Sunday, May 28, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Dawn of Christianity, by Robert J. Hutchinson

Robert J. Hutchinson.  The Dawn of Christianity: How God Used Simple Fisherman, Soldiers, and Prostitutes to Transform the World.  Nelson Books, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

In The Dawn of Christianity, Robert J. Hutchinson covers the time from the last days of Jesus to the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15.  Chapter 1 is somewhat of a novellization, but the remainder of the book has more of a tone that one would expect from a non-fiction historical book.  Hutchinson tells the story of Jesus and the early church, while interspersing information about customs, cities, and figures of the time, as well as scholarly discoveries and controversies.

Here are some of my reactions to the book:

A.  I am giving the book five stars, for reasons that I will explain below.  Let me start, though, with a few critiques.  For one, Hutchinson argues against the scholarly idea that Jesus predicted an imminent end of the world.  Overall, his arguments were not particularly convincing (at least to me), and he did not entirely explain what Jesus meant when he preached about the Kingdom of God.

Mark 9:1 states that some standing there will not taste death before they see the Kingdom come with power.  Hutchinson seems to argue that the Kingdom was already coming in power at that time, with the ministry of Jesus.  On some level, that may be true, but is that what Jesus was talking about in Mark 9:1?  Why would Jesus say that some standing there would not taste death before seeing the Kingdom, if he were discussing a Kingdom that was breaking out all around them?  Hutchinson believes that Matthew 24:14, which states that the Gospel shall be preached to all the world before the end comes, precludes the possibility that Jesus envisioned an imminent end of the world, for the Gospel at the time was a long way off from being preached to all the world!  And yet, Paul in Romans 10:18 and Colossians 1:6 (assuming Paul wrote Colossians) seems to suggest that the Gospel then had gone or was going to the entire world.  Hutchinson states that certain Jesus Seminar scholars dispute that Jesus believed in an imminent end of the world, and yet he does not share that some of the Jesus Seminar scholars dismiss as secondary and non-authentic the apocalyptic parts of the Gospels.  I doubt that Hutchinson embraces that kind of methodology!

Hutchinson tried to offer an idea of what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God.  He presented a picture of God offering forgiveness and people repenting, lives being changed, and people gathering together in groups in which Kingdom principles were practiced.  The Kingdom of God arguably entails those things.  And yet, on page 19, Hutchinson states that “Jesus saw himself, and was seen by others, as the long-promised Jewish Messiah, the divine Son of Man who was inaugurating a new era in human history—-and whose reign would threaten and ultimately destroy all the kings and warlords of the earth.”  That sounds rather apocalyptic, perhaps imminently apocalyptic!  (Well, there is that word “ultimately” there, but the statement still implies that eschatology was a significant aspect of Jesus’ identity and mission.)

This is not to suggest that all of Hutchinson’s discussion of this issue was lacking.  I myself wonder if Bart Ehrman is correct in saying that Jesus envisioned an imminent divine destruction of the Romans, since Jesus hardly ever mentioned the Romans.  Hutchinson had a pretty good response to Bart Ehrman’s arguments that Q has an imminent apocalyptic saying: Hutchinson noted that the saying includes Jesus’ statement that Christians will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man but will not see it (see Luke 17:22).  As Hutchinson notes, that sounds like a delay in the Son of Man’s coming, not imminence.  Hutchinson also recommended scholarly books on the topic.  And the endnote about Dale Allison’s struggle with this issue was endearing.  To quote Allison: “…a Jesus without eschatological error would certainly make my life easier…I might, for instance, be able to tell some of my relatives, without them shuddering aghast, at what I really do for a living” (quoted from Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, p. 133).

B.  There were a few factual errors.  Hutchinson seemed to equate God-fearers with proselytes, when the two were not the same.  He considered such Jewish dietary prohibitions as the ban on mixing meat and milk to be biblical, when it was post-biblical.  Not that this necessarily counts as a “factual error,” but Hutchinson assumed that Isaiah 40 was written by Isaiah of Jerusalem, when many scholars believe it was written by Second Isaiah, who was a century later than Isaiah of Jerusalem.  This was surprising to me, since Hutchinson is well-versed on scholarly debates.

C.  Hutchinson generally believes in the historical reliability of the Gospels and the Book of Acts.  This approach actually led to interesting discussions in this book, as when he suggested that there is plausibility in the Gospel portrayals of Pilate being reluctant to execute Jesus, even though Pilate is presented in non-biblical sources as quite ruthless.  Hutchinson offered ways to reconcile these pictures.  At the same time, Hutchinson was not rigid in defending biblical inerrancy.  He thought that the Gospel of John’s timing of Jesus’ last meal and crucifixion makes more sense than that of the synoptics, for the Jewish establishment would not try Jesus on a Sabbath.  (In an endnote, however, he refers to a scholarly argument that there were different ways to date the Passover at the time.)  In discussion the question of whether the creed in I Corinthians 15:3-7 coincides with the Gospels, Hutchinson mentioned possible areas of overlaps (i.e., an early appearance to Peter), but also difficulties (i.e., the difficulty of assuming that Jesus’ appearance to the 500 is what Matthew 28 depicts).

D.  I had a slight problem with Hutchinson’s implication that Jesus was on everyone’s radar: that everyone was thinking about Jesus (well, maybe that is overstating his argument, but he did seem to suggest that a lot of people in first century Palestine were thinking about Jesus).  Hutchinson may just be following the Gospels here, since there are statements in the Gospels that state that Jesus was famous, or was unpopular with the Jewish establishment.  I wonder why, if Jesus’ was on so many people’s radar, there is such a dearth of first-century non-Christian references to Jesus.  Maybe my question is off-base: one could argue that there are major historical events that we only know about from one source, or that not all sources have survived.  Maybe.  The question still nags me, somewhat.

E.  Hutchinson attempts to explain why the early Christian movement was controversial.  He opts for Larry Hurtado’s suggestion that the early Christians were portraying Jesus as divine, on some level, and that was what many first century Jews did not like.  Hutchinson refers to a few passages in Acts that he thinks may imply this.  This discussion was rather brief, considering how significant the issue is: why do so many people in Acts hate the Christians so much?  Yet, Hutchinson deserves credit for attempting to offer an explanation.  (And, as Hutchinson notes, many Gentiles did not care for Christians turning people away from idols and, in turn, their business.)

F.  I said above that “Hutchinson still tells the story of Jesus and the early church, while interspersing information about customs, cities, and figures of the time, as well as scholarly discoveries and controversies.”  This is where the book shined!  And Hutchinson did so in a compelling, lucid, and engaging manner: readers would not get caught up in a bunch of weeds (those were saved for the endnotes!), and the asides did not inhibit the story but often advanced it.  There are many examples in this book, and I will not share all of them here.  I will share one, though: I appreciated Hutchinson’s discussion of Herod Agrippa I.  Herod Agrippa I became King of the Jews on account of his friendship with Caligula, so he had the authority to implement the death penalty, something that the Jewish authorities in Palestine often lacked under Roman rule.  In the Book of Acts, he used that authority against early Christians.  And yet, Josephus and rabbinic literature portray him as a pious man.  But Josephus and the Book of Acts also talk about his demise, with overlapping details: both present him as dying soon after people were extolling him as a god!  Okay, many who have read and studied the New Testament may already know this, but Hutchinson also shared some less-known scholarly controversies.

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

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Biologos: Did Darwin Promote Genocide?

Church Write-Up: We Support Each Other, but We Walk Our Own Spiritual Walk

I visited two churches last Sunday.  The first is a non-denominational evangelical church.  I will call it the “Pen church” because I got a new pen there.  And these pens are long-lasting!  The second church is a largely African-American Baptist church.  I have been there a lot of times in the past.  Even in weeks that I do not go there, I watch the sermon online.

The pastor at the Pen church was starting a series about being a velcro Christian, having a faith that sticks.  The pastor shared a statistic that 70% of high school students who become Christians end up leaving the faith.  One solution that the pastor proposes is being in Christian community.  That can keep Christians on track, as they deal with a world that tempts them towards pleasure away from God.

The pastor at the Baptist church was continuing a series on the family.  Last Sunday, he was preaching about how husbands and wives should relate to each other.  He said that spouses cannot force each other to be a certain way through nagging, for each spouse has to feel that call from God for himself or herself.

I somewhat juxtaposed the two sermons in my mind.  I can understand the benefit of small groups or church attendance.  Christians gather together with other Christians, and they can encourage one another on the Christian path.  A person who wants to keep on being a Christian may appreciate that positive form of peer pressure.

But it is far from fool-proof.  There are people who professed Christianity who were involved in church, small groups, and maybe even Christian ministry, but they ended up leaving Christianity.  Maybe they felt alone in small groups and felt that they were wearing a Christian mask.  Perhaps they had intellectual doubts that they deemed to be insurmountable.  Maybe they got discouraged with God on account of life, or got tired trying to be perfect all of the time.

In some cases, their fellow Christians may have tried to help them.  They gave them Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ or tried to argue them back onto the Christian path.  But it did not work.  Either these Christians falling out of the Christian faith were not truly convinced intellectually, or perhaps their mind was simply going in the opposite direction.  I have been there before.  I am told that I need to be HERE in terms of my faith, but I am THERE.

This is where the Baptist pastor’s sermon comes in.  We cannot have faith for somebody else.  People ultimately have to walk their own walk.  Maybe Christians can advise others, or offer a listening ear, provided that the struggling or leaving Christian wants that.  But nobody can make a person have faith.  Attempting to argue someone into the faith may create resistance rather than helping the person.

I may visit the Pen church next week, since I find the series to be intriguing.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Most Misused Stories in the Bible

Eric J. Bargerhuff.  The Most Misused Stories in the Bible: Surprising Ways Popular Bible Stories Are Misunderstood.  Bethany House, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

Eric J. Bargerhuff has a doctorate in biblical and systematic theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, was a pastor for over two decades, and teaches in the Bible and Theology department at Trinity College in Florida.  Bagerhuff in this book discusses biblical stories, explains how he believes that they have been misunderstood, and offers his interpretation.

In this review, I will comment on each chapter, except for the Introduction and Conclusion.

Chapter 1 is about the David and Goliath story.  According to Bargerhuff, the popular misunderstanding here is that the story is a lesson about how we should overcome our fears and face our giants.  But Bargerhuff observes that David is not actually afraid in this story.  David challenges Goliath because he is jealous for the glory of God, whom Goliath has mocked.  These are good observations.  At the same time, there are times in the Bible in which David was disturbed and sought refuge in God, and that should be appreciated.

Chapter 2 is entitled “Gideon and His Fleece.”  According to Bargerhuff, the misunderstanding here is that the story is about how we should determine the will of God.  As Bargerhuff notes, however, Gideon already knew the will of God when he performed the test.  Bargerhuff mostly spent this chapter on the topic of how we can discern the will of God, and he seemed to regard Gideon as unnecessarily insecure.  In my opinion, though, the story is a beautiful example of how God is patient with us in our insecurities.

Chapter 3 is about Cain and Abel.  Bargerhuff attempts to explain why God accepted Abel’s sacrifice while rejecting Cain’s sacrifice, and he resorts to appealing to Hebrews 11:4 to find an explanation.  Ordinarily, I prefer for scholars to focus on the Hebrew Bible in explaining the Hebrew Bible, but I did not mind Bargerhuff’s approach in this case.  The reason is that Bargerhuff tried to get whatever he could from the context of Genesis 4, as he interacted with the proposal that Abel offered the firstlings of his flock, whereas Cain did not offer the firstfruits of the soil.

Chapter 4 is entitled “Jonah and the Big Fish.”  One feature of this chapter that stood out to me was when Bargerhuff noted that Jonah seemed really proud to be a Hebrew in Jonah 1:9-10, even as he was disobeying the God of the Hebrews!

Chapter 5 is entitled “The Woman Caught in Adultery.”  He points out that Jesus told the woman caught in adultery to go and sin no more.  Bargerhuff disagrees with those who appeal to the story to undermine criticisms of sin.  Throughout the book, Bargerhuff stresses the importance of repentance in salvation.  In an interesting endnote, Bargerhuff discusses the text critical issues surrounding this passage, as well as its controversial status among Christians in the time of Augustine.

Chapter 6 is entitled “Jesus Could Not Do Miracles in His Hometown.”  Bargerhuff spends this chapter criticizing health-and-wealth Gospels that claim that people who are not healed lacked faith.  He appeals to Paul as one who was not healed (assuming his thorn in the flesh was a physical malady), and he makes the wise statement that life in this fallen world entails suffering.  These are fine points, but I thought that Bargerhuff was dodging what the biblical passage said: Jesus could not do miracles in his hometown.  Bargerhuff was trying to argue that Jesus could perform miracles but chose not to do so.  Perhaps Bargerhuff would have done well to have done a word study on the Greek word dunamai to see if it always means “to be able to.”  The chapter also would have been better had it explored the question of why Jesus emphasized faith when it came to healing.

Chapter 7 is about Zacchaeus.  Bargerhuff argues that this story is not about Zacchaeus seeking Jesus but rather Jesus seeking Zacchaeus.  Bargerhuff interacted with a scholarly view that Zacchaeus was already doing the right thing before meeting Jesus, and, lest you wonder who in the world would think that, he quotes scholars who make that argument.  (Now I am interested in reading their rationale!)  Bargerhuff resorts to Paul’s writings in an attempt to explain why Jesus emphasizes that Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham.  I think that, instead, he should have based his explanation on the significance of Abraham in Luke/Acts.

Chapter 8 is entitled “Sowing Your Seed.”  In this chapter, Bargerhuff criticizes prosperity preachers who claim that people can prosper by sowing seeds (money) into the preachers’ ministry.  According to Bargerhuff, the Parable of the Sower is not about that.  I am open to correction on this, but I doubt that prosperity preachers appeal specifically to the Parable of the Sower to defend that teaching.  There are other passages that they can cite to make their point, such as Luke 6:38 and II Corinthians 9:6.

Chapter 9 is about the “three” wise men.  As Bargerhuff notes, the Bible never says that there were only three wise men.  Bargerhuff makes interesting points as he tries to harmonize the stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke: he states that the magi brought Jesus the gifts a while after his infancy.  After all, if Mary and Joseph had that wealth when Jesus was a baby, why did they offer a poor-person’s offering at the Temple in the Gospel of Luke?

Chapter 10 is about Judas.  Bargerhuff argues that the example of Judas does not demonstrate that a Christian can lose his or her salvation.  According to Bargerhuff, Judas was never a believer, and Bargerhuff astutely appeals to John 6:61-64 to support this point.  Is that true of everyone who leaves the Christian faith, though?  Bargerhuff appears to think so, on the basis of I John 2:19.  But, in reading this book, I wonder if he is completely persuaded by this, for he seems to manifest a sensitivity towards the reasons that people leave the faith.  Moreover, while Bargerhuff finds comfort in once-saved-always-saved, he appears to believe that believers should look to subjective criteria (are they bearing the fruit of the Spirit?), among other things, for assurance of salvation.  Can that offer assurance, since we are imperfect?

Chapter 11 is entitled “The Samaritan Pentecost.”  In Acts 8, there is a gap of time between when the Samaritans believed in Jesus and when they received the Holy Spirit.  Bargerhoff argues against the idea that all Christians who are baptized with the Holy Spirit speak in tongues, experiencing a “second baptism” sometime after their conversion.  Bargerhuff argues on the basis of I Corinthians 12:13 that all Christians are baptized with the Holy Spirit right when they believe, and it does not necessarily entail speaking in tongues.  The early chapters of Acts, according to him, portray a different scenario because it was a time of transition between the Old and New Covenants.  Bargerhuff’s argues that God in Acts 8 was showing that God accepted the Samaritans as God accepted the Jews by giving them a similar experience, like the Jews had in Acts 2.  That makes a degree of sense: after all, in Acts 10, the Gentile Christians spoke in tongues like the Jewish Christians did in Acts 2, for that very reason!  Bargerhuff should have attempted to account for the people in Acts 19 who speak in tongues, but perhaps he can tweak his explanation about the Samaritans who receive the Holy Spirit, such that it accounts for the people in Acts 19.  In an interesting endnote, Bargerhuff quotes a statement by D.A. Carson offering a grammatical reason that the baptism with fire that John the Baptist mentions is the purifying Holy Spirit, not hell or divine wrath.

Chapter 12 is about the rich fool in Luke 12.  This was a level-headed chapter.  It said that God is not against people being rich, but God does not want people to be greedy: God wants them to be generous to those in need!

Chapter 13 is about Jesus’ statement at the Last Supper that “This is my body.”  Bargerhuff critiques the doctrine of transubstantiation and provides a lucid explanation of consubstantiation, referring to a sponge analogy (quoting Wayne Grudem).  Bargerhuff critiques Roman Catholicism for believing that the mass is a literal sacrifice of Christ, as he appeals to the Epistle to the Hebrews to argue that Jesus died once and for all.  I wondered how Catholics get around that.  From the Council of Trent, I can see that Catholicism does regard the mass as a propitiatory sacrifice.  Do they reconcile that with Hebrews in a manner that makes sense, or is the fit rather awkward?

Chapter 14 is about “Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit.”  Essentially, Bargerhuff argues that it is rejecting Christ, to whom the Holy Spirit testifies.  But Jesus said that speaking against the Son will be forgiven.  How does Bargerhuff account for that in his argument?

This is a thoughtful book.  I was hoping for a little more depth, considering Bargerhuff’s scholarly credentials, but it was an informative, edifying read.

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

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis

Thomas a Kempis.  The Imitation of Christ.  New York: Dover Publications, 2003.

According to the translators in the Foreword, the most popular view regarding this book’s origin is that it was written by a few members of the Brethren of the Common Life, a group of priests, in the Netherlands during the second half of the fourteenth century.  The priest Thomas, a member of the Brethren, translated it into Latin.

Here are some of my thoughts about the book:

A.  What surprised me was what was lacking in the book.  When we think of WWJD (“What would Jesus do?”), what enters a lot of Christians mind is love and service towards others.  There are statements about that in this book, here and there, but it is not the book’s focus.  How, then, do we imitate Christ, according to the book?  We accept suffering, as Christ did, placing God’s desires above our own in so doing.  Some of this suffering comes from life’s events.  Yet, the book also has a strong ascetic focus.  When Jesus tells the rich young ruler to sell all that he has and give it to the poor, this book seems to regard that as more normative than a lot of Christians do.

B.  The book resembles Buddhism in its belief that Christians should detach themselves from worldly things, such as money and a desire for success.  It even believes that Christians should try to avoid looking to people for consolation and should instead turn to God for that: God may take God’s time to console us, the book acknowledges, but keep on waiting!  The reason that I say that the book is like Buddhism in its emphasis on detachment is that it maintains that attachment leads to suffering: our desires will be disappointed in this life, so we are happier when we are detached.  But the book also holds that even those who do get what they want are either suffering, or their possessions are standing in the way of their intimacy with God and the spiritual rapture that can come from that.

C.  While I understood the book’s argument that attachment leads to suffering, I did not know what its rationale was for asceticism.  Okay, sure, this world will not last, but why not enjoy it when we still can?  And cannot enjoying the pleasures of life enhance our appreciation for God, as we give God thanks?  I think of I Timothy 4:3, in which the author criticizes those who command people “to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth” (KJV).  Asceticism sounds rather Gnostic to me.  The Gnostics believed that the material world was bad because it was created by a sinister or an inferior sub-deity to trap people and estrange them from spirituality.  Their asceticism is understandable, in light of this view.  The Imitation of Christ does not believe that, though, for it holds that the creator of the material world was a good God.  Yet, for some reason, it seemed to denigrate the material world and enjoyment thereof.

D.  There is a lot of emphasis in evangelical Christianity on socializing: you need to be in DEEP community!  You cannot be a lone-ranger Christian!  This book, by contrast, stressed solitude: it is good to get away from people and seek consolation from God!  At times, the book treats chatting as foolishness to be avoided.  On one occasion, though, the book did say that people should not allow their private prayers to take them away from public prayer, a rather communitarian sentiment, but that sentiment was rare in this book.  As an introvert, I appreciated the book’s emphasis on solitude.  Still, I thought that the book went too far in that direction.  Does not Galatians 6:2 exhort Christians to bear one another’s burdens?  And, since the book was putting words into the mouth of Jesus, would not one expect Jesus to say more about loving other people?

E.  The book did exhort people to avoid negative feelings about others, but it tended to avoid the cheery “reach out to people” sentiments of modern evangelicalism.  Rather, it said that we should try to minimize our annoyance with others, since we ourselves have flaws that may annoy people.  Overall, though, the book had a rather dim view of life and of people, as if it regarded life as a drag, with temptations and desires that drag people down.  It looked to God, for consolation in this life and in the life hereafter.

F.  Humility was a theme that recurred frequently in this book.  We should be intellectually humble: intellect should lead to a virtuous life and not simply be for the sake of knowing things!  Part of the book’s stress on humility was its conviction that priests should submit to their superiors.  The book also emphasized that we are sinners.  We will interact with that more in the next item!

G.  A problem that I have long had with elements of conservative Christianity is this: we are supposed to believe that we are sinners, yet we are also supposed to look for internal signs that we are saved, and such signs include the fruit of the Spirit: are we loving?  Do we have joy?  I am not saying that all of Christianity is like this, but I believe that the elements of Christianity that do have this sort of stance place people in a Catch-22.  Am I supposed to see myself as bad?  Am I supposed to see myself as good, as a result of the Holy Spirit’s work?  Which way do I go?

In light of that, the way that this book interacted with such issues intrigued me.  On the one hand, it believed that God’s judgment was a reality that even Christians should fear: in one poignant passage, it said that many of us are afraid when people are upset with us, so what makes us think we will be so brazen at God’s judgment seat?  That definitely spoke to me: I can be quite timid around other people, and yet, for some reason, I can envision myself telling God off at the last judgment!  In addition, the book seemed to regard its exhortations as a heaven or hell issue: those who surrender to God’s will and give up attachment will be the ones who will be saved.  One can get the impression that, as far as the book is concerned, we need to have all our ducks in a row to be saved!

On the other hand, the book was honest about human flaws.  The authors confess their imperfections.  If there is good within them, they believe it is on account of the Holy Spirit, and, even then, they often do not feel God’s consolations and sense the depths of their own shortcomings.  Sometimes, the book makes concessions: if you cannot bear suffering cheerfully, at least do so with patience!  If you cannot partake of the Eucharist with enthusiasm, then you can put off doing so, as long as you do not make that a habit.  The book also emphasized God’s mercy.  The book did not embrace any concept of “Once Saved Always Saved,” as far as I could see, and yet it was comforting, in its own way, since it was honest about human fallibility and encouraged people to persevere, trusting in a merciful God.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Book Write-Up: 12 Days in Africa

Lisa Sanders, with Cathy Bruning and Blake Sanders.  12 Days in Africa: A Mother’s Journey.  WestBow Press, 2013.  See here to buy the book.

12 Days in Africa is about Lisa Sanders’ time in Uganda.  She talks about the people she met and the experiences that she had, both happy and sad.  At times, the book contains first-person testimonies by people in Uganda who were helped by an organization.  Children received an education, for example, which allowed them to contribute to their nation.

The book reads fairly smoothly in terms of prose, but not so much in terms of structure.  It is informative in that it sheds light on the struggles that people experience in Uganda, and the barriers that inhibit them from surpassing them.  Although parts of the book seem like an infomercial, it was good to read about positive contributions that people are making.  At the same time, the book sometimes conveyed a tone of Western saviors swooping in and helping helpless Ugandans.  The occasions when the book talked about Ugandans helping Uganda were rare, as I recall, but they were valuable.  There was not a whole lot of theological reflection in the book, until the very end.  The end was also when Sanders shared some of her own vulnerabilities and characteristics, and that was endearing.  I especially liked her story about how her son wanted to work in Africa for a semester rather than finish up that year of college, to the consternation of his practical engineer father!

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

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