Church Write-Up: Spiritual Pride and Humility

For church Sunday morning, I attended what I call the “Pen church” (since I receive a free pen when I go there).  The pastor started a six-week series entitled “No Perfect People Allowed.”  That is the motto of the church, and I figured that such a series would edify me.

Here are some points that the pastor made in today’s sermon, followed by my personal reflections at the end:

A.  The pastor was preaching about Jesus’ Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican in Luke 18:9-14.  A Pharisee and a publican were at the Temple praying.  The respected Pharisee was thanking God that he (the Pharisee) was not like other people—-extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like that publican.  The Pharisees bragged that he fasted twice a week and gave tithes of all that he owned.  In contrast, the publican, who was in a despised profession (tax-collector), beat his chest and said, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”  Jesus said that the publican, not the Pharisee, went home justified before God, for those who exalt themselves will be humbled, while those who humble themselves will be exalted.

The pastor made a variety of points.  First, he said that many of us size people up in our minds according to how important we think that they are.  Some people who are rough around the edges may come to church, and they are scared off from following Jesus because a pompous Christian judges them.  The pastor referred to the 1995 movie Dangerous Minds, in which Michelle Pfeiffer played a teacher at an inner-city school.  The teacher started all of her students out with an “A,” and that brought the best out of the students, many of whom had never received an “A” before.  The pastor asked what would happen in our relationships if we started people out with an “A”: if we treated them as valuable and important, rather than requiring them to appease and to please us, only to get up to a “D” in our eyes.

Second, the pastor talked about how many of us pat ourselves on the back when we do something good.  The pastor was imitating God applauding the Pharisee while the Pharisee was bragging about his deeds.  The pastor, obviously, was being sarcastic: Why would God be impressed by the Pharisees’ deeds, when God’s deeds are so much greater? God created the heavens and the earth and selflessly sent God’s Son to die for the sins of the world.  The pastor quoted Romans 12:3, in which Paul exhorts the Roman Christians not to think more highly of themselves than they ought.  God values people as created in God’s image, but people should have a sober, modest, level-headed conception of themselves.

Third, the pastor talked about how the publican confessed that he had issues.  We all have issues.  It is when we are honest about that before God that God profoundly works in our lives.

B. The pastor quoted James 5:16, in which James exhorts people to confess their sins to one another.  According to the pastor, confessing our sins to one another is not what gets us forgiveness, for we need to confess our sins to God for that to happen.  But confessing our sins to one another can be valuable: we show others that we have weaknesses, and that encourages others to confess their weaknesses.  People can then encourage each other.

C.  At some point, the pastor quoted II Corinthians 5:19, which states (in the KJV): “To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.”  The pastor was saying that this is the New Covenant.  He did not explain how he understood this verse, at least in this sermon.  He seems to believe that people need to believe in Jesus to arrive at the state in which God does not impute their trespasses against them.  After that, he said in another sermon, people are free to learn and grow, without fearing that God is judging and condemning them.  I wonder if he can reconcile this picture with what he was saying in (B.): that we confess our sins, then God forgives us.  And, presumably, if we sin again, we need to confess that sin to receive God’s forgiveness, and so on.  It sounds like a treadmill, unlike what II Corinthians 5:19 appears to imply.  Christians have had their ways of harmonizing these concepts.  A prominent solution is to say that Christians have been forgiven and are considered righteous by God, even if they fail to confess every single sin in the course of their lives.  Confession, however, is still useful because it can help their relationship with God: we feel closer to God when we confess our sins.  The pastor may believe that way, but I do not know for sure.

D.  The pastor was talking about how the church is successful this year, more successful than it has been in the past, and yet he is apprehensive that the church will become “the man” and that new people will be reluctant to come.

Here are some personal reflections:

A.  I fear, at times, that people see me as a Pharisee (as stereotyped by Christians): one who keeps the rules yet is cold towards people.  I wish, though, that they would accept me as a person with issues, just like they are.

B.  Conversely, I have judged certain Christians as Pharisees (again, as stereotyped by Christians).  I one time confessed something to a Christian, and he gave a smug response.  Has he never made a mistake?  He just strikes me as a person who loves righteousness and talks about how he loves righteousness, yet there is no humility there; at the same time, his approach is a refreshing contrast to Christians I have known who beat up on themselves before others, parading their “humility,” as if that shows how righteous they are.  I do wish that more Christians would be humble when they hear of somebody’s struggles or vulnerabilities.  Yet, I have to remind myself: can I legitimately judge that someone else is a Pharisee?  It is not as if I spend 24 hours a day with him.  Perhaps he has been humble.

C.  What the pastor said about being honest before God stood out to me, in light of my experience the night before.  I was griping in my mind about God and God’s standards (according to my understanding of them).  But I decided: Why not bring my struggles and my needs before God, rather than griping?  I did that, and I felt better: more at peace and more charitable towards others.

D.  I did not entirely understand what the pastor meant about the church becoming “the man,” but I thought about a church that I attended at one time.  A lot was going on there, and it was active.  It was like a force of nature.  I respect and admire that, but I was unsure where I fit in, or if I even could.

I’ll stop here.  I could interact with the question of whether I start people out with an “A,” but I am not inclined to be that vulnerable, right now.


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Review: The Gatekeepers

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the gatekeepers

The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency, Chris Whipple. New York: Crown, 2017.

Summary: A study of the White House Chiefs of Staff, from the Nixon through Obama administrations, and how critical the effective execution of this role is to an effective presidency.

During the final weeks of the Bush (43) administration, an unprecedented meeting took place in the office of Josh Bolten, Bush’s last Chief of Staff. Eleven of the thirteen living former Chiefs showed up (absent were James Baker and Erskine Bowles). People like Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Leon Panetta, Howard Baker, and Andy Card came together with incoming Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel to share the benefit of their experience.

Chris Whipple uses the narrative of this meeting as a starting point of a study of the critical role the Chief of Staff plays that marks a Presidency as effective or…

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Wright-the David-Caleb rivalry through time


The stories of Caleb and David come together in the story of Nabal and Abigail in 1 Samuel 25.  Nabal is a wealthy Calebite, perhaps their chief.  And David brings the Calebites into Judah as a result of the death of Nabal and his marriage to the widow.

Baruch Halpern and Jon Levenson, who have written about the political significance of David’s marriages, claim that this story originated in the royal court at a time when people still remembered how David brought the clan of Caleb under his sway.  They raise the question of how much special interests within the royal court shaped this story.

In the next to the last chapter of David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory, Jacob L. Wright goes his own way on this question.

“In the course of this chapter, I will adopt a new approach to this question.  Instead of…

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Book Write-Up: Egypt’s Sister, by Angela Hunt

Angela Hunt.  Egypt’s Sister.  Bethany House, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

Egypt’s Sister is the first book of Angela Hunt’s “The Silent Years,” which concerns the so-called “Intertestamental Period,” the time between the Old and the New Testaments.  This first book is about Cleopatra VII, the Greek queen who ruled Egypt during the first century B.C.E.  The next book, apparently, will be about the Maccabean revolt.

Chava is a Hebrew in Alexandria, Egypt.  Her father, Daniel, is a royal tutor and the author of the “Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs” (not in real life, but in this story).  As a child and an adolescent, Chava is friends with an Egyptian princess named Urbi, who will become Queen Cleopatra.  Chava has a vision in which God tells her that her friendship with Urbi rests in God’s hands, that Chava will be with Urbi on Urbi’s happiest and last days, and that Chava will know herself and will bless Urbi.  Chava interprets that to mean that she (Chava) is to serve Cleopatra rather than get married and have children, a view with which her father Daniel disagrees.

Well, not to give away any spoilers, but Chava’s interpretation of the vision gets disrupted by real life.  I mean Radically disrupted.  Chava’s charmed life comes to an end.  The story took a Joseph (from the Bible) and a Ben Hur sort of turn.  Cleopatra is still looming in the background, however, and Chava’s destiny will intersect with that of her childhood friend.

A salient aspect of this book is that it contains a lot of information.  To quote Angela Hunt, “Egypt’s Sister is one of the most difficult books I have ever written, not because I lacked material, but because I had so much.”  There is, of course, the story of Cleopatra: her rise to power, her political struggles, and her international intrigue.  Hunt provides charming descriptions of the city of Alexandria and the distinct elements of Alexandrian culture.  She talks about what slavery was like and how Roman society regarded slaves, Roman views on sex and marriage, and the attempts of Jews to live according to their laws in a world that had contrary worldviews and policies.

The book did read like a textbook at times, but I actually liked that, since such an approach educated me, in areas, and would probably educate others as well.  This approach did not detract from the story, either, for Hunt struck a balance between telling and showing, and she presented compelling historical protagonists responding emotionally and realistically to the events of which they were a part.  Moreover, Hunt did not simply relay information but engaged it thoughtfully.  Daniel, for example, offered Cleopatra advice on political strategy when she was learning the ropes.

Some of what Hunt presents is debated by historians.  She covers some debates in the appendix, but a debate that she did not mention concerns whether Josephus was correct that Julius Caesar granted the Jews of Alexandria citizenship because they helped him take over Egypt.  Hunt assumes that he was, but scholars have questioned and challenged that view.

Not to give away spoilers, but I am conflicted over how believable one of the character’s motivations were when she made a specific decision, in light of what Hunt says about ancient views on sex and marriage.  From a certain perspective, though, the rationale that Hunt provides for that decision makes a degree of sense.

I am giving this book five stars for two reasons.  First, there is the information.  I have not read every Christian work of biblical fiction, but, of all the ones that I have read, Egypt’s Sister is the most informative.  It also has a bibliography.  Second, there is the story.  The most moving theme, in my opinion, concerned how one could be hardened by the challenges of political life, and yet still have some humanity that remains.

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

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C.S. Lewis and Poor Writers

Mere Inkling


C.S. Lewis seldom kept a secret his low opinion of poor writers. This wasn’t because he was a literary snob, it’s because he was a literary critic.

Actually, the breadth of Lewis’ literary tastes was extraordinary. He didn’t expect texts to be more than what they purported to be, and could even enjoy the pulp fiction of his day. Still, Lewis had an eye for pretentious and anemic writing, and he sometimes penned cutting commentary

One of his lifelong friendships began with a discussion about poor writers. More about Lewis’ friendship with Oxford Classics scholar Nan Vance Dunbar (1928-2005) in a moment.

There are some contemporary voices that argue Lewis was misogynistic. Many of these complainants are non-Christian, and eager to see Lewis’ influence diminished. The truth is he possessed a strong traditional respect for women. And, while he unapologetically enjoyed the company of men—no surprise for a longtime bachelor—he…

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Wright-layering Caleb’s cake


In David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory, Jacob L. Wright sees the biblical text as like a layer cake.  It is not the product of someone stitching together fully developed narrative sources like the documentary theory claimed for the Pentateuch. Instead, he has a supplementary theory.  Those who created the text as we have it, developed early traditions by layering on supplemental material, some of which they just invented.

There are ways to see what some of the earlier layers looked like.  In regard to Caleb his method is to focus on the minor and incidental things that do not fit the motives of the redactor. The story of Caleb now centers on the idea from Numbers 13-14 that Caleb was one of the 12 spies Moses sent to scout out the Judean territory.

In terms of the narrative, this story functions to show why the…

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Christian Scholars Review

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CSR Cover of the current issue of Christian Scholars Review

The most recent issue of the Christian Scholars Review (CSR) arrived in my mail the other day and it occurred to me that this might be a resource at least some who follow this blog might like to know of. For one thing, it may give you a clue as to where I hear about some of the books I review! The website for CSR describes its objective as follows:

“Established in 1970, Christian Scholar’s Review is a medium for communication among Christians who have been called to an academic vocation. Its primary objective is the publication of peer-reviewed scholarship and research, within and across the disciplines, that advances the integration of faith and learning and contributes to a broader and more unified understanding of the nature of creation, culture, and vocation and the responsibilities of those whom God has created…

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