Sunday, September 21, 2014

Book Write-Up: David Wilkerson

Gary Wilkerson, with R.S.B. Sawyer.  David Wilkerson: The Cross, the Switchblade, and the Man Who Believed.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014.

David Wilkerson was a Pentecostal preacher.  In the 1950’s, he read about a high-profile murder trial in a newspaper and went to New York City to show the love of God to the murderers.  He was thrown out of the courtroom and did not get to meet the murderers, but he ministered to gangs, and one prominent gang member became a Christian as a result of David’s influence.  David Wilkerson wrote about this experience in what became a bestselling book, The Cross and the Switchblade.  The book would be made into a movie starring Pat Boone as David Wilkerson.

David Wilkerson would minister to people who used drugs.  His book, the movie based on his book, and his Christian recovery organization would reach throughout the world, even in some countries that were not particularly friendly to Christianity, but which respected Wilkerson on account of his successful outreach to drug addicts.  Wilkerson would also travel across the country as a preacher, and later he would serve as a pastor.

In David Wilkerson, David’s son Gary tells about his father, basing his story on interviews and his own experiences.  On page 299, Gary says that “In our dad’s eyes, his life was simply a picture of normal Christianity, of a man who was flawed yet yielded.”  David Wilkerson was an introverted and often socially-awkward man, yet he had a love for God and a sense of mission.  There was long a tension within him between focusing on the love of Christ and legalism, but he came to appreciate the grace of God more in his later years as he read the Puritans.

There is so much of worth in this book: the stories of miracles and prophetic gifts, of letting people pursue their own path, of relationships, of generosity, of empathy, and of people from different backgrounds working together.  (On the last one, according to Gary, Wilkerson actually had more luck getting The Cross and the Switchblade published by a secular publishing house because many Christian publishing houses were hesitant to publish a book that talked a lot about charismatic gifts!)  If I had a favorite passage, it was on page 24: “For reasons of his own, [David Wilkerson] had turned down every invitation from a US President to visit the White House, but he would drive hundreds of miles out of the way during an evangelism tour so he could meet an obscure nun who had written something about Christ that had moved him.”  It was when I read that passage that I knew that I would love this book!

I give the book five stars because it is excellent.  I heard David Wilkerson speak once at Times Square Church, and I one time heard one of his recorded messages.  One message was full of fire and brimstone, and the other started out tough but moved towards a tender expression of appreciation for God’s mercy.  I was glad to have learned more about this man’s background, and I identified with David Wilkerson’s introversion and personal devotion to God, while admiring his courage.

If I have one criticism, it is that I wish that Gary had gone more deeply into the issue of prophecy.  According to Gary, his father at crusades often had the gift of being able to tell people he had never met specific details about their lives.  Yet, Gary acknowledges that his father sometimes made predictions that he claimed were from God yet did not come to pass, to his father’s dismay.  While Gary seems to attribute one of those visions to his father’s insecurity about death, he should have attempted to offer a theological or biblical explanation for how prophets can predict things that do not come to pass, even though there are indications that God is using them.

Note: I received a complimentary review copy of this book through the BookLook Bloggers ( book review bloggers program.  The program does not require for my review to be positive, and my review reflects my honest reaction to the book.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Nadia Bolz on What Grace Is

I got this quote from Rachel Held Evans’ post today.  I’m posting it here for future reference, because I want to remind myself of what it says.

“Grace isn’t about God creating humans as flawed beings and then acting all hurt when we inevitably fail and then stepping in like the hero to grant us grace–like saying ‘Oh, it’s OK, I’ll be a good guy and forgive you.’ It’s God saying, ‘I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new.'” – Nadia Bolz Weber, “Pastrix”

I Chronicles 28

I have four items for my blog post on I Chronicles 28.

1.   David summoned the princes, captains, valiant men, and officers of Israel, as well as his stewards and the stewards of his son.  In I Chronicles 28:2, he calls these men brothers.  More than one commentary that I read made a big deal about this.  Matthew Henry says that David is doing so to humble himself.  The more critical Peake’s commentary states  that “an oriental king does not place himself on a level with his subjects in this way”, so David must be doing so out of stress.  David wants for his son and coming successor, Solomon, to build the Temple, and for the important people of Israel to provide support for Solomon in this endeavor.  That could be what is stressing David out.  Peake’s commentary also cites Deuteronomy 17:15, which commands the Israelites, if they want a king, to appoint the king from among their brethren.  The king is to be a fellow Israelite, part of the family.

David may be addressing these men as brothers because he is humbly seeking their help, or because he actually does regard them as brothers—-they are fellow Israelites, after all.  Maybe David is saying that, as Israelites, they should be privy to God’s plans for Israel: to dwell with Israel in a Temple.  This involves them, too, and David in calling them brothers is recognizing and highlighting that.  I think of what Jesus says in John 15:15: “Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you” (KJV).

2.  David in I Chronicles 28:9 exhorts Solomon to know and to serve God.  What does it mean to know God?  Evangelicals like to make a big deal about this: “Do you know the Lord?”, some of them may ask people, or they may say that there is a difference between knowing about God and knowing God.  Is knowing God having an awareness of God’s identity and attributes, being in a relationship with God, or something else?

Roddy Braun in the Word Biblical Commentary on I Chronicles interprets knowing God in light of a covenant context:

“Studies in Hittite and Accadian treaties assure us of the usage of ‘to know’ to denote the mutual legal recognition of suzerain and vassal and the binding nature of treaty stipulations (cf. H. Huffmon, ‘The Treaty Background of Hebrew [Yada], BASOR 181 [1996] 31-37).  Biblical passages cited by Huffmon such as Amos 3:2; 2 Sam 7:20 (=I Chron 17:18); Hos 8:2; 13:4-5; Deut 9:24; and Psalm 14:4 wholly support the view that we are dealing here with conventional terminology which exhorts Solomon to recognize Yahweh as his covenant lord and to conduct himself in accord with his stipulations.”

So knowing God is recognizing that God is lord within the covenant relationship and treating God accordingly.  That could be.  Still, I think that there may be a broader conception of knowing God, within both the Hebrew Bible and also the New Testament.  In Jeremiah 22:15, we read: “He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well with him: was not this to know me? saith the LORD” (KJV).  That could mean that King Josiah recognized God as covenant lord and thus obeyed God’s commands regarding social justice, but could there also be a sense here that knowing God is seeing that God is just and acting according to God’s character?  We see something similar in I John 4:8: “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love” (KJV).  Here, knowing God is being aware (perhaps intimately aware) that God is love and thereby walking in love.

I also think of verses about people not hurting and destroying in the future paradise, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:9; Habakkuk 2:14).  In Isaiah 11:9, that seems to apply to the Gentiles, and the Gentiles are not part of God’s covenant with Israel.  Does knowing God in this context, then, relate to any covenant?  Well, maybe the Gentiles were part of some covenant with God, since God made a covenant with humanity through Noah (Genesis 9).  Moreover, Isaiah 24:5 accuses humanity of breaking a covenant with God by violating God’s laws.  Do Gentiles know God by acknowledging that they, too, have a covenant with God and are subject to God as their lord?  Or is Isaiah 11:9 saying that the Gentiles will know that hurting and destroying violate God’s character, and they will thus turn from hurting and destroying?  Is knowing God honoring God as the boss in a covenant, or is it recognizing God’s character?  Could it be both?

3.  More than one scholar has maintained that there is diversity within the Hebrew Bible concerning whether God’s covenant with David and David’s offspring was conditional or unconditional.  In II Samuel 7, God says that David’s seed will be established forever, and that God will discipline it when it does wrong but will not remove his love from it, as God did with Saul.  The implication seems to be that, whereas God rejected Saul from being king on account of Saul’s sins, God will not do this to David’s line; rather, God will discipline David’s line, but it will still rule.  And, throughout I-II Kings, God refuses to destroy Jerusalem for David’s sake, notwithstanding Jerusalem’s sins.

But there are also voices in the Hebrew Bible that treat God’s faithfulness to the Davidic line as conditional on its obedience to God’s commandments.  This occurs in I Kings, and those passages may be Deuteronomistic.  Eventually, Jerusalem was destroyed, and the Davidic monarchy was overthrown.  Some voices within the Hebrew Bible may have looked at that as evidence that God’s covenant with David was conditional on obedience, and that David’s line forfeited the covenant through its sins.  There are some, however, who hold out hope that God is still faithful to the Davidic line: that God will restore it to its position of rulership, and it will rule forever (see, for example, Jeremiah 33:25-26).

Where does the Chronicler land on this issue?  In I Chronicles 28, the Chronicler seems to maintain that God’s covenant with David was conditional on obedience: v 7 says that Solomon’s throne will be established if Solomon obeys God, and v 9 threatens that God will cast Solomon off forever if Solomon forsakes God.  At the same time, I Chronicles 17:12-14 affirms that Solomon’s throne will be established forever, and that God will not take away God’s love from Solomon, as God did from Saul.  Maybe there is a contradiction between I Chronicles 28 and 17, due to different sources.  Or perhaps the Chronicler, even in I Chronicles 17, downplays the unconditionality of the covenant.  The Chronicler omits the part from II Samuel 7 about God disciplining the line of Solomon.  Could the reason be that the Chronicler does not think that Solomon and his line will merely receive discipline for sin, but will actually be forsaken by God?  Could the Chronicler be implying that God would not remove God’s mercy from Solomon and Solomon’s line, but only so long as Solomon is faithful to God?

Overall, the Chronicler may have believed that the days of the Davidic line were over, and that God in the Chronicler’s post-exilic days was doing things differently.  Perhaps the Chronicler thought that the Davidic line broke the covenant and thus forfeited God’s faithfulness.

4.  I Chronicles 28:19 seems to imply that David’s plans for the layout of the Temple were from God.  But scholars have noted that the Solomonic Temple resembles other Temples in the ancient Near East, particularly those of Phoenicia, which was helping Solomon build the Temple.  Would God imitate a country’s style?  Well, the Chronicler may be going a step further than I Kings by saying that the plans for the Temple’s layout were from God.  But God may very well condescend to speak within people’s culture—-to meet people where they are.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Proceeding to the Deuterocanonical Writings

I am currently reading the Book of Malachi for my daily quiet time.  I said in a recent post that I was thinking of going to the New Testament next rather than the deuterocanonical writings.  I have changed my mind about that: I will be going through the deuterocanonical writings next.

This is a bit daunting, for a variety of reasons.  For one, I have a host of commentaries that pertain to the Jewish and Protestant canon of the Bible.  I do not have as many for the deuterocanonical writings, which appear in Catholic Bibles.  I have a bit more than I thought, though.  My HarperCollins Study Bible has notes at the bottom.  I have a Catholic Study Bible, which also has notes.  I just remembered that I had a commentary on Wisdom of Solomon, and I dug it out.  Plus, maybe I can search online.  In going through the deuterocanonical writings, I will not have the vast resources to consult that I ordinarily have when I have a Bible question: what does this verse mean, and why is it saying that this way?  But I am not totally in the dark.

Second, I find some of the deuterocanonical writings to be boring.  Or, to be more accurate, I find one of them to be boring: I Maccabees.  I Maccabees has a lot of battles and alliances, and those things do not interest me that much.  Maybe I will feel differently this time.  I am not entirely the same person today that I was the last time that I read I Maccabees, or the rest of the deuterocanonical writings.

Third, I do not feel inspired when I am reading the deuterocanonical writings.  They do not have that Bible-feel to me, for some reason.  Maybe that is because I am not used to them.  Also, my sentiment is rather subjective: it reminds me of a guy I know who said that the King James Version is the only legitimate Bible because a person he knew felt inspired by the Holy Spirit when he read it, but not when he read other versions.

Anyway, committing to the deuterocanonical writings is a pretty big commitment.  It may take me a year to go through them.  Maybe my experience will be positive.  After going through the deuterocanonical writings, I will proceed to the New Testament.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Book Write-Up: Farewell to God, by Charles Templeton

Charles Templeton.  Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith.  Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1996.

Charles Templeton was a Christian evangelist and a close friend to Billy Graham.  Templeton left the Christian faith and became an agnostic.  In this book, he explains why.

A lot of his reasons are not particularly new.  They include the problem of how God can permit evil and suffering, the implausibilities within the Bible (i.e., the Flood story), biblical contradictions, the problem of how God can damn so many people in the world to hell for not being Christian, inconsistencies between the Bible and science, the reality that many people embrace the dominant religion of their surroundings, the deficiencies in character and temperament of the God of the Old Testament, and Old Testament laws that marginalize or are unfair towards women.  I suppose that even someone who has already interacted with these issues can learn something new from Templeton’s discussion: I, for one, never thought about the problem of ventilation on Noah’s Ark!

The book is about more than Templeton poking holes in the Bible and Christianity, though. Templeton also reflects on the decline of Christianity (except for fundamentalist Christianity) in the West, the humble Christians he knew and admired, and technological advancement that is accompanied by emptiness and moral corruption.  While Templeton does not believe that Jesus was God and thinks that the Sermon on the Mount is rather unrealistic, he admires Jesus for his moral insights and courage.  He contrasts Jesus with mainline pastors whose messages do not rock the boat!

Templeton says that he is not an atheist but an agnostic.  He believes that something started the universe but that it was an impersonal force rather than a personal being.  For Templeton, the universe is indifferent to human beings.  Templeton still maintains, however, that there are natural and moral laws, and that obeying them can result in positive consequences.  Society works better when people are kind to each other.  If people treat nature well, then nature will treat them well.  (Templeton asks why God does not send rain to areas plagued by drought, yet he also blames drought on human beings.)

Does Templeton regret leaving Christianity?  He acknowledges that church can bring people comfort, community, and solidarity, and he misses that.  At the same time, he says that he was plagued by doubts when he was a Christian, as a result of what he was reading.  Now, he is free to explore different things, without fear that what he learns might contradict Christian orthodoxy.

I enjoyed his telling of his own conversion story, how he became a Christian, perhaps because it is somewhat similar to my own.  Templeton felt guilty and unclean but felt peace, warmth, and light after he asked God to come into his life.  In my case, I felt guilty and aimless, and I was looking for comfort and a moral compass.  I felt peaceful and grounded when I committed myself to Christ.

My favorite passage in Templeton’s book was what he said on page 233 about loving his neighbor: “I believe that you cannot love your neighbour as yourself but that you should care about your neighbour, whoever he is and wherever he lives, help him when you can and co-operate with him to make the world a better place.”

I myself question whether I am called to love my neighbor in the exact same proportion that I love myself, or to love my neighbor more than I love myself.  I doubt that is possible or that even many evangelical Christians attain to that.  I do believe, however, that I should love my neighbor, and that there are times when I may need to put others first for the sake of peace, or because it is the right thing to do.

In terms of criticisms of the book, I have three.  First of all, Templeton did not really interact with Christian voices that were not fundamentalist.  In a movie about Billy Graham’s early years, the Templeton character praised an academic for his dissertation on theologian Karl Barth.  I wonder where Templeton would find Barth’s thought to be inadequate.  My understanding is that Barth tended to dodge modernist criticisms of Christianity and the Bible by focusing on how God can use the Bible to challenge Christians in church.  In my opinion, even if the Bible has problems, God can still use it to bring people into relationship with God, and to challenge them about their sin and need for redemption.

Second, Templeton did not have much of a critical methodology in determining what in the New Testament was historical and un-historical.  He dismissed the Temptation story of Jesus because that sounded to him like a legend serving to highlight Jesus’ humanity.  He rejected the stories of Jesus’ resurrection because they were contradictory.  Yet, he largely accepted the parts of the Gospels about Jesus’ ministry and crucifixion, even though he had just said that the Gospels were written after the time of Jesus by people who did not even know him, casting doubt on their historical reliability.  Templeton seemed to accept those parts because he found them plausible and did not think that they contradicted each other, even though they arguably do.  Interestingly, Templeton even found Jesus’ miracles to be plausible, but that was because he thought that Jesus may have been curing psychosomatic illnesses, or people’s symptoms manifested themselves again after Jesus left (as occurs with a number of faith healers).  Templeton’s discussion of the historical Jesus was interesting, but he should have offered a better methodology of why he was deeming parts of the Gospels to be historical, especially after arguing that there is reason to doubt the Gospels’ historicity.

Third, Templeton should have explained how the stories about the resurrection of Jesus originated.  He said that Jesus’ followers made them up because they were disappointed about Jesus’ death, but Christian apologists can then ask questions:  Does that mean that Jesus’ disciples were lying?  Would they be willing to suffer or even die for something they made up?  Templeton should have interacted with such issues.  I will say, though, that Templeton did raise an interesting consideration: If Jesus’ tomb was empty, would not Jesus’ disciples be able to point all of the Jews to the empty tomb, resulting in mass conversions to Jesus?  The Gospel of Matthew has an answer to that, though: Many Jews believed that the disciples stole Jesus’ body while the Roman guards were asleep.

This was a worthwhile book for me to read.  It is important for me to read books like this so that I can clarify to myself what I believe, and why.  I think that Templeton asks good questions and raises valid points.  I personally do not dismiss the existence of God or a higher power, but I struggle with questions about God’s existence and activity (or lack thereof) in the world.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Nicolle Wallace vs. Rosie O'Donnell

On The View yesterday, Republican Nicolle Wallace and Rosie O’Donnell were arguing over whether President Obama loves people.  See here to read more about that.

Personally, I think that Rosie O’Donnell was missing Nicolle Wallace’s point.  Nicolle Wallace was not saying that President Obama wants to harm others or is totally uninterested in their well-being.  My impression is that she was simply saying that he’s not much of a people-person: he does not like to schmooze with people on Capitol Hill.  He is rather introverted.  People all across the political spectrum have made this point.  But Rosie was likening Nicolle’s point to the claim some made that George W. Bush neglected New Orleans after Katrina out of a dislike for African-American people.

What puzzled me was that Nicolle Wallace was really making no attempt to clarify what she was saying and to correct Rosie’s misunderstanding.  Why not?  Is it because Nicolle is getting used to The View?  Was this all a design to increase conflict on the show so it will be talked about on the Internet the next day, as has happened?

Book Write-Up: The Challenge of the Disciplined Life

Richard J. Foster.  The Challenge of the Disciplined Life: Christian Reflections on Money, Sex & Power.  HarperSanFrancisco, 1985.

If you are looking for a book that provides clear-cut rules about how a Christian should handle money, sex, and power, then this may not be the book for you.  What the book does do is offer things to think about.

Can a Christian man have sexual fantasies, or does that violate what Jesus said in Matthew 5:28 about lusting after women being adultery?  Richard J. Foster says that sexual fantasies can be a legitimate outlet, but that one should take heed not to think that reality is like one’s fantasy, and that sex should be about mutual love rather than dehumanizing other people.

Is homosexuality a sin in the eyes of God?  Foster believes that it is, even as he acknowledges that people do not always choose their sexual attractions (and how advanced of an understanding that was in the 1980’s, I do not know for sure).  Still, Foster on page 112 likens homosexuals pursuing a relationship to a less-than-ideal war: sure, it is less than ideal, but there can still be moral constraints and limitations placed on it if that is what one chooses.  Foster also does not think that Christians should abandon homosexuals who choose to have a relationship but should stay around to help pick up the pieces if things fall apart.  That is pretty presumptuous—-it’s like Foster is saying that we should expect homosexual relationships to lead to disaster because they go against God’s will, when Foster is very much aware that there are heterosexual relationships that fall apart.  Yet, Foster’s discussion was different from the absolutist stance that many conservative Christians take.

Should Christians get a divorce?  Foster believes that Jesus criticized divorce because there were Hillelite Pharisees who dumped their wives for any reason, leaving them vulnerable.  Foster thinks that we should keep that in mind rather than applying Jesus’ teaching legalistically.  Foster argues that Paul himself was rather flexible in applying Jesus’ teaching in I Corinthians 7, where Paul allows couples to separate if one is a Christian while the other is not, something that goes beyond Jesus’ teaching that one should not divorce unless there is sexual immorality.  Foster also contends that marriage should be about mutual love and the benefit of others, and, if a marriage is not manifesting that, it may be best to end it.

How much money should a Christian give?  Foster does not say, but he does give us things to consider.  Jesus was very critical of money, probably because Jesus recognized its power in gaining people’s devotion and motivating them to do almost anything for it.  But there are also passages about wisdom, good stewardship, and enjoying God’s creation, which differs from asceticism.  Foster makes the point that, technically, our money belongs to God, so we should be asking ourselves how much of it we can use for ourselves rather than how much we should give to God.  Foster also stresses giving to others.

In one interesting case, Foster shows how rules can get in the way of love.  He tells of an African Christian man who inherited his father’s wives.  The man could have put the wives away to obey a rule, but that could have left them alone, vulnerable, and unsupported in the world.  Consequently, he chose to stay married to them, while refraining from sex with them and allowing them to pursue their own romantic interests.

Foster transcends the liberal-conservative divide, for he largely affirms conservative sexual morality, while also criticizing war.  In one part of the book, he asks if a Christian scientist can legitimately work for the military-industrial complex.

Foster also provides interesting historical information, such as the Puritans’ permissive attitude towards divorce.

I have two criticisms, though.  First of all, I think that there are times when Foster ignores historical or cultural explanations for certain biblical commands.  While I am open to accepting that biblical commands about sexual restraint were about love, they were also about keeping property in the family, fathers being able to know for sure that their children were really their children, and the negotiations that families made with each other regarding marriage.  Foster largely ignored those considerations.

Second, I am a bit ambivalent about Foster’s biblical arguments about divorce.  Was Jesus critical of divorce because it left women vulnerable, or simply because he opposed divorce?  Jesus does not say anything about divorce leaving women vulnerable, so maybe he just opposed divorce.  Early Christian writings, including patristic writings, were practically absolutist in opposing divorce.  Could that stance go back to Jesus?  And was Paul really unfaithful to Jesus’ teaching, or (to put it more charitably) trying to modify it?  Not necessarily.  My impression is that Paul in I Corinthians 7 does not allow the Christian spouse to initiate the divorce, which would be consistent with Jesus’ anti-divorce stance, but permits the divorce only if the non-believing spouse wants it.

At the same time, there are other considerations.  Whereas Jesus in Mark 10:11-12 and Luke 16:18 is anti-divorce, Matthew 19:9 has an exception clause: divorce can take place if there is sexual immorality.  That tells me that not everyone in the early church interpreted Jesus’ sayings absolutely but were willing to allow some flexibility, as Foster argues.  There is also Exodus 21:7-11, which says that a man can put away his female maidservant if he has absolutely no intention of supporting her.  Some point to this text to argue that God would permit divorce if a husband does not provide for his wife or is abusive to her.

I would now like to quote my favorite passage from Foster’s book, which is in his section about power.  On page 207, Foster tells the following story:

“I once experienced this power that frees in an especially vivid way.  I had just returned from a conference where I had made some rather significant decisions, and I was telling a friend who was a spiritual mentor about the experience.  At one point I exclaimed, ‘Oh, by the way, I made one decision that I know you have been wanting me to make for a long time…’  My friend interrupted, ‘Wait just a minute!  Let’s be clear about one thing.  My business, my only business, is to bring the truth of God as I see it, and then to simply love you regardless of what you do or don’t do.  It is not my business to straighten you out or to get you to do the right thing.’  After our visit I thought about the significance of this simple statement.  His care and compassion had always been evident, but in those words I discovered a new dimension of freedom—-a freedom that allowed intimate friendship without a slavish need to please on either side.”

“…intimate freedom without a slavish need to please on either side.”  Imagine that!  Wouldn’t we all like that kind of relationship!

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