Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Book Write-Up: Herodotus and Religion in the Persian Wars

Jon D. Mikalson.  Herodotus and Religion in the Persian Wars.  Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Herodotus was a fifth century B.C.E. historian, and he wrote about fifth century wars between the Greeks and the Persians.  Herodotus and Religion in the Persian Wars is about Herodotus’ depiction of Greek religion.  In this portrayal, Greek religion had vows, tithes, hero cults, oracles about the future that had to be interpreted, and gods who highly regarded their sanctuaries, hated human hubris, and helped out the Greeks in order to make certain battles into fairer fights.  Moreover, according to Mikalson, Greek religion valued common sense and reason rather than faith.  In terms of the scholarly landscape regarding religion and Herodotus, Jon Mikalson disagrees with Thomas Harrison on the question of whether Herodotus depicted the Greek gods as just.  For Mikalson, Herodotus does not do so but rather presents the gods as jealous for their sanctuary, eager to exact revenge whenever it is defiled or disrespected.

Mikalson refers to Herodotus’ characterization of Persian religion as one that lacked statues, temples, and altars, and yet he points out examples in Herodotus’ work of Persians practicing religion in a Greek manner, and even respecting Greek oracles and sanctuaries.

Mikalson also addresses the question of Herodotus’ own religious beliefs.  Herodotus believed in the gods, and he even appeared to think that the gods helped the Greeks in battle.  While he was not always clear about how the gods did so, often it appeared to be through manipulation of nature: a fierce wind or trouble at sea could impact what happened in a battle.  Herodotus was rather skeptical, however, of some of the miracle stories that he heard, even from those purporting to be eyewitnesses.

The appendix to the book goes more deeply into Herodotus’ views about religion.  According to the appendix, Herodotus believed that there were gods, but he thought that the names for those gods were imported from Egyptian religion, and that Homer and Hesiod then constructed a genealogy for the gods.  In essence, Herodotus acknowledges a divine and a human element to religion and the conceptualization of the divine.  According to Mikalson, Herodotus does not explain how Egyptians and Greeks have different names for certain gods, if the Greeks imported the names of their gods (or most of them) from the Egyptians.  Still, I found the appendix to be fascinating, on account of my own questions about divine revelation and the Bible (i.e., what is human, and what is divine?).

The first third part of the book was rather slow, since it was mainly about vows and gods helping the Greeks in battle, and that did not strike me as earth-shakingly new when it came to religion.  I was interested to learn, however, that the Greeks had tithes, and I wonder how they compare and contrast with Israelite tithing.  The book really picked up when Mikalson discussed Herodotus’ depiction of Persian religion and interaction with miracle stories, as well as the question of whether the gods in Herodotus were just.  The appendix, in my opinion, was the best part of the book, since it addressed Herodotus’ own views about the divine in light of his conclusion as a historian that Greek religion had conceptualizations of the divine that were human in origin.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Book Write-Up: Your Life Still Counts

Tracie Miles.  Your Life Still Counts: How God Uses Your Past to Create a Beautiful Future.  Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2014.  See here for Bethany House’s page about the book.

Tracie Miles had an abortion.  Her book, Your Life Still Counts, is about how God has used her to reach out to women facing the same challenges that she faced.  Throughout the book, there are stories by women about how they experienced a significant problem (i.e., recovery from abuse, a disability), and how God used them to reach out to and to help people with similar problems.  The end of each chapter has questions to help women to figure out how, with God’s help, they can find healing and God’s calling for their lives.

What I particularly enjoyed about the book was its stories.  Some of them were from Tracie’s own experiences, which taught Tracie about her value to God, transparency, and perseverance.  My personal favorite was Tracie’s story about a young man at a ball game who was trying to get a wave going but did not have any success, yet he kept on trying.  According to Tracie, God used that experience to teach her about the value of perseverance.  The book also shared other anecdotes, such as the story of how Corrie Ten Bloom and her sister in a concentration camp learned to appreciate the fleas, for they were keeping Nazi guards away and allowing them to continue their Bible study.  She also describes the “death-crawl” scene in the Christian movie, Facing the Giants, which is my favorite scene of that movie.  Moreover, Tracie draws from stories in the Bible.

Tracie often talks about her resistance to God’s call, since she believed that God was asking her to leave an excellent job with good benefits so she could tell her story and reach out to women struggling over abortion.  She was very hesitant to do this, and she questioned whether she was able to fulfill God’s call.  At times in the book, she presented following God’s call as a leap of faith.  I personally would be very hesitant to take risks without knowing for sure that God was calling me to do so, or to be overly transparent with people I don’t know.  In my opinion, the book should have discussed discernment and wisdom more.  Still, I appreciated that Tracie said that there are a variety of ways to serve God: that, even if one does not choose to share her story, she can allow her story to shape who she is, such that she can reach people with the love of Christ.  Tracie also offered valuable insights about people allowing God to stretch them a bit, how serving God can build one’s faith, and yet how one’s salvation is not dependent on doing tasks for God, but rests in Christ (though Tracie does say that believing in Christ is transformative, and that impacts what believers do, on some level).

The book is specifically for women, so I was not its target audience.  Still, I appreciated Tracie’s stories and insights.

The publisher sent me a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Book Write-Up: Samuel Rutherford

Richard M. Hannula.  Samuel Rutherford.  Grand Rapids: EP Books, 2014.

Samuel Rutherford was a seventeenth century Presbyterian minister in Scotland.  In Samuel Rutherford, which is part of the series Bitesize Biographies, Richard Hannula tells the story of Rutherford’s life, devotions, and personal sufferings, as well as the persecution that Rutherford experienced for his beliefs, and even the morals charge that dramatically affected Rutherford’s early career.

Hannula not only provides insight into Samuel Rutherford the man, but his book is also an excellent window into the role of Scotland and Presbyterianism during the seventeenth century English Revolution, in which King Charles I was killed and then replaced by Puritan Lord Protectorate Oliver Cromwell.  Rutherford was persecuted by Charles I for resisting Charles’ attempts to impose on churches what Rutherford deemed to be non-Scriptural practices (i.e., kneeling before the Eucharist), and yet Rutherford also had clear differences from the Puritan Cromwell: Cromwell was a congregationalist who believed in independent congregations, whereas Rutherford was a Presbyterian who believed in governance of churches by a church board.  Rutherford was also critical of the beheading of Charles I.  Rutherford would contend against other schools of thought as well, such as one that proposed placing churches under the control of secular authorities.

The book provides a helpful timeline at the beginning.  In my opinion, however, it should have also included a glossary in the back of the book of personalities and political and religious movements, since that could help readers refresh their memories about which political or religious school believed or did what.  Moreover, while the book talked about Rutherford’s enthusiasm for Jesus Christ, I wish that it had explained what exactly it was about Jesus that Rutherford found so compelling.  I also was not entirely satisfied with the book’s definition of Arminianism, a belief that Rutherford criticized.  While Arminianism does emphasize human free will in coming to Christ, whereas Rutherford held that humans come to Christ solely by divine grace, I wish that Hannula mentioned that Arminianism holds that prevenient grace is what makes coming to Christ possible.  Hannula did say that “Arminius taught that salvation was not wholly a gift of God’s free grace” (page 53), and perhaps one can argue that Hannula acknowledges that Arminius granted some role to God’s grace in salvation.  He should, however, have mentioned the Arminian belief in prevenient grace.

Rutherford was a man who continually made lemonade when life handed him lemons.  When he was exiled and forbidden to preach, he still found a way to encourage people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  And he continually ascended, descended, and ascended again, with his faith as his companion wherever he was.  Hannula did well to write this lucid biography of Samuel Rutherford.

I received this book from the publisher through Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Honest Prayer

At church this morning, the pastor preached about Thanksgiving.  He told us about the 1965 movie Shenandoah, in which Jimmy Stewart played a farmer during the American Civil War.   Stewart’s character was named Charlie Anderson, and he was trying to protect his family from the war.  Charlie’s wife wanted Charlie to raise their kids to be Christians, so Charlie led the family in prayer at the dinner table.  He said in the prayer that he and his family were the ones who produced that food through their own sweat and toil, but he thanks God for it anyway!

The pastor asked us if that was a good prayer.  I told him after the service that I respected the prayer for its raw honesty.  Why should Charlie Anderson say things that he does not truly believe?  And yet, I thought that the prayer did not consider certain important details: the things that brought the food that were outside of Charlie’s control, such as rain.

I have to respect honesty when it comes to religion.  If someone has problems with religion, why pretend?  At the same time, there is a superstitious part of me.  We were watching Constantine on Friday night.   Constantine and Papa Midnite were doing a spell, and the spell was not working.  “It is because you do not respect the gods, and that keeps them away,” Papa Midnite told Constantine, who, yes, did not manifest a particularly respectful attitude towards these “gods,” probably because he’s been around the block in terms of the spirit world and just does not respect what he has seen!  But, anyway, I have a similar concern: does one keep God, God’s protection, and God’s blessing away by being disrespectful to him?  I don’t want to disrespect God.  If I have problems with him, I should express those to him respectfully.

And, yes, my superstition (if that is the right word) does lead me to ask myself how exactly I envision God: what kind of God do I believe God is?

Saturday, November 22, 2014

II Chronicles 8

I have two items for my blog post today about II Chronicles 8.

1.  II Chronicles 8:1-2 states in the NRSV: “At the end of twenty years, during which Solomon had built the house of the LORD and his own house, Solomon rebuilt the cities that Huram had given to him, and settled the people of Israel in them.”

In the KJV, we read: “And it came to pass at the end of twenty years, wherein Solomon had built the house of the LORD, and his own house, That the cities which Huram had restored to Solomon, Solomon built them, and caused the children of Israel to dwell there.”

Do you notice any significant difference between the two translations?  According to the NRSV, King Huram of Tyre gave Solomon cities.  According to the KJV, King Huram returned cities to Solomon, implying that Solomon had given Huram those cities earlier.

The Hebrew in this case is natan, which means “to give” (or literally, “he gave”).  If the writer had wanted to say that Huram returned the cities, he probably would have used some form of sh-w-v.  Why, then, did the King James Version translate natan as “restored”?  The reason is probably that it was trying to harmonize II Chronicles 8:2 with I Kings 9:11, which states that Solomon gave to Hiram twenty cities in Galilee.  Hiram in that chapter is displeased with those cities, however.  We have II Chronicles 8:2, which states that Hiram gave Solomon cities.  We have I Kings 9:11, which states that Solomon gave Hiram cities.  One way that people try to harmonize those two texts is to say that Solomon gave Hiram the cities, Hiram was displeased with them, and so Hiram returned them to Solomon, who rebuilt the cities and settled Israelites in them.

I tend to believe that there are two separate agendas in I Kings and II Chronicles.  I Kings is trying to explain why those cities came to be called Cabul, which is rather disparaging.  The reason, in I Kings 9, goes back to Hiram’s dissatisfaction with those cities.  II Chronicles 8, however, is presenting Huram as adoring and subordinating himself to Solomon, and thus giving Solomon cities.  And Solomon rebuilding the cities and settling Israelites in them occurs within the context of his projects of expansion and building, which we read about in the subsequent verses.

Of course, I have read in the Jewish Study Bible that I Kings presents Solomon and Hiram as equal parties making an agreement, whereas II Chronicles depicts Huram as subordinate to Solomon.  There is probably something to that, but it should not be taken in the direction of saying that Huram in II Chronicles lacked power in his own right.  II Chronicles 8:18 affirms that Huram sent Solomon ships and servants familiar with the sea, and so Huram had a lot of resources!

2.  II Chronicles 8:11 states (in the KJV): “And Solomon brought up the daughter of Pharaoh out of the city of David unto the house that he had built for her: for he said, My wife shall not dwell in the house of David king of Israel, because the places are holy, whereunto the ark of the LORD hath come.”

I Kings has a similar story, but II Chronicles adds a rationale for Solomon doing what he did: Solomon did not want his Egyptian wife to dwell in the holy city of Jerusalem.

Why not?  A common explanation is that she was a Gentile.  I heard more than one sermon saying that Solomon was sinning in being married to a Gentile, but he was somehow trying to be religious, too, by forbidding his wife to live in Jerusalem.  It would be like someone making money off of a shady business deal, and deciding to get on God’s good side by donating the money to the church.

Granted, there are places in the Hebrew Bible that are against Israelites intermarrying with Gentiles.  I Kings criticizes Solomon for intermarriage, since that was what turned him away from God, and Nehemiah 13:26 refers to him as an example in defending a policy against Jewish intermarriage.  But I have problems saying that II Chronicles had this sort of view.  For one, the genealogies in Chronicles refer to intermarriages, without any hint of criticism.  The genealogies present intermarriage as part of the history of Israel.  Second, the Chronicler (as far as I can remember) does not criticize Solomon for intermarriage.

Maybe the Chronicler still had problems with a Gentile dwelling in Jerusalem, or he was trying to depict Solomon in a positive way: yes, Solomon married a Gentile, but at least he did not let her live in Jerusalem.

Raymond Dillard, however, has another idea.  He wonders if II Chronicles 8:11 could be sanctioning the late Jewish practice of separating men and women in worship.  You see that in orthodox synagogues today: the men sit in one section, the women in another.  Could II Chronicles 8:11 be about this sort of practice?  I seriously doubt that there was a blanket prohibition on women living in Jerusalem, so I tend not to absolutize Dillard’s proposal.  But to see it as a stray verse sanctioning the separation of men and women in worship?  I am somewhat open to that being a function of the verse—-not that I am in favor of such a practice.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Ramblings About the Fine-Tuning of the Universe

I recently read an article by Julie Roys, host of Moody Radio’s Up for Debate program.  The article is entitled “Facts About the Universe That Will Blow Your Mind.”  

The article goes into the fine-tuning of the universe.  Essentially, this concept notes that, if certain natural constants varied by only a little bit, there would not be any interactive life in the universe.  For a number of theists, that is evidence for the existence of an intelligent designer of the universe.

The article mentioned something else, though: that the earth is in a spot of the universe that is favorable to life, when there are actually a lot of places in the universe that are not favorable to it.  Roys states:

“MIT Professor Max Tegmark mapped the arrangement of temperature disturbances in radiation throughout the universe and discovered something surprising. These disturbances are concentrated in such a way that they reveal a very specific arrangement or ‘axis.’ And, the earth occupies a very favored location in the axis. My guests this Saturday disagree on exactly where the earth is located.  According Robert Sungenis, producer of the new controversial movie, The Principle, the earth lies at the center of the axis. But, Dr. Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe, says the earth lies more at the edge of the axis. Either way, the earth occupies a very favored location in the universe, which disturbs atheistic scientists. Fascinating!”

As I read this, I thought about an atheist podcast that I heard recently.  I talk about it here.  On this podcast, an atheist lady was saying that she talks to Christians and they tell her that the universe is so finely-tuned for life, and so there must be a God.  She responds that actually there is not that much life in the universe.  Christians then say that it is such a miracle that there is life on earth, amidst a largely hostile, lifeless universe, and so that shows there is a God!  You just can’t win!  These Christians keep changing the criteria of evidence, the atheist lady appeared to be suggesting.

I’m a bit mixed when it comes to the argument from fine-tuning.  I think that whether or not it makes sense to people depends on their perspective.  Allow me to give an example.  I am here.  But things had to turn out a certain way for me to be here.  If my Dad stayed in bed rather than going to church, he would not have met my Mom, and I would not be here.  If another sperm got to my Mom’s egg, I would not be here.  Now, I could believe that God arranged for my Dad to meet my Mom, and for my sperm to be the one that got to my Mom’s egg.  On the other hand, though, my existence could just be the result of accidents, or of things turning out as they did, when they could have easily turned out otherwise.  One could say that there is no iron-clad rule that we have to be here: that we are here because, fortunately for us, things turned out as they did, and they could have happened differently.

So earth is in a part of the universe that is conducive to life.  Does that prove there is a God, or serve as evidence for that proposition?  Or does it just highlight one reason that there is life on earth: that the earth happened to be in a place that is conducive to life?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Jeopardy Match: Julia vs. Arthur Chu

I wrote a post last week, Jeopardy Disappointment, in which I expressed disappointment because I thought that Julia Collins would not be going up against Arthur Chu in the Tournament of Champions, since Julia had lost the night before.  But, perhaps because of her impressive record, she was allowed to compete again, and she won.  So, tonight and tomorrow, the match will include Julia, Arthur Chu, and a third guy who won yesterday, but whom I only vaguely remember.  I remember Julia and Arthur Chu, though: Julia because she was on for so long, and Arthur Chu because he was in the news for selecting across the board and thereby allegedly annoying Alex Trebek.

Who will win?  I have no idea.  In watching Jeopardy, I’ve seen both Julia and Arthur Chu at their best and their worse.  Julia did not know that Habeus Corpus was one of the latin terms in the U.S. Constitution.  That, or she did not remember it.  Arthur Chu has made some mistakes.  To be honest, I can see the game going either way.  Julia dominates categories when she is on a roll, but there are plenty of times when she is conservative—-she does not ring in unless she is sure that she knows the answer.  And, during that time, the other contenders often answer incorrectly and bury themselves deeper.  Arthur Chu will be a tougher opponent, though.

In terms of whom I want to win, I’m on Team Julia!

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