Friday, November 24, 2017

Church Write-Up: Resolution, Mystery, or Both?

On Thanksgiving, I went to the Missouri Synod church’s Thanksgiving service.

The pastor talked about a movie from the 1980’s entitled The Big Chill.  The pastor was saying that it is about University of Michigan students, and, while he himself liked the movie, he could see Roger Ebert’s point that the movie had no resolution.  It was aimless.  The pastor cited this as a movie that asks the right questions, but does not quite get to the correct destination.

I read up on the movie when I got home.  It is about people who were college students, but they got older and reached middle age, dealing with the problems and the challenges of that.  One of them (played by Kevin Costner) had committed suicide, and that drew the former classmates together.  From the wikipedia description, it appeared that the movie had a lot of sex: looking to sex to find fulfillment.  This may be part of what the pastor meant when he said that the movie asked right questions but fell short in its answers.

The movie may not arrive at a resolution, but I doubt that it is like some comedies I have seen: going nowhere, such that I could not care less about where they go.  They’re just a bunch of silliness!  An existential piece about people coping with challenges, like Sisyphus rolling that stone endlessly uphill, sounds interesting to me.  I hope, though, that the movie is not just about sex.

Do movies or TV shows need resolution to be any good?  I think of the show Touched by an Angel.  There was a time when I absolutely loved that show.  Nowadays, while I still like it, I like it less than I did (and I mean at least a year ago).  You have people with these agonizing problems, and a minute-long speech by Monica, Tess, or Andrew changes their perspective and solves their problem.  Maybe I am selling that short: if I absolutely knew that God existed, and that an angel was offering encouraging, consoling, loving words from God that I could trust as true, then perhaps that would change my perspective.  Some may not be satisfied, though.  I think of some characters in the show who say, “You think I feel better now that I know that God exists?”  But Monica’s speech changes their mind, in the end.

I recently watched a movie that I really liked.  I saw Tess Harper in a Touched by an Angel episode, and, while I had seen her in a variety of things (i.e., Christy, Breaking Bad, No Country for Old Men), I wondered what it was that she was especially known for.  I found a movie from the 1980’s entitled Tender Mercies, which received Academy Award nominations and victories.  Robert Duvall plays a washed-up country-music writer named Mac.  Mac was an alcoholic, had been abusive to his first wife, and had not seen his daughter in over a decade.  He meets a woman (played by Tess Harper), and he attends church.  Still, even after his conversion to Christianity, his life is not rosy.  I liked this part of the wikipedia article about the movie:

“However, in the face of the loss of his daughter, Mac learns, in Briley’s words, that ‘his life as a Christian is no more sheltered from this world’s tragedies than it was before.’ Before finding redemption, Sledge questions why God has allowed his life to take the path it has and, in particular, why his daughter was killed instead of him. Commentators have described this as a prime example of theodicy, the question of why evil exists that is commonly faced by Christians.  Scholar Richard Leonard writes, ‘For all believers, the meaning of suffering is the universal question. … No answer is completely satisfying, least of all the idea that God sends bad events to teach us something.’ Following the death of his daughter, Mac moves forward with uncertainty as the film ends. Jewett writes of this conclusion, ‘The message of this film is that we have no final assurances, any more than Abraham did. But we can respond in faith to the tender mercies we have received.'”

This movie ends on some note of resolution, since Mac found some constructive way to approach life.  But it also ends on a note of mystery and bafflement.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Book Write-Up: Is This the End?, by David Jeremiah

Dr. David Jeremiah.  People Are Asking…Is This the End: Signs of God’s Providence in a Disturbing New World.  W Publishing Group, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

Dr. David Jeremiah pastors the Shadow Mountain Community Church in San Diego, California.  This book is about America’s moral decline (in Jeremiah’s estimation), the possibility of revival, and the end times, specifically Gog’s attack of Israel (Ezekiel 38-39), the pretribulational rapture of the saints, and the Great Tribulation.

Here are some thoughts:

A.  Jeremiah criticizes real problems, such as the epidemics of pornography and sex trafficking.  At the same time, Jeremiah seems to criticize the Left as a source of the moral relativism that afflicts the U.S.  Maybe he is correct that there have been prominent left-wingers who have embraced and promoted moral relativism.  Has he ever considered, however, that the Left has also stood up for moral absolutism?  It has challenged greed and war when they hurt innocent, powerless people.  It also has stood up against racism and discrimination.  Perhaps elements of the right-wing are the ones who are accommodationist, on certain moral issues.

B.  Some chapters were more balanced in their depiction of issues than others.  The chapter on immigration was all right.  Jeremiah accepts the right-wing narrative that illegal immigrants are a drain on the American system, but he also favorably quotes people who support compassion for them.  His chapter on Islam said that there are Muslims who seek to create sharia law in the U.S. through infiltration, yet he still encouraged love towards Muslims and acknowledged that most Muslims are peaceful.  His chapter on intolerance towards Christians in the U.S. raised important issues, and it at least was aware of the legal rule that the state cannot promote religion, but individuals can (some right-wingers do not understand this).  The chapter would have been better, however, had Jeremiah acknowledged that homosexuals in the U.S. themselves have felt persecuted.  The chapter on Israel was very one-sided, in favor of Israel.

C.  The book was informative on the history of revivals in the U.S. (and elsewhere, such as Wales), the history of Isis, and the political career of Putin.

D.  Jeremiah argues that Gog’s invasion of Israel will occur during the Great Tribulation, between the Antichrist’s peace treaty between Israel and the Arab world, and the Second Coming of Christ.  He appears to treat the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 as the prophesied return of the Jews to the Promised Land.  There are problems with this view, in my opinion.  The chapters about Gog’s attempted invasion of Israel are Ezekiel 38-39.  They come after Ezekiel 37, which concerns God’s restoration of Israel to her land.  What happens when Israel returns to her land, according to Ezekiel 37?  For one, not only the Jews return there, but the Northern tribes do, as well.  Also, the Davidic monarchy is restored.  God spiritually renews Israel.  And God makes God’s home in her midst.  Has any of this happened since 1948?  Jeremiah himself complains that most of Israel is secular, which, in his mind, is probably the opposite of being spiritually renewed.  Does Jeremiah believe that Ezekiel 38 describes what will happen after the events of Ezekiel 37?  If so, then he should place Gog’s invasion of Israel after Christ’s second coming (when Christ will rule Israel as Davidic king), not before.  Jeremiah wrote a study Bible, so he may address this issue somewhere.  But perhaps he should have discussed it in this book, at least in a note.  He adeptly addressed other questions about prophecy: How should we understand Ezekiel’s description of an end-time war in terms of the weapons of his own time?  Why does the Old Testament not predict the rapture?

E.  This book provides a lucid and informative explanation and defense of the pretribulational rapture.  Some of Jeremiah’s arguments were more effective than others.  One argument that I did not find very convincing was his argument that Christ will rapture the saints before the Great Tribulation because the saints are not supposed to experience God’s wrath, which is the point of the Tribulation.  After all, Christ suffered the wrath of God in believers’ place.  How would Jeremiah account for the Tribulational saints, the people who convert during the Great Tribulation?  Will they experience the perils that God will pour out on the earth, or will they be exempt from them—-protected from them when they are on earth?

F.  The book had some moving and compelling anecdotes.  People who watch Jeremiah’s TV program will not be surprised by this.

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

Monday, November 20, 2017

Church Write-Up: Surprised Not Shocked; Imputed or Practical?; Avoiding Hell by Productivity?

Last Sunday, I went to what I call the “Word of Faith” church, and also the Missouri Synod Lutheran church.  Here are some notes:

A.  There is a new sermon series at the “Word of Faith” church.  It is about being surprised by God.  The pastor was saying that we can either be surprised by God, or we can be shocked, which leads to emotional pain.

I am not sure what entirely the pastor has in mind when it comes to the latter (shock leading to emotional pain).  But he cited Zechariah in the Gospel of Luke as an example of the latter.  Zechariah in Luke 1 was told by an angel of God that his wife would bear John, even though she was barren and elderly.  Zechariah, out of disbelief, asked for a sign, and the angel told him that the sign would be that Zechariah would keep his unbelieving mouth shut until John was born (or so the pastor paraphrased the text!).  The pastor said that Zechariah, had he been allowed to speak, would have talked his wife Elizabeth out of having sex, and John never would have been born.  Whereas Zechariah doubted God and experienced shock, Mary was surprised by God, but she still believed that God could do what God said and assented to what God wanted to do.  The pastor was likening that to God using us, with our limitations.

Do I want for God to surprise me?  On the one hand, I would love to be assured that God knows my address and would use me for something important.  I would feel validated.  Plus, adventure sounds appealing, on some level.  On the other hand, I would like a quiet, predictable life.

B.  The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church commented on Luke 1:6, which says about Zechariah and Elizabeth: “And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (KJV).

I had not thought about this verse for a while.  I called Harold Camping (remember him?) on his radio show over a decade ago and asked him about it.  “How can this say that Zechariah and Elizabeth kept the commandments and were blameless, when Paul says that there is none righteous, no not one (Romans 3:10)?”  Camping replied that Zechariah and Elizabeth had imputed righteousness: God reckoned them as righteous, even though they (like all people) were sinful, because they had faith in the Christ who was to come.  In short, they were justified by grace through faith, not works.

Over the past week or so, I have been listening to a Lutheran podcast that goes through the Bible.  The hosts were talking about II Peter 2:8, which says regarding Lot from the Book of Genesis, as he dwelt in the wicked city of Sodom: “For that righteous man dwelling among them, in seeing and hearing, vexed his righteous soul from day to day with their unlawful deeds” (KJV).

The hosts struggled with the reference to Lot as righteous.  They rejected the idea that Lot was righteous on account of his good works, for they believed that Lot, like everyone, had to be justified by grace through faith.  Plus, when one reads the Book of Genesis, one reads that Lot did things that we might consider unrighteous: he selfishly picked the better land for himself, he dwelt in wicked Sodom, and he offered his daughters to the wicked Sodomites.  Righteous Lot?  For these hosts, Lot’s righteousness was imputed: it was not something that he possessed on account of his good works, merit, or lack of sin, for he was sinful; rather, God reckoned him as righteous on account of his faith.

The hosts made a similar point about Noah.  Genesis 6:5 states regarding the antediluvian people: “And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (KJV).  The hosts were saying that such a description fits, not only the pre-Flood people, but every human being.  That would include Noah.  According to the hosts, Noah was saved, not because he was righteous in his deeds or merited salvation, but because he found grace in the eyes of the LORD (Genesis 6:8).  Noah had faith: he believed God.

Getting back to Zechariah and Elizabeth, the pastor at the “Word of Faith” church was interpreting Luke 1:6 to mean that Zechariah and Elizabeth were connected to God and were comfortable in their own skin in that relationship.  “Blameless” means this, the pastor said, not that Zechariah and Elizabeth were morally and spiritually perfect.

I have problems with the idea that these biblical figures’ righteousness was imputed rather than practical.  II Peter 2:8 highlights Lot’s righteous soul and how it was grieved over the sinfulness of the Sodomites.  Luke 1:6 focuses on the religious walk of Zechariah and Elizabeth: they walked in God’s commandments and ordinances.

Yet, they obviously were not perfect.  Lot had his character flaws.  Zechariah stumbled in his faith.  Plus, even though Luke 1:6 states that Zechariah and Elizabeth walked in God’s commandments and were blameless, Luke in Acts 13:38-39 depicts Paul saying that forgiveness comes through Christ, and that the Jews could not be justified through the law of Moses.  The law of Moses was a dead end, in terms of becoming righteous.

Perhaps one can say that these figures had faith, and good works flowed from it.  Their faith was what saved them and led to their righteous status before God.  Maybe.  I will not deny that they had faith, even though they stumbled over it quite a bit (and the hosts of the podcast had an interesting discussion about why it is wrong to make faith into a law, for most of us fall short of even the mustard-seed faith that moves mountains or trees, a la Matthew 17:20 and Luke 17:6).  Faith probably formed the basis for their works.  Still, the biblical passages seem to focus on their deeds or attitudes (i.e., love of righteousness and hatred of wickedness) when it calls them righteous.

C.  The theme at the Missouri Synod Lutheran church was Jesus’ Parable of the Talents, which is found in Matthew 25:14-30.  You can read the parable here.

I liked how the speakers were conceptualizing the lesson of the parable: we should make use of the gifts that God gave us to help others, or to accomplish something good.  And we all can give something, even if it’s just a smile.

The Parable of the Talents troubles me because the servant who hides his talent in the ground is sent into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  The place of weeping and gnashing of teeth is arguably hell (see Matthew 13:42, 50; Luke 13:28).

I would say that I am a productive person.  I am not a people-person, but I try to do something.  Getting back to that Lutheran podcast, the hosts said on one episode that there is such a thing as passively serving one’s neighbor: a sick person in the hospital is serving the doctors and nurses by giving them the opportunity to use their gifts.  By that standard, I serve others by being a consumer: by watching TV, reading books, etc.

Maybe I am not like the unprofitable servant who does absolutely nothing with the talent that is given him.  Still, I think it is wrong for the master to cast him into hell.  Should heaven-and-hell decisions be based on a person’s productivity or accomplishment?  That strikes me as rather grisly.  What if a person cannot do anything?  What if he or she is blind and cannot read?  What if he or she does not feel like smiling?  What if I do not feel like blogging?  And, before I had Internet connection, there were times when I did not interact with human beings.  Did God condemn me as an unprofitable servant in that time?  Can’t God just let me be (by which I don’t mean leaving me alone, but accepting me even when about the only thing I do is exist)?

I have had a similar issue with Jesus’ statement that God will not forgive us if we do not forgive others (Matthew 6:15; 18:35; Mark 11:26).  Lately, I have done better in the forgiveness department than I usually do.  A resentful thought enters my head, I think to myself “I forgive that person or that deed,” and the resentment fades.  I am not sure how long this will work, but it works for now.  Still, I have issues with God conditioning God’s forgiveness of people on their forgiveness of others.  I think that God should cut people more slack than that.  “But how canst thou expect God to cut thee slack, when thou wilt not cut slack unto thy neighbour?” (I am watching the American Experience documentary on the Pilgrims as I write this.)  Because he’s God.  I am just a human being.

D.  I will leave the comments open, in case someone wants to shed light on these issues.  Just please don’t get into lewd or controversial territory.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Miracle Worker and the Misfits

Dixie Koch.  The Miracle Worker and the Misfits.  Revival Waves of Glory Books & Publishing, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

The characters from this book who are presently in my mind are as follows, though I realize that there were more characters in the book and that those characters were important.  Some character stuck with me more than others.

Abby: Abby suffered abuse as a child with her sister, Julie.

Julie: Julie has been murdered.  She left behind letters talking about her conversion to Christ.

Charley: Charley is Julie’s son.  He was a demoniac, and his story is similar to that of the demoniac in Luke 8.  The demons are cast out of him and go into a neighbor’s cows (rather than pigs, as occurs in Luke 8).  Psychiatrists are claiming that Charley had a psychological condition, not demon possession.

Pastor Paul Marvel: Pastor Paul preaches that miracles are possible today and that Jesus wants to set people free from what afflicts them.  He is the hero of the book.  Yet, he is accused of Julie’s murder.
Pastor Richard Staunch: Richard Staunch is a powerful minister in the community, and he does not believe that God works miracles anymore.  He despises Pastor Paul and does not believe that Charley was demon-possessed.

John and Phillip: I cannot recall much about who they are and what they did, but, on pages 164-166, they do have an interesting discussion about demon possession and how that contrasts with being led by the Spirit of God.

Jezra: Jezra is a witch who leads a coven.  She is one of the book’s villains.  The sequel to this book, The Way Maker and the Scarlet Cord, appears to be specifically about her.  I am intrigued!  A daughter of one of the characters is drawn to Jezra and wants nothing to do with God.

The book has an intriguing premise.  The theme of learning how to love when one has been unloved was certainly compelling.  I am open to reading the sequel.  But here are some of my problems with the book:

—-The book was somewhat like Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness books, and in a bad way.  Let me explain what I mean by that.  I am not saying that the plot of this book is similar to that of the Darkness books.  But the whole tone of the book is that one side is right and the other side is wrong, sinister, and conspiratorial.  Occasionally, there is acknowledgment of nuance.  Abby has her struggles to believe and to forgive.  People wonder why God does not heal everyone if God is still doing miracles.  We get a faint glimpse into what makes Jezra tick.  But these things were not developed that much.  This criticism is not intended to suggest that Dixie Koch should compromise her beliefs in writing her fiction.  This is a book that has a particular Christian worldview, and there is nothing wrong with that.  But people who believe differently have their motives for thinking as they do, right or wrong, and that should be acknowledged more.

—-At times, the characters spoke in sermons.  There is nothing wrong with characters in a Christian book talking about religion.  That is to be expected.  But perhaps they could have done so more naturally.

—-The prose was adequate.  There were no grammatical mistakes that I found.  But it did not compel me.  I think of the novels of Frank Peretti and Lynn Austin: with the exception of Peretti’s Darkness books, their works compel me.  Their works are preachy, and, as is the case in The Miracle Worker and the Misfits, their spiritual and religious message is not earth-shakingly new.  But their prose and their story are compelling.  Some of this is because they know how to get inside of a character’s mind and to unveil the character’s motivations.  They are also vivid.  The Miracle Worker and the Misfit lacked that.  At times, it seemed to be moving along just for the sake of moving along.

The premise of the book was intriguing, like I said, and I am somewhat open to reading the sequel, though I fear that it will be uninteresting: I envision it simply saying that Jezra sought an alliance with dark forces out of a desire for power.  I do think that Dixie Koch tried to write a book with suspense and characters who struggle to find hope in the midst of hopelessness.  But the book did not make much of a connection with me.

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

Monday, November 13, 2017

Book Write-Up: Dynamics of Muslim Worlds

Evelyn A. Reisacher, ed.  Dynamics of Muslim Worlds: Regional, Theological, and Missiological Perspectives.  IVP Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

This book contains papers that were presented at the Missiology Lectures of Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of Intercultural Studies on November 3-4, 2016, along with three other chapters.

David L. Johnston’s contribution makes a point that I think summarizes the book.  On page 176, Johnston states:

“…Western Christians especially must educate themselves about the pluralistic nature of Muslim society and about Islamic law in particular.  This will provided a needed antidote to the current wave of Islamophobia that clearly contributes to the recruitment of young Muslims by terror organizations and, more importantly, dehumanizes our Muslim neighbors.”

The “pluralistic nature of Muslim society” looms large in this book, and the book does much more than make the simple observation that there are moderate Muslims.  Rather, the book highlights numerous examples and facets of Islamic diversity, including reformist movements and different trends in Quranic interpretation.  Although the book labels ideas and movements as “traditionalist” and “reformist,” it occasionally reveals where the situation is more complex than that, as when it shows that the movement that led to ISIS initially had more liberal tendencies.  The book also distinguishes between text-centered Islam and popular Islam, and it explores the question of why people join ISIS.  The book is educational in its description of Islamic diversity, and also in its analysis of Islam in different regions, including Europe, West Africa, and South Asia.

Missiology is another prominent feature of this book.  The approach of the book seems to be to help Christians to understand the perspectives and trends within Islam so that they can better love Muslims, encouraging them to have a relationship with Jesus Christ.  Among the missiological approaches discussed in this book are debates, service to Muslims, finding common ground (e.g., on revelatory dreams and a belief in miracles), and inductive Bible study, which encourages Muslims to read the Bible themselves and to draw their own conclusions.  The book shuns any approach that seeks to impose Western Christianity on Muslims.

In terms of critique, the book seems to suffer from the same problem that other writings about this subject face, and that is the issue of boundaries.  One paper in the book, for example, appeared to imply that Christians in reaching out to Muslims should not emphasize the technicalities of the Trinity, and should be open to Muslims believing in Jesus within the context of their Islamic faith.  Does that imply that believing in the Trinity is non-essential to being a Christian?  The book could have wrestled with this more.

The book deserves five stars on account of its vast supply of information.  It is scholarly, and it is not exactly the sort of book that spoon-feeds readers the information.  Even those who know some basics about Islam may find themselves treading water as they read about the nuances and diversity within Islam.  Still, the book is understandable and, in its own way, down-to-earth.  While it does not tell too many anecdotes as it speaks about people and movements, it depicts real people experiencing real situations.

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

Church Write-Up: Home

I went to the “Word of Faith” church and the Missouri Synod Lutheran church.  Here are some notes:

A.  Eschatological hope was a theme in both services.  The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church was talking about how this world is not our home and cannot bring us fulfillment, and how we would be naked and “not us” without bodies, explaining why we will have new bodies at the resurrection.  The pastor at the Lutheran church was preaching about I Thessalonians 4:13-18 and Paul’s exhortation that Christians not grieve the dead as if they have no hope (which is not to say that they should not grieve, but that they should have hope in their grief).  During the children’s part of the service, the youth pastor was saying that being a Christian means never having to say “good bye.”  There is an afterlife.

B.  The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church said that young people look at elderly people, notice their pain and disease, and wonder why the elderly people would want to live, with all the bodily problems that they have to endure.  The pastor said that such young people will feel different once they become elderly: those who reach that age want to live every extra day that they can.

C.  The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church asserted that sexual promiscuity is a misguided search for home, which only Jesus can fulfill.  He provided a quote by John Steinbeck in East of Eden, which said that the brothel and the church attempt to satisfy a similar need, an escape or a relief from the burdens of life.  Steinbeck may have a point.  Is sexual promiscuity necessarily a search for home, though?  I can picture it not being that: it could be based on attraction or appetite.  For some, though, it may be searching for love in the wrong places.

D.  The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church was talking about the Garden of Eden.  It was a sanctuary for God, but Adam and Eve were expelled from it on account of their sin.  Later, God dwelt with Israel through the Tabernacle, which was decorated with images of fruits and cherubim, perhaps echoing Eden.  While God dwelt with Israel and blessed her, access to the Tabernacle was limited and required a strict decorum, due to people’s human limitations and sinfulness.  In the eschaton, God will dwell with people more fully and directly.  A lot of Christians believe this.  It makes sense, but I wonder if it can be consistent with the Documentary Hypothesis.  Maybe it can, if P (who wrote of the Tabernacle) knew of J (who wrote Genesis 2-3).

E.  The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church said that, had Adam and Eve stayed in the Garden of Eden in their sinful state, they would have been on a futile search for home for all eternity, devouring the fruit from the Tree of Life.  It would have been a bottomless pit.  Still, the pastor said that Adam and Eve, after their expulsion, should have stayed right by the Garden of Eden, affirming that God was the home that they desired.

F.  The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church interacted with Hebrews 11:9-10: “By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.  For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (KJV). The pastor was saying that Abraham did not just want land: he wanted God as his home.  At times, the pastor said something else: it’s not so much that God belongs to us, but we belong to God.

G.  The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church was talking about his personal walk with Jesus.  He testified that Jesus is not some dictator towards him.  Rather, Jesus often asks him, “What do you think you should do?”

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