Wednesday, August 29, 2012

book response: Four Views on Paul from Zondervan (2012)

The multiple views books that Christian publishing houses are putting out lately, are very helpful to the church. They show how disagreeing believers (and an unbeliever in this book) can amicably discuss their differences, while affirming what they keep in common. This new book from Zondervan, Four views on the Apostle Paul, edited by Michael Bird, includes a Reformed Baptist, a Catholic, a post-new-perspective theologian, and a Jewish theologian.

I came to this topic fairly naive, so it was good that the Baptist, Thomas Schreiner, wrote the opening essay, because I was familiar with this baseline. I even own his commentary on Romans. The responses from the other authors tantalized me to read their own essays.

The second essay by Luke Timothy Johnson, a Catholic, was also very good. I'm becoming a "both/and" guy as I age and mellow out, so I didn't see anything that Johnson's Catholic perspective threatened me. Johnson is also a "both/and" guy, and says this is a Roman Catholic perspective, so he sees Schreiner's tree, but points to the rest of the forest of metaphors that Paul uses to describe God's plan for humanity.
The change that God effects in the world is a reality greater than any single discourse can capture ... In diplomatic language, the condition of distance from God is expressed in terms of alienation ... In economic language, the condition of distance from God is expressed in terms of slavery ... In forensic language, God is the righteous judge ... In cultic language, the human condition of separation from God is expressed by sin ... In kinship language, humans are potential heirs of God ... No single metaphor is the most important or governs the others . Paul uses them rather as roughly equivalent symbolic modes for expressing a reality that cannot be fully communicated by any of them . Indeed, Paul mixes the metaphors, so that the language from one logically distinct set finds a place within another (see, e .g ., Rom 5:1 – 8). 
That would preach. Schreiner and Johnson try to use the full scope of Paul's letters, even the disputed ones, to help the reader grasp Paul's priorities and theology. But then I start to get disappointed. It was bizarre to me that in his critique essay, Douglas Campbell, the post-new-perspectivist, accuses Johnson of slipping into Melancthon-ism, implying that Johnson, the Catholic, was falling into Lutheran theology.

However, I'm very interested in the New Perspective on Paul. Campbell tries to move beyond the New Perspective and focuses intensely on Romans 5-8. As Johnson and Schreiner point out, it's hard to capture the themes of Paul, if one only focuses on a part of one letter. Hence I was disappointed in the scope of Campbell's exegesis. He also referred to Karl Barth frequently. This behavior made me even more eager to attempt to read Barth, but I was also confused how Campbell could be post E.P. Sanders, the primary new perspectivist, yet refer to a theologian before Sanders? Doesn't that make him pre-new-perspective. Finally, after reading his essay, I felt like I hadn't learned anything. In his response, Schreiner doesn't even start with Campbell's essay, but with his universalism, which is not discussed in his essay. Johnson also seems perplexed in how to respond. He writes, "Professor Douglas Campbell’s essay is at once highly idiosyncratic and thoroughly conventional." Finally, Mark D. Nanos doesn't feel that Campbell does any better than the New Perspectivists in addressing Jewish concerns.

Mark Nanos' essay was elucidating. He points to all the ways that Paul retains his Jewish identity. But he seems to stress that point in the face of contrary evidence either in Paul's writings or the other New Testament writings. One example is his understanding of the occasion for Christ's execution, "Jesus was executed for being perceived to represent a threat to Roman order, likely because of fears of an uprising in the making." The Jewish gospel writers, John and Matthew are pretty clear, that it was the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem who were threatened, and both Roman leaders, Pilate and Herod, found no case in Rome's eyes, but granted an execution to keep the Jewish crowd placated. It's an ugly story, and it's been historically used against Jews in Christian pogroms, but those are the data from the New Testament writers. Schreiner and Johnson respond with many other examples of Paul's breaking of Torah for the sake of Gentile believers.

None of this is to say that I didn't learn from Nanos or Campbell. I wasn't persuaded, but I still learned a bigger view of Paul from this book.

I received a free review copy in PDF through NetGalley.
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Friday, August 17, 2012

book response: Autopsy of War by Parrish (2012)

The book description of Autopsy of War suggests this successful dermatologist, John Parrish, will look at his four decade struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a topic I've grown more interested in as I've read ever more soldier memoirs. But after reading more than two-thirds of it, I returned it to the library. I think there is a line between unflinching and exhibitionist, and only the second leaves me feeling slimy after experiencing it. He starts with his parents' childhoods and the awful upbringing of his father, his born-again conversion to Jesus, and his adult life as a successful, hypocritical, mentally ill, narcissistic, philandering preacher. The author repeats his father's example, but adds a few chapters of his time in Vietnam, and finds success in dermatology instead of preaching. I do not deny his reality of living with the stress of flashbacks to the war, his nightmares, his fear of helicopters, his emotional disconnection, as a result of PTSD, but he was a philanderer before the war, during the war, and when he returned from the war. I read up to the part where he talked about finally agreeing to be monogamous again with a woman in his field with a similar warped childhood, who understands him and accepts him with all his faults. He writes about his grief in how he hurts those he loves, but his writing makes sure that the injuries will never be forgotten. Again, he's not like his own father who also left an autobiographical manuscript behind, that the author is hurt too much by to finish. How does he think his own children will feel with this manuscript?

He reports that his own therapists consider him depressed and narcissistic. He tells story after story of impulsive, obsessive and compulsive activities. He includes a letter from the only was colleague he stayed in touch with, who tells the author that he keeps his Vietnam experience alive to use as an excuse for his ugly behaviors. This book certainly feels that way.

I'm grateful for Parrish's service to our country, and I applaud his success in the field of dermatology, but I wish he never wrote this book.
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Thursday, August 09, 2012

church: where gluttons point fingers at gays

The New York Times recently published an article highlighting a couple studies about human metabolism showing that only the first half of the mantra "eat less, exercise more" contributes to weight loss. It does not mean that exercise is not a good thing, but it's not a weight loss thing. Self-control is the key to weight loss. The Bible even speaks to this in Proverbs 23:2 and put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony. (NIV)

It's no secret that America has an obesity problem, and obesity is a symptom of gluttony. In the church's history, gluttony is viewed very severely, check out this definition from the Catholic Encyclopedia. Since America is mostly a church going nation, the American church, unsurprisingly, also has an obesity problem which indicates that it probably has a gluttony problem. Now some may claim that their genetics, and not the sin of gluttony, are the reason for their obesity. That could very well be, but a drastic reduction in calories can overcome most genetics. Some people resort to invasive surgery, and go under the knife which isn't much different than the above Proverb. On the other hand, some people are gluttonous in response to trauma in their lives, and choose this sin among other options. I'm reading a new Vietnam veteran memoir, Autopsy of War, and the author describes his outwardly successful father who was a military chaplain and a church pastor, who suffered from untreated PTSD, which manifested, among other ways, by compulsive snacking and smoking in the evenings, away from the eyes of his parishioners. He had a psychological symptom that he kept "in the closet." I confess to being a closeted glutton when it comes to chocolate chip cookies. I'm in the closet in that my BMI is just on this side of "healthy" but it wouldn't take too many binges of chocolate chip cookies to send me over that edge. Gluttony, like the other seven deadly sins, is complicated. I think this complexity, as well as it's prevalence, has resulted in the American church taking great tact in dealing with it, to the point of ignoring it. Some groups put a focus on healthy bodies, like the Seventh Day Adventists, and some churches focus on a regular practice of fasting for all members, like Eastern Orthodoxy.

All I'm saying is the American church has developed a high tolerance, abundant grace, for those among her who eat, in the words of Aquinas, "too soon, too expensively, too much, too eagerly, too daintily." She allows those guilty of such to pastor her people and live their lives as examples of Christ. Our motives for such grace are abundant, as I've listed above: our own guilt, our knowledge of underlying issues, our denial of the seriousness, our ignorance of the issue. There is another group among us, which certainly overlaps the gluttonous group, who also have appetites which the Bible also calls into restraint, gay Christians. In the same way that I am not endorsing wiping gluttony off the sin list, I am also not not arguing to strike sexual acts from those things God can or cannot judge. But maybe we can treat both sins with the same amount of grace and tolerance. And when we decide to apply Jesus's teaching in Matthew 18 and talk to our brother in sin, and fail in our quest, that we then treat our disagreeing comrades like Jesus treated tax collectors and Gentiles, with grace and tolerance.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

book reponse: Political Thought by Hunter Baker (2012)

Crossway has started publishing a promising series, all subtitled "A Student's Guide." This one by Hunter Baker, Political Thought, was briefly intriguing, frustrating, and enticing at the same time. In a short 100 pages it tries to lay the philosophical ground work for the major themes of political thought, order, freedom/liberty, and justice. He quotes Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, Locke, Mill, Rousseau, Hobbes, Rawls, Marx, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the TV show Lost. All this book can do is whet an appetite, which it did for me. I was underlining, writing counter arguments in the thin margins, asking questions out loud, and then suddenly I finished the book.

In the last section of the book, he writes specifically to the Christian student. It felt awkward for me to see him mention "satanic rebellion", which means, unfortunately, this helpful little book may not make it into public libraries. His conservative beliefs were mostly held back until the very end when he was writing to an audience I presume would agree with him.

This book successfully provoked me to seek to learn more about this topic I know so little about.
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Saturday, August 04, 2012

book response: Children of God by Mary Doria Russell (1998)

Cover of
Cover via Amazon
After tearing through Russell's first book, The Sparrow, I tore through it's sequel, Children of God as well. This book seems to be an even more intense meditation on the problem of evil. This may be why this book's pages did not turn as quickly as the first one, which is not to say it's a lesser book, it's just deeper.

Russell still does a good job at imagining the future. For example, everyone in the future in this book uses "ROM tablets" instead of iPads. The Pope in 2096 is a woman. In 2070, the Jesuits are allowed to advocate for birth control.

But the story picks up with recovery of the interstellar rape victim, Emilio Sandoz, and the ongoing question of why would God, if he exists, allow that to happen. Russell spends more time in the Hebrew scriptures in this book looking at all the angles to the problem of evil. Jeremiah comes up, the weeping prophet, who also wonders why God allows awful things to happen to his city and his people before his eyes. She also turns to rabbinic interpretations for explanations. I found this one insightful.

"There's a passage in Deuteronomy - God tells Moses, 'No one can see My face, but I will protect you with My hand until I have passed by you, and then I will remove My hand and you will see My back.' Remember that?"
Emilio nodded, listening.
"Well, I always thought that was physical metaphor," John said, "but, you know - I wonder now if it isn't really about time? Maybe that was God's way of telling us that we can never know His intentions, but as time goes on...we'll understand. We'll see where He was: we'll see His back." p.428

She doesn't neglect her Catholic sources either. "Like Saint Teresa said: If that's how God treats His friends, it's no wonder He's got so few of them." p.111 Despite all this religion in the book, it doesn't feel like a sermon, nor does it feel artificial, she is writing about Jesuit priests on a mission to Alpha Centauri after all. The theology comes naturally in the story, which I consider a rare talent. Sadly, she does not expect to write a third book, even at the request of her own son. As I've said before, I don't read many novels. But I do read about evil. I read history, particularly, those historical topics that cover our inhumanity towards each other. I also read theology, particularly the topic of evil. This book is a great intersection between those two genres and certainly provided entertainment like the other two genres do not.
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