Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Book Write-Up: Return to Me, by Lynn Austin

Lynn Austin.  Return to Me.  Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2013.

Return to Me is the first book of Lynn Austin’s Restoration Chronicles.  It is Christian historical fiction about the return of the Jews from Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.E., and their attempts to start a new life in the land of Israel, where they face the challenges of rebuilding God’s sanctuary and their homes, and dealing with the inhabitants of the land (the Samaritans) and the Persian authorities.  Because there is a good chance that I will receive a review copy of the second book of the series, I decided to read the first book.

Let me say that I was impressed.  Lynn Austin is a talented writer, who is able to tell a compelling story and to create characters with whom I could sympathize.  Austin features a variety of characters: the Jews who were enthusiastic about returning from exile, the Jews who did not want to return because they had made a life for themselves in Babylon, the faithful, the somewhat faithful, the doubters, the closet pagans, those who wanted to make peace with the native Samaritans, those who thought that commitment to God should preclude appeasing the Samaritans, and the list goes on.  These characteristics are not always set in stone, for some characters may doubt the miracles in the Bible while holding to some sort of faith in God, and a number of the characters change their perspective due to experiences or epiphanies that they have.  In any case, I could sympathize and empathize with all of the characters in the book, including those who were doing things of which many of the biblical writings (and probably Lynn Austin herself, an evangelical Christian) would disapprove, as well as the religious characters who annoyed me because they got too preachy.

Austin also navigates the tensions within the Hebrew Bible: between judgment and grace, between legalism and love, and between Israelite exclusivism and the vision that Israel had a divine mission to be a blessing to the Gentile nations.  Austin smoothes some tensions over better than others, but, overall, she presents people wrestling with the tensions and arriving at decisions.

How did Lynn Austin do in terms of historical accuracy and agreement with biblical scholarship?  Well, liberal scholars may disagree with her dating of Second Isaiah, Daniel, and other biblical writings.  Her book also said that Babylonian temples had orgies, which coincides with Herodotus, but which some biblical scholars dispute (see here).  She depicts Jewish students wearing kippot, when it is debated whether that was a practice in biblical times (see here and here).  She presents her characters as largely literate—-including the young Jewish woman Yael, who had star charts, and a Samaritan old woman, who could actually read those star charts.  I am not entirely certain how accurate that picture is, but I am open.  I do not doubt that priests like Iddo and Zechariah could read; maybe even some of the Samaritans could.  But Yael and the Samaritan old woman?

There were times when Austin indicated that there were differences between the Samaritans and the Jews—-on when girls got married, on dowries, etc.—-when my guess is that the Jews were probably similar to the Samaritans on these things, particularly when both were drawing their ideas from the Torah, or the Torah was exemplifying their cultural features.

Austin is also sensitive to conservative scholarly attempts to reconcile Bible contradictions or to address Bible problems: she presents the Babylonian kings Nabonidus and Belshazzar as co-rulers, for example, and she says that the seventy years of Jewish exile officially started when the first set of exiles were taken from Israel, not when Jerusalem was destroyed in 587 B.C.E. (otherwise we have less than seventy years between the destruction and the return from exile).  I would say that her book does reflect research, but scholars would probably quibble with some of her picture, depending on their perspective or what they believe the evidence reveals.  Let me also say that, overall, I was impressed by Austin’s knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, including the priestly laws in the Pentateuch.

I had two favorite passages.  In one passage, Iddo, the devout grandfather of Zechariah (who would grow up to become the prophet Zechariah), is telling his grandson about the power of words:

“We’re made in the Holy One’s image so our words also have power.  You tell someone they’re ugly or that they’re a fool, and if you repeat if often enough, you might create ugliness or foolishness in that person.  You praise them for their goodness or kindness, and your words just might create even more kindness in that person.  We must be careful to speak words of life.”

The other passage that I really liked was on page 383.  In Austin’s book, the Samaritans are presented in a rather unflattering light, yet they are not entirely dehumanized.  One Jewish character, Dinah, is upset about leaving her family behind in Babylon and questions the value of serving God, but she has an epiphany when she is delivering a Samaritan baby, and the Samaritan old woman wants to throw the baby out to die because the baby has a deformed foot.  Dinah concludes that the Samaritans do not value life the way that the Jews do, and that the Jews value life because they have the Torah.  Yet, there are parts of the book that indicate a more complex picture: that the Samaritans also believe in the Torah, on some level, that there are good Samaritans, that a Samaritan can join the community of Israel, and that the Samaritans are upset because they were on the land and now a bunch of exiles are returning.  On page 383, Zechariah is responding to someone who is criticizing the Babylonian and Samaritan stargazers, as Zechariah is saying that the Temple will be a way to bring everyone to God.  Zechariah says: “I know some of those stargazers, and they’re searching for Him whether they realize it or not.”  Some may find that to be condescending.  I find it to be a beautiful acknowledgement that we are all thirsty.

Which Takes Priority: Faith or Political Affiliation?

I was reading a blog post recently that was arguing that the white evangelical community is itself post-evangelical.  Whereas previous generations of evangelicals looked to commitment to biblical authority and sharing the faith as identity markers, nowadays a number of white evangelicals look to partisan politics, namely, being a conservative Republican who opposes abortion and gay marriage.

I have to admit that I do get a bit tired of white evangelicals who assume that believing in Jesus and Christianity has to entail being a conservative Republican, just because of abortion and gay marriage.  There are more issues out there than abortion and gay marriage, and so I believe that an evangelical Christian can legitimately arrive at the conclusion that the Democratic Party is more in line with the Bible and Jesus’ teachings.  Politically-liberal evangelicals have concluded that political liberalism is kinder towards the poor, a prominent concern in the Bible and Jesus’ teachings.

I would not say that being a Christian has to entail being a political liberal, however.  An evangelical Christian, who sincerely desires the good of people and of society, may legitimately conclude that political conservatism creates a more favorable climate for business and job-creation, and that commitment to and promotion of old-fashioned values (i.e., faith, abstinence outside of marriage, etc.) will help society and those within it.

For me, the key question is which has priority: faith or political orientation?  Is one a Christian who happens to be a Republican or Democrat, or a Republican or Democrat who happens to be a Christian?  In my teenage years, I was a Republican who happened to be a Christian.  My enthusiasm was for Republican politics, and I saw Christianity as a part of that package.  But Christianity at that time did not shape my life, my values, and how I treated people.  It was when I committed to Christ that I began to prioritize those things.  And, even after that, through all of my shifts in political ideology, I still have to face the question: Which is more important to me—-my partisan political affiliation, or my faith and the values that it teaches?

I cannot say that a lot of white evangelicals put their politics before their faith, for their faith is what shapes how they try to live and to treat people: with love and compassion.  In my experience, many of them see their political affiliation as a part of their faith, but it is not the entirety of it.  I have noticed my share of exceptions, though.  It’s easy for even a sincere Christian (or anyone seeking to be kind to people) to be a jerk and to dehumanize others in acrimonious online political discussions!

I was thinking about this issue a while back, after Ann Coulter criticized sending Christian missionaries to Africa.  I was wondering where white evangelicals’ allegiances would lie.  Would they choose Ann Coulter, a conservative icon with whom many of them probably agree and root for when they see her on television?  Or would they choose Jesus’ command to go forth into all the world to teach about Jesus?  As far as I could tell, many of them chose the latter (see here, for example).  And that did not surprise me that much.  They love Jesus.  They believe that Jesus, not Ann Coulter, was the one who died for them, saved them from their sins, and made them see after being blind.  Their first commitment was to Jesus.

Monday, September 29, 2014

New Seasons and Comfort TV

Well, some new TV seasons started last night!  We watched all of season 3 of Once Upon a Time recently, so we were ready for the start of Season 4 last night.  And we watched the hour-long episode of Family Guy, in which the characters from Family Guy meet the characters from the Simpsons.

Once Upon a Time has become comfort food for me.  As long as I have been an adult TV viewer (and there was a stretch of time in which I didn’t even own a TV), some show has played that role for me.  For a while, it was LOST and Desperate Housewives.  I would eagerly anticipate the start of each season, like I was reuniting with old friends, and about to meet new friends.  Even the less-than-stellar seasons were comfort food for me.

I don’t think that much about LOST and Desperate Housewives anymore.  The ending of LOST ruined the show for me, and I have not watched old Desperate Housewives episodes since the series came to an end (except for one time, when I watched the last episode of season 1).  Still, the feeling I have right now about Once Upon a Time is the same feeling that I had about those two shows.

Can We Over-Emphasize God's Love?

Can we over-emphasize God’s love?  I was thinking about that as I was trying to sleep last night.  Some think that we can.  We can use God’s love as an excuse, to convince ourselves that we can sin and still be okay with God.  After all, God loves us, right?  He won’t reject us if we are disobedient!

There are seasons in my life, though, when God’s law—-or perhaps my perception and understanding of God’s law—-weighs me down.  In these times, I may find myself hesitant to lean on God’s love, since a little voice in my head is telling me that I cannot use God’s love as an excuse to sin.  Sometimes, I can pray and the right attitude materializes within me, making the Christian life look like a cake-walk.  At other times, that does not work so well, and I am conscious of how much I fall short of God’s high standards (or, again, my perceptions and understanding thereof).

But I was thinking: Can I really over-emphasize God’s love?  Do Christian legalists—-and my inner Christian legalist—-seriously think that the way to get me on the straight and narrow is for me to believe in a harsh, judgmental God?  Belief in that sort of God does not bear much fruit in my life.  It does not make me joyful, loving, and peaceful, the fruits of the Spirit that Christian legalists (and, again, my inner Christian legalist) may judge me as not having.

I do not believe that I can overemphasize God’s love.  Actually, I believe that God’s love is what I need to be a fruitful Christian.  How can I forgive or love a person who rejects me?  I can remind myself—-and remind myself until it becomes an integral aspect of my identity—-that God loves me unconditionally and will never ever reject me.

I do believe, though, that I should adopt a belief in God’s love for me that orients my view of others in a positive direction.  Yes, God loves me, but it is not God and me against the rest of the world.  God loves everyone else, too.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Working in the Vineyard

At church this morning, the pastor preached about Matthew 21:28-32, in which Jesus tells the story of two sons.  The father told one son to work in the vineyard, and the son said no but later changed his mind and did what his father asked. The father then told another son to work in the vineyard, this son said that he would, and the son then went on and did not do what his father told him.  Jesus compared the first son to the tax collectors and prostitutes who repented at the righteous preaching of John the Baptist, and the second son to the religious leaders who gave lip service to God but did not repent.

The pastor was saying that we should not merely honor God with our lips, wear Christian T-shirts (I was wearing a WWJD shirt underneath my shirt!), and put a fish sign on the back of our car.  We should also work in the vineyard.  As examples, the pastor mentioned listening compassionately to people’s problems or taking a sick woman to the doctor because she is afraid of being alone.  The pastor said that the world wants to see authentic Christianity, people who do not just talk the talk but also walk the walk.

Whether or how I will apply any of this, I do not know.  I do get a bit tired of writing posts in which I try to justify the level at which I live or don’t live a loving, Christian life.  By now, I just count on the fact that I will hear comforting sermons, and I will hear sermons that make me walk out of the church service wondering if I am doing enough.  Sometimes, I am so tired and dead inside that I do not care if I am doing enough.  Working in the vineyard?  Maybe I get tired of listening to people’s problems, especially when I cannot do anything about them.  Maybe I would prefer to stay home and read all day rather than go out and serve people.

But I do agree that the Christian life should be about more than talk.  If it is just talk, then what exactly is the point?  Somewhere along the way, one should live according to what one professes to believe.  If one believes in a loving God, one should place faith in that God.  If one sees others as people of value, one should treat them that way.

Which son am I?  Well, would it be all right with the father if one of the sons just said that he did not want to go work in the vineyard, and let that be that?

Somebody has to work in the vineyard, though.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

I Chronicles 29

In  I Chronicles 29, King David encourages leaders in Israel to support his successor, Solomon, in the task of constructing the Temple, and to donate materials to the project, as David did.

I generally listen to sermons about the chapter that I am studying for my weekly quiet time.  In the sermons that I heard about I Chronicles 29, there was a lot of emphasis on God loving a cheerful giver, a la I Corinthians 9:7.  More than one preacher said that, if we do not want to give, then God does not want us to give, for God desires that our giving be willing.  Throughout I Chronicles 29, we read that the Israelite leaders gave willingly, freely, or joyously.

I am a bit ambivalent about the pastors’ statement that we should not give if we do not want to do so.  On the one hand, I am against trying to force or guilt people to do things that they do not want to do.  If I absolutely do not want to go to a Christian small group, for example, then forcing myself to do so out of “obedience to God” will not help me, and it probably will not help those in the group.  On the other hand, when it comes to giving, especially charitable giving, then I believe that the focus should be on the need of the recipients rather than the attitude of the giver.  The attitude of the giver is still important, but that is because being a cheerful giver can lead to more giving and helping of those in need, not because it meets some legalistic requirement of what counts as legitimate giving in God’s eyes.

In I Chronicles 29, however, we are not dealing with charitable giving, but with giving that relates to the construction of the Temple.  But is not the Temple necessary for Israel to prosper?  Remember the Book of Haggai, where God criticizes the post-exilic Israelites for taking care of their own needs while neglecting their religious duty to build God a Temple?  According to Haggai, that neglect resulted in economic dearth for the Israelites, as their crops were consumed by blight, mildew, and hail (to draw from the NRSV’s rendering of Haggai 2:17).  Israel needed God in her midst in order to prosper.  When post-exilic Israel recognized that and undertook the duty of building God a Temple, then things got better for her economically.

But I am doubtful that Israel in the time of David and Solomon really needed a Temple in order to have God’s presence in her midst and to prosper.  God already dwelt in Israel’s midst through a Tabernacle, and, according to I Chronicles 17, God was satisfied with that.  It was David who decided that this was not good enough for God, that it was improper for David to dwell in a great palace while God dwelt in a lowly tent.  David decided to build God a Temple, and God signaled his approval of that, or, more accurately, his approval of David’s son Solomon undertaking the project.

That being said, David and the leaders of Israel were not donating willfully to building the Temple because they believed that God needed a Temple to dwell in Israel’s midst and to bless and prosper her, for God already dwelt in Israel through a Tabernacle.  Rather, they were eager to donate out of a conviction that a great God deserved a great Temple.  This was worship.  This was something that could not be compelled.  God wants for our love of him to be joyful, free, and willing.

At the same time, there was a temptation: people who try to do something for God may start to exalt themselves.  “Look what I am doing for God!”  That may be why David in I Chronicles 29 is exalting God at the expense of humans, saying that all came from and belongs to God, that humans are temporary, and that no one really deserves to give God anything.  Moreover, while one may point to one’s piety and become proud of it, David highlights the need for God to preserve a person’s piety, so that it is not just a passing fad or whim but becomes a defining factor in one’s life.  Human beings are inconstant and can be fickle, and so, rather than congratulating themselves for whatever piety or goodness they may have, they should depend on God to preserve that piety or goodness such that it becomes a defining part of their character.

I wonder also if David was also exalting God at the expense of the human as a way to convince people to give.  Maybe he was telling the Israelite leaders that their time on earth is temporary, and they cannot take their wealth with them, so what better way is there for them to use their wealth than to use it to honor the great God?  I suppose that one can think of other good uses they could have made of their wealth, even if they would die some day and could not take their wealth with them.  They could leave it to their children, and that would be laudable.  But David wants them to do something even more significant with it.

Giving is not always easy for me.  I have given in the past.  But it is not easy.  Somewhere in my mind, there should be a sense that—-in addition to saving up my money—-I should use at least some of it for something significant, such as helping those in need, or promoting the worship of God.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Ramblings on Being a Private Person

I try to write on my blog every day.  Today, I am finding that difficult.  I already posted something, but I wrote that post last week and scheduled it to appear on my blog today.  I try to write an actual post each day.

What is constipating my writing?  Well, my writing is not entirely constipated.  I try to do ten minutes of free writing each day for my dissertation, and I did that pretty well today.  (Just to make clear: I spend more time than ten minutes a day in working on my dissertation!)  Writing for an audience is what can be hard.  I start thoughts in my mind, thinking of potential blog posts, yet I do not want to take those thoughts to any conclusion. Sometimes, I just want privacy.  Why do I have to share my thoughts with anyone?

There was a time when I was more enthusiastic about blogging.  Nowadays, I do not have that enthusiasm.  But I still enjoy blogging.  Just not on some days.

I am in a bit of a misanthropic mood today.  I am on most days, but especially today.  I think about all those bad social encounters I had in the past.  It makes me want to be a recluse for the rest of my life!  Lonely, yes.  But at least I don’t have to answer to or please others.

Of course, I like the people and cats with whom I live.  They essentially let me be.  I don’t have to try hard to be accepted by them.  I can talk or not talk.  It doesn’t matter.

I fear that I will not have the social skills to make it in the world, though.  Some tell me that the way that I learn social skills is to do more socializing.  Well, thanks Sherlock!  Suppose I keep falling flat on my face every time I try to socialize?  Doing lots of socializing does not necessarily teach a person social skills.

Anyway, I’m shutting off comments.  I’m just a very private person today!  Thanks, those who read!

Search This Blog

Loading...