Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Jesus Ben Sira and Self-Esteem

I’ve been reading Jesus Ben Sira for my daily quiet time.  It is part of the Deuterocanonical writings, the books that Catholics accept as canonical but that Protestants and Jews do not.  Ben Sira’s book has been labelled “Ben Sira”, “Sirach”, and “Ecclesiasticus”.

I was reading a passage yesterday that touched on self-esteem.  It’s in Ben Sira 10:28-29:

“My child, honor yourself with humility, and give yourself the esteem you deserve.  Who will acquit those who condemn themselves? And who will honor those who dishonor themselves?” (NRSV)

That somewhat caught me by surprise.  For one, I had assumed that the exhortation that people have a positive self-esteem or self-image was a modern concept, not an ancient one.  Second, I had thought that the biblical writings encourage humility more than having a positive self-image.

Jesus Ben Sira is actually promoting humility.  He does not want people to be proud, to think that they are better than others, or to be so enamored with themselves that they forget God and others.  My impression is that he wants for people to look honestly at themselves and to recognize that they have weaknesses and that they have to play by the rules like everyone else.  But he also seems to think that people should love themselves: they should remember that they are people of value and should treat themselves well, rather than sinning against or dishonoring themselves.

I think also of a saying attributed to the first century Jewish leader Hillel: if I am not for myself, who will be for me?  Hillel, too, believed that people should have regard for themselves.

I was trying to remember if there are any other passages in the Bible about self-esteem.  So many biblical passages encourage humility, but do any promote having a positive self-concept?  I thought of what Samuel told Saul after Saul sinned: “Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The LORD anointed you king over Israel” (NRSV).  A lot of times, pride is the downfall of kings, but, in Saul’s case, his low self-esteem arguably was.  Samuel was telling Saul that, while Saul may not have a very high opinion of himself, his actions and inactions actually carry a lot of weight, for he is the king.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Book Write-Up: Darwin's Forgotten Defenders

David N. Livingstone.  Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders: The Encounter Between Evangelical Theology and Evolutionary Thought.  Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1987.

Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders is about evangelical Christian reactions to the theory of evolution in the United States during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  It profiles many figures, including James Orr, B.B. Warfield, and Charles Hodge.

Livingstone essentially argues that, until the early twentieth century, many evangelical Christian thinkers did not object to evolution on biblical grounds.  Some may have believed that there was not sufficient evidence for evolution, or that questions were unresolved.  Some objected to attempts to present evolution as something that undercuts the idea that the earth and life on it had a designer.  But many evangelical Christian thinkers believed that there was no contradiction between the truth of Christianity and evolution.  Some said that the days of Genesis 1 could have been longer than 24-hours and that God could have used evolution as his method of making the different animals.  Some maintained that God creating human beings in his image could have entailed God providing humans with a soul at a particular point in time, meaning that Genesis 1 was not necessarily incompatible with the existence of early man.  In the early twentieth century, however, a greater commitment to literalism emerged, as many Christians in America sought to protect their culture from certain trends.  Interestingly, Livingstone notes that a book by prominent young-earth creationist Henry Morris about scientists who believed in creation actually (maybe unknowingly) favorably profiles scientists who accepted evolution.

From my summary above, some may think that the book rehashes a debate that many already know.  Many of us are aware that there are Christians who try to reconcile Genesis 1 and science by saying that a day could have been longer than 24-hours, or that some (such as Pope John Paul II) posit that God could have put a soul into a form of human beings at a particular point in time.  While the book does repeatedly present people who held to those ideas, it has so much more.  There was the difference between William Paley’s model of design (the divine watchmaker) and other models of design (i.e., did God fashion animals according to their environments or simply use common models for them?  Should we focus on the structure of animals or laws?).  There were those who believed that God performed unique creations throughout history.  There were those who sought to reconcile evolution with original sin, saying that evolution does not necessarily imply progress, or that evolution’s emphasis on heredity is consistent with human beings passing down original sin to their descendants.  Some believed that there were parallels between evolution and Calvinism, since evolution could inspire thought about determinism and freedom.  There were different versions of evolution: Darwin’s model, which saw mutations as random and not necessarily heading in a specific (or better) direction, and Lamark’s model, which held that evolution was innately progressive and that animals could consciously adapt to their surroundings.  (What’s more, according to Livingstone, Darwin actually came to lean towards the Lamarkian model!)  There was the relevance of evolution to racism; while evolution was used to support racism, so was creationism, and some Christian thinkers actually critiqued racism by appealing to evolution.  There was the question of whether Christ could have died for pre-Adamic man or space aliens, as some maintained that Christ’s atonement could have been extended to them, even if they were not involved in the Fall of Adam.  There were people who criticized evolution from a perspective that was not even distinctly Christian; one person did so on the basis of German idealism.  And there is Livingstone’s thoughtful final chapter that reflects on creationism, arguing that creationists raise valid concerns about the application of evolution to non-scientific realms (i.e., politics, philosophy), and referring to an article questioning whether the Left should side with the scientific establishment over creationists, with all that the scientific establishment does that is inimical to its aims.

If I had a favorite character in this book, it was Charles Darwin.  Darwin was someone who had tried and failed at many things in his life, but he met an academic who saw his potential and believed in him.  Darwin was willing to reach out to those who did not entirely agree with him.  And Darwin honestly admitted that his own theory was not perfect and contained unanswered questions at the time (i.e., missing links, the question of how a mutated animal can bring about mutation in the body of animals, etc.), even if he believed that it had enough evidence and explanatory power to be valid.

The book did not really address, as far as I could see, the question of whether evolution was inconsistent with Adam’s Fall bringing death into the world, when death is an important aspect of the theory of evolution.  After all, the evolutionary model holds that there was death millennia before Adam supposedly lived.  Maybe the Christian thinkers did not address such questions.  I will not rule out that they did, though.

Good book!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Book Write-Up: The River of Life, by Lee Harmon

Lee Harmon.  The River of Life: Where Liberal and Conservative Christianity Meet.  Gonzalez, FL: Energion Publications, 2014.  See here to purchase the book from Amazon.

In The River of Life, Lee Harmon talks about what he believes as a liberal Christian.  He actually says what his religion is on the last page of the book: “Participatory Eschatology.  This is my religion.  This is Jesus’ dream, and it is happening.  The world will become what we, through the help of God and the inspiration and example of Jesus our Savior, transform it into.”

Essentially, Lee Harmon maintains that Jesus was preaching a this-worldly religion, rather than one that focused on having a good afterlife.  Harmon argues that, when Jesus preached about Gehenna, he was talking about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., not hell.  When Jesus spoke of the forgiveness of debts, Harmon says, he may have been talking about people forgiving literal debts—-debts that pushed people into poverty—-as part of the Jubilee that Jesus was inaugurating.  Jesus also went about doing good, freeing people of disease, and he emphasized giving to the poor.  As Harmon notes, there are different eschatological views within the New Testament.  The synoptic Gospels have an eschatology that holds that Jesus will soon return in power to establish a literal rule on earth.  The Gospel of John, however,  has a realized eschatology, which regards Jesus’ giving of the Holy Spirit to his disciples shortly after his resurrection as his second coming.  There are also different understandings within the New Testament about who exactly Jesus was (e.g., when Jesus became divine).  In any case, Harmon holds, there is a common notion throughout the Gospels that Jesus in some sense brought the Kingdom of God in his ministry on earth, a Kingdom that does good and alleviates suffering.

Harmon does not reduce religion to social justice or community service, however, for he does talk about personal piety and experience of the divine.  He says in one beautiful passage, “I have sat in the churches of various denominations and seen strong people reduced to emotional puddles and then lifted into radiance” (page 2).  He talks about his personal prayer life and how he prefers to pray to the Spirit that positively influences the earth: “With this focus, I feel silly praying selfish petitions—-a universal Spirit somehow transcends my selfish ambitions—-so my prayer naturally steers toward renewing my purpose to contribute to the Kingdom of God” (page 33).  He has quotations of prominent liberal Christians and spiritual thinkers about the definition of faith and how it may differ from (or mean more than) having prescribed beliefs or accepting something without proof.

Harmon is also honest about his own religious questions, about such issues as what we can know about God, whether God is personal, and whether there is an afterlife.  He says that he is not trying to encourage people who believe in an afterlife to abandon that belief, for he recognizes that believing in an afterlife gives comfort to people; he just wants to stress that Jesus’ mission was focused on this world.  I appreciated Harmon’s approach here because he was presenting himself as a fellow pilgrim giving us something to think about, and he was expressing acceptance of people with different perspectives.  He was communicating that one does not have to agree entirely with him to get something out of his book.

I found Harmon’s thesis about Jesus’ mission to be convincing, overall.  I agree with him that Jesus wanted to improve the conditions of people in this world.  On whether the churches of New Testament times were like that, however, I would say that it was rather mixed.  On the one hand, the early Christians in the Book of Acts and Paul appear to focus on encouraging people to repent and believe in Jesus in light of a coming judgment, and, while they were concerned for the poor, their concern appears to be rather insular—-for poor Christians.  On the other hand, Jesus’ apostles in the Book of Acts do continue Jesus’ practice of delivering people from disease and demon possession, and one could argue that Christians in New Testament times sought to have a positive influence on the world by demonstrating an alternative society—-one in which the needs of the poor are met and people from different social backgrounds embrace each other as family.

Harmon’s book encouraged me to think about the issue of Gehenna.  I acknowledge the possibility that Jesus may have been referring to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. when talking about Gehenna, and yet there do seem to be some voices in the New Testament that posit a dreadful place for the wicked in the afterlife.  I think of Matthew 8:11-12 and Luke 13:28, which say that many will sit with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom, while others will be cast into outer darkness, amidst weeping and gnashing of teeth.  In terms of Harmon’s discussion of Gehenna, I wish that he had fleshed out more the significance of Gehenna to Jesus’ mission: Why was Jesus predicting the destruction of Jerusalem, what did that have to do with his Kingdom mission of beneficence, and what does the destruction of Jerusalem say about the character of God.  Harmon in one place seems to suggest that salvation is not really about deliverance from God’s wrath, and yet does not the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. imply that God has wrath, according to the Gospels?  In some places, Harmon appears to touch on the significance of 70 C.E.—-that it was about the end of the old covenant (and I wonder if this would conflict with Harmon’s view that the earliest Christians were Jewish Christians who valued the Torah) or was part of the pangs that accompany the Kingdom—-but I was hoping to see more about the significance of Gehenna, especially as it relates to Jesus’ Kingdom mission.

Overall, though, I found Harmon’s book to be thoughtful and thought-provoking.

My thanks to the author, Lee Harmon, for sending me a review copy of this book.

Book Write-Up: James the Just

Dr. David Friedman and B.D. Friedman.  James the Just Presents Applications of the Torah: A Messianic Commentary.  Clarksville: Lederer Books (a Division of Messianic Jewish Publishers), 2012.

Dr. David Friedman and B.D. Friedman are Messianic Jews—-Jews who believe that Jesus is the Messiah and who observe Jewish laws.  This book is a Messianic Jewish commentary on the New Testament Book of James.  Its argument is that the Book of James is a record of James’ teachings about Leviticus 19, which were originally delivered orally in Mishnaic Hebrew and were translated into koine Greek and written down so that they could be delivered to Messianic Jews in the Diaspora.  According to Friedman and Friedman, Messianic Jews in the Diaspora would value what James had to say, for James was a prominent leader and judge in the church, whose headquarters were in Jerusalem.  Friedman and Friedman not only seek to convey the distinct Jewish nature of the Book of James, but they also contend against those who maintain that there is a rift between faith and works, and between Paul and James.  For Friedman and Friedman, James supported the Jewish idea that obedience to the Torah flowed from faith, and Paul deferred to James rather than acting in opposition to him.

This book makes interesting arguments.  Its most interesting argument is that the prayer of healing that saves the sick in James 5:15 refers to the Nazirite vow (Numbers 6).  Friedman and Friedman note that the Greek word often translated as “prayer” refers to a vow in Acts 18:18 and 21:23, and they refer to Josephus’ statement in Wars of the Jews ii.15.1 that people in distress made vows.  Another interesting argument Friedman and Friedman make is that Peter at the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15 had prominence because he was a “Tamid Hakam,” a rabbi’s chief pupil who was an example to other pupils and who carried on the rabbi’s teaching after the rabbi’s death.  (In this case, the rabbi would be Jesus.)  Friedman and Friedman do not offer evidence for this, or for the “Tamid Hakam” being a first century phenomenon, but the notes refer to a book that discusses this issue in greater detail.

I did not entirely agree with some of the Friedmans’ connections between the Book of James and Leviticus 19 or Judaism, and some of their parallels were between elements of the Book of James and things that existed after the first century C.E., the time of the Book of James (which, to their credit, they sometimes actually acknowledge).  Still, as they note, other scholars have argued that the Book of James reflects a distinctly Jewish perspective, and at least one other scholar, Walter Kaiser, has contended that there are parallels between the Book of James and Leviticus 19, so the Friedmans’ thesis is not implausible.  Moreover, while the chapter of the book that argued that the Book of James reflects the Torah rather than Hellenistic thought jumped to conclusions, in my opinion (since even New Testament letters to Gentiles draw from Jewish Scriptures, and there is no rule that a document cannot draw from both the Torah and Hellenism), it did well to highlight how the Book of James could have drawn from the Torah and Jewish life in Israel.

If there is one question that I would ask Friedman and Friedman, it is whether they believe that only Jews are obligated to obey the Torah, or if Gentiles should, too.  They call the Torah the “Heavenly blueprint for human life,” yet they go on to say that it is “the communicator of truth for the entire Jewish people worldwide” (page 93).  I should also note that some of the books advertised in the back of the book are by authors who believe that the Torah was intended to be kept by Jews only, meaning that Gentiles are not obligated to follow Jewish rituals.

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

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Testimony and a Desire for a Miracle

At church this morning, one of the people from the congregation gave the message.  He has been coming to our church for about two years.  He was baptized this past June, as I write about here.  In his message, he was giving us his testimony about how he became a Christian.

He told us that he long had feelings of aimlessness, depression, and anxiety, and those were hurting his relationship with his girlfriend.  One day, when he was at the mall, he received a phone call from someone he did not know and with whom he had no connection.  The phone call was from a Christian lady telling him that she felt that he needed the Lord, and she proceeded to pray the sinner’s prayer with him.  For about a year, he did not think much about that, but his girlfriend left him and started seeing someone else, and he felt that he had hit rock bottom.  The Christian lady on the phone sent him a book, which offered a Christian perspective about various emotions, such as anger.  He would read that every night before going to bed, and that made him feel better.  He decided to find his happiness in the Lord, whether or not he and his girlfriend got back together.  Over time, they did, and now they are engaged.  He says that he has seen his prayers get answered before his eyes, and that he has had dreams at night that have come true in reality.  He also said that God has a plan for him and for everyone.  He still has to conquer fear, he told us, but he asked us why we should be afraid, when God is watching over us.

He also said that many of us when we pray rush to the “Amen” at the end of the prayer, but he said that we should not be in such a hurry because God wants to help us.

One of the ladies at church is losing her hearing, and she found the young man’s insight about prayer to be helpful to her.  She said that, for her, prayer is often a routine, and she felt convicted that she should put more effort into it.  “Then, maybe I will get my hearing back!”, she said.  In my mind, I was somewhat questioning what seemed to be her picture of God—-as someone who needs to be appeased.  That seemed to differ, in my mind, from what the young man was saying: that God is there to help us, but we need to make ourselves available to him.  But who exactly am I to question where the lady was coming from.  It may not resonate with me, entirely, but obviously she hopes for a miracle from God, and there is nothing wrong with that.  Moreover, my impression is that she is the type of person who will continue to love and serve the Lord, even if she loses her hearing.
In terms of the young man’s sermon, I liked the fact that the Christian lady on the phone not only walked him through the sinner’s prayer, but also provided him with tools of discipleship: how to live a better life, how to see the world in a better way, etc.  There is much more to being a Christian than the sinner’s prayer!  There is walking with God.

I, too, have anxiety and get depressed.  I do not know if it is clinical, but it is still difficult.  Having Asperger’s Syndrome is difficult.  I also can have a hard time trusting in God, since I wonder why I should believe that things will turn out well for me, when they don’t seem to turn out well for a lot of people on earth.  Where is God in their lives?  I don’t go so far as to say that God is not in their lives, though.  Anyway, faith is not always easy for me, but I still pray.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

II Chronicles 3

II Chronicles 3:13 is talking about statues of cherubim in King Solomon’s temple.  V. 13 states in the King James Version: “The wings of these cherubims spread themselves forth twenty cubits: and they stood on their feet, and their faces were inward.”  As I look at the Masoretic Text on my Bibleworks, I see that what the KJV translates as “inward” is literally “to the house.”  The faces of these cherubim were towards the house.

There is actually debate about what this passage means.  Matthew Henry says that the faces of the cherubim were towards the Ark and they were not looking at whomever entered the sanctuary.  Henry draws from this the practical lesson that we should worship with angels rather than worshiping angels.  We, like the angels, should worship, serve, and direct our attention towards God.  According to this interpretation, the angels are not directing attention towards themselves by looking at us (or, rather, whomever enters the sanctuary), but they are looking at the Ark.  Others, however, maintain that the faces of the cherubim indeed were facing outward towards the sanctuary rather than the ark, such that one who entered the sanctuary would see the faces of the cherubim looking right at him.  “To the house” here is taken to mean “towards the sanctuary.”  Why would the cherubim face outwards toward the sanctuary?  Because they are guarding it, as the cherubim guarded the Garden of Eden (IVP Bible Background Commentary).

Then some go the route of compromise: they say that the faces of the cherubim are positioned between the ark and the sanctuary.  They are facing somewhere in between, according to this interpretation!

An issue that troubles some of the rabbis is that the cherubim of the ark of the covenant actually face each other, according to Exodus 25:20, and so they think there is an apparent contradiction between that and II Chronicles 3:13.  A couple of Christian commentators astutely note that this is not a problem at all.  The cherubim of the ark who face each other are different from the cherubim of II Chronicles 3:13, who are further above the ark.  Still, some rabbis attempt to come up with a harmonization.  The harmonization is that the cherubim face each other when Israel is obedient, and away from each other when Israel is disobedient.  Notes that I have read say that this is because, when the cherubim face one another, that indicates harmony between them.  When they face away from each other, that indicates alienation and love that is not requited.

Okay, but then my question would be how Israel was disobedient when Solomon was building the Temple, which is what II Chronicles 3:13 is about.  Some scholars have argued that, in I Kings, Solomon’s path towards sin was occurring in the early years of his reign, when he brutally rose to the throne, made some of the Israelites into servants, and intermarried with foreign women.  But many scholars say that the Chronicler, unlike I Kings, does not have this perspective but rather idealizes Solomon.  Maybe that is the case.  Still, I think back to II Chronicles 1:17, which depicts Solomon as a horse and chariot broker for other nations.  God repeatedly affirms that Solomon is to be a man of peace, which is why God is allowing Solomon but not David to build the Temple.  Yet, here Solomon is, being a broker for other nations’ wars.  Could that be the Chronicler’s irony?  Or maybe the Chronicler thinks that Solomon being a war-broker is a positive thing: Solomon does not have to worry about Israel’s security during his reign of peace, so he can turn his attention to helping other nations fight their battles, while bringing profit to Israel.

Meanwhile, was Israel at peace or obedient to God when the cherubim of the Ark faced each other, at the construction of the ark in the time of Moses?  Well, not always.  Israel rebelled often.  But maybe the rabbis would say that the cherubim faced away from each other during such times.

I think that Matthew Henry and the rabbis offer decent homiletical lessons.  Still, in terms of the cherubim in II Chronicles 3:13, I think they were facing the sanctuary, and that they were doing so as decorative guards.  This would highlight the majesty of God.

Friday, October 17, 2014

On Reading Fiction Books

Here is a question for me to ramble about today: Why am I prejudiced against fiction?

Or am I?  I can think of some fiction books that I enjoyed.  After I finished them, I felt as if I had eaten a wholesome meal.  Some of them stayed with me for a while.  I think of such books as Stephen King’s Insomnia or The Stand, or Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, or Frank Peretti’s The Visitation.  

But there is a part of me that feels that, when I am reading a fictional book, I am wasting my time.  I feel more like I have accomplished something after reading a below-average non-fiction book, than I do when I have read an average or slightly above-average fiction book.  Maybe part of my problem is that so many fiction books these days are written at the sixth-grade level, so I feel as if they are a waste of my time.  Maybe I want to appear smart to others, and I fear that they would not be impressed with my reading of certain popular fictional works.  Or maybe my problem is that I think fiction-books present a made-up situation and made-up characters, and I prefer what is real.  (Of course, postmodernists can have a heyday questioning my assumptions, there!)  Another consideration: so many fiction books look the same.  They have similar characters, plots, etc.  I say this from my limited standpoint.  Imagine what people who have read a lot of fiction books for years might think!

For some reason, I do not have the same problem with movies or TV shows.  The reason could be that I am seeing and hearing the characters, and that makes them seem real to me.  I don’t know.  The thing is, books may actually present a more realistic picture because they look at characters’ thoughts and feelings.

I can probably argue the opposite—-in favor of fiction over non-fiction.  There are plenty of non-fiction books that cover things that I do not care about.  They can be really dry.  There is a part of me that likes to read about the human—-human struggles, human virtues, human vices.  When I can identify with a character or person, that is even better.  There are non-fiction books that explore this territory.  There are fiction books that do this, too.

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