Book Write-Up: The Beloved Hope Chest, by Amy Clipston

Amy Clipston.  The Beloved Hope Chest.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

The Beloved Hope Chest is Book 4 of Amy Clipston’s Amish Heirloom series.

Each of the previous three books ended with some sort of unresolved mystery.  In Book 4, those mysteries are resolved.  I cannot say that there were any surprises in Book 4, or that Book 4 was particularly eventful.  Yet, Book 4 tied up the series beautifully.  We got to see why Mattie was able to empathize with what her daughters went through in Books 1-3: because she had similar experiences.  One can understand Book 4 without having read the previous books, though.

Like many other Amy Clipston books that I have read, this one could get repetitive and drag on, a bit.  But it was slightly more variegated in its treatment of issues than other Amy Clipston books.  An asset to the book is that Clipston communicated the characters’ emotions well.  Mattie has just lost her husband Isaac and is nervous in her newfound marriage to Leroy: it is difficult for her to adjust to her new life, and she is unsure if she can be a good wife to Leroy.  Leroy has always loved Mattie and wishes that she would love him in return.  Clipston vividly conveyed Mattie’s sense of loss and worry, and Leroy’s sadness as a person with unrequited love.

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

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Articles: How Democrats Killed Their Populist Soul; Reading Little House as an Adult

I don’t feel like doing an extensive Current Events Write-Up today, so I will just link to two articles that I found interesting.

The Atlantic: How Democrats Killed Their Populist Soul:In the 1970s, a new wave of post-Watergate liberals stopped fighting monopoly power. The result is an increasingly dangerous political system. Written by Matt Stoller.

This is a lengthy article, so I read it over the course of a month.  According to the article, a prominent plank among 1930’s New Deal Democrats was a commitment to anti-trust policies: smaller business is better than big business.  In the 1960’s, however, economist and Kennedy advisor John Kenneth Galbraith expressed hope that monopolies could promote social justice.  During the 1970’s, when Democrats were elected to Congress in the aftermath of Watergate, many of these Democrats rejected the populist anti-trust beliefs of the 1930’s Democrats.  Bill Clinton would amplify this 1970’s non-populist stance as President.

Book Riot: Reading “Little House on the Prairie” as an Adult, by Kelly Jensen.

I’ve been watching the Little House TV series lately.  I was wondering if I would enjoy the books.  From this post, the impression that I get is that the books are not like the TV series!  I’d still like to read them for myself, sometime.

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Book Write-Up: The Hum of Angels, by Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight.  The Hum of Angels: Listening for the Messengers of God Around Us.  WaterBrook, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Scot McKnight teaches New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois.

Here are some of my thoughts about his book, The Hum of Angels.

A.  This book is more educational than other books about angels that I have read.  McKnight refers briefly to depictions of angels in other ancient Near Eastern cultures,  mentions thoughts about angels from such historic Christian luminaries as Origen and John Calvin, and quotes Jewish pseudepigraphical passages about angels.  This is not a surprise to me because, even though this book is on a popular level, McKnight is an academic and is thus sensitive to historical-criticism of the Bible and the history of Jewish and Christian thought.  That is what made this book interesting.

B.  That said, McKnight did not really integrate the historical considerations into faith and religious belief.  If angels are depicted outside of ancient Israel, and prior to the time of ancient Israel, does that mean that the ancient Israelites borrowed their belief in angels from outside cultures?  Would that mean that angels are not real but were invented by human beings?  Is there a purpose in quoting Christian luminaries, from a religious perspective?  Is what they say authoritative about angels, or mere assertion?  McKnight tried to justify quoting the pseudepigraphical sources by saying that they formed part of Christ’s cultural milieu, and McKnight presumably deems Christ to be authoritative.  Does that make the pseudepigraphical sources authoritative about angels, though?

C.  McKnight disputes the common Christian idea that the Angel of the Lord in the Hebrew Bible was the being who became Jesus Christ, a Christophany, in short.  For McKnight, the Angel of the Lord brought God’s presence to people but was still a separate being from God.  On the one hand, McKnight’s stance appealed to me because it was a historical-critical interpretation, one that did not read Christianity back into the Hebrew Bible.  On the other hand, his stance left lingering questions in my mind.  McKnight did not address the claim in early manuscripts of Jude 5 that Jesus brought the Israelites out of Egypt (Michael Heiser, The Unseen Realm, page 270), which would be consistent with the Angel of the Lord in the Hebrew Bible being a Christophany.

There is also a possible discrepancy between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, which seeing the Angel as a Christophany can resolve.  In the Old Testament, the Angel of the Lord seems to receive worship or reverence (Joshua 5:13-15).  In Revelation 22:9, by contrast, an angel emphatically forbids John to bow down to him, telling him to worship God instead.  McKnight in the book shows familiarity with these passages, but he fails to address a question: Why was an Angel reverenced in the Old Testament, whereas worship of angels was forbidden in the New Testament?  One solution is to say that the Angel in the Hebrew Bible was actually Jesus Christ, who is God, and Christ can be worshiped.  Another solution is to say that the line of demarcation between angels and God became more firmly established over the course of biblical and Jewish thought, as a way to safeguard the uniqueness of God.  The latter solution can pose a challenge to faith, however: if biblical thought about angels changed and developed over time, does that imply that what the Bible says about angels reflects merely human ideas, rather than reality?

D.  McKnight seems to argue that angels will always glorify Jesus Christ.  McKnight does well to demonstrate that angels in the New Testament have an interest in Jesus Christ.  But does that mean that they always have to mention Jesus when they interact with people?  McKnight spends pages talking about angelic activity in the Hebrew Bible, and, obviously, angels did not mention Jesus in those cases.  If I am not mistaken, they did not always mention Jesus in the stories of angelic encounters that McKnight relays (but I am open to correction on this).  McKnight is trying to avoid a free-for-all when it comes to angelic encounters, to provide a means for people to discern which angelic encounters are real and legitimate.  Perhaps he could have attained this goal without saying that angelic encounters always have to be about Jesus.  He says throughout the book that angelic encounters are about God’s love: God’s commitment to be with us and to help us to become Christlike.  Angels can assist people on this path, even if they do not explicitly mention Jesus.  Angelic encounters can make people sensitive to the existence of the transcendent and the holy, and that is part of becoming Christlike.

E.  McKnight did attempt to support his claims with Scriptures.  He has a chapter about how angels are intercessors.  One passage that he cites,  Job 33:23-26, supports this claim rather well.  Other passages that he cites?  Maybe they support it, but not necessarily.  McKnight also should have tried to reconcile his belief that angels can be intercessors with I Timothy 2:5, which states that there is one mediator between God and humanity, namely, Jesus Christ.

F.  One thought that occurred to me in reading this book is, “Why hasn’t an angel appeared to me?  Doesn’t God like me?”  In light of that, I appreciated McKnight’s statements that angels may appear to us, without us even knowing it.  And they are around us, anyway!

G.  I liked something that McKnight said in the After Words: that he misses his book on angels, after finishing it!  There is a close relationship between authors and the books that they write!

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

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Church Write-Up: Ripping Out Sins

Last Sunday, I visited what I call the “Word of Faith” church.  The label fits in some areas but not in others, but I don’t want to identify the church by name, so that is the label that I will use.

The pastor was speaking about Jesus’ exorcisms and the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  The pastor was discussing Jesus’ exorcisms within the context of God delivering people from sin.

The pastor said that he believes that God will be ripping sins out of people’s lives.  He gave some examples: deliverance from adultery, deliverance from pornography, deliverance from that glass of wine that one drinks before going to bed.  I thought of the Christian movie War Room, in which a woman is praying for her husband, who is having an intimate dinner with another woman.  Right when the woman is praying for him, the man gets sick and has to leave the date!  To quote Mr. Keating on Dead Poet’s Society, “All I want to hear is RIP!”

Were Jesus’ exorcisms about delivering people from sins?

There are indications in Scripture that Satan influences people to sin.  Ephesians 2:2 states: “Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience” (KJV).  Acts 5:3 has: “But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land?”

Is that the same as demon possession, though?  A person sinning is not the same as being inhabited and taken over by a foreign entity, as seems to be the case in the Gospels.

But then there is Matthew 12:42-45: “When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none. Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation.”

That is parabolic, so one should be careful to avoid dogmatism.  But I have read commentators who interpret this passage in light of the sins of Jesus’ generation: Jesus’ generation largely rejected Jesus, and that made its spiritual condition worse than before, leading to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.  If that interpretation is correct, then Jesus is saying that sin can relate to demon possession, or at least Jesus is making an analogy between the two.

The pastor wrestled briefly with the issue of human responsibility.  On the one hand, he said, our sins are due to things that we did not ask for and that load the dice against us: our sinful human nature, the demonic, etc.  On the other hand, the Bible treats us as responsible for our actions.

The pastor eventually got to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  He said that we should focus on the positive in that passage: Jesus said that all sins can be forgiven.  The pastor interpreted “forgiven” there to mean that sins are leaving a person.  Indeed, the Greek word translated as “forgiven” in Matthew 12:31, “aphiemi,” can mean leaving, departing, or sending away.  But the passage uses the passive of aphiemi with the dative, “to the men,” instead of having “from the men.”  Had the verse been making the pastor’s point, my suspicion is that it would have had “from the men”—-every manner of sin will be removed from the men.  Notwithstanding my disagreement here, I can, in a big picture sense, identify with what the pastor was saying: Jesus does not just want to save us from the penalty for sin, but from sin itself.

Regarding blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the pastor said that, when a person considers God’s compassion towards people and deliverance of them to be evil, that is a spirit that God cannot remove.  He said that he doubts that anyone at the church has arrived at that point.  I had a variety of questions when he shared that interpretation.  First of all, does anyone really consider compassion and deliverance to be evil?  Maybe Jesus’ critics prioritized other things above compassion and deliverance (i.e., their power), and such a stance can contribute to a spiritual deadness or hardness, but is that the same as deeming compassion and deliverance to be evil?  Second, why couldn’t God cast out such a spirit?  Can’t God soften people’s hearts (i.e., Romans 11)?

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Book Write-Up: Sinai and the Saints

James M. Todd III.  Sinai and the Saints: Reading Old Covenant Laws for the New Covenant Community.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Are Christians obligated to obey the laws that God gave to Moses at Sinai?  In Sinai and the Saints, biblical scholar James M. Todd III tackles this question.  Todd’s position is that the Old Covenant has passed away, so people are not obligated to observe the Mosaic law.  Rather, for Todd, Christians are under the New Covenant and are required to obey the law of Christ.

To his credit, Todd wrestles with challenges to such a position.  Why does the New Testament quote or allude to Old Testament commandments and laws, if they are no longer authoritative?  What exactly is the law of Christ?  And what about Matthew 5:17-20, in which Jesus denied that he came to destroy the law?

Contrary to the book’s title, Todd does not really attempt to read Old Covenant laws for the New Covenant community.  (At least that is my impression, and other readers may conclude differently.)  He actually advises against going overboard in focusing on each Old Testament law in an attempt to derive an application from it.  Rather, Todd focuses on what he considers the purpose of the Old Covenant: to use Israel as an example of how people cannot become righteous through obedience to the law, since they need a new heart.  For Todd, the Hebrew Bible points to a coming king who would bruise the serpent, a la Genesis 3:15.

There were some issues that I wished Todd had engaged.  For example, how can Jewish-Christians be the weaker brethren of Romans 14, when Romans 14 says the weaker brethren eat only vegetables?  Jews, after all, eat kosher meat.  One answer is that Jews stayed on the safe side and ate only vegetables because most of the meat in the Diaspora was offered to idols or was non-kosher, but Todd never makes this point.  Another example concerns the sacrifices.  Todd notes that the Old Covenant had blood sacrifices for sins, and, of course, he believes that foreshadowed Christ’s sacrifice.  But his discussion would have been stronger and more nuanced had it acknowledged that sin and guilt offerings were largely for unintentional sins and explored how that theme gets played out in the New Testament.

Still, Todd deserves credit and praise for the issues that he does engage.  Since Israel’s return to her land is a significant aspect of the Hebrew Bible’s eschatological prophecies, where is the land promise in the New Testament?  Are the stipulations for Gentiles in Acts 15 still authoritative for believers?  And are Christians forbidden to represent God visually?  Todd’s answer to that last question left lingering questions in my mind, since I wondered why God would change his stance on this from the Old Testament to the New (assuming that God did).  Overall, though, Todd’s discussions were judicious and methodical.

Todd’s approach to the biblical text was conservative, and there were cases in which that influenced his answers to questions.  A number of New Testament scholars maintain that the Gospel of Matthew was a Jewish-Christian Gospel, which held that the Torah was still authoritative for Jewish believers.  Todd never entertains this possibility, perhaps because he believes that the entire New Testament teaches the same thing about the Mosaic Torah: that it has been nullified and replaced with the law of Christ.  Diversity of Scripture has little place in that paradigm.  The result is a rather convoluted interpretation of Matthew 5:17-20, as commendable as Todd’s discussion is for wrestling with the passage in light of the Gospel of Matthew as a whole.

Did I find Todd’s arguments convincing?  Partly.  On the one hand, to me at least, New Testament authors seem to be appealing to Old Testament commandments as divinely-authoritative.  In my opinion, that differs from Paul’s reference to a Stoic poet in Acts 17, even though Todd appears to regard the two as analogous.  On the other hand, that leaves me with a problem: Which Old Testament commands are authoritative, and which are not?  Todd makes a convincing case that attempts to make such distinctions are problematic.  It is easier simply to say that the Mosaic Torah was replaced with the law of Christ.

Todd portrays the Old Covenant as a covenant of trying to become righteous through obedience to the law and receiving God’s condemnation for disobedience.  The New Covenant, by contrast, holds that God’s people are already a royal priesthood rather than trying to become a royal priesthood through obedience (cp. I Peter 2:9 with Exodus 19:6), and it affirms that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).  There may be something to Todd’s argument here, and yet I wonder: If God’s Old Testament wrath is no longer relevant for New Covenant believers, why does Paul appeal to God’s Old Testament wrath as an example for the Corinthian Christians (I Corinthians 10:11)?

Notwithstanding my questions and critiques, I am still giving the book five stars.  It was judicious, meaty, and thoughtful.  And I want to see movie The Magnificent Seven after reading Todd’s description of it!

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


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Levenson-divine jealousy and the divine love language


I am reading Jon Levenson’s The Love of God.

Today I want to cover two points that derive from Levenson’s teaching experience. When a writer can bring real world experience–okay, sometimes it is a stretch to call universities the real world–to a book about theological ideas, I think that is helpful.

One of these points relates to the Hebrew Bible calling God a jealous God. This is a hard concept even after noting that some of the rabbis have explained that God, unlike people, is in control of his jealousy and not driven by it.

This is particularly a hard concept against the background of world religions and multiculturalism today. So Levenson mentions that a Hindu student asked this question of him: “Why is God so jealous?” This is a problem that probably mystifies many connected with Asian religion and culture. Often, in those cultures there is an openness…

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Book Write-Up: Faith in the Face of Empire, by Mitri Raheb

Mitri Raheb.  Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible through Palestinian Eyes.  Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2014.  See here to purchase the book.

Mitri Raheb is a Lutheran pastor in Bethlehem.  He was born in Bethlehem to a family of Palestinian Christians.  His father was Ottoman.  I learned about this book from Christena Cleveland’s post, 15 Books for Fighting for Justice in the Trump Era.  I hope to read more books on that list.

Here are some of my thoughts about the book:

A.  Raheb places Israel in the same category as the previous empires that occupied or controlled the land of Palestine and oppressed its inhabitants, such as the Roman empire.  In my opinion, what Raheb fails to appreciate, at least in this book, is the emotional and religious connection that Jewish people have with the land of Palestine.  They are not merely using the land of Palestine as a strategic buffer, as many of the previous empires did.  Rather, they consider Palestine to be their religious homeland.  For centuries, even prior to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, Jews at their Passover seders said “Next year in Jerusalem.”  Therefore, Raheb strikes me as overly optimistic when he forecasts that the Israeli empire will fall, as did previous empires.  The Israeli “empire” has a more intense and emotional connection to the land.

B.  Raheb effectively describes the oppression of Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli “empire.”  In Raheb’s telling, Israelis took the Palestinians’ land, in some cases by violence.  Israelis have settled in the West Bank, taking the best land.  They put Palestinians through long check-points every day.  They physically divide the Palestinians.  And Israel is backed by the military might of the West, making Israel militarily superior to the Palestinians, and it uses that might against even non-violent Palestinian protests.

C.  Raheb counters when he considers to be myths that have gained acceptance among Christians and in the West.  One myth is that the Israelis were like David battling the Goliath of the Arab world in the 1960s.  As Raheb notes, the Israelis had plenty of backing from the West!  Raheb also challenges the view that the Palestinians are the violent ones or the people who need to be taught non-violence, for he argues that the Israelis have been violent.

D.  Raheb is also critical of assumptions held by people who are sympathetic towards the Palestinians.  He refers to a woman who claimed that Israel should be kind to the Palestinians because the Torah commands kindness for the stranger.  While Raheb appreciates her compassion, he questions her assumption that the Palestinians are strangers, for they inhabited the land, until the Israelis took it.  Raheb refers to a cleric who wanted to bring together the sons of Isaac and the sons of Ishmael.  Not only did Raheb believe that this cleric had a Messiah complex, but he also questioned the cleric’s assumption that Palestinians see themselves as the sons of Ishmael.  Raheb also took issue with using the term “Middle East,” seeing that as a Western designation for the region: east in comparison to whom?  The West!  I could sympathize with Raheb’s point on the stranger and the sons of Ishmael, but not so much on the term “Middle East.”  I do not see that as an ideologically-loaded term that prioritizes the West.  Couldn’t one ask about the West, “West in comparison to whom?”

E.  Related to (D.), I was unclear about whom Raheb believed that the Palestinians and the Jews are, in relation to the Bible.  Does he believe that modern-day Jews are descended from the ancient Israelites in the Bible?  He does seem to believe that Palestinians are connected to the ancient Israelites, in some way.

F.  Raheb supports a non-violent resistance against the Israeli empire, and the New Testament plays a significant role in the strategies that Raheb promotes.  Jesus brought different kinds of people together (i.e., Zealots, tax-collectors), and Raheb supports bringing Palestinians together, when Israelis and the Western empire seek to divide them.  Jesus reached out, not so much to the centers of power, but rather to areas on the margins, and Raheb favors mobilizing people on the margins; he is critical of Palestinians who become educated in the West and then neglect the marginalized areas of Palestine.  Raheb also supports disinvestment campaigns and what he calls creative resistance, which includes artwork that expresses the Palestinian people’s suffering at the hands of the Israeli empire.  Raheb believes that a non-violent approach on the part of the Palestinian resistance can perhaps encourage the Israelis to desist from violence, or at least challenge their violence.

G.  Raheb notes that God has failed to intervene against empires throughout history.  At the same time, he also observes that empires have risen and waned, and that gives him hope that Jesus is correct in saying that the meek shall inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5).  Raheb believes that people today can still do their part to contribute to this vision, by having an alternative, non-violent society that brings people together, as Jesus had in the first century.  Does Raheb believe that this will organically lead to peace in the Middle East?  Does the Second Coming of Christ, in which Christ returns and overthrows evil, play a role in his vision?  The Second Coming was not a salient theme in this book.

H.  Raheb’s comparison of Palestinians and Muslims with the political landscape of first century Palestine was interesting.  Raheb compares violent insurgents to the Jewish insurgents against Rome in the first century.  The Pharisees sought to bring the Messianic Age by encouraging and practicing piety, and Raheb states that this is essentially what Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood are trying to do: to encourage God to favor them by being especially pious.  According to Raheb, while improvements in the political or economic situation are difficult to see, it is noticeable when more people are becoming religious.  There are Muslims and Palestinians who hold on to that as a sign that things will get better for them.

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