Book Review: John Barclay, Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews

Reading Acts

Barclay, John M. G. Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 454 pp. Pb; $48.   Link to Eerdmans

This collection of essays published between 1992 and 2011 was originally published by Mohr Siebeck. Chapter 1 was written as an introduction to that volume and chapters 18 and 19 appeared for the first time. The remaining sixteen essays appeared in various journals and Festschrifts. The Eerdmans edition is essentially the same, only a few typographical errors have been corrected. The volume concludes with a bibliography, Indices of Sources, Authors and Selected Topics.

In his introductory essay “Pauline Churches, Jewish Communities and the Roman Empire. Introducing the Issues” Barclay begins with a survey of contemporary social-historical research into the early Christ-movement. Beginning in the 1970s with the work of Malherbe, Thiessen and Meeks, biblical scholarship has benefited greatly from new research into the social world of the…

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Church Write-Up: New Years Eve 2017

I am feeling under the weather today, so my Church Write-Up will be brief.  I went to an evangelical church that I will now call the “Mall church,” since it is located at a mall.  I also went to what I call the “Word of Faith” church.

A.  At the “Mall church,” the pastor asked the people there to break up into small groups and pray for each other.  I prayed with two elderly gentlemen.  We did not pray for each other, but we took turns praying.  One elderly gentleman asked God for a good new year for people, as he acknowledged problems in the world.  The other elderly gentleman talked about God’s holy church.  I was scared to join a prayer group with people I did not know, but I appreciated the opportunity to learn about other people’s faith.

B.  At the “Word of Faith” church, the pastor’s daughter spoke.  Basing her sermon on Ephesians 3:16-18, she said that God wants to do three things this year: strengthen us, live with us permanently, and fill us with who God is.  When we truly grasp how valued we are by God, we will love others.

I liked the sermon.  I still struggle to love others, though.

C.  The pastor at the “Mall church” made points that did not exactly resonate with me.  He said that we should get out of our own ship and get on the Jesus ship, following Jesus rather than our own desires.  He also said that, when we love God, we will love others.  He seemed to imply that the horizontal relationships can only work if the vertical relationship does.

Obedience is a difficult subject for me.  The reason is that I cannot have perfect, righteous thoughts, feelings, and actions on a 24-7 basis.  While I could understand what the pastor said about working for a charity or non-profit, I somewhat question the idea of giving up our own desires to follow Jesus.  The pastor said that, if we try to negotiate with God, we are following ourselves, not Jesus.  But cannot God draw our attention to a specific flaw in our lives, rather than dumping all of our character flaws on us at once?  If I have a desire to work on a specific character flaw, can that not be the work of the Spirit of God?  Can following Jesus coincide with our specific desires, in short?  On the other hand, I do not want to go to the extreme of saying that I can determine my own morality.

On loving vertically and horizontally, people can love horizontally without loving vertically, I think.  Can that be sustained?  In certain instances, perhaps.  Parental love can be a strong thing.  A Bible study leader I knew, addressing Jesus’ statement in Luke 14:26 that his disciples must hate their family, said that, unless Christ is preeminent in our lives, we will not truly love our family, since we will try to cut ourselves a better deal.  I do not go that far, but I acknowledge the value of having principles and turning to God for the strength to fulfill them.

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Lecture Series Write-Up: The Psychology of Atheism, by R.C. Sproul

In my post, R.C. Sproul Memories, I mentioned a book that the late R.C. Sproul wrote entitled The Psychology of Atheism, which atheist biblical scholar Robert M. Price actually praised (see here).  I included a link to a series of lectures that Sproul delivered on this topic, and Ligonier Ministries was allowing people to listen to them for free on its web site.  I did so.  Here are some reactions.

A.  One topic that Sproul discussed was epistemology: can we know things and, if so, how?  Sproul referred to rationalism, which focuses on rationality inside of the mind rather than the outside world.  The problem with rationalism is that what is rational or inherently logical is not necessarily real: Sproul said that there is nothing illogical about a unicorn, yet we do not think that unicorns exist.  Empiricists then come back and say that we can only know what we can sense with our five senses.  But Sproul said that our senses themselves are fallible.  He told a story about people who testified that they saw a belligerent man hit another man, but a video of the incident showed that the belligerent man did no such thing.  The eyewitnesses expected the belligerent man to hit the other man, and they confused that with actually seeing it.  Sproul also told a story about when he was giving a lecture, and a woman asked him a question, thinking that he had said something that he did not say.  The thing in, most of the people in that audience thought that Sproul had said it.  Sproul played the tape, and he did not say it.  Yet, people thought that they had heard him say it.

Sproul seemed to prefer Kant’s synthesis of rationalism and empiricism.  How this discussion on epistemology fit into the rest of the series was not entirely clear.  Sproul was asking the question of how intelligent people can have different ideas about the existence of God.  Perhaps he thought that epistemology played some role in people’s different conclusions.  Yet, his main argument is that atheists and agnostics actually know that there is a God, since that is revealed to everyone through nature and conscience (Romans 1:19-21; 2:15), but they choose to suppress that knowledge.  How would the epistemological unreliability (not completely unreliable, necessarily) of rationalism and empiricism fit into that?

B.  As I said in (A.), Sproul’s main argument in the series is that atheists and agnostics actually know that there is a God, since that is revealed to everyone through nature and conscience (Romans 1:19-21; 2:15), but they choose to suppress that knowledge.  Ordinarily, I find that spiel to be revolting because it sounds smug.  Also, it fails to take into consideration the arguments that atheists and agnostics make against the existence of the biblical God, such as the problem of evil, the biblical portrayal of God as violent, or apparent biblical fallibility.

Sproul did not discuss such atheist and agnostic arguments in this series.  Looking at his other teaching series, I see that he has engaged them elsewhere.  But he did not in this series.  He made some arguments for Christianity, though (though maybe in his mind they do not rise to the level of being “arguments,” but rather are things to consider).  At the end of one program, he asked agnostics at least to consider Paul’s claim that humans suppress the knowledge of God because they do not like God, since Paul was one of the most influential figures in history.  Sproul also said that he doubts that humans could invent the idea of a God who is utterly holy: foreign, other, and terrifying.

That last statement is interesting because one of the thinkers whom Sproul profiles, Rudolf Otto, maintained that the concept of the divine as numinous (i.e., other, terrifying) is present in the world’s religions, not just Judaism and Christianity (see here).  What did Sproul do with that?  Did he believe that those other religions had, or preserved some remnant of, the knowledge of the true God, the holy God, and that was why they, too, had a concept of divine holiness?

Something that I liked about Sproul’s presentation was that he stated that what he is saying about agnostics and atheists is true about all human beings, himself included.  Sproul was saying that atheists and agnostics do not want for God to exist and have a personal bias, but he candidly admitted that wishful thinking is part of many theists’ acceptance of theism: he, for example, does not want to live in a cold, godless world, for he deems that to be meaningless.  Sproul talked about how Sartre did not like the concept of always being under God’s watchful, judging eye, for Sartre felt that this would hamper his ability to exist freely, as he desired.  But Sproul said that there is a part of every human being, including himself, that feels that way.

C.  Related to (B.), Sproul referred to Romans 1:22’s statement that those who suppressed the knowledge of God within themselves became fools, though they professed to be wise.  Sproul emphatically denies that Paul was claiming that they were unintelligent, for they clearly were intelligent.  Sproul said that Proverbs 1:7 affirms that the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, so those who lack that foundational element lack what is necessary to wisdom, however intellectually competent they may be.

D.  Sproul says that he believes that agnostics are more culpable before God than atheists, for agnostics are essentially saying that the clear evidence that God has provided for God’s existence is not sufficient.  I am not necessarily agreeing with that, but I wondered why he could not say the same of atheists: they, too, reject the idea that there is clear evidence for God’s existence, and thus they do not believe there is a God.

E.  Sproul referred to a question that prominent atheists have sought to address: if there is no God, then how do we explain the existence of religion, the fact that so many people believe in the divine?  Sproul went through the thoughts of Freud, Marx, and Feuerbach.  His explanation of their thoughts was as follows:

Freud believed that humans were scared of nature, so they tried to make nature manageable (in their own minds) by asserting that the elements of nature had a spirit (animism).  With time, they held that different gods were in control of natural phenomena, and they sought to appease those gods.  Another aspect of Freud’s thought was his belief that humans were trying to atone, somehow, for killing their father.  Some primitive humans were upset at how their father was hogging up the resources and taking the women, so they killed him.  But they feared that the spirit of their father would retaliate against him, and thus religion emerged as an attempt to appease a fatherly figure.

Marx held that religion was the opiate of the masses: that the upper economic classes used it to keep the workers happy, or at least content with their labor, so that they would not revolt.  They would keep hoping for paradise in heaven after their deaths and thus would endure the exploitation and misery that they experience on earth.  Also, Christianity encourages people to be meek, the types of people who would not challenge their oppressors.

Feuerbach held that humans project onto divine beings the way that they are and the attributes that they value.  According to Freud, they also look to religion as a path towards human divinization—–specifically immortality.

These parts of the lectures were especially enjoyable.  I thought, “Wow, what if a Christian listens to Sproul’s synopsis of these thinkers and concludes that what they are saying actually makes sense?”  Sproul addressed that concern, saying that there are Christian answers to these claims.  Interestingly, though, he did not exactly make a robust effort to refute these claims.  In the case of Freud, Sproul actually sought to incorporate him into his overall case: that humans will invent a God who makes them comfortable, for they are terrified of the true God being real.

Sproul made that point about people who want a God of unconditional love rather than the just, holy God of the Bible, the one who gets angry at unrighteousness.  Ironically, in response to Sartre’s apprehension about an intrusive God watching and judging him, Sproul essentially argued that those who are repentant do not have to worry about that.  He referred to David’s request in Psalm 139:23-24 that God search him to see if there is a wicked way within him.  According to Sproul, David was aware that he had flaws and things of which he should be ashamed, but he was not afraid of God examining him and finding those things.

F.  Sproul talked about Sartre’s play, “The Flies,” in which Orestes challenges Zeus.  Orestes affirms his own right to find his own way and path rather than being subservient to Zeus.  According to Sproul, this was Sartre’s response to the claims of religion.

Sproul told a story about a mother who was upset that her son was rebelling and would not go to church.  She wanted Sproul to talk to him, and Sproul agreed, though he was  aware that the son most likely would not be open to what Sproul had to say.  Sproul asked the son what his problem was with his mother, and the son replied that his mother is always trying to force him to go to church.  Sproul then asked the son what he believed, and the son said that he believes people should be allowed to do their own thing.  Sproul retorted, “Then why can’t your mother do her own thing and force you to go to church?  At least if you acknowledged a biblical morality under which everyone is accountable, you would have a case to make against your mother: that she is being insensitive and inconsiderate!”  (That is my paraphrase, based on my memory.)

In my post on Gregory Ganssle’s Our Deepest Desires, I wondered if Sartre acknowledged any boundaries in his view that humans should be allowed to exist as they choose rather than being told what their essence is.  I found this post that I wrote on the Cambridge Companion to Existentialism, and I said the following about Sartre, based on my reading of that book:

“Sartre…was rather pessimistic about human beings, thinking that they used others for their own ends. And yet, Sartre was very concerned about the well-being of society: Sartre leaned towards Communism, yet he became disillusioned with it on account of Soviet oppression. Sartre also was critical of racism and colonialism.”

Sartre obviously had some moral conception.  The question would be whether he provided a basis for it, or sought to reconcile it somehow with his existentialist beliefs.  Would he say, for instance, that there is a moral absolute that people should allow others to exist freely?  You know the commonplace slogan: people should be allowed to do what they want, as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others.

G.  In my Church Write-Up here, I talked about the “Word of Faith” pastor’s claim that Jesus came to heal us of our hatred of God.  The pastor referred to an interview of atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair.  The interviewer asked everyone in the audience who believes in God to raise his or her hand, and almost everybody did, and the interviewer was implying that this made O’Hair wrong.  The pastor said that O’Hair should have responded to that in this way: “What do you think about a God who punished all of humanity for one couple’s mistake?  A God who demands that you devote every Sunday to him?  A God who commanded that Sabbath-breakers be stoned?”  The pastor said that, had she said that, the hands would have started to go down.

I was actually thinking about this anecdote when I was listening to one of Sproul’s lectures, and, then, lo and behold, Sproul told the same anecdote!  He did not say all of the same things that the “Word of Faith” pastor said, but he essentially made the same point: people in that audience had a nebulous concept of God with which they were comfortable (like the “Force” of Star Wars), but how would they feel about Yahweh, the God of the Bible?  The “Word of Faith” pastor may have gotten the anecdote from Sproul.  The pastor does draw from a lot of resources, quoting from them and showing us clips.  He draws from N.T. Wright, Tim Keller, Ted Talks, etc.

H.  Sproul was making the point that, when humans encounter the holiness of God, they crumble.  He related the story in Luke 5:1-10, in which Jesus causes Peter to catch multitudes of fish.  Peter’s response was not, “Wow!  We should go into business together, Jesus!  You cause me to catch all these fish, and we’ll make lots of money!”  Rather, Peter asked Jesus to depart, for he (Peter) was a sinful man.

This is a compelling point.  Eventually, though, the disciples could be around Jesus as he did miracles, without being overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy.  The multitudes could, too.  Is that because the multitudes did not grasp the extent of God’s holiness?  In the case of the disciples, perhaps they arrived at an understanding of God’s grace: that God is for them, as undeserving as they may be.

Anyway, I enjoyed listening to this series.  I am currently listening to Sproul’s lectures on Roman Catholicism, but I may not blog about that.  They are interesting, but they do not inspire me to write a blog post, as the series on the “Psychology of Atheism” did.

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Books read in 2017

Enough Light

There are different types of people out there, and some think it is rather odd to share a list of books of read for the year. “Who cares?” However, please know, that among readers, sharing book lists (as well as reading plans for the year to come) is common. I enjoy perusing these lists.

Also, in regards to different folks out there, some are flabbergasted that anyone could or would read so many books. Reading more than about 10 books is considered amazing or odd by some. “Don’t you have anything better to do?” However, among serious readers, my reading of 40 books is a low number actually! Some read 100 or more books a year.

But the number of books read is in one sense a useless figure. I know one serious and prolific reader who does not keep track of the number. The type of books…

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Interview with James Kugel – The Great Shift

The Book of Doctrines and Opinions:

Why do we not see God anymore? Why does He not walk around our neighborhoods the way He did in the Bible? Why do Biblical figures not ask what the law should be? James Kugel seeks to answer these questions in his new book The Great Shift, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2017). 

great shift

In graduate school, instructors spoke often spoke of the Axial Age shift (approximately  8th-6th century BCE, but sometime stretched out from the 8th-3rd BCE), a term first coined by Karl Jaspers in 1949.  The Axial Age was when ancient consciousness of eternal religion gave way to a new consciousness based on an internal self. For Jaspers, the sacrifice of Leviticus gave way to the prophetic call,  the sacrifices of the Vedas became the theology of the Hindu Upanishads and Buddhism, and when Confucius and Zoroaster arose.  It also includes the shift between the…

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Book Write-Up: Probing

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

Probing is the third volume of the “Harbingers” series.  As in the first and second volumes, authors Bill Myers, Frank Peretti, Angela Hunt, and Alton Gansky each contribute a section, from the perspective of a main character. Bill Myers conveys the perspective of Brenda, a tough tattoo artist who has premonitions of the future. Frank Peretti contributes the perspective of the professor, James McKinney, an atheist ex-priest. Angela Hunt writes from the point-of-view of Andi, the professor’s assistant, who is Jewish. And Alton Gansky shares the viewpoint of Tank, a lovable ex-jock, who is probably the most Christian character in the book. Another character is Daniel, who hears from invisible people. Brenda is a mother-figure to him.

Allow me to comment on each story:

Bill Myers, “Leviathan.”

This story had an interesting concept: there is a colliseum-type environment, and the sinister, conspiratorial Gate is using that to shape people’s morality for the worse.  There was also an insightful exchange about whether God is necessary for there to be morality.  The professor said no, for morality is simply human attempts to keep communities from self-destruction.  Tank retorted, however, that he himself needed God to have the strength to do right.  Bill Myers’ contribution was like his contribution to the other two books: there are some interesting details.

Frank Peretti, “The Mind Pirates.”

I did not care for this story, as much.  It was rather scattered.  I know there were pirates in it, but I cannot tell you much else.  Another issue I have is that the professor was said to be a professor of fields that are in the humanities, whereas Angela Hunt depicts him researching and writing about science (i.e., dimensions).  There could have been more coordination among the authors about what exactly the professor’s field was.  I enjoy many of Frank Peretti’s books, but I have had difficulty with his stories in this series.  He writes from the perspective of the professor, but I usually find that I prefer the other three authors’ depiction of that character.

Angela Hunt, “Hybrids.”

As in the first volume, Angela Hunt’s contribution is the best.  She did a better job telling the story in an understandable, compelling manner.  Maybe that is because she includes more dialogue that tells readers what is going on, or she focuses more on the characters’ feelings than the other authors do.  This story had some interesting scientific speculations about time travel.  A main character drops out, and there is a mysterious incident at the end.

Alton Gansky, “The Village.”

Gansky’s contribution was actually pretty good.  It is from the perspective of Tank.  Tank shares his Christian faith, but he also vividly describes his struggles with his gift of healing, appealing to a scientific experiment on animals as an analogy.  Tank comes across as a sensitive, loving person.

This may be the final book of the series.  Unlike the last two books, this one did not end with an excerpt from the coming book.  Plus, Amazon says this is Book 3 of 3.  There are unanswered questions, such as the question of how the professor lost his faith.  This series is not my favorite, but the characters were entertaining and likable, in their own way.

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

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Review: Choosing Donald Trump

Bob on Books

Choosing Donald Trump

Choosing Donald Trump, Stephen Mansfield. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017.

Summary: Written just after the election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency, this book explores his character and formative influences, what his appeal was to the voters who elected him, and a call for the church to exercise “prophetic distance” in its relationship with this and all presidents.

I think it is safe to say that the United States has never seen a president like Donald J. Trump. That may be the one thing both those who support him and those who oppose him agree upon. When I came across Mansfield’s book, I wasn’t sure what I would encounter. However, I had read his fascinating narrative (reviewed here) of the Guinness family and the beer that bears their name, and so I thought I would take a chance on this book. There are several reasons I’m…

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