Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Gilgamesh: The New Translation by Gerald J. Davis (Book Review #81 of 2015)

Gilgamesh: The New Translation
I followed this book with Irving Finkel's The Ark Before Noah, an account of discovering and translating recently uncovered cuneiform tablets, and the difficulty of translating ancient Sumerian, Akkadian, and Babylonian works. I recommend Finkel's book if you're interested in the history and scholarly debate around the various translations and meanings of the Gilgamesh tale. The original work is belived to originate in 2500-2000 B.C. and the earliest tablet dates to 1700-1800 B.C.

Davis prefaces his translation by noting which accounts were considered to have originated from which time period, some may have been unrelated but written as a sort of parallel. He apparently takes quite a few liberties with the translation to make the narrative flow, but maintains the poetic repetition of verses that are repeated. I suppose it compares roughly with the Iliad or the Odyssey. My main motivation in reading this is because I've recently been studying Genesis more closely and wanted to compare the flood narratives. The flood makes up a relatively minor part of the Gilgamesh tale, and it's fairly evident to even a lay reader like myself that it's an older tradition woven into the "newer" Gilgamesh epic. In listening to Gilgamesh, I was reminded of C.S. Lewis statement about how he came to the Bible in his memoir Surprised by Joy: He'd spent a lifetime familiar with the ancient myths and could clearly recognize that the stories in the Bible were not myths, they're quite different.

The Gilgamesh text is filled with gods of every aspect of nature, they quarrel, scheme, are surprised, and have other human qualities. The text is ultimately about Gilgamesh's quest to become immortal, like the gods. Gilgamesh is an ancient king of Uruk and god-like in his qualities. He was known for his cruelty, having sex with every wife, killing every husband, and being roundly unfair. A goddess makes a man named Enkidu to humble Gilgamesh through battle. Enkidu lives like a wild beast until tamed by intercourse with a temple prostitute who leads him to Uruk to confront Gilgamesh. (Scholars apparently believe that ancient Mesopotamian culture believed a boy became a man in a ritual engagement with a prostitute, a practice that I can note is still alive and well in nearby countries like Azerbaijan.)

Gilgamesh and Enkidu wrestle but eventually become lifelong companions, engaging as warriors together. They unite against Humbaba, defender of the cedars. Gilgamesh constantly prays and offers homage to the sun God Shamash for favor. There are several instances of dreams and interpretation by either Enkidu or Gilgamesh. Together they kill Humbaba and then are challenged by the goddess Ishtar's bringing the bull of heaven to earth after Gilgamesh rejects Ishtar's marriage proposal. The friends slay the bull and offer his heart to Shamash, after which the gods demand retribution.

Enkidu has a foreboding dream immediately followed by an illness in which he dies. Gilgamesh mourns for his comrade until he sees a maggot crawl out of his nose, after which he buries him (this detail is repeated a few times). Gilgamesh is inconsolable and rages against the world, seeking an explanation as to why his friend had to die and why he doesn't die with him. Shamash eventually has pity on Gilgamesh.

Gilgamesh meets Utnapisthim, an immortal who somehow survived the flood and was given the secrets of the gods, which he then tells to Gilgamesh. The flood was intended to quiet the clamor of man which had annoyed the gods. The god Ea told him to build an ark, and he quickly gathered craftsmen and others to build it in 5 days and made sure to take his gold with him (who would need gold after the world was destroyed?). The gods are surprised by the amount and brutality of the flood and seem to argue with each other about the consequences and who is to blame. Afterwards, Enlil grants Utnapishtim and his wife immortality.

Utnapishtim's wife tells Gilgamesh where to find a plant on the bottom of the sea that will keep him eternally young, but a serpent then steals the fruit and Gilgamesh is left weeping for his mortality. Oddly, the story continues with Tablet 12 which seems like a parallel or additional story, in which Gilgamesh loses his ball in the underworld and is again crying for his loss. His friend Enkidu agrees to go and retrieve it for him and later answers questions about the condition of Gilgamesh's family and the various types of people one may find in the underworld.

Gilgamesh is eventually granted a sort of immortality by the gods, being granted lordship of the underworld. I am not sure if this was in the original tale, its various renditions, or if the author just made it up for a different ending.

This is an ancient compilation of even more ancient texts, so my rating goes on the translation-- which I had to read other accounts to find out. 4 stars?  Worth reading and wondering.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Book Review #80 of 2015)

Between the World and Me
Ta-Nehisi Coates' old blog on The Atlantic website was one of the best on the internet. I didn't subscribe to The Atlantic just because of his work, but I considered his work a bonus and supporting his work and blog through a subscription fee was a joy for me. He interacted with readers in the Comments and it became a community. Now that he has a NY Times #1 bestseller, having him comment on one of my comments was like an "almost famous" moment. Coates' writing on the Civil War and how deeply he moved he was by reading U.S. Grant's deathbed memoirs is an enduring memory. Whenever someone breaks out the herring "the Civil War wasn't primarily about slavery," his writing inevitably comes up in a subsequent Google search.

This (very short) book reads like a lot of his writing, honest and stream-of-thought but also insightful and full of questions. It's also full of his ability to portray emotional moments in print very vividly, in this case dealing with injustice, mourning, and fear. "They will take your body..." The book is written as a letter to his son and it's mostly an explanation of where his father is coming from (Baltimore with all that comes with it). We're close enough in age that we have some similar memories of the 1980s, and I wonder if some of his comments are universal to that period rather than purely the perspective of a black man. I recommend listening to him read it, I was glad my library got a digital audio copy quickly.

Early in life, Coates' forebears taught him to question as a ritual rather than as a quest for certainty, that was a big takeaway for me. His delving into black history, including African history, reminds us that history isn't clear, it's messy. But he asks the questions in his childhood that someone raised in a privileged white neighborhood would not have asked, like "Why are the heroes of black history month alone non-violent?" The subtle message is that whites have communicated their dominant position in such subtle ways, where they do not do it overtly through politics, the police, or other means.

One irony of Coates' memoir is that even though he disparages the "American Dream" as a myth, he is living it. His son's standard of living will be higher than his, which was higher than his father's and his father's father's and so on. He doesn't mention that he never graduated from Howard, even though he learned as much (or more) than many who did. His parents were intellectuals who were able to introduce him to a wide range of counter-cultural ideas, including the atheism he still embraces. He was able to both luck and work to the top and is now being awarded monetarily and socially for writing this book-- hard to do anywhere outside America. He learns French and visits France and naively does not understand that a black person there, or a brown-skinned person, etc. will be stuck in a class system that is more restrictive than anything in America-- just ask the teenage Muslims who riot from time to time. (As I write this there is an article out in a business journal about how the youngest French company listed on their exchange was formed prior than the 1970s; entrenched elitist system dominated by whites.) Indeed, Coates and his family eventually ponder that at least some of French wealth was built on enslaved workers in colonies. That is why people from the rest of the world still clamor to get in here, mythical or not Coates is a shining example of why.

 "They made us into a race but we made us into a people." In the end, Coates' quest is to find his own tribe that is characterized more by common ideas than race. That certainly seems more American than anything else I've read lately. I am somewhat disturbed that from this he will go on to write Black Panther comic books for Marvel, and that it's being hailed as a good thing. Coates' love of comics is mostly absent from these pages, but I guess elevating comics as a source of truth is just another legacy of the Children of the 80's.

 In all, I give this book 4 stars out of 5. It touched me emotionally as a father and helped me be more aware of the unspoken tension in my own neighborhood, as well as the obligations I have as someone who claims to believe in justice.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Podcast of the Week (9/26 - 10/3, 2015) Child Soldiers and ISIS and "Learned Helplessness"

I've been busy so didn't get around to posting one last week. Here are a couple who stand out over the last few weeks:
Middle East Week is a podcast covering what its name suggests. In this episode (9/1/2015) Dr. John Horland is interviewed on how ISIS recruits and utilizes child soldiers. This is the iTunes link.

Another offering is from You Are Not so Smart examining how we learn and unlearn how to be helpless. A professor describes a classroom experiment she designed where she tricks students into believing they can't perform a task. Experiments with dogs show that they can become discouraged not to try again. How do we overcome this cognitive bias? Here is an overview and you can link around to recent episodes covering the topic:


Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg (Book Review #79 of 2015)

When reading through books and podcasts I keep a chart in my mind of the books most oft-cited which I have not yet read. This one has been in the #1 spot, cited as a must-read by a wide range of people I've heard in the past year from pastors to Silicon Valley types on Tim Ferriss' show to body builders. I have already read a lot of Dan Arielly and other behavioral economics works that overlap quite a bit with this one, and there are countless articles out there examining the same type of brain research that Duhig highlights in this work. Perhaps the over-saturation of that field in the media makes this book unremarkable, it's probably the lowest-rated book that is the most widely-read. Nonetheless, you can learn things a lot in this book, find promises that you can overcome any habit, and ask some deep questions about how culpable we are if our brains have predisposed us to bad habits.

Every habit has a cue and a reward, chemical or otherwise. To change a habit, recognize the cue/trigger and the underlying reasons for how it makes you feel. Identify the reward, what is it that makes it attractive? Whether habitually eating or biting fingernails or compulsive gambling, it all works essentially the same neurologically. Another key ingredient is either optimism--the belief, religious or otherwise, that things will get better and that you can succeed or the fear or knowledge that if you don't change, there may be irreparable harm. You have to identify the various feedback loops of your behavior first.

Change happens in groups, you need to be a part of a community of like-minded people to encourage you, challenge you, and hold you accountable. (There are obvious church membership lessons here, more later). Even social networks help, a lot of "weak ties" are shown to have more influence than a few "strong ties." So, posting your fitness result pictures on Facebook for all to like or comment on is good motivation to change. Exercise itself is a "keystone habit" that has spillovers to other parts of life. Studies have found that those who build an exercise habit have an easier time making changes in other areas as well-- budgeting, eating, sleeping, saving money, etc. All habits have spillover effects-- developing a positive habit in one area helps you establish more in others. The "willpower workout" in building one habit helps you build/break others.

Besides community there are other helps, like building structures to help maintain a habit. Writing out a plan for how you're going to work out and what you're going to do every day instead of getting the mocha latte. You have to have a plan to "get over the hump," the pain that is change. You need to focus on small wins, don't suffer from learned helplessness.

Duhig tells a series of stories in this book, the first of which deal with research involving brain injury patients. Even when patients' working memories were damaged to not being able to retain anything for more than a few minutes, they still contained their habits and responded to cues. One fascinating story of a hospital patient who repeatedly ripped out his IVs upon waking up involved nurses praising him for sitting still and his habitual response to positive reinforcement.

There are plenty of corporate stories from marketing Pepsodent and Febreze. Pepsodent became a worldwide brand by essentially selling that tingly feeling you feel in your mouth after you brush-- that's what makes you think it's clean, even though it has nothing to do with it. Soon, all other brands added similar chemicals to their toothpastes to create that same sensation. The cue is the film you feel on your teeth (which everyone has all the time anyway) and the reward is the tingly sensation. Think about how you judge how well you've brushed your teeth-- it's that feeling, whether or not you've missed most of your teeth or not. Similarly, Febreze is selling you the smell of a a clean room or clothes, not necessarily clean clothes. Duhigg writes that companies are now experimenting similarly with sensations of sunscreen.

Another story Duhigg tells is that of Alcoa under Paul O'Neill, who was singularly focused on safety. As the emphasis was pushed, accidents fell, morale grew while the bottom line improved. O'Neill suffered a couple times under government, where change is hard and institutional routines have set in and people behave like mindless drones. Institutional habits help curb rivalries and maintain the status quo, but to stay sane the people inside the bureacracy build their own habits and communication networks to help them survive. I know this all too well...

Starbucks helps employees train by training employees to have a plan for what they will do when faced with stressful situations or customers. The story of one addict whose life was changed by working at Starbucks is highlighted. Music companies expoit our brains by concocting songs with beats that conform to what other hits have sounded like, allowing algorithms to predict the success of a song. Then, the companies work to make it go "viral" by guaranteeing airplay at certain key times. The "stickiness" factor of songs is interesting. Target's data scientists are interviewed about how they famously know when someone is pregnant, etc.

In sports, Duhigg tells the tale of Tony Dungy, who Duhigg holds to have revolutionized coaching by having players use the same cues and same rewards but establish new habits. Dungy turned Tampa Bay into winners but was fired after the team lost close playoff games, after which he won a Super Bowl with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. Dungy's players "broke down" in high-pressure moments and the book never explains the "why" other than the team not maintaining a belief that things would get better--crucial to maintaining a habit. After the tragic loss of his son, the mentality of his Colts team changed and they seemed to rally around their coach and his own belief, on to a Super Bowl.

Duhigg also highlights Rick Warren's Saddleback Church, interviewing him on how he got started. Warren looked at starting a church in one of the fastest-growing areas of the country where the biggest complaint seemed to be that there were "no churches large enough" to accomodate the demand; I suspect most were small and could not benefit from the economies of scale of large churches. Warren focused on groups and not individuals, if you are able to convert a group you'll have those weak-tie network effects-- eventually Saddleback became the church everyone wanted to be. Warren battled depression and eventually focused on discipleship, teaching "habits of faith" so that church members could grow in the Word and hold each other accountable. Hence he started small groups in home which helped reach the greater community. He developed curriculum to help the small groups study the Bible instead of just spending 10 minutes on the Bible and prayer and another hour chatting. Duhigg holds Warren up as someone who is interested at changing the habits of "societies," large groups of people by focusing on smaller groups.

The last chapters of the book again look at brain research and raise some important ethical and legal considerations. Electronic devices shorting out signals from the basal ganglia in the brain have shown to help alcoholics develop new habits, particularly if they build up other structures like group therapy. Should we fault the addict who lacks access to these resources? The brains of those with Parkinson's who can't control their tremors look the same in scans as those of a compulsive gambler. When we see a Parkinson's patient we say "He can't help it," but to the gambler we say "It's all her fault." A person suffering night terrors cannot remember what happened, and some people suffer from this and sleepwalking their entire lives; Duhigg tells of one person acquitted of murder due to his accidental killing of his wife during one such episode.

"If you believe in change then your habit becomes what you choose for it to be." I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. There is interesting information here, some of which you have probably read elsewhere. But if not, definitely pick the book up.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Exegetical Fallacies by D.A. Carson (Book Review #78 of 2015)

Exegetical Fallacies
I didn't learn to read my Bible until late in life, and I'm convinced most Christians in "Bible-believing" churches do not because they are not taught how to. Everyone tends to believe that their "doctrine" is correct, or the true doctrine. Where another's disagrees, he must be wrong. When we adhere to "doctrine," it gets replicated and multiplied and no one thinks critically about what awe believe and adhere to. This was made depressingly clear to me in a recent book I read about a former pastor who became an atheist in part because he realized no one around him, himself included, actually knew what the Bible was.

As Carson writes (p. 11):

    "It is all too easy to read the traditional interpretations we have received from others into the text of Scripture. Then we may unwittingly transfer the authority of Scripture to our traditional interpretations and invest them with a false, even an idolatrous, degree of certainty. Because traditions are reshaped as they are passed on, after a while we may drift far from God's Word while still insisting all our theological opinions are 'biblical' and therefore true."

Southern Baptist churches in particular err in teaching the Bible through Sunday school lessons that break up the text and tell the reader what it means rather than have the reader ask questions of the text himself. I've lost count of seminary students I know who were amazed that when they learned how to study the text, they suddenly realized they'd misunderstood or wrongly believed a meaning of a particular text all these years. Alas, very few of them teach their congregation other than demonstrating proper exegesis from the pulpit. But Exegetical Fallacies has to be a humbling read for even the most well-trained, because so many of the scholars Carson is critiquing are career professionals in biblical study. He notes fallacies that his own seminary professors made.

This is not the first book I would recommend to one who wants to learn how to read the Bible (See Fee and Stuart's How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, for starters). Carson's work is a seminary-level text for which some knowledge of Greek is expected and biblical interpretation is already a habit. I have neither formal training nor do I know Greek. The value of this book to me is inoculation against against the common forms of poor exegesis or logical fallacies that those writing various books and commentaries make frequently. I can now read more skeptically various commentaries and Sunday school lessons that I look to for insight. I can also hold the Word of God more delicately, humbled at how hard it is to truly understand meaning through the distance of time, language, and culture. But I can also be more confident as Carson critiques the logical fallacies that post-modern "new" interpreters make in saying the meaning of a text cannot be known because of the personal lens I look through to see it.

"The sensitive student may ask, 'If there are so many exegetical traps, so many hermeneutical pitfalls, how can I ever be confident that I am rightly interpreting and preaching the Scriptures? How can I avoid the dreadful burden of teaching untruth, of laying on the consciences of Christ's people things Christ does not himself impose, or removing what he insists should be borne? How much damage might I do by my ignorance and exegetical clumsiness?'

To such students, I can only say that you will make more mistakes if you fail to embark on such a study as this than you will if you face the tough questions and improve your skills" (p. 14).

The book is a hodgepodge, with some topics given lengthy treatment and others only mentioned or glossed over. Some of the gems are where Carson outlines his own arguments against someone else's exegesis, making his argument. It is filled with dry wit. You might open it to the Index first, and be amazed at the wide range of biblical passages, authors, and topics addressed in such a short book. I gleaned bits about specific topics, texts, and just a greater overall appreciation for Biblical translation than I had prior to reading it.

Some of my highlights. First, Carson's motivation (p. 11):

The fact remains that among those who believe the canonical sixty-six books are nothing less than the Word of God written there is a disturbing array of mutually incompatible theological opinions. Robert K. Johnston has a point when he writes:
'[That] evangelicals, all claiming a Biblical norm, are reaching contradictory theological formulations on many of the major issues they are addressing suggests the problematic nature of their present understanding of theological interpretation. To argue that the Bible is authoritative, but to be unable to come to anything like agreement on what it says (even with those who share an evangelical commitment), is self-defeating.'"

The world is skeptical about the Bible because they see mutually exclusive claims to truth on basic tenets of those who supposedly see it as the inerrant word of God.

The difference between exegesis and hermeneutics (p. 15):

(E)xegesis is concerned with actually interpreting the text, whereas hermeneutics is concerned with the nature of the interpretative process. Exegesis concludes by saying, This passage means such and such"; hermeneutics ends by saying, 'This interpretative process is constituted by the following techniques and preunderstandings.' Hermeneutics is an important discipline in its own right, ideally it is never an end in itself: it serves exegesis."

The challenge of distanciation (p. 15):
"Whenever we try to understand the thought of a text (or of another person, for that matter), if we are to understand it critically-that is, not in some arbitrary fashion, but with sound reasons, and as the author meant it in the first place-we must first of all grasp the nature and degree of the differences that separate our understanding from the understanding of the text
Failure to go through the distanciation before the fusion usually means there has been no real fusion: the interpreter thinks he knows what the text means, but all too often he or she has simply imposed his own thoughts onto the text."
Picked up again on p. 60:
"Unless we recognize the 'distance' that separates us from the text being studied, we will overlook differences of outlook, vocabulary, interest; and quite unwittingly we will read our mental baggage into the text without pausing to ask if that is appropriate.
This does not mean real knowledge is impossible. Rather, it means that real knowledge is close to impossible if we fail to recognize our own assumptions, questions, interests, and biases; but if we recognize them and, in dialogue with the text, seek to make allowances for them, we will be better able to avoid confusing our own world-views with those of the biblical writers." 

What, then, of the post-modern "new hermeneutic" who argue it's impossible for any of us to interpret a text due to our "baggage?" (p.72-73, emphasis mine):
"The new hermeneutic breaks down the strong subject/object disjunction characteristic of older hermeneutical theory. The interpreter who approaches a text, it is argued, already brings along a certain amount of cultural, linguistic, and ethical baggage. Even the questions the interpreter tries to ask (or fails to ask) of the text reflect the limitations imposed by that baggage; they will in some measure shape the kind of "responses" that can come back from the text and the interpreter's understanding of them.
But these responses thereby shape the mental baggage the interpreter is carrying, so that in the next round the kinds of questions addressed to the text will be slightly different, and will therefore generate a fresh series of responses-and so on, and so on. Thus, a "hermeneutical circle" is set up.
Such absolute relativism is not only unnecessary, but also self-contradictory; for the authors of such views expect us to understand the meaning of their articles! Whatever the problems raised by the new hermeneutic, we have learned much from these developments. In particular, we have been forced to recognize that distanciation is an important part of coming to grips with any text: the interpreter must "distance" his or her own horizon of understanding from that of the text. When the differences are more clearly perceived, then it becomes possible to approach the text with greater sensitivity than would otherwise be the case."
What is the solution to the apparent paradox? First, have humility about what we actually know or can know. Second is to do the best you can using historical sources (p. 74):

"But if we sometimes read our own theology into the text, the solution is not to retreat to an attempted neutrality, to try to make one's mind a tabula rasa so we may listen to the text without bias. It cannot be done, and it is a fallacy to think it can be. We must rather discern what our prejudices are and make allowances for them; and meanwhile we should learn all the historical theology we can."

I'm not certain which seminary Carson is criticizing here, but I can guess:
"One well-known seminary insists that proper exegetical method will guarantee such a high quality of exegesis that historical theology may be safely ignored."

There are good examples of how Carson deals with difficult passages regarding polity. There is a good section on logical fallacies and a few on common specific errors that people make regarding the Greek. I enjoyed this book, it gave me a greater appreciation of biblical scholarship. I do not know if he dealt with all topics properly or if he should have paid more attention to certain issues. I learned a lot and the more I learn the more I will return to this book. 4.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Does Prayer Change Things? by R.C. Sproul (Book Review #77 of 2015)

Does Prayer Change Things? (Crucial Questions Series)

This is a great, short book that I would recommend to anyone asking "Why do we pray? What's the point if God is omniscient? How do we pray?" Ligonier has made this and others free for Kindle, so I highly recommend adding it to your library today.

Sproul writes (spoiler alert):
"Things change, and they change according to His sovereign will, which He exercises through secondary means and secondary activities. The prayer of His people is one of the means He uses to bring things to pass in this world. So if you ask me whether prayer changes things, I answer with an unhesitating 'Yes!'" (Loc. 100)

"Prayer, like everything else in the Christian life, is for God's glory and for our benefit, in that order" (Loc. 64). Prayer reminds us that God is in control, we are not, and He is sovereign over every circumstance of the universe as it unfolds.

"If I thought even for one moment that a single molecule were running loose in the universe outside the control and domain of almighty God, I wouldn't sleep tonight" (Loc. 44)...God's sovereignty casts no shadow over the prayer of adoration. God's foreknowledge or determinate counsel does not negate the prayer of praise" (Loc. 73). 

Prayer intrinsically changes us and our attitudes.
"What prayer most often changes is the wickedness and the hardness of our own hearts. That alone would be reason enough to pray, even if none of the other reasons were valid or true" (Loc. 119).
"Prayer prompts and nurtures obedience, putting the heart into the proper 'frame of mind' to desire obedience" (Loc. 15).
"Peter did not pray, and as a result he fell into temptation. What is true of Peter is true of all of us...we fall in private before we ever fall in public" (Loc. 37).

When we pray we acknowledge that God gave us a way to Him through Jesus and that we are loved and accepted and forgiven because of Christ:
"When God promises us that He will forgive us, we insult His integrity when we refuse to accept it. To forgive ourselves after God has forgiven us is a duty as well as a privilege" (Loc. 291). 

But if God is omniscient and knows what I need before I ask, why bother praying? Foremost, because God commands us to:
"Regardless of whether prayer does any good, if God commands us to pray, we must pray" (Loc. 50). Prayer is about maintaining a relationship with someone who we are to love more than any other:
"Spurgeon said that 'the proud sinner wants Christ, and his own parties; Christ, and his own lusts; Christ, and his own waywardness. The one who is truly poor in spirit wants only Christ'" (Loc. 519).

(Perhaps my favorite quote:)
"Yes, He knows what is in my mind, but I still have the privilege of articulating to Him what is there (Loc. 70)...If God knows what I'm going to say before I say it, His knowledge, rather than limiting my prayer, enhances the beauty of my praise (Loc. 75)...I may not understand the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, but I do realize that what stems from the wickedness of my own heart may not be assigned to the will of God...There will always be a conflict between divine sovereignty and human autonomy. There is never a conflict between divine sovereignty and human freedom (Loc. 110).

Sproul recommends the ACTS acronym of prayer, Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication, and unpacks each biblically. Ultimately, we become better at prayer only by praying: "To become accomplished in anything, we must practice. If we want to learn how to pray, then we must pray-and continue to pray" (Loc. 632).

One seeming contradiction is Sproul's earlier mention that Jesus modeled for his disciples praying to God as "Daddy" in Aramaic, which would have been shocking and heretical. But that's the relationship we have now through Christ. However, Sproul returns later and scolds those who "would speak (to God) as if to a friend at a baseball game" (Loc. 369). "We should not come rushing into God's presence arrogantly, assaulting Him with our petty requests, forgetting whom we are addressing" (Loc. 235).

Even with that minor point I would not hesitate to give this book to anyone; it'd be the first I'd recommend on the subject. I would like to read Tim Keller's recent book on prayer before the year is up. Unfortunately, my time reading is often time spent not praying, and that is something I have struggled with. Prayer is one of the hardest things for me to do. 4.5 stars out of 5. 

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Hope After Faith: An Atheist Pastor's Journey by Jerry DeWitt (Book Review #76 of 2015)

Hope After Faith: An Atheist's Pastor Journey from Belief to Atheism

If you're looking for a book by a Christian pastor who researched all the arguments for Christianity and atheism, delved deep into science and philosophy, consulted with experts in biblical interpretation, and reached a rational conclusion that Christianity can't be true-- this book is NOT it. In fact, I'm skeptical Jerry DeWitt will remain an atheist just because he's been so gullible to change by a range of charlatans and seems to embrace the beliefs found in whatever book he happens to open. The lack of logic, introspection, and research in this book is truly frustrating. Richard Dawkins and others endorsing Jerry as some sort of hero for atheism is pretty sad because anyone reading this book should be repelled by his ignorance both about his prior faith and his current atheism.

The book is really no more interesting than if it had been a former professing Christian atheist engineer or accountant or politician who became the atheist-- and those happen every day. But attach the title "pastor" and I guess it sells the book. Really, DeWitt was only a "pastor" late in his career after he'd already decided the Bible was mostly mythical. Previously, he had been an "evangelist," a traveling itinerant preacher or a fill-in, hoping eventually to have his own church. There is very little "pastoring" in the book. My previous book review was for a book on biblical qualifications for the title of elder/pastor; DeWitt is lacking many, which is an indictment of the groups who thrust him into the pulpit.

Several other reviewers nailed it: it's hard to like a book that is so self-centered and lacked a decent editor to remove the mundane details like breakfast foods and DeWitt's first airplane ride (as an adult). This book is all about Jerry. Jerry gets mad at God for not answering prayers as Jerry wants. He gets frustrated with God not being who he thought he was-- rarely consulting with anyone else about his concerns. He's self-centered in how he describes the churches he preached at, criticizing the manners of those he encounters, criticizing every kind act anyone made toward him, the architecture of the buildings, how little they put in the offering plate, etc. In the end, when his wife has had enough of the drop-everything-on-a-whim life he lets her leave because "it was best for me." We're supposed to feel sorry for him in the end because his community won't accept him as an atheist. He never stops to realize that it's precisely because he spent years preaching at them not to trust or have anything to do with godless atheists. They're behaving exactly as he told them they should. Yet, he seems to completely lack any social thinking skills-- it's all about him-- so he sees this as unfair.

The danger of this book is that it paints a stereotype of the Christian church that atheists may love to believe but is far from the reality. There are no benevolence ministries, clothes closets, counseling services, soup kitchens, foreign aid, schools, small-group studies, or universities built in this book-- which leaves out a huge amount of what the Church has done for the last 2,000 years. Churches in Jerry's world are apparently places people go to get something in return for giving money or trying hard to live a "pure" life and never become biblically literate (more on that below). God is some sort of piggy bank that will dispense what you're looking for if you just shake hard enough-- sort of like a Green Lantern approach to faith and foreign either to the Bible or historical orthodox Christianity.

Jerry DeWitt's biggest error is that he is too self-centered to seek help from friends or potential mentors in this book, and that leads to even greater hardship and frustration. He's thrust into the limelight at age 17 and never gets any training. He just assumes he must be right, and when he makes contradictory decisions on his journey he doesn't understand why people don't follow. He wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about his "five step" journey from minister to atheist that makes no sense to anyone because the sources he cites are so obscure. Most people reading this have never heard of William Branham or the Branhamite cult, for example; most Christians are waiting for Jesus to return, not Bill Branham, David Koresh, or some other dead American who claimed to be a prophet. DeWitt comes across such random sources, believes them to be true, and embraces them until he exhausts any rationality and then abruptly moves on to something else. Also, the idea that every Christian exploring science and logic will abandon religion is also nonsense, as shown by the odd course that DeWitt lays out. Contrast this with Mike McHargue of the podcast "Ask Science Mike," whose story you can read here: http://kernelmag.dailydot.com/issue-s...
Or with former atheist philosopher Anthony Flew, or C.S. Lewis, or a variety of PhD physicists and philosophers who still subscribe to Christianity, etc.

DeWitt admits he never learned how to read a Bible, only becoming "painfully aware" late in his life that it didn't just "drop from the sky" and actually "was written by human authors." This should not come as a surprise to anyone who claims to be a teacher of the Bible and it creates frustration for the reader as Jerry talks like he is among an elite few who have made this "discovery." When he gives up his faith in the Bible he points to one alleged contradiction-- the number of the stalls of Solomon's horses between 1 Kings 4:26 (40,000) and 2 Chron. 9:25 (4,000). There are a lot of easy explanations for this ranging from copyist error (the books were written at different times) to 4,000 stalls having chambers holding 10 horses each, etc. But my first response is "really?" Of all the things about the Bible he might have raised, this is it? Some detail that has no bearing on the meaning of the text at hand? And he never wants consults any of the volumes written on apologetics, I doubt he could explain the difference between a paradox and a contradiction. He has never learned Greek, Hebrew, history, philosophy, or any of the staples of the Western canon and orthodox Christianity that should be a staple of a pastor. He never seems to ask why the King James Version is the "only" version of his reading. Read some G.K. Chesterton, or C.S. Lewis, or N.T. Wright or William Lane Craig someone--anyone-- other than blindly follow a cult leader who claims Ephesians 2:20 is about him, for crying out loud. It's remarkable to me that DeWitt has the issue with Solomon's chariots but never examines there are a multitude of errors and logical contradictions in his new favorite books- including God is Not Great (which I have also read and reviewed).

“Skepticism is my nature;
Freethought is my methodology;
Agnosticism is my conclusion;
Atheism is my opinion;
Humanism is my motivation."
- Jerry DeWitt

There are contradictions in the above that speak for themselves, nonsense that he thinks sounds good.

I know of no biblical church that tries to hide behind history, and plenty of Christians are well read in the history of how the Bible was written and trained in exegesis and hermeneutics-- two words I think DeWitt doesn't know. If anything, this book is a scary reminder that there are groups claiming to be "churches" out there where errors have multiplied themselves tenfold precisely because they make some kid their leader based on his charismatic ability to speak. To DeWitt's credit, he avoids using the word "Christian" and uses "Pentecostal" instead, hinting that he'd agree with me that his experience is nothing like biblical Christianity. But he uses "mainstream Christianity believes..." in too many sentences before following with something orthodox Christianity does not teach (and no one I know adheres to or claims the Bible includes) for me to give him a pass.

I think DeWitt hides some ethical problems in this memoir. Towards the end, he takes on a pastoral role of a Korean Presbyterian church at the same time reading Joseph Miller has convinced him Christianity is mythology. Presbyterian churches require pastors to affirm the creeds of the church, which DeWitt-- if he was honest-- would not be able to do. Maybe he wanted to believe those things, but never did, so he likely lied in order to obtain and keep the position. He considers himself more enlightened than the congregation and continues the charade in order to "encourage" them.

Sadly, he doesn't discover "grace" until the end of the book and actually considers himself heterodox for embracing it. "The Gospel" is not a phrase you will read in this book. The gospel tells us that no amount of our own attempts to be holy earn us any favor with God; we can know God only because His son died for our sins and was resurrected (Jerry never investigates how the resurrection has held up under great historical scrutiny over the centuries). We are chosen by God not because of anything He has done, and He works things for His glory-- not our wishes. But perhaps because this grace is so contrary to the Pentacostalism he was raised with, he feels he has no choice but to leave. (If anything, this book will turn you off to anything with the word Pentacostal in it).

So, I took notes on the entire book but this review is long enough and I will simply save the details for myself. I give this book one star out of five. Poorly written, badly edited, self-centered, and not much you can learn from. If anything, you may find yourself yelling at the author to get an education; that may sound mean, but that's what it boiled down to for me. 1 star.