Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Wealthy Family by B. Chase Chandler (Book Review #35 of 2015)


The Wealthy Family
I received this book from the publisher in exchange for my "willingness to provide an honest and thoughtful review."

Up front, the reader should know that the core of Chandler's financial strategy is to invest in mutual company whole life insurance. This is called "infinite banking" by R. Nelson Nash from whom Chandler got the strategy (a term Chandler doesn't use). I will critique that at the end of this review. While presenting this idea to the reader, Chandler also provides a critique of Dave Ramsey and other financial advisors/gurus' common advice.

I have read (and written reviews for) a large number of the books Chandler draws wisdom from in the book. He and I might have been friends in another life. Taleb, Kahneman, Gladwell, Ariely, Thiel, and others have also impacted my thinking. I even keep the "Eisenhower productivity matrix" (which Chandler incorrectly attributes to Steven Covey) visible in my office. But I have also read Austrian "economists" Murray Rothbard and Gary North and found their "blind spots" glaring. I give credit to Chandler's tone, he largely does not engage in the polemics that those authors frequently do, but he still can't avoid making grandiose statements like  "if we want to change the world, we need people to read my writings" (65). Given his offense at one reviewer's critique of a previous book on Amazon, I suppose I'm setting myself up for future vilification by writing this. Chandler also can't avoid the Austrian script of "Over the past forty years, they have seen the value of their dollar take a massive decline. Simply put, money does not buy what it used to buy (think in terms of college, cars, housing, and medicine). Today, the Fed is printing money like it's going out of style" (p. 20). In real terms (like average hours worked to obtain the item), many medicines, medical services, home appliances, cars, etc. have never been cheaper. (See Mark Perry's post at AEI for some examples between 1959, 1973, and 2013.)

I often play the "Peter Schiff is right" YouTube videos for undergraduates to remind them that conventional wisdom is often wrong and to debunk the hindsight bias of "everyone knew housing prices would go down." But Austrian economists, whether Peter Schiff or others, are always "proven right" when the cyclical economy turns downward-- it doesn't matter if they predicted it would happen years ago or not. Chandler neglects to mention they are always predicting hyperinflation just around the corner that never seems to materialize and that Schiff and others have lost money recently betting heavily on gold. Nobody is perfect.

The first half of the book is a critique of thinking and sort of an overview of behavioral economics and productivity. There are some good quotes you would expect from a life coach: "Failure is not and never has been analogous to defeat...failure is the price to pay for future success--the trade-off now for eventual victory" (41). He has a step-by-step process for making decisions that I endorse (p. 98). His guide to productivity at the end is similar to many others-- exercise four times a week, pray/meditate 10 minutes/day, etc. (Aside: I am surprised Tim Ferriss isn't on Chandler's reading list.) A lot of this is really just fluff that one could take out of a book related to financial planning. In fact, unless you're already familiar with Fooled by Randomness, Antifragile, and other books he cites you should read those first or you won't really grasp what he's talking about.

Most helpful is his critique of Dave Ramsey's frequent assumption of 12% average annual growth in a mutual fund. I have taught Financial Peace before and it's always something that bothers me. Actively-managed funds do not beat index funds in performance and they charge higher fees. I have not met a financial advisor who actually knows or admits that. I disagree, however, that Ramsey "failed to learn the most valuable: that wealth cannot be created by playing it safe" (p. 275). Ramsey advocates building wealth through real estate, something in his sphere of expertise, which involves plenty of risk. He also encourages entrepreneurship (see the podcast EntreLeadership) and highlights risk-takers. Chandler gives credit to Ramsey on personal debt: "However intensely I disagree with Dave Ramsey on investing and insurance, he is indeed dead-on on debt," but later writes that debt is a useful tool in buying a house, particularly if your savings can earn a greater return than your cost of borrowing (207).

He does help the lay reader understand the difference between a compound annual growth rate and average annual rate of return, how to use a discount rate, calculate future and present values, etc.

Finally, he unveils the foundational strategy of using whole life insurance as your primary savings vehicle. "Mutual Company Permanent Life Insurance (MCPLI) is probably the least understood asset, especially by financial “gurus” and the general public" (320). "MCPLI is bar none one of the most effective assets in the U.S. today and why you should make it the foundation of your aggregate plan," (302). If that's the case, why doesn't everyone do it? Because "they" don't want you to know about it: "the Street has a vested interest in keeping things the way they are. If word were to get out about the cost of their strategies contrasted with the cost of other more valuable strategies, they'd be in a world of hurt" (323). This might be so, but it's also worth pointing out that none of the non-Austrian school unconventional thinkers (Kahneman, Taleb, etc.) that Chandler cites are known to advocate or use this strategy.

While I had heard of infinite banking before, Chandler's is the first explanation of how it works with a case study written for a specific small business that is utilizing it as part of their cash management plan. I was disappointed that he did not address known criticisms, that makes me more skeptical of his motives. First, in the book, he avoids much discussion of Roth IRAs and their advantages over tax-deferred IRAs. That seems to be a glaring omission. Chandler sets out to show that the CAGR with an MCPLI plan is competitive with an IRA after you factor in fees (321). His chart on page 322 shows fees ranging from 0.5% to 3%. If he was really out to help the investor, he'd point out that funds like Vanguard don't charge anywhere near 3%. The 457 plan my employer offers has a cap on what fees can be, and it shrinks as a percentage over time. There are other various tax avoidance strategies associated with Roth IRAs that make them more attractive to the MCPLI plan, all else equal, that Chandler neglects to mention.

Secondly, Chandler never mentions that most people do not stick with whole life policies as long as they set out to. Unemployment and other events happen. Insurance companies love selling these policies for this reason. In his discussion of term life insurance, he also neglects to include return-of-premium policies in the analysis.

Third, in Chandler's "private economic system," the saver has to put a relatively large amount of money into the MCPLI plan to make it work (and yet it's "not expensive"). His example on page 310 of a 35 year old putting away $24,000/year for 25 years into a MCPLI seems a bit unrealistic. I'm 35 years old and $24,000/year is greater than 1/3 of my AGI-- that's not going to happen for my family. I assume his target audience are people earning too much money to be able to contribute fully to a Roth IRA or other vehicles. Perhaps if you've fully funded your Roth IRA or your Roth 401(k), 529 college savings plan, and other vehicles and have $24,000 left over then his plan works for you. The case study he presents (p. 327) is for a firm which is able to put away $750,000 every year (p.336-337) into the MCPLI. If you're a company that's extremely confident of your ability to generate that much revenue over that sustained a period, then sign up. Chandler should have stated outright: This is for high income individuals looking for some place else to put their money.

Lastly, Chandler writes that mutual insurance companies have been around for 150 years and are therefore safe. But this goes back to Taleb's turkey problem-- with 364 days of data, the turkey believes the farmer is his friend who is going to feed him; he finds out otherwise on Thanksgiving. In other words, there are some fat tails (Taleb's Antifragile philosophy has all kinds of practical flimsiness, as much as I appreciate using it for theoretical analysis) the reader should beware of. If you've put your money in the bank, it's FDIC insured up to $250,000. You're not getting the favorable tax treatment and growth you might get in a MCPLI, but it's worth mentioning. Some Austrians warn of the day the government can't afford to bail out all the banks in a large economic catastrophe. But how likely do you think it is that the insurance companies would be unaffected relative to the banks enough to make you whole?

His neglect of the above points leads me to think he's hiding the ball intentionally.

There is always a bit of shallowness to these types of financial planning books. My family's goal is admittedly a bit different than other readers. I could not afford to sustain the whole life policy perpetually as I've chosen to forego an amount of income and savings in order to better provide for a special-needs child and pursue a career path that takes me outside the U.S.

With all of the above considered, I give the book 2.5 stars out of 5. Again, I agree with his reading list and productivity hacks, but I think they could be left out of a book on financial advice seemingly written to the layperson (explaining time value of money and such). If you have fully explored all of your tax-favorable savings options (and looked at details he leaves out of this book) and still want to put money into a whole life plan, then I'm sure you'll have no trouble finding someone willing to sell it to you.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Unglued by Lysa Terkeurst (Book Review #34 of 2015)


Unglued: Making Wise Choices in the Midst of Raw Emotions
This book was a free download at ChristianAudio.com a while back. My wife listened to it and found it to be a fairly accurate description of how she often thinks and feels; she recommended I listen as well. (Men, if you're not reading books that speak to your wife then I suggest you're not connecting with her like you could/should.) I am reading Brad Bigney's Gospel Treason at the same time, which is primarily about idols like pride and sense of self-worth as being the root of our conflicts, and find a lot of common ground between the two books. (Bigney would call the sources of our false thinking and lies ultimately our idols of pride and acceptance by others.)

I will address the weakness of the book first, although I think a highly critical review I read at The Gospel Coalition (TGC) is overblown. Critics argue that Terkeurst is weak on the Gospel, and I agree to a point. First, this book was written for an already-Christian (predominantly female) audience. I found it no different than books which discuss spiritual disciplines, communication, leadership, etc. We don't always have to make every book we read or write a deep theological treatise to pass some critic's litmus test. Second, the book is subtitled "Making Wise Choices," and needs to be viewed in this frame. It is ultimately a presentation of principles for having crucial conversations with people, understanding the root of your defensive and hostile emotions, and how to use Scripture to combat false thoughts and "inside chatter" that come from your deceitful heart. It is not a pep talk and Terkeurst doesn't advocate severing painful relationships-- she espouses using Scripture to combat lies we tell ourselves, focused prayer, practicing a Sabbath, and practicing Ephesians 4:32. That said, she avoids calling angry outbursts at others and performing for self and others instead as for the Lord "sin" or acknowledge it is a result of our fallen, sinful natures.

Terkeurst also grates on some in the Reformed crowd because she calls this process of sanctification "imperfect progress." Whitacre writes: "God is not clearly presented as the holy judge of the universe who demands perfection (not “imperfect progress”) and who justly pours out his wrath on sinners." That's because Terkeurst understands Christ bore the full brunt of God's wrath on the cross and now that we are imputed with His righteousness there is no condemnation for us. 2 Corinthians 3:18 says "And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit." Not that we are BEING transformed, the process continues. Ephesians 2:10, which Terkeurst repeatedly cites reminds us that we are God's workmanship. The Apostles wrote epistles to the church to remind them that the Christian life requires daily discipline lived out in community. Jesus reminds us that our cross must be taken up "daily" (Luke 9:23). Hebrews 3, 1 Thessalonians 5 and other passages are written to admonish Christians to encourage one another daily, to pray without ceasing, etc. 1 John reminds us that anyone who says he is without sin is lying, hence the life we lead is progress and we make mistakes along the way--imperfect progress. John Piper has his phone send him a daily reminder with the text of Ephesians 4:32. If a giant in the faith like Piper still needs that reminder frequently, might we all?

How does one live that out while dealing with critics, disobedient children, cultural expectations, etc. in the 21st century? That's what Terkeurst is addressing. Could she have reminded readers more frequently that it's only Christ on the cross that tears the veil that gives us access to God a little more? Sure.

My biggest criticism of this book is that it references so few other books, which is a problem of Christian pop culture (the Bigney book above and most others in the last decade guilty of the same). Some parts of Unglued reminded me of Ann Voskamp's 1,000 Gifts, but that book was neither referenced nor mentioned, although I've seen Terkeurst recommend that book elsewhere (perhaps she hadn't read it yet). The best books inspire you to read other books, and Unglued does not.

Terkeurst writes that we should examine our emotions and reminds us that we do not have proper perspective on this earth of how God is working things for our good and His glory. Job did not know his possessions would be restored and multiplied. While in prison, Joseph did not know he'd be elevated to rule the land and save his people. Only time perspective can give us that.

We're always faced with critics and the biggest critic is often ourselves. I wish Terkeurst had used the idol language that Brad Bigney did. Our self-esteem or how we want to be seen by others are often idols. "Labels only stick if we let them," is a good reminder that our identify is in Christ alone (Romans 8:1). We have to identify what is actually true, and the only way to do that is by meditating and memorizing Scripture. Scripture is the sword we use to combat doubt and the "inside chatter" that tells us we're not good enough, or not really forgiven, or not really loved. "Don't buy the lie that you will always be a slave to emotions and false thinking," our minds are being conformed and transformed (Romans 12:1-2).

At the same time we're being honest with ourselves, we have to be honest with others. Terkeurst terms communicating with a combination of honesty and humility "soul integrity." This is where Ephesians 6:19 comes in. Make the gospel known whenever you open your mouth. Don't explode. Think through things with the godly honesty of soul integrity. (There was quite a bit of similar advice to Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People here):
1. Begin by honoring the person who is offending you. (God loves them.) Forgiveness is mandatory but reconciliation is not.
2. Keep your response short and full of grace. (Acknowledge their hurt, complaint).
3. End by extending compassion. Offer love. Don't fake it.
She closes the book with an example of an email one of her staff crafted to someone who was upset with something said on her radio program.

Before responding, take a quiet time out. Make the choice to turn to God and cast your burden on Him. Memorize scripture, keep it on 3x5 cards with you wherever you go so that you're thinking rightly. See past the emotion to what you really want (this seemed almost like plagiarism from Crucial Conversations). Don't "stuff the hurt" and sever the relationship. We will not always see eye-to-eye with everyone who is beneficial to us. We all have blind spots of ignorance to where we're either hurting others or being socially awkward-- but we need people to love us unconditionally. Therefore, don't confuse silence with godliness. "Don't build barriers but do have boundaries." You can't change the other person, but you can pray and ask God to help you empathize with their hurt and where they're coming from. You can also pray that god will help remove the pain from this relationship/situation, even if that means taking them out of your life.

There's a reminder for marriage-- conflicts grow a relationship. If we all agreed with each other all the time, we'd be lying and never learning or growing. So long as there is trust in the relationship, conflict is good.
Always be sure to take your expectations to God and compare them with Scripture. Too often, Terkeurst found she had not met her husbands expectations in her mind, when later (after exploding on him in an ungodly fashion) she found out he didn't have those expectations-- they were all a figment of her mind and deceitful heart.

In moments of crisis remember:
1. Who you are (in Christ).
2. Redirect your focus to Jesus. This involves praying deliberately in the moment.
3. Recognize that God's job isn't your job. Trust and obey.
4. Shift from attitude to gratitude. Give thanks repeatedly in all situations. (again, like Voskamp, but never mentions her)
5. "My actions determine my reach." How you handle the crisis determines who and how you impact. 

She gives good questions to ask yourself when you get an angry email or a sense that something is amiss from someone. Ask yourself: Did someone really say this, or am I making it up? Am I putting words in their mouth? Am I immersed in the truth of God's word? Have I taken a Sabbath rest to meditate on truth and scripture? (Remind yourself on the sabbath to find the good on the non-sabbath.) Where am I going my own way instead of with God? What idle words are going out that I'm going to give an account for in the end?

When others "unglue," remember to show the grace to them that you wish they'd show you. Understand their hurt comes from something else-- it's not all about you.

In all, I give this book 3 stars out of 5. I wish she had drawn from other reference points, or cited all her sources. The lack of her Gospel emphasis was also a minus. Her words and advice are similar to so many others, but put in a style that appeals to Christian women who feel they have too many expectations heaped upon them. This book brought me closer to my wife by helping me understand how she thinks and the temptations she faces from the "inside chatter" of false expectations and wrong thinking. I'd be curious to read Made to Crave or her other works.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Podcast of the Week (4/19 - 4/25, 2015) Mark 1 with @thomasjones and Dr. Rodney Reeves: Dry Bones Dance


Dr. Rodney Reeves had a big impact on my thinking and approach to Scripture when I lived in Bolivar, MO. You have never heard better sermons on Paul, and Reeves' books both on the Gospels and Paul's epistles are good reads. A fellow podcast enthusiast, Tom Jones, had the epiphany of recording a verse-by-verse conversation about the Bible and began recording conversations with Reeves going verse-by-verse through the Gospel of Mark. He calls the series Dry Bones Dance.
This past week, I spent time absorbing their conversations about Mark 1. I've spent the last 6 months or so studying Mark and am glad to add these conversations to a list of commentaries I'd recommend. Mark 1 and 2 are available via iTunes and the entire series is found here. Enjoy.




Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Workout Wednesday: What Should I Do for Leg Day? Free workout options that work well.

"Friends don't let friends skip Leg Day." One to three days a week can be devoted to your lower body, and how you do it depends on whether you are a runner or other athlete (see Tim Ferriss' 4-Hour Body). I recommend devoting at least one day a week to an intense Leg Day routine.
One simple method is the Faleev model of doing deadlifts and squats. I found this problematic to do at home, however, because I don't have a squat rack and generally just didn't enjoy deadlift-only days.

So, here are five that I do at home that I highly recommend, in the order of intensity and recommendation:

1. Fitness Blender's Mass Workout for Legs (free, Youtube). 35 minutes w/out warmup,stretch.
This is the most intense you-will-be-sore-tomorrow Leg Day routine I do. Daniel uses a barbell but for most exercises you can also use dumbbells. He moves quickly through 4 super sets:

4 Groups of 2 exercises
Three times through per group

Group One:
Squats
Deadlifts

Group Two:
Lunges
Hip Raises (go for 10-12 reps)

Group Three: (I usually switch to dumbbells on the third time b/c my neck hurts).
Side Lunges
Calf Raises (go for 10-15 reps)

Group Four:
Single Leg Squats*
Squat Jumps (go for 10-12)

* I like to modify the single leg squats using Tony Horton's Accelerated workout's Warrior 3 squats (see below), so it's 15 reps on each leg each time.

2. Jillian Michaels Killer Buns & Thighs. (This is available for streaming on Amazon).
Level 2. Level 2 is harder than Level 3, especially if you modify it just slightly with weights where Jillian doesn't use them. This is a combination of resistance and plyometrics. A 40-minute workout that sets my heart rate monitor off toward the end as I hit what it thinks is my max heart rate (Insanity doesn't do that). You'll need a chair or bench for doing steps (add weights) and a pair of dumbbells.
Trust me, it's worth it.

3. Fitness Blender's Brutal Butt & Thigh Workout- Drop it Like a Squat! (free, YouTube)
5 Groups of 2 Exercises
AB / AB Format
10 Reps
30 Minutes Total (no warm-up)
What makes it slightly harder are the "active rests" in which you can jog, do burpees, or other cardio to boost your heart rate.

4. Tony Horton's P90X3 DVD Workout - Base Kit Eccentric Lower.
It is not as intense as Eccentric Upper, but is a 30-minute resistance workout with dumbbells (or bands) for lower body that works well. Focus on your form. I recommend adding some ankle weights for the pilates-style part at the end. I use the warmup from this workout for all of the routines above.

5. Fitness Blender's Butt and Thigh Workout - Cardio, Plyo, Pilates and Strength Training Workout for Lower Body (free, YouTube). 35 minutes, warm-up/cool-down included.
6 Groups of two exercises
40 Seconds on, 15 off, X 2
I recommend using heavier weight, like a barbell, for the weighted bridges.
Definitely recommend ankle weights for the pilates-style leg lifts at the end.

6. Tony Horton Accelerated Lower Body Workout (free, YouTube).
Just 5 moves, 10 minutes to do.
I will sometimes add this to all the above. Light dumbbells are helpful.
DS Double L
Warrior 3 Squats
Sumo Squat Kicks
Moon Dog
Bounding Split Squats

7. P90X Legs & Back
This routine is more intense for the pull-ups than the leg routine, but it's still good. If you have an hour of time and a pull-up bar, go for it.

What do you do for Leg Day?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The United States and the Middle East 1914- 9/11/2001 by Salim Yaqub (Book Review #33 of 2015)


The United States and the Middle East: 1914 to 9/11

This is a set of 24 lectures by The Teaching Company giving an overview of U.S. involvement in the Middle East in the 20th century. Yaqub earned a PhD from Yale and his old biography at the Wilson Center suggests this book sums up his published arguments and research interests.

As a prerequisite, I recommend Albert Hourani's History of the Arab Peoples (goes from 600 - 1991 A.D). For more detailed information on William Yale and U.S. involvement in World War I and the Zionist movement during that period I recommend Scott Anderson's excellent Lawrence in Arabia (2014). My knowledge of American relations with the Jewish people and the Palestinian question was shaped by chapters in the second half of Freedom from Fear by David Kennedy. For a look at the U.S.-Turkey-Iranian relationship with a tangent on the Palestinian peace process, I suggest Kinzer's Reset. There are a host of books dealing with the U.S.'s relationship with Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the 1991 Gulf War. You might try Prelude to Terror by Joseph Trento for a jaded view on the CIA's involvement that Yaqub can only touch on. There are several works written in the 1800s by American missionaries and diplomats to the Middle East that are available on Gutenberg and elsewhere. Yaqub could easily add five more lectures since 9/11.

Although the devil may be in the details, these lectures (and accompanying note outlines) give a good overview of Middle Eastern policy mostly divided up by the terms of U.S. presidents. The student can better understand the disintegration of the Ottoman empire, the triumphs and trials of Zionism, the rise of Arab nationalism, and the effects of each American president's policies in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Before World War II, and definitely before 1914, American involvement was largely commercial and missionary. Yaqub provides good documentation of missionary schools and hospitals and the headaches created for U.S. diplomats trying to assist citizens in times of trouble. After WWII, insuring stability, preventing communism, and safeguarding oil became the driving forces of each administration.

Yaqub gives much attention to Abdel Nasser's often tenuous relationship with the U.S. from seizing the Suez Canal after U.S. rejection of aid for the Aswan Dam to the Six Day War of 1967. Nasser is the face of Arab nationalism and the mold in which many leaders seem to have followed. Yaqub does a good job tracing the history of Israel and the Zionist movement, as well as the plight of Palestinian Arabs from 1914. I appreciated that he included a lecture on the Kurds, looking at their history with modern Turkey and importance in Iraq policy. They are one of the few nationless minorities mentioned, which is unfortunate.

Yaqub contrasts policies of various presidents (most of whom experienced deep and consequential failures). LBJ, for example, cozied to the Shah of Iran and to Saudi Arabia and offered little criticism of their internal human rights abuses at the same in contrast to Kennedy. Nixon was too distracted by Watergate to be trusted with any decisions during the Yom Kippur War, so Kissinger had ultimate authority. Carter was bent on peace in Palestine and defunding the military abroad but ramped up defense spending after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Reagan's Lebanon fiasco and Iran-Contra are rehashed. The 1991 Iraq war and aftermath are also revisited. The Clinton years and his effort with Arafat and Barak to make piece are somewhat critiqued. Yaqub posits that Barak's offer was less generous than Clinton and history give him credit for. Yaqub helpfully includes a lecture on Afghanistan and its history up to 9/11.

The weakness of the series is that there is little mention of Yemen, not a great deal of focus on Syria outside of its wars with Israel, and nothing the economic rise of the Emirates. Libya is not technically in the Middle East but has been important in Middle East policy and counterterrorism since the 1980s; it gets one mention. Those countries are not in Yaqub's research interests so they are noticeably absent.

The accompanying notes are quite helpful, but the lectures themselves could have been edited better for quality. I give it 3.5 stars out of 5. If you're looking for a primer on U.S. policy in the Middle East, this is a good place to start.


Monday, April 20, 2015

Documents of the Christian Church by Bettenson and Maunder (Book Review #32 of 2015)


Documents of the Christian Church
This book compiles ancient and modern documents produced by the church and theologians marking historic points in the development of the Church (predominantly the Western Church and then British towards the end) into modern English. The editors have included a few notes on translation as well as very brief comments on the dates and historical context. But this is not a stand-alone history text, it's a supplement. My help in understanding the context came primarily from Cantor's Civilization of the Middle Ages as well as the ongoing History of the Christian Church podcast (currently through the Reformation) and to a lesser extent The Birth of Classical Europe by Price and Thoneman. R.C. Sproul's Are We Together analyzing Catholicism was helpful in understanding development of Catholic doctrine and some details about the various Councils and Papal bulls. I had also recently read Augustine's Confessions and City of God along with brief biographies of Luther, Calvin, and Aquinas in recent years that contributed help in some sections (as well as the The Swans are Not Silent biography sketch series by John Piper).

My quest to read and learn about Christian history comes from a conviction that we are far too ignorant of research, wrestlings, and conclusions reached by our ancestors 50 years ago, much less 500-1500 years ago. People have been interpreting and writing commentaries on Scripture since the second century but these are only rarely read by academics and their relevance never grasped by modern Christians. How did we reach the doctrines our denominations have today, and when did they begin to differ? How do we avoid repeating history if we're ignorant of it? We hear a lot about heresies and false doctrines, but could we recognize them if we read them in the original (the English translation of the original anyway)? Have you ever read Luther's Ninety-Five Theses or read Calvin in the original? If not, you may call yourself a Calvinist but unexpectedly find yourself more in line with Arminius' official positions than Calvin's.

But when you select the documents to include, how do you decide what makes the cut? How do you decide which portions are the most relevant? No editor can make everyone happy.

The first edition of this was published in 1967 (edited by the late Henry Bettenson). Part I looks at the record we have of the early church from fathers and secular sources to more theological writings up to the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The first documents in Section I are by the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius on the persecution of Christians circa 60 AD. The important correspondence between Pliny the Younger and Trajan regarding the trial and martyrdom of Christians in the second century, excepts of Justin Martyr's Apologia (c. 150), and Tertullian's writing against heresies cropping up give a picture into early church life.

Tertullian's comments (circa 200) on how Greek philosophy was corrupting Christian doctrine echo through to modern times:
"Away with all projects for a ‘Stoic,' a ‘Platonic' or a ‘dialectic' Christianity! After Christ Jesus we desire no subtle theories, no acute enquiries after the gospel..." (p. 7)

Clement of Alexandria offering a different take (c. 200):
"But it may be, indeed, that philosophy was given to the Greeks immediately and primarily, until the Lord should call the Greeks. For philosophy was a ‘schoolmaster' to bring the Greek mind to Christ, as the Law brought the Hebrews." (p. 7)

There is a lengthy excerpt from The Martyrdom of Polycarp (c. 155) and Eusibius' rocrds of the persecution at Lyons and Vinne (c. 177) that show all was not well between Christians, the Roman state, and the locals offended by Christian custom and worship.

Eusebius' records are proof that Christian persecution had its intense and calm periods depending on the whims of the Emporors and their regional proxies. Christian worship was made legal under Gallienus and briefly under Diocletian before Diocletian changed his mind (c. 303). The Edict of Milan in 313 did not make Christianity the official religion of the state, as is often claimed, but rather granted everyone freedom to worship with Christians in somewhat of a favored status:

"When we, Constantine and Licinius, Emperors, met at Milan in
conference concerning the welfare and security of the realm, we
decided that of the things that are of profit to all mankind, the
worship of God ought rightly to be our first and chiefest care, and that
it was right that Christians and all others should have freedom to
follow the kind of religion they favoured; so that the God who dwells
in heaven might be propitious to us and to all under our rule." (p. 17)

Section II prints the earliest recorded Creeds from several sources. Section III the tradition of the Elders (like Papias, c. 130) about the Gospels and their authorship. Section IV the earliest writings on the person of Christ (Ignatius, Irenaeus, Athanasius, etc.). Translating from Greek to Latin involves dealing with subtleties in the language that muddled definitions.

Very helpful were the early documents,  statements by theologians, bishops, and councils on the various heresies, starting with Docetism (The assertion that Christ did not actually suffer in the flesh), the various forms of gnosticism, Nestorianism, and others. The editors provide brief explanations and definitions that are quite helpful.

Section VI reprints the battle between Pelagius and Augustine over human nature, sin, and grace. The Synod of Arles (c. 473) and "Semi-Pelagianism," etc. VII reprints the earliest records we have on the sacraments (c. 95) and the development of orthodoxy and a look at how the early church worshipped. Justin from 150 A.D.:
"And on the day which is called the day of the sun there is an assembly of all who live in the towns or in the country; and the memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits. Then the reader ceases, and the president speaks, admonishing us and exhorting us to imitate these excellent examples. Then we arise all together and offer prayers; and, as we said before, when we have concluded our prayer, bread is brought, and wine and water, and the president in like manner offers up prayers and thanksgivings with all his might; and the people assent with Amen; and there is the distribution and partaking by all of the Eucharistic elements; and to them that are not present they are sent by the hand of the deacons. And they that are prosperous and wish to do so give what they will, each after his choice. What is collected is deposited with the president, who gives aid to the orphans and widows and such as are in want by reason of sickness or other cause; and to those also that are in prison, and to strangers from abroad, in fact to all that are in need he is a protector." (p. 73).

Clement of Rome's epistle to the Corinthians (c. 95) offer a good post-script on what happened long after Paul signed 2 Corinthians. The Didache is reprinted as well.

Some documents give a little context for the rise of the church authority in Rome, but it is evident from all the document histories that the Roman bishop increasingly gains power and influence. Irenaeus' chronicle of succession gives a timeline from Apostles to the Roman see of his day. Eventually we get to the development of Papal power and authority.

A nice addition is Xection X, which includes Christian inscriptions found in cemetaries and other places in the 3rd-4th centuries. Some of these give evidence of infant baptism.


Part II is 451 to the Present. It opens with the breach between East and West, and from there on the West is the primary focus of the documents. Charlemagne's relationship with Rome is chronicled in Section II, Section IV reprints the Condordat of Worms (1122) that ended the battle over investiture with Henry V. Various Papal bulls and correspondance with monarchs are preserved.

Section III looks at the various forms of Monasticism and the rules the orders of St. Benedict and St. Francis followed. Section IV looked at the controversy over using "secular" authorities to execute church judgments (the Inquisition). Section VI nicely reprints the apologetics of the Scholastics movement, and a tiny amount of Thomas Aquinas' work is reprinted.

Benedictine:
"A monastery should, if possible, be so arranged that everything necessary—that is, water, a mill, a garden, a bakery—may be available, and different trades be carried on, within the monastery; so that there shall be no need for the monks to wander about outside. For this is not at all good for their souls" (p. 140).

Rule of St. Francis:
"As the wage of their labour they may receive corporal necessities for themselves and their brothers but not coin nor money, and this with humility, as is fitting for servants of God, and followers of holy poverty" (p. 143).

Section VII is "The Church in England Until the Reformation," which includes clashes between the monarchs and Rome as well as events leading up to the Magna Carta circa 1215. Wycliffe's condemnation (1382) is included. The Lollards, where were precursors to the Reformers, reached interesting "Conclusions." Among them, Christians following a government to war was sin:

"That manslaughter in war, or by pretended law of justice for a temporal cause, without spiritual revelation, is expressly contrary to the New Testament, which indeed is the law of grace and full of mercies. This conclusion is openly proved by the examples of Christ’s preaching here on earth, for he specially taught a man to love his enemies, and to show them pity, and not to slay them" (p. 197).

Sections VIII and IX deal with the Reformation on the Continent and England accordingly. The Bull Unigenitus of Clement VI, which established the sale of indulgences and outraged Luther is included, along with several of the Ninety-Five Theses (1517). 

From Luther's Two Treatises (1520):
"If the article of our faith is right, ‘I believe in the holy Christian Church,' the Pope cannot alone be right; else we must say, ‘I believe in the Pope of Rome,' and reduce the Christian Church to one man, which is a devilish and damnable heresy. Besides that, we are all priests, as I have said, and have all one faith, one Gospel, one Sacrament; how then should we not have the power of discerning and judging what is right or wrong in matters of faith?" (p. 217).

Luther's original prayer book and instruction to clergy is included as well as the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. These include what prayers to teach everyone, crossing one's self when praying, and other items (p. 221):
"Private confession, which alone is practised, though it cannot be proved from Scripture, is wholly commendable, useful and indeed necessary. I would not have it cease, but rather I rejoice that it exists in the Church of Christ, for it is the one and only remedy for troubled consciences. … The one thing that I abhor is the employment of confes-sion to further the despotism and the exactions of the pontiffs."

"On this I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen" (p. 224).

Section II has some brief excerpts from Calvin and the development of Calvinism, with this interesting comment from the editor on Calvin's Institutes (p. 236):
"Calvin’s genius was for organization rather than theological speculation."

From Calvin, who seems to be critiquing Augustine's view of God's foreknowledge and predestination (p. 237):
"No one who wishes to be thought religious dares outright to deny predestination, by which God chooses some for the hope of life, and condemns others to eternal death. But men entangle it with captious quibbles; and especially those who make foreknowledge the ground of it...By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he has decided in his own mind what he wishes to happen in the case of each individual. For all men are not created on an equal footing, but for some eternal life is pre-ordained, for others eternal damnation."

The Five Articles of the Remonstrants (Arminius) are printed in Section IV. The main difference "grace is not irresistible;" (p. 283).

also:
"by no guile or violence of Satan can they be led astray or plucked from Christ's hands [John x. 28]. But for the question whether they are not able through sloth or negligence to forsake the beginning of their life in Christ, to embrace again this present world, to depart from the holy doctrine once delivered to them, to lose their good conscience and to neglect grace—this must be the subject of more exact inquiry in the Holy Scriptures, before we can teach it with full confidence of our mind...
Semipelagians admit the necessity of prevenient interior grace for single acts, even for the beginning of faith; and they are heretics in this, that they wish grace to be of such a kind as human will can resist or obey." (p. 284).


Later sections deal with the battles between Reformeds and Catholics, and the persecution that Reformed believers faced and various attempts to keep the peace:

"We forbid all our subjects, of whatever rank or condition, to take children of this religion, by force or persuasion, to be baptized or confirmed in the Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church; the same being forbidden to those of the so-called Reformed Religion, under penalty of exceptionally severe punishment. XXI. Books concerning this religion are not to be printed and exposed for sale save in towns and districts where the public practice of the said religion is allowed" (Edict of Nantes, 240).

Section X has documents from the Catholic Counter-Reformation, including the Council of Trent. Eventually, the Catholic Church works out the Doctrine of Immaculate Conception (that Mary was born sinless) and that the Pope is infallible (1870).

Section XI and XII deals with British churches from 1600-1900, the battle between the Puritans and Monarchists. Excerpts of original Presbyterian orders and Baptist confessions of faith are reproduced to highlight their distinctives. Baptists (323-324):

"Not only those that do actually profess faith and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one or both believing parents, are to be baptized. … Grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed to it, as that … all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated...Being thus joined, every Church hath power given them from Christ, for their well-being to choose among themselves meet persons for elders and deacons … and none have power to impose on them either these or any other...The way and manner of dispensing this ordinance, is dipping or plunging the body under water. It, being a sign, must answer the things signified; which is, that interest the saints have in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, and that as certainly as the body is buried under water, and risen again, so certainly shall the bodies of the saints be raised by the power of Christ."

I found George Fox's original 15 propositions of Quaker belief (Section XII) to be interesting and disturbing. I did not realize they held Scripture in such low esteem, it is subordinate to internal emotional revelation. Wesley's original Methodism as an attempt at reform of the Anglican church, which he considered himself a member of, is highlighted.

Many of the documents highlight the differences between the Anglican church and Rome. Roman Catholicism dealt with social problems as well, I found this from an encyclical of Leo XIII in 1891 against Socialism to be of note:
"The possession of private property is a right given to man by nature. … There is no reason why the directing power of the state should be brought in; for man is prior to the state, and therefore he must have had by nature the right to preserve his life and person before any community was organized..." (p. 291).

This fourth edition was updated in 2011 by Chris Maunder to include releases from Vatican II, the development of liberation theology and feminism, and how certain denominations addressed nuclear non-proliferation, AIDS, abortion, Jewish relations, New Age-ism, homosexuality, and the environment in the 1980s and 1990s.

Most interesting from the last chapters were Karl Barth and German theologians wrestling with resistance against Nazi Germany. The Barmen declaration is reproduced.

Maunder's choices and comments indicate he has no esteem for Baptists and other large denominations in America outside of Anglicans and Catholics, except when citing Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letters from a Birmingham Jail. He discounts the work and resolution of any non-ecumenical body except for British Methodists and Anglicans. Methodist resolutions on the New Age movement were deemed worthy to cite. I think Maunder's choices are unfortunate and detract from the book. Certainly less space could have been given these modern texts and more to the ancient, more consequential ones. Still, as Anglicans, Methodists, and Catholics retreat on certain social issues it's interesting to look back at these documents even from the 1990s and see how fast social change is happening.

In all, I give this work 3.5 stars out of 5. I recommend it as a reference on anyone's shelf.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (Book Review #31 of 2015)

A History of the Arab Peoples
Albert Hourani - A History of the Arab Peoples, 1992 edition

This book is a mile-high overview of the history of Arab peoples from Mohammed to 1991. I imagine it is standard textbook in an Arab Culture or Middle Eastern studies curriculum. In certain eras, Hourani has little historic and archaeological information to go on but does his best to present what we know. He does not have the space to delve into the details of any particular events, personalities, or tribal distinctions. I would have liked for him to elaborate on the linguistic differences across Arab lands, but instead he closes the book with a look at the modern political languages of Arabs: nationalism, social justice, and Islam. He also is able to give little detail when he reports particular events, such as when a leader was assassinated, and why that event was important and what exactly the context was. If you're interested in a particular region or country, check out more specific books. Histories written with narratives and anecdotes of the time are easier to read, but may contain less information. This book contains nothing of the sort and is all information.

I learned much about Arab peoples and their history, the interaction with Turkish history via the Ottoman age, and a little about how modern borders were formed, although much of explanation of development of modern states is too detailed for this book.

Part I: (Seventh-Tenth Century)
pre-800 A.D. Muslims had copied/studied almost the entirety of know Greek texts, preserving them to be translated back into Latin in the Middle Ages. Arabs also developed on the science and mathematics found in the texts, publishing their own works.

Hourani explains how tradition on Mohammed differs, his sayings were compiled first during the reign of his third successor. There is much debate about his life and the authenticity of what is recorded. Hourani returns to Koranic interpretation throughout the book, explaining how the various schools of religious and philosophical thought developed. He looks at Persian Shiite beliefs as well, the Mahdi belief arose very early. Abbasids vs Shiites, etc. Mystical experiences and writings versus more strict traditions, etc.

Despite Mohammed's wishes, it appears monasticism in Christianity was influential on Muslim scholars, and some issues of Islamic doctrine mirror debates in the monophysite Christian churches as well. Paternalism was present well before Islam (and Judaism) in the Middle Eastern native cultures.

Part II: Arab Muslim Societies (11th-15th centuries)
Hourani looks at the spread of Islam and the interaction of Arabs, Persians, and Turks. There is a look at cities, Hourani notes that Cairo and Baghdad were likely metropolises of 250,000 before the plague. The Mamluk's controlled the land from Mecca to Cairo and ruled via vassals. Mamluk government differed from that of the Seljuk's in Anatolia. He describes the common architecture found in cities, houses, palaces, as well as the importance of Arabic writing in artwork. Wine seems to have been widely consumed despite prohibition. The Arabian Nights and other tales probably originated from other cultures and were translated into Arabic, the earliest roots seem to come from the 10th century.Schools of theology and laws became important. Islamic scholars were expected to travel around learning from various teachers to get a wide range of views. I found his discussion of "ishtihad," or "independent reasoning" in Sunni law as interesting. Only a "mujtahid" is qualified to exercise "ijtihad" in evaluating Islamic law. The Koran and Hadith were not sufficient, knowledge of history and reason were also required. (This is something ISIS apparently rejects, it is a pre-11th century version of Islam).


Part III: Ottoman Age (16th-18th centuries)
While the Ottomans are Turks, they ruled over the Arab people and set the stage for the modern struggles of Arab independence movements. I enjoyed the lengthy look at Ottoman government and culture. The Ottomans were innovative in that they codified their laws, including the Sharia aspects (just as Justinian had done with Roman law during the Byzantine Age, not mentioned by the author). We forget that besides the Crimean War of 1853-1856, there was the previous Russian-Ottoman conflict of 1768-1774 in which the Russians annexed Crimea. This has implications for events of today.

Hourani does a good job looking at reform attempts within the aging Ottoman empire and how that later affected Arab independence movements. Turkey also dominates much of Part IV. Hourani does look at Jewish relations with Arab Muslims over the centuries as well.

Part IV: The Age of European Empires (1800-1939)
As Europe grew stronger and the Ottomans grew weaker, Europe made its presence felt in North Africa and the Middle East. French colonization of Algeria is examined. U.S. aid money for Lebanese survivors of a civil war in 1860 was one of the first examples of a coordinated international aid effort. The U.S. later set up schools in the area, as well as France and other powers. Germany was of large assistance to Turkey and the British took more interest in Middle Eastern oil.
The first Western interest in Middle Eastern philosophy and history came in the early 1900s. Hourani mentions the 1908 Arab revolts and widespread killings of Armenians without the dreaded "g-word." 

I learned a bit about the development of Salafism in the 20th century and the roots of Arab nationalism in Syria. He of course looks at T.E. Lawrence and WWI but remarks that the fabled Arab Revolt is of debatable value in the war. The division to modern borders is really only glossed over in Part IV and Part V.

Part V: The Age of Nation-States (since 1939)
As linguistic study and literacy increased in the 20th century, so did Arab/Islamic philosophy and poetry. Hourani makes remarks on several poets who choose to publish works in the colloquial Arabic. Economic growth happened post WWII, but stagnated as countries like Egypt tilted toward Socialism and became reliant on either the West or the USSR for aid and military support. Arabic socialism as promoted by Nasser had little appeal to Islam but rather to nationalism and anti-colonialism.

Hourani describes some of the political intrigue of the 1950s-1970s, with coups and assisinations. Rivalries and wars with Israel, etc. He gives an overview of how Arabs favor strong central governments, partly as a reaction to western colonialism, and partly in order to unite and subdue several competing factions within arbitrary borders (think Iraq). He also describes the evolution of the role of women both in economics and in politics. The rise of the Muslim brotherhood is described as one of several attempts to interpret Islam and its idea of social justice into modern contexts. The competition with Wahabist and Sufi schools of thought, critical today as Sunni Arabs are now at war with one another in Syria. Hourani makes no predictions about the future but clearly does not forsee current developments. The book was written before the Gulf War of 1991, so it is dated (while a later version adds an afterword with updates). 

I learned a lot about the Arab peoples and have a greater appreciation for the cultural history. I'm giving it 4.5 stars out of 5. I partly wish the author had broken it down into five larger volumes with more detail, but am glad for this large overview.