESCO and concludes, from its documents, that it seeks to indoctrinate American schoolchildren to forsake their patriotism in favor of a globalist mindset, which is more conducive to a one-world government. He also criticizes the UN-directed mission in the Korean War. While it was ostensibly opposed to the Communist North, it was led by Communists and hampered any attempt to defeat North Korea, through bombing the Yalu or allowing anti-Communist Taiwan to provide military assistance. Although the Soviet Union outwardly opposed the Korean War, it actually wanted the U.S. to get involved in it, for American defeat would discourage anti-Communists throughout the world and waste American resources. It would also solidify the United Nations as a world police force. The Soviets protested against the Korean War but failed to show up to veto it, which they would have done had their opposition been serious and genuine.

Griffin attempts to refute the view that the UN is no threat to the U.S., since the General Assembly’s resolutions are non-binding, and the U.S. can exercise its veto in the UN Security Council. According to Griffin, a veto in the Security Council can be nullified anytime enough countries in the UN believe there is an emergency. Treaties that the UN facilitates become legally binding on the U.S. and can even supersede the Bill of Rights. The UN, notwithstanding its denials to the contrary, has even sought to interfere in the domestic affairs of member nations, as it has opposed South Africa. Prominent American officials have even claimed that domestic and foreign policy overlap, a sentiment that opens the door to allowing the UN to interfere in American affairs in the name of peace. Support has been expressed in U.S. and UN documents for global disarmament that would be facilitated by the UN, enabling the only body in the world with nuclear weaponry to be the Communist-dominated UN.

In the end, Griffin responds to common defenses of the United Nations. For Griffin, the UN is not necessary for peace. Nations can work things out through quiet diplomacy rather than bringing their disputes to a public forum, where conflict is exasperated as nations attempt to save face. Trade can encourage peace among nations. Moreover, while Griffin is critical of treating economic provision as a “right,” he maintains that a free market can uplift impoverished societies and make them more prosperous.

Here are some thoughts and impressions:

A. The greatest asset to this book is its documentation and extensive quotations. For instance, Griffin quotes American Communist publications that express support for the UN, since it undermines American hegemony, gives the U.S.S.R. a greater voice, and marginalizes non-Communist nations. U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright and even President John F. Kennedy make statements that treat the U.S. Constitution as outdated. Griffin also cites examples of what he is talking about, i.e., where treaties have undermined the economy of the United States. The book raises significant issues, but the question is whether its narrative, of an almost-successful attempt to create a one-world government, is the only way to explain the facts that Griffin presents. There are also additional facts: the U.S. government had its share of influential people who wanted American hegemony!

B. Occasionally, the reader sees glimpses of the “other side,” if you will. One reason that Congo wanted Katanga to be part of the Congo was that it provided the bulk of the Congo’s economic prosperity. The UN, at least ostensibly, claimed to be fighting Communism in its action against Katanga. The U.S.S.R., near the end of World War II, encouraged the Morgenthau plan through its Communist agents in the U.S. government because it wanted a severely weakened Germany, so that Germany would never again invade the Soviet Union as it did under Hitler; that depicts the Soviets as concerned about their security as a nation, not merely as despots trying to take over the world.

C. Griffin provides a compelling and dramatic narration about the UN’s atrocities against Katanga, Katanga’s heroic and even biracial (white and black) stance against the UN, and the mistreatment of Katanga’s anti-Communist leader, Moise Tshombe. This is all important to consider, but the fact is that anti-Communists, too, have perpetrated atrocities, and heroism can probably be found among Communists.

D. Can the UN seriously force the powerful U.S. to do something that it does not want to do? On the other side, is not the United Nations a way to give other countries a voice rather than letting the U.S. run the whole show?

E. It would be interesting to read a John Bircher critique of the UN after the end of the Cold War. For this, I may read William Jasper’s The United Nations Exposed sometime in the future. It was published in 2001.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Church Write-Up: A Speaker from China

The Lutheran church that I attend had a men’s breakfast this morning. It had a speaker, whom I will call “C.” who is from China. He and his wife and children became members of the church a few months ago, but they attended a while before that. I said in a post a few weeks ago that he was from Hong Kong, but that is not accurate. He is from southern China, near Vietnam and Myanmar. He said that outlaws are usually exiled to there!

Here are some items from his talk:

A. As a child, C walked five kilos to school each day, traversing through hills and valleys and carrying everything he needed for the day in a backpack. One day, he met a missionary, who asked him if he was a Communist. C responded, “Of course,” and the missionary invited him to come to church and hear some things he may not have considered before. C went to the church, and he was struggling with Christianity. C was playing soccer and asked God for a sign, which involved scoring a second then a third point. God answered and C scored the points, but C still struggled for a few months before becoming a Christian. A while after becoming a Christian, C encountered a Lutheran pastor over the Internet and came to embrace Lutheran doctrines and to attend a Lutheran seminary online. C left his medical profession to become a pastor, which angered his Communist brother, who had supported C through medical school. C has two siblings who are also Christians, but they are the sorts of Christians who are chasing miracles and are searching for “your best life now.” C talked about a couple miracles that occurred in his church: a man who seemed to be possessed was healed, and a witch who had been unable to walk got up and walked with a cane. C was skeptical about these sorts of things before he became a Christian, so he was amazed when he actually saw them. Unlike his siblings, C does not believe that one should chase miracles in themselves, but he thinks that the function of miracles is to point people to the Bible.

B. There is an official Communist church. Pastors there are required to submit their sermons to the government, but the government is often lax in reading them. Unofficial churches were mildly tolerated, as long as they did not exceed 120 people; now, they are not allowed to exceed 30 people. C’s church met on the beach and sang songs, and the government tolerated that, until it didn’t. The government confiscated C’s computer and burned his books, and the church had to split up. Missionaries come to China, and the government accepts them as long as they work with the official Communist church and do social work, such as teaching English. Some manage to get the Gospel out.

C. C’s wife is from Taiwan. Her background is different from that of C, who grew up in rural China. She grew up playing the piano. She met C when her school was visiting China, I think as part of a mission trip.

Announcement: I will not be going to church tomorrow morning, since I have orientation for a job. I may still do a church write-up on Sunday’s service at some point during the week, since I can listen to the sermon online, plus one of the members will pick me up a handout from Sunday school.

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