Book Write-Up: The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis

Thomas a Kempis.  The Imitation of Christ.  New York: Dover Publications, 2003.

According to the translators in the Foreword, the most popular view regarding this book’s origin is that it was written by a few members of the Brethren of the Common Life, a group of priests, in the Netherlands during the second half of the fourteenth century.  The priest Thomas, a member of the Brethren, translated it into Latin.

Here are some of my thoughts about the book:

A.  What surprised me was what was lacking in the book.  When we think of WWJD (“What would Jesus do?”), what enters a lot of Christians mind is love and service towards others.  There are statements about that in this book, here and there, but it is not the book’s focus.  How, then, do we imitate Christ, according to the book?  We accept suffering, as Christ did, placing God’s desires above our own in so doing.  Some of this suffering comes from life’s events.  Yet, the book also has a strong ascetic focus.  When Jesus tells the rich young ruler to sell all that he has and give it to the poor, this book seems to regard that as more normative than a lot of Christians do.

B.  The book resembles Buddhism in its belief that Christians should detach themselves from worldly things, such as money and a desire for success.  It even believes that Christians should try to avoid looking to people for consolation and should instead turn to God for that: God may take God’s time to console us, the book acknowledges, but keep on waiting!  The reason that I say that the book is like Buddhism in its emphasis on detachment is that it maintains that attachment leads to suffering: our desires will be disappointed in this life, so we are happier when we are detached.  But the book also holds that even those who do get what they want are either suffering, or their possessions are standing in the way of their intimacy with God and the spiritual rapture that can come from that.

C.  While I understood the book’s argument that attachment leads to suffering, I did not know what its rationale was for asceticism.  Okay, sure, this world will not last, but why not enjoy it when we still can?  And cannot enjoying the pleasures of life enhance our appreciation for God, as we give God thanks?  I think of I Timothy 4:3, in which the author criticizes those who command people “to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth” (KJV).  Asceticism sounds rather Gnostic to me.  The Gnostics believed that the material world was bad because it was created by a sinister or an inferior sub-deity to trap people and estrange them from spirituality.  Their asceticism is understandable, in light of this view.  The Imitation of Christ does not believe that, though, for it holds that the creator of the material world was a good God.  Yet, for some reason, it seemed to denigrate the material world and enjoyment thereof.

D.  There is a lot of emphasis in evangelical Christianity on socializing: you need to be in DEEP community!  You cannot be a lone-ranger Christian!  This book, by contrast, stressed solitude: it is good to get away from people and seek consolation from God!  At times, the book treats chatting as foolishness to be avoided.  On one occasion, though, the book did say that people should not allow their private prayers to take them away from public prayer, a rather communitarian sentiment, but that sentiment was rare in this book.  As an introvert, I appreciated the book’s emphasis on solitude.  Still, I thought that the book went too far in that direction.  Does not Galatians 6:2 exhort Christians to bear one another’s burdens?  And, since the book was putting words into the mouth of Jesus, would not one expect Jesus to say more about loving other people?

E.  The book did exhort people to avoid negative feelings about others, but it tended to avoid the cheery “reach out to people” sentiments of modern evangelicalism.  Rather, it said that we should try to minimize our annoyance with others, since we ourselves have flaws that may annoy people.  Overall, though, the book had a rather dim view of life and of people, as if it regarded life as a drag, with temptations and desires that drag people down.  It looked to God, for consolation in this life and in the life hereafter.

F.  Humility was a theme that recurred frequently in this book.  We should be intellectually humble: intellect should lead to a virtuous life and not simply be for the sake of knowing things!  Part of the book’s stress on humility was its conviction that priests should submit to their superiors.  The book also emphasized that we are sinners.  We will interact with that more in the next item!

G.  A problem that I have long had with elements of conservative Christianity is this: we are supposed to believe that we are sinners, yet we are also supposed to look for internal signs that we are saved, and such signs include the fruit of the Spirit: are we loving?  Do we have joy?  I am not saying that all of Christianity is like this, but I believe that the elements of Christianity that do have this sort of stance place people in a Catch-22.  Am I supposed to see myself as bad?  Am I supposed to see myself as good, as a result of the Holy Spirit’s work?  Which way do I go?

In light of that, the way that this book interacted with such issues intrigued me.  On the one hand, it believed that God’s judgment was a reality that even Christians should fear: in one poignant passage, it said that many of us are afraid when people are upset with us, so what makes us think we will be so brazen at God’s judgment seat?  That definitely spoke to me: I can be quite timid around other people, and yet, for some reason, I can envision myself telling God off at the last judgment!  In addition, the book seemed to regard its exhortations as a heaven or hell issue: those who surrender to God’s will and give up attachment will be the ones who will be saved.  One can get the impression that, as far as the book is concerned, we need to have all our ducks in a row to be saved!

On the other hand, the book was honest about human flaws.  The authors confess their imperfections.  If there is good within them, they believe it is on account of the Holy Spirit, and, even then, they often do not feel God’s consolations and sense the depths of their own shortcomings.  Sometimes, the book makes concessions: if you cannot bear suffering cheerfully, at least do so with patience!  If you cannot partake of the Eucharist with enthusiasm, then you can put off doing so, as long as you do not make that a habit.  The book also emphasized God’s mercy.  The book did not embrace any concept of “Once Saved Always Saved,” as far as I could see, and yet it was comforting, in its own way, since it was honest about human fallibility and encouraged people to persevere, trusting in a merciful God.

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Vridar: Why did Luke trace Jesus’ genealogy through David’s son Nathan and not Solomon? (Part I)

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Book Write-Up: 12 Days in Africa

Lisa Sanders, with Cathy Bruning and Blake Sanders.  12 Days in Africa: A Mother’s Journey.  WestBow Press, 2013.  See here to buy the book.

12 Days in Africa is about Lisa Sanders’ time in Uganda.  She talks about the people she met and the experiences that she had, both happy and sad.  At times, the book contains first-person testimonies by people in Uganda who were helped by an organization.  Children received an education, for example, which allowed them to contribute to their nation.

The book reads fairly smoothly in terms of prose, but not so much in terms of structure.  It is informative in that it sheds light on the struggles that people experience in Uganda, and the barriers that inhibit them from surpassing them.  Although parts of the book seem like an infomercial, it was good to read about positive contributions that people are making.  At the same time, the book sometimes conveyed a tone of Western saviors swooping in and helping helpless Ugandans.  The occasions when the book talked about Ugandans helping Uganda were rare, as I recall, but they were valuable.  There was not a whole lot of theological reflection in the book, until the very end.  The end was also when Sanders shared some of her own vulnerabilities and characteristics, and that was endearing.  I especially liked her story about how her son wanted to work in Africa for a semester rather than finish up that year of college, to the consternation of his practical engineer father!

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

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No Man is an Island by Thomas Merton, book review

Enough Light

It has long been on my list to read at least one book by Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and Dallas Willard. I stumbled upon No Man is an Island by Thomas Merton at the thrift store, and as I flipped through it, I kept appreciating the excerpts I read – so I decided to buy it. It proved to be a worthwhile read.

You can google Thomas Merton if you have no familiarity with him. No Man is an Island is a collection of spiritual/Christian essays. The book is divided into chapters that focus on a particular topic, but within each chapter the thoughts are numbered. Perhaps this sounds choppy? But it was not, and I thought it helped the book flow.

We live in age (since the late 1800’s in particular) where the self has been idolized, and Merton presents a more balanced and Christian view of self. The…

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Book Write-Up: Wings of the Wind, by Connilyn Cossette

Connilyn Cossette.  Wings of the Wind.  Bethany House, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

Wings of the Wind is the third book of Connilyn Cossette’s “Out from Egypt” series.  The series is about the Exodus and Israel’s time in the wilderness.

Wings of the Wind is set after the failed rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram against Moses.  This book covers the incident in Numbers 21 in which God sends fiery serpents against the complaining Israelites, and the only way that they can be cured of snakebite is to look at a brass serpent.  It goes through the Canaanite prostitute Rahab concealing the Israelite spies in the Book of Joshua, as well as the battle of Jericho.

Alanah is a Canaanite woman.  She dresses as a man and goes to the battlefield to avenge her father and brothers, who were killed in battle against the Israelites.  She is unconscious on the battlefield, and an Israelite, Tobiah, feels compassion for her and takes her to the Israelite camp.  There, she is nursed by Shira.  A la Deuteronomy 21:10-14, Tobiah wants to marry Alanah, and she undergoes the ritual prescribed under that law.

Alanah is ambivalent about marrying Tobiah and dwelling with the Israelite people.  On the one hand, she resents that the Israelites are trying to conquer her land.  She also has to deal with culture shock, since the Israelites do things differently from the Canaanites (e.g., in Israel, one can have a relationship with God without an idol or sacrifice).  On the other hand, she thinks that Israelite society under the Torah is more compassionate, just, and humane than Canaanite society, and that the God of Israel seems more real than the mythical gods of Canaan.  She develops relationships with Israelites in the camps, some of whom were foreigners who had joined the Israelite community.  Israel is not a complete Shangri la for her, however, for she has to deal with the bigotry and hostility of Tobiah’s twin sister, Tzipi.

The book picks up speed after Alanah discovers something that can negatively affect some of her relationships with Israelites.  In the course of the story, Cossette provides an explanation for why Rahab was so willing to help the Israelite spies.

My reactions to this book are mostly ambivalent.

The book, of course, portrays the Israelites as good (or Israelite society as good) and the Canaanites as bad.  It is an evangelical Christian book, after all!  And that is how the Israelite Conquest is justified in this book: it is God’s judgment on the sinful Canaanites, who had years to repent or to leave Canaan but failed to take advantage of the opportunity.  Occasionally, we get some nuance.  Although the book tries to argue that the Canaanites had time to leave Canaan and that it was primarily a few sinful die-hards who stayed behind, some of the Canaanites who are still in Canaan are not bad people: some are victims of the unjust system or life’s circumstances, and some are old.

The book portrays Canaanite society as rife with prostitution (cultic and otherwise), as violent and bloodthirsty, and as committed to child sacrifice.  On one occasion, Alanah reflects that Canaanites ditch their elderly parents, whereas the Israelites are commanded to honor their father and mother.  Cossette may be correct that there was cultic prostitution and child sacrifice in Canaan, but there are biblical scholars who have questioned the extent of those things in Canaan.  While Cossette depicts Canaanites as unfaithful to their family, one should remember that they performed rituals to support their dead ancestors: can such people be categorized as unfaithful?  And, while Cossette depicts the Torah as compassionate, just, and humane, there are people who would question that, seeing the Torah as patriarchal, brutal, and genocidal.

This is not to suggest that there is absolutely nothing to Cossette’s narrative.  There are just and compassionate elements in the Torah, and one can make a case that Canaanite society had significant flaws.  One can also read this book and appreciate the homiletical lesson that God gives us laws to restrain our base impulses and to move us in the direction of behaving more righteously (and, yes, grace is a significant factor in this book, too).  Still, in reading this book, one should remember that there are additional nuances.

A point that Cossette tries to make is that the Canaanites had a genuine opportunity to repent.  They knew about God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  They were aware of the Exodus and Israelites’ victories against overwhelming odds up to that point.  Cossette even speculates in the appendix that God may have sent a prophet to Canaan to warn them to repent of their sinful behavior.  Perhaps she would have done well to have mentioned Melchizedek, who was a priest-king in Salem during the time of Abraham and worshiped the Most High God.  He may have been a light to the Canaanites!  While she wants to portray the Canaanites as having the truth and rejecting it, as that would justify the Conquest (according to her), she also portrays them as having a distorted understanding of what was going on: they see Moses as a sorcerer, and Joshua as a descendant of Baal!  Is Cossette’s point that they were suppressing the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18)?

As far as the story itself is concerned, it was pretty good.  I think Cossette tried to create a sense of pathos, but she was not overly effective.  Israelites in the story were trying to move on after the people in their families had been killed by God in Korah’s rebellion, but they usually dismissed their concerns and justified God with the usual apologetic answers.  In addition, Alanah was won to the truth too quickly and too easily.  It looked rather facile.  There also seemed to be more telling than showing in the story.  Some of the scenes (i.e., the raging river scene) could have been more vivid.

This book is too good to get a three, but it falls short of a five.  I’ll give it a four!

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

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Eerdword: Robert E. Lee, Slavery, and the Problem of Providence

Posted in History, Religion

The rise of Israel-McCarter


As to the central question behind The Rise of Ancient Israel, the lecturers give different answers.  William Dever finds no distinction between the early Iron Age Israelites and the Canaanites in terms of things like pottery and house building.  So he says they must have been Canaanites who migrated to the hills.

The other scholars go beyond archeology.  How do we account for the texts about the exodus and the patriarch stories that have the Israelites coming from Mesopotamia and Egypt?  Baruch Halpern finds an explanation in what we know about migration out of Mesopotamia at the end of the Bronze Age and the fit between the exodus story and Semitic presence in Egypt in the 18th dynasty, which is also at the end of the Bronze Age.  While not denying some Canaanite connections, he sees the bulk of the early Israelites as recently displaced Arameans influenced by a…

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