Monday, December 30, 2019

Book Write-Up: Why Not Victory?, by Barry Goldwater

Barry M. Goldwater. Why Not Victory?: A Fresh Look at American Foreign Policy. McGraw-Hill, 1962. See here to buy the book.

Barry Goldwater was a U.S. Senator from Arizona and ran for President in 1964. He was a renowned figure in the American conservative movement. Why Not Victory?, published in 1962, was Goldwater’s defense of a tough American stance against expansionist Communism.

Here are some thoughts.

A. What did Goldwater think that the U.S. should do against Communism? He wanted it to go beyond mere containment, and he believed that all nations of the world should be constitutional republics. That does not mean that he supported the U.S. declaring war on the Soviet Union: he expressly denies that he supports that kind of move. Warfare can occur on a number of fronts: propaganda, economic, and psychological, in short, trying to convince nations that freedom is preferable to Communism. In a number of cases, Goldwater maintains that avoiding certain policies can contribute to victory. He opposes the U.S. deferring to the U.N., pursuing disarmament, and voting to admit Red China to the U.N. For Goldwater, the prism through which the U.S. evaluates its stance towards nations (i.e., South Africa, Algerian independence) should be based primarily on their significance in the Cold War. Goldwater also believes, though, that there are things that the U.S. can actively do against Communism. It can support freedom fighters in Communist countries. It can threaten Communist countries if they seek to be aggressive against other nations. It can enforce the Monroe Doctrine against Communism in Cuba. Goldwater at one point states that the U.S. could have gone in and knocked down the Berlin Wall when it was being set up.

B. A fear during the Cold War was that a belligerent policy on the part of the U.S. could spark a nuclear war. Goldwater argues that people should be willing to die for freedom, but he also doubts that nuclear war will come about as a result of a tough U.S. policy. The U.S. is militarily superior to the U.S.S.R. When it has been tough, as when it threatened Red China not to invade Quemoy and Matsu, Red China backed down. Goldwater actually says that the U.S. compromising its military superiority could lead to nuclear war, perhaps because it could erase a deterrent, make the U.S. an easier target, and cripple the U.S. from defending itself in a war.

C. Related to (B.), while Goldwater thinks that the U.S. can proceed with a firm hand on account of its military superiority, he does not believe that the U.S. should become complacent. Communism is expanding throughout the world, gaining more territory, influence, and resources as a result. The U.S. also needs to take heed not to give up its nuclear superiority amidst calls for disarmament. Not only would the Soviets fail to abide by disarmament treaties, but, even if both sides gave up their nuclear weapons, that would put the U.S. at a disadvantage. The Soviets outnumber the U.S. in population and thus would likely win a conventional war, so nuclear weaponry is what puts the U.S. in the game.

D. Goldwater is critical of the U.N. but, unlike the John Birch Society, his main concern is not that the U.N. could lead to a one-world government. Rather, he thinks that the U.S. should accept its stance and responsibility as the safeguard of freedom rather than deferring to a lot of nations that may not appreciate that concept. At the same time, in the chapter on the World Court, Goldwater does express concern about U.S. sovereignty. He supports bills that affirm that the World Court cannot undermine American laws, against those who support subordinating the U.S. to the World Court. He also speaks against other institutions that he believes compromise American sovereignty, such as GATT, which later led to the World Trade Organization. While Goldwater supports U.S. sovereignty, other countries' sovereignty seems to take second place, in his estimation, to American interests and anti-Communism. He criticizes Castro for undermining U.S. business interests in Cuba, implying that Goldwater has no problem with the U.S. being in other countries. Moreover, while Goldwater speaks in favor of self-government, he probably would not be happy if people were to vote Communists into power.

E. The will of the people in a country still seems to play some role in Goldwater’s stance. In arguing that the U.S. should get rid of Castro, he refers to the time when the U.S. had the opportunity to rid Cuba of Spain’s oppressive presence. The implication is that the Cuban people wanted the U.S. to intervene then, and they probably did so again in the 1960’s. A complicated question, though, is how one can discern what the people want. Goldwater himself acknowledges that this can be complicated, for, just because people make a lot of noise, that does not mean that they speak for most of the people of a given country. Here, Goldwater is speaking against those whom he thinks are Communist agitators.

This is an eloquent and intelligent book, even though Goldwater acknowledges that ghost writers helped him put it together, since he was busy in the U.S. Senate! As of late, I have gravitated more towards reading anti-war conservatives, so some of what Goldwater said was a turn-off to me. Yet, he was not exactly trigger-happy in this book but advocated a foreign policy that was tough and firm but not entirely belligerent and provocative.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Church Write-Up: The Talking Christmas Tree

At church this morning, we had “Lessons in Carols,” but there was a children’s message in the middle of that. During that, the Christmas tree was talking to us about how she enjoyed being in church learning about Jesus. Had she not been cut down and brought to church, she would be living hundreds of years, but she would not know Jesus and would thus be missing out. The youth pastor derived from this the lesson that we must die (spiritually) in order to live.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Church Write-Up (Catch-Up): Advent and Christmas 2019

This is a catch-up Church Write-Up, covering last week’s Advent service, last Sunday’s service, and this morning’s Christmas service.

A. In his Advent sermon, the pastor made a point about Malachi 4:2(3:20): “But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall” (KJV). Many commentators say that this passage is referring to an ancient conception of the sun, which held that the sun was carried on the back of an eagle, who, of course, had wings. The pastor disagrees with this interpretation. The pastor notes that the Hebrew word translated as “wings” is also used for the edge of one’s garments (see Numbers 15:38; Deuteronomy 22:12; 23:1; 27:20; Ruth 3:9; I Samuel 15:27; 24:5-6, 12). The pastor applies this to the edge of Jesus’s garments bringing forth healing, as it did for the woman with the emission of blood who touched it (Matthew 9:20ff; Mark 5:25ff; Luke 8:43ff; see also Matthew 14:34-36; Mark 6:56).

B. At last Sunday’s church service, the pastor opened with a story about his brother. When the pastor was young, his brother left a terse, unclear note and left. Those were the days before the Internet, so it was easier for people to fall off the grid, since there was little if any way to track them. The pastor’s parents would still get the brother presents every Christmas, in hope that the brother would return. But, year after year, the brother did not come home. Years of unopened presents accumulated. One day, through a mutual acquaintance, the pastor’s parents learned that the brother was working in Texas, and they contacted him. The brother came home that Christmas, and it was an enjoyable reunion.

C. This morning, the pastor said that the Iowa caucus will be in January, and politicians will be verbose in making their promises. The same was true in ancient times, as well, particularly in ancient Greece. There, constituents would hassle politicians, asking the politicians to keep their promises. In Greek, what they said was the same as “Lord, have mercy.” The pastor also talked about how the Hebrew word for “word,” dabar, is powerful: when God speaks, it is done. So let it be spoken, so let it be done, to paraphrase Yul Brynner in the Ten Commandments. God’s word became flesh in the person of Jesus, and Jesus has retained the flesh that he assumed even after his death and resurrection. God’s word, or declaration, was that, in Jesus, death and sin would be defeated. We can have hope in God’s promise.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Book Write-Up: The Battle for the Beginning, by John MacArthur

John MacArthur. The Battle for the Beginning: Creation, Evolution, and the Bible. Nelson, 2012. See here to buy the book.

Not surprisingly, this book holds to a young earth creationist, literal-historical interpretation of Genesis 1-3.

Here are some thoughts and observations about the book:

A. An argument that John MacArthur revisits more than once is that the six days of creation must be literal days because, if they were long eras, implausibility would ensue in the account. For example, God created plants on Day 3 and insects on Day 6. Plants depend on insects for pollination, so it is implausible to believe that plants existed for millions of years before insects came along and pollinated them. For MacArthur, it is more plausible to believe that Day 3 and Day 6 were literal 24-hour days, for, in that case, the plants would not have to wait a long time to be pollinated. They only waited a few days.

B. MacArthur argues that Genesis 1-3 cannot be reconciled with macroevolution. One argument that he makes for this is that Genesis 2:1-3 affirms that God finished God’s work of creation on the sixth day, then rested. If Genesis 1-3 were affirming macroevolution, MacArthur argues, creation would not have been completed on Day 6 but would have continued afterwards, as animals became more complex and evolved into new species. This argument makes a degree of sense. Genesis 1 seems to be trying to explain how the natural world that the Israelites knew came to be, and this world included aspects of their everyday life, such as cattle. Genesis 1 may very well be saying that God made the creation complete from the outset. Where MacArthur’s argument makes less sense is that, even in his scenario, change and development occurred after creation, for MacArthur acknowledges the existence of microevolution.

C. Overall, though, MacArthur seems to believe that God made all of the species that exist today in Genesis 1. He talks about different animals, with interesting and strange characteristics, and he maintains that they reflect an intelligent and creative designer rather than evolution. For MacArthur, that design had to have occurred in Genesis 1. But there are problems with this approach. Even Ken Ham does not believe that God created every single specie in Genesis 1, but rather that God created kinds, and different species then evolved from those kinds. Could every single specie fit on Noah’s Ark?

D. MacArthur argues that Genesis 1-3 should be taken as history, because why would we accept the stories about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as historical, but not the creation accounts? This is a good question. One response could be that Genesis 1 is poetic, whereas the stories about the patriarchs are narratives, but another idea was swimming in my mind. Perhaps Genesis 1 originally was part of a temple liturgy, as John Walton has implied, and it later came to be deemed to be historical, which was why it was attached to historical narratives. Originally, it may not have been deemed historical, but it came to be.

E. MacArthur observes that God in Genesis 1 created light before making the sun, moon, and stars. The point, he seemed to suggest, is that the world was cold and dark before God created the light. I thought about an argument I heard that Genesis 1 is highlighting that God is the source of the light in order to deny that the heavenly bodies were initially the source of it, as a polemic against pagan worship of the heavenly bodies. MacArthur does not entertain this argument, but what he was saying reminded me of it. The problem with such an argument, in terms of MacArthur’s literal-historical approach, is that it implies that the biblical author made something up to respond to paganism as opposed to relaying what happened. I guess you could say, though, that God at creation foresaw that pagans would worship heavenly bodies and decided to polemicize against that by creating the light before the heavenly bodies. On one issue, MacArthur believes that Genesis 1 is polemicizing against paganism: Genesis 1:21 states that God created seamonsters, who were deemed to be agents of chaos; Genesis 1:21, in that case, is saying that the seamonsters were under God’s control.

F. At times, MacArthur tries to show that Genesis 1-3 is scientifically plausible. He examines different scientific ideas about the origins of the moon and contends that, on a scientific level, they make little sense. He argues that God creating the woman from man anticipates genetics, for male chromosomes (XY) contains the potential for the child to be male or female, whereas female chromosomes (XX) only allow the child to be male. He contends that the cosmos had to have a beginning, and thus an originator, because otherwise it would have run out of energy by now. He doubts that a beautiful order could have statistically arisen from randomness over millions of years. He attempts to reconcile young-earth creationism with the apparent old age of the earth by saying that God created things in an already mature state, rather than young at the outset. He asserts that catastrophism, such as that of the biblical Flood, could have created the geologic strata and fossils, for catastrophic events (i.e., Mount St. Helens) do that sort of thing. MacArthur draws from young earth creation scientists, with whatever strengths and weaknesses their analysis yields. Some of what MacArthur says may be plausible, but scientists who accept evolution will undoubtedly look at what he says and find it to be incomplete in accounting for data and inconsistent with the evidence.

G. As was stated in (C.), MacArthur describes a variety of interesting animals. Essentially, he doubts that they could have originated as a result of evolution. They are too complex, but they also seem to betray a sense of humor on the part of a creator. They evoke wonder. Theoretically, perhaps, such animals could have originated as a result of evolution, for a lot of unusual characteristics can result from species’ attempts to survive. Still, it is tempting to see them as the product of a creator, who has an ironic creativity.

H. MacArthur attempts to harmonize Jesus’s justification for working on the Sabbath—-that the Father works and Jesus works (John 5:17)—-with God resting on the Sabbath in Genesis 2:2-3. Essentially, MacArthur argues that God specifically rested from creation on the seventh day, but that does not mean that God rested from other kinds of work (i.e., providence, sustaining the cosmos, etc.). That could be, but then the question would be why God forbids the Israelites to do any manner of work on the Sabbath.

I. MacArthur states that the fall of Lucifer had to occur sometime between Genesis 1 and Genesis 3, rather than before Genesis 1. His reason is that God in Genesis 1:31 sees that creation is very good, and MacArthur doubts that would have been the case if the evil Satan were around at that point. Satan, for MacArthur, had to originate after God pronounced the creation to be very good. Perhaps, but I think that MacArthur may be overly nit-picky here. God could have regarded his work of creation as good, even if Satan had fallen before God undertook the task of creation.

J. MacArthur engages the question of why Eve was not surprised that the serpent could talk. He says Eve was exploring creation at that point, and it was all new to her, anyway, so she was not surprised to find an animal that could talk.

Like other MacArthur books, this one was a pleasure to read. MacArthur knows how to write in an engaging manner, to explain Scripture, and to draw homiletical lessons from the biblical text. He also engages other thinkers, such as old earth creationist and scientist Hugh Ross. This book did not have as much depth as other MacArthur books I have read—-explaining Scriptural details, addressing questions—-but it did have some of that.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Book Write-Up: All the Presidents’ Bankers, by Nomi Prins

Nomi Prins. All the Presidents’ Bankers: The Hidden Alliances that Drive American Power. Nation Books, 2014. See here to purchase the book.

Nomi Prins is a former Wall Street executive. Her writings have appeared in such publications as The Nation and Mother Jones, which are anti-establishment left-wing periodicals, but also in mainstream sources such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Fortune.

This book is about the influence of bankers from the Presidential administration of Theodore Roosevelt to that of Barack Obama. I decided to read this book as a check on right-wing John Bircher material that I have read. John Birchers believe that the international bankers are conspiring to create a one-world socialistic government. Among the people they criticize are David Rockefeller, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Trilateral Commission. All of these are featured in Prins’s book, only she writes from the perspective of the anti-establishment left, whereas John Birchers form part of the anti-establishment right.

How did the two compare? Here are some items, based on my impressions:

—-John Birchers criticize the Federal Reserve system and President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal as corrupt ways to pad the pockets of the rich and well-connected. G. Edward Griffin, who has a Bircher background, argues that the conflict between Theodore Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan was solely a matter of show. Nomi Prins, in these areas at least, tends to accept the standard historical narrative. In her telling, the Federal Reserve system was established to redress the problem of bank panics, the conflict between Theodore Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan was real, and the wealthy did consider FDR a traitor to his class on account of his New Deal and attempts to reign in Wall Street. This is not to suggest that Prins always embraces the standard narrative, though. For example, she argues that Dodd-Frank was all for show and fails to curb banks.

—-John Birchers essentially believe that the international bankers are left-wing in that they desire a one-world socialistic government. Prins, by contrast, contends that international bankers have had right-wing ideas. David Rockefeller opposed Richard Nixon’s wage and price controls, acts of government control of the economy that many right-wingers criticized. The bankers during the 1970’s and 1980’s supported deregulation of the banking industry so that they could compete more effectively on an international scale. David Rockefeller also supported the existence, maintenance, and spread of democratic capitalism because democratic capitalist countries allowed the bankers to have more influence and to make more money. Whereas G. Edward Griffin argues that the Federal Reserve pursues inflationary policy, Prins contends that the bankers’ desire has been to restrain inflation. Prins maintains that the bankers and the IMF pressure Third World countries to adopt austerity policies, whereas Griffin holds that they prop up socialist and Communist dictatorships.

—-At the same time, to nuance the above two items, Prins also argues that the bankers prior to the Reagan era at least had a social conscience. Prominent bankers endorsed the Glass-Steagall Act under FDR in order to combat the reckless speculation that had led to economic disaster. The Rockefellers and other elite families felt a need to uphold their family name and thus initiated philanthropic projects. Whereas G. Edward Griffin contends that the international bankers liked war because that allowed them to lend to both sides and make money off the interest, Prins refers to bankers who opposed war and endorsed disarmament, since war could disrupt their economic interests. (John Birchers, of course, would be on board with her about bankers favoring disarmament, since that would coincide with their claim that the international bankers are seeking to create a one-world government). By contrast, Prins contends that, with the Reagan era, the bankers were largely focused on their personal and individual prosperity.

—-Another area of nuance, in Prins’s telling, is that the bankers took different positions. There were bankers who supported the tax cuts of JFK, LBJ, and Reagan, but there was also a concern that tax cuts could be inflationary, especially in the 1970’s. Bankers were concerned about inflation, yet there were Wall Street interests who saw Paul Volker’s high interest rates as too draconian in their attempts to squeeze out the last drop of inflation.

—-John Birchers tend to treat the international bankers and Presidents as part of a conspiracy. You will find some nuance from right-wing conspiracy theorists, though, since some allege that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated because he challenged the banking establishment. Prins presents a more complex picture. In her telling, some Presidents were closer to the bankers than others: Nixon and Reagan, for example, were distant from the Eastern establishment banking interests. At the same time, even Presidents who may not have been close to bankers could pursue their interests, as Reagan did, heavily. President Kennedy was criticized by banking interests because he sought to tax more heavily the business that they did abroad. Overall, though, Prins argues that Presidents have largely been beholden to the banking interests, since Presidents rely on Wall Street for political contributions. This goes for both Republicans and Democrats.

Who is right: the John Birchers or Nomi Prins? Well, both draw from primary sources about what people said and did. John Birchers may say that some positions are for show and do not reflect the bankers’ actual positions. But they themselves draw from what the bankers, the CFR, and the TC say when they argue that these interests support Communism or a one-world government. Why is some polite remark that David Rockefeller makes towards Communist China reflective of his position, whereas the data that Prins amasses are not? Both are probably reflective, on some level. That said, the John Birchers and Prins each highlights things that the other does not. (To her credit, though, Griffins’ book is cited by Prins, since she uses it as a secondary source that engages primary source information.) The John Birchers can point to examples of bankers’ support for Communists, whereas Prins can cite data about their support for democratic capitalism and opposition to Communism. The bankers may not care about whom they do business with, since their goal is to make money. Moreover, the Trilateral Commission may not have supported Communism, per se, but recognized that the West needed to find some way to co-exist with Communist countries and interact with them as established powers in their own right.

Some knowledge of economics can help a person with this book, which is why I struggled with parts of it. In addition, the narrative was useful and informative, but the book is not as juicy as one might expect from reading the cover and the summary.

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

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Church Write-Up: The Marginalized and the Powerful

Some points from church this morning:

A. Shepherds were marginalized in first century Palestine. They lived and worked outside of towns, so they were not privy to the latest news. They smelled bad because they were around sheep all day and night. Yet, angels appeared to them in Luke 2 to announce the birth of Christ. They became witnesses, telling others about the angelic visitation and the birth of the Messiah. The pastor told a personal story. When he was a child, his mother had a Hannah-complex and thought that she should dedicate one of her children to God. She dedicated the pastor, but, as a child, the pastor did not want to get up in front of everyone and tell people how to live their lives. The joy that he experienced in Christ, however, transformed him, like it did the marginalized shepherds, and he became one who spreads the good news.

B. Herod the Great was insecure. He called himself “the Great.” He was an Edomite, and Edomites had a history of conflict with Israel, as is seen in the Old Testament. He killed some of his wives and children because he saw them as a threat. We, too, are insecure in that there are places in our lives that we hope God does not probe or dig up.

C. God honors the marginalized to show that he is inclusive: he welcomes all to place their faith in him. God’s debasing of the power structure in Israel may have foreshadowed the fall of the Old Covenant, with its institutions of priesthood and cult. With the coming of Christ, it had served its purpose.

Announcement: My work schedule over the next few weeks will be hectic. Consequently, depending on how tired I am after I get home, my Church Write-Ups may have to wait.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Church Write-Up: Zechariah 9, the King, and Light

At this morning’s Advent service, the pastor preached about Zechariah 9. Zechariah 9 predicts a battle and that the king will enter into Jerusalem riding on a donkey.

The promise of a king resonated with Zechariah’s audience, for that was a time when Judah lacked a Davidic king. Instead, she lacked political autonomy and was ruled by Persia, and the closest she had to a Davidic king was her governor, Zerubabbel, who was a descendant of King David. The pastor, like many Christians, interpreted the king of Zechariah 9:9 as the Messiah, Jesus. The pastor applied Zechariah 9’s reference to battle to Jesus’s triumph over sin, death, and the devil at his crucifixion and resurrection.

But Zechariah 9 also talks about light. God’s arrow shall go forth like lightning (v. 14), and the Israelites shall shine like jewels of a crown on God’s land. The pastor said that the light that Christians shine is not their own but the light of Christ. They shine forth love and forgiveness towards others, but, in a sense, God is forgiving those people through the Christians. The Christians also testify that Christ has defeated sin, death, and the devil, when the world believes those are all there is.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Book Write-Up: Witness, by Whittaker Chambers

Whittaker Chambers. Witness. Random House, 1952. See here to purchase the book.

Whittaker Chambers was an ex-Communist who testified in the late 1940’s that Alger Hiss was a Communist. This was significant because Hiss had served in influential positions of the U.S. Government, affecting U.S. foreign and domestic policy. Chambers was an editor of Time magazine and later wrote for National Review.

Here are some items:

A. Why did Chambers become a Communist? Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables had a formative impact on him, leading him towards Communism and, later, away from it. Chambers identified with Les Miserables on account of its sensitivity towards the plight of the poor. Chambers’s family of origin experienced economic hardship after his father left, and he had a positive relationship with the working class when workers helped him to get a job after he was rejected. These considerations probably led him to gravitate towards Communism’s claim to champion the poor. Chambers testified before Congress that, after World War I, the world looked like it was in the verge of chaos, and Communism appealed to him as a way to redress that. Chambers’s brother committed suicide due to a lack of hope, whereas Chambers felt that Communism gave him hope.

B. What did Chambers do for the Communist Party? For a while, he was the editor of the Daily Worker. This was apparently a volunteer position, which he put a lot of time into while performing whatever paying jobs he could find. He also worked in small U.S. Government positions and, when he was elevated to espionage status, passed on government documents to handlers, who in turn gave them to the Soviet Union.

C. Why did Chambers leave the Communist Party? He had a religious epiphany, that there was a God who designed the world, judged even the powerful (i.e., Stalin), and was with him. Stalin’s purging of the party deeply concerned him and put him on probation for a time. Stalin’s agreement with Hitler was the final straw, since Chambers did not want to use his espionage activities to help Hitler. Chambers attained an appreciation for the desire for freedom in the human spirit, which contradicted Communism’s disregard for the individual, and he became impressed by the economic mobility that existed in the United States.

D. Chambers states that the Communist Party sought to overthrow the U.S. Government. Yet, the picture he paints is one of the Communist Party trying to influence the U.S. Government. Communists in the government tried to give the U.S. a strategic global disadvantage in relation to the Soviet Union, resulting in the legacy of Yalta and the fall of China to Communism. On the domestic front, Communists helped shape the New Deal, which imposed socialistic collectivism on the United States. This is ironic to me, since U.S. Communists were critical of the New Deal and believed that it upheld and benefited Capitalism. Stalin, too, criticized the New Deal.

E. Chambers states that he did not want to expose the espionage activities of Hiss, since Hiss was his friend, and Chambers also had other friends in the party whom he did not want to hurt. Chambers simply wanted to expose that Hiss was a Communist, for the benefit of the United States and the world threatened by Communist tyranny. Chambers forgot about the documents that he would put into the pumpkin, which would expose Hiss’s espionage activities. Chambers decided to use them because he was being attacked. People were reluctant to believe that there were Communists in the U.S. Government. The urbane Hiss made a better impression than the quiet, overweight Chambers. And the Communist Party was seeking to undermine Chambers, spreading rumors about him that attacked his character and mental fitness.

F. Where the book is especially powerful is in its stories. Chambers initially comes across as a pretentious writer trying to be eloquent and profound. But he conveys an honesty, a melancholy, and a vulnerability that make one sympathize with him. His stories about his struggles to survive in journalism especially come to mind. Chambers also paints a realistic picture of people he knows, detailing what he believes made them tick. In my opinion, the book was a little thin on ideology. It did not intimately get into the intricacies of why people become Communists and leave the party. Chambers’s stories and character profiles, by contrast, were descriptive, well developed, and detailed.

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

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Church Write-Up: II Samuel 7, Matthew 1, and God's Grace

At church this morning, two of the Scriptural texts were II Samuel 7 and Matthew 1. In II Samuel 7, God promises to build David a house, a lasting royal dynasty. Matthew 1 consists of Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. It demonstrates that Jesus is royal yet also includes women who were Gentiles or perhaps of ill repute: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the wife of Uriah.

Being Lutheran, the pastor interpreted these texts in light of God’s grace. According to the pastor, many Christians try to make the Christmas story all about us and what we should do (law): we should not be like the innkeeper in the Gospel of Luke who did not make room for Mary and Joseph, but we should imitate the shepherds, who went to see Jesus; similarly, we should clean ourselves up and make God room. But God did not require Israel to become clean before he came and became their God, bringing them forgiveness, grace, love, and provision. God came to Israel even though she has disrepute and sin in her background. In the case of David, David offered to build God a house, but God responded by affirming that God will build David a house. It was about God’s promise and activity.

Book Write-Up: Seeking Church

Darren T. Duerksen and William A. Dyrness. Seeking Church: Emerging Witnesses to the Kingdom. IVP Academic, 2019. See here to purchase the book.

In this book, Darren T. Duerksen and William A. Dyrness examine different manifestations of Christianity, including the early church, the churches of the Protestant Reformation, and Christianity in Hindu, Asian, Native American, and Islamic cultures. These manifestations flow from their own culture, even as God appropriates elements of those cultures as part of God’s revelation. The churches do not exist for their own sake, however, but rather they testify to the inbreaking Kingdom of God, as they embrace and practice God’s love and concern for creation.

The parts on international manifestations of Christianity overlap with what I have read in other books, such as Dyrness’s Insider Jesus and Richard Twiss’s work, which this book cites and engages. Some of my concerns about Insider Jesus are not really addressed in Seeking Church (not that I think that they should address me specifically, but rather that my concerns are the sorts of questions other Christians might ask). Duerksen and Dyrness chronicle how Christianity in non-Western cultures reflects those cultures, but are the versions of Christianity particularly orthodox? Does Muslim Christianity, for instance, reject the divinity of Christ? In reading this book, I was thinking that Duerksen and Dyrness were making their point about the church testifying to the Kingdom of God as a way to be inclusive: to say that Christians in non-Western cultures, even when they fail to be completely orthodox, can still do good to creation and thereby testify to the Kingdom of God. How much that is me filling in the gaps, however, is a legitimate question.

The book is informative yet fails to flesh out some issues. Much of its theological analysis is abstract rather than concrete, although the analysis does at least appear to tie together loose ends. It could have illustrated more fully how Christians testify to the Kingdom of God, rather than just saying that it does; still, the concept is profound.

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

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Church Write-Up: Light and Darkness

My church started its weekly advent service this week.

The pastor spoke about light and darkness. Darkness is something that scares us, yet comforts us. When someone is at the door at night and we cannot tell who it is, we get scared. Yet, when we are doing wrong or falling short of perfection, we prefer the safety and anonymity that darkness brings, since there is nobody shedding light on us and judging us. Ancient Israel in the time of Isaiah, who speaks about light, was experiencing darkness, as Gentiles ruled Israel and even influenced her temple. Light can be powerful: it has been said that a candle in the middle of a dark football field can be seen from both ends of the football field. Christians, by forgiving and loving their neighbors, can be that kind of light in the world, but the light is not their own but is reflected from Christ, flowing from their relationship with him.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Book Write-Up: Josiah’s Reformation, by Richard Sibbes

Richard Sibbes. Josiah’s Reformation. See here to download the book.

Richard Sibbes (1577-1636) was an English Puritan preacher. This book contains a series of sermons that he preached on II Chronicles 34:26-28, which states regarding King Josiah of Judah:

“[26] And as for the king of Judah, who sent you to enquire of the Lord, so shall ye say unto him, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel concerning the words which thou hast heard; [27] Because thine heart was tender, and thou didst humble thyself before God, when thou heardest his words against this place, and against the inhabitants thereof, and humbledst thyself before me, and didst rend thy clothes, and weep before me; I have even heard thee also, saith the Lord. [28] Behold, I will gather thee to thy fathers, and thou shalt be gathered to thy grave in peace, neither shall thine eyes see all the evil that I will bring upon this place, and upon the inhabitants of the same. So they brought the king word again.”

Here are some thoughts about this book:

A. The book promoted the usual Puritan emotional roller-coaster: people need to be genuinely sad about their sins, then they can receive God’s forgiveness. This is a difficult teaching. I, for one, do not want intense emotions of sadness to inconvenience my life. That was one reason I could not stand Charles Spurgeon’s The Sinner and His Savior when I read it over a decade ago. At the same time, Sibbes does well to highlight the depth and the intensity of emotion that biblical characters felt towards spiritual matters.

B. There is also the Puritan realism, however: the acknowledgment that Christians may have some hardness of heart and may have difficulty arriving at the tender heart that God desires. Sibbes exhorts people in this condition to press forward with the means of grace. But he also cogently addresses the question of how Christian hardness of heart is distinct from the unbelievers’ hardness of heart: if both believers and unbelievers have hardness of heart, how can one tell that he or she is saved?

C. There is an edifying quality to the book, as Sibbes fields questions in a direct manner and systematically lays out points. For example, he lists reasons that Christians can be assured that God desires to answer their prayers, but also reasons that God may choose not to do so.

D. This passage stood out to me: “Christ, as it were, in the sacrament enters through the senses more lively than in the preaching of the word, for there he enters in by the ears, but in the sacrament he is seen, tasted, handled, felt. So that the soul and body have communion together by way of information.” That makes me wonder about the sense in which Puritans believed that Christ was present in the sacraments. My recollection from Roger Olson’s Story of Christian Theology is that Calvin did not go so far as Zwingli in thinking that the sacraments were mere memorials, but he also did not go so far as Luther and the Calvinists in maintaining that Christ was somehow physically present in the sacraments. Calvin thought Christ’s presence was more spiritual.

E. Occasionally, Sibbes offers an insight into the biblical story itself. For example, God let Josiah die before the destruction of Jerusalem, and Sibbes says that was God taking into account Josiah’s tender heart. Josiah had a fierce regard for his people, as evidenced in his rash challenge against Pharaoh Neco. How would he feel were he to see his people defeated and destroyed by a foreign power, the Babylonians?

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Church Write-Up: Eight, Numbering, Journey

Some items from church this morning:

A. The youth pastor was talking about the numerical symbolism of various items in the church. One concerned the number eight: God rested on the seventh day after creation, but the eighth day marks God continuing to create. On thing that God continues to create is Christians, as he makes them new creations, conforming them more and more to the character of God. That stood out to me on account of a thought that occurred to me in my prayer time this week. Leviticus 14 talks about a plague that afflicts the house. The owner can remove the plague from the house, but sometimes the plague is so deep in the house that it needs to be destroyed and rebuilt. The plague of sin runs deeply in our characters, such that God needs to remake us. The thing is, this is a process, to be completed in the future. For many in the Reformed camp, the process is never complete this side of heaven. For John Wesley, some in this life can arrive at a state at which they love God and neighbor and a sinful nature no longer afflicts them, but, even then, there is always room for improvement.

B. The pastor chronicled examples of God’s numbering of people in Scripture. The Israelites in the Book of Numbers were counted in a census as part of God’s people. Jesus on earth was numbered with the transgressors. The disciples were to rejoice because their names were written in heaven. In the Book of Revelation, there are vast amounts of saints who cannot be numbered. The pastor said that many of us wonder if we are completely anonymous, but we matter to God and are counted by him. There was an error in the bulletin in which one of the Scriptural passages was the wrong one for that day, and the pastor said that he believed that God used that particular Scripture passage to bless someone in the congregation, either to convict or to encourage. In this season of advent, the pastor remarked that he thinks this is why Jesus was born during a census: to remind us that each one of us counts before God. The pastor did mention the examples in Scripture in which numbering is considered negative: the Israelites had to atone for their census in the wilderness, and God punished David for his census. I wonder how that would fit into his theological consideration of the issue.

C. The Sunday school class has been going through Max Lucado’s Because of Bethlehem series. This class has not been my cup of tea for a variety of reasons. It emphasizes small discussion groups, whereas I prefer Sunday school classes that are entirely lecture, with people in the larger group offering their comments. The pastor was even suggesting that we hold a partner accountable on reflecting on one of the questions in the booklet over the week, and that turns me off, as one who over the past twenty years has recovered from being in an evangelical small group. The booklet also seems heavy on law: feel this, do that, etc., whereas I tend to gravitate towards Lutheranism because it emphasizes human weakness and need for God’s grace, plus I am satisfied with my current devotional life and do not intend to add anything new. But I have been sticking with this class for a variety of reasons: people expect to see me there, I have appreciated the pastor’s personal reflections, I should be more interested in other people’s lives and where they think they have experienced God, and, every now and then, Max Lucado has some gem that I am glad to have heard.

D. The class this week focused on the wise men. The wise men were on a journey. Kids like to go on road trips because of the possibility of seeing something new. Parents, however, may prefer to stay home because of the hassle and planning that road trips entail. The wise men were on a journey to see something new, whereas Herod preferred to stay where he was, the status quo, in which he was in power. Others in the Jerusalem establishment were like that, too. The religious scholars in Matthew’s story knew the correct Scriptural answer to the wise men’s question of where the Messiah would be born, Bethlehem, but they did not accompany the wise men to Bethlehem, even though Bethlehem was not far from Jerusalem. Someone in class speculated that they promulgated biblical teaching for their own power, not because they believed it was the truth. While Matthew’s nativity story depicts the Jerusalem establishment rather dimly, Luke records that some in the Jerusalem establishment eagerly awaited the Messiah. Many of us prefer to remain in our comfort zones, even though God wants us to be on a journey, doing God’s will. Some of this resonated with me, and some of it stirred up questions in my mind. First of all, do I like journeys? I have never cared for road trips. Some of that has to do with car sickness, part of it is boredom, and some of it is that I prefer the comfort of home, and I see nothing wrong with that. At the same time, I do like to go on walks because of the possibility of going to new places, even though the new places never turn out to be that interesting, and I enjoy visiting new destinations in my dreams. Spiritually speaking, I do prefer my comfort zone over going on some nebulous adventure for God, though it is interesting to read about others’ adventures for God. Second, the lesson seemed to suggest that people need to be in the right state of mind to be receptive to God, even though Lucado also said that God in Christ pierces where we are with his presence. That may be biblical, since the Gospel depicts many missing the boat because they were in the wrong place spiritually. Still, I would hope that God’s grace can break through that, since I know that I am not entirely in the right place spiritually, as I have my share of pride, lust, desire for personal exaltation, and issues with God.

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