Sunday, February 27, 2011

book report: "If God, why evil?" by Geisler (2011)

Norman Geisler has written a short book on theodicy, as if that were possible. I read this over two days in 4 hours or so. Theodicy, is the philosophical area dealing with the problem of evil. Does the existence of evil disprove the existence of God, or God as described in orthodox Christianity, a perfect, all knowing, all powerful, all present, always good God? In order to keep it short, Geisler returns to the form of syllogisms repeatedly. The very first syllogism he discusses is this,
  1. God created all things
  2. Evil is something
  3. Therefore, God created evil. p.17-18

this is then solved by discussing whether evil is a "thing." The response syllogism then follows,
  1. God created all things.
  2. Evil is not a thing.
  3. Hence God did not create evil. p.19

but, there is not much room for nuance when dealing primarily in syllogisms. Certainly, there is discussion, but sometimes not enough. His metaphor of God as author, but not responsible for his characters evil actions was incomplete and unsatisfactory. Also, his discussion of physical evil needed expansion. I didn't feel he dealt with the topic sufficiently. But I am not unhappy with this book. I really appreciate the succinctness of the chapters. It was these few times when I wish he had expanded more.

His chapter on Miracles and Evil was especially helpful. If God can intervene whenever he wants, why doesn't he? Geisler shows that God does intervene whenever he wants, which is rarely whenever I want. But I am unable to know, with my limited knowledge, how often God should intervene in the world, for his ultimate purposes, which may not coincide with my own purposes.

His last two chapters deal with hell. I thought these were helpful. He breaks the discussion down by common objections to hell. In the section on the objection to eternal damnation for temporal offenses he concludes,
Finally, if Christ's temporal punishment is sufficient for our sins eternally, there is no reason why eternal suffering cannot be appropriate for our temporal sins. It is not the duration of the action but the object that is important. Christ satisfied the eternal God by his temporal suffering (1 John 2:1-2), and unbelievers have defied the eternal God by their temporal sins. p.110
In the next objection, whether hell has redeeming value, Geisler's severe brevity made me wince.
Everyone is either actively or passively useful to God. In heaven believers will be actively useful in praising His mercy. In hell unbelievers will be passively useful in bringing majesty to God's justice. As Edwards put it, just as a barren tree is useful only for firewood, so disobedient people are only ful for an eternal fire (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2.126). Since unbelievers prefer to keep at a distance from God in time, why should we not expect this to be their chosen state in eternity? p.111
I get a kick out of fully Arminian Geisler referencing fully Calvinist Edwards, but I also feel awful for an unbeliever reading this and being compared to firewood for hell. I would have spent more time writing in a way that makes the call to repentance and to a relationship with Jesus more attractive than avoiding becoming incendiary material.

He includes three appendices in the book. One was really good, Evidence for the Existence of God, and one seemed artificial in its inclusion. It is a critique of the bestseller, The Shack, ostensibly because of it's theodicy. However, Geisler is writing on a timeless theme and the Shack has already begun to fade from the popular mindset. I would of preferred Geisler fill the book with some expansion of the sub-topics of theodicy. However, this is an excellent contribution to the Christian library, especially for someone looking for quick explanations of hard topics.

Bethany House sent me this copy free for review. They are looking for more book reviewers, so sign up if interested.
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Sunday, February 20, 2011

book report: Servolution by Dino Rizzo (2009)

As a book review blogger for Zondervan I get to pick the books I want to review. But the book I wanted was not available, so I got Dino Rizzo's book instead, Servolution: Starting a Church Revolution through Serving. My expectations were pretty low. I had never heard of this pastor, nor his church, Healing Place Church, and I'm just not in the market for church growth books. But I am interested in the local church becoming the hands and feet and mouth of Jesus Christ to those around them. That is the church Rizzo set out to be. His church is based in radical generosity, not just in material, but in time as well. I listened to a sermon today from John 13, when Jesus washes his disciples' feet. Rizzo seems to get Jesus's lesson from that example.
12 After washing their feet, he put on his robe again and sat down and asked, "Do you understand what I was doing?
13You call me 'Teacher' and 'Lord,' and you are right, because it is true.
14And since I, the Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other's feet.
15I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you.
16How true it is that a servant is not greater than the master. Nor are messengers more important than the one who sends them.
17You know these things -- now do them! That is the path of blessing. John 13
He has also found that as they served, God provided more opportunities and more resources to fulfill those opportunities. I'm familiar with some of the opportunities he's described as I've been with our church to the same places, New York City after 9/11/01 and the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. However, I was also inspired and encouraged by the local outreaches they do, from handing out bottled water to drivers stuck in traffic on hot summer days to block parties, where everything is given away with no strings attached. Their generosity has led them to provide training for released convicts so they can find jobs and stay out of jail. They help and encourage widows and single mothers. They also have reached out internationally, from Africa to Haiti. They do more than water bottles. They have set up mobile medical clinics in Louisiana. They built houses in Haiti. They've dug wells around the world for the poor. Rizzo's focus is on the poor, yet, somehow, money keeps coming in and the church keeps expanding and more and more are served resulting in more and more becoming part of the kingdom. They spread the good news through word and deed. This culture of serving results in new ministries forming by those in the congregation coming up with new niches to help, both locally, at 2AM when the bars close, and internationally, in Mozambique. With such a huge impact from such a simple philosophy of ministry, I think any believer would benefit from reading this book.

Thank you Dino Rizzo for writing it and for Zondervan for giving it to me for review.
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Saturday, February 19, 2011

even more gabion houses in Grand Goave, Haiti

Conscience International is doing alot with rubble and housing in Haiti on the southern finger of that nation in Grand Goave, which was 90% destroyed in last year's earthquake. I visited the nearby towns Fouche of Petit Goave, on either side of Grand Goave, last year. Their website is full of pictures, construction drawings, volunteer opportunities, funding, and video from a report by the Discovery Channel. They have done engineering for these houses. They don't seem to use a bunch of gabions to layer up a wall, but single cages for each wall. It's very impressive and earthquake safe as well as hurricane safe and thug safe, for about $3500. They are also trying to avoid sourcing any materials at all from outside of Haiti. They want to support Haiti, and Haitian businesses, as well as abundantly available Haitian labor. If you have any ability to contribute to this effort please do. They seem to be ahead of the progress of Oxfam in this style of house, see this note by an Architecture for Humanity blogger in Haiti, noted in an earlier post here.
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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

book report: When Helping Hurts by Corbett and Fikkert (2009)

In light of my experience of visiting Haiti before and after the earthquake in 2010, the idea of aid, and how to do it right, is a struggle for me, and this book, When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor. . .and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert has been very helpful in sorting out the issues. I learned a great deal from these authors and I think any church leader who wants to jump into ministry to those in need would benefit from the research and anecdotes presented in this book.

This explanation of how the poor view their poverty is an enlightening example. "While poor people mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological and social terms than our North American audiences. Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness." p.53 Since that is the case, one should recognize that a $50 handout will do very little to address those issues. What this person needs is a hand-up and partners to walk the long path out of poverty, which is much harder and costlier than spare change.
Simply giving this person money is treating the symptoms rather than the underlying disease and will enable him to continue with his lack of self-discipline. In this case, the gift of money does more harm than good, and it would be better not to do anything at all than to give this handout. Really! Instead, a better - and far more costly- solution would be for your church to develop a relationship with this person, a relationship that says, "We are here to walk with you and to help you use your gifts and abilities to avoid being in this situation in the future. Let us into your life and let us work with you to determine the reason you are in this predicament." p. 55
The book provides a great framework to recognize the situation the poor are in and how to respond, distinguishing between relief (immediate handouts to save lives), rehabilitation and redevelopment. In my small view, Haiti is out of the woods for relief, except for where cholera still rages, but there is so much rehabilitation that needs to occur. There are broken wells, and tent cities, and violence in those tent camps, and poor sanitation, but people are no longer at risk of starvation or gangrene from injuries.

I appreciate the definition of poverty they use, in all the areas it affects and needs fixing. "Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings." p.62 Poverty is not just broken bank accounts. It's broken attitudes and mindsets and worldviews and government and trust. These are things that Christians in particular can help mend over the long haul. But the North American church has channeled a great deal of energy into short term mission (STM) trips, which one national described as an elephant dancing with mice. They rush in and do all sorts of work that nationals could do, or be trained to do, over a longer period of time, then vacate leaving all the other aspects of poverty intact. They speak very bluntly to this phenomenon.
Stay away from the "go-help-and-save-them" message and use a "go-as-a-learner" message. We need no more STM brochure covers with sad, dirty faces of children and the words "Will you die to self and go and serve?" Such a message places too much focus on the sacrifice the STM team is making to change people's lives - a level of change that is simply not realistic in two weeks - and on how helpless the poor people are without the team's help...; just don't label vacations as "missions" nor dare ask people to fund them with their tithes and offerings. Doing so is an outrageous insult to the thousands of indigenous and expatriate brotehrs and sisters who sacrifice in mighty ways in ministry and to the poor themselves. p.176
They have some very specific suggestions for a short term team, including discipling those team members for months before and a year after the trip.

They speak of the importance of involving those you are helping, not only so they can develop their gifts and talents and dignity through work, but also so inappropriate "solutions" are not dropped on them. They give an example of an indigenous pastor's house was built with a bathroom in the culturally unacceptable part of the house. But no one asked the pastor, and the house might never get used.

The book covers so much ground, but it is eye opening, and is, at it's most basic level, an explanation of Christ's golden rule, asking how would we like to be treated/ then treat others that way. For some reason we tend to believe a desperately poor person is very different from us and needs to be patronized by us. Not true. If we lose that assumption, we can better serve others. More information can be found at the eponymous website.

One organization I like doing redevelopment is Plant with a Purpose. Another I really like that has moved from relief to rehabilitation is Samaritan's Purse. Here is a video of recent work by them.

I was also able to give towards the work of well drilling and repair in Haiti through Living Water International. I think I saw these guys at work the first time I was in Haiti.

Haiti - Right Now from Living Water International on Vimeo.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

book report: The Jesus Inquest by Charles Foster (2011)

Charles is very direct in the preface to his new book, The Jesus Inquest,
I saw that a common method of Christian argument was to say: "Professor Smith thinks that the Christians are correct, and he has an enormous brain and lots of degrees." That's the method of Lee Strobel uses, and I'm afraid it's not impressive...You don't decide the truth of propositions by comparing the brain weights of people who believe them with the brain weights of the people who don't. p.x
I agree with his premise, but I'm not sure it was necessary to throw Strobel under the bus. It's Strobel's personal story of coming to Christ, who is Foster to criticize it? I think his barb might better apply to McDowell's book, Evidence that demands a verdict, which is a very large outline in book form with abudnant quotes from everyone. But, again, McDowell is writing for a younger audience. Foster is writing for a more demanding audience. When he isn't writing apologetic books in defense of Christianity, he is a barrister, a lawyer in American english. He understands debate. He understands the best arguments come from the best understanding of the counter arguments. So he immersed himself in the critical literature, both skeptical and faithful and produced the arguments for and against the historical Jesus who died and rose again. The skeptical arguments are convincingly argued. He made me doubt. In fact, he admits in the epilogue that his research into the skeptical sources almost stumbled his faith. After every presentation of the skeptical position on the topic of the chapter, he puts on his other hat and counter argues for the orthodox historic understanding of Christ. He even dialogs with Muslim arguments against Christ's crucifixion. It's really good, but really hard reading, not because Foster is a bad writer, but technical arguments are generally boring to the mainstream audience. On the other hand, I'm sure specialists will complain he did not cover all the nuances, but at 384 pages, he couldn't go on and on. However, for the specialists, his footnotes are abundant so his sources can be checked and followed up.

He did not do much with my favorite defense, the martyrdom of the witnesses, basically one paragraph, but a good one. The two positions in the book are represented by X, the skeptic, and Y, the believer. He writes, as Y,
X acknowledges the bravery of these men [the martyred disciples]. But he says it wasn't the resurrection...that drove them. And he points out that the fact that people martyr themselves for a cause doesn't prove the truth of that cause...There is no parallel with the suicide bombers. They are in no position to know whether or not the cause for which they die is true. They simply believe it passionately and pathologically. To die for what you believe to be true is one thing; to die for what you know to be untrue is quite another. These early martyrs, remember, were the witnesses of what they were preaching. If the tomb was not really empty, they knew. If the resurrection appearances did not occur, they knew. If the resurrection appearances "occurred" only in a subjective sense, inside the heads and psyches of the individuals, they knew. If Christianity was bogus or evidentially shaky, they knew. pp. 259-260.
The finesse he puts on this argument is typical of most of those presented in the book, even those of the skeptic. Part of his finesse, is he is not an American inerrantist. He is comfortable with a Bible with mistakes in it. He does not attempt to harmonize things in the gospels that disagree. I want to give the writers the benefit of the doubt, that they weren't idiots, that they knew what each other wrote and even referenced common sources, so story conflicts, in my opinion, should be reconcilable. Also, he is comfortable with assuming the original end of Mark's gospel is lost. He probably won't get invited to many American evangelical conferences, but I'm sure the conservatives in England are perfectly comfortable with him. I hope I can get a skeptic to read this to tell me if the skeptical arguments are fairly presented, but like I said earlier, he had me doubting at some points.

Overall, if you are willing to wade into this book with your thinking cap on and your work boots laced up, I think you will get a great deal from it. It's not for the faint of heart.

Booksneeze gave me the book for review in exchange for my unbiased review.

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Saturday, February 05, 2011

book report: iShine Bible (NLT) for tweens

I wish I was a tween, because I would love this Bible. However, I am a parent of a tween and former tweens, and I have the tween boy Bible, not pink, and my tween would prefer the pink one. Nevertheless, there is much to like about this bible.
  1. I like the New Living Translation. It's very accessible to the tween reader
  2. I like the introductory chapters: What is the Bible?, Finding your identity in Jesus, Growing in Faith, The Bible Talks About
  3. I like the concluding chapters: Great Chapters of the Bible, Great Stories of the Bible, Great Verses of the Bible to Memorize
  4. I like these additions to the Bible because they provide focus to a young person who might be overwhelmed with such a long book
There is another aspect of this Bible that detracts from it just a little for this old man. That does not mean it will be a negative thing for a tween, but there are three sections in the Bible on thicker stock paper to draw the attention of a tween on the important topic identity.
  1. What matters to you?
  2. Who are you?
  3. Why are you here?
These are all good and theologically important. The discussion in those call out pages are orthodox and practical. My teens considered the stock photographs of teens dressed goofily to be uncool. I thought it made the editors point very well. Externals are temporary, but the internal is what will have eternal effects. Didn't Jesus say something about "white washed tombs"?

This bible is compact. It will fit easily in a backpack to bring to school or a Boy Scout campout. It is harder on old eyes like mine, but should be just fine for youngsters.

Tyndale provided this Bible to me for free in exchange for my unbiased review.
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Thursday, February 03, 2011

heaven and hell: places or not

Tony Jones has a new blog post today, Christian Universalism: Cosmology, in which he goes from being one of today's intelligentsia who look "curiously at earlier cultures, in which people believed that there was a physical place populated by damned souls and governed by demons. No longer can we say that Hell is “down” and Heaven is 'up.' ” I'm already feeling like the un-intelligentsia. He then tells us "it’s impossible to think of Heaven and Hell as places in the universe as we know it." I do have to interject that part of how I know the universe is from what God tells me about it. In some way, Jesus descended to hell to proclaim the gospel (1 Peter 3:19) and he ascended to heaven after 40 days in his resurrection body. He told the believing thief on the cross he would be with him in paradise, Luke 23:43. Those prepositions seem to indicate location and proximity. Since his body was physical, Thomas touching him and all, eating meals with his disciples and all, yet able to appear in rooms with locked doors, John 20:20-28 his body was supernatural. So when he ascended, did his body explode when he left the atmosphere if he went "up" in a physical body, or did he not achieve escape velocity and is still floating around? He went somewhere. Paul tells the Corinthians about our new body.
1 Cor. 15 51 Listen, I will tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – 15:52 in a moment, in the blinking 31 of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 15:53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. NET
It's still physical in some way. So physical bodies will be resurrected and will occupy space so they will be somewhere, some place. There are other options in Christian Orthodox theology as well, especially Eastern Orthodoxy on what the afterlife in hell and heaven will be like. In fact, I think all universalists should look at the Orthodox understanding of hell before committing to heretical theology. I first learned about it from the Huffington Post this past fall from an orthodox blogger there. I would think Mr. Jones would not have missed a religious post at that popular liberal news site.
However, this doctoral candidate in theology at Princeton, has not researched a major branch of Christianity, so he seems unaware of his orthodox options about hell. But he won't be stopped there. He tells us that since Jesus taught on heaven and hell with prepositions and directions, he was not as cosmologically informed as today's intelligentsia. This leads Mr. Jones to an important crisis,
So we’re left with this conundrum: What do we make of Jesus’ teachings on Heaven and Hell if he believed that he existed in a geocentric universe and lived on a flat Earth? This is not unlike the conundrum regarding the Gospel writers (and Jesus) diagnosing “Legion” with demon possession, when today we would most likely consider him beset by schizophrenia.
I think I got whiplash there. Where in the Bible did this doctoral candidate in theology at Princeton find out that Jesus believed in a flat earth and geocentrism? The Greeks understood the earth to be round 5 centuries or more before Jesus. As far as geocentrism, possibly, although I doubt it ever came up in conversation, however, spiritually, God, and therefore Jesus, loves the world very much, so God is focused, indeed, in a sense, on the earth. Furthermore, if Jesus's diagnosis of the man possessed by a legion of demons was wrong, why did his exorcism work? See Mark 5:1-20 and Luke 8:26-29. Again, Mr. Jones might benefit from associating with missionaries and priests who have dealt with demonized people. He could start with Anthony Hopkins popular movie, The Rite, recently reviewed by Ben Witherington. I'd say he could start by giving Jesus the benefit of the doubt. Maybe that gets driven out of doctoral candidates of theology at liberal seminaries. Since that option is not available to Mr. Jones, instead he concludes, "we must put their teachings in conversation with what we now know about the nature of the universe and the cosmos. We have to make them relate to our current understandings." So scientism wins. Yay for scientism. It must be better than Christianity, because we can see it with our own eyes, sort of. Some contemporary prophet sang,
All he believes are his eyes
And his eyes, they just tell him lies.
A guy healed by Jesus said, "I was blind but now I see." John 9:25. The intelligentsia of the day refused to give Jesus credit for the miracle. Jesus responded to them, John 9:40 Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this and asked him, “We are not blind too, are we?” 9:41 Jesus replied, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin, but now because you claim that you can see, your guilt remains.” NET Guilt means unforgiven, which means unrighteous, which means an eternity of hell. I'll stick with admitting my ignorance, my brokenness, my need for a great physician, who can heal my soul, who can grant me eternal life, who has a prescription for a lifestyle that reflects his holiness in increasing measure. But some highly educated theologians disagree with Jesus. History tends to repeat itself because we refuse to learn from other's mistakes. We tend to believe we are the exception. Only Jesus is exceptional