Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Church Write-Up: Church Is About Jesus

Due to inclement weather, the church that I normally attend cancelled services last Sunday.  As I did the previous Sunday, when it cancelled services, I watched the live-stream of John MacArthur, Jr.’s Grace Community Church.

MacArthur is doing a series on the church.  MacArthur said that church is not about us making contacts to enrich ourselves, us recovering from substance abuse, or even us feeling better about ourselves so that we can get through the week.  On that last point, MacArthur likened church to a carousel: we get on, enjoy the music, and then get off at the same place where we got on!

For MacArthur, church is about exalting Jesus.  A component of that is serious, respectful worship.  MacArthur was calling the musical part of the service a taste of heaven, and, I must admit, it was powerful and majestic!  For MacArthur, when we exalt Jesus, things in our life fall into their proper place.

MacArthur was also placing the church within a larger context.  God the Father has given Christ the people of the church, according to John 6:37.  We belong to Christ, and we glorify Christ by imaging Christ.  At the eschaton, Christ will give the church to the Father, so that God may be all in all, a la I Corinthians 15:28.  According to MacArthur, the world is decaying, but the church will last forever.

At the end of the sermon, MacArthur reluctantly said that there were three men who were unfaithful to their….And that’s when the live-stream ended!  The service was about to start communion, but we were not shown that.

Oddly, the sermon made me feel better.  I realize that MacArthur’s whole point was that church isn’t about me but is about Jesus, but it still made me feel better.  Recent events made me evaluate the question of why I go to church.  I cannot deny that one reason is to make contacts: I have difficulty making friends, and church is a community where I can meet people, maybe people who would give me a job reference!  But that may not happen.  Would I say that church is a waste?  I should not say that.  It is a place for me to exalt Jesus and to learn about Jesus’ grace and character.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Book Write-Up: Amish Weddings, by Leslie Gould

Leslie Gould.  Amish Weddings.  Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

Amish Weddings in the third book of Leslie Gould’s Neighbors of Lancaster County series.  The reason that the series is called the “Neighbors of Lancaster County” is that two families of neighbors feature prominently in the books: the Lehmans, who are Amish, and the Becks, who are not.

Book 3 essentially takes up where Book 2 left off.  Zane Beck has become Amish to marry Lila Lehman, but they are not yet married.  Reuben, the steady and reliable Amish young man who was courting Lila before she decided to marry Zane, is now in a romantic relationship with Lila’s half-sister Rose.  Lila’s step-father Tim is still romantically involved with Beth, the schoolteacher, but he cannot marry her because her ex-husband is still alive, and such a marriage would contradict Amish rules.  Casey, Zane’s female friend from the service, has a cameo in this book.

At least three things are going on in Book 3.  For one, Lila is in an accident that leaves her injured.  The driver of the automobile is blaming her for the accident, so there is a chance that his insurance company will not have to help pay her expensive hospital bills.  Zane wants to bring lawyers into the situation, but that contradicts the Amish way, which looks down on going to court.

Second, as Lila’s step-father, Tim, fails to show Lila the support that she needs during her recovery, Lila has a desire to learn more about her biological father.

Third, Zane’s friend from the service, Trevor, is visiting Zane, and Rose is attracted to him. Although people remark that her relationship with Reuben is making her a better person, she is finding Reuben rather dull and is attracted to Zane.

I said in my review of Book 2 that it had a lot of characters.  I found Book 3 to be easier to follow.  Part of the reason was that I had read Book 2 and was thus familiar with the characters when I read Book 3.  It also helped that, when Lila met her biological father’s family, Lila provided a succinct summary of who was who in her family.  But I also think that Book 3 had a more manageable number of plot-lines and foci.  I still believe, though, that more writers of Amish fiction, Leslie Gould included, should do what Amy Clipston does and include a family tree at the beginning of the book.  That way, if a reader asks “Who is that person again?”, the reader can check the family tree and refresh his or her memory.

This book was particularly good because it described what the characters were thinking.  There was a lot of reflection in this book about the way that people are and why, and that gave the book more meat.  There is steady Reuben, who wishes that his bishop father would do something about those Lehmans, who seem to be led astray by their non-Amish neighbors!  The discussion between Reuben and Tim on that topic was especially endearing.  We also get to learn more about Reuben’s perspective on the relationship between Lila and Zane, which was the topic of Book 2.  Lila enjoyed learning about the world and discussing issues, whereas Reuben preferred to focus on what affected him in his own world.  Then there is Rose, whom people think is rather shallow and self-centered, in contrast to her late mother.  But people who knew Rose’s mother when she was Rose’s age know that the mother was not too different from Rose!  She matured, as Rose does in this book.

The book also does an artful job tying the plot-line about Lila searching for her biological father, with the plot-line about the romance between Trevor and Rose.

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

Friday, January 13, 2017

Current Events Write-Up: Pharmaceuticals, Barack Obama's Departure, a Three-State Solution, Patricia Heaton, Anne Frank, Etc.

Time for another week of links to news and opinion pieces!


“Cory Booker and 12 Other Dems Just Stopped Bernie Sanders’ Amendment to Lower Prescription Drug Costs,” by Walter Bragman.

Bad news!  Bernie Sanders proposed an amendment that would allow importation of cheap prescription drugs into the United States, and Cory Booker and twelve Democrats helped kill it.  Of course, most of the Republicans voted against it, too.  And yet, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul voted for the amendment!  Good for them!  And is that not a conservative approach: allow competition to bring down prices?  UPDATE: See here for Cory Booker's side of the story.

Meanwhile, at the Halls of Justice!  Peter Welch is a Democratic Congressman from Vermont, and he praises Donald Trump for finding common ground with him on pharmaceuticals:

“Today, President-elect Donald J. Trump strongly endorsed an issue I have been pushing hard for in Congress – requiring the federal government to use its significant bulk purchasing power to cut the price of prescription drugs for seniors and taxpayers. Here is what he said at this morning’s press conference:  ‘We’re the largest buyer of drugs in the world. And yet we don’t bid properly. We’re going to start bidding. We’re going to save billions of dollars over a period of time.’  Music to my ears. It’s crazy that Medicare buys drugs at wholesale but pays retail prices. I’ve introduced a bill that would require price negotiations with Big Pharma. It will cut drug prices, save taxpayer dollars, and shore up the Medicare trust fund. I’m ready to get to work with President-elect Trump to pass this commonsense legislation.”

Over at the conservative web site Townhall, Devon Herrick writes on how “Congress Should Take Steps to Make Drugs More Affordable.”  He criticizes, among other things, how the FDA takes a long time to approve new drugs.  At the conservative web site, The Federalist, Margot Cleveland actually praises President Barack Obama for moving in the direction of correcting that!  Yet, as far as Herrick is concerned, there is more work to be done: “The FDA’s bias toward approving newer, first-in-class therapies has increased approvals for expensive drugs to treat rare diseases, which are at a historic high. Approvals of me-too drugs are down, however, which limits competition within drug classes, leading to higher prices, and limits patient choices.”

Jill Stein and the Russian Hacking

Jill Stein posted a link to an article by David Swanson, questioning the U.S. Government’s Russian-hacking report and defending Wikileaks against the U.S. Intelligence community.  That’s the Jill Stein I voted for, not the one who has been challenging the election results!

The Donald: A Different Kind of Republican

I enjoyed Reihan Salam’s article on Slate, entitled “Will Donald Trump Be FDR or Jimmy Carter?”  Salam is not too optimistic about the coming Donald Trump Presidency, as far as I can see.  Yet, I appreciated an observation that Salam made, and I have made the same observation myself.  In the past, many Republicans ran their campaigns by distinguishing between the makers and the takers, shaming the poor who receive assistance from the government.  Remember Mitt Romney’s 47% comment!  Trump’s campaign did not do that, as far as I can recall.  Rather, Trump’s campaign held that people are struggling economically on account of a systemic problem.  Trump blamed illegal immigrants, and many may not care for that kind of scapegoating, but Trump also criticized big corporations for sending jobs overseas.

President Barack Obama

George Stephanopoulos at ABC This Week interviewed President Barack Obama.  I especially appreciated this moment of candid self-criticism on the part of the President: “And so [Democrats ha]ve got to do a better job of showing up. And I was able to do that when I was the candidate. But I have not– I’ve not seen or– or presided over that kind of systematic outreach that I think needs to happen.”

As I read my friends’ expressions of sadness over the coming departure of Barack Obama from the Presidency, I have wondered why I have not shared their sadness.  It may be because I rarely see Barack Obama speaking to the public: it’s like he’s in hiding, so he has not made much of an impression on me.  And, when he does come out, it’s often to lecture, which comes across as rather self-righteous.  But don’t get me wrong: there have been times when I have appreciated what Barack Obama has had to say.  When he expressed openness to conservative ideas on bringing down the cost of higher education and health care, I applauded him.  That was the Barack Obama I loved in 2008: the transformative candidate!

At Townhall, Jeff Jacoby has a column, “Barack Obama’s Legacy of Failure.”  There’s not much that is new there, but the section on foreign policy got me thinking, or at least reminded me of some things that I have been thinking lately.  I have been gravitating towards the conservatism that supports isolationism, which is not to say that I embrace the domestic policy of the right, but rather than I enjoy reading conservatives who support a non-interventionist foreign policy, as opposed to the neo-cons.  That is one reason that I like Donald Trump, at least for the time being.  But Jacoby’s column criticizes President Obama for being non-interventionist on foreign policy.  And isn’t that accurate, on a certain level?  Permitting the Arab Spring.  Being reluctant to bomb Syria.  Aren’t those examples of President Obama’s non-interventionism?  Of course, one can point out the opposite, too: President Obama’s support of regime change in Libya, and his use of drones.  Still, I wonder if his non-interventionism has worked.  Yet, as a counterweight, I do not want the U.S. to go back to the disastrous interventionism of the Iraq War.

James David Audlin had a status comparing the vilification of President-elect Trump with the 2008-2009 vilification of President-elect Obama.   Of course, people are responding by saying that is a “false equivalence,” a term I have heard often over the last several months.  Okay, maybe there are differences between the criticisms of the respective Presidents-elect.  Still, I find that I am turned off by the criticisms of Trump today, as I was by the criticisms of Barack Obama in 2008: the caricatures, the mockery, the attitude that he cannot do anything right, the tendency to read a sinister motive into everything he says and does.  The criticisms of Obama in 2008 were among the factors that moved me to the left.  Today, the criticisms of Trump are not moving me to the right, so much, but they have encouraged me to read more from the right.  Actually, the reason that I liked Obama in 2008, and a reason that I like Trump now, is that both expressed openness to ideas of the other side of the spectrum.  I am not so much against constructive criticism: it may actually move Trump in a positive direction, as Trump looks for queues about what to do.  The vilification is what turns me off.


Over at Townhall, Bruce Bialosky has an interesting article entitled “The Three State Solution.”  We hear a lot about the two-state solution.  But, as Bialosky notes, there are actually two regions that have Palestinian authorities: Gaza, led by Hamas, and the West Bank, led by Fatah.  And, according to Bialosky, the West Bank under Fatah is more prosperous than Gaza under Hamas.  I appreciate that Bialosky does not lump the Palestinians together.


Christianity Today had an interview with actress Patricia Heaton.  Heaton has had two successful sitcoms: “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “The Middle.”  I love both shows!  Heaton talks about the insecurities that exist in the acting career, the contrasts between acting in “Everybody Loves Raymond” and acting in “The Middle,” and her own Christian faith and charity work in the Third World.

Historical Interest

“The Holocaust Survivor Who Hated Anne Frank,” by Philip Graubart. 

Basically, she thought that Anne Frank was mean and spoiled!  Graubart astutely says:
“She didn’t like Anne Frank. At first I couldn’t absorb the sentiment, couldn’t really believe my ears. It was like hearing a Catholic say she wasn’t fond of the Virgin Mary, that she was sick of all her tiresome bragging. Virgin birth – big deal. But then I realized that Trudy’s distaste for Anne Frank the person – whatever girlhood tiff set it off – returned the Holocaust to where it belongs, in prosaic human history. It’s not a myth, or a sacred narrative, with demigods and martyrs and supernatural heroines. It’s not a biblical story, a tragic moment pointing to redemption. It’s a story of girls and boys, Annes and Trudys, and their brothers and sisters and parents, murdered and tortured the way humans have murdered and tortured since time immemorial.”

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Church Write-Up: MacArthur Starts a Series on the Church

Last Sunday, the church that I usually attend cancelled its services, since there was an ice-storm.  I live on the West Coast, so I was trying to find an online service that matched my time-zone.  I decided to watch Grace Community Church’s service.  Grace Community Church is located in California, and its pastor is John MacArthur, Jr.

The service was impressive.  There was a choir, and there were nicely-dressed people in front of the choir playing violins and cellos.  The words of the songs were placed on the bottom of the screen so that viewers could sing along.  It was a formal, Reformed kind of service.

MacArthur preached the message, and he was starting a series on the church.  MacArthur was baffled that there are people who claim to have a personal relationship with Christ, yet have no relationship with the church.  For MacArthur, their relationship with Christ must not be that good, for Christ himself loves the church, and aren’t people in a relationship with Christ supposed to love what Christ loves?  MacArthur was saying that church is where believers live, move, and have their being.  It is where they serve, and where their spiritual desires are met.  The church is their kingdom, their people.  MacArthur related his own experience of the church: he grew up in it, made his friends there, and met his wife there.

MacArthur was critical of those who do church by themselves, by listening to their favorite teachers and the music that they select.  MacArthur was even critical of those who live-stream their church service from the Internet!  Why does his church allow people to watch its services on live-streaming, then?  Maybe it’s to give us a sampler, in hope that we will desire to visit the church in person.

MacArthur does not like people listening to their church on a podcast or watching their church on the Internet.  What exactly does he consider to be good enough, in terms of doing church?  Is coming to church sufficient, for MacArthur?  I don’t think so.  MacArthur was calling loud, concert-like churches fake churches.  Okay, then, is coming to MacArthur’s church sufficient?  Well, not exactly.  MacArthur was encouraging people to make a commitment to the church by becoming members, rather than keeping church at a distance.

MacArthur said that people may not want to commit to the church because they want to do what they want to do, when they want to do it.  For MacArthur, this is an obedience-to-God issue.  MacArthur asked people who keep their distance from the church if they are so wrapped up in themselves, that they cannot connect with the church.

The sermon was a little short on practicalities, but, to be fair, it is the first sermon of a series.  As far as I can recall, MacArthur did not encourage people to join small groups.  He did say that the church had active ministries, so perhaps he was encouraging people to participate in those.  He did say that people should come to church to serve and encourage others, but my guess is that this is the sort of church where that would be difficult: you know, a big sort of church where lots of people do not know the other people there.  I don’t even recall the service having a passing-of-the-peace!  Maybe that occurred before the service began, I don’t know.

The sermon kind of made me mad, but I knew before I even watched the service that there was a possibility that MacArthur would say something that would make me mad.  His Gospel According to Jesus put me in a spiritual tailspin for years, making me wonder if I was truly saved!  Still, for some reason, I have found MacArthur to be enjoyable to read and to listen to.

In expressing his bafflement at people who profess to have a personal relationship with Christ, yet keep their distance from the church, MacArthur was likening that to being connected to the head, but not the body.  He seemed to have difficulty imagining that as a possibility.  On some level, I don’t find that too far-fetched to envision: I would like to think that Christ loves me and has a relationship with me, whether or not I fit in with other believers.  If I cannot trust at least that, then how can I have hope?  At the same time, if I find any common ground at all with this sermon, it is here: I should not just think about myself but should think about others, too.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Unseen Realm: Q&A Companion, by Douglas Van Dorn

Douglas Van Dorn.  The Unseen Realm: Q&A Companion.  Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

Douglas Van Dorn pastors the Reformed Baptist Church in Colorado.  The Unseen Realm: Q&A Companion is based on biblical scholar Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm.

Van Dorn states the purpose of his book on page vii, in the “Preface”:

“The target audience for Dr. Michael Heiser’s recent book The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible was primarily the academic reader—-pastors and professionals in other fields accustomed to digesting closely researched material.  While The Unseen Realm is nevertheless quite readable, this primer meets the need for a more accessible abridgement of The Unseen Realm‘s core content.”

Although this book is a concise rendition of Heiser’s arguments, Van Dorn sometimes expresses disagreement with Heiser and explains his reasons for disagreement.

Van Dorn’s book is organized in a question-and-answer format.  There is a question, the question is followed by a concise answer, and the answer is followed by supporting Scriptural references.  There are little letters within the answer (a, b, c), marking thoughts, and those letters are matched with Scriptural references that support those thoughts.  This book is like a catechism.  There are also footnotes that contain references to secondary literature as well as more extensive discussion.

The book covers a lot of the same subject-material as Heiser’s The Unseen Realm.  Such topics include the existence of a divine council with gods; the identity of the serpent who tempted Adam and Eve; the union of divine beings with daughters of men, producing Nephilim; the rule of gods over nations, and the activity of Christ in overturning that; and Jesus’ presence in the Old Testament as the visible, second YHWH.

The book has assets.  First, the book lays out many of the Scriptural references that are directly relevant to Heiser’s thesis.  There are passages that get quoted repeatedly, such as the relevant excerpts from Psalm 82, Isaiah 14, Ezekiel 28, etc.  This could get tiresome, yet it was probably unavoidable, since these are key passages in Heiser’s arguments.  Overall, the Scriptural layout was quite effective, in terms of supporting a point in the answer.  On pages 64-65, for example, Heiser states that nachash (the Hebrew word translated as “serpent” in Genesis 3) relates to divination or shining, and he refers to Scriptural references to support this, providing Hebrew transliteration in parentheses.

Second, Van Dorn sought to delineate clearly among the different spirit-beings.  Heiser did not do this as clearly in The Unseen Realm, in my opinion.  On page 97, Van Dorn presents a question that I had in reading Heiser’s book: “Does the Hebrew word translated ‘demon’ in the Old Testament describe the same evil spirits the New Testament describes as ‘demons’?”  Van Dorn answers that question in the negative.
Third, Van Dorn effectively explained how the spirit beings in Genesis 6 cohabited with the daughters of men, when Jesus seems to imply in Matthew 22:30 that angels cannot have sex.  Van Dorn’s answer is that the angels assumed human form, which happens in the Hebrew Bible.

Fourth, Van Dorn occasionally referred to an interesting scholarly insight.  On page 71, Van Dorn quotes Romans 5:12 to say that “death spread to all men with the result that all have sinned.”  This clause has been significant in Christian debates.  Some have interpreted the passage to mean that all humanity sinned in Adam, deserving the guilt of original sin.  Some maintain that it means that people earn their own death because of their own sins.  Van Dorn interprets the passage to mean, however, that death resulted in people’s sin.  Van Dorn cites an article about this translation: C.E.B. Cranfield, “On Some of the Problems in the Interpretation of Rom 5:12-21,” Scottish Journal of Theology 22 (1969) 323-341.

While this book has its advantages, people who read this book instead of Heiser’s work would be missing out.  Although Van Dorn briefly mentions Bashan, Van Dorn’s brief reference does not do justice to Heiser’s compelling discussion.  There is no discussion in Van Dorn’s book about how Bashan’s possible status as a place of supernatural evil relates to Matthew 16:18 or the cows of Bashan in Amos 4:1.  Van Dorn’s book is helpful because it clarifies many of Heiser’s main arguments, but Heiser is the book to read if you want to eat the buffet rather than samplers.

A critique that can be made about Van Dorn’s book is that it is not too clear about the current implications of Jesus’ defeat of supernatural evil.  On page 109, Van Dorn affirms that Jesus has defeated supernatural evil and rules over it, but what are the implications of that?  What specifically and concretely is different now, in comparison to the time before Jesus came?

Finally, there is a question that somewhat nags me, after reading Heiser and Van Dorn.  Hebrews 1:5 states (in the KJV): “For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee? And again, I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son?”  The author of Hebrews is probably encouraging the audience to elevate Christ above the angels, and one of his arguments is that Jesus is God’s Son.  But if the angels, too, were sons of God, does that not undermine Hebrews 1:5’s argument that Jesus is superior to the angels because Jesus is God’s Son?

Heiser and Van Dorn both argue that the sonship of Jesus was different from the sonship of the sons of God in the divine council, and a key distinction is that Jesus was begotten by God.  Hebrews 1:5 does mention Jesus being begotten, but one can inquire if the begettal there is the same as the Father’s eternal begettal of God the Son within the Trinity, or Jesus being begotten in the sense of being unique.  Hebrews 1:5 may refer to Jesus being begotten at the incarnation, or at his baptism.  Even if the sonship of Jesus is different from the sonship of the divine sons, Hebrews 1:5 seems to be arguing that Jesus is God’s son, whereas the angels are not.

Perhaps one can differentiate between angels and the sons of God within the divine council, which would indicate that the angels are not sons of God, and thus Hebrews 1:5 is consistent with the Hebrew Bible.  As Heiser and Van Dorn know, however, the sons of God came to interpreted as angels, as the Greek term for angels became a more generalized term for spirit beings, rather than simply a term for a divine messenger.  The LXX of Deuteronomy 32:8 and Job 1:6 translates the sons of God as angels.  Jude 6 interprets the sons of God in Genesis 6 as angels.  Is Hebrews 1:5 an heir to a tradition that said that angels, not sons of God, did the deeds of Genesis 6, Deuteronomy 32:8, and Job 1:6?  Heiser and Van Dorn strike me as people who believe that the Bible is a univocal revelation from God (though Heiser seems to acknowledge different stages of revelation), so I wonder how they would reconcile Hebrews 1:5 with the Hebrew Bible’s claim that there are sons of God.

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

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Book Write-Up: Moving from Broken to Beautiful through Forgiveness, by Yvonne Ortega

Yvonne Ortega.  Moving from Broken to Beautiful through Forgiveness.  Salem, OR: Trinity Press International, 2016.  See here or here to purchase the book.

According to the “About the Author” page of the book, “Yvonne Ortega is a Licensed Professional Counselor, a Licensed Substance Abuse Treatment Practitioner, and a Clinically Certified Domestic Violence Counselor.”

As the title of the book indicates, Moving from Broken to Beautiful through Forgiveness is about forgiveness.  Ortega shares aspects of her own story, particularly her struggle to forgive her ex-husband, who abused and disrespected both her and their son.  The book has chapters about what forgiveness is not and offers strategies that can help a person forgive.

The book has numerous assets.  First of all, there is its friendly and understanding tone.  The “About the Author” page states that Ortega conducts seminars and “retreats for women who wear anything from designer suits to jumpsuits,” which communicated acceptance and inclusiveness.  In the “Introduction,” Ortega reassures readers that she will not try to guilt or shame them into doing something that they do not want to do, and that her goal is not to bind heavy burdens on people that she herself does not carry.  That made me more receptive to what was was about to say, since she communicated that she understood how difficult forgiveness can be.

Second, Ortega supports a lot of what she says with Scripture.  Other Christians and therapists have made the points that she makes about what forgiveness is not: forgiveness is not forgetting the offense, forgiveness is not trusting the offender, forgiveness does not mean that the perpetrator gets off scot-free, etc.  In my experience, people often assert these points rather than supporting them.  Ortega does well to offer a reasonable explanation of these points, but she also demonstrates from Scripture that God does not want us to be gullible or to place ourselves in dangerous situations.  Some Christians may feel that they should forsake common sense or sensibility in order to obey the biblical command to forgive, as if they are taking a great leap of faith in doing so.  Ortega successfully shows, however, that common sense and sensibility accord with Scripture: God favors justice, and God does not want us to blindly trust people.

Third, Ortega suggests projects in art and music (as in listening to music) that can encourage one’s journey towards forgiveness.  Ortega appeals to people’s creative side.  I consider that a positive, for people finding ways to reflect or express themselves creatively can make the journey towards forgiveness enjoyable.

Fourth, each chapter opens with an insightful quote, and the quotes within the chapters themselves enhance the book.

In terms of critiques, I have four.

First of all, the description of the book on Amazon states: “Since we don’t have alligator skin and a heart of stone, people will hurt us especially those closest to us. We also make mistakes in life and hurt others.”  That statement is similar to the understanding tone of the book.  Unfortunately, the book did not really explore what that statement talks about: how we are sensitive and easily hurt in day-to-day life.  The book talked a lot about recovery from personal trauma (e.g., abuse, affairs), and that is very important.  But the book would have spoken to me more had it also discussed how to endure or move on from snubs, how to cope with our sensitivity, or how to deal with our frustrated expectations.

Second, Ortega has a chapter entitled, “Forgiveness Doesn’t Mean You Forgive the Person Right Away.”  Ortega reasonably notes that forgiveness is often a process for us, for getting over an offense against us may take time.  Even after we have forgiven a person, something may happen that triggers our pain all over again.  Ortega is aware that there are Scriptures that appear to command the opposite: Ephesians 4:26 exhorts people not to let the sun go down on their wrath, which seems to command immediate forgiveness, not forgiveness that is a process.  This chapter would have been better had Ortega attempted to reconcile Ephesians 4:26 with her belief that forgiveness can be a process, and also if Ortega had supported from Scripture her proposal that forgiveness can be a process.  In Appendix B, Ortega lists three Scriptures under this topic, and they are relevant, on some level (i.e., II Corinthians 2:5-6 depicts Paul and the Corinthian Christians recovering from grief after an offense, and Psalm 51:16-17 says that God will not despise a broken spirit).  Still, her point would have been strengthened had she presented Scriptural examples of people who struggled to forgive right away, yet were loved and honored by God.  A possible example that comes to my mind is Paul’s long-term journey towards accepting Mark (Acts 15:37-39; II Timothy 4:11).

Third, Ortega suggests that people write out their resentments and share that with an accepting friend or counselor.  As Ortega most likely knows, a similar approach is employed within Alcoholics Anonymous, as recovering alcoholics write out their resentments and share them with a sponsor.  That is a sensible approach, for talking things out with someone else can help a person feel better.  There are many people, however, who may struggle to find someone with whom they can share their resentments.  They may struggle with forming relationships with people, or perhaps they cannot think of anyone whom they trust enough to hear their resentments.  The book would have been better had it offered advice to people in that situation.

Finally, while the book was very specific about what forgiveness is not, it could have been clearer in defining what forgiveness is.  I cannot be too critical here, for the book, on some level, did present a picture of forgiveness.  Part of it, for Ortega, is not continually dwelling on offenses.  Part of it is forsaking malice.  Part of it is cultivating a peace of mind and moving on with one’s life.  Part of it is having concern for one’s enemy’s well-being.  Those are all important insights, but I think that, somewhere in the book, perhaps in the beginning or after the chapters about what forgiveness is not, Ortega should have included a concise paragraph offering a definition of forgiveness.

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

Monday, January 9, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Unseen Realm, by Michael S. Heiser

Michael S. Heiser.  The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible.  Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015.  See here to purchase the book.

Michael S. Heiser has an M.A. in Ancient History (with a focus on ancient Israel and Egyptology) from the University of Pennsylvania, as well as a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible and Semitic languages from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which is an academic powerhouse in Hebrew Bible and Semitic studies.

To provide a rough summary of the story that Heiser tells, let’s start with Adam and Eve.  According to Heiser, God created Adam and Eve to reproduce and fill the earth with people made in God’s image, extending the influence of God throughout the world (Genesis 1:28).  The Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve were to receive revelations from God, was the earthy location of the divine council, God’s council of divine beings that is mentioned in Scripture (i.e., Psalm 82; I Kings 22:19ff.).  In the ancient Near East, gods met or dwelt on mountains and in gardens, so Heiser believes that the Garden of Eden was a meeting place for the divine council.  Among the divine council was the serpent, who was part of the divine retinue, as serpents were in ancient Near Eastern imagery of gods, and perhaps also in Isaiah 6:2.  This serpent rebels against God and tempts Adam and Eve to sin, with the result that the serpent is cast to the underworld, as Heiser reads Genesis 2 in light of the rebellious beings in Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28.

Years later, after the Flood, human beings have failed to heed God’s desire for them to scatter throughout the earth and spread God’s influence.  They want to recapture the access to the divine council that Adam and Eve had, so they attempt to build a tower to the heavens, the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11).  God scatters the people over the face of the earth by confusing their languages.  As God divides up the nations, God assigns each nation to a particular god, who would rule the nation (Deuteronomy 4:19-20; 32:8-9).  Israel, however, would belong to God God-self.  Other gods try to thwart God’s plan to rule Israel and, in turn, to spread God’s influence throughout the world through Israel.  As they did prior to the Flood (Genesis 6), the gods mate with human beings and produce giant offspring, and this offspring inhabits the Promised Land, where God intends the Israelites to dwell.  The Israelite Conquest of the Promised Land is about ridding the land of this giant offspring, even though Heiser states that there were many Canaanites who were not giants.

For Heiser, the work of Jesus was about freeing the nations from the rule of the gods, so that God and exalted believers would rule the nations instead.  The gods are not eager to relinquish their reign, however, and that is why Christians are in a battle against principalities and powers (Ephesians 6:12).  The Kingdom of God is already and not yet.

This is the overall picture that Heiser presents, but there are other arguments that Heiser makes, as well.  Like a number of Christians, Heiser contends that there are two YHWHs in the Old Testament, one of them being a YHWH who appears to people in a visible form.  For Heiser, that particular YHWH is Jesus Christ.  Heiser states that, “in some of the oldest manuscripts of Jude (e.g., Alexandrinus and Vaticanus),” Jude 5 states that Jesus led the Israelites out of Egypt at the Exodus (page 270).

Another prominent topic in this book is Bashan and Mount Hermon, in the north.  Both were part of Og’s dominion.  Og was one of the Rephaim, an offspring of a divine-human union (Deuteronomy 3:13; Joshua 12:5).  For Heiser, Bashan was a spiritually evil place.  Heiser regards it as a gate to hell, since Ugaritic literature presents Rephaim in the underworld, plus Bashan can mean serpent, and the serpent of Genesis 3 was in the underworld.  I Enoch 6:1-6 states that Mount Hermon was where the divine beings of Genesis 6 came when they cohabited with women, producing the giant Nephilim.  In Jesus’ time, Mount Hermon was a prominent site of pagan temples, and Heiser argues that Jesus is alluding to it when he states, near that very site, that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church (Matthew 16:18).  Bashan appears in the context of Scriptural passages that the New Testament quotes (Psalm 22; Psalm 68), and Heiser deems that to be significant.  Heiser also maintains that Bashan has eschatological significance, as he interprets eschatological danger from the north in reference to the evil spiritual forces of Bashan.  Most interestingly, Heiser speculates that the maligned cows of Bashan in Amos 4:1-2 are not rich women but rather supernatural beings!

Other fascinating topics that Heiser explores: the question of whether the “god of this age” who blinds people in II Corinthians 4:4 is Satan or God; the identity of Armageddon (for Heiser, it is not Megiddo!); why Paul wanted to go to Spain (Romans 15:24, 28), and how Isaiah 66:19 relates to that; themes from the Hebrew Bible that appear in the story of Pentecost (Acts 2); and how the Old Testament foreshadows (and does not foreshadow) Jesus.  And there are many more topics that Heiser discusses, not only in the text but also in the in-depth footnotes.

Here are some thoughts:

A.  I am slightly unclear about where Heiser believes the demons/gods, specifically the demons/gods who ruled the nations, came to be located.  Obviously, these gods started out in heaven, but does Heiser believe that the gods who rule the nations were cast from heaven into hell?  Heiser believes that there are evil spirits in hell: the serpent, and the spirits of the giants.  But what about the gods who rule the nations?  My impression was that, sometimes in this book, these evil spirits got conflated, and that was where my confusion arose.

B.  There may be something to Heiser’s arguments about Bashan, in terms of Bashan being considered an evil place by ancient Israelites and later Jews.  I am not entirely convinced by Heiser’s argument that Bashan was considered a gateway to the underworld, however.  When Deuteronomy refers to Rephaim in Bashan, it may simply mean that there were giants who at one time lived in the land of Bashan, on earth, not that Bashan was a gateway to the Rephaim in hell.

C.  Heiser addressed questions that I have had.  For example, why would the ancients believe that gods dwelt on mountains, if they could simply climb the mountains and see that the gods were not there?  Why would God tell Adam and Eve to fill the earth in Genesis 1, when Genesis 2 seems to presume that, had they not sinned, they would have stayed in the Garden of Eden rather than filling the earth?  Heiser’s answers generate more questions in my head, but he did well to address them.

D.  I am not saying this to be a heresy-hunter, but Heiser’s view on the divine inspiration and historicity of the Bible was rather unclear to me.  Heiser seemed to argue that the divine-human unions in Genesis 6 and the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11 were Jewish responses to Babylonian or Mesopotamian claims.  Does that imply that they were stories created during the exilic period and did not actually happen in history?  Heiser also appears to argue that the Bible reflects some of the limitations in knowledge of its time: for instance, Isaiah 66:19’s reference to Tarshish and Paul’s desire to go to Spain reflect ancient ideas about the extent of the earth.  Would Heiser treat this as an example of divine accommodation?

E.  Although my point in (D.) may portray Heiser as somewhat of a liberal, there were salient conservative elements in Heiser’s treatment of the Bible.  Source criticism was lacking in the book, as if the Bible reflected one divine authorial intent.  Heiser attempted to harmonize apparent contradictions (i.e., statements that appear to suggest that there are no other gods besides YHWH, and statements that acknowledge the existence of other gods).  Isaiah 53 is applied to the Davidic king, without much argument (page 247).  The Gospel of Mark is presumed to see Jesus as God-incarnate, when there are many scholars who disagree.  Source criticism could have an impact on Heiser’s argument: is the Bible’s message, for example, that humans and Israel are to fill the world with God’s influence, when there are some exclusivist voices in the Hebrew Bible?  I doubt, though, that source criticism would overthrow every argument that Heiser makes.  Heiser’s approach may be a reasonable canonical way to approach the text, as Heiser implies when he refers to the divine inspiration of the text’s final form.  Plus, there is a possibility that New Testament authors and figures were influenced by the Old Testament themes in the manner that Heiser discusses.

F.  Heiser does well to refer to scholarly literature about Jewish binitarianism.  I question, though, whether Heiser’s interpretation of the Angel of the Lord is the only way to account for that figure.  Is the Angel of the Lord a second YHWH, co-eternal with the other YHWH, or is he simply a created being acting as God’s representative, carrying divine privileges and authority as God’s representative?  The view that a created being could represent God and carry divine prerogatives was present in ancient Judaism, as J.R. Daniel Kirk demonstrates in his book, A Man Attested by God (Eerdmans, 2016).

My questions notwithstanding, I found The Unseen Realm to be an interesting, engaging, and well-argued book.

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

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