Friday, August 29, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Forgotten Man, by Amity Shlaes

Amity Shlaes.  The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression.  HarperCollins, 2007.

I enjoyed Amity Shlaes’ The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression.  Whereas her biography of Calvin Coolidge was rather heavy, her prose in The Forgotten Man was light, and she explained economics in a manner that even non-economists like me could understand.  Moreover, she made the people in The Forgotten Man seem real.  Her biography about Coolidge had a lot of information, but I finished that book not really feeling that I knew Coolidge that well.  The Forgotten Man, however, was different because it had a stronger narrative and characterization.

Shlaes writes largely from a conservative perspective.  She favors lowering the tax rate on the rich and on corporations, since they are the ones who invest and create jobs.  She favors more of a supply-side than a demand-side emphasis, favoring the producers rather than assuming that the consumers having more money to spend will lead to economic growth.  She leans towards free-trade.  On monetary policy, she strikes me as rather flexible.  She is not keen on the Federal Reserve tightening the money supply too much, for deflation can lead to problems, especially for people who borrowed money (they essentially owe more than they borrowed).  At the same time, she notes that President Franklin Roosevelt’s undermining of the gold standard did not help matters, for other countries thought that destabilized the currency.

Shlaes’ perspective is evident in her narration of the Great Depression.  According to her, the tax increases by Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt hindered economic growth, while attempts by these two Presidents to keep wages up so that consumers would have money to spend did not significantly ameliorate the dire economic situation; neither did their public infrastructure projects, for that matter.  The New Deal targeted businesses (big and small), and that discouraged investment, since why would people invest if they did not know what the government would do to them next?  The Federal Reserve during the Hoover Presidency was too tight in its monetary policy, according to Shlaes, and that stifled investment.  Shlaes also agrees with economists who argue that the Smoot-Hawley tariff was part of the problem, for she contends that this tariff increased production costs, discouraged European countries from buying American products, and hindered Americans from buying European products, which would have helped Europeans earn money so they could pay off their debt to the U.S.  While Shlaes is critical of many of President Franklin Roosevelt’s policies, she does praise him for helping to bring about lower tariffs.  She also thinks that FDR’s Security and Exchange Commission was a good idea, since that policed Wall Street abuse.  She says that many thought that FDR was letting the fox watch over the hen house when he appointed Joseph Kennedy to head the SEC, but that this actually turned out to be a good decision: Kennedy knew the tricks of the trade, so he could do a good job policing Wall Street!

Another problem with the New Deal, Shlaes argues, is that Roosevelt could not make up his mind.  Some elements of the New Deal contradicted each other.  Roosevelt got tired of people receiving relief, so he created government jobs so that unemployed people could work.  He wanted the workers to receive a good wage, and yet he also wanted to balance the budget because he thought that would improve the economy.  Meanwhile, he signed the Wagner Act, which promoted unionization and allowed strikes.  But that could be pretty problematic when WPA workers decided to strike!  There also appeared to be some waffling on whether bigger was better: do we want big business, or do we want smaller businesses (and anti-trust rules) that compete with each other?

Shlaes acknowledges that the economy steadily improved under the New Deal.  It just never returned to pre-1929 levels!  The Depression lagged on until World War II.  At the beginning of each chapter, Shlaes gives readers the unemployment rate for the year, and also the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

I cannot say that I found myself disliking most of the characters of the book.  The leftists who were enamored (and, in some cases, later disappointed) with the Soviet Union struck me as well-meaning idealists.  The same goes for the New Dealers, who tried to improve people’s situations and came up with innovative ideas, such as living units for migrants.  Wendell Wilkie sought to protect private electric companies from Tennessee Valley Authority competition, which was understandable on his part, and yet I cannot say that the TVA came across as that bad in Shlaes’ book (though she did seem to disagree with it), since it provided cheap electricity to poor families.  Other characters include Andrew Mellon, who was under investigation for tax evasion yet managed to find a common cause with FDR by helping to establish a National Art Gallery, donating his fine collection of art.  The African-American evangelist Father Divine also is prominent in the book: he was critical of New Deal relief programs, but he also helped the poor, pressured Roosevelt to take an anti-lynching stance, and even moved onto what used to be Franklin Roosevelt’s property.  (Eleanor Roosevelt said that she welcomed him as a neighbor!)

If there was one character I disliked, it was this one New Deal lawyer who was going after the Schechters, Jewish chicken sellers who were accused of violating National Recovery Administration rules.  The lawyer made a big deal about Mr. Schechter’s lack of education, which struck me as cruel and elitist.  For that matter, I also did not care for the pro-Roosevelt journalists who exploited anti-Semitism in defending the prosecution of the Schechters (who, it appears, were probably supporters of Roosevelt, notwithstanding the NRA’s attack on them).

The Forgotten Man is an interesting and thoughtful book.  Personally, what Shlaes says and what Robert Reich says (about the need for a strong consumer base) both make sense to me, even though they have different perspectives.  Investment is necessary, but so are a lot of consumers with money to spend!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Book Write-Up: From Paradise to the Promised Land

T. Desmond Alexander.  From Paradise to the Promised Land: An Introduction to the Pentateuch, Third Edition.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012.    See here for Baker’s page about this book.

In From Paradise to the Promised Land, T. Desmond Alexander explores what he considers to be the themes of the Pentateuch—-the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Bible—-as well as the application of those themes in the New Testament.  The third edition contains a lengthy and helpful summary and discussion of modern biblical scholarship regarding the Pentateuch, covering form, source, and tradition criticism.  Alexander’s conclusion in that discussion is that the Pentateuch contains a variety of traditions, many of which may be quite old (as in second millennium B.C.E.), but that the Pentateuch was not edited in its final form prior to the sixth century B.C.E., the time of the exile and the beginning of the post-exilic period.

According to Alexander, the Pentateuch is about God coming to dwell with humanity, as well as the promise of a royal seed who would bring blessings to the peoples of the earth.  God dwelt with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, which was like a temple, but they forfeited God’s presence and blessings through their sin.  God chose Abraham’s seed to bring blessing to the peoples of the earth, and God would later dwell within Israel through the Tabernacle, a precursor to what God planned to do for all of humanity.

Regarding the promised royal seed, God said that a seed would crush the head of the serpent from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:15), that kings would be descended from Abraham (Genesis 17:6), and that a singular seed would possess the gates of his enemies (Genesis 22:17).  Plus, Abraham does kingly things, and Alexander regards this as an indication that God’s plan was to use a royal figure to bless humanity.  Alexander argues that God initially planned for the royal seed to come from Ephraim (a tribe descended from Joseph), since God chose Ephraim over his older brother Manasseh, Joshua was an Ephraimite, and God’s sanctuary of Shiloh was located in Ephraim.  But, according to Alexander, God changed God’s mind, Shiloh was destroyed, and God chose Judah (David’s tribe) as the tribe from which the royal seed would come, in accordance with Genesis 49:10.  Alexander seems to believe that the Pentateuch predicts the coming of an eschatological Messiah.

My main problem with From Paradise to the Promised Land is that Alexander often disregards the diversity of the Bible and fails to engage alternative points-of-view.  Let me clarify that I am not saying this in reference to his chapters on modern biblical scholarship, for those chapters were excellent in summarizing and engaging various scholarly arguments, and Alexander also arrives at the judicious conclusion that the Pentateuch contains diverse traditions.  But my impression was that Alexander largely departed from this approach in the rest of the book, as he discussed what he considered to be the themes of the Pentateuch.  Granted, Alexander acknowledged at the outset that he intended to pursue a synchronic, holistic approach to the Pentateuch, but I believe that the diversity of the Bible can challenge Alexanders’ arguments about what the key themes of the Pentateuch actually are.  Does the Pentateuch envision God dwelling with all of humanity?  That is not explicit within the Pentateuch itself, and, if one wants to consult the prophetic writings of the Hebrew Bible, one will arguably encounter a variety of eschatological expectations, some of which are more hostile to Gentiles and nationalistic.  Does the Pentateuch present the promise of a royal seed—-a Messiah—-bringing blessing to humanity?  I do not find that to be explicit in the Pentateuch, either.  The Pentateuch’s references to kings may simply refer to the kings of Northern or Southern Israel, not the hope of a coming Messiah.  Moreover, Alexander fails to consider how Saul and the anti-monarchic voices in the Hebrew Bible would fit into his scenario.  God in the Pentateuch intended to bring the royal Messiah from Ephraim, then changed God’s mind and decided that the royal figure would come from Judah instead?  Why, then, did God choose Saul, a Benjaminite, to be king?  And what about the voices within the Hebrew Bible that oppose Israel even having a king?  Alexander should have engaged these questions.

From Paradise to the Promised Land did have its assets, however.  There were gems, such as Alexander’s comparison of the original Passover ritual to save Israel’s firstborn with the rituals of anointing priests, as Alexander argued that the firstborn were becoming a sort of priesthood through the Passover.  There was Alexander’s interpretation of God’s promise that Abraham and Sarah would become the parents of a multitude of nations, as Alexander contended that Abraham was a father of Gentile nations in the sense that his seed would have a positive impact on them; similarly, Joseph in Genesis 45:8 is called a father to Pharaoh, even though Joseph was not Pharaoh’s literal, physical father.

Alexander’s chapters on the sacrificial system and clean and unclean foods were also worth reading, in my opinion.  My problem with his chapter on the sacrificial system is that he maintained that the burnt offering was substitutionary—-that the animal was dying in place of the person offering it.  I did not think that Alexander supported that point, and his reference to the ransom in Exodus 21:30 did not help his case, since the ransom in that verse appears to be money, not a burnt offering.  Alexander did well, however, to note that blood, as life, had a cleansing effect in purifying people and objects of defilement, as well as to note that, the greater the sin, the greater the defilement was on the sanctuary.  On clean and unclean foods, Alexander explored different explanations for the designation of animals as unclean and clean, and he settles on the view that the dietary laws served to remind Israelites of their status as God’s chosen people, separated to be holy.

From Paradise to the Promised Land is intended to introduce people to the contents of the Pentateuch.  In terms of whether I would recommend this book for an Introduction to Hebrew Bible class, I would offer a tentative yes.  If I were a teacher, I would not rely only on this book to introduce students to the contents of the Pentateuch, but I would require them to read parts of the Pentateuch first, then I would refer them to Alexander’s book so they could read attempts to explain the Pentateuch’s content.  Of concern to me is the book’s evangelical Christian emphasis: while that may be appropriate for an evangelical seminary, I question whether it would suit a secular university.  Still, there are pieces of Alexander’s book—-his discussion of modern scholarship and his chapters on sacrifices and clean and unclean foods—-that are not overly preachy and that would arguably be appropriate within a secular academic context.  I would also add that his chapters on modern biblical scholarship can assist graduate students studying for comprehensive examinations in Hebrew Bible, or seeking a summary of what modern biblical scholarship has been saying about the Pentateuch over the past few centuries.

I would like to thank Baker Academic for sending me a complimentary copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Matching Labels

A while back, I started following someone's posts.  She used to work for an abortion clinic, then she quit that line of work as she concluded that abortion was murder.  What especially got on my nerves were her posts that said “if you (such-and-such), then you are not pro-life.”  “If you believe in exceptions to an anti-abortion law, then you may not be pro-life.”  And so on and so forth.

I found those posts to be a bit baffling.  I mean, why should I care if I fit her label of what is pro-life?  Why should I care whether or not I am fitting anyone’s label of pro-life, for that matter?  It’s just a label.  I’m not running for the Republican nomination of any political office, which would require me to show how I am more conservative or pro-life than someone else.  Consequently, why should I care if my beliefs meet a certain label?

I saw something similar in a blog post from another perspective.  A feminist was saying that, if you support legal restrictions on abortion, then you are not really a feminist.  Again, so what?  It’s a label, people!  If the feminist blogger has problems with legal restrictions on abortion, then that is understandable.  But saying people with certain points-of-view aren’t part of the feminist club?  I don’t see why people are so preoccupied with that.

Yet, I have to admit that I used to be the same way.  I would make judgments about whether people were true Republicans.  Now, on some level, that was understandable.  As a Republican, I wanted to vote for someone who was close to my definition of what counted as Republican ideology.  Fair enough.  But the problem was that, when I was debating liberal Republicans, I would accuse them of not being true Republicans.  Why did I do that?  Does meeting a label truly matter?  I should have just stuck with the issues!

There will come times when meeting a label will matter.  If you are running for the Republican nomination of something, then you will probably want to present yourself as the true conservative, and the other candidate as non-conservative.  If you are applying to teach at a conservative Christian seminary or to pastor a conservative Christian church, you may want to pass someone’s doctrinal tests of what counts as “Christian.”  Since I am not doing either of those things right now, I really don’t give a rip if my beliefs match someone’s label.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Pagan Sailors' Religious Beliefs in Jonah 1

I am going through the Book of Jonah for my daily quiet time.  In my reading this morning, something puzzled me, but I was unable to articulate why it was puzzling me.  I had a hard time formulating my question, let alone arriving at any answers!  But I checked out a commentary, and that cleared things up a bit.

In Jonah 1, God tells Jonah to go to the wicked city of Nineveh and preach against it.  Jonah does not want to go, so he hops on a ship to Tarshish.  On his journey, a fierce wind threatens the ship and those on it, and each shipman is crying out to his god.  The shipmaster finds that Jonah is sleeping and tells Jonah to cry out to his (Jonah’s) god.

This passage looks pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?  So why was I confused?  Well, as I said, I was struggling to articulate to myself why exactly I was confused, but I knew that the topic of my confusion concerned how the book was portraying the pagan shipmen’s religious beliefs.  Each person has a god.  Each person is crying out to his god in hopes that the tempest will go away.  Moreover, they seem to believe that each person’s god exists—-the pagan shipmaster did not tell Jonah to cry out to any pagan gods but rather to cry out to his own (meaning Jonah’s) god.  It sounded to me like a belief in patron deities, in which each person has a god looking out for him or her.  But why cry out to one’s own personal god?  Why not cry out to the god of the sea, who is responsible for what goes on there?

The IVP Bible Background Commentary clarified to me my question and offered a reasonable answer:

1:5 each cried to his own god.  Patron deities were rarely cosmic deities, so the sailors would not have thought that their personal or family gods had sent the storm.  In the polytheistic context of the ancient world, one could generally identify divine activity with confidence, but it was another matter altogether to discover which god was acting and why.  The sailors call out to their gods in the hope that one of their patron deities might be able to exert some influence on whichever god has become disturbed enough to send the storm.  They are calling out for assistance, not in repentance.  The more contacts made the better, so the captain awakes Jonah so that he could also call upon his patron deity.”

So they were calling upon their patron deities because they thought that these deities may have connections with whatever cosmic deity was causing the storm.

Questions still remain in my mind, though.  Okay, Jonah tells them that the Hebrew God is god of sea and land and is the one causing the storm.  The shipmen agree that the Hebrew God YHWH is the one causing the storm and they eventually make vows and offer sacrifice to the Hebrew God.  But the IVP Bible Background Commentary denies that this means that they abandoned polytheism and converted to monotheism.  It says that “the sailors may have vowed to offer a memorial sacrifice of some sort to Yahweh each year on the anniversary of this event.”  They still probably continued to worship their own gods, though.

Where, now, is my confusion?  I wonder what exactly they thought about YHWH, during the time that they accepted that YHWH was the one causing the storm and also when they offered sacrifice and vows to YHWH.  Did they come to agree with Jonah that YHWH was the god of the sea and land?  How would that impact their religious worldview?  One would think that the God of the sea and land is pretty significant and high up in the divine hierarchy.  Would YHWH take the place of their cosmic deities, in their minds?  Or could they still go on believing in their cosmic deities, while seeing YHWH as higher than them in the hierarchy?  Or maybe they just believed that YHWH was simply another cosmic deity and that Jonah was wrong to see him as the God of sea and land, even though they acknowledged that Jonah’s god was the one causing the storm.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Book Write-Up: Illusion, by Frank Peretti

Frank Peretti writes Christian fiction.  Some have called him the Christian Stephen King because he has written Christian horror, plots that have demons or monsters.  There are times when his work does not have those things, though.  I think of his book, Prophet, which is about a news anchorman with a prophetic calling that could disrupt his life.  And, while The Visitation had demons, it was far from being a horror book, and I found it to be a thoughtful exploration of such issues as Pentecostalism, disappointment with God, and different denominations.

Frank Peretti’s Illusion is a different kind of novel, in comparison with what Peretti usually writes.  Don’t get me wrong, though: it is classic Frank Peretti, the sort of book where the characters seem real and you want to keep on reading to see how mysteries get resolved.  But there is not much emphasis on the supernatural—-at least not if one defines that in terms of demons, angels, or spirit beings; there is still magic and extraordinary phenomena, however.  The book has a scientific focus, and, while I did not understand half of the time what the scientists were saying, that did not prevent me from following the plot, plus I took comfort that some of the characters did not fully understand what the scientists were saying, either!  Christianity is still in the book, but its presence is not as salient or overt as it is in other Frank Peretti books.  It is far from marginal, however, for the book does have Christian lessons and characters.

The book is about an old magician named Dane Collins.  He and his wife, Mandy, had a famous magic act for forty years.  Dane is broken after he loses his wife in an automobile accident.  And yet, something strange happens.  The Mandy of the 1970’s—-a nineteen year-old Mandy who has not yet met Dane—-has somehow come to be present in 2010.  Moreover, she has certain abilities: she can go places without being noticed and cause people and things to levitate.  Mandy changes her name to Eloise, and she begins to gain renown as a magician in her own right.  She encounters Dane, who reluctantly becomes her mentor. There are so many things about Eloise that remind Dane of his late wife, and part of the tension within the book was that I continually wondered when Dane and Mandy would reveal to each other what was on each of their minds, as strange as that might be.  Here is Dane, baffled that this Eloise is so much like Mandy.  And here is Mandy, hiding from Dane the fact that she is from the 1970’s and is struggling to understand 2010, with its odd devices.

I do not want to give too many spoilers, since part of the pleasure of reading Frank Peretti is wondering how the mystery will be explained.  In response to Christians who criticize Illusion for not having a spiritual focus, I will say that it does, in its own way.  One of my favorite parts of the book is when one of the scientists acknowledges his limitations, the limitations of science, and even the existence of the soul, something that Dane sees as unusual for a “materialist scientist.”  I also liked the scene in which Dane, Mandy, and other people in Mandy’s act join hands in prayer, even though they all come from different religious (and even non-religious) backgrounds.

Good book!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Praying about Current Events, "God's Not Dead" Bible Study, Getting Out of the Way

I have three items for my write-up on this morning’s church service.

1. During the children’s part of the service, the pastor and his puppet, Jake, were addressing what Christians can do in response to the problems in the world. The pastor was talking about the slaughter of Christians, so I assumed that he was speaking about what ISIS is doing. The pastor said that we can pray.

Do I buy that? Soon before the Iraq War started, a relative of mine said, “We won’t have a war. God won’t allow there to be a war!” But God did allow that war to take place, at great cost of American and Iraqi lives.

I do not know if prayer will make things better. I do believe, though, that I should pray for my leaders, that they might make a good decision. I want for the slaughter of Christians to be stopped. But I don’t want for Americans to be entangled in another hopeless quagmire. There may be a proper way to go about this: to form alliances so that we can defeat ISIS. I just hope our leaders make decisions that turn out all right.

2. My church will begin a new Bible study. It will be a curriculum about the God’s Not Dead movie. The movie is about a Christian student who challenges an atheist professor.

For a variety of reasons, I do not plan on attending this study. But I can somewhat sympathize with my church for choosing this particular Bible study curriculum to go through. More than once at my church, I have heard people complain about atheists. They may encounter atheists on Facebook. One person referred to a bumper sticker he saw that said “I will not think in your church, if you do not pray in my school.” He said this bumper sticker was “not cool,” and he lamented that Christians are not equipped to challenge atheists. My church may be going through this curriculum to learn about arguments that would hopefully make Christianity look credible to the outside world.

They will learn those arguments. The thing is, will they also learn (if not from the curriculum, then from their interactions) that atheists have their own answers to those arguments? Maybe, in which case the Christians may choose to dig deeper, or they may write the atheists off as stubborn and blind to the truth. Who knows what will happen.

The movie, according to my understanding, depicts the atheist professor as one who was mad at God because his mom died when he was young. I hope those who go through this Bible study don’t assume that all atheists are like that.

3. The pastor said in his sermon that he was reading a book about the Welsh revival. He quoted one of its central figures, who said that he was impacted by the revival, rather than causing it. God was the one initiating the revival, whereas the alleged “central figure” was merely caught up in what God was doing. It was all about God. On a similar note, the pastor told about a singer who consulted a faith healer, and the faith healer told her that it is not about him but Jesus Christ. And the pastor told the story of how Norman Vincent Peale and his wife received a timely, unexpected donation so they could continue publishing their faith-affirming periodical, Guideposts. They attributed that to God.

I thought of a Christian radio program that I occasionally listen to. The host was advertising a worship retreat in the woods, and he said, “Don’t worry, I’m not some performer doing tricks! It works better when I get out of the way and let God do his work!” I find that sentiment to be profound. I am someone who is thirsty for glory. I want people to notice and appreciate ME. And there is nothing wrong with that, as long as that sentiment doesn’t go overboard. But I admire those who are able to see themselves as part of something bigger, who are so caught up in God that they are willing to step out of the way so God can get the glory. They do not lose out in doing this, for God loves them, and they want others to experience God’s love, as well.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

I Chronicles 24

I Chronicles 24 is about the twenty-four courses of priests who would officiate in the Temple.  They were descended either from Aaron’s son Eleazar or Aaron’s son Ithamar.  These twenty-four courses would rotate their service, with each officiating at specific times in the year.

The twenty-four courses figure prominently in later literature.  In the Gospel of Luke, John the Baptist’s father Zacharias belonged to the eighth course (Luke 1:5).  This detail features in many Christian attempts to discover the date of Jesus Christ’s birth: they try to determine when Zacharias was ministering in the Temple, since that was the time when the angel announced that Zacharias’ wife would have a son.  Then, they would take into consideration the factor that Jesus was born six months after John the Baptist.

The Maccabees were descended from Jehoiarib, who belonged to the first course (I Maccabees 2:1).  The Jewish historian Josephus also claimed to belong to the first course (Life 1.2).

All of this raises questions in my mind.  How could Josephus, a priest, be a leader in battle, with all the purity regulations to which priests were subjected (Leviticus 21)?  Priests were subjected to very stringent laws against coming into contact with a corpse; would not battles be a place of rampant corpse contamination, however?  Actually, I wonder this about more than one priest, such as Aaron’s grandson Phinehas, who went into battle (Numbers 31; Judges 20:28).

(UPDATE: Within rabbinic tradition, there is a priest anointed for war, and he cannot officiate in the Temple service once he is so anointed; rather, a deputy high priest takes his place.  See here, especially Babylonian Talmud Nazir 47b.)  

How could Josephus, a priest, go around exploring different sects, as Josephus says he did?  How would John the Baptist, a son of a priest, be out in the wilderness preaching?  Or, if you don’t believe that John the Baptist really was of a priestly line, why would Luke have no problem depicting John the Baptist as a son of a priest who is out in the wilderness?  Could not priests be exposed to contamination that way?  Would they not be safer from that in the Temple?  Leviticus 21:12 says that a high priest cannot leave the sanctuary, for anointing oil is upon him.  Does that refer to a specific situation, not all times?  Or were the twenty-four courses technically not high priests, even if they were descendants from Aaron, and thus they could venture outside the sanctuary?

Another issue in my study that interested me was how some of the priestly families were questioned or missing, only to be accepted back, eventually.  Only four courses came back from exile (Ezra 2:36-39; Nehemiah 7:39-42; 12:1-21).  Hakkoz’s descendants were not allowed into the priesthood because their record in their genealogies could not be found (Ezra 2:61).  Yet, Hakkoz is included in the list in I Chronicles 24:10.  The note in the HarperCollins Study Bible says that the list in I Chronicles 24:10 must be later and the family of Hakkoz “had made gains in having its claims acknowledged.”

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