Thursday, January 29, 2015

Book Write-Up: A Beautiful Reflection

Sarah O. Maddox.  A Beautiful Reflection.  Winchester, KY: Olivia Kimbrell Press, 2014.  ISBN-10: 1939603293. ISBN-13: 978-1939603296.  See here to purchase the book.

A Beautiful Reflection is a Christian novella for young women.  Its message is about the importance of Christians marrying Christians rather than non-Christians.  The two main characters of the book are Susan Strasbourg and Jim Hitchenson.  Susan is a devout conservative Christian, who prays to God, attends church, abstains from alcohol and pre-marital sex, displays a genuine interest in people, and volunteers at a mental hospital and a school for the deaf.

Susan manages a local branch of a company, and she attends the company’s convention in Atlanta.  A handsome man sitting with his parents and his sister at the convention keeps looking at Susan, and Susan learns that he is Jim Hitchenson, the President of the company.  Susan is warned that Jim is quite a ladies’ man, one who loves the ladies and then leaves them!  But Jim introduces himself to Susan and comes across as a really nice guy.  He takes Susan out, and he respects her desire not to drink alcohol.  When Susan is stalked at the convention, Jim is very protective of her and stations security guards at her hotel door.

Jim is serious about Susan because she is beautiful on the inside and the outside, and Jim wants the sort of wholesome family life that his parents have.  Susan loves Jim because he is handsome, is concerned about her, has lots of energy, and loves people.  But there is a slight barrier between them.  Jim has a wild past filled with promiscuity and alcohol, and he is reluctant to share that with Susan out of fear that she will reject him.  And Susan wonders if Jim is a born-again believer, for she wants the Lord to build her house, and she does not want to trap Jim in any religiosity that he may later resent.

I am not the book’s target audience, but I was interested in reading this book because I thought that it would be about different beliefs and value systems, from an evangelical Christian perspective.  In addition, I have read my share of Christian and non-Christian romance, so I believe that I am qualified to offer an evaluation of the book.

Overall, I wish that the book had more about conflicting values and religious beliefs, and that it fleshed out more why it was so problematic for believers to marry non-believers.  In one scene, when Susan was pointing out to herself that she had not yet discussed with Jim his religious beliefs, his stance on social issues, and his political views, I was looking forward to such a discussion, even though I feared that it would amount to Susan suggesting that true Christians are right-wing Republicans!  (I was expecting Jim to be a Republican, but an economic conservative and not a social or cultural conservative.)  I was hoping for more substantive discussions, beyond the romantic dialogue that was throughout the book.  Why did Susan and Jim believe and behave as they did, and how could the disparity between their beliefs pose problems to them if they were to get married, especially when Jim seemed to respect Susan’s convictions?  The author, Sarah O. Maddox, asked thoughtful questions in the back of the book, but I was hoping for more in the story itself.

I was also disappointed that certain aspects of the plot were not revisited.  For example, in the book’s preface, we are told about Susan’s relationship with a Christian man, Rob, long before she met Jim.  Rob proposed to Susan, but Susan prayed about Rob’s proposal and turned Rob down, concluding that she saw Rob as more of a friend than a potential husband.  The events of the preface are never mentioned in the remainder of the book.  Perhaps readers are supposed to draw their own conclusions, but there were questions in my mind that I was hoping would be addressed.  What did Susan learn from this experience?  And can this experience shed light on why Susan was responding to Jim as she was?

Something else that perplexed me was the reaction of Jim’s sister Violet to the relationship between Jim and Susan.  Violet had been romantically involved with Dan, and Dan broke off the relationship because Dan was a non-Christian and Violet was asking him if he had a born again experience.  Yet, Violet was happy that Jim met Susan and never brought up to Susan the topic of whether Jim is a believer and how Jim and Susan would be unequally yoked were they to marry.  Maybe Violet was just happy that Jim had met a good Christian woman, who was different from the women Jim had previously dated.

Overall, though, I liked the book.  Although I sometimes questioned if Maddox was right to tell us Jim’s feelings for Susan early in the book—-I was wondering if readers would be better off wondering if Jim’s love for Susan was real—-I did appreciate the theme of Jim being a recovering playboy who was looking for a wholesome family life.  And I liked his sister, Violet.

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

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Ramblings on The Devil's Advocate and Demons Being Unafraid of the Bible

I watched the 1997 movie, The Devil’s Advocate, on Saturday night.  In this movie, Keanu Reeves plays a hot-shot lawyer, Kevin Lomax, who moves from Florida with his wife to work at a New York City law firm.  The head of the firm is John Milton, played by Al Pacino, and Milton turns out to be Satan, and also Kevin’s father.  What’s more, the law firm is connected with all sorts of iniquity in the world: arms deals, drugs, and the list goes on and on.

I first watched the movie several years ago.  I was an undergraduate in college at the time, and what surprised me was that Satan and the demonic figures appeared to have no fear of the Christian religion.  Kevin’s mother was religious, and she was reading the Bible aloud to Kevin’s wife, who was in a mental hospital.  One of the ladies from the firm was also there, and this lady was simply standing there and calmly listening to Kevin’s mother reading from the Bible.  This lady didn’t look bothered or disturbed at all.  This lady turned out to be a demon, yet, there she was, unafraid to listen to the words of the Bible!

There were other things in the film that were similar to that.  Kevin’s mother was telling Kevin about the time that she met John Milton when she was younger.  She was attending a Christian crusade, and she was impressed because Milton knew the Bible backwards and forwards.  Near the end of the movie, when Kevin tells Satan that the Bible says that Satan will lose in the end, Satan responds that Kevin has to remember who wrote the book!

Should I have been surprised by these scenes?  Probably not.  I listened to a preacher when I was younger, and this preacher said that Satan probably knows the Bible backwards and forwards, and that Satan would most likely enjoy discussing religion with people.  And, in the biblical stories of Jesus’ temptation in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Satan did quote Scripture to Jesus.

But there was a part of me that did regard the Bible as a sort of talisman against evil, or that viewed the reading of the Bible as a place to find peace and refuge.  Were not the demons in the synoptic Gospel stories afraid of Jesus?  And yet, they were not always afraid of Jesus’ name.  When some would-be exorcists in Acts 19 sought to cast out a demon from a person in the name of Jesus, the demon replied, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you?” (NRSV)?  The demon-possessed man then attacked these men, and they fled from the house, naked and wounded.

There is another story, though.  In Matthew 12 and Luke 11, Jesus tells a parable about a man who had been released from a demon.  The expelled demon gathers some other demons to possess the man, and they find his “house” (perhaps a symbol of his inner being) empty, swept, and put in order.  They then possess the man, and he is now worse off than he was before.  In a Bible study group that I attended in college, and also in some commentaries that I read, I encountered the interpretation that the man got repossessed because he did not replace the demons with good things.  We should not just get rid of the evil within us, the spiel ran, but we should also fill our minds with good things, like Bible study, prayer, and church.  That will protect us.

I don’t want to make this post about exorcism or demon possession.  I don’t really know why demons bother some people and not others.  I remember talking with some Christians about the movie The Exorcist, and I wondered why the demon possessed that little girl, since she was a person of faith and had a cross (there I go again, believing in talismans!).  A Christian reminded me of the scene in which the girl and her mother were using a ouija board, and the Christian was saying that the girl opened herself up to demons by so doing.  I don’t dismiss that.  But there are plenty of people in the world—-non-Christians, occultists—-who do not get possessed.  I still stay away from ouija boards, though!

I will say this, and here I am not talking so much about possession, as I am about resisting the devil and his schemes.  The devil is not afraid of the words of the Bible.  But the devil cannot do much in persuading a person who is committed to doing the words of the Bible.  That brings me back to Jesus’ parable about the unswept house: the words of the Bible may not scare Satan, but can Satan really do much to convince someone who internalizes those words and allows them to strengthen her?

Even in the Devil’s Advocate, Satan said that he cannot make people do something.  Rather, what people do is their choice.  It is our poor character that often makes us susceptible to Satan’s temptations.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Book Write-Up: Beyond Belief, by Elaine Pagels

Elaine Pagels.  Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas.  New York: Vintage Books, 2003.

Elaine Pagels is a professor of religion at Princeton University.  I have read two of her other books, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent and The Origin of Satan, and found her to be a compelling narrator.

I decided to purchase Beyond Belief in 2011, when I was reading some books by Christian apologist David Marshall.  Marshall was disputing the idea that the so-called Gnostic Gospels were as religiously or historically authoritative as the Gospels in the New Testament.  The so-called Gnostic Gospels are deemed by many scholars to be later than the synoptic Gospels, mainstream New Testament scholars generally do not look to the so-called Gnostic Gospels in attempting to reconstruct historically what Jesus said and did, and scholars who argue that the Gospel of Thomas is later than the synoptic Gospels appeal to possible indications that it drew from the synoptic Gospels.

But I was curious.  I was aware of scholars who made a big deal about the so-called Gnostic Gospels and maintained that there was diversity in early Christianity—-I thought of Elaine Pagels, Karen King, and Bart Ehrman.  I wondered if they seriously believed that Jesus could have been a Gnostic, or Gnostic-like (since the label of Gnosticism itself has come under attack within scholarship, as Pagels acknowledges), and if they held that the so-called Gnostic Gospels were as historically authoritative as the New Testament Gospels.  Well, I read Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities, and even he seemed to acknowledge that the Gospels outside of the New Testament were later than the New Testament ones.  Recently, since I found that my review books have not been arriving with haste, I decided finally to read Pagel’s book to get her perspective.

Essentially, Pagels does regard the Gospel of Thomas as later than the synoptic Gospels, but she believes that it came before the Gospel of John in the late first century C.E.  Actually, her contention is that the Gospel of John was responding to the Gospel of Thomas: whereas the Gospel of Thomas encourages people to look within themselves to find God, which they can do because they are made in God’s image, the Gospel of John rejects such an experiential approach and exhorts people to look to Jesus to find God.  Pagels observes that Thomas is portrayed negatively in John’s Gospel, and she notes that Thomas in John’s Gospel even missed out on getting the Holy Spirit when Jesus was giving his disciples the Spirit.  While Pagels does not go into much detail about how John’s portrayal of Thomas constitutes an attack on the Gospel of Thomas’ ideology, she does note one area in which it might: Thomas in John’s Gospel wants to see for himself that Jesus is raised from the dead, and, after Jesus shows himself to Thomas, Jesus praises those who do not have to see to believe.  Thomas in John’s Gospel had an experiential approach to religion, Pagels states, and the Gospel of Thomas also had an experiential approach; John’s Gospel, however, rejects such an approach.

But does the Gospel of Thomas in any way reflect what the historical Jesus was like?  Pagels does not tackle this question head-on, but she raises a variety of considerations.  She expresses some openness to the idea that the Gospel of John reflects eyewitness testimony to Jesus, for she states that “His account shows his familiarity with Judaea and its local Jewish practices, and includes details which suggest that he traveled with Jesus and his other disciples during their last journey to Jerusalem, as he claims to have done” (page 59).  But she also mentions other views. 

Overall, my impression is that Pagels thinks that Christianity has always been diverse, even in the first century.  According to Pagels, Mark’s Gospel seems to portray Jesus as a man who became divine, whereas John and Thomas depict Jesus as already divine and pre-existent (on some level, in the case of the Gospel of Thomas), and Paul refers to an earlier Christian hymn about Jesus’ pre-existence in the form of God (Philippians 2).  The Didache, a Jewish-Christian document that Pagels says predates the gospels of Matthew and Luke by ten years (though she refers in an endnote to scholars who argue differently), presents the Lord’s supper as a ritual of unity among believers, whereas the Gospel of Mark associates it with Jesus’ death.

As far as I could see in reading this book, Pagels does not talk about the historical Jesus that much, for her focus is on the diverse things that early Christianity said about Jesus.  Would not John’s possible status as an eyewitness to Jesus make him historically authoritative about what Jesus said and taught?  I cannot speak for Pagels, but she might respond that, even if John was an eyewitness to Jesus, he had his own interpretation of Jesus’ significance, as did other Christians in the first century.  I don’t know if Pagels would go so far as to say that all we have are interpretations when it comes to Jesus, but she does seem to believe that interpretations are significant.  Consequently, she does not religiously marginalize the Gospel of Thomas but finds it useful to her spiritually, and she does not appear to believe that church fathers were upholding more authoritative Gospels when they affirmed the synoptics (John’s Gospel, according to Pagels, was more controversial) while dismissing other Gospels.  For her, it seems to me, the Gospel of Thomas had something valuable to say, whether or not it reflected the historical Jesus, and she says that both the church and the voices that came to be marginalized suffered when the other voices were silenced.

In Beyond Belief, Pagels attempts to chronicle how the other voices came to be excluded.  She says that Christians were persecuted, certain church fathers sought to unify the church, and they were dismayed by new prophetic voices.  They also believed that the so-called Gnostic Christians were encouraging cliquishness by saying that Christians who followed their teaching had superior understanding to Christians who did not.  After Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, Constantine wanted for Christians to arrive at some unity of belief rather than squabbling amongst themselves.  Although Pagels does not appear to care for the outcome of these events, she does not demonize the church fathers or Constantine, for she is rather sympathetic to the church fathers as they sought to preserve the suffering church, argues that Constantine was more open to diversity than many people realize, and notes some of Constantine’s positive policies, such as the ones that helped the poor.  As a historian and an effective narrator, she seeks to understand the perspectives of historical figures.

Pagels depicts the second century church as persecuted, and I wonder if she would modify that position in light of Candida Moss’ The Myth of Persecution (see my post about that book here).  Unlike a number of other people (i.e., atheist and Christian apologists), I do not think that Moss was arguing that Christians never suffered at the hands of authorities in the first two centuries, or at least that her arguments necessarily lead in that direction.  Rather, she is saying that the Roman authorities did not specifically single out Christians for persecution, even if they prosecuted Christians for crimes, and that martyrdom stories contain anachronisms and served an ideological purpose.  Still, Pagels does appear to accept the historicity of some of these martyrdom stories, and that is why I wonder if she would modify her position in light of Moss’ arguments.

Another question that was in my mind concerned allegorical interpretation of the Bible.  Pagels says that Irenaeus was against how the so-called Gnostic Christians sought deeper meaning in the Bible and the story of Jesus, which would indicate that he supported a more literal interpretation.  But there were many church fathers who engaged in allegorical interpretation of the Bible.  Would Irenaeus oppose that, or would he say that it was all right, as long as it agreed with a literal interpretation of the story of Jesus (his understanding of orthodoxy)?

Pagels talks about other fascinating topics as well: how some church fathers opposed the new prophets by saying that prophecy ceased, whereas other church fathers did not go that far; so-called Gnostic Christian stances on baptism; and how certain so-called Gnostic Christians responded to the threat of excommunication by saying that they did not even believe in that kind of unloving God.  Moreover, while so-called Gnostic views often strike me as cryptic, there were times when what they were saying seemed wise, or down-to-earth.  I think of the statement that truth comes to us in reference to our readiness to receive it, or Valentinus’ view that Jesus overturning the tables symbolizes Jesus overthrowing things in our lives that inhibit us from being a fit place of habitation for the Holy Spirit.

There are scholars who may disagree with Pagels’ arguments, but I found Beyond Belief to be an enjoyable and informative read.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Book Write-Up: Lincoln in the World

Kevin Peraino.  Lincoln in the World: The Making of a Statesman and the Dawn of American Power.  New York: Broadway Books, 2013.  See here to purchase the book.

Lincoln in the World, by Kevin Peraino, is about Abraham Lincoln’s approach to foreign policy, both as a Congressman and also as a President.  As a Congressman, Lincoln was critical of the United States going to war against Mexico as part of an expansionist crusade.  As President, Lincoln dealt with significant challenges.  He did not want for Europe to assist the Confederacy because that could contribute to a Confederate victory in the American Civil War.  When Captain Charles Wilkes was trying to protect the Union’s blockade against the Confederacy by firing on a British ship and capturing two Confederate envoys who were about to assume diplomatic posts in Britain and France, Wilkes was acclaimed as a hero in the Union, but Britain was upset, thinking that Lincoln may have ordered Wilkes’ action.  There was also Napoleon III of France, who was seeking to make incursions into Mexico.  Peraino details how Lincoln successfully addressed these delicate challenges: in a smart, low-key manner.

Peraino includes in his book a lot of anecdotes about the figures whom he discusses, and this humanizes them and gives the reader a sense of their motivations and peculiarities, as well as makes the book more interesting.  Peraino also addresses other topics, such as the negative foreign views about Abraham Lincoln and how they became more positive over time, and also the intersection between Abraham Lincoln and Karl Marx.  Peraino is speculative about whether Lincoln was familiar with Marx’s work, but Marx definitely had opinions about Lincoln and the American Civil War.  Marx supported the Civil War as a way to end slavery and promote revolution, but he did not agree with Lincoln entirely.

What comes across in Peraino’s book is tension, and this is not just because the titles of Peraino’s chapters present Lincoln as “vs.” somebody else (Herndon, Seward, Palmerston, Marx, Napoleon, and himself).  There seemed to be tension within Lincoln’s position, and also within other people’s positions.  Lincoln criticized the U.S. going to war with Mexico, yet he and his Secretary of State were open to some level of expansionism.  Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was expected to win the heart of Europe, which ended slavery before the U.S. did, and yet Europe had a negative reaction to the end of slavery because of its dependence on cotton from the American south.  Peraino navigates his way through these tensions, as when he discusses Lincoln’s philosophy on foreign policy in his second inaugural address, and in an endnote, where he refers the reader to literature on Europe’s reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation.

I have one criticism of the book.  In reading Peraino, I could understand the perspective of the crusading expansionists: they wanted foreign resources for the United States, and they sought to promote war under the cover of some specious moral high ground (i.e., Mexico attacked us).  I did not entirely understand the views of those who were critical of crusading expansionists, including Lincoln.  Lincoln did oppose crusading expansionism on moral grounds, for he said that the U.S. going to war against Mexico violated the Golden Rule.  But what were the practical grounds for Lincoln’s position?  Peraino often referred to a desire to maintain a sectional balance or the balance of power, but I wish that he expanded on what that meant specifically, and what exactly was at stake.  I do not suspect Lincoln of having an ulterior motive in his moral stance against crusading expansionism, for plenty of people base their views on moral reasons.  But Lincoln had practical reasons for his stance as well, for he was a pragmatic person.  Peraino should have gone into more detail about that.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Check, Check, Check

At church this morning, the pastor’s sermon was entitled “Check, Check, Check.”  What’s that mean exactly?  Well, the pastor told a story about a plane that crashed, and pilots since that time were required to make sure that everything was in order before they launched.  There is a pilot in our congregation, and he took the pastor and his wife on a flight.  According to the pastor, the pilot had a checklist of things that he had to check before flying.

The pastor said that, similarly, Christians should have a checklist.  Do we forgive others?  Are we patient with others?  Are we concerned about the outcast?  Are we concerned about the well-being of the community as a whole?

When should Christians look over this checklist?  And is there ever a point when they can honestly say that they have satisfied the requirements on the checklist—-when they actually can put a check-mark besides these requirements that indicates that they have fulfilled them?  Speaking for myself personally, I cannot say that I have satisfied those requirements fully.  Let’s take the first item on the list: Do I forgive others?  Well, it depends.  Sometimes my anger is there, and sometimes it is not.  In some cases, interacting with people on a regular basis has placed me in a position in which I have to put the past behind me for my relationship with them to run fairly smoothly.  Christian author Philip Yancey once wrote that, when people ask him if he is a Christian, he says that he is—-in spots.  Well, that’s how I can describe my forgiveness of others, my patience, my concern for the outcast, my concern for the community, and really every aspect of my Christian life: they’re in spots.  They exist, but they are imperfect, incomplete, mixed with a lot of rubbish.  Most people can probably say the same thing about themselves.

I think that an appropriate place to look over a spiritual checklist is in prayer.  And I do not particularly have in mind me grading myself over how well, or whether, I have satisfied certain criteria.  What I have in mind is this: when I pray, I affirm before God that I forgive those who have wronged or offended me.  I affirm that I myself need forgiveness and thank God for forgiving me, and I pass that forgiveness on to others, asking God for help.  I ask God for patience.  People say one shouldn’t do this because then God will create troubles in a person’s life to teach her patience, but my response is this: the troubles are already there without my praying for patience, and I need God’s help to patiently endure them.  That’s why I pray for patience.  I can show concern for the outcast by praying for them.  If I want my concern to move from prayer to action, I can, if I feel so convicted and moved, ask God to show me what actions are appropriate.  And I can pray for the community.

My checklist is basically a checklist in which I pray about these things, and check them off when I have done so.  There is a Bible verse that, in my mind, supports the approach of using prayer time as an opportunity to forgive and work on one’s attitude, with God’s help.  Mark 11:25: “And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (KJV).

Saturday, January 24, 2015

II Chronicles 17

II Chronicles 17 is about the glory and deeds of King Jehoshaphat of Judah.  I have two items:

1.  II Chronicles 17:5 states: “Therefore the LORD established the kingdom in his hand. All Judah brought tribute to Jehoshaphat, and he had great riches and honor.”  That is the NRSV, which is what I was reading while I was writing my notes about this chapter.

Judah bringing her own king tribute perplexed me, a bit.  I imagined tribute to be a tax that subjugated countries were required to bring to the country that subjugated them.  I wondered how that would fit Judah, and why the Chronicler, in exalting King Jehoshaphat, would say that Jehoshaphat collected lots of taxes from his own people.  That doesn’t sound like that great of a king, does it?

The KJV translates the word that the NRSV renders as “tribute,” minchah, as “presents.”  And it does appear that “presents” is one meaning of minchah (see here).  E.W. Bullinger refers to I Samuel 10:27, in which certain Israelites did not honor King Saul of Israel with presents at the beginning of his reign.  The idea is that they were supposed to do so, in “token of subjection and loyalty” (Bullinger).

Yet, II Chronicles 17:10-11 does appear to say that Jehoshaphat received tribute.  Nations were afraid of him, and some Philistines brought him minchah and silver massaMinchah is the same word that appears in II Chronicles 17:5.  Here in v 11, it may mean that the Philistines brought Jehoshaphat presents because they were afraid of him, or that they brought him tribute.  The former seems to me to be more likely, for there is no indication that Jehoshaphat is requiring them to bring this tribute, but they are doing so to appease him, out of fear.  Massa is often translated as “burden.”  That sounds tribute-like, since tribute can be a burden.  But perhaps the text is saying that the Philistines burdened themselves by bringing Jehoshaphat silver, since they were afraid of Jehoshaphat.

The Judahites bring Jehoshaphat presents as a concrete expression of their love, their loyalty, and their appreciation for Jehoshaphat, as well as their acceptance of his rule.  The other countries do so out of fear.  The former is better, in my opinion, especially when it comes to our service to God.  Yet, the latter has its place, too.  Because the other countries were afraid, they were not attacking Judah.  That allowed Judah to have peace and security.

2.  II Chronicles 17:7-8 states (in the KJV): “Also in the third year of his reign he sent to his princes, even to Benhail, and to Obadiah, and to Zechariah, and to Nethaneel, and to Michaiah, to teach in the cities of Judah.  And with them he sent Levites, even Shemaiah, and Nethaniah, and Zebadiah, and Asahel, and Shemiramoth, and Jehonathan, and Adonijah, and Tobijah, and Tobadonijah, Levites; and with them Elishama and Jehoram, priests.”

Secular and religious authorities are teaching the law to the people of Judah.  Why?  Could not the Levites do that by themselves?  They were the ones who were trained and educated in God’s law.  Why would princes be around to help them teach?

There are a variety of explanations for this.  One is that the princes were teaching the king’s law, whereas the Levites taught religious law (Ralph Klein in the HarperCollins Study Bible, sort of, and Keil-Delitzsch).  Another is that the princes were organizing the Levitical teaching mission (E.W. Bullinger).  A third is that the princes were around to show people that the rules that the Levites were teaching had the king’s backing (Keil-Delitzsch).  A fourth is that the princes were around to ensure that Judahites were obeying the law and not rebelling (Keil-Delitzsch).  A fifth is that this detail is mentioned to show that the laity can teach God’s law, which could be a legitimation of post-exilic synagogues, since the Chronicler wrote after Israel’s exile (Raymond Dillard mentions this idea).  Similarly, a note in Peake’s Bible Commentary says that Nehemiah was a prince who taught the law in the post-exilic period (Nehemiah 8:9-12).

All of these are possible, I think, depending on how far one wants to stretch the definition of teaching.  Keil-Delitzsch say that the word translated as “princes,” sarim, could refer to family heads.  While the Judahites may have been more open to accepting teaching from their local chiefs, I doubt that sarim means that here.  I think that the sarim are the king’s officials, since they are called his sarim, “his” meaning the king.  And sarim can refer to a king’s official, or a prince (see here).

That somewhat contradicts the spirit of item 1, doesn’t it?  In item 1, I say that the Judahites bring King Jehoshaphat presents out of love and loyalty.  In item 2, I mention the view that Jehoshaphat had to send princes with the Levites to show the Judahites that the Levite’s teaching had royal backing, thereby discouraging rebellion and enforcing obedience.  That does seem to be a tension within Judaism and Christianity: we are supposed to serve God freely, out of love, and yet we are required to obey him, and there are punishments if we do not.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Ramblings on the Movie Calvary

I watched the 2014 movie Calvary last night.  I often put movies in my Netflix queue after reading about them online, and I learned about this movie from Richard Beck’s blog.  Beck called it “one of the most profoundly Christian movies I have ever seen”, and so I was unsure about whether or not to put it in my queue.  I watch Christian movies myself, but my Mom and her husband are not really into religiousy, evangelical movies, and, as of late, I have tried to get movies that all three of us can enjoy together.  But I saw that the movie Calvary had a high Rotten Tomatoes rating and a largely positive critical response, so I figured that it might be a good movie.

I’m not going to trudge through a description of the plot, except to say that it is about an Irish priest with feet of clay who listens to people.  Many evangelicals may object to some of what the priest advises: the priest suggests to a frustrated, socially-awkward young man who wants to get laid that he move to the big city, where there are looser women.  But the priest also says things that a number of evangelicals may like: that God is merciful, and that it is never too late to start anew.  The priest is a loving presence to his community, but he is far from perfect.  He’s still a good man, though.

This movie is different from a lot of evangelical movies that are out there.  A lot of evangelical movies are pretty heavy-handed and dogmatic in their presentation of evangelical Christianity.  In Calvary, though, we see a priest who tries to live the Gospel and sometimes stumbles.  Themes of sin, forgiveness, love, calling, and second chances are still there.

There are many evangelical Christians who regard evangelical Christian movies as a means of evangelism, a way to bring people to saving faith in Jesus Christ.  But it doesn’t often work that way, or so it seems to me.  The Christian movie God’s Not Dead, for example, did well at the box office, but my understanding is that this was because evangelicals went to see it in droves.  Critics, on the other hand, panned the movie, and a number of non-believers rolled their eyes at it.

But Calvary is a movie with Christian messages, and yet non-believers can appreciate it as a quality movie.

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