Monday, March 30, 2020

Book Write-Up: Authentic Human Sexuality, 3rd Edition

Judith K. Balswick and Jack O. Balswick. Authentic Human Sexuality: An Integrated Christian Approach, Third Edition. IVP Academic, 2019. See here to purchase the book.

Judith K. Balswick and Jack O. Balswick teach at Fuller Theological Seminary.

As the title indicates, this book is about sex. The book is broadly conservative, with some salient exceptions.

On where it is conservative, it opposes sex outside of marriage and pornography. Sex is to be an expression of love and intimacy between two people, committed to each other for life. Shacking up fails to provide a stable environment for children.

On where the book is “liberal” or backs away from a strict conservative approach, it is open to same-sex couples having lifetime monogamous partnerships. It cites studies that suggest that homophobic, traditionalist, non-egalitarian views coincide with tolerance of rape. It does not oppose masturbation, so long as people think about their spouses or imagine sex within a lifelong committed relationship. It is fine with erotica, which portrays sex within the context of a relationship, provided people use discernment.

Then there are positions it takes on which both liberals and conservatives can agree: that rape and sexual assault are wrong.

The book relies a lot on studies. The Balswicks not only demonstrate that the studies support their positions, but they also illustrate why the studies support them: how exactly, for example, shacking up can have deleterious effects on children. Couples are more invested in their children when their commitment to each other is lifelong rather than fanciful.

In terms of its reliance on Scripture, some chapters are better than others. After the chapter that tries to show that sexual assault is biblically wrong, the Balswicks seldom if ever refer to Scripture.
The book perhaps would be stronger had it engaged sex as it appears in the Bible, and how that overlaps with and diverges from contemporary views on sexuality, including conservative ones. In biblical times, marriage was an economic arrangement between families, and women had to marry their rapists. The Balswicks’ fields are therapy and (in Jack’s case) sociology, so they are not biblical scholars, but an honest wrestling with Scripture would have enhanced the book.

The book is refreshing, compared to what I expected. I was expecting the usual ultra-conservative book on sex, which acts as if people should have no sexual thoughts or feelings before they are married (which, in this day and age, may take some people a very long time), or that responds to same-sex attraction with “Tough cookies, you know what the Bible says!” Unfortunately, the book goes the opposite extreme and embraces liberal positions, without rigorously engaging biblical passages that appear to contradict those positions.

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

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Book Write-Up: Judge Jeanine Pirro’s Books on Trump

Judge Jeanine Pirro. Liars, Leakers, and Liberals: The Case Against the Anti-Trump Conspiracy. Center Street, 2018.

Judge Jeanine Pirro. Radicals, Resistance, and Revenge: The Left’s Plot to Remake America. Center Street, 2019.

Judge Jeanine Pirro has been a prosecutor, a judge, and an Emmy-winning host of a televised court show. She is currently a Fox News personality. Here are some thoughts and observations about her books:

A. Pirro praises Donald Trump’s accomplishments as President. Unemployment has been at an all-time low over the past three years, notwithstanding the Federal Reserve raising interest rates; by contrast, economic growth during the Obama years was sluggish, even as the Fed kept interest rates low. Pirro attributes the economic growth under Trump to Trump’s deregulation and lowering of the corporate tax rate. Further on the domestic front, Trump has acted on issues about which liberals only talk, such as criminal justice reform. While Pirro admits that she sides more with victims than criminals, she states that criminal justice reform reduces recidivism and thus is a positive development. On the international scale, Trump has gotten results. After Trump threatened to impose a tariff on Mexican products, Mexico started taking care of illegal immigrants rather than sending them in masse to the United States. Trump has helped bring North and South Korea to the negotiating table, even as North Korea abandons its nuclear program. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has presided over historic cooperative meetings among Israel and Arab nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, as they seek common ground. Trump’s tough stance towards China has gotten positive results. Some of Pirro’s analysis, particularly on North Korea, is rather dated, as Kim Jong Un continues to taunt President Trump and perform tests. As of my writing this, however (December 2019), unemployment remains low; on the other hand, the tariffs have resulted in high prices.

B. Pirro argues that Trump is a threat to the “deep state,” which seeks to undermine him. She is rather nebulous about what the deep state’s precise motivation is. What policies does the deep state support that Trump opposes or threatens? They have said or implied that they support global stability, which Trump threatens through his irresponsible rhetoric and lack of knowledge, but are there areas in which their policies benefit the establishment, whereas Trump’s ideas walk away from that? In terms of motivations, Pirro highlights a variety of factors. America’s intelligence agencies contain a lot of Clinton appointees, so they lean towards the liberal establishment. Yet, Pirro portrays James Comey as self-centered and opportunistic rather than ideological, similar to J. Edgar Hoover, who threw around his power to intimidate both Democratic and Republican Presidents. When Comey criticized Hillary’s e-mails right before the 2016 election day, Pirro contends, he was showing Hillary that he was a force with which to reckon, even as he declined to accuse her of anything illegal. While Pirro’s books are incomplete in detailing the motivations of the deep state, she is clearer in highlighting the motivations of other opponents of Trump: a desire to profit from cheap labor, being upset at Hillary losing the election, etc.

C. Where does Pirro stand on the non-interventionist foreign policy with which Trump has been associated? On the one hand, she comes across as somewhat hawkish and bellicose. Whereas some like Trump for being pro-Russian, Pirro denies that Trump is that, for Trump has imposed tough sanctions on Russia and has assisted the Ukraine. She praises Trump for bombing Assad’s Syria. She speaks rather favorably about George W. Bush’s War on Terror. On the other hand, Pirro seems to favor a non-interventionist foreign policy. While she supports Trump’s strategic bombing of Syria, she agrees with Trump that regime change is not the way to go, for who knows what will replace Assad? We saw how Obama’s overthrow of Qadaffi in Libya turned out, as Islamic extremists supplanted the Libyan dictator. Pirro praises Trump for speaking against the Iraq War in a Republican debate, amidst an audience of Bush loyalists who roundly booed him. She agrees with Trump that NATO countries should shoulder more of the financial burden.

D. Pirro provides an effective discussion of so-called socialism in the Scandinavian countries. Contra Bernie Sanders, Pirro argues that Scandinavia is not exactly socialistic. It has a policy of low corporate tax rates and few government regulations, which stimulates the economy and allows it to pay for its generous social programs; meanwhile, it seeks to make its social programs less generous. When Scandinavia tried the Bernie approach, which is to soak only the rich to pay for its social programs, the result was economic disaster, which was why it embraced low corporate taxes and fewer government regulations. At the same time, Pirro notes, taxes are high in Scandinavia, particularly for the middle class. The VAT is a tax on sales that people throughout Europe have to pay. One question Pirro does not address in this discussion is how Scandinavia’s economy does so well, with such high tax rates. Even if businesses produce a lot as a result of low corporate taxes and few government regulations, would not the high individual tax rates and the VAT discourage consumers from buying those products?

E. Pirro talks a lot about the private Trump and the private Hillary. The private Trump, she believes she knows, for she and he have been long-time friends. She has observed his interaction with his children as a father, and she knows about his work ethic, his common touch, and his generosity towards those in need. Hillary, she does not seem to know personally, but she bases her portrayal of Hillary on things she has experienced and learned. She almost ran against Hillary for U.S. Senate, and Hillary spread untrue rumors against her. She knows people who live in Hillary’s town, and, while people in town see Bill a lot, they almost never see Hillary; Pirro interprets this as Hillary’s contempt towards the non-elites. Pirro also refers to a speech in which Hillary says that the more creative parts of the country voted for her in 2016 rather than Trump, which Pirro sees as Hillary’s dismissal of “flyover country.” Speaking for myself, I do not judge Hillary for being aloof, since I can be introverted and aloof myself. But that does make me less likely to vote for her, since she seems to be a bit of a snob.

F. The topic of sexism occurs in Pirro’s first book. Pirro talks about her own experience with sexism when she helped implement a policy against domestic violence. She quotes Kellyanne Conway, who sees sexism within the Republican Party as a problem. Pirro notes favorably that Trump employed women in prominent positions, back when that was rare. At the same time, Pirro is not a fan of the women’s march, which she sees as merely anti-Trump rather than constructive. She also points out the hypocrisy of the establishment media, which lauded Ivanka Trump as a businesswoman, then changed its tune once her father ran for President.

G. In a number of cases, Pirro is detailed and informative in her discussions. She brings her legal expertise into her analysis, as when she defends Attorney General Barr against the charge that he perjured himself. In criticizing the Steele dossier, which became the basis for Obama’s spying on Trump’s campaign, she notes that the mainstream media saw through it and rejected it as unreliable. While she acknowledges that some of Trump’s appointees have ethical problems, she contends that they are minor, compared with what most politicians do, and she contends that Robert Mueller has tried to lessen their sentences if they will hand over alleged dirt on Trump. Pirro is also helpful in explaining the purpose of ICE and how it differs from the INS: ICE, in contrast with the INS, focuses on finding the illegal immigrants who are in the country. Where Pirro may be a bit sketchy is that she assumes as factual the idea that Hillary Clinton gave uranium to Russia, in exchange for contributions to the Clinton foundation and expensive speaking fees for Bill. This claim has been widely disputed.

While the book is detailed, it is an easy read—-perhaps because of its conversational tone, clarity, and passion.

Church Write-Up: Worldliness

This morning, I watched my church’s Wednesday and Sunday services.

Some items:

A. The Wednesday service focused on worldliness. “Worldliness” was defined as attachment to the things of the world.

The youth pastor showed the types of outfits that he used to wear to look “cool” to his peers. As a teen, he wore his hoodie backwards because a band was doing that at the time. But he learned that God already thinks he’s cool, so he does not need to look cool to others.

The pastor talked about the story of the rich young ruler. The rich young ruler thought that he oriented his life around God. At least he observed the commandments as he thought they should be done! But his possessions, with the status and reputation that they brought him, were hard for him to let go, so he rejected Jesus’s admonition that he sell all and follow him. Jesus was saddened by this, for the man was so close to entering the Kingdom of God. We, too, are possessed by things other than God, but God offers us hope. With human beings, salvation is impossible, but all things are possible for God. Jesus made salvation possible by purchasing us as his own.

B. The Sunday service focused on building on a strong foundation, the foundation of Jesus and his words. Trusting in other things, such as our wealth, may fail us, as is occurring amidst the current pandemic. When we trust in Jesus, however, we realize that this world is merely temporary and that God is taking care of us, now and in eternity. People who hoard toilet paper show that they prioritize personal comfort over love of God and neighbor. I can sympathize with them, though. God having a good afterlife in store for me does not help me right now if I am totally out of toilet paper!

Monday, March 23, 2020

Book Write-Up: Paul and the Giants of Philosophy

Joseph R. Dodson and David E. Briones, ed. Paul and the Giants of Philosophy: Reading the Gospel in Greco-Roman Context. IVP Academic, 2019. See here to purchase the book.

This book compares and contrasts the apostle Paul’s ideas with those of Stoic, Epicurean, and Peripatetic (i.e., Aristotle) philosophers. Ancient Greco-Roman philosophy was not merely an abstract intellectual exercise but addressed how people can concretely live a happy, ethical life. The book addresses topics of this nature, including suffering, therapy, friendship, communitarianism, faith, altruism and egoism, and dealing with death. But the book also covers historical, antiquarian territory: slavery, letter writing, heavenly visions, Jewish and Pauline application of pagan poetry, and the challenge of comparing Paul with pagan philosophers.

Some thoughts and observations:

A. Dorothea H. Bertschmann and Brian J. Tabb both offer contributions about the topic of suffering. Betschmann contrasts Paul with Stoicism, arguing that Stoicism stressed the character-building utility of suffering, whereas Paul regarded it as an alien intrusion into God’s good creation. Tabb, however, contends that Paul acknowledges that suffering builds character in Christians. Bertschmann, in my opinion, does well to point out that suffering does not always produce positive moral character, for it can influence people to become bitter and self-absorbed. Tabb appears to be closer, though, to what Paul thought: that suffering can produce hope and perseverance. An added note: Bertschmann’s chapter ends with a chart comparing Paul with Epictetus. Some of the chapters in this book had such a chart, whereas others did not. The charts were helpful in summarizing and condensing the information. Ironically, Bertschann’s chart seems to go in the opposite direction from what she argues in the chapter, for the chart appears to suggest that Paul acknowledged that suffering can create good character.

B. David E. Briones has a chapter entitled “Strings Attached: Paul and Seneca on the Modern Myth of the Pure Gift.” Briones argues that altruism—-the moral value of giving a gift without any hope or expectation of reciprocity—-is a modern rather than an ancient idea. Greco-Roman society stressed gratitude for favors given, and Paul agrees with that sentiment. When I saw the title, I braced myself, for I expected it to promote salvation by works and law rather than by God’s free grace. The law and works would be incorporated into salvation, of course, under the guise of “gratitude.” The chapter has some of that, but, overall, its focus is on interpersonal relationships: how egoism and reciprocity are part of Paul’s ethics, meaning Paul is not entirely pro-altruism. That makes sense to me, for I have never understood Christians who claim that we are to think of others instead of ourselves. I doubt that they follow that principle, or that it even can be thoroughly and consistently followed, for people are naturally supposed to take care of themselves. Briones’s argument that altruism is a modern rather than an ancient idea, however, seems to be a stretch. Briones cites passages in which Seneca appears to see value in giving without hope of return, and Jesus instructed his disciples to do so in the Sermons on the Mount and Plain.

C. Ben C. Dunson has a chapter entitled “All for One and One for All: Individual and Community in Paul and Epictetus.” Dunson says that, according to Paul, there is no such person as a “lone-ranger Christian.” That is impossible, as far as Paul is concerned. Christians, as a community, are to offer themselves as a living sacrifice to God. I cannot refute Dunson’s interpretation of Paul at the moment: maybe it is correct. Still, I fail to understand why it is impossible to be a lone-ranger Christian. Maybe undesirable, but impossible? Not everyone in this day and age can fit into a Christian community. Are we to say that they are non-Christians on account of that? Can they not have a personal connection to and relationship with God, even if they are alienated from Christian community? “But being in a community helps you to love,” someone may say. Fair point, but that should not relate to whether one qualifies as a Christian; salvation is by grace, not law.

D. The tendency of many modern apologists is to argue that Christianity was light-years ahead of ancient paganism, in terms of morality and the type of God that it portrayed. Atheist scholar and historian Richard Carrier, in my opinion, presents effective counterarguments to that in his book, Not the Impossible Faith. Paul and the Giants of Philosophy is not as bad as modern apologetics, for it acknowledges that pagan philosophy believed in kindness and humility, and that some pagan philosophers even held that God was kind. James P. Ware argues that Paul thought that God conquered death, whereas pagan philosophy tended to believe that the gods could not defeat death. Ware raises important considerations. As far as I can recall from Carrier’s book (and my memory may be incomplete), pagans had stories about dead people coming back to life (bodily resuscitation), but not the bodily resuscitated coming back to life as immortal beings.

E. The more historical chapters are informative. Timothy A. Brookins has a chapter on slavery, and he has a passage about how difficult being a slave was in antiquity (i.e., having to stand all day, being whipped for sneezing). E. Randolph Richards compares the letters of Paul and Seneca with letter-writing in antiquity. The letters of Paul and Seneca were longer than typical letters, and part of that is because their aim was to educate, not merely to talk about the details of everyday life.

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

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Church Write-Up: Church at Home (Week 1)

Here are some items from the church services on Wednesday and Sunday. I watched them online.

A. Sunday’s church service was very well done. I felt almost as if I were there. The pastor led the liturgy and did the sermon in his usual robes. We followed along and did the responsive readings with a PDF of the church bulletin. The worship leader sang, with the words posted beside her on the screen so we could sing along. The youth pastor did an even more creative children’s message from his home. The prayers were for people I knew. I must confess, though: I was in my pajamas. I remember listening to a sermon when I was a child, and the pastor said that, if we are going to do church at home, listening to a cassette, then we should at least dress up. The youth pastor Sunday morning, by contrast, acknowledged that his audience may still be in their pajamas.

B. On Wednesday, the pastor said that we want to know. When the Governor talks about social distancing and self-isolation, we want to know for how long. The pastor told a story about when his son was a child and needed assurance as he was going to a Boy Scout camp. They passed a Methodist church, and the son assumed that his son knew the Methodist pastor because his father knew everything. I still feel that way about my Mom. I disagree with her about some issues, but I feel that, when it comes to such issues as health, she will offer me informed, practical, and reliable advice. At times, though—-probably more times than I would care to admit—-I want her news to be good. I want, not just information, but reassurance that things will be all right.

C. The pastor said that God is providing for people through their governing authorities. The youth pastor reassured the children (maybe also the adults) that God is bigger than the Corona-virus. I can see the point that God provides for people through other people: the government, doctors, people researching and seeking a cure. Maybe we can even help the process along through our prayers. But part of me struggles with the issue of God’s provision. It is one thing to feel provided for if one is a kid in his or her pajamas, enjoying time at home and relying on one’s parents for an income. But what about people who have been laid off, who feel that they cannot miss a day of work, who own a restaurant that will be closed for an unknown period of time? Plus, under the U.S. health care system, not everyone can even get tested for the virus. There are other questions: is the government’s current policy the best policy? And, conspiracy theorist will ask, is the government even benevolent through all this? I suppose we can transform our concerns into prayer, maybe even practical deeds of mercy, but one can still wonder where God is in times of uncertainty. Does God still provide in such uncertain situations, but only for those who love him or seek God’s help? I was reading and reflecting on I Kings this week. God provided for Elijah and the woman of Tyre during the famine, but there were probably many Israelites who starved and whose children died.

D. The church is continuing its way through the Red Letter Challenge, which focuses on the sayings of Jesus. The theme today was service. The pastor talked about how Jesus in John 4 persistently broke through the woman at the well’s barriers in order to make a personal connection. There was the barrier that discouraged Jewish rabbis from talking with women, as well as the issues that the woman kept raising as distractions: the question of where should one worship, for example. Jesus also went the distance on the cross. His food was to do the will of God, and the will of God was our salvation.

E. The pastor talked about a book by David Brooks that he was reading. He called Brooks a sociologist who was a Christian. I was a little surprised there. I thought Brooks was a pundit, not a sociologist, and a Jew rather than a Christian. I can find no formal academic credentials in sociology that he possesses, so the pastor may have been using the term “sociologist” loosely: Brooks is a commentator on society. As far as Brooks’s religion in concerned, that has been a topic of discussion. See here. Brooks’s second wife went to Wheaton, and people have wondered about Brooks’s current stance towards Christianity. That said, the pastor was talking about Brooks’s treatment of Genesis 1-2. Adam in Genesis 1 is assigned a task: to be a steward of creation. In Genesis 2, however, a personal dimension to Adam is acknowledged: it is not good for man to be alone. Brooks was talking about how being consumed in one’s vocation can be detrimental to other aspects of one’s humanity: one’s spirituality and need for relationships. I was unclear about how this fit into the pastor’s sermon, which was about Jesus’s vocation. Perhaps the point was that Jesus combined the vocational with the personal and relational.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Book Write-Up: A Beginner’s Guide to New Testament Studies, by Nijay K. Gupta

Nijay K. Gupta. A Beginner’s Guide to New Testament Studies: Understanding Key Debates. Baker Academic, 2020. See here to purchase the book.

Nijay K. Gupta teaches New Testament at Portland Seminary. This book presents and assesses the spectrum of scholarly positions on key debates within New Testament studies. The topics include the synoptic problem, the historical Jesus, the historicity of the Gospel of John, a comparison between Jesus and Paul, Paul’s theological perspective, Paul’s view on the Jewish law, the Book of Revelation, pseudonymity, the stance of the New Testament towards Roman imperialism, women in leadership in the New Testament, justification by faith and judgment according to works, the interpretation of the Old Testament in the New, and the religious application and use of Scripture. Each chapter concludes with a bibliography of books that are significant in the debate.

Obviously, not every perspective is covered in this book. Christ-mythicism was absent in the chapter about the historical Jesus. But the book does cover a variety of perspectives, concisely highlighting their arguments. For some chapters, I already went into them with an overall knowledge about the debates. If the chapters did anything for me, they provided me with fuller context or names of scholars I can read to gain a further understanding of certain perspectives. In some chapters, I actually learned something new. N.T. Wright’s discussion of why he omitted consideration of the Gospel of John when he wrote Jesus and the Victory of God was noteworthy: the Gospel of John’s historicity was less believed in scholarship at that time than it is now. Also standing out to me are complementarian arguments that Junia was not an apostle (Romans 16:7), and the argument that Colossians was not written decades after Paul because Colossae was in ruins at that time, due to an earthquake. Gupta also has a fairly interesting interpretation of judgment according to works.

Some of the perspectives are irreconcilable with one another. On some, though, I agree with Gupta when he asks why it has to be either/or rather than both/and. Some say Paul believed in individual salvation, whereas others say he stressed community and the inclusion of the Gentiles. Why not both?

Gupta’s discussion of social memory stood out to me because I remember the buzz social memory created in the biblioblogosphere. Some seemed to talk as if the conventional criteria of historicity were a dead end and have been replaced by social memory. I wondered what exactly social memory contributed to the discussion. Reading Gupta, I am still not clear as to what the significance of social memory is to debates about historicity, but I appreciate that it is an intriguing dimension to pursue, perhaps as a supplement to other scholarly approaches.

I agree with what Joseph R. Dobson says on the back cover of the book: “With each chapter I read, I honestly thought, This chapter alone is worth the price of the book. The content is clear and evenhanded and is as comprehensive as possible while remaining appropriately concise. In addition to that, it’s remarkably relevant, engaging, and fun.”

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

Monday, March 16, 2020

Book Write-Up: The God Who Trusts, by Wm. Curtis Holtzen

Wm. Curtis Holtzen. The God Who Trusts: A Relational Theology of Divine Faith, Hope, and Love. IVP Academic, 2019. See here to purchase the book.

Wm. Curtis Holtzen teaches philosophy and theology at Hope International University.
To quote the back cover of the book (and, yes, I read the whole book): “The Bible resounds with affirmations of the faithfulness and trustworthiness of God. But might God also exhibit faith and trust?”

Holtzen argues in the affirmative, making a biblical and a theological case. Throughout the Bible, God entrusts things to human beings, particularly things pertaining to stewardship, dominion, and mission. But Holtzen also seems to define faith as hope: God hopes that his loving overtures towards human beings will persuade them to love him back and to behave righteously, even though he is not sure that they will. The plethora of “perhaps” passages in Scripture, in which God states that “perhaps” something would happen, confirms Holtzen in this thesis. Holtzen also appeals to I Corinthians 13, in which love is said to believe and to hope all things. Since God is the embodiment of love, would that not mean that God believes and hopes? And Holtzen looks not only at the hope and faith of God transcendent, but also that of God incarnate: Jesus Christ, who, on earth, trusted his Father even amidst trials.

Although Holtzen is more of a philosopher and a theologian than a biblical exegete, and that is evident in the emphases of this book, it is his biblical case that undergirds his theological case. Holtzen essentially argues for open theism: that God does not know the future. This contrasts with the view that God absolutely and with certainty foreordains or foresees what people will do. After God in Genesis 22 tests Abraham and proclaims that “now I know” that Abraham fears God because he was willing to sacrifice his beloved son, Holtzen takes that literally: God, prior to Abraham passing the test, did not know that Abraham would prove faithful. For Holtzen, the hope that God expresses throughout Scripture makes sense when it is interpreted as real and as literal, rather than as accommodationist language about a static God who absolutely foreordains or knows everything that will happen. God’s love is a charade and a ruse if humans lack authentic free will, and if God has absolute knowledge about everything they will do.

The “charade” argument is a significant part of Holtzen’s presentation, but Holtzen occasionally engages arguments to the contrary. One argument to the contrary is that humans are depraved, so God has no illusions that they will do the right thing; that is why God has to take the initiative and regenerate them. Holtzen appears to acknowledge the importance of humans being born again, but he downplays human depravity. If humans were that depraved, he argues, then how would society hold together? His view may be that humans, even apart from regeneration, are able to respond to God’s loving overtures, on some level, but regeneration is needed to carry them further.

The gaping hole in this book is that, overall, Holtzen fails to engage adequately the biblical passages that run contrary to his position: passages about human depravity, divine foreknowledge, divine providence, and God causing people to do things. Indeed, Oltzen’s view that such concepts make God’s loving overtures and expressed hope a mere ruse is understandable. Still, Christians who embrace such concepts do so, not simply on the basis of the influence of Greek philosophy, but also because they believe they are taught in Scripture.

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

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Church Write-Up: Forgiveness (Red Letter Challenge)

I am writing my post about church a little earlier today than usual. The reason is that I will be going to work this afternoon, so I will not be writing the post after my traditional, epic Sunday nap.

The topic today was forgiveness. We are going through the Red Letter Challenge, and that is the topic for today.

Here are some points that were made, followed by my personal reactions.

A. The pastor said that people like to blame others and to rationalize their own sins. They may say that they have a bad habit and have had it for years, so they cannot do anything about it.

B. Jesus in John 7:53-8:11 told the woman caught in adultery, after he refused to condemn her, to go and sin no more. Was it possible for her to obey that command? Of course she sinned after that, as do all of us! The pastor said that Jesus meant that she should not allow herself to become enslaved to sin: that she should not serve sin as her master.

C. Zack Zehnder said in the Sunday school video that ninety percent of people questioned in a poll said that it was harder for them to forgive themselves than to forgive others. Someone in class remarked that, with others, we can simply forget about the sin and move on. We can still be friendly to the person. With ourselves, though, we live with our guilt and our feeling that we do not deserve to be forgiven.

D. Part of the Lord’s Prayer is “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Does that mean that God forgives us in the exact manner that we forgive others? The teacher said, “I hope not, for my own sake!” Someone in class differentiated between how God forgives and how people forgive. God can forget the sins, whereas people remember them.

E. Someone in class read from her study Bible that one who refuses to forgive others turns away from God’s forgiveness. What I heard her to be saying was that, when I say that someone else does not deserve forgiveness from God, I am indicting myself, since I, too, do not deserve forgiveness. Better to say that both of us are forgiven! What her note seemed to be suggesting, though, is that people who refuse to forgive are resisting God’s empowering of them to forgive others.

F. Jesus in Luke 19:1-10 greeted and offered to fellowship with the hated tax collector Zacchaeus. Then Zacchaeus repented by offering to repay those whom he defrauded and to give to the poor. People said that forgiveness is what led to repentance, not vice versa. Maybe, but it is noteworthy that Jesus pronounced salvation to come to Zacchaeus’s house after Zacchaeus repented. Another point that was made in class was that God’s presence in Zacchaeus’s life would influence him to make changes.

G. The pastor’s wife works with the hearing-impaired, and she shared the sign for forgiveness. It is essentially sweeping one’s hands: getting rid of the transgression, such that it is no longer there.

H. Zack Zehnder defines forgiveness as “to let go of something and give it to God because you believe He will enact justice better than you could.” Sounds rather punitive.

I. People in class talked about whether they could forgive a murderer. Someone then said that it would not be his place, since he was not a victim of the murderer.

J. The class talked about Simon Wiesenthal, a Nazi hunter who forgave a Nazi who sought forgiveness on his deathbed. Twenty-eight authors said forgiveness, in that case, was impossible. Sixteen said it was. Nine replied that they were unsure. A pastor in class said that the Nazi needed to hear those words of grace and forgiveness. The proper option would be to take the issue to the cross, but Wiesenthal likely did not have that resource, as a non-Christian.

Now for some of my personal reflections:

A. I stumble over the whole issue of forgiveness. During the “confession” part of the service, I do not know what to confess. I realize that I am flawed, but I feel that I cannot help that, and I do not intend to put myself on a perfectionist treadmill on any given week. And, yes, I do have resentment towards others. I can tell myself that I am wrong on that and why I am wrong on that, but the resentment will still be there. What I especially resent is the whole Christian implication that we should all be buddy-buddy. I am not strong enough for that.

B. I think that Jesus’s statement that God will not forgive us if we do not forgive others is a cruel passage of Scripture (or passages, since the statement appears more than once). My resentments are petty, but there are plenty of people who have been wronged much worse. To expect them to just move on from that, and to condition God’s forgiveness of them on that, is just cruel. God has a greater ability to forgive than people do, so it is not as if God and people are in the same boat and should be treated as such: in short, I think God should forgive us, even if we fail to forgive others. “But Christians have God living inside of them, and that gives them the power to forgive.” But I don’t feel anything like that. And I notice that other Christians get hurt feelings, too, and may not move on from them. “But they are not real Christians,” I can hear Christians say. Congratulations—-now I hate you, too!

C. Some define forgiveness as not seeking revenge. An atheist relative of mine responded, “But how can you get revenge?” Seriously, it is not as if I will kill anyone who makes me mad. That is against the law. Does that mean I am forgiving them? If that is the case, then lots of people, Christian and non-Christians, are forgiving people, and the bar for forgiveness is rather low. I remember Tim Keller defining forgiveness as, in part, not savaging people’s reputations behind their backs. That is probably part of it. I still wonder if that falls short of what forgiveness is, in some manner.

D. I am thankful for the times when people have forgiven me. I have said hurtful things, and I am glad that they, at least outwardly, moved on from that and treat me with respect and kindness. Here, though, I am sincerely sorry: it is not guilt that the church tries to manufacture in me through some cliches (“You have offended God far more than others have offended you.”) But I think: what would I do without such forgiveness? In some cases, I really do not give a rat’s ass if someone forgives me. If I tell off some snot and apologize for it, and he does not forgive me, oh well! In some cases, I do care, and I would feel lost if that person would not forgive me. But what if the person chose not to do so?

On that confusing note, my post ends.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Book Write-Up: A Multitude of Peoples, by Vince L. Bantu

Vince L. Bantu. A Multitude of Peoples: Engaging Christianity’s Global Identity. IVP Academic, 2020. See here to purchase the book.

Vince L. Bantu teaches church history and Black church studies at Fuller. This book is about the history of Christianity in Africa, the Middle East, and along the Silk Road.

Christology is a prominent topic in this book. As Bantu demonstrates, trinitarianism, the relationship between Christ’s divine and human natures, and the question of how many wills Christ had was frequently discussed in African and Middle Eastern Christianity in antiquity. In Africa, there was resistance to Chalcedon, as some Christians adhered to miaphysitism. In the Middle East, there were creedal statements that resembled the Nicene Creed yet contained regionally distinct elements. One goal of Bantu’s book is to demonstrate that Christianity is not just a Western phenomenon but has historical roots in the non-Western world, as well. Of course, a challenge that can be made is that Western Christianity (i.e., Greek philosophy) permeated the non-Western world in antiquity. Still, Bantu does well to focus on the distinctive characteristics of non-Western Christianity.

The book also tells stories about monastics and the relationship of Christians to political authorities and nations. Much of this discussion is rather dry, with facts, dates, and events. There are some stories that add humanity to Bantu’s telling. At times, there is an interesting historical detail or argument. Bantu refers to a scholar who argues that only a minority of Egyptian Jews assisted the Arabs and Persians in their conquests, contradicting the anti-Jewish view that Jews were self-serving traitors. Bantu also discusses the legends that the apostle Thomas visited India, and where such legends are historically accurate.

This book was not exactly a compelling read for me, but people may find it useful. It gets deeply into Christology, on a nuanced level. And it lays out the personalities and events associated with non-Western Christianity.

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

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Church Write-Up: Moses’s Horns; Interpersonal Reconciliation at the Cross

Here are some thoughts about today’s Lenten service.

A. The pastor told the story about Moses’s horns. Michaelangelo’s sculpture of Moses depicts Moses with horns. This was due to the widespread influence of Jerome’s Bible in medieval and Renaissance Europe. Exodus 34:29 states that Moses came down from the mountain after being with God and his face was shining, so he had to wear a veil. The word translated as “shining” can also mean “horns,” and Jerome mistranslated it as horns.

I have often heard this story, but I wondered how true it was. Was Jerome really that obtuse? Also, were there other places in Scripture in which the word obviously meant shining, and Jerome recognized that?

This article here saved me some work by answering my questions. First of all, Jerome was fully aware of the view that Moses’s face in Exodus 34:29 was shining. The Septuagint interprets it that way. Second, Jerome in other commentaries assumes that qrn can mean shining, not in Exodus 34:29 but in other passages in Scripture. So it was not as if Jerome were unaware of that interpretive option; he just had a different interpretation of Exodus 34:29.

There were Jewish interpreters who claimed that Moses had horns, and Jerome, who valued Hebrew interpretation as if it were closer to the original meaning, went with that. According to the article, there is a possibility that this was the original meaning of the text, since some gods in the ancient Near East had horns, horns were a sign of strength and power, and Moses’s horns could have been a response to the horns of the Golden Calf.

B. The pastor talked about the difficulty of apologizing to people face-to-face. He said that e-mail was a lifesaver for a lot of people, especially introverts. I identify.

C. The pastor said that Jesus on the cross reconciled people, not only with God, but with one another. This is because we can view other people as dear to Jesus because Jesus died for them. Ephesians 2:14-16 talks about Christ breaking down the wall between Jew and Gentile: both are reconciled with God and now are in community with one another. In John 19:26-35, Jesus on the cross effects community, as he pronounces Mary to be the beloved disciple’s mother, and the beloved disciple to be Mary’s son.

This can be a difficult teaching. I can understand that what Christ did on the cross creates a community. People who recognize that union with God comes through Christ—-not through law and circumcision—-gather together with each other with that common belief, even though they may not have had anything to do with each other prior to embracing that belief. The Gospel brings people together who otherwise might not be together.

However, I can recognize and appreciate that a person is dear to God, but that does not necessarily mean that I want to be friends with that person. If God wants to have a relationship with a person and forgive that person, that is fine with me. That does not mean that I want to forgive that person for sins against me.

As the pastor said, though, it is difficult to feel God’s forgiveness. Often, the only direct encounter of forgiveness that we feel is interpersonal, and that is why it is important for us to extend forgiveness to others. In addition, if I refuse to forgive a person and to have anything to do with him or her, while recognizing that he or she is still dear to God, I am not helping him or her. If someone is dear to God, and if God is dear to me, should not I value whom God values? Here, we get into law: feel this, do that. I am not strong enough to be in certain relationships.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Book Write-Up: Reading Buechner, by Jeffrey Munroe

Jeffrey Munroe. Reading Buechner: Exploring the Work of a Master Memoirist, Novelist, Theologian, and Preacher. IVP, 2019. See here to purchase the book.

I first learned about Frederick Buechner from Philip Yancey’s book Soul Survivor. I was on a Philip Yancey kick in those days because I thrived on Yancey’s honesty about religion and his emphasis on God’s grace. Soul Survivor appealed to me because it was about the Christian anchors to whom Yancey clung when he was disillusioned with the Christians and the Christianity around him. I do not remember anything Yancey said about Buechner, but I think that the chapter made a positive impression on me. Buechner’s name stuck with me over the years, enough that I thought I would be edified in reading Jeffrey Munroe’s book.

Reading Buechner is a guide to Buechner’s life, fiction, non-fiction, and sermons. In Munroe’s telling, Buecher is a Christian thinker who grapples honestly with the suffering in life and the doubts that people have about the Christian faith. Yet, he sees importance in Christian orthodoxy, which is why he felt somewhat alienated when he taught at Harvard Divinity School. Buechner has drawn from different sources. A Pentecostal faith healer, for example, inspired his thinking about prayer.
Many evangelicals who love Buechner’s non-fiction, particularly his memoirs, do not quite know what to make of his fiction. Munroe acknowledges this common sentiment, and he speculates as to why this is the case while exploring the theological themes in Buechner’s novels.

There was a lot in this book that I appreciated and with which I identified. I did not identify much with what Buechner said about the usefulness of pain and suffering in the Christian life, since I would prefer a pleasant mood to the continual rage that I felt before taking Zoloft. Yet, suffering is a problem with which everyone copes, and this included Buechner, who for years struggled with the suicide of his father. Other topics that Buechner engaged includes the usefulness and non-usefulness of Christian apologetics and the mixture of joy, apprehension, and disappointment he had when seeing his grandchildren. His disappointment was not in them but in his realization that he would not live long enough to see how they turn out.

In terms of whether I would like to read Buechner sometime in the future, maybe some things. I would probably appreciate his memoirs and his sermons, since I prefer how non-fiction lays out theological principles in a straightforward manner rather than leaving it to the reader to discern them. At the same time, I did enjoy Munroe’s summaries of Buechner’s fiction, particularly his biblical fiction. Buechner’s placing of some biblical characters in a modern setting, with modern problems, was intriguing.

Munroe’s telling of Buechner’s own story adds a dimension of humanity to the book, but so does Munroe’s description of his own encounters with Buechner’s work and with Buechner himself. Munroe also engages the criticisms that people have had of Buechner’s work and Buechner’s response to those criticisms, as well as offers his own criticism: that Buechner presents a weak ecclesiology. Munroe’s book is honest, as is Buechner’s work.

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

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Church Write-Up: Connection with God and Others

Some items from church this morning:

A. The youth pastor said that, when he is alone for long periods of time, he feels less like himself. I thought of Donald Miller’s personal observation in Blue Like Jazz that, when he lived alone, he would start talking to himself. Speaking for myself personally, it does make me feel better when I am accepted and feel integrated among people. Some suggest that is because we evolved to be in herds, which are places of protection, and we feel vulnerable when we are alone. When I am rejected, I feel as if I am doing something wrong and am thus powerless to change my environment in my favor. Also, talking with an understanding person can change my perspective for the better, helping me to go forward and meet life head on, feeling less like a mistake. But there also is a place for solitude: joking among people can eventually become like eating too much sugar. Plus, there is the reality that not everyone will accept me, as that is life, and many people will not agree with what I have to say. That works vice-versa, too.

B. The pastor’s sermon was about connecting with others, yet he also mentioned barriers to connection. We are self-protective due to past hurts. The impression we give is that we say “I want to be your friend” even as we hold our hand out, trying to prevent that from happening. We were also taught that certain topics in public are verboten, so we wear plastic smiles in public, giving the impression that everything is all right when it is not.

C. The pastor told a story about how, early in his pastorate, he went everywhere he was asked to go. As a result, he felt exhausted. Similarly, in the video that we watched for Sunday school, Zach Zehnder said that we should not grit our teeth and try harder to be generous and forgiving, as Jesus taught. We will become frustrated and exhausted. We need to become connected with Jesus and be with him, then obeying Jesus’s commands will be a joy. Having devotions is like Zehnder practicing his golf game regularly: when he does so, he does better in the game and has more fun.

D. We broke up into groups and talked about devotions. One person said that reading prayers in a book can be helpful. That can help when you do not know what to say to God, plus it can give you an opportunity to pray for people and situations that you may not immediately think about, since they are outside your immediate circle of life. We can also pray to God throughout the day: asking God to send help when we see an accident, thanking God when seeing something beautiful, and giving God our concerns amidst life’s responsibilities. The acknowledgment of value in reading prayers stood out to me, since I recall a teacher who was a Baptist who did not identify with my practice, at the time, of reading a Psalm each day for my prayer time. For her, prayer had to be so much more than that: more personal, more intimate, pouring out one’s soul, being in a relationship, truly connecting with God, and letting God connect with you.

E. Now for some honesty. Many Christians talk as if having daily devotions is the answer to everything, as if they give fuel for the Christian life and transform a person for the better. That may be the case for some people. I am a little more skeptical. I still do them everyday, as I meditate on Scripture. I go through a grid, as I think about what a passage of Scripture may teach about God’s love, grace, sovereignty, presence, and hope (which I define in terms of eschatology and Jesus’s fulfillment). I do that, as opposed to looking to the Scriptures to see what rules I should follow. I feel edified in my approach, but strengthened? I do not think so. Some, but not profoundly so. Maybe stronger than I would be otherwise. It helps, but, for me, it is not the magic key that Christians say it is. People may then say that I am doing it wrong. Maybe I should be looking for rules to follow, but I did that in the past, and I become discouraged because my nature goes contrary to those rules. Complaining to God in the name of honesty is basically stinking thinking. Scripture can be encouraging, but it can also be depressing: there are so many dark sayings, especially about God’s wrath, and, with some stories, it is hard to see much that is uplifting. Then there is a caution on my part about projecting modern Christian ideas on an ancient text, so I am hesitant to apply the presuppositions to the text that many Christians apply. Part of that is because I do not want to be guilty of eisegesis; part of it is because I do not want to become bored with the Bible, seeing the same evangelical message over and over.

F. Another topic that came up in small groups concerned using Scripture to edify others. Here, things do not work out that well for me, either. One can quote Scripture to others and come across as patronizing. Also, while I like reading the Bible, I do not enjoy talking with people about it. I feel as if I have to defend God's baggage as it appears in the Bible, when that baggage troubles me, too. Recently, someone asked me, because he knew I had degrees in religion, if this is the end of the world, since there is the coronavirus. I didn't know how to answer that. Some people can come up with glib answers off the top of their heads, but that is not easy for me. Plus, nothing in my education trained me to answer that question; much of my academic education treated the Bible solely as a human document, not as a guide to the end-times. Then, I do not want to tell people what to believe. They have to make their own decisions, based on what makes sense to them.  

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Church Write-Up: Meeting Temptation

The sermon at today’s Lenten service focused on temptation.

The pastor opened by confessing that he had an immense sweet tooth. He could eat a whole box of Twinkies in one setting, supplemented by glasses of whole milk. He is tempted to prioritize his sweet tooth over other things that are important to him, such as being healthy enough to live a long life to be there for his grandchildren.

Our temptations tell us what we truly love and value. In Genesis 3, Eve initially expresses love for God, affirming God’s command not to eat the forbidden fruit. But the serpent tempts her to desire other things more than God: wisdom, being like God, and the desirable fruit itself.

We can even blame God for our failure to face temptation with success. In I Corinthians 10:13, Paul states that God will not allow Christians to be tempted more than they are able, but will provide a way out. If we give in to temptation, we can easily blame God for not providing that way out, or (more accurately) not seeming to do so. God must not have strengthened us sufficiently with his Holy Spirit, we reason.

The pastor then commented on the story of Jesus’s temptation in Matthew 4. The first temptation, that Jesus turn the stones into bread to assuage his hunger, relates to our desire for our needs and wants to be met here and now. That is a temptation in this age, when so many things are immediately accessible. With one click of the mouse, we can access the entire library of the Vatican.

The second temptation is the desire to be noticed. Satan was tempting Jesus to jump off the pinnacle of the Temple, a public place. God would deliver Jesus before all those people, and Jesus would be noticed by the public. We desire to be noticed, to be seen, and we resent when people fail to give us so much as a “Thank you.”

The third temptation is that of power. Satan tells Jesus he will give him all the kingdoms of the world, if Jesus would fall down and worship Satan. We feel vulnerable and powerless in this world and would like to be in control.

We face and meet temptation head on when we remember that Jesus is with us. Jesus underwent temptation and prevailed over it, and he delivered us from the slavery of the devil.

In listening to this sermon, I identified more with the problem than the solution. I would like to be noticed and am upset when I am not, which occurs more often than I would like. I would like the ability to manipulate my environment to my liking: to say the right things to people in the right way, and that would make them like me, to use an example. I also desire certain things deep down, and they overshadow whatever love for God I have: acceptance from others, knowledge, sex, money and the security that comes from that, political podcasts. I have spiritual wants and needs, which is why I pray to God and read the Bible and other religious literature: to feed my Spirit, to find comfort, and to find nourishment in what is righteous and wholesome. But to love God more than other things? God may be more valuable, inherently, than those things, since God is eternal and perfect, but to give things up would be to make life barren, unless God replaces what is lost with something greater and more enriching. What is more, can I give up my desires, which are a part of me?

How does Jesus deliver us from temptation? Is it through his presence? I remember reading a rambling post defending once-saved-always-saved, and the blogger said that his attitude changes towards pornography on the Internet when he remembers that Jesus is sitting right next to him. Jesus, in that context, is not wagging his finger but is an accepting friend. That discourages the blogger from surfing for porn. True? False? Somewhere in between?

Does Jesus also deliver us from temptation through the hope that he provides? Because of what Jesus did, we have the hope of eternal life. We have acceptance from God. We need not get bent out of shape when people do not notice us, for God notices us. We do not have to stress out about getting all of our needs and wants met here and now or in this life, since we have the hope of eternal happiness. And, when things do not go our way, we can recognize that God is sovereign. Maybe these things can help us counteract temptation. The challenge is truly believing them.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Book Write-Up: The Gospel of the Son of God, by David R. Bauer

David R. Bauer. The Gospel of the Son of God: An Introduction to Matthew. IVP Academic, 2019. See here to purchase the book.

David R. Bauer teaches biblical studies at Asbury Theological Seminary.

This book covers the content of the Gospel of Matthew from its beginning to its end. It also goes into issues surrounding the Gospel of Matthew, such as its authorship, date, place of origin, and the different types of scholarly criticisms, as well as topics in the Gospel, including Christology, God, eschatology, and discipleship.

Some thoughts and observations:

A. Scholars debate about whether Papias was referring to the New Testament Gospel of Matthew when he talked about a Gospel that Matthew wrote. Papias says that the Gospel in question was a book of Hebrew sayings, and that seems to differ from the New Testament Gospel of Matthew. Bauer makes a fairly reasonable case that Papias indeed was referring to the New Testament Gospel of Matthew. First, Papias uses the term logia not only for sayings but also for narrative (i.e., the Gospel of Mark), and the Gospel of Matthew contains both. Second, the Gospel of Matthew uses Q, which may have originally been in Aramaic. Aramaic was called “Hebrew” in antiquity. Third, early church fathers believed that Papias was referring to the Gospel of Matthew.

B. Bauer contends that the Gospel of Matthew was a Jewish Christian Gospel yet endorsed the inclusion of Gentiles into the Christian community and God’s Kingdom. Like the early Methodists, who were in Methodist communities yet also were part of Anglicanism, people in Matthew’s church may have been part of the Christian community while still remaining in the synagogue. Matthew’s community believed in the continued viability of the Torah, as Jesus affirmed its underlying principle of love and expanded its reach to the heart, not just external actions. Yet, it embraced an approach to the Torah that diverged, in areas, from the Torah itself and from Pharisaic interpretation and application of it. This is evident on such issues as Sabbath observance and divorce. Jesus’s innovations in Matthew are due to his inaugurating new conditions (i.e., the increased presence of the Holy Spirit), which necessitate a new approach to the Torah. Bauer offers an interpretation of Jesus’s warning not to flee Jerusalem on the Sabbath day (Matthew 24:20). According to Bauer, Matthew’s community was evangelizing Jews and did not want to create a stumblingblock by flagrantly disrespecting the Sabbath day. In this scenario, Matthew’s Jesus was not assuming that Christians were required to observe the Sabbath but rather supporting respect for the Sabbath for evangelistic purposes.

C. Christology looms large in this book. Bauer spends pages on Matthew’s definition of “Son of God” and whether Matthew believed in Jesus’s divinity. Bauer believes that “Son of God” encompasses Jesus’s status as ideal Israel and son of David yet goes beyond that, since Matthew agrees with Mark that Jesus was more than the son of David. For Bauer, Jesus’s virgin birth relates to how he was the Son of God. Regarding the question of Jesus’s divinity, Bauer is agnostic about whether Matthew saw Jesus as ontologically divine, yet he maintains that Matthew regarded Jesus as functionally divine. Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel carries divine titles, receives worship, does things that God does, mediates God’s presence, possesses divine authority, knows God in a manner that others do not, embodies divine wisdom, and is present with the church after his resurrection in a way that God is present with people.

D. In terms of eschatology, Bauer believes that Matthew sees the Kingdom of God as already and not yet. It encompasses the eschaton and the Second Coming, but, presently, it entails the creation of disciples of Jesus. Matthew 24, for Bauer, does not envision the Second Coming occurring in the first century. Bauer appeals to details of Matthew 24 to make this case. For example, Jesus says that the events of 70 C.E. marked the beginning of sorrows but was not the actual end. In addition, Jesus affirmed that no one knows the day or hour of Jesus’s Second Coming. Bauer concludes that the signs Jesus talks about would precede the destruction of Jerusalem, whereas the Second Coming would occur unexpectedly, without any signs preceding it. Bauer provides food for thought, yet he seems to contradict himself when he accepts N.T. Wright’s view that Jesus’s Second Coming in Matthew 24 relates to Jesus coming to his Father at his resurrection and the vindication of Jesus through the events of 70 C.E. This runs contrary to his argument that 70 C.E. and the Second Coming are distinct from each other.

E. Regarding salvation, Bauer does not seem to think that Matthew regards it as based on justification by grace through faith alone. In Matthew’s Gospel, people will be judged, not only on their belief in Jesus, but also on their words, whether or not they do righteousness, and what they do with the opportunities for mission that God gives them. Matthew 25 relates to Jesus’s judgment of the church as to whether it takes care of the least within its midst, and the price of not doing so is hell. A profound repentance is a requirement for being in God’s Kingdom. Yet, Bauer maintains that Matthew presents God as generous and gracious and assumes different levels of eschatological reward and punishment.

F. The book is not so much a verse-by-verse commentary on Matthew’s Gospel, but it goes through passages and shows how the parts fit into the whole. For example, in discussing Matthew 7:1-5, Bauer says that a critical spirit towards others runs contrary to identifying the sins in one’s own life and repenting of them.

G. Overall, Bauer is thorough and judicious in his discussions, leaving few loose ends. Even though one may think that his conclusions appear all over the place, there is a remarkable coherence to them. There are two loose ends, however. First, Bauer argues that John the Baptist was not a part of God’s Kingdom, yet he also states that God’s Kingdom retroactively includes the Old Testament saints. Bauer defends both points from elements in Matthew’s Gospel, but he fails to reconcile them with each other. Second, Bauer asserts that church discipline relates to things that Jesus did not explicitly address, and God supports the church’s decision. That just seems to give the church too much power, in my opinion, which can be abused. Yet, Bauer denies that church discipline’s legitimate application is arbitrary but coincides with the character of God.

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

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Church Write-Up: Being with Jesus, Transaction, Giving

During this year’s Lent, the church that I attend will be going through Red Letter Challenge, a curriculum developed by LCMS pastor Zach Zehnder. It focuses on select words of Jesus. This week, the service focused on being with Jesus. The Sunday school class, however, was an introduction to the entire course.

A. The youth pastor talked about how we can be physically with someone, yet not actually “with” that person. We can be on our cell phone with earphones on, ignoring the person we are with. In the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42), Mary is quietly listening to Jesus, while her sister Martha is preoccupied with a million other things. Mary is actually “with” Jesus.

B. The pastor’s sermon appealed to Mark 6:31 as a starting point. Jesus invites his disciples to the desert to rest, since, up to that point, they lacked an opportunity for leisure. What if we proceeded to our tasks beginning with rest, shaped by rest, rather than doing what we ordinarily do: looking forward to the weekend and trying to cram activities into it? The pastor told some stories. He said that he took over a decade to finish his S.T.M. degree. He finished the coursework but took a while on his thesis, since his advisor was in Slovakia before the days of the Internet, so he could not work with him via e-mail, and there was no one else at the seminary with whom he wanted to work. He talked about how we sometimes fail to finish what we start due to exhaustion and a lack of interest. In the Christian life, meanwhile, we find that being good is a struggle. I identified with his story. I dropped out of the dissertation program ten months ago because I felt it was going nowhere.

C. The introduction to Zehnder’s course began by contrasting how non-believers see Christians versus how they see Jesus. They see Christians as judgmental, hypocritical, and divisive, whereas they see Jesus as friendly, caring, compassionate, and honest. Someone in class pointed out that the picture in the Gospels is more complex than that: the Pharisees regarded Jesus as a blasphemer who was stirring the pot, and they wondered how he knew what he knew. I see value in being friendly, caring, and compassionate. It is just so difficult. Some of it is social struggles, some of it is a personality that turns inward, and some of it is being burned, which makes me hardened towards people. I also recoil, somewhat, from the idea that Christians should be trying to appease non-believers. I think of Christians who say, “Evangelicals cannot support Trump. It makes them look bad to unbelievers.” So?

D. The teachers, quoting Zehnder, said that being with Jesus should make us eager to do what Jesus said. The Bible should become a fire within us that we feel compelled to share. And, when we pray, a peace should come over us that we cannot explain. Profound thoughts. But I don’t want to place those kinds of burdens and expectations on my daily times with God.

E. The term “transaction” came up more than once in Sunday school. We see forgiveness as a transaction: a person needs to come to us on his or her knees before we forgive and have anything to do with that person. God, however, does not forgive like that, for God already took care of our sin on the cross. When we forgive, that is so anger does not fester within us and has nothing to do with what the other person does. When we serve others, we are not doing so to appease God; serving others may not save us, but it could save another person. Jesus taught a lot about money, and money concerns transactions: what we can do so that people can benefit us. I guess that, in retrospect, the class had a message of grace, even though I was feeling it as harsh law when I was experiencing it. There may be something to some of what was said, but I dispute that the Bible promotes forgiveness apart from repentance. Yes, our repentance is imperfect, and I believe that God loves us even if we fail to keep the law. But repentance is an ingredient to showing concern for the damage we have done and attempting to repair the damage.

F. Zehnder said that there is no such thing as a stingy Christian. I rolled my eyes at that. Next week, I hope to work on not doing that, since I am an adult and should behave as an adult. Why did I recoil from Zehnder’s statement? If we’re saved by grace, why can there be no such thing as a stingy Christian? If a person has to give money to others to be a Christian, then that person is saved by works, not grace, pure and simple. So much for that non-transitional stuff in (E.)! Also, how much money do I have to give before God is appeased? And what exactly was Jesus saying to his audience? I read scholars who say that most people in Jesus’s day were poor. Was Jesus asking them to give more?

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