Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Book Write-Up: The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence

Matthew Curtis Fleischer.  The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence.  Oklahoma City: Epic Octavius the Triumphant, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Matthew Curtis Fleischer is an attorney.  In The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence, Fleischer tackles the issue of divinely-commanded violence in the Old Testament, from his Christian perspective.  He focuses on the Israelite Conquest of Canaan, but he also explores other issues, such as Abraham’s binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 and the death penalties in the Torah.

Here are some thoughts:

A.  Chapter 11, “Incremental Character Revelation,” tied the book together very effectively.  I will extol that chapter later in this review, but I first want to explain why I was surprised that the chapter tied the book together.  Throughout the book, Fleischer was unclear about where exactly he wanted to go.  Did God actually command violence in the Old Testament, as a way to accommodate Godself to and to glorify Godself to a culture that valued military might?  Was the Conquest a righteous act of divine justice against the sinful Canaanites?  Was the Conquest (and other morally-challenging aspects of the Torah, such as slavery) at least a step up from the violence of the time, a way to humanize barbaric institutions?  Were the depictions of God as violent a result of ancient Hebrew misunderstandings of God?  Then there are prominent voices in archeology, who cast doubt on the extent of the Conquest, or even question or challenge its historicity.  Fleischer is open to all of these options, perhaps because his argument is that God looks good, whichever of these scenarios one accepts.

B.  There were times when I thought to myself “Now wait a minute” when I was reading the book.  On page 20, Fleischer says that the Old Testament “never displayed those who registered the most kills as the nation’s greatest heroes.”  Really?  The number of Philistines whom David killed gets mentioned, and the references to the exploits of David’s mighty men comes across as rather laudatory in II Samuel 23.  Fleischer refers to an argument that Jericho was a military city that lacked civilians.  What about Rahab and her family?  Fleischer argues at one point that the Conquest was a one-time event and that God did not sanction later Israelite violence, specifically imperialistic acts of warfare.  Really?  II Samuel 8:6, after referring to David placing garrisons in Syria, affirms that God preserved David wherever he went.  Perhaps a case can be made that several of those Israelite wars were defensive on Israel’s part, and Fleischer does seem to be open to such an idea at one point in the book.  He also states, however, that Israelite kings may have seen their acts of war as divinely-sanctioned, even if they were not.  Again, Fleischer seems open to a variety of options that make God look good.  On the one hand, that can come across as artificial: God will look good, whatever route one wants to go.  On the other hand, the book does depict God as righteous, so some Christians may see reading the book as a worshipful experience, as they read Fleischer’s picture of God reaching down to where people are and attempting to lead them towards some level of righteousness.

C.  Fleischer argues that the Torah was morally a step up from other ancient Near Eastern nations.  On some level, he presents a rather convincing case, as he refers to scholarship that suggests that ancient Israel was comparatively more egalitarian.  He also makes a decent point that the Torah is more egalitarian than the Code of Hammurapi, which often values the higher classes over the lower classes.  At the same time, Fleischer depicts the ancient Near Eastern cultures as if they are almost devoid of morality.  He argues that the Torah regards the humanity of slaves, in contrast to other ancient Near Eastern cultures.  But the Middle Assyrian Palace Decrees punish a woman whose slave dies from her beating, and the Code of Hammurapi affirms that a runaway slave cannot be returned to an abusive master (see pages 97, 203-204 of Martha Roth’s Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor).  Meanwhile, there are passages in the Torah that devalue the slave.  Exodus 21:20-21 states that, if a master beats his slave and the slave dies immediately, the master will be punished, but the master will not be punished if the slave survives a day or two, for the slave is the master’s property.  In Exodus 21:28-32, an owner of an ox is executed if his ox gores to death a man or a woman (and the ox had a reputation for goring), but the owner merely pays a fine to the slave’s master if the ox gores a slave.  Regarding gender, the Ancient Near East was rather progressive on women inheriting property, whereas Number 27 only permits daughters to inherit if the father has no sons (see Jacob Milgrom’s Excursus 63, “The Inheritance Rights of Daughters” in his JPS Commentary on Numbers).

Fleischer can take these issues into consideration, while still making a similar point to what he does make in the book.  That would have made for a more rounded discussion.  There are Torah passages that clearly humanize slaves, particularly Deuteronomic passages: Fleischer could say that we see within the Torah an evolution over the issue of slavery, or a dialogue, much like what Fleischer observes in the Bible on the issue of divinely-sanctioned violence.  On women’s inheritance, Fleischer could argue that Israel’s inheritance laws were suitable for her tribal system, which sought to keep land in the family and the tribe (which is why Milgrom says Israel’s inheritance laws were different from other ancient Near Eastern cultures).  God is accommodating Godself to people’s cultural context.

D.  An issue on which Fleischer is consistent (well, mostly) is that he believes that Jesus, the full revelation of God, demonstrates that God supports non-violence.  Fleischer effectively demonstrates that Jesus taught non-retaliation in the Sermon on the Mount, promoted love for enemies (which is the opposite of killing them), and himself refused to retaliate against his enemies, even when he could.  For Fleischer, that outweighs the few alleged counter-examples that people like to cite.  Fleischer does not address certain apparent counter-examples, such as Jesus’ belief that God punished people with a Flood in Matthew 24:37-38 and Luke 17:26-27.  Then there is the Book of Revelation, but Fleischer refers readers to another book that addresses that topic.

I say that Fleischer is mostly consistent, not entirely consistent, in his discussion of non-violence in the New Testament because he wants to portray God as non-violent, yet at one point he says that God is qualified to execute violence, whereas human beings are not.  In addition, Fleischer seems to embrace a pacifist approach: nations do not matter because Christ established a transnational church, and nations should not wage war against other nations; Fleischer dismisses the concept of a just war.  Yet, on page 42, Fleischer appears to embrace Luther’s two-kingdoms approach when he states: “…we are to focus on loving, forgiving, returning good for evil, and living at peace with everyone and leave vengeance, justice, and judgement to God, for he will use government for such things, just like he did throughout the OT.”  Would that include the use of war or the death penalty, which Fleischer criticizes?  Fleischer’s stance could have been clarified more.  Personally, I do not think that the Old Testament’s support for war or the death penalty means that Christians have to accept (many, or most) U.S. wars as right, or embrace the death penalty with its unjust application.  Fleischer does well when he argues that even certain Old Testament passages that sanction war approach war differently than many have done.

E.  Now let me extol Chapter 11, “Incremental Character Revelation.”  Had I not read this chapter, I would have given the book four stars—-short of five stars.  The book is not “meh” enough to get a three.  Fleischer quotes different thinkers on the issue of violence in the Bible, such as Brian McLaren, Greg Boyd, John Howard Yoder, and Paul Copan.  It is well-written, in terms of prose.  Chapter 11 is what compels me to give the book five stars.

There were a variety of things that I liked about Chapter 11.  First, there was its tone of humility.  Fleischer acknowledged that we may agree with him, disagree with him, or fall somewhere in between these extremes.  He is presenting his thoughts, acknowledges that he is a work in progress, and allows people the space to draw their own conclusions.  Second, this chapter raised interesting arguments about developments within the Old Testament and between the Old Testament and the New.  The Old Testament attributes disease to God, for example, whereas the New Testament attributes it to Satan.  Fleischer believes that there is a purpose to this: God did not want the Old Testament Israelites to believe in dualism, as they were surrounded by polytheism, so he moved them towards (or let them believe in) a monotheism that believed that God was the cause of all things.  That is an intriguing proposal.  Third, Fleischer addressed diversity within the Old Testament: II Kings 9-10 seems to support Jehu’s acts of violence against Ahab’s house and Baalism, for instance, whereas Hosea 1:4 appears rather critical of it.

Chapter 11 was not entirely neat, and it did not answer every question, but it was a thoughtful, honest discussion on how to approach Scripture, with its different pictures of God.  I guess it resonated with me because I am one who would like to see God as loving and righteous, as that feeds my soul more than criticizing God.  I believe that there are many places in the Bible in which God is depicted as such.  Yet, there are passages in the Bible that disturb me, and some Christian apologetic answers strike me as too neat.  Fleischer presents some of those answers, yet he also gives readers the space to wrestle and to accept alternative paradigms.

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

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Book Write-Up: Unimaginable, by Jeremiah J. Johnston

Jeremiah J. Johnston.  Unimaginable: What Our World Would Be Like Without Christianity.  Bethany House, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

Jeremiah J. Johnston is a New Testament scholar and a Christian apologist.  In Unimaginable, Johnston essentially argues that Christianity is better than a lot of the other belief systems out there.  It was better when it began, and it presented a loving God, who was in contrast to the amoral gods of Greco-Roman society.  It has long upheld the dignity of human beings against racism, economic inequality, and immoral callousness; many of the renowned figures of the Enlightenment cannot say the same.  Moreover, Christian theism provides a solid basis for morality, something that atheistic views do not do.  Johnston not only promotes Christianity, but he criticizes prominent atheistic and skeptical figures, often highlighting their sexual promiscuity, concluding that their skepticism of Christianity was a means to justify their lifestyles.

In terms of positives, the book is interesting.  Johnston near the beginning of the book refers to research that suggests that civilization was built around religion rather than vice versa, and that monotheism preceded polytheism.  This discussion somewhat contrasted with the usual tone of the book, which was that Christianity is right and moral and other worldviews are grossly deficient, in that it held that a belief in God is a primal aspect of humanity.  Johnston’s references to Bertrand Russell’s spiritual searching, and to Richard Dawkins’ candid admission that he would not be too happy to see Christianity go, highlighted the complexity of these thinkers.

Some discussions in the book were actually nuanced.  The discussion about whether Hitler was a Christian did not cavalierly lump Hitler into the atheist camp but thoughtfully engaged what Hitler believed about religion and sought to explain his pro-Christian rhetoric.  The discussion on Darwin was all right, for it highlighted stages in his thought about religion, while taking care not to demonize the theory of evolution.

The references to primary sources make this book a keeper.  What immediately comes to mind are the Greco-Roman sources what expressly dismiss the concept of bodily resurrection.

Also noteworthy are the endnotes.  Johnston refers to scholarly sources for those who wish to inquire further.  His book is well-researched.  For instance, he engages Candida Moss’ book, The Myth of Persecution, while mentioning scholarly resources that are critical of it.

In terms of negatives, the book somewhat downplays, and sometimes ignores, the pro-slavery and sexist and patriarchal sentiments that have existed within historic Christianity.  Johnston does well to demonstrate the pro-woman aspects of the Bible, but biblical interpretation played a significant role in Christian sexism, as well as Christian pro-slavery sentiments.

While there were occasions in which the book highlighted the complexity of those whom it criticizes, there were plenty of occasions when it did not.  For example, the book cavalierly declares Tolstoy an atheist seeking to justify his sexual promiscuity, but Tolstoy was also one who took the Gospels seriously, to the point of being a pacifist.  The book presented many prominent skeptics and atheists as morally-deficient human beings, but it may have been more thoughtful had it also engaged the immorality and hypocrisy among Christians.  That would have added a tone of humility to the book.

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

Monday, January 15, 2018

Church Write-Up: Is Christianity Necessary?

For church last Sunday, I attended the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, its Sunday school class on patristic interpretation of the Gospel of John, and the “Pen church.”

A lot of points were brought up.  One point with which I struggle is the Christian notion that Christians are people who have been made new, whereas non-Christians are severely deficient morally and spiritually.

The pastor at the Missouri Synod church said that newness is not merely a repair of the old but is actual newness.

The teacher at the class on patristic interpretations said that, for the church fathers, one is either indwelt by the Spirit of God, or one has an evil spirit.  He did not cite biblical passages, but I think of Ephesians 2:2, which states that the prince of the power of the air (presumably the devil) works in the children of disobedience.  Some of the patristic readings that we looked at treated baptism as something that spiritually cures a person, healing his or her inner spiritual maladies.

The pastor at the “Pen church” did not get into such topics, so much.  He did, however, present adherence to Christianity as necessary for rebounding from the bullying that we experience at the hands of life.  He referred to Hebrews 12:2, in which the author exhorts his audience to look at Jesus, the author and finisher of their faith, who endured the cross, despised the shame, and sat down at God’s right hand.  The story of Esther also came into his sermon, as he said that, had Haman killed the Jewish people, there would have been no Christian church.  Some may be happy at the absence of the Christian church, he said, but, without the Christian church, would there be hospitals and orphanages?  His implied answer was “no.”

Here are some thoughts:

A.  I have a hard time believing that I am somehow better than non-believers.  Non-believers have their flaws, but they have their assets as human beings, too.  Moreover, I, too, am deeply flawed.  Suppose that a Christian then says that I am not a true believer, and that is why I have flaws.  He or she is entitled to his or her opinion, but I have known believers, and they, too, have their flaws.  They can get impatient.  They are not universally accepting of people.  They are derisive.  They do not necessarily help those who need help.  I am not eager to say that they are not true Christians, for I hope that God is there for them, as I would hope that God is there for me, with all of my flaws.

B.  I struggle to believe in change.  I am the way that I am and have been.  Others are the way that they are and have been.  I know unbelievers, and I cannot envision them changing their minds.  Some were Christians for a time, but they went back to who they previously were, which does not mean that they reverted to being horrible people, just that they once more became people who were adverse to or skeptical of Christianity.  I also look at myself and see some of the same hang-ups that I have had for years.  When those hang-ups do not manifest themselves, it is because I fight them, hopefully with God’s help.  I still feel as if God is working in the midst of flawed me, rather than curing flawed me.  He is more like a dam, holding in waters, than one removing the waters.

(UPDATE: I acknowledge that there are many atheists or non-believers who become Christians and stay Christians.  Maybe I haven’t been reading their stories enough!)

C.  This is a tangentially related issue, but something was brought up at the patristics class that reminded me of things that came to my mind earlier that week.  The teacher told us the story of Augustine’s conversion.  Augustine’s mother, of course, prayed for Augustine to become a Christian: I thought of something that was said to her by a wise Christian, that she should spend less time talking to Augustine about God, and more time talking to God about Augustine.  That is relevant to the topic of this post, but the teacher did not mention that anecdote.  He did talk about how Augustine was impressed by the Christian father Ambrose, and Ambrose suggested that Augustine read the Book of Isaiah.  Augustine tried and did not understand it: he did not know what to make of it.  Augustine then had to learn how to interpret the Bible as a Christian, for it to come alive to him.  I have been reading some patristic interpretations of John 2, in which Jesus turned water into wine (the class will get into those), and Augustine likened coming to understand the Scriptures according to their Christological and spiritual sense to water changing to wine.

I have been on a Daily Bible Reading plan.  I will finish it.  But I do not always get a lot out of it.  What do these battles and kings’ worshiping practices have to do with me?  I do not feel utterly baffled when I read the Bible, as Augustine was when he read Isaiah.  I, however, would read Isaiah differently from how he did so when he thought that he understood it: I would read it in light of the history of Israel in the eighth-sixth (maybe even fifth) centuries B.C.E.  That does not exactly give me a spiritual high.

D.  Can people rebound from the bullying of life without looking to Jesus as the author and finisher of their faith, or looking at the example of Jesus as a faithful sufferer?  Can they rely on some inner strength, or other coping mechanisms (and I mean healthy ones, not drugs or drinking or other addictions)?  Perhaps.  At the same time, I have my doubts that a naturalistic universe can give them a solid hope.  I know non-Christians who still have spiritual beliefs, such as a belief in karma, or reincarnation.  That gives them hope that things will turn out better, at some point.

E.  I tend to agree with the pastor of the “Pen church” that a lot of hospitals and orphanages would not exist without Christianity.  Non-Christians can have a sense of compassion and social justice, but, in many cases, Christianity has provided that “umph” that motivates people to do something.

I’ll close comments because I am not interested in my spirituality being questioned.  This post is rather perfunctory, anyway, since I try to write about the church services that I attend each week.  I was not even in the mood to write it.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Book Write-Up: Vindicating the Vixens

Sandra Glahn, ed.  Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible.  Kregel Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

As the title indicates, this book is about women in the Bible who have been marginalized or even vilified in conservative Christian culture.  The authors themselves are conservative Christians, in that they have a strong view of the inspiration of Scripture and the historicity of the stories in the Bible.  They have different levels of scholarly credentials, with some contributors having Ph.D.s, and some having masters’ degrees.

In this review, I will comment briefly on each essay, to provide you with the flavor of the book.

“Preface,” by Sandra Glahn, Ph.D.

What stood out to me is Glahn’s reference to the argument that Scripture marginalizes Deborah because Hebrews 11:32 mentions Barak but not Deborah.  Glahn disagrees, but she does not detail why.  A later essay in the book actually uses Hebrews 11:32 to undercut a popular conservative Christian talking-point.

“Introduction: The Hermeneutics of ‘Her,'” by Henry Rouse, Th.M.

This essay covers methodological issues.

“Chapter 1: Tamar: The Righteous Prostitute,” by Carolyn Custis James, M.A.

This essay defends Tamar, affirming that she faithfully performed her duty to her late husband.  It effectively discussed the motivations of the characters in Genesis 38.  For example, it talked about the economic motivations that Ornan had for depriving Tamar of his seed.

“Chapter 2: Rahab: What We Talk about When We Talk about Rahab,” by Eva Bleeker, M.A.

This essay explores the possibility that the Israelite spies sought to sleep with Rahab the prostitute when they stayed with her.  That was not its only point, but it was one of the issues that it explored.

“Chapter 3: Ruth: The So-Called Scandal,” by Marnie Legaspi, Th.M.

This essay attempts to refute the idea that Ruth was sexually propositioning Boaz while he was drunk.

“Chapter 4: Bathsheba: Vixen or Victim?”, by Sarah Bowler, Th.M.

This essay argues that Bathsheba was a victim.  Some of its arguments are speculative and not very convincing.  For example, why wouldn’t the prophet Nathan talk to Bathsheba had she done something wrong?  He talked to David, who clearly had done something wrong.  Still, the essay does well to highlight that there is no evidence in the Bible that Bathsheba sought to seduce David, and her argument about the location of purificatory baths is plausible.  Bowler also powerfully argued against the tendency of some conservative Christians to treat statutory rape as consensual sex, for which both victimizer and victim are responsible.

“Chapter 5: The Virgin Mary: Reclaiming Our Respect,” by Timothy Ralston, Ph.D.

Among other things, this essay addressed the question of how Mary could seemingly doubt Jesus’ mission (Mark 3:21, 32), while having learned from an angel that Jesus was the Messiah.  Ralston speculates that Mary had nationalistic Messianic expectations.  This essay is also useful in describing the development and history of concepts within Mariology.

“Chapter 6: Eve: The Mother of All Seducers?”, by Glenn Kreider, Ph.D.

This essay plausibly argues that Adam was physically with Eve at the temptation (Genesis 3:6), yet it criticizes the conservative Christian talking-point that Adam should have exercised moral leadership over Eve.  The essay was somewhat thin in addressing God’s criticism of Adam for listening to the voice of his wife (Genesis 3:17).

“Chapter 7: Sarah: Taking Things into Her Own Hands or Seeking to Love?”, by Eugene Merrill, Ph.D.

This essay is informative in referring to how ancient Near Eastern culture could form the backdrop for some of the customs in the Abraham and Sarah story, while acknowledging that some of the customs are attested later than the time when Abraham and Sarah allegedly lived.  This essay gives Sarah the benefit of a doubt in terms of her interactions with Hagar and Ishmael, whereas the following essay is more supportive of Hagar and Ishmael.

“Chapter 8: Hagar: God Names Adam, Hagar Names God,” by Tony Maalhouf, Ph.D.

This essay is critical of the saddening tendency of some conservative Christians to blame Hagar for the Middle Eastern conflict, which is based on the assumption that Ishmael was the ancestor of the Arabs.  Maalhouf also offers an alternative interpretation of Genesis 16:12 to the one that asserts that Ishmael was violent.

“Chapter 9: Deborah: Only When a Good Man Is Hard to Find?”, by Ron Pierce, Ph.D.

This essay argues against a popular Christian conservative claim that God only accepted Deborah’s leadership because good men were not stepping forward to lead.  As Pierce argues, a good man did step forward, Barak, yet God still supported Deborah’s leadership.  The essay offered an intriguing explanation for how the city of Abel Beth Maacah may relate to the story of Deborah, as the term “mother of Israel” appears in both Judges 5:7 and II Samuel 20:19 (where Abel Beth Maacah appears).  Pierce tends to regard the poetry and prose in the Deborah story as consistent with each other, whereas more liberal scholars have treated them as independent.  Treating them as consistent does not always work: Pierce, for example, interprets Judges 5:27 as Sisera’s attempt to rape Jael, which is an understandable interpretation, although it is not salient in the prose (where Jael kills Sisera when he is asleep, not when he is trying to rape her).  Pierce highlights that rape is a theme in the Judges story, however, particularly in what Sisera’s mother says in Judges 5.

“Chapter 10: Huldah: Malfunction with the Wardrobe-Keeper’s Wife,” by Christa L. McKirland, Th.M.

This chapter is interesting because it interacts with how Jewish and Christian interpreters throughout history have addressed the prophetess Huldah.  Unfortunately, McKirland laments, they have often asked why God did not consult Jeremiah or Zechariah, as if Huldah was God’s Plan B.  McKirland critiques that assumption.

“Chapter 11: Vashti: Dishonored for Having Honor,” by Sharifa Stevens, Th.M.

This chapter is interesting because it refers to the history of interpretation of Vashti, as well as what Herodotus says about Xerxes’ wife (who has a different name in Herodotus’ story).  What they say is negative.  Unfortunately, Stevens does not really account for why Herodotus is so negative about her.  Stevens discusses how God replaced a strong woman with another strong woman, namely, Esther.  She also tells a compelling personal story about rejection, and how she struggled to move on from that.

“Chapter 12: The ‘Woman at the Well’: Was the Samaritan Woman Really an Adulteress?”, by Lynn Cohick, Ph.D.

Cohick seeks to refute the assumption that the woman at the well (John 3) was a loose woman.

“Chapter 13: Mary Magdalene: Repainting her Portrait of Misconceptions,” by Karla Zazueta, M.A.

Zazueta argues against the idea that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.  The essay mentioned that the Talmud presents the area of Magdala as a morally-depraved area, but it does not do anything with that reference.  The essay also explores what Mary’s possession by seven demons might have meant.

“Chapter 14: Junia/Joanna: Herald of the Good News,” by Amy Peeler, Ph.D.

Romans 16:7 mentions Junia, and there have been many interpreters who argue that the passage means that the woman Junia was an apostle.  Peeler agrees with this interpretation, while denying that it is relevant to debates on women’s ordination.  Peeler offers some arguments against the scholarly grammatical arguments of Michael Burer and Dan Wallace that Junia was not an apostle.  Peeler discusses the history of interpretation about Junia, particularly among church fathers.  Peeler speculates about the horrors that Junia may have experienced in prison, based on what women in that historical context endured there.  That presented Junia as courageous in her Christian convictions.  The essay also discussed what her apostleship may have meant: Paul in I Corinthians 15:7 mentions apostles who saw the risen Christ, and they appear to be distinct from the Twelve (see v 5).  Peeler speculates that Junia may have been Johanna (Luke 24:10), changing her name as other Jews Latinized their names for the benefit of their Roman neighbors.  This was the richest essay in the book.

The book is interesting because it offers alternative interpretations and fresh insights.  Some interpretations were more convincing than others, but all were worth reading.

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

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Movie Write-Up (Loosely-Speaking): The Last Jedi

I saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi yesterday.  To be honest, I do not have much to say about it.  If there was a point that stood out to me, it would be, to draw from the Gospel of John, that the Force “bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth” (John 3:8 KJV).  Of course, that John passage is about the Holy Spirit, not the Force, but the Star Wars movie seemed to be making a similar point about the Force.

In one scene, Luke Skywalker is teaching Rey about the Force.  Rey thinks that the Force is about moving objects with one’s mind, but Luke responds that the Force is not about that at all.  It is the balance that emanates from nature and binds it together.  And it is there, even if the Jedi cease to exist.  That, Luke said, is why it is arrogant for the Jedi to assume that they are so necessary, as if they have a monopoly on the Force.  That was an insightful scene, eclipsed by a lot of Luke’s self-pitying sentiments.

In another scene, Luke sees the spirit of Yoda.  Luke is thinking of burning down a Jedi Temple, which contains Jedi sacred books.  But Luke does not really mean it.  Yoda, however, spares him the trouble and destroys the Temple himself, as he calls down lightning.  Luke is shocked, and Yoda states that the books have a lot of wisdom, but page-turners they are not!  There have been Christians in history who have seen the Bible that way: it has wisdom, but the Spirit takes priority.  Indeed, God is not dependent on the Bible and exists and works in God’s own right.  Still, should not religion have some discipline and structure, which the Bible and institutions provide, rather than being utterly free-flowing?

At the end of the movie, there are children who are slaves on a Vegas-sort of planet.  We meet them earlier in the movie.  Luke has already died, and the children are telling each other the story of Luke Skywalker.  Their master angrily barges into the room and tells them to get to work, and a boy draws the broom towards his hand with the power of the Force.  He looks into the heavens, as dramatic Star Wars music plays, and the movie goes to the closing credits.  The Force continues and works, even if there are hardly any Jedi anymore.  That reminds me of I Kings 19:18.  The prophet Elijah believes that he is the one one left standing for Yahweh, but God tells him: “Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him” (KJV).

Monday, January 8, 2018

Church Write-Up: Rationalizing; How Foreign?; a Different Justice; Jacob; God Fighting Battles; Planned Job

For church last Sunday, I attended the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, its Sunday school class on patristic interpretation of the Gospel of John, and the “Pen church.”

Here are some items:

A.  The pastor at the Missouri Synod Lutheran church was talking about rationalizing away the darkness.  He told a story about when he grew up in Wisconsin, where the sunset was at 9:30 at night, and he would be reading in bed.  He did not want to get up to turn on the light, so he tried to convince himself while the sun was setting that there was just enough sunlight for him to read.  He told another story about when he was in the fourth grade, and his dad told him before he went out to play with his friends to head on home when he saw headlights.  His response to that was to go where there were no roads, so he would see no headlights and thus could keep on playing with his friends.  The pastor likened that to how we try to rationalize our darkness: how we may attempt to interpret the Bible to justify what we are doing, rather than trying to live according to its standard.

I won’t comment much here.  This is not a very comfortable topic for me.  When it comes to such things as forgiving others and loving my neighbor, I do try to bring the Bible down a few notches.

B.  The teacher at the Sunday school class about patristic interpretation of the Gospel of John was contrasting ancient patristic approaches to the Bible to modern-day Enlightenment historical-critical approaches.  He seemed to be assuming that his audience adheres to the latter, whereas the former would be something that is foreign to them.  I was wondering to what extent that would be the case.  On the one hand, within evangelicalism, at least, I have heard Old Testament or New Testament stories being treated as an allegory for the spiritual life, or Old Testament figures presented as types of Christ.  That is similar to patristic exegesis.  On the other hand, I could sense within the audience a recognition of the importance of interpreting biblical passages in light of their context, and I would not be surprised if they conclude that the fathers, at times, went too far and imported extraneous material into their interpretation of the biblical text.  It will be interesting to see how they respond.

C.  The teacher shared an interpretation that Gregory of Nyssa made of Matthew 5:6, in which Jesus blesses those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (which has the same Greek word as justice).  What is righteousness, or justice?  Gregory engaged the philosophical answer that justice was giving to people according to their worth.  Gregory said that Christians hunger for a higher kind of justice: one in which God gives to people, apart from their merit.  Ultimately, since Christ is righteousness (I Corinthians 1:30), Christ is the one after whom his followers hunger and thirst.

D.  At the “Pen church,” the pastor began a series on being resilient.  He told the story of Jacob: Jacob was continually scheming and fighting to get his own way, all the way back to his birth.  But he came to the point where he surrendered to God and decided to let God fight his battles.  I thought back to a Tim Keller sermon that I heard about Jacob: Keller said that the point of Jacob’s wrestling with God is that God is the one with whom Jacob was actually wrestling all his life.

E.  Do I have any experience of God fighting my battles?  Well, I can say that there were times when I expected the worst, and the worst did not come.  Life does not work that way all of the time for everyone.  I doubt that I am especially favored by God, while they are not.  I have uphill battles that they may lack.  It’s just life, I guess.

F.  The pastor told a story about when he was in college, and he did not have a car.  He filled out tons of resumes to get a job, and he reluctantly took a job at a Chinese restaurant.  He was only there for three months, but, during that time, he led a fellow employee to Christ.  That affirmed to him that God was with him wherever he ends up.  But he also felt that God had him there for a purpose: so that the employee would know of God’s love and enter into a relationship with Christ.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Book Write-Up: Reformation Commentary on Scripture (Hebrews, James)

Ronald K. Rittgers, ed.  Reformation Commentary on Scripture: Hebrews, James.  IVP Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

The Reformation Commentary on Scripture: Hebrews, James presents the thoughts of Western Christian thinkers during the fifteenth-seventeenth centuries on the epistles of Hebrews and James.  The book includes the classic Protestant Reformers, such as Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Melanchthon.  But it also quotes other Reformation voices, as well, such as Anabaptists and Anglicans.  And it also includes Catholic voices, such as that of Cardinal Cejetan, who questioned Martin Luther at the Diet of Augsburg.

Like other books in the series, along with the series on the church fathers, this book proceeds through the biblical books.  It quotes a passage, summarizes the gist of what the featured thinkers said, then presents their thoughts.  At the end of the book is a timeline and a glossary of Christian thinkers (and also some Jewish thinkers) quoted or mentioned in the book.

Here are some observations and thoughts:

A.  The book was repetitive and predictable, in areas.  Many of the Christian thinkers back then used the same arguments that Christian thinkers now use: to argue that Paul and James do not contradict each other on justification, or to claim that the Hebrews passages that seem to imply that one can lose salvation over a willful sin (or lose one’s salvation, period) do not really mean that.  A point that recurred in the comments on Hebrews 6:6 (which discusses people who crucify Jesus afresh) is that the Catholic mass is wrong because it claims to sacrifice Christ over and over again, which is contrary to Hebrews 6:6.

That said, some of these discussions were effective because they looked closely at the biblical texts.  Some Reformers argued that Hebrews does not mean that committing a sin can forfeit a person’s salvation, for there are passages in Hebrews about Christ’s mercy towards people in their weakness.  Some Reformers pointed to examples in the Epistle of James that highlighted God’s agency in choosing and regenerating people, which is contrary to salvation by works.

B.  One point that recurred in the comments on Hebrews 6:6 and 10:26 is that Christians do not have to be rebaptized, since rebaptism assumes that Christ can be put to death all over again.  This point was somewhat unclear to me, as it did not exactly address the theme of apostasy in those biblical passages.  A footnote explaining their position further would have been helpful.

C.  The book was edifying, even if it was repetitious, as the thinkers in the book highlighted God’s love.  Some comments on James seemed rather perfectionistic, in that they criticized having bad feelings (i.e., grumbling against believers, bitterness), but they may be reflecting the view of James, in those respects.

D.  An issue that was discussed among these Christian thinkers was the authorship of Hebrews and James.  On Hebrews, some defended Pauline authorship, whereas some denied it, arguing that Hebrews 2:3 indicates that the author of Hebrews was one who heard from the apostles, not an apostle himself.  On James, some held that the author was James the brother of Jesus, and some denied that altogether.  One view was that the author was a pupil of Paul (based on the view that James 4:5 reflects Galatians 5:17, on the spirit lusting against the flesh), or one who compiled various Christian and Jewish writings together into an epistle.  Those who denied the apostolic authorship of Hebrews and James tended to be critical of those epistles, even if they found them edifying, in certain respects.

E.  Those who were critical of Hebrews and James were sensitive to nuances in those books and how they may contrast with themes in other New Testament books; they acknowledged some diversity among New Testament writings, in short.  Some of the critics tended to prioritize Paul and the Gospel of John as the authoritative accounts about the Gospel of salvation, making me wonder what exactly they did with the synoptic Gospels.  I highly doubt that they rejected them, but they seemed to marginalize them, a bit.

F.  The book featured debates among Reformers, about such issues as whether Paul contradicts Hebrews and James, and the question of whether Christ is actually present in the sacrament of the Eucharist, or cannot be present in it because he is in heaven.

G.  The book presented occasions in which thinkers either contradicted themselves or were ambivalent.  Luther questioned apostolic authorship of Hebrews, yet in some places he asserted it.  On James, Luther questioned that James the brother of Jesus wrote it, yet he also stated that it does not matter, since even that James is not authoritative if he contradicts the Gospel.  Luther expressed some ambivalence in his interpretation of James 5:14-16, which discusses the church elders anointing a sick person for healing.  Luther, like others, maintained that such a practice was no longer present in the Christian church, for God does not heal like that anymore; there is a place for a Christian bearing with sickness, Luther said.  On the other hand, Luther stated that perhaps God would heal like that again, if people had faith.

H.  The book raised historical-sociological considerations that can account for the thinkers’ struggle with certain passages in James.  For example, James is critical of the rich and the church showing favoritism to the rich at the expense of the poor.  Some Reformers tried to defend James’ position, while still maintaining the importance of the lower classes respecting the upper classes, since doing otherwise would lead to social chaos.

I.  The glossary of names in the back was quite a read in itself.  It featured women Reformers who championed a greater role for women in society and the church, as well as exegetes who were considered Judaizers because they preferred a literal reading of the Hebrew Bible to Christian allegorical or Christological interpretations.

J.  The Hebrews section had a lot of Johanne Oecolampadius, just to let you know.  He was not too edgy, but he was thoughtful.

K.  One of my favorite thinkers in the book was William Jones, who was an Anglican preacher.  Jones had a concise way of articulating issues.  And, although I was leery of Jones’ attitude about preachers being authoritative in their sermons, those thoughts were profound in that they highlighted the transformative power of sermons, and how one can be receptive in listening to them.

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

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