Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Christmas Services; Abuse of Power; The Real Extremists, the Far Left, by Billy James Hargis

A church write-up, followed by two book write-ups:

A. I watched the Christmas Eve and the Christmas Day services on YouTube. In the Christmas Eve sermon, the pastor talked about how many of us, in this prolonged time of solitude and reflection, may become frustrated with God’s high standards (law) and want little to do with God as a result. I am familiar with that kind of stinking thinking myself. The pastor also told a story about a friend from seminary named Mike. Mike was dating a woman and wondered if she loved him like he loved her. One day, he came to the pastor beaming, which was unusual for Mike. Mike was elated because the woman he loved loved him back, even though she was under no obligation to do so. The pastor likened that to God’s love: God loves us, even though he is under no obligation to do so and actually has reason not to, due to our sins.

B. In the Christmas service, the pastor referred to a scene from The Lion King, in which the baboon Rafiki senses that Simba is returning and that the disastrous, oppressive reign of Scar will soon end. Rafiki says, “It is time.” The pastor said that we, too, may be saying “It is time.” Perhaps we are dealing with grudges and finding that grudges are like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. Maybe “it is time” to let them go and forgive.

C. Fred V. Lucas. Abuse of Power: Inside the Three-Year Campaign to Impeach Donald Trump. Bombardier, 2020. Go here to purchase the book.

Fred Lucas is an award-winning journalist and White House correspondent who has written for largely conservative publications. He has a Master’s from the Columbia University School of Journalism and a Bachelor’s from Western Kentucky University.

As the title indicates, this book is about the Democrats’ attempt to impeach President Donald Trump throughout his term in office. It goes from the aftermath of the 2016 election, when some anti-Trumpers sought to prevent the Electoral College from rubber-stamping Trump’s victory, through the attempts to impeach Trump on emoluments, Charlottesville, and his alleged links with Russia. It culminates with the House’s official impeachment of Trump over Trump’s phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The final sentence of the book states: “In an impeachment void of a crime based entirely on partisan loathing, Pelosi, Schiff, and Nadler gave the country the worst impeachment in American history.”

While Lucas depicts Democrats as out for blood right after 2016, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi emerges as a voice of reason in Lucas’s narrative, at least initially. As Lucas narrates, Pelosi at first did not want to impeach Trump. A pragmatic politician, she was seeking to balance the centrist Democrats who barely won in Trump districts with the progressive Democrats. Her conflict with the left-wing Squad, which was small in number yet notorious for stirring up the Democratic base, pushed her over the edge and influenced her to support impeachment.

As far as Lucas is concerned, the House never demonstrated that Trump did anything deserving removal of office. For one, the charges, abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, were nebulous. Presidents prior to Trump abused their power, and Presidents facing a Congress that was controlled by the opposition party often obstructed Congress, yet most of them did not face impeachment. Second, there is no evidence that Trump either bullied or bribed Zelensky to investigate Hunter Biden. There was no quid pro quo: the military aid went to the Ukraine in accordance with Trump’s general pro-Ukraine policy, even though Zelensky had not launched an official investigation into Hunter Biden; moreover, Zelensky was unaware that the aid was even being held up, so he obviously did not feel bullied or bribed! Even some of the Democrats’ witnesses denied there was quid pro quo. The “whistleblower’s” claim was based on mere hearsay and contradicted by some who heard the phone call, and the whistleblower may have been a Democratic holdover involved in a conspiracy against Trump among Deep State operatives.

Those who followed the news during the impeachment saga will be familiar with Lucas’s overall narrative, but I still learned from this book. Lucas’s discussion of the Emoluments Clause to the Constitution is lawyerly and draws from American history; Lucas concludes that Trump may have violated it in a minor way, but not because he failed to put his assets into a blind trust; after all, George Washington as President still profited from his crops on Mount Vernon! Lucas also goes through past impeachments and the times that previous Presidents, including Barack Obama, based aid to countries on quid pro quo conditions. The book profiles such figures as Maxine Waters, with her alleged conflicts of interest, and New York Democratic Representative Jerry Nadler, who clashed with Trump back when Trump was a real estate developer. Ukrainian President Zelensky, like Trump, was a former entertainer, an upstart coming into office against huge odds on a promise to root out corruption.

The book also provides context for Joe Biden’s speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, in which Biden tells how he withheld aid to the Ukraine until it removed the prosecutor. Biden’s stated rationale was that the prosecutor was corrupt, not that he was investigating Hunter Biden. Whether Hunter Biden was the real reason is another issue.

Another point Lucas makes is that the mainstream media, including the New York Times, raised concerns about Hunter Biden’s Burisma dealings, even though they would dismiss those concerns right after Trump made them an issue. And Lucas notes that President Barack Obama himself pressured the Russian President to refrain from activity that could harm Obama politically.

Where the book could have been clearer was on whether Trump actually committed a crime. Lucas seems to say “no,” but some say that Trump was committing a crime simply by asking a foreign official for a political favor, whether there was quid pro quo or not. Even a Republican Senator whom Lucas quotes acknowledges that Trump committed a crime, but not one deserving impeachment. That raises the question: what crimes do merit impeachment? And here’s a related question: Given that the line between governing and politics is often thin, when does the absent of a line pose a problem, particularly one meriting impeachment?

Lucas also could have mounted a more rigorous defense of Trump in areas where Trump appears secretive, like he had something to hide. Lucas notes that Trump graciously made the transcript of his phone call public, but why did Trump invoke executive privilege, or why did Republicans not want to hear from witnesses? Republicans had answers to this, some good (i.e., not wanting to drag the country through a long process), some not-so-good (i.e., the House should have already made its case, as if new evidence is irrelevant).

Lucas also makes the point that the Democrats’ obsession with impeachment impeded the U.S. from tackling the coronavirus in its early stages. That could be; still, it is not as if Trump’s record here is flawless, as when Trump held mass rallies where people did not wear masks.

Lucas is still a good writer, and I am open to reading other books by him, such as his book about talk-radio.

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

D. Billy James Hargis. The Real Extremists: The Far Left. Christian Crusade, 1964.

Billy James Hargis was an ultra-conservative preacher, who was particularly prominent during the 1960’s. He sent me this book in the 1990’s, after I wrote a letter to him as a child. I tried to read this book in high school and enjoyed what I read, but I did not finish it due to lack of discipline. Now, as an adult who has read numerous books, I read and completed it.

Here are some thoughts:

—-One issue that Hargis addresses is whether Nazism and Fascism are right-wing or left-wing. In his day, as in ours, the left loves to call right-wingers “Fascist.” Hargis, like others after him (i.e., Gary Allen, Jonah Goldberg), appeals to the collectivist, economically statist policies of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy to argue that Nazism and Fascism belong on the political left, not the political right. The political right, unlike Nazism and Fascism, believes in limited government and economic freedom. Even more interestingly, Hargis talks about how American Nazis have protested against his Christian Crusade.

George Lincoln Rockwell was the head of the American Nazi Party, and what he says about Hargis and the John Birch Society in his book, White Power, is telling. One the one hand, Rockwell praises them as patriots for recognizing that Fidel Castro was a Communist, back when the American establishment saw Castro as a George Washington type of figure. On the other hand, Rockwell levels a lot of criticism at Hargis and the Birchers. Rockwell wanted a robust, masculine, fighting movement that would take to the streets, whereas Hargis and the Birchers pursued a more urbane approach of handing out pamphlets to a limited number of people, which Rockwell regarded as ineffectual. Hargis and the Birchers also denied being racists and anti-Semites, whereas Rockwell overtly proclaimed that the white race was superior, that white nationalism was essential, and that Jewish power (behind both revolutionaries and capitalism) was a threat to be confronted.

In terms of ideology, Rockwell overlapped in some areas with Hargis and the Birchers, yet he also diverged from them. Like Hargis and the Birchers, Rockwell was anti-Communist, anti-international banker, anti-globalist, and anti-Civil Rights movement. Rockwell criticized the U.S.’s policy in the Vietnam War as a no-win approach. Rockwell was also culturally conservative and saw the sexual revolution as a negative force, and Rockwell criticizes FDR for undermining the gold standard, a criticism other rightists have made. In contrast with Hargis and the Birchers, however, Rockwell was not exactly an economic libertarian, at least not in White Power. Rockwell, like many Neo-Nazis, advocated a third position between socialism and capitalism, which accepted a role for the state in guaranteeing white people’s economic security.

In short, I think that Nazism and Fascism contain elements of the left and the right.

—-Hargis writes in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, when many on the left were trying to blame it on the right for fostering an atmosphere of hatred against JFK. Hargis, like John Stormer in another 1964 right-wing classic, None Dare Call It Treason, points out that JFK was assassinated by a Communist, Lee Harvey Oswald.

Hargis’s stance is understandable, in light of his context. Still, it is refreshing that right-wing, conspiratorial literature that emerged subsequent to him is more open to the idea that JFK was assassinated as a result of a conspiracy, particularly a conspiracy among the establishment, rather than by a lone gunman. We see this in works by Roger Stone, Jerome Corsi, and Jim Marrs, and also by people who would probably be characterized as the fringe right, such as Jeff Rense and the Liberty Lobby. In addition, Hargis’s position on the Kennedy assassination is rather incongruous. Hargis, like many on the right, probably regarded JFK’s foreign policy as soft on Communism. Why, then, would a Communist want to assassinate him?

—-Hargis has a chapter on union bosses Walter and Victor Reuther. Like John Stormer, Hargis talks about the Reuthers’ encouragement of people in a letter to carry on the fight for a Soviet America, a quotation that many regard as spurious. Unlike Stormer, Hargis provides more background information. He tells the story of the Reuthers and discusses the content of the supposed letter. It is plausible, in my mind, that the Reuthers initially were involved in left-wing movements outside of the political mainstream, and they may even have initially regarded the Soviet Union as a positive experiment that would help workers. The official historical narrative is that they eventually became anti-Communist, however, as they sought to purge Communists from union ranks. Still, Hargis has reasons to criticize the Reuthers, who sought to suppress right-wing voices in the public arena.

This book is well-documented and has its moments of narrative intrigue. The time when conservative journalist Edith Kermit Roosevelt got in trouble with the Reuthers on one of her investigative endeavors stands out as an example.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Jesus and the Jordan, Jesus the Nazarene, God’s Choice, Spiritual Practices of Jesus, Where the Right Went Wrong (Patrick J. Buchanan)

 Some items from church last Sunday, followed by two book write-ups:

A. In the Sunday school class, the pastor talked a lot about Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan River. Jesus’s baptism at the Jordan had a variety of significant elements. First, it was there that God, through a prophet, anointed Jesus to be king. As God anointed kings in the Old Testament through prophets or priests, so John the Baptist anoints Jesus as king at Jesus’s baptism, albeit John employs water, not oil, in the anointing. Jesus at his baptism is empowered by the Holy Spirit for his ministry (Matthew 3:16-4:1), as occurred with Israelite kings in the Old Testament at or soon after their anointing (I Samuel 10-11; 16:13). God also affirms Jesus as his Son at Jesus’s baptism (Matthew 3:17), quoting Psalm 2:7, a Psalm of coronation.

Second, Jesus’s baptism echoes the Ark coming out of the Jordan in Joshua 4:16-18. The Ark, according to the pastor, was the closest that the Old Testament came to the incarnation of God. The Ark was a symbol of God’s relationship and presence with his people, but God also was actually present in the Ark (Numbers 10:35-36), and it was at the Ark that God communicated with his people. The Ark went before the Israelites when they crossed the Jordan on the way to the Promised Land. There are parallels between the Ark in Joshua 4 and Jesus’s baptism in Matthew 3. John baptized on the Jordan side of the river, so Jesus, after his baptism, was going from Jordan to the land of Israel, as did the Ark and the people of Israel in Joshua 4. Joshua 4:16-18 also states that the Ark was taken up from the river, and Matthew 3:16 notes that Jesus came up from the water at his baptism. Jesus at his baptism is revealed to be the new Ark, God’s presence with his people (Matthew 1:23). Jesus also recapitulates the story of Israel, moving in Matthew’s Gospel, as Israel did, from Egypt to the wilderness to the Promised Land; Jesus, as faithful Israel, does right what Israel did wrong.

Third, the Jordan in the Old Testament is associated with salvific acts, and baptism is a means of salvation. (This is a Lutheran church, which believes in baptismal regeneration.) It was at the Jordan that Naaman the leper was healed, with his skin becoming like that of a newborn babe (II Kngs 5-6). Baptism is where God’s salvation occurs, where people are born anew. Judaism baptized Gentiles who wished to become Jews, and Gentiles at their baptism gained a brand new identity as Jews. John, however, was baptizing Jews, implying that they too, by repentance, needed a new identity. Jesus said to John that he (Jesus) needed to be baptized to fulfill all righteousness (Matthew 3:15). According to the pastor, this does not just mean that Jesus had to be baptized to do the right thing, but that Jesus was bringing righteousness, or acquittal, to many (Isaiah 53:11).

B. Matthew 2:23 states that Jesus’s dwelling in Nazareth fulfilled what was spoken by the prophets, that he shall be called a Nazarene. As the pastor noted, such a prophecy is not in the Hebrew Bible. What is more, Nazareth did not yet exist when the prophets lived. Jesus was not a Nazirite, for he did not observe the Nazirite vow, which included abstention from alcohol. The significance of Jesus being a Nazarene, the pastor said, is that God is making significant a minor city (John 1:46), a mere Jewish suburb of the greater pagan city of Sepphoris, into which the Romans poured a lot of resources. The Gospel is about God giving significance to the insignificant.

C. I Samuel 13:14 calls David a man after God’s own heart. As the pastor observed in his sermon, most Christians interpret this verse to mean that there was something special and righteous about David that made God want to choose him. The problem with such a view, of course, was that David was a sinner, in some cases a gross sinner. The pastor’s interpretation is that the verse means that David was God’s choice. Saul was the choice of the people, and Saul failed, but David will be God’s own choice as king. My problem here is that Saul was God’s choice to be king; at the same time, though, God was giving in to the people’s demands, so perhaps that was not entirely God’s choice. There are indications in the Old Testament that God, all along, intended for David to be king; Genesis 49:10 predicts that the scepter shall belong to Judah, which is David’s tribe, whereas Saul was from Benjamin, not Judah. Perhaps David was fully God’s choice to be king, whereas Saul was only a temporary concession, a way to show the people that they messed up in rejecting God as king and in thinking Saul was qualified due to his impressive physical appearance (see I Samuel 9:2; 10:23-24; 16:7).

D. Catherine J. Wright. Spiritual Practices of Jesus: Learning Simplicity, Humility, and Prayer with Luke’s Earliest Readers. IVP Academic, 2020. Go here to purchase the book.

Catherine J. Wright teaches biblical and theological studies at Bethel University.

This book is about Jesus’s practice of simplicity, humility, and prayer in the Gospel of Luke. By “simplicity,” Wright means Jesus’s teaching that people should reject a wealthy life and instead give generously to the poor; even those with little should give something. “Humility” refers to not thinking too highly of oneself or looking down on others; Jesus taught this and, his own high spiritual status notwithstanding, exemplified it. “Prayer,” of course, is talking to God. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus prays a lot, and his prayers make things happen: God guides Jesus and gives him strength, but God also spiritually illuminates the disciples in response to Jesus’s prayers. For Wright, prayer should be primarily about the Kingdom of God, not personal wants.

Wright also examines these concepts in Greco-Roman culture, including biographies and philosophical works. The reason that she does this is that Greco-Roman culture forms the background of Luke’s audience, so their understanding of these concepts was shaped by that culture. And Wright looks at how early church fathers approached these concepts as they appear in the Gospel of Luke, as the church fathers exemplify a faithful (not merely a historical-critical) reading of Scripture. She finds value in their homiletical treatment of the text, while also noting areas in which she disagrees with them (i.e., their downplaying of Jesus’s need to be strengthened by God due to their belief that Jesus was God).

Wright’s work on Greco-Roman culture is relevant to contemporary apologetic debates. There are Christian apologists who claim that Greco-Roman culture lacked any valuation of charity, humility, and prayer, at least if one defines prayer as an act of heartfelt commitment to a good god as opposed to being a ritual of quid-pro-quo for an opportunistic deity. Wright’s concern in this book is not those apologetic debates, but what she says is still relevant to them, and she demonstrates that such Christian apologists are incorrect. At the same time, she observes where Jesus goes beyond the Greco-Roman conceptions of charity, humility, and prayer.

Wright attempts to address difficult questions, such as how one can believe that God provides, when God allowed poor Lazarus to die poor in Jesus’s parable (Luke 16:19-31). Her conclusion is that God envisions a community in which people take care of one another: we, in essence, are God’s hands and feet. Without us, Lazarus will die poor. But can we take a step of faith in God’s provision and give generously to the poor when that community does not exist?

Wright is rather nebulous about what prayer for the Kingdom of God entails. While she differentiates it from personal desires, she cannot avoid that the Kingdom of God includes healing of physical diseases, for that is what Jesus did. Consequently, she wrestles some with the question of why God does not answer every prayer for healing, as she appeals to a miracle in her own life story.

The book leans a lot on works righteousness and perhaps could have been balanced with some emphasis on God’s grace, which includes both forgiveness of sins and the need for people to be transformed by God’s Spirit. Such a focus occurs, not only in the Bible, but also in patristic writings. Still, Wright offers insights that can at least encourage a person to give: the insight, for example, that when we give our money to the poor, it becomes truly ours.

This book is informative about the meaning of passages in Luke, how early church fathers applied them, and Greco-Roman teachings on charity, humility, and prayer.

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

E. Patrick J. Buchanan. Where the Right Went Wrong: How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency. Thomas Dunne, 2004.

The book, as the title indicates, is a criticism of neoconservatism and its influence in George W. Bush’s Presidency. This influence is evident on the foreign policy front, as Bush attempted to spread democracy throughout the Arab world in the name of fighting terrorism. The result has been war. But it also appears on the domestic front, as the Republican Party, to make itself more popular and electable, cuts taxes without reducing government spending; meanwhile, Republicans have supported federal largess for their own favorite programs, such as a program seeking to improve marriages. Buchanan also addresses issues that have little to do with neoconservatism, such as judicial activism and the motivations of China. Buchanan’s message anticipates Donald Trump’s 2016 Presidential candidacy, as Buchanan rails against endless wars and the United States overextending itself throughout the world, while hoping that other countries will pick up more of the slack in their own self-defense.

I tried reading this book on a plane in 2004 but did not finish it. Over fifteen years later, I read the whole thing. Here are some thoughts and observations:

—-When I tried reading the book in 2004, Buchanan struck me as contradictory. On the one hand, he did not think that the U.S. should spread democracy throughout the world, for America has coexisted with dictators and has even allied itself with them, including in the War on Terror. Contrary to what neoconservatives say, world democracy is unnecessary for world stability. On the other hand, Buchanan says that one reason many Arabs hate the U.S. is that the U.S. supports oppressive, corrupt Arab regimes. So should the U.S. care about the nature of the Arab regimes or not? Nowadays, I do not think Buchanan is necessarily contradictory on this point: he could simply believe that the U.S. should let Arab dictatorships be, neither supporting them nor trying to overthrow them. Still, perhaps he could have resolved this tension explicitly.

—-It is baffling to think that anybody would support forcibly overthrowing all non-democratic regimes and replacing them with democracies. That simply is not feasible. There are only so many wars that the U.S. has the stomach and even the resources for. Do neoconservatives truly want this? They obviously support it in areas, such as the Iraq War; some would like regime change in Saudi Arabia and Iran. But overthrowing every non-democratic regime? Do they support encouraging democracy through peaceful means, in some cases? Incidentally, Buchanan quotes Bush as saying that global democracy is essential for global security, yet, as Buchanan notes, Bush came to retreat somewhat from that sentiment as the Iraq War deepened into a quagmire.

—-Buchanan expresses support for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11, since Osama Bin Laden needed to be brought to justice for killing American civilians. Still, Buchanan spends pages essentially arguing that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, as he points to such figures as Michael Collins, heroized by some, denounced as a terrorist by others. Buchanan does well to point out that many Arabs hate the U.S. for valid reasons: for its support of dictatorships, for its disregard of sacred Arab sites, for its cultural filth, and for its tolerance of repression by Israel. Still, terrorism, by anybody, should be considered wrong because it kills civilians. Just war theory makes this clear.

—-Buchanan forecasts economic doom. As the baby boomers reach retirement, they will become eligible for Social Security and Medicare. More people will be receiving benefits than paying into the system. The government will either have to raise taxes, including on the numerous people with low-paying jobs (with high-paying jobs going overseas). Or it will borrow or print the money, resulting in inflation and high interest rates. For some reason, this has not happened yet, perhaps because there are baby boomers who have yet to retire. What can be done about this problem? Buchanan does not really engage this: perhaps his solution is for the government to get out of these areas altogether, according to a strict interpretation of the Tenth Amendment. Hopefully, there is a way to solve this problem, while still leaving people some safety net to fall back on.

—-Buchanan attempts to get into the mind of China, explaining its motivations. China does not want the U.S. to support Taiwan, Buchanan argues, because that would be like other countries supporting the Confederacy during the American Civil War: the North did not like that because it considered the South to be part of the U.S. At the same time, Buchanan seems to endorse a more overt U.S. support for Taiwan, as he laments that Presidents Nixon and Reagan backed away from that. How would Buchanan resolve this tension?

—-Buchanan’s proposals about how to fix the runaway federal judiciary were not new to me, since Phyllis Schlafly made similar proposals in her book on the subject, The Supremacists. Essentially, the Congress can constitutionally set limits on the judicial branch. Buchanan even goes so far as to suggest that the President disobey the Supreme Court, which did occur in the early days of American history. Granted, the judiciary does appear to have a disproportionate amount of power, as it has the final say about policy decisions when it “interprets” the law. Still, should it not serve as some sort of check on the other two branches? What is the point of having it, if the other two branches can do what they want, anyway?

—-This book was written in 2004, before the 2004 Presidential election. Other things that conservatives complain about regarding the Bush Presidency were yet to occur, such as Bush’s “amnesty” proposal for the border (their words). Buchanan, at least in this book, seems rather ambivalent about a possible Kerry victory. When I watched him on MSNBC after the second 2004 Presidential debate, however, he seemed more in the Bush camp, due to Bush’s social conservatism and conservative judicial appointees.

—-Buchanan could have set clearer criteria about when America should interfere abroad, and when not. He says that America should intervene when its energy interests are threatened. Is that not, though, one of the main reasons for America’s presence in the Middle East in the first place, a presence that Buchanan largely opposes?

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Genesis 22; The Learning Cycle; A Republic, Not an Empire, by Patrick J. Buchanan

This week’s church write-up, followed by a review post of a book, followed by another book write-up:

A. Church this morning revolved primarily around Genesis 22, the akedah, the story in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. The pastor noted that God prohibited child sacrifice later in the Torah. In Abraham’s day, by contrast, Abraham might not have considered it to be immoral but rather something that a god, by right, could command worshipers to do. That does not mean that Abraham ever did it before, or that God ever commanded anyone to do it before. But it does obviate the ethical problems that people today have with the akedah story: Kant saying that Abraham should have said “no” to God’s immoral command, Kierkegaard’s talk about the divine suspension of the ethical, or people of faith who killed their kids because they felt God told them to do so. In Abraham’s cultural context, such a command was not deemed to be immoral. God did not let Abraham go through with it, though, thereby implying his rejection of such an act of worship, and God would later explicitly prohibit child sacrifice in the Torah.

B. Hebrews 11:17-18 treats the akedah as an act of faith. God had promised Abraham that he would have offspring through Isaac. Later, God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on the altar. The two are in conflict, for how can Isaac have offspring if he is dead? Abraham’s conclusion, according to Hebrews, is not that God changed his mind about the promise but that God would fulfill his promise concerning Isaac in some way, perhaps by raising Isaac from the dead. Such an interpretation appears to obviate the notion that the akedah was a sacrifice on Abraham’s part, for Abraham technically did not believe that he was giving up his son permanently to death, as he envisioned that God could give him his son back. It is, however, an act of trust in God. And trust implies risk, since Abraham may not have fully known what God would do.

C. The pastor commented on how Hebrews 11:17-18 contradicts the scholarly view that the ancient Hebrews lacked a belief in bodily resurrection. I would not go that far, for Elijah and Elisha raised people from the dead. Abraham could have envisioned the possibility of God raising Isaac without necessarily thinking that God would raise everyone from the dead in the last days; the ancient Israelites could have seen some people as exceptions to the rule. Still, the pastor raises a good point, one that challenges my Christian faith, sometimes severely, and sometimes not. Can one accept the New Testament’s interpretation of the Old Testament while still believing that the Old Testament lacks a concept of eschatological bodily resurrection? Hebrews 11:13-16 appears to maintain that the Old Testament patriarchs envisioned an afterlife, for they saw themselves as strangers on earth and looked for a heavenly city. Jesus interprets Psalm 110:1 as David calling the Messiah “Lord.” As the pastor said, this presumes the eschatological resurrection, after which Jesus would reign as lord of David and everyone else.

D. Someone in class asked, had God let Abraham go through with the sacrifice, what would have been the point? The pastor responded that it would have set a jarring precedent in which God commands and accepts human sacrifice. The pastor believes that the precedent that Genesis 22 sets, though, is substitutionary atonement, for a ram is substituted for Isaac. And the akedah foreshadows God sending his only Son Christ to die and to rise again. Two additional points can be made. First, the akedah is an example of Abraham’s piety, for God affirms it as such and on the basis of it reaffirms his intention to bless Abraham’s offspring. The akedah story would exhort Israelites to value God above all else in recognition of God’s majesty and to trust in God’s promise and benevolence. The akedah would also convey a message of grace in that the Israelites could approach God not on the basis of their own merits but rather on the merits of their father Abraham. Second, the akedah reaffirms that God has a right to the firstborn. Since God does not demand that the Israelites literally sacrifice their firstborn child, a substitute for the firstborn must be made. In Abraham’s case, that substitute was a ram. Throughout the Torah, there are other substitutes for the firstborn, be it a sheep, money, the firstborn serving as priests in the sanctuary, or the entire tribe of Levi (Exodus 13:12-15; 22:29; 34:19-20; Numbers 3:12-13; 18:15-16; I Samuel 1:11). Figuratively giving God the first highlights theological points, including God’s majesty and thus his right to the first and the best, trust that God would provide after the Israelites give to him the first of their crops and herds, and God’s historical deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt after slaying the Egyptian firstborn. From a Christian perspective, it foreshadows that God would offer his own firstborn Son.

E. Muriel I. Elmer and Duane H. Elmer. The Learning Cycle: Insights for Faithful Teaching from Neuroscience and the Social Sciences. IVP Academic, 2020. Go here to purchase the book.

The Elders have doctorates from Michigan State University and a background in education, teaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and in South Africa. This book is about how teachers can teach effectively. Effective teaching enables students to remember the material and to apply it to their own lives; in the case of religious education, it entails character formation and development.

Many educators today lecture, have the students take notes, and quiz the students on the material. The Elmers argue on the basis of psychological studies that such an approach fails to ensure that they will remember the material in the long term. Many students will tune out the lecture sometime in the middle. In reading this book, I thought about a story that someone told me about when he took a final exam in Arabic. He took the exam then forgot the Arabic; he made a “flushing” noise, as if whatever Arabic he knew got flushed down the toilet after the stress of the exam.

The Elmers advocate an alternative approach. It retains some lecturing while offering advice as to how professors can retain their students’ attention through voice modulation, case studies, and breaks in which interpersonal sharing can occur. Skits in which people simulate a principle and discussion that revolves around open-ended questions are also prominent in their approach. The Elmers believe that classrooms should be safe places in which students can share without fear of ridicule. Relationships are significant in their approach, as the Elmers talk about the importance of professors getting to know their students. Cognitive dissonance also plays a role in education, for people learn when they seek to resolve contradictions between what they are doing and what they are supposed to do.

The Elmers at least acknowledge potential roadblocks in their own approach. Like what about the shy students? Or what about cultures that see education in terms of the teacher imparting information to their students? Or how can a teacher allow for open-ended discussion, without the discussion going off-course? Whether they address those concerns adequately is up to the reader, but they are to be commended for wrestling with them on some level. Other challenges can be posited: how can teachers challenge students without embarrassing them? Did Jesus make a safe place for the Pharisees when he used ridicule in challenging their religious presuppositions in his attempt to foster cognitive dissonance?

An issue that gets tangentially addressed in this book is the role of the Spirit in the Christian’s character formation. Duane talks about his own struggle with unforgiveness and how prayer helped him to retrain his synapses. The Spirit, in this book, seems to be a guide rather than one who magically changes people’s dispositions. This book is relevant to the usual struggles between Christianity and psychology and the question of whether the two can coexist and even reinforce each other, or if psychology implies that humans can find healing apart from the Holy Spirit.

I cannot say that reading this book made me feel good, the Elmers’ winsome writing notwithstanding. As a shy introvert, I love the “lecture and taking notes” approach. I dread adding an interpersonal element to education. And, as one who falls dramatically short of what many would say a Christian should be, I recoiled from the Elmers’ religious emphasis on obedience to God and refraining from “hypocrisy.” Still, the Elmers do make valid points about how people retain information and influenced me to think about what I have retained, what I have not, and why.

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

F. Patrick J. Buchanan. A Republic, Not an Empire: Reclaiming America’s Destiny. Regnery, 2002.

This book was originally released in 1999, before September 11, 2001. It was prescient about the sorts of discussions that would emerge after 9/11, as 9/11 inspired President George W. Bush’s wars in the Middle East, along with the accusation that Bush was seeking to impose a U.S. empire throughout the world. This particular version of the book is a 2002 update, so it includes an introduction that reflects on 9/11 and Buchanan’s criticism of the influence of neoconservatives on Bush’s foreign policy.

Buchanan’s story starts with America’s early days and extends to 2002. While George Washington wisely advised Americans to avoid entanglements in European alliances, Buchanan argues that the U.S. in its early days was far from isolationist. The U.S. interacted with foreign powers and even went to war with them, both when the U.S. was expanding its own territory and also to expel European powers from the Western Hemisphere. Buchanan still believes that Woodrow Wilson marked a downturn in American foreign policy, as Wilson brought America into World War I. Wilson sought to create a democratic world yet contradicted that very vision after World War I when he punished Germany. Wilson sought to create a League of Nations, yet that idea met with resistance, even from American politicians who were not isolationists, because it would require America to participate in even more European wars.

Controversial, even in 1999, was Buchanan’s treatment of World War II. For Buchanan, World War II was unnecessary, for Hitler’s primary ambition was to invade what was east of him, not the entire world. Britain, however, unwisely pledged to defend the dictatorship in Poland after Hitler took more of Czechoslovakia than he agreed to take, arousing British fear that he indeed had expansionist ambitions. President Franklin Roosevelt provoked the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor by cutting off Japanese access to vital supplies. Japan then decided to take those supplies from the Philippines and attacked the American base on Pearl Harbor so that the U.S. would not be able to stop it.

Buchanan is more interventionist with respect to the Cold War, as Buchanan endorses a more aggressive posture by the U.S. during the Vietnam War.

Buchanan is critical of the “new world order,” and a legitimate question is what he means by that. Does he mean what the Birchers mean: a one-world government? In a sense, yes, even though he may not go as far as the Birchers. He dislikes the growing tendency to undermine nations and to see people as citizens of the world. This includes participation in global organizations that undermine national sovereignty and the push during the Clinton Administration for American troops to fight under the auspices of the U.N. For Buchanan, globalism is unfounded, for people would rather fight for and support their own nation, people, and family rather than a nebulous “world body.”

Buchanan also opposes America’s pledge to defend other countries and to get involved in their conflicts because, for him, those conflicts are irrelevant to America’s well-being. Instead, Buchanan believes that other countries should be armed in their own right and that would create a deterrent against invasion and war.

This book has advantages and disadvantages. An advantage is that I understood Buchanan’s thesis on World War II better after reading this book than I did after reading Buchanan’s Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War. Both complemented each other, but A Republic, Not an Empire concisely laid out Buchanan’s thesis and connected the dots in describing people’s motivations.

The book could be plodding though, especially as Buchanan laid out historical facts, and it tended to romanticize early American expansionism.

The book also may disappoint those who like books with clear heroes and villains, especially Bircher books that like to bash Wilson and Colonel House as hyper-globalists. Buchanan himself has strong opinions, yet his portrayal of Wilson and House is more nuanced than that, and some may prefer his treatment of them.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Jesus’s Theological Genealogies, Original Sin and the Fall, Enhancing Christian Life

 An item from church, followed by two book write-ups:

A. My church’s Advent Bible study is entitled “Jesus, the Seed of Jesse’s Tree.” It draws from Isaiah 11, which talks about a remaining stump of Jesse after the royal line had been devastated. The pastor said that the reference to the “son of Jesse” rather than the “son of David” serves to highlight that Jesus is one greater than David: both Jesus and David are from the lines of Jesse, yet Jesus is greater. Moreover, Jesus fills to overflow God’s promises to and intentions for David and the Davidic line. A topic that the pastor addressed were the apparent discrepancies between Matthew’s genealogy for Jesus (Matthew 1) and that of Luke (Luke 3:23-38). The pastor was open to the explanation that Matthew has Joseph’s genealogy whereas Luke has Mary’s, for Matthew’s story focuses on Joseph’s reactions, whereas Luke’s story features Mary’s. But the pastor also believes that the genealogies are making theological points. Matthew’s genealogy depicts Jesus as the son of Abraham and has three sets of fourteen generations, meaning it leaves some names out. Seven is the number of completion, so fourteen denotes double completion; the point Matthew makes for his Jewish audience is that Jesus is the complete fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. Luke’s genealogy traces Jesus’s descent, not through David’s son Solomon, but rather through David’s son Nathan. Solomon, not Nathan, was the bearer of God’s promise to David, for Solomon was David’s successor as king. Why, then, does Luke mention Nathan? According to the pastor, this is consistent with Luke’s theme of God reaching out to the Gentiles. As Nathan, the unchosen son of David, is included in Jesus’s genealogy, so also is God including the Gentiles in his church, even though the Gentiles were not part of God’s chosen people Israel.

B. J.B. Stump and Chad Meister, ed. Original Sin and the Fall: Five Views. IVP Academic, 2020. Go here to purchase the book.

This book features five views on original sin and the Fall, followed by each contributor’s response to the other contributors. Hans Madueme represents the “Augustinian-Reformed” view: that Adam and Eve’s sin passed on guilt to their descendants as well as a corrupt nature. Oliver D. Crisp offers a “Moderate Reformed” view: that Adam and Eve passed to their descendants a corrupt nature but not guilt for Adam and Eve’s sin. Joel B. Green, the Wesleyan, seems to overlap with Crisp but also brings into the discussion God’s books of nature and Scripture, allowing him to reconcile Genesis 1-3 with evolution. Andrew Louth presents an “Eastern Orthodox” view, which entails a belief in ancestral sin—-that Adam and Eve set a bad example that contributed to a subsequent network of sin and corruption—-as well as a conviction that nature still has qualities and can serve as a means of grace. Tatha Wiley argues for a “Reconceived” view. This view does not accept Genesis 1-3 as literal history yet maintains that humans are alienated from how they should be. Jesus’s solution was to challenge societal privilege and to create an inclusive society.

Madueme’s contribution is perhaps the most biblical yet severely downplays scientific challenges to interpreting Genesis 1-3 as literal and historical. Madueme is particularly at his best when arguing against the other positions.

Oliver Crisp does well to argue that Calvin backtracks from supporting original guilt (Adam and Eve passing down guilt to their descendants), but Madueme, in my opinion, refutes Crisp’s argument that Reformed confessions reject original guilt. Crisp also fails to use possible biblical evidence for his position, such as Ezekiel 18’s claim that God punishes people for their own sin, not the sin of their parents.

Green objects to the idea that Genesis 1-3 is about original sin at all; rather, in accord with much of biblical scholarship, he treats Genesis 2-3 as an etiology of death, hard labor, and difficult pregnancies. This interpretation presumes that Adam and Eve’s descendants have free choice to do good or evil and that they are responsible for their own sins, not those of Adam and Eve. But do the Wesleyans believe this? While Wesley rejected original guilt, he believed that humans inherited a corrupt nature from Adam and Eve, which is why they need divine grace.

The contributions from Louth and Wiley are the most difficult in the book yet are clearest in explaining how exactly various Christian luminaries thought that original sin degenerated human nature and was passed on to Adam and Eve’s offspring. Louth’s conception of ancestral sin sounds rather Pelagian, as another contributor points out. I had assumed that the Eastern Orthodox, too, believed that Adam and Eve’s transgression weakened how humans are by nature, not merely that it set a bad example. Regarding Louth’s view that the Eastern Orthodox accept the goodness of creation, Louth does well to highlight possible Christian voices to the contrary, but, as Madueme retorts, one can be authentically Reformed and still believe that creation has goodness.

Wiley’s contribution is perhaps the most liberal of the five. Louth astutely noted in his retort that even theological liberals these days see some value in the doctrine of original sin, in contrast with the theological liberals who taught him in his schooldays! There is something wrong with human nature, even if one has intellectual difficulty accepting the historicity of Adam and Eve.

The book is rather lacking in engaging the question of whether one can believe in original sin while rejecting the historicity of Adam and Eve. Crisp says that his position does not presume that all humans descended from Adam and Eve but fails to explain how this is the case. Perhaps the closest that I saw to this was in a footnote in Madueme’s contribution about a book that proposed a view that Madueme rejects. Madueme argues that God’s renewal of the cosmos implies that the cosmos before the Fall lacked sin and death, which contradicts evolutionary scenarios in which there has long been struggle and death, even before humans came on the scene. The footnote refers to the view that God’s cosmic renewal need not imply a perfect pre-Fall cosmos, for God’s renewal could be a new thing altogether.

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

C. Brad D. Strawn and Warren S. Brown. Enhancing Christian Life: How Extended Cognition Augments Religious Community. IVP Academic, 2020. Go here to purchase the book.

Strawn and Brown teach psychology at Fuller.

I hated reading this book. It is a sophisticated rendition of all the communitarian Christian cliches from which I, as a socially-impaired introvert with Asperger’s, recoil. “There is no such thing as a ‘lone-ranger’ Christian.” (Okay, so does one need to be adequately social to be saved? Is salvation by God’s free grace or not?) “You should do life together throughout the week, not just meet together on Sunday.” (Some churches try to legislate this!) “Church is not just about reassuring you of God’s love but commissioning you to minister to others throughout the week.” (There used to be some weeks when I didn’t interact with anyone. Was I unsaved in those days?) These are not exact quotations, but the book is certainly in that spirit. Also, there was that goofy story about how heaven is a place where we all feed each other with long spoons! I am willing to share, but I would rather feed myself with my own spoon!

Another point that Strawn and Brown make is that religious disciplines are not just supposed to be private but are to be primarily based on corporate worship and are to serve the local church. What does that mean, exactly? That, when I study the Bible, it has to correspond with what the church is emphasizing at that point? That I need to share my conclusions in reading the Scripture to others at church? What if they do not value what I have to say?

I guess that my religion and spirituality are what Strawn and Brown criticize. I read the Bible and meditate on it to be personally edified, even pacified, and I hope that will make me less of a jerk to others. Less of a jerk, not necessarily “buddy-buddy.” Does community factor into my spirituality at all? Well, I doubt it would be enough to satisfy Strawn, Brown, and other communitarians—-that is just how it is—-but it is still there. Going to church can remind me that there is a world beyond myself. There is a strength that comes from being around other believers. As Strawn and Brown extensively argues, none of our contemplation occurs in solitude, for it engages the world around us. And Strawn and Brown do well to tell beautiful stories about when the church comes together and helps someone, as the church people have each other’s back.

The book would have been better had it discussed those with social impairments. That is not just for my benefit, for it is a widespread issue that people face. Strawn and Brown do, however, address other questions that people might have about their view: what room does it leave for God’s grace, and does it present a rosy picture of church? Their discussion of the latter question could have had more: can Christians, especially socially-challenged Christians, form community in an individualistic society where it is difficult to form community?

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

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Why Unthankful?; the Vine Creates a Community; Romans 15-16; How to Read Daniel

Some items from church last week, followed by a book write-up:

A. The Thanksgiving service focused on Luke 17:11-19, the story about Jesus healing ten lepers and only one, a Samaritan, returning to thank him. The pastor speculated about why the other nine failed to return to Jesus to thank him for healing them. One possibility was that they were obediently doing what Jesus and the law commanded them to do: in accordance with the Torah and Jesus’s command, they were going to Jerusalem to show themselves to the priest. The pastor may have been drawing a law/Gospel dichotomy here, a distinction between simply following the law and being overwhelmed with intense gratitude over Jesus’s gracious healing. Gratitude, of course, is what transforms the Christian. Another possibility was that the nine expected Jesus, as the Messiah or merely a reputable healer, to heal them. As far as they were concerned, that was Jesus’s job. Once Jesus did his job, their mind went on to the next task: showing themselves to the priest and getting on with life. What Jesus did for them became a blip on their radar.

B. The Sunday service drew a communitarian conclusion from Jesus being the vine and Christians being the branches (John 15). Christians are not brought together because they know each other and have known each other for years. They are brought together because they all are joined with Christ, the vine. Christ, through his death and resurrection and people coming to faith, created a new community on that basis. That reminded me of when I was in a campus Bible study group decades ago, and we were talking about what courses we were taking for Winter term. One was taking a class on Verdi’s operas, while another was taking a class on how to start a small business. Someone noticed that the only thing we had in common was Christ.

C. Bible study completed Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Three things come to mind. First, the pastor noted that Paul was combating the divisions among the Roman Christians, specifically those between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Paul was reminding them that, according to the Hebrew Bible, God’s plan was for the Gentiles to know the God of Israel as God and to worship him. According to the pastor’s interpretation, when Paul affirms that God will soon bring Satan under their feet, Paul is specifically referring to God ending the divisions within the church that Satan instigates and encourages. Second, the pastor engaged the question of whether Paul ever went to Spain. The pastor leaned in the “no” direction because there are no churches in Spain that trace their ancestry to Paul, whereas some trace their ancestry to other ancient Christian luminaries. Third, the pastor addressed whether Junia in Romans 16:7 is an apostle. Junia is a woman’s name, and some argue that Junia was a woman apostle and thus that the church should permit women’s ordination. The LCMS pastor disagrees with this interpretation. The pastor appeared to take more seriously than many scholars the possibility that “Junia” should read “Junias,” a male name. Many scholars, by contrast, prefer “Junia” on text-critical grounds and due to the prevalence of the name “Junia” in Greco-Roman antiquity, as compared with “Junias.” The pastor also said that Romans 16:7 could mean that Junia was reputable among the apostles: she is not an apostle herself, but the apostles recognize and appreciate her work.

D. Tremper Longman III. How to Read Daniel. IVP Academic, 2020. Go here to purchase the book.

I decided to read this book soon after reading the Book of Daniel for my daily quiet time. Specifically, I wondered how a Christian can be edified by Daniel and see it as divine revelation, when it appears to predict things that did not historically come to pass: that Antiochus IV would suffer defeat and that would immediately be followed by God’s eschatological rule.

Did Longman’s book help me in that area? A little. Longman argues that the numbers in Daniel (i.e., the seventy sevens, the 1260 and 1335 days, the time time and half a time) are not to be understood as literal years. For Longman, their point is that God will intervene at a definite point in time, but their goal is not to specify when that time is. Longman usually bases this argument on mere assertion about the text’s unclarity. He mounts more of an argument, though, when he says that, when Jeremiah states that the exile will last for seventy years, that does not mean that the exile will last for seventy literal years. Rather, seventy refers to completion, so Jeremiah may be saying that the exile will be over when it is over, when God determines to end it and when it has accomplished what it is set out to accomplish. The point of Daniel 9 is that it has not yet accomplished what it is set out to accomplish, for Israel still needs repentance and atonement for sin, so it will last longer. Longman’s proposal provides food for thought and possibly a piece of the puzzle, but it seems that Daniel, at least initially, had more of a literal understanding of the seventy years, for, as Longman acknowledges, Daniel was reading Jeremiah when the seventy years were about to be over.

On the dating of Daniel, Longman is conservative and prefers a sixth century rather than a second century date, but he fails to offer arguments for this position. Rather, his focus here is on supernaturalism versus anti-supernaturalism. However, he has written an actual commentary on Daniel and may offer arguments there, plus his appendix provides an annotated list of conservative and liberal (yet faith-based) commentaries on Daniel. On the occasions that Longman does argue against skeptical positions on Daniel in How to Read Daniel, he does so well, as when he addresses the question of whether Daniel 8 is inaccurate about the number of Persian kings who would precede the fall of Persia.

Some of Longman’s discussions are anti-climactic. When he discusses why Daniel and his three Hebrew friends refused to eat the king’s food in Daniel 1, he settles on the conclusion that Daniel simply was giving God room to work. The problem with this argument is that Daniel asserts that the meat is somehow defiling, as if there is a problem with the meat itself. Longman effectively knocks down interpretations about what that problem is, and he even observes that Daniel in Daniel 9 implies that he usually eats the king’s rich food. But where Longman finally settles is unsatisfactory (not that I can do better).

In reading Daniel 7, it jumped out to me that the Son of Man is probably the community of faithful Israel. Daniel 7 interprets the four beasts as four empires, then he appears to interpret the one like the Son of Man, to whom God will give dominion, as the community of faithful Israel, to whom God will give dominion. Longman, however, does not mention this possibility but focuses on how the one like the Son of Man is a divine sort of figure. That may be true, but the Son of Man’s identification with the community of faithful Israel should still be addressed. Perhaps the community of faithful Israel is being divinized, in some manner. Or the divine Son of Man could be a messianic figure who represents the community of Israel and rules on their behalf.

Longman’s book is especially helpful when it brings historical context into his discussions. Longman speculates that Daniel and his friends were brought to Babylon, not to return to Israel and rule on Babylon’s behalf (as often occurred), but rather to help replenish Babylon’s diminishing government. Longman cites evidence that Babylon interpreted health in terms of being fat, so the wonder of Daniel 1 is that Daniel and his three friends could be fat on a mere diet of water and vegetables. Prayers to Darius in Daniel 6 were based, not on the notion that Darius was a god, but rather on Darius’s status as an intercessor between his subjects and the gods. The mixed creatures of Daniel 7 would have been abominable at that time in history, as mixtures were abominated, especially by the Hebrews.

The homiletical application of Longman’s book brought to mind a homiletical article that I wrote as a teen, in which I encouraged Christian teens to boldly and openly stand up for their faith, like Daniel and his three friends. As Longman notes, however, Daniel and his three friends were not in your face. They also were concerned, not only for themselves, but for the Gentiles among whom they lived.

This book is disappointing, in areas, but still has valuable observations and insights.

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

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Romans 14, Worship and the World to Come

 A write-up about church, followed by a brief book write-up:

A. Bible study today was about Romans 14. Romans 14 is about the strong and the weak believers and how the strong believers should be compassionate about where the weaker believers are. The pastor interpreted this in light of the return of Jewish Christians to Rome after their expulsion by Claudius. Jewish Christians were returning to churches where they once predominated and maybe even founded, and the churches now were run by Gentiles. Jewish Christians opposed eating improperly slaughtered meat, which had not been drained of blood, and they also refrained from pork and observed the Sabbath day. Gentile Christians lacked such scruples. Gentile Christians were to exercise tolerance and love towards the returning Jewish Christians. All of their focus was to be glorifying God: giving thanks to God and testifying to others about who God is to them. Righteousness is based, not on food laws, but on peace with God through Christ and the joy in the Holy Spirit that results from that.

The pastor was saying that such issues were adiaphora: things neither abandoned nor forbidden. The problem, though, is that the Jewish Christians believed that their scruples reflected God’s command. Or did they? The pastor talked as if they sincerely believed that God was the source of their scruples, yet he also referred, by analogy, to a woman in his past congregation who continued to use rosary beads. She was not praying to Mary, but, as an ex-Catholic who had become a Lutheran, she was holding on to a custom that had given her peace. Was that what the Jewish Christians were doing: holding on to customs that had given them spiritual nourishment, without believing that everyone was obligated to observe those customs?

The pastor also referred to I Corinthians 8, which is about meat sacrificed to idols. Corinth was a polyglot society, and various peoples brought their different gods and cults into Corinth. To financially support their temples, they sold the sacrificial meat on the market, and the meat was often cheaper than the “farmer’s market” meat. According to the pastor, both the “strong” and the “weak” acknowledged that the idol was nothing, but those who opposed eating the meat sacrificed to idols based their stance on their opposition to supporting pagan cults and their belief that such a purchase gave the idols credibility.

The pastor also brought up the issue of temptation. Churches may decide not to have dances so as to avoid tempting those who struggle sexually, or they may refrain from using only alcohol at communion so as to avoid tempting the recovering alcoholic. This brings me back to my question, though: did the “weaker” brothers sincerely believe that violating the Jewish law was a sin, not simply a matter of adiaphora? Why else would they worry about being tempted to eat pork or work on the Sabbath? Or did they recognize that such things were not sinful but that they had a difficult time moving on from them? But, against the latter possibility, Paul in Romans 14 says “to him it’s a sin.”

Another issue: according to Genesis 9 and the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15, even Gentiles are prohibited by God and the church to eat blood. So concern about animal slaughter should not just be a Jewish Christian issue but of concern to Gentile Christians as well. Or did Paul view aspects of the Acts 15 ruling as a tentative concession to Jewish sensibilities, not as a permanent law?

The pastor referred to the view that Paul’s language about “strong” and “weak” is based on Ezekiel 34, in which the strong sheep oppress the weak sheep. Paul wants the stronger Christians to be compassionate towards the weak, not oppressive.

B. Glenn Packiam. Worship and the World to Come: Exploring Christian Hope in Contemporary Worship. IVP Academic, 2020. See here to purchase the book.

Glenn Packiam has a doctorate in Theology and Ministry from Durham and pastors at New Life Church in Colorado

This book attempts four tasks. First, Packiam nuances the definitions of hope and worship. Second, Packiam discusses the eschatologies of N.T. Wright and J. Moltmann. Third, Packiam looks at the worship songs used by a Presbyterian and a charismatic church. What he finds is that their hope is rooted in God’s activity in the present, not the future, and he speculates that this may be because of the churches’ well-off economic status in the West. Fourth, Packiam observes that the songs still minister to people in tangible ways, which he believes is from God’s Spirit, and he attempts to account for how God can use shallow lyrics. Still, perhaps because he sees a need to tie the book together, Packiam gives a nod to contemporary worship songs that actually manifest an eschatological hope.

The nuanced delineation of hope adds a depth to the book. Packiam’s discussion of eschatology refrains from being a solely banal account of how N.T. Wright believes in a physicalist eschatology (renewed creation) but gets into how Wright believes Paul recapitulates Old Testament hopes in Jesus, differences between Wright and Moltmann on the millennium, and the question of whether God will destroy the old earth and create a new one. The analysis of the worship songs raises noteworthy observations, though Packiam perhaps could have interacted more with why the Presbyterian congregation’s songs focus a lot on the past, not just the present. The stories about why people are drawn to particular church services, and how these services minister to them, is also worth reading.

Occasionally, Packiam refers to skeptical positions: the view that hope is escapism, and the view that the positive feelings that people get from church services is psychological rather than caused by the Holy Spirit. Packiam could have interacted with these views more, but, as it is, the book is deep, insightful, and inspiring.

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

Monday, November 16, 2020

Romans 13 and Approaching the Atonement

 A write-up about church today, followed by a brief book write-up:

A. Bible study was about Romans 13, in which Paul exhorts Christians to submit to the governing authorities. Paul’s exhortation is in line with the fourth commandment, which, in Lutheranism, is “Honor your father and your mother.” The primary unit of society is the family, with the parents at the head. Because a parent cannot govern an entire nation or congregation, parents devolve their authority to governments and pastors, respectively. The governing authorities, in effect, serve as the parents of the nation, and pastors act as parents to the church. God gives governing authorities as a gift, that there might be societal order. Christians are to obey this order, so long as the Gospel is not at stake or the State’s law does no harm to one’s neighbor. Because Christians may arrive at different conclusions as to what policies do this, refusal to obey the State is a matter of personal conscience, based not on selfishness but rather on love of God and neighbor. Luther taught the doctrine of two realms: there is the realm of the State and the realm of the Gospel and the church. Both can support each other, but they are separate realms. Calvin, by contrast, sought to create the Kingdom of God on earth, with the governing authorities serving as priests. Such a mindset influenced America, particularly the Puritanical conception of New England as a new Israel and as a city on a hill, manifesting God’s righteousness to the nations.

B. Oliver D. Crisp. Approaching the Atonement: The Reconciling Work of Christ. IVP, 2020. See here to purchase the book.

Oliver D. Crisp is professor of analytic theology at the University of St. Andrews. This book covers different models of the atonement, as well as attempts to integrate them with one another.

This book is not a mere rehash of atonement models. Crisp probes deeper, as he asks how each model accomplishes atonement. When he discusses Irenaeus’s doctrine of recapitulation, that Christ in the incarnation recreated humanity, Crisp inquires how exactly the incarnation did so. Crisp also draws distinctions. He states that the ransom model is technically distinct from the story that God fooled Satan through Christ’s death, causing Satan to overreach. Crisp also distinguishes between Anselm’s satisfaction model and penal substitution. Penal substitution is based on Anselm but is distinct from his model, for Anselm depicted Christ paying a price owed by sinners (death) with abundant merit, whereas penal substitution states that Christ was actually punished in place of sinners. Crisp’s step-by-step articulation of Anselm’s model impressively demonstrates how intricate it is. Ultimately, Crisp seems to lean towards a “union with Christ” model, in which believers, by union with Christ, become transformed humanity and are seen by God as righteous.

Crisp’s chapter on whether the atonement glorifies violence could have been better, for it fails really to account for why God would choose a violent means to reconcile humanity with him. Perhaps the book also would have been stronger had Crisp addressed how the cross humiliates powers and principalities, a la Colossians 2:15. Still, the book is excellent due to its nuanced discussion.

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

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Romans 12:1-2

 Some items from church:

Sunday school covered Romans 12:1-2. In the KJV, that reads: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”

—-The pastor treated “by the mercies of God” as the key to understanding and applying Romans 12-14. Apart from that phrase, he said, those chapters become a bunch of laws. “By the mercies of God” provides them with a Gospel context. Because of, in light of, and shaped by the mercies of God, Christians love each other, their enemies, and outsiders (Romans 12). “By the mercies of God,” they behave as good citizens (Romans 13). “By the mercies of God,” they take into consideration where each other is spiritually and take heed not to make their Christian brother or sister stumble (Romans 14).

That reminds me of what the pastor said last week about Romans 11: that Christians are not to look down on one another because all of us are sinners in need of God’s mercy. That Gospel is to shape how we see ourselves and one another.

Looking at the Greek, though, “by the mercies of God” is dia plus a genitive. Dia plus a genitive is “through the mercies of God.” Dia plus an accusative is “on account of.” The pastor’s interpretation would make more sense if the phrase were dia plus an accusative. But how do we understand it when it is dia plus a genitive? Is Paul’s point more consistent with a Roman Catholic concept: God, by means of infusing grace, enables Christians to do all of these things? Or is the pastor’s interpretation consistent with “through the mercies of God”: through God’s mercy and our reception of it, Christians have the mindset that helps them to do those things?

—“Reasonable service.” The word translated “reasonable” is logike. The pastor said that is a hapaz legomena: it only appears in Romans 12:1, though II Peter 2:2 has a similar word. It is almost as if Paul made it up. The reason that the KJV renders it as “reasonable” is that it is related to “logos,” which denotes structure, order, and the organizing principle of the cosmos, what gives order to all else. The pastor proposed another interpretation, however. He said that he personally dates John’s Gospel earlier than most scholars do. In light of that, Paul may have known of John 1’s identification of Christ as the logos. Therefore, logike in Romans 12:1 means Christ-effected and Christ-shaped worship and service. A student offered that perhaps “reasonable” still makes sense, though: in light of Christ’s mercy to Christians, it is appropriate and reasonable for Christians to offer themselves as living sacrifices.

—-The pastor noted that “conformed” and “transformed” are passive. These things happen to us. Due to our ruined nature and the messages that come to us, we become conformed to the world, the flesh, and the devil. In so doing, we are allowing something that is passing away—-the world—-to shape and influence us, our desires, and our choices. But, because of the mercies of God, the Holy Spirit transforms Christians. Light breaks into the crevices of our hearts when the law breaks and convicts us, but the Gospel of God’s love and grace is what transforms us.

—-The pastor defined Greek anthropology as a trichotomy of mind, spirit, and body. The mind is the seat of intelligence and will. The spirit is what animates the body. The body is the physical part of human beings and the seat of their passions. When people die, however, it is their spirits that go to Hades or the good realm. Can a spirit exist apart from the mind, however? I should note that Plato treated reason and the passions as parts of the soul.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Martha, the Light, and Exodus Old and New

 Some items from church, followed by a book write-up.

A. On Wednesday, my church had its last session on Max Lucado’s Anxious for Nothing. We talked about the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42. People in the group were rejecting the idea that Jesus’s main lesson in the story is “Don’t be a Martha.” There was nothing wrong with Martha serving. The problem was her focus. Instead of rejoicing that she had the honor to serve Jesus and to bring happiness to her guests, she focused on the immensity and stress of her tasks, and she resented that her sister, Mary, was sitting listening to Jesus rather than helping her out. Jesus sought to reorient Martha’s focus to what is valuable: him.

B. At the service this morning, teens were talking about their favorite Bible verses and what they mean to them. They had just gone through confirmation. One person shared that Matthew 5:16 was her favorite verse: let your light shine before men. She talked about Jesus’s death and how his disciples wondered if Jesus’s teachings would continue or if they died with Jesus. But Jesus rose again and empowered his disciples with the Holy Spirit, so Jesus’s message went on. She testified that she has helped people with their problems, sharing her faith with them, and that helps her, perhaps more than it helps the people. The reason that I liked this testimony was that it offered a practical reason for Matthew 5:16: we let our light shine because that brings Jesus’s teachings to the world around us. What Jesus started in the first century did not die with him but lives on in him and in us.

C. L. Michael Morales. Exodus Old and New: A Biblical Theology of Redemption. IVP Academic, 2020. See here to purchase the book.

L. Michael Morales teaches biblical studies at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. This book offers a Christian interpretation of the biblical exodus, focusing in the last section on the Gospel of John.

A lot of what Morales says would not be new to Christians. Either they have heard it, or they would not be surprised to hear it. Morales talks about how the exodus is about deliverance from God’s wrath through the blood of a lamb, the slaying of sinful chaos, reconciliation with God, and deliverance from an oppressive ruler. All of these themes are taken up in the Christian Gospel, which is about forgiveness through the blood of the Lamb (Christ), Christ’s ultimate defeat of sin and death, and Christ’s deliverance of people from this sinful world system. Morales documents that the Old Testament prophetic writings predict a second exodus, and he maintains that this finds its fulfillment in Christ.

Where I struggle with this book is that the Old Testament’s prophetic writings discuss the second exodus in terms of God’s actions on behalf of the nation of Israel. It includes Israel’s return to her land, the reestablishment of her political and religious institutions, and her physical prosperity as a nation. What does Morales do with these themes? The logical answer would be that he treats them as symbolic of spiritual realities, but, as far as I recall, he fails to engage them or to discuss his hermeneutic with respect to them.

The first two parts of the book were rather plodding, with an interesting detail here and there. One such detail is about how Reuben’s sleeping with his father’s concubine in Genesis 35 was an attempt on his part to gain authority over his brothers then and there. According to Morales, Reuben appreciated but misapplied his responsibility as the firstborn.

The third part of the book is riveting. Morales interprets pieces of John’s Gospel in reference to Old Testament themes, such as Eden. Maybe there is something to his interpretation, and maybe in some cases he is reaching, but the picture is fascinating. Morales also pulls together the themes of his book.

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

Sunday, October 18, 2020

True Unbelief, Romans 11, Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation, the Real Anita Hill

 Some items from church and books that I recently read.

A. Last Wednesday, I attended, via Zoom, my church’s group on Max Lucado’s Anxious for Nothing. Two ideas stood out to me:

—-One of the people there shared about her father. Her father, according to her characterization, has long been a selfish man who desires glory, recognition, and adulation for himself. He is sick, and she is unsure if he is a Christian. He says that he is, but his life gives little indication of love for God. Her mother was the one who took her family to church, whereas her father did not go. The pastor encouraged her with Isaiah 42:3, which affirms that the Suffering Servant shall not put out a smoldering wick. If there is any faith there, God is eager to fan that flame.

—-Someone in the group shared that the atheists and agnostics he knows hate God because life did not turn out as they wanted. The pastor responded with: “If there is no God, whom do you hate?” The pastor talked about the movie Signs, in which Mel Gibson plays an ex-priest who walked away from God due to the death of his wife. The pastor used to ask his confirmation class: “When did the priest get his faith back?” The students usually replied, “When he became a priest again,” or “When he acknowledged that his trials had a purpose.” But the pastor thought the priest regained his faith when he told God, “I hate you,” because, at least there, he was acknowledging that God exists. I have wondered what I believe in times when I hate God. When I hate God for, say, requiring me to love and forgive others and withholding his love and grace from me when I do not, do I really believe that God is like that? I fear that he might be, since a biblical case can be made for that. But there is another part of me, perhaps deeper down, that believes that God is merciful to me, anyway, and that God has never written me off.

B. Bible study this morning covered Romans 11. Ever since I gave a presentation on Romans 9-11 as a senior in college, which was twenty-one years ago, my interpretation of Romans 11 has gone like this. God is faithful to Israel in that God has preserved a remnant of Jews who accept Jesus as Messiah. But God has hardened most Jews’ heart, such that they do not believe, and the purpose is so that the Gospel will then go to the Gentiles, who do believe. Paul hopes that the conversion of the Gentiles will stir the unbelieving Jews to jealousy and influence them to believe, but, ultimately, he leaves their belief to God. God, at or soon before the second coming of Christ, will soften the unbelieving Jews’ heart such that they believe. All Israel will be saved, and that will be like a national resurrection from the dead.

The pastor, a Lutheran, offered a different interpretation, one that focuses on free will, the law/Gospel dichotomy, and God’s mercy to sinners. Romans 11 begins with Elijah’s disappointment with God. Elijah was focusing on his own good works, as if they made him valuable to God, neglecting that it is God’s mercy and love that makes Elijah valuable in God’s sight. Meanwhile, whatever Elijah’s success or lack thereof, God reserved for himself a remnant that rejected the worship of Baal. God is using most Jews’ rejection of the Gospel for good: to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles. But the Gentile Christians must take heed not to think that they are better than others due to any worth on their part. They are in the olive tree, Israel, through God’s mercy. Whereas conventional horticulture entails grafting quality fruit onto a tree, making the tree healthier, God has unconventionally grafted wild branches, the Gentiles, into the olive tree. The pastor disputed the premillennial view that there will be a mass conversion of the Jews in the last days; rather, according to the pastor, Paul invites the non-believing Jews now to believe. If they do so, they will be defined in terms of resurrection rather than unbelief and reliance on their works. Paul then seeks to resolve the conflict between Gentile Christians in Rome and Jewish Christians who returned after absence from Rome by focusing on God’s mercy: we all have been consigned to sin, so we all need a savior.

There are some tensions in what the pastor was saying. For one, the pastor said that God hardened the Jews by sealing the unbelief that they willfully chose. The pastor rejects double predestination, that God somehow caused the Jews’ unbelief. Rather, they chose to reject the Gospel, and God sealed that unbelief. Yet, the pastor also seemed to deny that the unbelieving Jews were totally sealed in their unbelief, for Paul still had hope that they could embrace the Gospel. Second, the pastor talked about Isaiah 40, which Paul quotes in Romans 11. Isaiah 40 closes by affirming that God lifts up the weak and the weary. The pastor referred to Luther’s statement that we cannot believe due to our own weakness and weariness, but God prefers to show mercy. That seemed to contradict the pastor’s emphasis on human free will in his interpretation of Romans 11: that people can simply choose to accept or reject God.

Another point that the pastor made was that Paul’s image of the olive tree is a midrash on Jeremiah 11:16-19. There, God plants an olive tree, Israel, but its branches are burned off due to God’s judgment of it.

C. Gavin Ortlund. Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation: Ancient Wisdom for Current Controversy. IVP Academic, 2020. See here to purchase the book.

Gavin Ortlund has a Ph.D. from Fuller and serves as pastor of First Baptist Church of Ojai in California. This book, as the title indicates, is about how Augustine can illuminate current religious controversies about human origins.

Ortlund convincingly demonstrates that Augustine was unlike today’s Young Earth Creationists (YECs): one who believes that God created the cosmos six thousand years ago, that animal suffering and death came as a result of the Fall, and that God created humans and animals by fiat rather than by using evolution. Augustine’s interpretation of Genesis 1-3 was not entirely literal. Augustine was humble when the science of his day appeared to contradict Genesis 1-3. Augustine was open to the idea that God could create through development rather than fiat: Adam, for example, may have been created as an infant who grew rather than being created as an adult. And, far from seeing animal suffering and death as a result of the Fall, Augustine regarded them as a part of God’s original creation and as part of a beautiful tapestry. These insights are at least consistent with what modern science says about origins and cosmic history. Ortlund also highlights how Augustine regards creation as ongoing, as opposed to believing that everything was perfect six thousand years ago until the Fall. Creation continues to long for God, a la Romans 8, and God will renew it and bring it to Godself.

At the same time, Ortlund’s Augustine is far from being a theistic evolutionist of the Biologos variety. Augustine’s struggle with Genesis 1 was not about trying to harmonize Genesis 1 with an ancient earth; rather, Augustine believed that God created everything simultaneously and sought to explain Genesis 1’s picture of God creating sequentially. In some areas, Augustine rejects the science of his day in favor of faith. Augustine also thought that Genesis 2-3 was historical, on some level, even though he also held that parts of it are figurative and allegorical of a spiritual reality. Near the end of the book, Ortlund goes into later (nineteenth-twentieth century) Christian attempts to harmonize a historical Adam and Eve with evolution.

The book could have been stronger in a couple of areas. First, it could have gone into more depth about how the science of Augustine’s day challenged a literal interpretation of Genesis 1. The book opens with a compelling passage about how Augustine, like many evangelicals today, had been convinced “that the Genesis account is inconsistent with the most sophisticated intellectual trends of the day.” Seeing the parallel is rather difficult, though. The challenges today appear immense. Science says that the earth is old, that humanity did not descend from one human couple thousands of years ago, and that animal death has been with us for millions of years, forming an integral part of earth’s ecology; a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3 seems to say something different, and, what is more, what that literal interpretation says appears to form a crucial part of Christian doctrine. Augustine, on the other hand, simply rejects the idea that the cosmos is eternal and Manichean dualism. Maybe I see those things as obviously wrong and as easier to reject than today’s scientific challenges, so I fail to appreciate the gravity of Augustine’s struggle. Still, the book could have been clearer about where Augustine’s struggle was.

Second, there is the question of whether Augustine is authoritative for Christians. A lot of Christians will simply say: “Why should I accept Augustine? I just go with the Bible!” Ortlund did well to refute the YECs who treat Augustine as an exemplar of their position, and who act as if a non-literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3 is solely a recent phenomenon. Ortlund also did well to highlight theological possibilities: that perhaps God did create the earth as imperfect and as growing, rather than as totally perfect at the outset. But Augustine’s authority was not sufficiently defended.

Still, the book effectively discusses how Christians might want to harmonize Genesis 1-3 with modern science.

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

D. David Brock. The Real Anita Hill: The Untold Story. The Free Press, 1993.

In this book, David Brock argues that Anita Hill was lying whereas Clarence Thomas was telling the truth. Brock, of course, later repudiated this book. But I was curious about this book’s case.

Often, I read that Brock characterized Hill as a bit nutty and a bit slutty. That may have been in his American Spectator article, which formed the basis for this book, but such a claim is absent from this book itself. Hill is actually said to be inexperienced in dating.

Another claim was that Brock relied on anonymous sources. Indeed, some of his sources are anonymous. But many are not. What is more, Brock alludes frequently to the official testimonies of Hill, Thomas, and other witnesses. Brock shows where Hill’s testimony is contradictory, both with what she said and also with what others testified. Brock also quotes female employees of Thomas, who testified that he was morally strict in his oversight of the EEOC. These employees were not seeking to ingratiate themselves with Thomas or to avoid professional backlash from him, for some of them had been fired by Thomas.

Another claim was that Brock ignored other female victims of Thomas and Thomas’s penchant for pornography. But Brock actually talks about another woman’s allegation against Thomas, saying that it could have been rooted in her animosity at Thomas having fired her. Brock also says that, when Hill came forward, it would be logical to anticipate copycats coming forward with stories copying what Hill said. Regarding pornography, Brock acknowledges that Thomas saw pornographic movies at Yale Law School, but so did a lot of students. And the things that Hill said Thomas talked with her about in the 1980’s were absent from pornographic movies at the time. Brock also says that, even if Thomas still viewed pornography, that does not mean that he harassed Anita Hill.

Yet another claim was that the book was a right-wing hit-job. Brock, at least in the book, seeks to avoid this charge. He presents himself as neutral before he began his investigation. He criticizes Republican scandals, like Iran-Contra, not only Democratic misdeeds. He portrays Thomas, not as a typical right-winger, but as an independent thinker with nuanced beliefs. Maybe his book is one-sided, since a more balanced book would probably interview Democratic Senators and more people who liked Hill. But it is still well-researched.

Who is the “Real Anita Hill,” according to Brock in this book? Hill was a successful student in both high school and also law school. But she professionally struggled after she graduated. She left a law firm and claimed her departure was about sexual harassment. She then went to work for Thomas at the Department of Education, and she enjoyed her professional relationship with him, as they debated and socialized. When Thomas moved to the EEOC, she followed him there, even though she had job security at the Department of Education. She became disenchanted with her EEOC job, however. She lacked the access to Thomas that she had at Education, which disappointed her professionally and perhaps even romantically. She was in over her head when it came to the work at EEOC. She was becoming disappointed with Thomas’s increasing move to the right, thinking that Thomas was betraying his roots. What is more, she may actually have been sexually harassed, albeit by another supervisor at EEOC, who had a reputation. She left EEOC and taught at Oral Roberts University, but she did not fit in there and moved to the University of Oklahoma, where she fit in better due to the faculty being more liberal. She was not a very good professor but was disorganized and blamed her problems on racism. She had an obsession with sexual harassment, racism, and even, on some level, pornography: she talked to people about “Long Dong Silver” and placed what appeared to be pubic hairs on students’ exams. Hill may have blamed Thomas for the sexual harassment by the other EEOC supervisor, since Thomas was the ultimate authority at EEOC, and, as a liberal, she also may have wanted to stop his appointment to the Supreme Court, but she sought to make her charges against Thomas anonymously. When the liberal “shadow Senate”—-the lobbies and Senators who opposed Thomas—-got her to go public, she built up her initially meager story to save face.

As it reads, and based on what I currently know, the book is judicious. Were I to read Strange Justice, which is anti-Thomas, that might alter my impression.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

The Sign of Cain, Romans 10, Dagger in the Heart

 Some items from church, followed by a book write-up:

A. The church service was about peace. The pastor opened his sermon with a story about how anger begets anger. A boss yells at his worker, the worker goes home and yells at his kid, and the kid goes out and kicks the poor dog. The pastor then talked about a blog post by Chad Bird. Bird in his post discusses the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. God rejects Cain’s sacrifice and, when Cain’s anger actually should be directed at God, Cain takes his anger out at his brother Abel, who had done him no wrong. The pastor then said that many define peace in terms of what is absent rather than what is present: peace as the absence of strife, or as five minutes of rest from the demands of one’s family. But the Christian idea of peace includes what is present: Christ and his love and forgiveness. Returning to Chad Bird’s post, the pastor mentioned the protective sign that God placed on Cain, who feared that people would try to kill him. The Hebrew word translated in Genesis 4:15 as “mark” is ot, which, elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, often refers to an affirmative sign. God placed a protective sign on Cain, which demonstrated God’s forgiveness of him.

B. The Bible study was about Romans 10. Some points that were made in that:

—-The pastor talked about a perspective of Christian positions: antinomianism, universalism, and legalism. One Lutheran theologian in the 1940’s, Boener Oehler (sp.?), maintained that the role of the law in convicting people of sin has been fulfilled in Christ, meaning the law no longer serves to convict Christians of sin. Christians are under no condemnation, period. Someone commented that he could somewhat understand how a Christian could arrive at antinomianism and universalism, as erroneous as these positions are; what he could not understand is how a Christian could arrive at legalism, since Paul in Romans 10 emphatically denies that people have to earn their salvation through their own righteousness. For Christians, he continued, there are no eternal consequences that relate to the law, but the law is still relevant to how Christians live here and now. The pastor said that the correct position is that Christians observe the law, not because they have to, but because they want to, in thanksgiving for what God has done for them. In Romans 10, Paul affirms that God’s word is in Christians’ heart and mind, so they want to do it; this is descriptive, not prescriptive. I have two responses. First, what if I do not want to do it? What if I do not want to forgive others, love others, serve others, not have a sex drive, etc.? Second, I am the opposite to that one student. I can understand how a Christian can arrive at legalism from the Bible, for the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, has a lot of “do this,” “don’t do that,” and “if you do such-and-such, you will be condemned.” I have difficulty seeing antinomianism and universalism in the Bible.

—-The pastor referred to another view: if God rejected Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, God would not require the death of God’s own son for atonement. The pastor, of course, rejects this view.

—-Now for Romans 10. Paul, quoting Deuteronomy 30:13-14, affirms that God’s word is right here. In Deuteronomy 30:13-14, that word is the Torah. In Romans 10, God’s word is the incarnate Torah, Christ, the end and goal of the Torah. The word of God changes the unbelieving heart to one that is believing. The pastor referred to people who heard Billy Graham: the word that Billy Graham preached changed their hearts as they heard God’s message of conviction and forgiveness; they went from unbelieving to believing, from hopelessness to hope. The Gentiles came to believe because they heard God’s word. The unbelieving Jews had the same opportunity, for they, too, heard the Gospel, but they desired to make salvation about themselves and their own righteousness rather than about Christ. Paul is responding to a Jewish argument that, if Paul is correct, then God is a liar, for God in the Hebrew Bible is faithful to Israel and upholds the law; Paul, in unbelieving Jews’ mind, disputes these things. Paul’s response is that God has always made righteousness by faith, not works. Here, the pastor effectively explained the Lutheran view that the word of God is powerful in transforming hearts. The content of that word itself transforms heart. But does it always do so? Of course, there are people who reject it. But could it be the case that the word even transforms their hearts, in a sense, such that, when they reject it, they turn their back on something that they know is true and good? I am just thinking out loud here.

C. Mario Lazo. Dagger in the Heart: American Policy Failures in Cuba. Funk & Wagnalls, 1968.

Mario Lazo was an attorney in Cuba. In his position, he personally interacted with key players in the drama that he tells, including Batista, Che Guevera, and American diplomats to Cuba.

The Foreword to the book provides a brief history of Cuba, contrasting the culture of South America with that of North America. The body of the book covers Cuba during the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations. This includes such events such as the Presidency of Batista, the Castro revolution, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the political oppression and economic incompetence under the Castro regime, and Castro’s role in fomenting revolution throughout Latin America.

As the title indicates, Lazo argues that Cuba fell to Communism due to American policy failures. Herbert Matthews of the New York Times wrote influential articles portraying Castro as a hero, one who was standing against dictatorship and poverty in favor of justice for the Cuban people. Liberals in the Eisenhower Administration influenced the U.S. Government to cut off military aid to Batista and to turn a blind eye to the Cubans in the U.S. who were sending supplies to Castro’s revolution. Cuba, as a result, fell to Communism. President John F. Kennedy resumed the Eisenhower Administration’s secret plan to overthrow Castro through anti-Castro Cubans, but Kennedy was not fully committed to the plan. He feared that other countries would conclude that the U.S. was interfering in Cuba, so he failed to implement the plan’s final stage: to provide air cover for the anti-Castro forces. The result was their slaughter. Meanwhile, the U.S. press publicized the location of anti-Castro training centers (i.e., in Guatemala), giving Castro a strategic advantage. Later, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy displayed tepidity. He initiated a blockade against the Soviets to prevent them from getting more missiles to Cuba, but that did not solve the problem of the missiles that were already there. Kennedy decided not to bomb Cuba and made an agreement with Khrushchev that effectively barred the U.S. from ever trying to overthrow Castro. The U.S. also withdrew its missiles from Turkey, allowing the Soviets to strengthen their foothold in the eastern hemisphere.

Lazo attempts to refute what he considers to be myths. He does not think that Batista was perfect, for Batista suspended the Cuban constitution whenever it suited him, and graft thrived under Batista. But it was not as if the choice were only between Batista and Castro, for there were other leaders, some quite progressive, waiting in the wings to lead Cuba. While Batista has been portrayed as a bloodthirsty tyrant, Lazo argues that Herbert Matthews dramatically overstated the casualties, which amounted to hundreds (on both sides) rather than tens of thousands. Lazo also thinks that Batista was more of a softy than a hard-liner, for Batista abolished the death penalty and freed Castro from prison. Liberals have presented pre-Castro Cuba as a lackey for American business interests, consigning most Cubans to poverty for the profit of American companies. According to Lazo, the truth is quite different. Cuba had one of the highest standards of living for South America, and the wealth was broadly distributed. Most companies in Cuba were Cuban owned and run. It was not the case that the vast majority of the land belonged to a few wealthy landowners, for small farms were the mainstay. As far as American companies were concerned, they employed mostly Cubans and respected Cuba’s labor laws. The casinos, of the sort portrayed in Godfather II, were largely frequented by Americans and were limited to the big cities, meaning they were not on the radar of many Cubans. The U.S. purchased sugarcane from Cuba at an above-market price, resulting in prosperity for Cubans. Overall, except for the liberals he criticizes, Lazo has a positive view of the United States. He says more than once that the U.S. years before assisted Cuba against Spanish oppression then refused to make Cuba a colony of the United States.

Against the charge that Castro was popularly supported, Lazo contends that many educated Cubans desired regime change because that would give them a greater chance of receiving a government job, which was one of the few options available to educated Cubans. Against the charge that Castro only turned against the U.S. after the U.S. rejected him, Lazo notes that Castro was cold towards the U.S. immediately after he came to power. Against the charge that the Bay of Pigs would have failed, anyway, Lazo argues that it had a decent chance of succeeding, had Kennedy followed through. Against the argument that Kennedy had to proceed delicately in the Cuban Missile Crisis, Lazo contends that the Soviets would not have bombed the U.S. had the U.S. knocked out the weapons in Cuba, for the U.S.S.R. lacked the capacity to attack the U.S.

On some issues, Lazo examines the strengths and weaknesses of both sides of controversial issues. There is the question of whether Castro was a Communist at the outset, and Lazo presents arguments for and against.

Lazo provides biographical profiles of the various figures involved (i.e., Castro), seeking to understand and to explain their motives. He somewhat falls short, however, in explaining why American liberals behaved as they did. He makes an attempt, but the picture that emerges is that the only thing on which they were consistent was in their commitment to leftism. Pacifism, democracy, etc. are all negotiable or dispensable to them, provided that leftism triumphs. What did they think was at stake, though? Did they want to end poverty in Cuba? But Lazo argues that pre-Castro Cuba had a high standard of living, and he observes that Communism was usually stronger in well-off countries than in poor countries, for the Communists desired lots of wealth. Perhaps the liberals were fooled by Matthews’s propaganda: Lazo says this was the case with Eleanor Roosevelt.

On some issues, Lazo was slightly inconsistent. Lazo criticizes the liberal tendency to demand that Batista become more of a democrat, claiming that Cubans gravitated towards strong leaders and lacked a robust democratic tradition. Yet, he also talks about the progressive nature of Cuba’s constitution and discusses Batista’s openness to internationally-supervised elections, even at his own expense. Lazo contends that Castro had few followers, yet he acknowledged that he gained more and more followers over the course of time. Lazo argues that wealth was broadly distributed in Cuba, and he presents compelling statistics to that effect, yet he notes that Castro made ineffectual “reforms” that were designed to give Cubans more wealth and power. Would Castro try to ameliorate a problem that did not exist?

Some notable details in Lazo’s book: Dean Acheson’s journey from being a Communist appeaser to becoming an anti-Communist hawk; Russia’s apprehension about arming Eastern Europe, since the Eastern European countries might use the weapons against Russia; how intermarriage in South America led to better race relations than exist in the United States; how guerilla warfare (both pro- and anti-Castro) burns things that the country needs (sugarcane fields); and the horrid conditions in Castro’s prisons.

I got this book when I was a teen and am glad to have finally read it.

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