Friday, September 26, 2014

Sermon of the Week (9/21 - 9/27, 2014) R.C. Sproul series on The Myth of Chance

Listening to R.C. Sproul podcasts is like being back in a college classroom, except better. Recent episodes have been related to his new book Not a Chance: God, Science, and the Revolt Against Reason. He addresses a mistake I often make, attributing something to chance (saying "this is caused by chance"). Chance explains the probability of something, it is not a thing-- it is not a causal force. So, nothing can be "caused by chance," and Sproul calls out physicists and cosmologists for misuse of the term. Many will say the universe is a result of "time plus chance" and Sproul reminds us that time is something that cannot be self-existent and chance is not a thing. David Hume wrote (paraphrase) that we refer to events as "chance" when we are ignorant of their true causes.

In a couple episodes, he recalls a conversation he had with the late Carl Sagan about the Big Bang. Sproul expresses incredulity at Sagan's statement that he has no interest in what came before the Big Bang, or what set up the Big Bang; the lack of interest seems unscientific. You have a moment in time of singularity, when all the forces in the cosmos are united together and yet somehow scientists aren't curious about how that's possible.

Sproul explicitly does not address cosmologists who believe the universe is infinite, that's a more recent turn in cosmology. He also does not address events after the beginning of the universe. In other recent episodes he has dealt with the concepts of self-existence and an eternal being and other issues that the episodes will lead you to question. Enjoy by clicking the links below (iTunes):

Not a Chance (Interview with Sproul and Matthison)
Saving the Phenomena
Chance: The Modern Myth
What is Chance? 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Money Matters in Church by Malphurs and Stroope (Book Review #93 of 2014)

Before reading this book, I recommend Jack Henry's Basic Budgeting for Churches. In conjunction with this book, I recommend The Debt-Free Church by Berg and Burgess for another perspective on whether your church really needs to borrow to build and grow and the costs and caveats of borrowing.

I'm reviewing this book as a Southern Baptist serving as chairman of the finance committee of a small, rural church, but also having been a member of large Southern Baptist churches in multiple states and witnessing their building programs up close. The authors are Southern Baptist pastors (Malphurs is now a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary), one of which (Stroope) has seen his church grow from fewer than 100 to a megachurch, so I relate to their background. They are from an elder-led but congregational model, which they advocate in a chapter on polity.

There is good and bad in this book. On the one hand, it's a useful book for pastors who know little about finance and find themselves having to oversee a budget process properly. On the other hand, David Platt probably wrote Radical after reading it-- what the authors espouse about how churches should use their finances and take on debt to build larger buildings for God's glory is American evangelicalism (and Southern Baptist culture, especially in Texas) at its most disturbing. If you feel uncomfortable giving an invitation at the end of a worship service because you fear emotionally manipulating people into "making decisions for Christ" then you will find the last 1/4 of the book on capital campaigns and coaxing large donations from your congregation, including new members, quite disturbing.

The authors write that people give when they see a church is "obviously blessed by God and growing spiritually and numerically." However, Southern Baptists are inconsistent in their praise and criticism of growing congregations. On the one hand we say certain churches are "obviously blessed by God" because of their growth and numbers, while criticizing the megachurches of others whose doctrine we disagree with, saying they are not obviously blessed by God despite their growth, numbers, and purported changed lives. Stroope's church is in Dallas-Ft. Worth, where there are other nearby megachurches that no Southern Baptist would say is blessed by God despite having grown larger and wealthier than Stroope's (in fairness, it appears the church has now adopted a multi-site model, something that isn't covered in the book). As an economist who happens to be a Christian that also teaches courses related to management, I believe growth in numbers and financial status has more to do with a church's organization, leadership, and even randomness unrelated to either (if Bill Gates visits your church, suddenly your receipts increase) than with something that we can point to as obviously "God's hand." I've seen large Southern Baptist churches considered to have a visible blessing of God suddenly split and become shadows of their former selves, despite the same godly leadership at the helm. I've seen small churches of many denominations that do a great job of discipling and giving, while staying small (and using resources to plant churches elsewhere). The authors claim they've never known a church that regretted purchasing land, no matter the difficulties-- I could introduce them to a few. I wonder if they have changed their views post-financial crisis.

The good:
The authors begin by leading the pastor/leader to several Scripture passages to study for themselves, directing them to develop their own theology of stewardship. The pastor has a responsibility to develop a theology of giving and communicate both informally and formally through direct teaching. The church's view on stewardship should be a critical part of new members' classes-- and churches should have those. They encourage accountability in the life of the steward an essential component of small group activity. The authors provide their own theology of stewardship in Appendix A (hint: 10% tithing is not binding). They advocate being positive, focusing on articulating the future and vision of the church and not making announcements when the church is running over budget or is underfunded.

There are basic chapters explaining the basics of banking, how to establish a strategic budget (not just a standard budget), best practices for collecting money and providing accountability, the basics of compensating pastor/staff, and more. They give some advice on how a church should allocate its spending (50% personnel, 20% facilities, 20% programming, 10% missions), and their ratios appear to match what a survey published by Christianity Today in 2014 revealed about U.S. churches.

The authors also lay out many things needed for consideration for acquiring new land and buildings. I picked up a few ideas and suggestions that I found helpful for our church and my role in developing the church's budget process.

The bad:
After Chapter 1, biblical references are put aside. There may be biblical wisdom in several of the authors' suggestions, but they neglect mentioning them. Some chapters read like any modern book on how to communicate effectively, sell a product, and "seal the deal."

Pastors are encouraged to develop donors and "giving champions" as part of the overall process of discipleship. Encouraging pastors to pour into their leaders and congregants individually is a good thing, but motivations other than deepening the member's giving are treated casually in the book. While maintaining that a pastor should not have access to detailed financial information, the authors write in multiple places that he should be aware of who "isn't giving enough" or "isn't giving what he could." The authors do no confront non-givers personally (contrast this with Mark Dever's practice of having annual sit-downs with all members and including giving in the conversation). But from the pulpit they advocate telling the church what percentage of members are giving "less than a poverty-level tithe," in order to shame-- a "kick in the pants" in their words. The pastor also needs to know who is giving more than $5,000 annually so they can be especially recruited to donate toward the capital campaigns the book spends the last chapters focusing on.

The authors repeatedly link spiritual maturity to giving. The encourage devoting funds to church activities that will have the highest return on investment-- that which will impress people to give the most, like the worship service. Church planters are advised not to be silly and think they'll never need to build a building or can just rent a facility-- get one as soon as possible.

The most disturbing aspect of the book is that the authors dismiss any caveats in regards to debt and mortagages. The Debt-Free Church features stories of dozens of churches who took out affordable mortgages with strategic visions and perfect intentions only to see it contribute to the ruin of the church. Just because there are no biblical prohibitions against debt does not make it advisable, and the authors clearly advise taking on debt perpetually. I have seen well-meaning, godly pastors encourage churches to step out on faith and borrow money because they were "at capacity," only to see the congregation dwindle when the financial belt was later tightened.

Churches that take on debt face increased pressure to pay off the debt, hence the last 1/4 of the book deals with capital campaigns-- how to raise 100-200% of your church's annual budget for a special project over the course of three years. They recommend hiring an outside consultant who can help with the atmosphere and marketing. Forming committees complete with a "hospitality director" who makes sure certain members homes are pristine for pitching the vision of the project to "giving champions" in a more intimate setting. They write of the "indescribable dynamic" of the pastor impressing on a small group of people how important they are to fulfilling the vision of the church along with high-quality DVDs and tasty hors d'oeuvres. How to set a baseline, control, and optimistic amount of money and encourage the congregation to reach the optimistic-- you're only "obviously" blessed if you raise above and beyond what's needed, I suppose. There are details in how to make a special "Commitment Sunday," when everyone is both mailed and handed an offering envelope-- and then mailed another if they don't pledge-- and exhorted in an emotional service by testimony of what it will mean if the church builds the new building...remember the children! Don't forget to target new members and encourage them to get the blessing from giving to this campaign before it's too late. There is even a list of slogans you can choose from; you too can take Scripture out of context and fit it into your capital campaign's marketing.

Because of the caveats, I can only give this book 3 stars. Hopefully in developing your theology of giving you don't neglect theology of other areas, including lifestyle and personal financial choices, and the importance of biblical theology. The type of large building-driven churches described in the book are the antithesis of Radical. The authors' perspectives are clearly American, there is no consideration to cross-cultural ministry or contextualization (unfortunately, I think their methods have been copied by too many in Eastern Europe). Are they really turning out world-changing Christians or rather just larger enclaves of like-minded suburbanites? You be the judge.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

On War by Carl von Clausewitz (Book Review #92 of 2014)

Read a free version of an earlier translation here. 
I was inspired to read this after it was cited heavily in Gaddis' biography of George Kennan and Thomas Ricks' The Generals. As the U.S. embarks on a quasi-war against the Islamic State, I was eager to compare Clausewitz's thoughts on war to the modern, limited conflicts we currently seem to wage with unclear political ends.

Carl von Clausewitz was a Prussian general and military theorist. On War was part of Clausewitz's writings from 1816 to 1830 and appear to be Clausewitz's attempts to form a general theory and philosophy on war, based primarily on the historical conflicts fought by Frederick the Great and Napoleon, although he does also cite the Punic Wars, Alexander's conquests, and other minor European conflicts.

Clausewitz's most enduring legacy is his statement that "war is a mere continuation of policy by other means." (Book 1, 24). Generals and analysts must remember that war cannot be divorced from the political realm. He continues this theme in Book VIII, Chapter 6:
"(W)ar is nothing but a continuation of political intercourse, with a mixture of other means...the chief lines on which the events of the war progress, and to which they are attached, are only the general features of policy which run all through the war until peace takes place...Does the cessation of diplomatic notes stop the political relations between different nations and Governments? Is not war merely another kind of writing and language for political thoughts? It has certainly a grammar of its own, but its logic is not peculiar to itself."
Therefore, "war can never be separated from political intercourse."

"If war belongs to policy, it will naturally take its character from thence. If policy is grand and powerful, so will also be the war, and this may be carried to the point at which war attains to its absolute form."
"The subordination of the political point of view to the military would be contrary to common sense, for policy has declared the war; it is the intelligent faculty, war only the instrument, and not the reverse. The subordination of the military point of view to the political is, therefore, the only thing which is possible."

"In one word, the art of war in its highest point of view is policy, but, no doubt, a policy which fights battles, instead of writing notes."

Compare all this with the strategy Secretary of STate John Kerry laid out against ISIL in Senate testimony last week:
    " this is more than just a military coalition, and I want to emphasize that. In some ways, some of the most important aspects of what we will be doing are not military. This mission isn’t just about taking out an enemy on the battlefield; it’s about taking out a network, decimating and discrediting a militant cult masquerading as a religious movement. It’s similar to what we’ve been doing to al-Qaida these last years. The bottom line is we will not be successful with a military campaign alone, and we know it."

Likewise, Clausewitz has some warnings about forming coalitions to fight an enemy, which the U.S. is trying to cobble together against ISIL.
Book VIII Chapter 6:
"We never find that a State joining in the cause of another State, takes it up with the same earnestness as its own...even if two States go to war with a third, they do not always both look in like measure upon this common enemy as one that they must destroy or be destroyed by themselves, the business is often settled like a commercial transaction."

Clausewitz makes many observations about important characteristics of commanders, the psychological ("moral") effects of war, and various details that must be remembered about conflicts. Much of the book is dry observation, but there are a few enduring gems.

Book I, Chapter 1: What is War?
"(R)esult in war is never absolute: Lastly, even the final decision of a whole war is not always to be regarded as absolute. The conquered state often sees in it only a passing evil, which may be repaired in after times by means of political combinations. How much this also must modify the degree of tension and the vigour of the efforts made is evident in itself."

Chapter 2: Ends and Means in War:
The goal of war is that "The military power must be destroyed, that is, reduced to such a state as not to be able to prosecute the war," although later Clausewitz deals with limited conflicts where that is not the case, or is impossible. But achieving total victory may be fantasy:

"But if even both these things are done, still the war, that is, the hostile feeling and action of hostile agencies, cannot be considered as at an end as long as the will of the enemy is not subdued also; that is, its Government and its allies forced into signing a peace, or the people into submission; for whilst we are in full occupation of the country the war may break out afresh, either in the interior or through assistance given by allies. No doubt this may also take place after a peace, but that shows nothing more than that every war does not carry in itself the elements for a complete decision and final settlement."

Chapter 3: genius for war
"War is the province of danger, and therefore courage above all things is the first quality of a warrior...Courage is of two kinds; first, physical courage, or courage in presence of danger to the person: and next, moral courage, or courage before responsibility; whether it be before the judgment-seat of external authority, or of the inner power, the conscience..."

Generals must have strong force of will and moral fortitude:
"(A)s soon as difficulties arise—and that must always happen when great results are at stake—then things no longer move on of themselves like a well-oiled machine, the machine itself then begins to offer resistance, and to overcome this, the commander must have a great force of will."

Clausewitz coined the term "fog of war."
Chapter 6: Information in war
"A great part of the information obtained in war is contradictory, a still greater part is false, and by far the greatest part is of a doubtful character.  The law of probability must be (the officer's) guide... In a few words, most reports are false, and the timidity of men acts as a multiplier of lies and untruths. As a general rule every one is more inclined to lend credence to the bad than the good."

7: Friction in War
Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction, which no man can imagine exactly who has not seen war.

Clausewitz writes elsewhere that a General, once he gains the power of statehood (like Napoleon or Eisenhower) must never forget the affairs of state matter most, while remembering also to use all of his strategic skill as a general to get things done. I also enjoyed his differentiation of strategy (implementation of proper tactics) with strategem (the use of deceit in employing strategy).

It's a classic, influential book so it's 5 stars.

Monday, September 22, 2014

On attacking ISIL in Syria and Iraq

I find the Western, English-speaking media neglects reporting what is printed in Middle Eastern publications when it comes to international conflict and criticism of America. Some people in the West argued that we should intervene against ISIL in Iraq in order to "rescue" the oppressed minorities - Kurds, Yazidis, and ethnic Christians- threatened by the group. Taking the fight to Syria in an attempt to destroy their bases of support appears to be a logical extent of this thinking--to quote Clausewitz, make sure ISIL is "reduced to such a state as not to be able to prosecute the war."  But what do people in the Middle East think of our policies as outlined by President Obama and Secretary Kerry?

I found this interview from Turkey with purported "moderate opposition rebels" rather enlightening, and recommend reading it.They ask "Why get involved in Syria now, after all these years of genocide?"

"(I)s it because this is really a terrorist group that terrorizes people in Syria? If so, then the (Assad) regime has committed more crimes than ISIS. With much cruelty. People are dead in the prisons by the thousands. What about this? Human Rights Watch has a report that documented almost 12,000 people dead under torture in prisons of the security forces. So what about this? Isn’t it terror? It’s not obvious that Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons to kill more than 1,400 people at the same time [in the regime’s infamous attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in August 2013]? That was more than a third of the people who died in the twin towers on 9/11.
“So why now? And why [did Obama announce the strikes] on this dramatic date, on the same eve of 9/11, so that no American can criticize it and say ‘no.’ And what about the people who are facing Assad airstrikes? Now the same civilians will face the American airstrikes? We all know that ISIS puts its headquarters among civilians. What can America do about it? Nothing. They are going to bombard the good with the evil. That’s why I’m angry about it. ISIS are criminals, but the solution is not to kill them with airstrikes." 

Similarly, many Muslims point out that America showed no outrage or interest in stopping genocides until Christians were reportedly being beheaded in Iraq. The war in Syria has gone on for years and cost roughly 200,000 lives. So, how else do you explain Southern Baptists signing petitions to the government for armed intervention against ISIL after a few hundred Christians were threatened? Assad, meanwhile, is seen as the protector of both Alawite and Christian minorities in Syria, therefore Christian nations dare not lift a finger against him. I believe most Americans are unaware of this perspective; Thomas Friedman's cab driver does not exist in their world, and the Western journalists who no doubt here these conspiracy theories do not relay them.  

Some of my Turkish nationalist friends believe there is a Jewish-directed conspiracy to weaken Israel's Muslim enemies by creating a Kurdish state that incorporates Kurdish sections of Turkey. A united Kurdistan between Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Opinion pieces citing evidence of this are printed often in Turkish "news" outlets, but Western journalists ignore them, probably because it's crazy. However, it doesn't matter if it's crazy or not-- what matters is if people who live in these places believe it. These people see it as no wonder we come to the defense of the Kurds, and are skeptical of our true motives.

*UPDATE* For those skeptical of my assertions, Joshua Landis, a Middle East expert at the University of Oklahoma basically said the same thing on PBS NewsHour last night, addressing Sunni conspiracy theories that we are seeking to weaken Sunni powers:
"the big challenge for the United States is to convince Sunni Arabs that we’re not attacking them and we’re not against Sunni Islam. Many people, many Sunnis suspect we... have a war against Islam, because we threw the Sunnis out of power in Iraq and catapulted the Shiites into power. And they have been persecuting the Sunnis ever since. We said we were going to bring Sunni rebels to a victory in Syria, or we implied it when we said Assad had to step aside, and we did nothing."

Ask yourself this: If arming the "moderate opposition" in Syria is such a good idea now, then why not two years ago when they held more territory and had functioning infrastructure? And why is it suddenly a good idea just weeks after President Obama called the idea "horse****?"What does the endgame look like this time?

Friday, September 19, 2014

Sermon of the Week (9/14 - 9/20, 2014) Nathan Millican on 1 Peter 2. "Citizenship evangelism."

Nathan Millican is pastor of Oak Park Baptist in Jeffersonville, IN. The sermon is from 8/31/14 on 1 Peter 2:13-17. This is a great sermon on submission to authorities, namely the government. It is a reminder to Christians that just because you have the freedom to complain doesn't mean you should, and doesn't mean you should be disrespectful in your criticism of government officials. Stirring up vitriol on Facebook is not God-honoring, even if the criticism is valid and the cause just. Obeying the laws of the nation is obeying God. Nathan uses the phrase "citizenship evangelism" to describe how we're to be witnesses through the way we respect the authorities and institutions of our country, no matter which country it may be. Enjoy.

On the audit of Fayette County Public Schools. What if you were audited?

I have followed the recent drama about Fayette County Public Schools and their audit by State Auditor Adam Edelen (this site sums it up). Two key findings in the audit were that 1) Nothing criminal was going on and 2) No money was missing. It found that there were some procedures not being followed correctly, poor communication in some areas including dysfunctional relationships between key staff members, and some concern about whether money was being spent in the best and most equitable manner.

I can understand where the Superintendent chafes under the Auditor's line that the district suffers from "chronic mismanagement." That type of language denotes incompetence, something that isn't clear at all from the report. The Superintendent has reportedly decided to suck it up and focus on fixing the specific issues the report cited (which ironically will cost the district, which just slashed its budget, a lot of additional money in expensive consultants.)

After recently reading of scandals in other Kentucky school districts I am willing to bet that if every district were audited and results laid out from worst to best Fayette County would fall well above the average.

Here's the thing: Every organization and every person should be audited periodically; we all have something that can be improved which we may not even be aware of. Audits can take the form of employee performance reviews, feedback surveys of employers, accountability partners, and conversations with honest, loving spouses. Every organization and individual has some procedure they're not following, best practice they need help with, and some issue on which they've not lived up to their best intentions. We all need that reminder and that nudge to improve.

Good organizations request audits, bad organizations do not. Good organizations look to continuously improve, bad organizations do not.

What if every department and office in your business, government, church, or school got audited? What would it find? I bet it would read something like the Fayette County report, so be careful casting stones. If you're a Christian you believe that one day you'll stand before God in a sort of audit of your life (1 Cor. 3:13-15, 2 Peter 3). Why not request an audit now?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Longing for God: Seven Paths of Christian Devotion by Richard J. Foster and Gayle D. Beebe (Book Review #91 of 2014)

The breadth of Christian history, philosophy, and literature covered here make it very close to a "must-read" for any Christian. Good books inspire you to read other, older books and this book excels at that like few others. While I understand that most of the book was researched and written by Beebe (over three years), Foster closes each chapter with his own personal takeaways and a devotional prayer. I highly recommend Foster's book on spiritual disciplines (see my review) before reading this one.

How do we order our lives rightly in order to love God and grow in our faith? The authors explore the written works of several in church history in the area of spiritual disciplines: Origen, Evagrius Ponticus, Augustine, John Cassian, Gregory the Great, Benedict of Nursia, Ignatius of Loyola, Benedict, pseudo-Dionysius, St. Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas a Kempis, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Blaise Pascal, John Bunyan, Thomas Merton, George Herbert, George Fox, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, John Wesley, St. Bonaventure, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and others.

Each of these teachers, monks, theologians, and philosophers contributed something to the literature of a disciplined life and experienced God in unique ways. Each made contributions to the Western church that influenced others down the road. A feature of the book is that it allows you to see echoes of Platonic philosophy as incorporated by Augustine and passed on through Gregory, Thomas Aquinas, Pascal, Wesley, etc. Everyone on the list could be accused of being "neo-Platonic" but it's important to recognize Greek philosophy's role in developing European institutions, most prominently the Church. An appendix deals with pre-Christian philosophers who were known to influence the historical figures. Having recently finished Plato's Republic I find it interesting that the authors see the "cave" analogy as turning from our dark ignorance to God. Early Christians reportedly saw the importance of enlightened spiritually mature Christians to turn and help others less mature, just as Plato saw for the philosopher kings in his ideal society. Clement reputedly claimed Plato for the Christian purpose, arguing that Plato ultimately pointed to Christ. (Classical Christian schools today teach Latin and teach Platonic philosophy and dialectic from early grades based on the idea that Western Civilization, including Christianity, requires this as a foundation.)

Many contributors come across as mystics, but the authors defend many of their positions as ultimately rooted in Scripture. Calvin, for example, wrote of the importance of oguidance by the Holy Spirit in choosing elders, deacons, and making decisions. But those revelations of the Holy SPirit worked in conjunction with the reading of Scripture. Fox wrote much about the spiritual experience-- the feelings-- but also had large sections of the Bible memorized. The authors assume some of the more supernatural experiences of the individuals were true. St. Francis, for example, experienced a stigmata that was testified to by many witnesses, and his life thereafter was markedly different. Others mentioned had some type of divine revelation or vision that changed them or influenced their thinking.

The authors divide up the seven "paths" as follows. No path is "right or wrong" but all are aspects of a person's spiritual growth.
One: The Right Ordering of Our Love for God
Two: The Spiritual Life as Journey
Three: The Recovery of Knowledge of God Lost in the Fall
Four: Intimacy with Jesus Christ
Five: The Right Ordering of Our Experiences of God
Six: Action and Contemplation
Seven: Diving Ascent

The writing and philosophies of the various historical figures are categorized, non-chronologically, in these seven paths. The non-chronological aspect of the histories make it more difficult. One could really re-organize it into a much different book on the history of church thought.

A weakness of the book is the inclusion of some like pseudo-Dyonisius. If there is ever an accident of history, it's him. While his writing was incredibly influential and is essential to the foundation of Eastern Orthodoxy, the fact that he was given authoritative credence on false pretenses should discredit much of what the authors might want us to glean from this account. Schleiermacher is also a surprise, but the authors write that you have to understand him in his context-- he was arguing for Christianity in a time and place when atheism and humanism were on the ascendance; as such, he was persecuted. Against that backdrop, he does not appear so bad.

Where the authors stick with the importance of examining our personal experiences and beliefs with Scripture, they do well. Where they appear to stray from that, it gets a little murky. But the entire book is enlightening on Christian history and the context in which the contributors-- many of them martyred-- were writing.

I give this book four stars out of five. I look forward to reading some of the examined works myself.

The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss (Book Review #90 of 2014)

I listen to Ferriss' podcast and have often been amused at the "living life hacker." I also hear his confessions about his habits, struggles, addictions, and how sometimes he gets razzed by his friends for still working a 60 hour week. The point of the book, he said recently, is that you can get 40 hours worth of work done in a time closer to four hours than 40. After reading the book I'd say the main thesis is that you can gain "freedom from what you dislike, freedom to pursue your dreams without reverting to work for work's sake (W4W)." You can be among the "New Rich" that gave up their high-paying desk jobs and commutes and found ways to delegate and automate their activities and now travel the world, partying and learning languages or whatever strikes their fancy.

"Less is not laziness...doing less meaningless work, so that you can focus on things of greater personal importance, is NOT laziness."  Ferriss stresses doing the "minimum necessary for maximum effect ('minimum effective load')." This type of thinking is missing from the theology of work literature. How about a theology of productivity and efficiency?

Ferriss gives plenty of tips for how to get this done. Find ways to automate routine tasks, like responding to emails or processing orders. Outsource some menial activities to virtual assistants in India (I followed his tip and outsourced a menial task to someone in Pakistan this week, was a good decision). Schedule your day--focus on accomplishing two separate tasks and do not allow distractions during their completion. Compress your tasks with tight deadlines so that you rev up your effort (if you had a gun to your head, you would do everything faster and more effeciently). Check email once or twice a day, never answer voicemails. Follow the 80/20 rule: Elminate the 20% of your customers that create 80% of your headaches, focus on the 20% that generate 80% of your revenue.

Give free lectures on your local university campus, put that on your CV, list yourself places where journalists can find you, give interviews and write books and articles that will lead to greater fame and income. Don't invent things and make yourself busy to feel important. Busyness is not productivity or desirable. Stop reading the news and be selectively ignorant. If you do read, follow his tips for reading faster. Find ways to get out of meetings, don't hold them yourselves, and negotiate with your boss for permission to work remotely.

Once you go remote, make it abroad. Learn languages, party, and enjoy life.

"Retirement is worst-case scenario insurance." People work hard, save up, and then retire hoping to do activities to "enjoy life" when it would have been much more enjoyable in their 20s and 30s when they had health. Why not do it now, is his point. Ferriss' advice is most applicable to those who sell a manufactured product-- he sells fitness pills-- where the manufacturing, order processing, and customer support can be outsourced to Asia. If you're in the service sector or are an independent consultant than his advice is harder to stick. If you're a carpenter or some other manufacturer that focuses on custom design and quality, then you're also not going to gain much help from this book.

There is a great deal of selfishness is Ferriss' thinking. While he gives examples of people who have kids, most examples--including his own-- do not; there appear to be no considerations of love in his life other than to satisfy his own physical desires. He has never had to wake up at 3am to change a diaper or sacrifice his time to sit with a sick daughter-- you can't delegate or outsource those activities, and they have a major impact on all else that you do. He does not appear curious about the meaning of his work, or the purpose of life. I believe everyone looks to be part of a cause greater than themselves in some way, which is why we respond to leadership. There is no aspect of that in this book, it is basically how to lead yourself into being an island (albeit a very productive one) to one's self. While Ferriss fills his time with accomplishments in martial arts, cooking, language, and dancing one wonders if he's not just trying really hard to fill a void in his soul that others fill with relationships, family, and community.

I have read 90 books so far this year because I've found ways to make my day more efficient. But I free up time for personal enjoyment in activities-- like reading the news-- that Ferriss says I should avoid. I also have a family that is dependent on my success for health insurance but is also demanding/deserving of a large chunk of my time that I would love to selfishly spend elsewhere. That's what love is, and that's what is missing from this book.

So, I enjoyed the book and recommend it with the above paragraph as my caveat. 3 stars out of 5.I will check out his other books on fitness and cooking for some tips.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Reform Medicaid First by Pauly and Grannemann (Book Review #89 of 2014)

This book was published in 2009 by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. The authors are an academic economist and an economist who works with Medicare and Medicaid.

The authors were concerned that the Obama Administration's push for health care reform would impose a large system on top of the already complicated and diverse Medicaid programs offered by states. They argue for greater uniformity in Medicaid requirements across states and more equitable funding of those programs; wealthier states currently spend more on Medicaid and thus receive more federal matching funds.They lay out the case for reforming Medicaid as the highest priority before moving ahead ahead with whatever reforms the Administration wanted to make to private insurance and the rest of the health care system.

In principal, the authors are sympathetic to many of the policies later enacted under the Affordable Care Act. Having a payment advisory board that authorizes funding for high-value treatments (weren't these the "death panels?"), imposing uniformity from CMS on states receiving federal funding, and are even unopposed to a "public option" or at least a publicly-funded managed care organization to name a few examples. They also forsee some time of health exchange program for people to shop for coverage.

The authors do not propose many specifics for reform, but do outline a program of Medicaid with a graduated system of premiums. Medicaid could cover everyone up to 300% of the federal poverty line but with fewer services and "meaningful" premiums the higher up the income scale. They stress the importance of having low marginal tax rates as benefits are reduced or premiums increased, something that the ACA roughly failed at doing properly.

Pauly and Grannemann also advocate ending special treatment to certain providers such as rural hospitals, ending the disproportionate share hospital (DSH) subsidy, and medical education payments. By making Medicaid reimbursement rates more "adequate," the authors write, there will be no need for these types of carve-outs. States should also have more control over provider networks, similar to that in private managed care plans; seeing as how most states have moved to an MCO model this seems to be less of an issue.

Surprisingly for an AEI work, the authors are not opposed to a public option and and believe that coverage and rate-setting should be made on a "technical basis" by objective decision-makers with "expertise," a very technocratic approach. They believe in value-based cost containment, but do not offer any innovative ways to make that happen.

Several of their proposals sound like what has been adopted by Pennsylvania and Arkansas, who received waivers to try out some experiments with requiring premiums and incentives to maintain health, or private health insurance that is subsidized by the state.

This book is not for people looking for an introduction to Medicaid and specific policy proposals, for that I'd recommend the Mercatus Center's recent The Economics of Medicaid (my review here). The authors provide no definitions for things like DSH. As such, two stars out of five.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Moneyball by Michael Lewis (Book Review #88 of 2014)

I needed something lighter after the works of Plato, and this was a great light read. I also have a goal of reading all of Michael Lewis' books, so check another off the list.

I read The Blind Side before seeing the movie, but watched Moneyball before reading this book. Lewis' writing on sports just lends itself to good movies that are able to stick closely to the book. The book reads like the movie just with more detail, and the movie captures some of the more fun scenes in the book very well. "I couldn't do a regression analysis but I knew what one was." Billy Beane is much smarter than the movie made him out to be, Beane read all of Bill James' abstracts and devoured articles on baseball analysis; the A's genius wasn't all based on egghead Paul DePodesta's work, though DePodesta did pioneer a few models and built much of the computer work. Beane could easily run up statistical refutations of media criticism, such as the A's supposedly not "manufacturing runs in the playoffs."

Lewis apparently got interested in the A's after the 2001 season and was present for part of 2002, given access to Beane and the clubhouse and apparently the 2002 draft. (The draft drama is largely absent from the movie.) This wikipedia page on the book gives an update on how the A's draft analysis panned out. At first glance it appears they did not fare much better than randomness, but perhaps in sports a slight edge makes a big difference. Lewis was there for the famous streak-breaking game where the A's blew an 11-run lead. The movies portrayal of those moments are quite good. Beane has a darker temper and is much more profane than Brad Pitt's character portrayed (there is no shortage of f-bombs in this book).

Another difference between versions is that Oakland manager Art Howe understood that Billy Beane and the front office called the shots, there was much less conflict than what was portrayed. On the field, Howe stood where and how Beane told him; the appearance of his command was all illusion. The players all knew Beane called the shots, even though the front office shared little of the data they were crunching-- unlike in the movie.

The A's analysis was much more thorough than the movie made out, too. Lewis takes the time to explain the history of sabermetrics and the various controversies such as how to judge fielding and pitchers' contributions. From here out, I will only look at on-base percentage and slugging percentage for hitters, and OBP is four times more important than SLG. But the revolution has only changed baseball so much, most articles I see only reference batting average and home runs.

Scott Hatteberg was acquired by the A's for his great on-base percentage, but missing from the movie is Hatteberg's own approach to methodically recording data about all of his at-bats. The Red Sox had criticized him for his scientific method.

Another difference was that the touching stories about Beane's relationship with his daughter are not in the book version.

I give this book 4 stars out of 5.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Sermon of the Week (9/7 - 9/13, 2014) Tom Hindman on Psalm 56:1-4

I like Calvary Chapel Modesto's sermons because they are expository and are done mostly with a spirit of teaching and an attitude of encouragement. This sermon (from July) was by an assistant pastor and is titled "Faulty Fear." You can download it here (direct link) or on iTunes. Hindman does a good job explaining that while we trust in God and pray for His direction and intervention, we are still morally responsible to do the right things. For example, it's fine to pray for health but you're responsible to maintain good habits of diet and exercise. Hindman recalls the fiery furnace of Daniel in v. 4 and also has some good C.S. Lewis quotes. I enjoyed it, hope you do as well.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Republic by Plato (Book #87 of 2014)

After thinking through the collection of Plato's Dialogues and the overviews Socrates and Plato, I went after The Republic. I found it less entertaining and interesting than Dialogues but more thought-provoking.

Plato abhored democracy because people had wrong beliefs and would elect others with those wrong beliefs, leading the entire society astray. The Republic is the description of Plato's ideal city-state. Again, Socrates is the mouthpiece and scholars contend that Plato's later works reflect more of his ideas than his teacher's.

The first books deal with the concept of justice. What is justice? Is it simply the interest of the stronger party (ie: might makes right)? Are our ideas of justice simply put upon us by the laws our rulers create, or is there some universal definition? Thrasymachus contends that it does not pay to be just; the unjust get head in life. We may respect justice more, so perhaps it's best to seem just but actually be unjust (does Machiavelli echo this in The Prince?). While the argument ends in a stalemate, Socrates eventually circles around later in The Republic to make a case that it's better to be just.

Book III has interesting thoughts on God's character. Plato writes that God is unchangeable in nature, he cannot deceive or else that would mean he is not good. The Socratic/Platonic idea that the body is evil and troublesome (as seen in Plato's other dialogues) is elaborated on in this book. Socrates states that two lovers must not have sexual relations, because love is a pure feeling of truth whereas the body is base passions. While Socrates contends that the Greek cultural way of "love" between a man and a boy are vital to the boy's education, sexual intercourse must not enter into the relationship or it is not true love.

Socrates moves into discussing who the rulers should be in the ideal state. They should be made up of those containing "gold and silver," whose parents see them as born to rule. Bronze and iron children, on the other hand, will be the working class and these differences will be rigidly enforced. Rulers themselves must receive no wages or hold private property, lest they abuse power; they should depend on the working class for their food and edification.

Book IV elaborates on the lives of rulers. There can be physicians in the ideal state and these should work to kill off the weak and insane. Guardians should share wives and children in common.Socrates states that justice amounts to the health of the soul: a just soul is a soul with its parts arranged appropriately. Health is good, and it therefore pays to be just.

In Book V Plato writes that the interchanging of jobs among the classes is injustice, "the greatest of all evils." A free society of freely interacting agents with individual freedom is anathema to Plato.

In Book VI Plato writes that rulers/guardians' children should be separated and nursed away from the guardians from birth. Mothers should be brought in to nurse but never be allowed to know which child is theirs (sounds like Sparta?). This is because these children will engage in a life-long education and training to make them excellent rulers by their 50's.

Philosophers get corrupted by politics since there is much demand for their skills, and rulers are willing to pay a high price to have them. Philosophy is also useless where society disagrees with the "right" ideals as known only by phililosophers, therefore philosophers are useless.

Book VII is on education, the goal of which is to drag every man out of a "cave" of ignorance. The fact that a philosopher is reluctant to rule makes him the best ruler-- the best rulers rule out of duty and obligation instead of power and riches. Rulers should study mathematics from addition to geometry, not for commerce, but for making war and because learning about numbers upens up revelations to higher truth. Rulers will also study philosophical dialectic. Dialectic is powerful in the hands of those who misuse it, as many youths love to debate and stir up controversy rather than search out the truth.

Books VIII and IX deal with political economy. Socrates compares the various types of government: timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. Timocracy is a society driven by honor and eventually the birth rate of the less-educated people outstrips that of the wise, so that civil war breaks out and leads to class divisions. Eventually, oligarchy arises where the right of rule is determined solely by wealth.Oligarchs fear the people and cannot make war because they dare not arm the masses to fight lest they be overthrown. The oligarchs' desire for more wealth leads to speculation, high-interest loans, and eventually greater concentration of power in the hands of a few. Those who lose their fortunes work with the masses to plot revenge.

Democracy, then, springs from oligarchy- eventually a revolution overthros the oligarchs and people are made equal. Plato writes that from the outside, democracy appears to be the most attractive society but it's flawed because so many people are pursuing their endless passions. Eventually, this insatiable appetite causes people to neglect proper governing (including breeding at the right times, so eventually the progeny become weaker and weaker). "Drones," which are beggars and criminals deceive both the rich and poor into class warfare. The rich respond by limiting the freedom of the poor, and revolt ensues in which the chief "drone" becomes the populist tyrant. He kills all the good, enslaves the others, constantly makes war, and lives a lavish lifestyle. He panders to the other drones and they become his bodyguards.

(Depressed yet?)

The tyrranical man is the least-happy of all the rulers, he is also the most unjust. Therefore, it pays to be just. Only philosophers can determine who is right among the truth-loving, honor-loving, and profit-loving types of people. The philosopher, of course, says seeking truth and denying the body and its various passions is the best life and leads to the best afterlife.

In Book X, Socrates regretfully bans potes from the ideal society. Poets imitate the worst part of people, appeal to the worst parts of men's souls.

Book XI deals with the immortality of the soul. Socrates' earlier dialogue with Phaedo summed up much of his beliefs, but here it is reiterated that bodily damage cannot harm the soul unless it can be proved that it makes the soul meaner, kinder, etc. In the afterlife, the just and unjust will be rewarded accordingly. Where good works outweigh the bad, there is reward. Sins must be long-punished according to severity. It's from this chapter that one might see how the Roman Catholic church eventually developed a doctrine of Purgatory, by incorporating the (erroneous) ideas of Plato.

This was a difficult book to work through but I'm glad I did it. It is one which I should probably read repeatedly, and really only in Greek if I want to get it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Dialogues of Plato (Book Review #86 of 2014)

The Dialogues of Plato (Jowett translation) are the recorded dialogues of Socrates in his defense (Apology) against charges of atheism and of corrupting the youth of Athens. This book introduces Socrates' dialectic, and it was great to read the original example of the "Socratic Method" of teaching by asking questions that demand logical answers to lead the pupil to a particular point or defend his own position. It is not hard to find what appear to be echoes of Socrates' dialectic in the New Testament, and statements that are comparable. Some modern scholars find quite a few (too many, really) but some of the noted quotes below seemed familiar but I am aware that I'm reading a modern English translation and not the classical Greek. 

From his dialog with Euthypro, I enjoyed the thought that wisdom is only dangerous when it develops a following.
"For a man may be thought wise; but the Athenians, I suspect, do not much trouble themselves about him until he begins to impart his wisdom to others, and then for some reason or other, perhaps, as you say, from jealousy, they are angry."

Socrates introduces the logical problem of how we can define something as right or wrong, "envious or pious." Euthypro defines "pious" as anything pleasing to the gods, and considers himself pious in bringing a lawsuit against his own father for what he sees as an injustice. Socrates draws out of Euthypro an admission that the gods may not agree amongst themselves which acts are envious or pious, as by their legends they quarrel, lie, steal, play favorites, etc. It is further on Euthypro to convince a jury that Euthypro knows the will of the gods in the matter. Euthypro essentially says "gotta go now" and we're left with no solid conclusion to the matter.

Socrates' apology against Meletus makes up most of the book. Meletus is making an ad hominem charge against Socrates of being an athiest corruptor of youth. In reality, other enemies are using Meletus to bring about Socrates' demise rather than charge him themselves. It's believed that Anytus was the mastermind and simply found Socrates' ideas dangerous for Greek democracy and did not like Socrates' relationship with his son. Socrates (and his student Plato) is no fan of democracy, so that charge is not without foundation.Some good quotes come out of his apology:

"And I am called wise, for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find wanting in others:  but the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and by his answer he intends to show that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing." 

Socrates considers himself wise because he understands that he knows nothing.
"I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know. After that I went to another who was thought to be wiser than the former, and formed the very same opinion. Hence I became odious to him and to many others."
"even the best workmen appeared to me to have fallen into the same error as the poets; for each, because he excelled in the practice of his art, thought that he was very wise in other most important matters, and this mistake of theirs obscured the wisdom that they really possessed."

To him, to live was to philosophise and death was nothing to be feared. Note his comment when speculating as to his punishment before the jury:
"(I)f you say to me, Socrates, this time we will not mind Anytus, and you shall be let off, but upon one condition, that you are not to enquire and speculate in this way any more, and that if you are caught doing so again you shall die;--if this was the condition on which you let me go, I should reply:  Men of Athens, I honour and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy."

On the fear of death:

"For the fear of death is indeed the pretence of wisdom, and not real wisdom, being a pretence of knowing the unknown; and no one knows whether death, which men in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good."

Socrates did not fear death because as a philosopher he had loved justice and truth. Only those who care about their bodies and temporal passions should fear punishment in the afterlife. In his dialog with Phaedo on the subject we learn that Socrates believes our souls must be immortal and eternal. They existed somewhere before birth and had perfect knowledge. Our life is spend re-acquiring that knowledge. As explained later in The Republic, nothing that can harm the body can harm the soul, therefore even though the body perishes the soul does not. Socrates could face the afterlife with joy because he expected to be reunited with the gods and perfect knowledge. He were see only Forms of the truth, there we will see the truth. (I find this similar to the Apostle Paul's comments of in this life we see as in a mirror, darkly.)

Plato/Socrates see the body as inherently evil. The spirit-body dichotomy is very clear both in Dialogues and The Republic. It was Augustine and the Roman Catholic church's adoption of this philosophy that has created so much trouble in the Church today and a false belief in a sacred-secular dichotomy.

"For the body is a source of endless trouble to us by reason of the mere requirement of food; and also is liable to diseases which overtake and impede us in the search after truth: and by filling us so full of loves, and lusts, and fears, and fancies, and idols, and every sort of folly, prevents our ever having, as people say, so much as a thought. For whence come wars, and fightings, and factions? whence but from the body and the lusts of the body?  For wars are occasioned by the love of money, and money has to be acquired for the sake and in the service of the body; and in consequence of all these things the time which ought to be given to philosophy is lost."

The quote above also brings to mind Jesus' comment on the love of money being the root of all evil. Socrates (and later Augustine and monks thereafter) thought the best life was one in contemplation, in reading and studying. Anything to do with the body was mostly folly. 

"I reckon that we make the nearest approach to knowledge when we have the least possible concern or interest in the body, and are not saturated with the bodily nature, but remain pure until the hour when God himself is pleased to release us. And then the foolishness of the body will be cleared away and we shall be pure and hold converse with other pure souls, and know of ourselves the clear light everywhere; and this is surely the light of truth. For no impure thing is allowed to approach the pure."

The thoughts on the body are later refined in The Republic, where Plato/Socrates opine that sex and love cannot go together.

The book ends with the story of how Socrates accepted his fate and took poison, while his students and friends wept at their loss.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Plato in 90 Minutes and Socrates in 90 Minutes (Book Reviews #84-85 of 2014)

This year I have read several works on ancient Greek history and European history through the Middle Ages, along with other works examining the development of philosophy-- including Augustine's Confessions which incorporated Greek philosophy into Christian thought. But I had never read a complete work of Plato, a grievous error which I decided to right. Before reading Plato's Dialogues and The Republic, I finished these brief overviews of the life, works, and impacts of Plato and Socrates.

Nietzsche  and Heiddeger wrote that Plato and Aristotle ruined philosophy forever, that pre-socratic philosophers (like Pythagoras) had been on the right track in questioning what could possibly be known. Plato developed the theory of "Forms," that someone who is making a table has the form of a table in mind because he has already seen a table and knows what it is. If I say "cat" you have an image of a cat in your mind. Time is essentially a moving image of eternity, and Plato's theories on time would hold up for years. It would be until Augustine before someone attempted to really philosophize on time, (as far as we know from what records remain).

Plato apparently thought it possible to establish his utopia as described from the mouth of Socrates in The Republic on earth, with the help of a tyrant who he befriended. This utopia, as described in The Republic, was a nightmare of rigid classes and lack of individual freedom. This argument for this republic was arguably adopted by the Nazis and the Soviets who saw themselves as possessors of the truth that could set men free. Plato's Laws (which I have not read) apparently double down and create a "hell on earth," acccording to Strathern.

Plato's Dialogues was first on my list and I decided to read Paul Strathern's take on Socrates to get more background. Socrates introduced us to reason, further developed by Plato, who taught Aristotle, who eventually gave us logic. Almost all we know about Socrates comes from Plato, and we know that he had been both a soldier and a teacher. Both Plato and Socrates survived the years under the 30 Tyrants that ruled Athens briefly after the Peloponnesian War. But Socrates was sentenced to death later on the false charge raised by political enemies that he was an atheist and corrupter of the youth of Athens.

Socrates was apparently no lover of democracy.  He believed in an immortal soul that would receive rewards according to its good deeds, or pursuit of justice. Since philosophers alone embodied the true love of knowledge, and therefore piety and justice, they fare best in the afterlife. Socrates was therefore unafraid of dying.

These books illustrate the commonality of homosexuality, bisexuality, and pedophilia in Greek life. Socrates was married and writes of the love men have of boys-- he supposedly had relationships with some of his students. A story is told of an unsuccessful seduction of him by one of his admirers. Scholars suggest that one of the masterminds behind Socrates' trial was angry over a relationship Socrates may have had with his son. The author paints these dealings in somewhat of a humorous light (commenting on how old and ugly Socrates must have been) but it's hard for a modern reader not to be appalled at what passes for love in Greek culture. I give them both 4 stars because they are what they are as intended.

Podcast of the Week (9/7 - 9/13, 2014) Council on Foreign Relations Event Podcasts on Ukraine, NATO

Two very interesting podcasts interviewing experts on the situation in Ukraine and the decisions facing NATO generally. These are Media Conference Call podcasts where members of the media or other institutions call in and ask the experts their opinions. The questions are usually quite good and the answers quite thought-provoking

First podcast: 9/3/2014
"Listen to Ivo Daalder, former U.S. permanent representative to NATO and president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia and professor of political science at Stanford University discuss NATO's role in addressing global challenges, including Afghanistan, Ukraine, and ISIS."

McFaul is taking a fairly aggressive stance toward Russia and has advocated NATO expansion. He agreed strongly with President Obama's speech in Estonia.

Second podcast: 9/7/2014
"John Mearsheimer, R. Wendell Harrison distinguished service professor of political science at the University of Chicago and author of "Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West's Fault" in the September/October 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs, on the unintended effects of NATO expansion."

Mersheimer takes a George F. Kennan approach to foreign policy, quoting Kennan as prescient (see my recent review of Kennan's biography) in regards to Russia's reaction to NATO's expansion. Mearsheimer advocates for a neutral Ukraine and an end to aggressive NATO expansion, arguing that the post-2007 expansion into Georgia was "a bridge too far." He is also critical of McFaul's comments in the above podcast.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (Book Review #83 of 2014)

Catch-22: 50th Anniversary Edition
This book is usually ranked in the top ten best American novels of the 20th century on several lists. My wife is currently working through one of those lists and I had the best intentions to follow along some but this book bogged me down.

This is the most difficult fiction book I've ever had to plow through. According to GoodReads it is one of the most frequently started but unfinished books among its users. I read that the initial reviews for the book said that it would either delight you or drive you nuts, and it was definitely the latter for me. 

The author illustrates the cruel absurdity of war very well, too well. Catch-22 refers to a fictional clause in Army regulations that a person can be excused from combat if he is shown to be insane; but "anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy," hence he cannot be excused.

"Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions...If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to." 

In the closing chapters, which become quite dark, Catch-22 hardens into whatever the Army wants it to mean:
"Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing...'They don't have to show us Catch-22, the old woman answered. The law says they don't have to."
"What law says they don't have to?"
"Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticize, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon, or burn up."

Many of the chapters read like an Abbott and Costello skit which becomes increasingly frustrating. The characteristics that supposedly make this book good literature are its (often) non-chronological narrative, its increasingly-revealing flashbacks that tie events together, and its bridges between seemingly unrelated chapters. The author is also quite erudite, a dictionary while reading is helpful (which is why I'm thankful for e-books).

The characters in the story are morally base and the book becomes quite dark in later chapters as many of them die. War profiteers cynically turn the war into a business (which profits everyone while never being able to make a profit). All of the commanding officers deal with deep insecurities while the main character, Yossarian, deals mainly with his own fear of being killed. If one counted Yossarian's sexual partners in the book he would probably approach triple digits. Tragic loss of life, rape, poverty, and destruction are stark in the closing chapters, making the reader just eager to finish it.

The characters are all contradictions in nature.
"Clevinger was one of those people with lots of intelligence and no brains, and everyone knew it except those who soon found out...He was a very serious, very earnest and very conscientious dope."

"'It's not my business to save lives,' Doc Daneeka retorted sullenly."

My favorite chapter (20) introduces a hapless chaplain, who is hated by a jealous atheist underling for not being a great chaplain. The atheist, Corporal Whitcomb, secretly wishes to take the chaplain's position so he can improve the religious services and grow the flock.

"It was people like the chaplain, he concluded, who were responsible for giving religion such a bad name and making pariahs out of them both." 

There is much cynical commentary on war and government bureaucracy, which Heller reportedly had the Korean War in mind while writing the book in the 1950s. I read Thomas Ricks' The Generals while I was reading Catch-22 and it actually helped bring home some reality of Heller's work. Working for the government, I often see the inefficiency and absurdity of bureacracy.

"Major Major's father was an outspoken champion of economy in government, provided it did not interfere with the sacred duty of government to pay farmers as much as they could get for all the alfalfa they produced that no one else wanted or for not producing any alfalfa at all."

"I've got a dead man in my tent that nobody can throw out. His name is Mudd." 

I was really glad to finish this book. As I hated it so much, I cannot recommend it. Two stars. I appreciate it for what it is, but it greatly diminished my will to read "great literature."

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Sermon of the Week (8/24 - 8/30, 2014)

A belated post, this should have gone up last week. Rick Dunn Church Imagined 8/17 (on iTunes).
Fellowship finished their series on Ephesians and as an interlude Rick Dunn is preaching on developing a vision for the church's future. What do they want to accomplish and look like? He made some good comments about paradigms.

Christians may have rooted for Tim Tebow in the NFL because they thought he'd have a bigger platform to influence America for Christ than he would without the job-- but that is dictating to God what and how he can and should do things. God's paradigm is "upside down" from ours. God uses the small and weak to humble the big and strong. Megachurches are growing rapidly, and are easily made, but aren't visibly changing America for Jesus. Dunn quotes from this great blog post: How to Start a Megachurch in Seven Steps. Fellowship ironically falls under the "megachurch" description in the post, and does a good job of several of the steps. But Dunn notes that he'd rather be small with the Gospel at the core than larger.

Grace is what frees us to live without worrying about earning others' love and attention. Grace allows us to do work for His glory, whether we are an accountant or a homemaker. Work in such a way that you worship, and from your worship and praise the overflow will bless others. Others should look at how we live our lives and say "their daddy loves them."

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Book Review (#82 of 2014) George F. Kennan: An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis

George F. Kennan: An American Life 1st (first) Edition by Gaddis, John Lewis published by Penguin Press HC, The (2011)
I learned a lot from this authorized biography, the author was given "unrestricted access" to Kennan's journals, writings, and personal friends with the understanding that this book would be published after his death.

Kennan's thoughts and work have much to offer 2014 as we see an inter-Slavic conflict in Ukraine as well as the U.S. battling Islamic extremists in Iraq and Syria. Kennan would have understood very well Former Secretary of State Clinton's criticisms of the President for not having a coherent, consistent foreign policy. But he would also have been sympathetic to FDR's struggle with a hostile congress just as he was with JFK's struggles with Congress. After the breakup of the USSR, Kennan had argued for its non-alignment with NATO and criticized NATO expansion to Eastern Europe in the 1990s as unnecessarily provocative. He would probably see the current conflict as inevitable given the tensions that had built up. He would also see Putin's strongarm tactics as continuation of Russian history. Kennan was one of the first to recognize that the USSR was just the latest face on the flow of Russian history, led by strong autocrats with empirical ambitions and deep phobias about the Western world. He noted that dispatches written by diplomat Neal Brown from Russia in the 1850s could have just as easily been written in the 1950s, very little had changed.

But Kennan always quoted John Adams on foreign policy: Don't go abroad looking for monsters to destroy. The U.S. should be strong and set a definitive alternative vision for the world in contrast to Soviets, Islamic extremists, etc. Fight for freedom and democracy where feasible, but not every monster was a Hitler and some conflicts (like Vietnam, which he was fervently against) are best left avoided. Military strategy should be made concordant with political policy, and this is a theme I saw echoed in Robert Gates' recent memoir.

Kennan essentially had three fathers: His own, George Kennan (one of the first Americans to widely travel Russia and the Caucasus) who was Kennan's grandfather's cousin but shared both his birthday, name, and affinity for Russia, and Chekov. Every man has suffered a wound that shaped his development, Kennan's came from the loss of his mother in his infancy and rejection by family members-- including the above George Kennan's wife who made sure her husband had nothing to do with him (a shame, really). Nonetheless he was a "happy child" and a "normal boy" who got his first taste of overseas life (and learned fluent German) when his family lived in Germany for a time. From that he developed an appreciation of foreign culture and a wanderlust.

After a military high school, Kennan barely makes it into Princeton and wrote mix feelings about it, mainly finding it "homogenous" and remarks on the lack of foreigners or broader world view. He begins writing letters to his sister while at school, a lifelong endeavor that would be the source for many of his memories in this book. He got passport, took a boat to Europe one summer and fell upon the mercy of the U.S. consulate in Italy. After returning, he graduated from Princeton in 1925 and joins the newly-formed Foreign Service. After passing his exams, he is posted to Geneva, then Hamburg. Not enamored with complaints and lives of expats, he fell in love with a girl, and wanted to resign and also pursue graduate studies.

Kennan as bored, frustrated, physically exhausted, and cynical is a recurring theme. He often grows whimsical about doing other things, like farming, writing, or teaching. He is usually given a way out and a new chapter begins. This time, the FS sent to US for 6 months of leave where he elected to join a new program to train in critical languages-- he chose Russian in part out of family affiliation, even though the elder Kennan would have little to do with him. He was then stationed in Talinn, Estonia.
While studying in Germany, Kennan passes his Russian exam and marries a Swedish girl (Anna Sorensen). The Depression hits, bankrupting his parents, and Kennan begins to write very pessimistically about civilization. This would continue throughout his life. While professional and stable at home and the office, Kennan is crankily pessimistic, insecure, and often depressed. From 1931-1936, Kennan would be a part of the first U.S. diplomatic mission to Moscow after FDR officially normalized relations with the USSR in 1932. Kennan became one of State Department's most respected Russian experts. When FDR negotiated diplomatic recognition of Moscow in 1932, Kennan warned that Russians would break any agreements signed. This would also be a recurring theme of 20th century history.

While Kennan made a decent salary, he was often physically ill, could not stand working for political appointee ambassadors, and received a transfer to Jerusalem only to later be sent back to Moscow when the State Department reorganized its affairs. The depth at which the Soviets had penetrated the State Department and other branches of government during this time was truly remarkable and disturbing. Kennan was definitely anti-McCarthy but recognized areas where he saw Soviet influence.

Kennan is the ultimate expatriate, who knows one can never truly go home again. While he loves America, he also loathes its bad characteristics increasingly on every home visit. Kennan was fluent in Russian and well-versed in its history but remarkably ignorant of U.S. history. In 1938 he writes of how America needs a stronger central government led by elites with women and blacks kept from voting. It echoes the "Gentleman" concept of the late 1700s and the Founding Fathers but the author doesn't mention this; Kennan was just ignorant of previous American thought. Kennan later softens after seeing the brutality of fascism, Stalin's purges, and other acts of brutality by non-democratic governments. But he hopes America can rebuild from the Depression in such a way that the proletariat doesn't take the reigns as they did under Hitler in Germany. His journal writings come across as fairly anti-semitic, but he did work to get Jews out of Eastern Europe and Germany before America entered World War II, something he did not get much credit for.

Kennan is stationed in Prague during early days of the war and witnesses Nazi occupation. His wife's father was tortured by Germans when they took over Norway. Kennan Meets Germans in Prague who are against Hitler, but little anyone can do. He found the hypocrisy of the German army toward the Jews detestable. Kennan had missed the Soviet-Nazi pact, didn't forsee it. He is transferred to Berlin where he is later interred with other Americans after Pearl Harbor. While in Berlin, Kennan had affairs, which led his wife to leave kids with sister in U.S. and return to Europe. The details of Kennan's affairs are always a mystery but he has a roving eye his entire life, despite loving his wife. After being released, Kennan is stationed in Portugal where he negotiates on behalf of FDR for the use of Portugese land and bases. Eventually, he returns to Moscow under Ambassador Harriman. He is disturbed by the Roosevelt administration's lack of concern with human rights, especially with how FDR quashed talk of Polish mistreatment by Russia for election purposes. Kennan called Russia correctly, writing that they cared/talked only of international cooperation when they needed Western assistance, otherwise it was about grabbing power. Kennan warned various administrations not to let atomic knowledge fall into hands of Soviets for this reason.

Kennan again grows frustrated and weary. He tried again to resign in 1945 but was discouraged by his superiors because of his expertise and value. After Stalin's 1946 speech denouncing rest of the world, Kennan wrote "the long telegram," and 8,000 word document that essentially explained Soviet policy and established U.S. policy in addressing it. This made Kennan famous in Washington and then England and USSR compelled own ambassadors to write similar reports. It essentially launched Kennan's modern career. However, in 1947 he again wanted to resign again from foreign service, felt he could only do so much as diplomat. He had traveled Russia, Siberia (for his namesake) and seen more of the country and read more of its literature than any other American. Eventually, he was given an appointment at the newly-established War College in D.C., being paid well and able to teach/lecture to Army, Navy, and FSOs. Was making $15,000, a decent sum for the time.

An article penned anonymously by him appeared in the July 1947 edition of Foreign Affairs that outlined a policy of containment, which essentially became the Truman Doctrine. Kennan, more than any other diplomat before or since, had shaped U.S. foreign policy for the century. Kennan worked Worked under Sec. of State Marshall, and I enjoyed that this book gave me a different chapter on Marshall after reading Thomas Ricks' The Generals which focused much on Marshall's leadership and management style. Kennan helped craft the Marshall Plan, basically saying that U.S. policy should be to confront Russia on every front politically, even clandestinely. His recommendations in regards to Yugoslavia and China were also accepted-- China was to be left alone. Kennan was even sent to Japan and did brilliant end-run around McArthur and his "psychophants." He recommended independence for Japan along with aid, like Marshall Plan. The Marshall Plan took Stalin by surprise.
However, in 1948 Kennan began a "great reversal," going back on previous recommendations after becoming alarmed by the U.S.'s increasingly militarized response to Soviet aggression and fear of a third World War. Kennan had recommended pushing for a unified, neutral Germany and wanted to formulate an end of the Cold War rather than it go on indefinitely.

He was Director of Policy Planning-- and the book shows importance of this role in light of today. In 1949 Dean Acheson replaces Marshall as Secretary of State. Kennan advocates separating Communism from Russian Emperialism, which would help isolate Kremlin from places like Tito's Yugoslavia. He also recommends supporting Tito's communism as affront to Kremlin. However, many in Congress do not distinguish "good communists" from "bad communists" and Kennan's views are out-of-step again. He comes to loathe McCarthyism and the far right-wing of the Republican party. Sec. Acheson viewed Russian threat as primarily military and disregarded much of Kennan's policy advice. Kennan believed the Russian people would eventually "come around," and generally wanted peace, but was pessimistic that a peaceful outcome would be reached by the powers.

Kennan befriends Robert Oppenheimer and worked for the Institute for Advanced Study, writing and lecturing. Both Kennan and Oppenheimer publicly opposed developing a hydrogen bomb, convinced they would be used if they were ever made. He got onto the Princeton faculty with some considerable controversy and eventually his published books are acclaimed enough to justify his position there. Kennan also sponsored Russian dissident organizations, helping exiles get incorporated into American life. He published book, a "realist" view of foreign policy based on his surprisingly very popular lectures at U. of Chicago. Kennan's works would win a couple Pulitzer prizes. While lecturing at Princeton, he advises the State Dept. to negotiate an end to the Korean War. Kennan ends up being the conduit the Soviets choose to send the message--the Russians told him in a private meeting that they urged N. Korea & China to accept American truce proposal. This earned Kennan more favor with the Truman Administration, and Kennan is appointed Ambassador to the USSR in 1951.

Kennan found life in Moscow harder, like being in prison. He was lonely and isolated. At one point he requested the CIA provide him with suicide pills ostensibly because he thought war was inevitable, didn't want to be tortured and put in solitary. He also possibly had an affair and feared the news leaking. His wife eventually was able to come and didn't find it so intolerable. Kennan took everything personally, thought Stalin was out for him; indeed he was given a test by a fake dissident proposing assassination. Like a later Ambassador McFaul, Kennan made statements that enraged Kremlin and was banned. Kennan said his ambassadorship reminded him of his internment in Berlin (said while in Berlin). This comparison with the Nazis engraged the Kremlin and it Seems Stalin himself made the call to banish him.

Kennan eventually retired in 1953. He was succeeded in Moscow by Charles Bohlen, who was a long-time colleague and intellectual adversary that was also seen as too much of an "appeaser." Bohlen was later demoted, forced out in 1957, and Kennan had to defend him and others from accusations of collaboration with the Communists. Kennan lives the life of an expatriate and scholar. He becomes critical, almost spiteful, of his own country and its faults. "I didn't leave my country. It left me."

After Kennedy's election, Kennan is consulted for advice by JFK, who would meet with him 14 times in his Administration and exchange many letters. JFK gives Kennan the choice of ambassodorships, Poland or Yugoslavia, and Kennan chooses Yugoslavia. JFK pushes a crucial Trade Act through Congress, but the conservatives strip provisions in the bill that would maintain Poland and Yugoslavia's most favored nation status, something that would be a brutal blow to those countries. JFK gave promises about aid to Poland, Yugoslavia, but reneges. Kennan himself had lobbied Congress in person and made calls from Yugoslavia. JFK even promises to criticize while signing, and further reneges. Oddly, Kennan did not fault the President for not keeping his word, or the political situation. Domestic politics wins, and JFK wanted to look tough on communism. JFK later meets with Tito and apologizes while Kennan resigns his post. Kennan writes an article for Foreign Affairs on how the lack JFK's foreign policy is actually the fault of a paralyzing Congress eager to block the President at all turns (sounds familiar). LBJ is mentioned only briefly and comes across as distant, brooding.

The Kennans became world travelers while George lectured and wrote his memoirs. He also cultivated "friendships" with various ladies, including Stalin's daughter who defected in India. He became increasingly concerned about policy toward Southeast Asia and testifies before Congress (on national television) against intervention in Vietnam, which polls showed actually swayed public opinion.

Kissinger spoke highly of Kennan and Kennan had apparently tracked Kissinger's intellectual progress. Kennan was initially critical of detante but supported the idea of greater dialogue. Natan Sharansky (whose Case for Democracy I remember) and Alexander Solzhenitsyn later widely criticized Kennan. I would agree with them on this point, according to dissidents life got better for them when the U.S. took a harder line; it got worse when it got what it wanted through detant. Kennan was criticized for lack of moral clarity, but Kennan believed the U.S. could have little impact on what USSR did with its citizens. He appears to misjudge the U.S.'s influence on this point.
Reagan oddly enough echoed Kennan's writing, speeches, and policy-- negotiating arms reduction with USSR, but Kennan gave him no credit and was constantly critical. The author contrasts this with Kennan's affections for JFK who lied and did nothing, while Reagan actually opened dialogues and reduced the danger. Kennan was simply more cranky and vain in his old age. He probably hated Reagan for being from movies and ads, part of what he hated about America. He still assumed nuclear war inevitable.

To understand Kennan's worldview one need read a lot of Russian literature, primarily Chekov, along with Carl Von Clausewitz and Gibbon's Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon's work was instructive in developing Kennan's thoughts on the USSR. He felt that, like Rome, the Soviets had conquered too widely and spread their defenses too thin. Eventually the Soviet bloc territories and sattelites would be too expensive to maintain.
One weakness of this book is the lack of mention of hardly anything else in the State Department at this time, and how Kennan's work influenced other Russian/Soviet policy experts who came afterward. I would look for that aspect in another book, this one solely focuses on the man and his immediate impacts.
I give this book 4.5 stars and recommend it, especially to those interested in foreign policy vis a vis Russia.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Book Review (#79-81 of 2014) Tithing and the Church, Is Tithing for Today, Tithing: Low-Realm, Obsolete and Defunct

I will review three books in this post, which were free online (I will then break them up in my Goodreads and Amazon reviews). I recently wrote a strategy document related to church finances and had to think a bit about giving and think more about how other people think about it. Giving and tithing are often, erroneously, used interchangeably in churches today and that is a symptom of greater theological error. I am convinced I was taught erroneously about tithing both in Southern Baptist churches I've been a part of as well as from pulpits of other churches of diverse denominations I've attended. Asking what New Testament giving should look like, however, is like asking what our modern churches are supposed to look like. Our American Baptist churches are more liturgical and business-like than the ecclesia of Asia Minor in everything from finances to Communion.
My reading from Scripture and recorded history is that the earliest churches differed, sometimes contentiously, on various doctrinal issues (see Acts 15:7, 22-29; 21:21-26, Galatians 1, etc.). The predominantly Jewish church in Jerusalem (particularly before destruction of the Temple) likely had members and leaders who tithed and kept other parts of the law, and expected others to as well, contrary to the practice of the mainly Gentile converts in Asia Minor. As such, I can respect a wide variety of opinions on tithing (see Romans 14). I attend church with many who state varying viewpoints; it's important I know where I stand without offending them. But, where possible over time, I want to humbly and gently try and correct what I see as their misunderstanding of who we are in Christ. So, I found books arguing different view points, inspired by this post on the subject: "You can't outgive God...and other stupid statements."

The only book of the three I recommend reading is Matthew E. Narramore's (likely a pseudonym) book, which I use to critique the other two books.

Tithing and the Church is by Gary North, who is a "Christian economist" and Reconstructionist. He is in the "Austrian economics is Christian economics" camp, and is one who would remake America into a theocracy with reinstituted Jewish law complete with stoning adulterers. His take is one of the more crass, but his arguments are in line with the common legalistic arguments in favor of a mandatory 10% tithe.

North's view of the church is institutional. It is far removed from the New Testament example of believers sharing all they have in common, encouraging one another in love, etc. North draws no New Testament examples-- he does not cite any of the several examples of church giving from Paul's epistles, for example. His church is the same "storehouse" that was the Jewish Temple, deacons are basically Levites commanded to receive tithes and keep aliens from partaking of sacraments. The pastors are essentially priests with great legal authority over individual believers. While this may sound extreme, it is essentially the logical conclusion you must reach if you believe that the Old Testament tithe is binding on Christians today.

North begins with the common prooftext Malachi 3:8-12, which appears to say that God blesses tithers and curses non-tithers. But North does not give any context to this passage (nor for any passage he quotes). God is not speaking to individual Christians in this passage, verse 9 is clear that it's for an entire nation--Israel--which had neglected God's covenant with it for hundreds of years. By applying its blessings and curses to Christians today, North is claiming the church is under the Old Covenant. If that is the case, it is not clear what Christ died for-- this is clearly contrary to the Gospel. You have to at least eliminate Paul's letter to the Galatians to follow North down this path.

North also never explains the nuances of the Mosaic tithe-- provisions were made for the poor (Leviticus 14), for example-- not everyone was simply giving 10% of everything as North implies. Sadly, North is concerned that even though he gives 10% of his income he may still "come under God's corporate negative sanctions" because others aren't doing likewise.

Dangerously, North's view on a mandatory tithe seemingly makes it easy to judge a person's spiritual condition. If blessings aren't flowing on that person, he probably isn't tithing. North actually advocates deacons to check the tax returns of church members to ensure they are tithing.

North then stretches Hebrews 7, another common prooftext of tithers, to fit his paradigm, claiming that the Lord's Supper is "the restoration of the Old Covenant's covenental feast of Salem." He wrongly confuses Abraham's tithe with the Mosaic tithe without giving explanations as to why he links the two. North claims that Melchizidek was Christ, and "any attempt to escape the obligation of the tithe is an assault on the New Covenant's High Priest, Jesus Christ." This is erroneous for many reasons, a few simple ones:
1. Abraham already had a covenant with God that was not predicated on his giving.
2. God did not tell Abraham to tithe, nor do we have any evidence that he did it again.
3. Abraham's tithe did not come from the "increase" that North claims we must all tithe from. It was spoils of war and essentially cost him nothing, since he gave the rest of his spoils to the king of Sodom. This contradicts North's beliefs about what the tithe should be.
4. God had already blessed Abraham and made him rich on the basis of His promise alone-- not on the basis of his tithe to Melchizedek.

Hebrews was written to Christian Jews to convince them to keep their faith in Christ and not turn back to their old ways of Judaism. They put their trust in being descendents of Abraham, and the author points out that Abraham paid tithes to a king and priest of the most high God who was not of his own lineage; we don't know who Melchizedek's parents were, nor his descendents but he was still a priest of the Most High. Psalm 102 tells us that Jesus would be a priest like that, as the author of Hebrews tells us that priests in the Mosaic covenant did not come from Judah. The point is that the covenant has changed, and that Jesus' is superior. (Other sources have phrased it better than this paragraph. I recommend D.A. Carson et al's New Bible Commentary for one of the best, most concise takes on Hebrews 7). North neither acknowledges nor addresses these millenia-old arguments against a binding tithe on Christians.

Another problem with North's view is that only 10% of what we earn is God's, and the other 90% is totally ours. The reality is that everything we own is God's, and we are simply stewards of it; from Genesis through Revelation, this is what we're told repeatedly. In his view, we can earn righteousness and blessing-- diminishing Christ's sacrifice and manipulating God-- simply by paying 10%.

Another disturbing aspect of North's argument is that his most commonly cited source is himself-- his other books. His social theory examines the relationship between the Church, the State, and the Family. He sees the Church has having delegated economic authority to collect 10% and its refusal to preach its moral mandate as "cutting its own purse strings." He sees the State's encroachment on economic freedom through taxation as a consequence of the modern Church neglecting its economic mandate. He believes there will one day soon be an economic collapse in which the people of the world will no longer look to the State as guardian of the economy, but why would they look to churches who have neglected their moral authority and are so weak economically, he writes?

The second half of the book devolves into long argument against his father-in-law R.J. Rushdoony, who apparently lost his senses even more than North. Apparently there were some doctrinal schisms in the Reconstructionist movement and North decides to use this book to attack Rushdooney's odd positions. In the end, one can easily conclude that both North and Rushdooney are dangerous cranks, oblivious to any criticisms and the Reconstructionist movement something to be cautioned against. This is a zero-star book that no one should buy. It is terribly written.

One thought-provoking part of North's book that I agreed with was the urgency of churches to stay out of debt. Perhaps one day soon the government will remove the tax deductability of donations to churches, which will further erode churches' financial positions.

John F. Avanzini's Is Tithing for Today? is a shorter book that also looks at references to tithing out of context. Avanzini differs from Gary North in that he claims tithing started in the Garden of Eden-- Adam and Eve took care of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil but were forbidden to eat from it, which the author equates to a tithe. This is quite a stretch and it stands to reason that if this were the case it would be held up elsewhere in Scripture-- it isn't, and people like Avanzini who make this claim do so with a bad understanding of the New Covenant. Avanzini also takes Malachi 3 and Hebrews 7 completely out of context, doesn't bother to explain the context, and does not consider anyone's explanation of the text. He even claims that Hebrews 7 provides a "biblical account of the Christian church receiving tithes well into the church age," which is clearly unjustified. Part of the problem with Avanzini and North is that they rely on the King James Version rather than examine the Greek to see what words were added by translators.  

But Avanzini goes a step further in making our righteousness dependent on our tithe, rather than on Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. A person who is not seeing God's physical blessings flow on them is probably not tithing, according to Avanzini. Neither Avanzini nor Gary North teach the Gospel or explain Jesus' propitiation in their books-- that is easily the most damning aspect of their books. God's favor is something we can earn by giving just 10% of our income, that seems like a bargain but it's not the Gospel. Zero stars, do not buy this book.

Matthew E. Narramore (probably pseudonym)'s Tithing: Low-Realm, Obsolete & Defunct does an excellent job not only debunking arguments in Gary North and John Avanzini's books, but by explaining the Gospel. Narramore does not attack anyone by name, and accepts that God blesses people of all different views. Someone who gives 10% cheerfully and sincerely is pleasing to God, but that person also misunderstands the Gospel and who we are in Christ.

Narramore works carefully through the prooftexts given by those advocating a mandatory 10% tithe and explains their context succinctly. He explains what the various Mosaic tithes were and how the New Covenant is superior to the old.

"Ten percent is not an eternally sacred standard of giving. God required much more than the tithe under the Law of Moses. There were many more sacrifices and offerings that were commanded. Many interpret the Law to require two separate tithes and some believe that it required three...Jesus never called anyone to a ten-percent commitment. His call was to absolute abandonment of all things for him and absolute commitment of all things to him."

"The leaders in Jerusalem concluded that they would give the gentile believers only four instructions...But even some of these instructions were based on faulty theology. Paul made it clear in 1 Corinthians chapters 6, 8, and 10 that eating food offered to idols is not an issue if you have a revelation of the truth in Christ. If tithing was as important as it is said to be, the church leaders in Jerusalem would have certainly mentioned it."

"People who have wrong beliefs about tithing can still be greatly blessed, according to their faith and how they follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. But no matter how blessed and successful they are, it doesn't validate their doctrine and it doesn't mean they have all that God has made available. The glorious life of Christ cannot be fully experienced while following a way of life that was intended for men who lived before the resurrection...When the church gets a revelation of their union with Christ they will start living to serve God. They will have to be told to stop giving instead of having to be constantly harangued to start giving...The New Covenant has ended the compartmentalization of life. No part is more spiritual than another. In God's family enterprise we are expected to live for him with all of our resources, not just money." 

"If failure to tithe makes me a God-robber, then my righteousness depends on tithing. If failure to write out the first check on payday to the local church causes me to lose the favor of God on my life, then my righteousness must depend on doing that. If tithing is what redeems the remaining 90 percent of my paycheck, then the blood of Jesus did not redeem it. If a curse is going to come upon me for not tithing, then Christ has not redeemed me from the curse of the Law."

I give this book 4.5 stars as it is concise, clear, and biblically-based.