Book Write-Up: Invitation

Bill Myers, Frank Peretti, Angela Hunt, and Alton Gansky.  Invitation.  Bethany House Publishers, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

Authors Bill Myers, Frank Peretti, Angela Hunt, and Alton Gansky have teamed up to write the “Harbinger” series.  This book, Invitation, is the first book.  Each author contributes a story, and each story is from the point-of-view of one of the characters.  In this book, four people come together in the midst of supernatural phenomena.  There is Brenda, a tatoo-artist; an atheist professor who used to be a priest; Andi, the professor’s assistant; and Tank, a high school football player with the ability to heal.

Had I just read the first two stories, I would have given this book three stars.  And I am saying this as someone who likes most of the Frank Peretti novels that I have read: I did not care for the “Darkness” series, but I loved The Visitation, Prophet, The Oath, and Illusion.  The first two stories had interesting details.  Bill Myers’ story talked about the professor’s preference for books over people and his bad relationships, and Frank Peretti’s contribution talked some about the professor’s struggle with God, whom the professor sees as overbearing and bullying.  That is why I would have given the book three stars rather than two or one.  At the same time, these two stories were rather scattered and confusing.  There was little development of the characters or sharing of their backgrounds, for so much of the focus was on the supernatural oddities.  I felt deprived of context as I was reading this book.

Angela Hunt and Alton Gansky rescued this book, though.  Especially Angela Hunt.  Hunt’s story spent a lot of time detailing Andi’s background, thoughts, and feelings.  I actually felt as if I knew the professor more after reading Hunt’s contribution than I did when I read Peretti’s, and Peretti’s story was the one that was from the professor’s point-of-view.  In Hunt’s story, the professor pontificated a lot, and he came across as rather reasonable, rather than as some bitter atheist with an axe to grind against God.

Gansky’s contribution could be hard to follow, in areas, and yet he developed Tank’s character.  Tank is likable.  And, incidentally, Tank is the main person who reflects theologically on the mission of the four.  Gansky’s contribution provided more context to the book as a whole.

There are things that would have made this book better.  Perhaps more reflections on supernatural phenomena or aliens would have enhanced the book.  I would also be interested in learning more about why the professor left the priesthood.  But maybe the sequel will flesh some of these things out.  And I am open to reading the sequel.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest!

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Church Write-Up: Christ Sends Us

For church last Sunday, I went to the traditional Lutheran service.  The service focused on John 20:21-23, in which the risen Christ interacts with his disciples.  The passage states:

“Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.  And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.”

The children’s part of service was about how God sends us out to forgive others, and God’s Spirit goes with us.  When we find that we have difficulty forgiving others, God will hopefully remind us that God has forgiven us, and that will motivate us to forgive others.

The pastor’s sermon offered additional thoughts.  The pastor talked about the excuses that we have for not performing the mission that God has given us: I can’t speak in front of people; I am not good at caring for people; I don’t want to talk to people.  The pastor said that many of us do not want to give up doing what we want to do, when we want to do it.  He also offered suggestions of things that we can do: we can give people a ride to church; we can talk to the person sitting by himself or herself at coffee hour; we can sit with those who come to church by themselves, since coming to church alone can be difficult.

The pastor then went on to say that following rules can only get us so far.  He noticed that Jesus first said “Peace be unto you.”  The pastor acknowledged that this was a standard greeting in that day, but he believed that there is something deeper going on here.  According to the pastor, Jesus came to bring shalom.  I think where he was going with this is that we need to recognize God’s love for us first, and that can motivate us to love others.  We also need for God to bring shalom to our lives.

I’ll just leave it at that.


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Book Write-Up: The Tao Te Ching

I recently read the Tao Te Ching.  The version that I read was Dr. Wayne W. Dyer’s Living the Wisdom of the Tao: The Complete Tao Te Ching and Affirmations. Dyer draws from a variety of English translations.

The book is like a daily devotional.  You read a verse of the Tao Te Ching on one side of the page, and Dyer offers a take-home application point on the other side.  I decided to read this version because I expected the Tao Te Ching to be very abstruse and complicated, so I figured that it would help me if someone provided a concise take-home point, and Dyer seemed well-read on Taoism.

In this post, I will talk about my exposure to Taoism prior to reading this book, then I will list some of my reactions to the Tao Te Ching.

I first learned about the Tao Te Ching in college.  I was a Christian fundamentalist at the time, and a fellow student wanted to enlighten me about another religion, namely Taoism.  I was not as backward as he thought, though, since I was asking him questions about Taoism, and I observed common ground between Taoism and Christianity.  The theme of the Tao Te Ching that he emphasized was that of observing the natural order and gaining wisdom from that.  He said that he read the Bible and it never made a connection with him, but the Tao Te Ching made a connection.  When I asked him what a particular line of the first verse of the Tao Te Ching meant, he responded that he thought about that, and he shared with me his conclusion.  That reminded me of how Christians read and meditate on verses in the Bible.

My second exposure to Taoism was in a college philosophy class.  We were reading Lao-zu, and some of the students in the class were baffled.  Some thought that the reading was rambling.  Another student believed that it addressed an obvious and unnecessary question: Would you prefer a long life without fear or pain, or a short life with fear or pain?  “Of course I would prefer a long life without fear or pain!”, he said.  “A better dilemma would be whether you would choose a long life with fear or pain, or a short life without it!”  The question in the reading indeed looked obvious, and yet it reflects central themes of Taoism: going with the flow, not stressing out, and partaking of a lifestyle that can lengthen life and lessen pain, even if that lifestyle may look counter-intuitive to possessive, accumulating people like us.  The readings also shared a scenario of what one can do when one is experiencing illness and death: simply take a step back and say, “This looks interesting!”

My third exposure to Taoism was during my first year of divinity school.  One of my roommates had a copy of Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh.  Another roommate shared that he struggled to read the Tao Te Ching, so he fell back on The Tao of Pooh.  I borrowed The Tao of Pooh out of curiosity.  I wondered if Christianity was a better religion than Taoism, or if there were overlapping themes between Taoism and Christianity.  Hoff in the book treats Winnie the Pooh as a Taoist.  Whereas Tigger is high energy, Eyore complains, and Rabbit intensely calculates, Pooh just is.  Pooh is relaxed and has no pretense, and things usually fall into place when he is the protagonist.

This background equipped me to read the Tao Te Ching, without being utterly confused by what I was reading.  At least it provided me with an idea of some of Taoism’s basic beliefs.  Some passages still perplexed me, though, and I am sure that there are still gaps in my understanding.

That said, here are some of my reactions to the Tao Te Ching:

A.  According to the Tao Te Ching, where was the Tao, and the material world is a manifestation of the Tao.  That made me wonder if Taoism is panentheistic or pantheistic.  In reading the Tao Te Ching, I was reminded of Proverbs 8, which presents wisdom as a key figure in God’s creation of all things; wisdom, in a sense, is like the Tao: both are orderly, both bring shalom, both are moral, both relate to the natural order, etc.  The Tao Te Ching does not explicitly say that the Tao created the cosmos, however, but rather that the cosmos came from the Tao.  That could be consistent with emanationism: the idea that the cosmos is an emanation from God, rather than God’s creation.

B.  In reading the Tao Te Ching, I had “problem of evil” questions.  If Taoism regards the natural order as good, I inquired, how would it account for the apparent evils of nature: animal violence, sickness, earthquakes, hurricanes, etc.?  On one occasion, the Tao Te Ching seemed to regard vicious elements of nature (i.e., storms) as a brief gliche, as if the overall tone of the cosmos is one of peace and order and the violent elements are mere interruptions.  On another occasion, it said that humans interfere with the Tao and bring havoc as a result.  The Tao Te Ching has a clear answer for why there is human evil: humans disregard the Tao, with its path of peace, virtue, generosity, and humility, and they choose greed, violence, pride, and stress instead.  It was a little more obscure in accounting for natural evil.

C.  That said, there was an indication that people who are especially in touch with the Tao can manipulate nature.  Verse 50 says that, with respect to such a person, “tigers and bulls keep clear[,] weapons turn from him on the battlefield, rhinoceroses have no place to horn him, tigers find no place for claws, and soldiers have no place to thrust their blades.”  Dyer’s take-home application point is that “I am an immortal spiritual being having a temporary human experience.”  He may be interpreting this passage to mean that, when we do not fear death, we are invulnerable to threats: even if a tiger mangles us to death, so what?  We live forever anyway!  Indeed, eternal life and not being afraid of death are significant themes in the Tao Te Ching.  But, in my mind, verse 50 seemed to be saying more than that: that people can be so in touch with the Tao, that nothing in this life can hurt them.  They can be bullet-proof!  I thought of different things in reading this verse: the movie The Matrix (with the invulnerable Neo), the Star Trek episode “Spectre of the Gun” (bullets went right through the Enterprise crew at the OK Corral!), Psalm 91’s affirmation that God will preserve God’s people from destruction and pestilence, and a statement I once heard from a pastor that, when you serve God, all of creation will serve you.

D.  The Tao Te Ching exhorts people to look within.  A number of conservative Christians recoil from such advice.  Look within?  Does not the author know that the human heart is deceitful and desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9), that from it proceed all manners of sinful propensities and actions (Mark 7:21-23)?  Maybe, but the Bible also says that humans are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), and that the requirements of God’s law are written on people’s hearts and in their consciences (Romans 2:15).  In light of that, should we treat looking within as an utterly fruitless exercise?  In any case, in reading the Tao Te Ching’s exhortations to look within, I thought of the Hellenistic distinction between the logos within and the logos without: there is an order to the universe, but there is also an order inside of us that coincides with the order in the universe.

E.  Related to (D.), verse 67 has a puzzling statement: “The Tao is not something found at the marketplace or passed on from father to son.  It is not something gained by knowing or lost by forgetting.  If the Tao were like this, it would have been lost and forgotten long ago.”  I contrasted this passage with the Book of Proverbs, in which wisdom cries out in the marketplace and is passed down from parents to child.  There are some passages in the Tao Te Ching that reminded me of Proverbs—-verse 6, for example, presents the Tao as a female to which one should listen, which is similar to Proverbs’ portrayal of Lady Wisdom.  But verse 67 appeared different from Proverbs.  The Tao Te Ching may have a problem with wisdom being conceptualized as a path that is taught through tradition and family, seeing it instead as something that is inside of us and all around us.  At the same time, it does value teachers: humble people who highlight the way, often through their demeanor and their lives more than their words.

F.  The Tao Te Ching is critical of trying to become virtuous through rigorous obedience to rules.  It wants for people to yield to the Tao, which has a moral/ethical component, but it seems to believe that, if people have to obey rules to be moral, then something is wrong.  Virtue should flow more naturally than that.  There are verses that are rather explicit about this (i.e., 18, 67), but I think that this concept sheds light on an odd statement in verse 38: “When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.  When goodness is lost, there is morality.  When morality is lost, there is ritual.  Ritual is the husk of true faith, the beginning of chaos.”  In reading these passages, Pauline concepts come to mind: the idea that the law was a temporary measure to respond to, expose, and restrain sin.  The law could not cure sin, in Paul’s mind, but now believers have the Holy Spirit, who enables them to conform to God’s righteous requirements through a transformed nature.

G.  The Tao Te Ching struck me as politically libertarian.  I do not want to go so far as to suggest that it would support the government eviscerating the social safety net and allowing social Darwinism to take its course.  But it is critical of government intrusion.  To quote verse 75: “When taxes are too high, people go hungry.  When the government is too intrusive, people lose their spirit.  Act for the people’s benefit; trust them, leave them alone.”  Incidentally, the college student who exposed me to the Tao Te Ching was a libertarian Republican.

H.  That said, I have read concerns that Taoism slows economic progress and is incompatible with capitalism.  Taoism supports a relaxed attitude, which lets things happen rather than making things happen, and which is contrary to greed and ambition.  These attitudes arguably run counter to the rushed pace of dog-eat-dog capitalism.  In reading the Tao Te Ching, I wondered how practical it was.  It advocated keeping a low profile, painting a picture of the humble being exalted.  Can people truly succeed in this world without promoting themselves?  And do things really happen without us working and trying to influence them to happen?

There is overlap between Taoism and the Bible.  Proverbs 27:2 says that we should let others praise us and not our own mouth, and the Book of Proverbs often extols the virtue of silence.  Jesus in Matthew 6:34 says that we should not be worried about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of itself.  At the same time, the Book of Proverbs also stresses the work ethic, which can be reconciled with Western capitalism.

I think that there is some wisdom to the Tao Te Ching and the Bible, on these issues.  Humility can be attractive, for people may trust those who humbly desire to be of service rather than seeking their own exaltation.  I just wonder if such a path should be absolutized.  In this world, people who express and promote themselves are often the ones who advance.  And things do not always work well on their own, without some effort to influence things to happen through action.

I.    There is a lot of emphasis in the Tao Te Ching on emptiness.  A number of conservative Christians criticize Eastern religions for this.  “Eastern religion says that we should empty our minds, whereas the Bible says that we should fill our minds—-with God’s word.”  Some conservative Christians go so far as to suggest that emptying one’s mind creates a void that demons will be happy to inhabit!  The Tao Te Ching stresses positive concepts, such as virtue, generosity, and love for enemies.  It also suggests that people can enjoy the Tao, whatever their station is in life.  That sounds like something positive, not nothingness or emptiness.  Why, then, does the Tao Te Ching advocate emptiness?  I do not entirely understand this, but it may be using the concept of emptiness to highlight certain values: there is a value to clearing one’s mind every so often, for that can encourage relaxation; there is also the value of emptying oneself of pride.

J.  Verse 41 took me aback.  The first paragraph states: “A great scholar hears of the Tao and begins diligent practice.  A middling scholar hears of the Tao and retains some and loses some.  An inferior scholar hears of the Tao and roars with ridicule.  Without that laugh, it would not be the Tao.”

This may conflict with some of what I said in (E.), assuming I knew what I was talking about in (E.), which is not a guarantee!

This passage took me aback because it seemed to be criticizing the inferior scholar who laughs at the Tao, and yet it appeared to see value even in that laughter!  When a person laughs at the message of the Tao, then you know that you have the genuine article!  The reason may be that the Tao does advocate a counter-intuitive life, one of humility, generosity, and love for enemies.  Moreover, it maintains that such a path benefits the person who practices it.  A domesticated version of the Tao, which does not draw laughter or inspire a response of perplexity, is not the genuine article.  There are Christians who claim that the same can be said of Christianity.

K.  Verse 70 had some odd lines: “My words have an ancestor; my deeds have a lord.  The people have no knowledge of this, therefore they have no knowledge of me.  This is why the sage dresses plainly, even though his interior is filled with precious gems.”

How does the sage’s modest apparel relate to people’s lack of knowledge about the antiquity and majesty of the Tao?  If the sage wanted people to see the Tao as majestic, would he not wear fancy clothes rather than modest apparel?  Perhaps the passage is saying that the sage is approaching people where they are rather than attempting to dazzle them.  Dazzling them, when they are in no position to be dazzled, would be like throwing pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6).  Jesus himself came to the world as a humble human being, rather than parading his exalted status.  People could relate to that and be more open to his teaching.



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Current Events Write-Up: Ann Coulter on the Bombing of Syria

I only have one article that I want to share for my Current Events Write-Up this week.

Townhall: Lassie Come Home, by Ann Coulter.

Conservative columnist Ann Coulter criticizes President Trump’s bombing of Syria, and she expresses reservations about war in the Middle East, period.

This is ironic, since she was a strong supporter of the Iraq War during George W. Bush’s Presidency.  Has she changed her mind on that?

In this particular column, she does not explicitly say.  On the one hand, one can get the impression from this column that she believes that the Iraq War and the War on Terror were justified, but not the bombing of Assad’s Syria.  To quote from the column:

“Assad is one of the least bad leaders in the entire Middle East. He’s not a murderous thug like Saddam, has no rape rooms, isn’t into jihad, protects Christians and is fighting ISIS. He provided us with intelligence on al-Qaida after 9/11. He does not have crazy Islamic police slapping women around or throwing gays off buildings. (That would be our beloved ally, Saudi Arabia.)  Trump was also correct about Assad’s opponents being far worse, containing large helpings of both ISIS and al-Qaida.”

On the other hand, there seems to be some acknowledgment in the column that regime change and war in Iraq did not work:

“We have never succeeded at turning a Third World dictatorship into a paradise. The history of these things is that removing a Middle Eastern strongman always makes things worse — for example, in Iran, Iraq, Libya and Egypt.”

“Our enemies — both foreign and domestic — would be delighted to see our broken country further weaken itself with pointless wars.  Was America strengthened by the Iraq War? The apparently never-ending Afghanistan War? Vietnam? This is how great powers die, which is exactly what the left wants.”

Is there a change of position here, or ambivalence?

Posted in Current Events

“The Form of God”: Philo and Paul

Larry Hurtado's Blog

An interesting passage in Philo of Alexandria, Embassy to Gaius (110-14) casts possible light on Paul’s reference to Christ as “being in the form of God/a god” (ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων; Philippians 2:6).[1]

Philo mounts a sustained criticism of the Emperor Gaius (Caligula) as a cruel and unjust ruler who sought his own pleasures and glory and cared nothing for others; but who liked to attire himself as the god Apollo and then be reverenced as such by his frightened subjects. Philo contrasts this with the generous and protective attributes ascribed to the gods to which Gaius sought to be compared, such as Apollo. Philo then says, “Let him who falsely calls himself Paean [a title of Apollo] cease once for all to mimic the true Paean; for the form of a deity is not produced the way one can counterfeit a coin” (πεπαύσθω καὶ ὁ ψευδώνυμος Παιὰν τὸν…

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Church Write-Up: Easter 2017

I went to two church services on Easter Sunday.  The first was the 8:30 am traditional service at a Missouri Synod Lutheran church.  The second was a United Methodist church service.

Here are some of my thoughts:

A.  I was expecting the 8:30 am traditional Lutheran service to consist mostly of elderly people, and for most of the people to be dressed up.  I also was not expecting too many people to be there, as I assumed that the 11:00 am contemporary service was what drew the crowds.  But the traditional service had a full house.  Most of the people there were elderly and middle-aged, but there were some young people.  And many people were not dressed up.  Some were, but the men who were not wearing a suit and tie wore khaki pants with their shirts tucked in.  (I don’t recall if anyone wore jeans.)  I’ll treat that as the dress code the next time I visit!

B.  I was unclear about what exactly to do during the communion part of the service.  Missouri Synod Lutherans serve closed communion, which means that not everyone can participate.  I read one Missouri Synod site, and it said the people who want to partake of communion should see the pastor beforehand so that he can know about them and their faith.  Our church bulletin said that, if we don’t participate, we can go up anyway, cross our arms, and receive a blessing from the pastor.  I was not sure how exactly that worked, and I didn’t want to do it wrong, so I stayed in my pew.  I was sitting near the back corner of the sanctuary, so I didn’t expect any awkwardness.  I was quietly reading my bulletin, and an usher said, “Excuse me.”  I looked up, he wanted to know if I was going up, and I just shook my head and said “No thank you.”

C.  The pastor’s sermon was about not being afraid.  There were two parts of his sermon that especially stood out to me.  First, the pastor was talking about the “nones,” those who do not have a religion.  The pastor wondered what they were doing that Easter morning.  The pastor speculated that they were trying to get the most out of their day, dealing with the joys and trials of life, perhaps realizing somewhere in their minds that they would one day die.  The pastor’s question struck me as rather odd, as if it was treating the “nones” as some mysterious other.  “Does he know any nones?”, I wondered.  Perhaps he was raised in the Christian faith and thus had limited familiarity with non-believers.  I am only speculating here!

Second, the pastor was telling about a woman with a severe anxiety disorder who challenged him after he preached a sermon against fear.  She thought that his sermon was making matters worse for her!  She could not help that she was afraid!  My ears perked up when the pastor said this, since I myself deal with fear, especially social anxiety.  The pastor said that he told her a story about a young man with anxiety, who got up before the congregation and told them that his anxiety would not keep him from proclaiming his Savior.  Speaking for myself, I am more fearful of interpersonal socializing than I am of getting up in front of a congregation, so I wonder how what the pastor said would fit my own situation.  Still, I can appreciate his point, on some level: it’s good to have someone or something that is beyond my fear, which I can grasp.

D.  I visited the United Methodist church about a year ago, after I moved to this area.  I was not expecting to be remembered after that long a time, but I walked into the church last Sunday and an older gentleman handed me a bulletin and said, “Did you have a good year?”  I said, “Thank you, sir,” which was probably a bit off-putting, but what he had said to me only registered with me after I had taken my seat.  He remembered me from the last time I visited!

The pastor looked a lot different from how she looked the last time I had seen her.  And I mean that I could not even tell that she was the same person, except for her voice!  I looked up at the stage and wondered where the pastor was!  She was thinner, her hair was longer and grayer, and she was wearing a long dress rather than her pastoral robe.

E.  The pastor was preaching about the different reactions to Jesus’ resurrection in the Gospels.  The disciple Jesus loved (whom she assumed was John) saw the empty tomb and believed easily.  Peter was confused.  Mary Magdalene wondered where Jesus’ body was.

The pastor said that, at that service, there are as many reactions to Jesus’ resurrection as there are people there.  And she acknowledged that believing in Jesus’ resurrection could be difficult, since, in our experience, the dead remain dead.  That goes with people, and it goes with pets.  She asked us to consider what our response is to Jesus’ resurrection, and, maybe this coming week, we can try to have a little more faith.

I liked the openness of that sermon.  I have inside of myself different reactions to Jesus’ resurrection, positive and negative.  It can be used to support Christian exclusivism, which says that non-believers go to hell, and that frightens me.  But I appreciate the story itself: the disciples were saddened by Jesus’ death, both because they lost their friend, teacher, and Messiah, and also because it looked as if evil and corruption had won out.  But it didn’t, for Jesus rose.

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Gerd Theissen on the Pre-Markan Passion Narrative

The Jesus Memoirs

Gerd Theissen defends the existence of a Passion source in chapter 4 “A Major Narrative Unit (the Passion Story) and the Jerusalem Community in the Years 40-50 CE” in The Gospels in Context (London & New York: T&T Clark, 1992), 166-199. While Theissen dates this source between 40 to 50 CE, he dates the finished Gospel of Mark to after 70 CE. His major arguments are that there was a common source underlying the Markan and Johannine Passion narratives which were independent of each other and the writer of the source was directly familiar with some of the characters named therein.

Starting with the disagreement between the Markan and Johannine chronologies on the precise date of Jesus’s death, Theissen believes that Mark’s source actually agreed with John that Jesus died on the day of preparation before Passover. This is the real reason for why Jesus was hastily tried at night for there could be no judicial proceedings on the Passover (Mark 14:1-2)…

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