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.

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