Friday, July 31, 2015

Our Trip to Kentucky Speedway for the Quaker State 400 (July 11, 2015)

My wonderful wife has a work connection that kindly got us some Sprint Cup tickets along with Cold Passes for the garage area before the race. So, we enjoyed being only feet away from our favorite crew chiefs and drivers. We love NASCAR but I find the actual in-race experience to be brutal, especially night races. It's much more fun and easier to follow all the action from your couch with commentary and Twitter handy (we had no data reception at the track). We left before the race ended to beat the traffic and avoid getting home after midnight. But visiting the garage area was definitely worth it, as was being able to witness pit stops from just behind the infield fence.

Here are some pictorial highlights:
They were working a lot on Jimmie's car and apparently it needed it as it broke early and was terrible. Still, they were revving it up here and it was awesome. 

We camped outside some of the trailers, Joni supporting Jeff Gordon. 

I'm stalking Jimmie's pit crew. I shouted encouragement to Chad Knaus as he walked past. 

Snap-on Tools was doing a demo and giveaway in the FanZone and we happened in just as Joey Logano got invited on stage. He answered several questions from the audience and was very knowledgeable about physics and explaining the special package they were running at Kentucky this year. He basically called how the race would turn out, minus the Kyle Busch victory. 

Me in front of the 48 pit box. Awesome. 

Dale Jr.'s car going to inspection. 

The eventual race winner. 

Carl Edwards' crew were all dressed as Minions. 

Clint Bowyer giving an interview and looking somewhat genuinely cheerful about it. 

Chad Knaus checking the weather. 

We stood where the drivers were all going by on their way to the track for introductions and got pictures of several, watching some get tackled by fans. Kyle Busch is in a golf cart with his wife. 

Our view of the night race before it got dark. 

Jimmie broke down early and often, this was a disappointing race for our drivers. 

Me with a stack of tires behind the garage. 

On the Trail of Genghis Khan by Tim Cope (Book Review #59 of 2015)

On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads
Australian Tim Cope sets out on a 10,000 km journey on horseback from Mongolia to Hungary across the Asian steppe to retrace the steps of the Mongols. What may sound like a romantic journey turns into a real painful slog. What was intended to take 16 months takes him three years instead. The further West he goes the more he finds the scars left by Soviets who worked hard to erase ethnic memories and connections to previous ways of life. If there is a romantic aspect it is when he finally crosses into Hungary and befriends a professor who did his dissertation on Mongol equine culture and loves to keep the old heritage alive. This isn't a tale filled with humorous happenings of a hapless Western traveler so much as it is a cautionary tale of ever attempting the same feat.

Cope does a good job explaining Mongolian history along his journey, describing the battles that took place and the incredible feats of the Mongols to stretch an empire so vast. He has a somewhat naive goal of finding Mongol roots of the names of places and in the present-day cultures that perhaps have been previously unexamined. He had previously authored a book and documentary traveling through Russia and China, and he picks up some support for this effort along the way as well; while this journey was completed in 2007 the first documentary came out in 2010 and the book was finished in 2013. Had he not carried a satellite phone with a computer this might have ended up a tragic story.

Tim is about my age. I used to live in the mountains of the Caucasus not far from cemeteries where supposedly Mongols and their horses were buried so I have had a similar fascination with them as him. I experienced much of the same post-Soviet nominally-Islamic culture that Cope experiences in Kazakhstan. The endless moonshine and vodka, being asked "hundreds of times" across the region "how much do women cost?" and the idea that visiting a prostitute and drinking are what make you a man. I've also witnessed the same phenomenon of disconnect from the past due to Soviet displacement or development, which I think Cope records very well. He also experiences months of frustration due to the red tape associated with transporting animals from country to country, a mixture of bureaucracy, bribery, and luck. This book is so similar to books written by other adventurers in the 1800s who traveled these areas; I recommend finding those old ones free online and then comparing Cope's journey (I hope he does the same, it would have added much to the book if he'd read other adventurers' travels through Central Asia and Russia).

He finds the greatest help and hospitality in Mongolia, and begins the journey with his European girlfriend who leaves after a few months for Germany. They break up then, and again long-distance. Cope gets some training on horses, acquires some, and sets out from village to village. It helps that he speaks some Mongol and apparently a good bit of Russian; also, he has an Australian veterinarian on speed dial via satellite phone. In Kazakhstan, he finds that Mongol discoveries like the advantages of horsehair clothing are known but the natives have long forgotten how to make them. He begins with a good experience among the Wakhan people  but the further West he gets the less hospitable it gets. He finds an awful lot of Soviet nostalgia mixed with tragic memories of the deportations and mass starvation during Stalin's collectivization phases. He gets essentially stranded in Akberkay, "a place that God forgot" as described by the locals, during a winter. He does a good job making what surely was months of sheer frustration sound like not a big deal in the scheme of things, constantly facing alcoholism and thievery.

He notes the stark contrast between the rural areas and the cities and the recent push toward Kazakh nationalism and native language. There are places his Russian really help him, and others where it doesn't as much as it would have 20 years ago. He forges through deserts and mountains, somehow maintaining the health of his horses and working to get food and shelter for all at every stop and with limited budget.

He crosses from Kazakhstan into southern Russia and spends time among the Kalmyk people near the Caspian Sea. He gets to see the ethnic tensions that exist between the minorities, arriving just after Russian troops have vacated after restoring order after riots. Chechens are hated by the locals and everyone is wary of Russia.  Traveling westward he encounters Cossacks who have long since lost touch with their horseback heritage as Cope has increasing difficulties taking care of his own animals.

From the Caucasus area he crosses (with much legal difficulty) into Crimea, and this bit from 2006-2007 is really helpful in giving context to the Russian annexation of the place in 2014-2015. He witnesses riots between Russians and Crimean Tatars who have been allowed to return since the early 1990s and want to re-establish their heritage. He sees alleged thugs hired by Medvedev to create problems and gets the understanding that Russia considers this to be Russian land for the Russians, not Ukranians or Tatars. As he moves westward through Ukraine he meets more Western-oriented Ukranian nationalists, the kinds that are fighting against Russia today. Durking his time in the Ukraine, his father unexpectedly passes away. Cope had seen him a few months prior when he was flown to Australia to receive a reward, and Cope again returns for the funeral. These interludes are interesting, as Cope always has to leave his horses (and his dog, Tigon) with strangers for a price and unknown amount of time. He is aided along the way by a few wealthy people who have a love of horses and eventually is able to enter Hungary, which seems to be the most fulfilling part of his journey.

He finishes his journey with his brother who comes for the last leg. Eventually he is able to crowdfund the money to bring Tigon to Australia. In the making of the documentary, he falls in love with a Mongol woman. He closes the book with a retrospective on the changing politics of the countries he traveled in, illustrating what changed from 2004-2013.

I give this book four stars out of five. It's a bit long and harrowing, but gives a great picture of Central Asia, Russia, and the Ukraine. I'd like to see the documentary now.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Attributes of God, Vol. 1 by A.W. Tozer (Book Review #58 of 2015)

The Attributes of God Volume 1 with Study Guide: A Journey Into the Father's Heart
Tozer's Pursuit of God (my review) is one of my all-time favorite books, and this one ranks pretty highly on the list of Christian works as well. The editor has compiled several Tozer sermons examining ten attributes of God. This was a free audio book of the month at I finished this book while in the middle of reading J.D. Grear's (very modern) Gospel Revolution. I find that while Grear intends to draw attention to the infinite magnitude of God in the Gospel, he is largely ignorant of the work of several before him-- like Tozer-- who did a very good job of this. Attributes can be read easily alongside Piper's Desiring God or God's Passion for His Glory, Piper's commentary on Jonathan Edwards' The End for Which God Created the World.

Tozer intends the Christian to marvel at God's infiniteness, something we cannot truly grasp. God is infinite and self-existent, he existed before time and created time. Since God existed before the universe as He created it, He has always enjoyed his triune self. God invites us to enjoy Him in Christ, that's the greatness of the Gospel. Real faith relies on God and His character as revealed in His word, true faith knows what God is like. God is enthusiastic, so we should be too. "God cannot be indifferent about anything."

"The local church will only be as strong as its perception of God," this is a good word. Where God is lifted up and magnified, the church is strengthened. But "our religion is weak because our god is weak," writes Tozer-- noting that supposedly Einstein rejected God because he did not find the God preached in American pulpits to be the same awesome God who must have created the marvelous universe. Tozer writes from his vantage point of mid-20th century America, where he saw churches with "more people and more spirituality but less holiness and less reverence for God." I would say now we have less of each.

God did not make us because we deserved it, but He made us to know Him, enjoy Him, and glorify Him. We have resurrection "because God loves his friends," -- like Abraham, and Moses. As Jesus reminded us, God is God of the living, not the dead. God is the only thing that can ultimately satisfy our never-ending wants.

Tozer writes that "justice" and "righteousness" are indistiguishable in Hebrew, it's the same word. God has always been just and always just as merciful. God is described as merciful many more times in the Old Testament than in the New Testament, something people unfamiliar with Scripture are mistaken about when they claim that God's nature is somehow different in the New Testament. Justification and regeneration are not the same, but one does not occur without the other.

Most Christians are "trying to be happy" but are left with a sense of "remoteness" from God. Tozer remarks on the remoteness, noting that our sin nature makes us feel remote but reminds the reader that God is not geographically or actually far away-- God is everywhere. We should remember that when we pray or when we work.

Tozer takes a tact similar to Augustine in interpreting the Song of Solomon as being symbolic of Jesus. This is problematic for many Hebrew scholars. Also of note, Tozer quotes often from 14th century Julian of Norwich's Revelation of Divine Love. This is probably a bit too mystic for some, but Tozer finds Julian's description of the vastness of God's love to be among the best available in English. It is important to keep in mind that Tozer is writing to Christians, those who are truly God's children in Christ. When he uses the term "we," he is not using it as meaning universally all people.

We cannot comprehend the holiness of God; when God talks about "pure white" we see "dingy gray." Only when we ponder the depth of God's infinite love in the Gospel can we start to be excited about holiness.

I give this book 4.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Forty Years in the Turkish Empire by Goodell and Prime (Book Review #57 of 2015)

Forty Years in the Turkish Empire - The Biography and Memoirs of William Goodell (1792-1867). This book is available copyright-free at in many formats. It was first published in 1875.

Goodell was among the first American missionaries to Turkey, and among the longest-lasting. He was a catalyst of and a witness to a great revival among Armenians there and was survived by children who also served there.

I will start this review with an attention-grabber, the single most awesome and telling statement about the task at hand, written in Beirut in 1823-1824:
"We almost daily read the Scriptures in Ancient Greek, Modern Greek, Ancient Armenian, Modern Armenian, Turkish Armenian (or Armeno-Turkisb), Arabic, Italian, and English, and frequently hear them read in Syriac, Hebrew, and French. Seldom do we sit down to our meals without hearing conversation at the table in Armenian, Greek, Arabic, Turkish, Italian, and English, and prayer daily ascends from this house — I hope to heaven — in all these languages, excepting the Italian. In translating the Scriptures, we have open before us the Bible in Ancient and Modern Greek, Ancient and Modern Armenian, Turkish, Armeno-Turkish, English, two translations in Arabic and three in Italian, and occasionally Hebrew and Syriac" (p. 104).

Goodell arrived in Istanbul prior to American missionary Cyrus Hamlin, who was under Goodell via the American Board. I read both of Hamlin's memoirs (here and here) and recommend them over this work, but there are many gems in this biography. This biography was compiled by Goodell's son-in-law, E.D.G. Prime, after his death; Goodell was unable to complete memoirs he set out to write at the behest of his family but the incomplete is included here. The author is no biographer, and mostly reprints dozens of letters and journal entries by Goodell while also adding in occasional commentary where he had knowledge. As a result, this 571 page book becomes a slog as personal letters are reprinted in their entirety rather than edited for content. As always, this forgotten book has led me to other forgotten books by missionaries and travelers mentioned therein.

Goodell himself speaks and writes in Bible-ese. Most of his letters are to church friends, donors, and fellow missionaries, so they are all filled with biblical language and exhortation. This is quaint and remarkable, but a bit much to read repeatedly. There is very little detail about his family life, had the compiler of this book not included details about his kids you would not know how many he had or where they ended up. There is little personal about his marriage and how they kept it going in difficult conditions in Istanbul; his wife is ill most of the time, but little is written about it. One gathers from Hamlin's memoirs that he and Goodell did not get along due to differences in opinions about education and a proper theology of work, and the few references to Hamlin by Goodell speak of him cordially but not often. Hamlin does write an epitaph for the book which recalls Goodell quite faithful and fondly.

Like Hamlin's books, this work provides a great snapshot of America in the early 1800s, particularly the religious life and development of churches. There were far fewer denominations in those days, and much more reliance on one another. Sunday School was a new invention, and controversial for replacing Catechism classes where Congregationalist children would memorize creeds of the Church. Fascinating statement about his local church options:

"As the Baptist meetinghouse was much nearer than the Congregational, we were not unfrequently found there on the Sabbath; and had it not been for disowning the Abrahamic covenant confirmed in Christ, and especially had it not been for close communition, which was strictly adhered to as an article of faith, some of us might have joined that church, for many of its members were earnest Christian men and women, loving the Bible, and speaking often one to another on the great subjects which concern our common salvation" (p. 33).  

Revivals under the Second Great Awakening happened while Goodell was in college. He notes a particularly remarkable one at Dartmouth College in 1815 and  documents the impact the alumni had on the world. Interestingly, while Goodell was attending Phillips Academy, he attended the commissioning service of Adonirom Judson and company to India in 1812. He notes that it was a large event with wide impact in terms of personal revival. It is not clear when Goodell made his mind up for overseas service, but he seemed to have a sense of wanting to fill whatever the greatest need was because he felt most-equipped. Here is a great missionary quote recorded after he made his mind up to go overseas:

"I used to think of great trials, such as leaving friends and country, being burned at the stake, having one's head chopped off, etc. I now think less of these, and more of the ten thousand little ones that will occur every day probably till I die. God's grace will be sufficient for all" (p. 82).

After graduating from Andover Theological Seminary and before going overseas, Goodell traveled most of known America, from Maine to Mississippi, where he became acquainted with Shawnee Indians along the way as he preached in churches and met missionaries to the Natives. Goodell follows in the heels of Pliny Fisk, Levi Parsons, and Levi Spaulding who earlier left for the Ottoman Middle East, Fisk to Palestine around 1819 (these also have biographies you can find archived). Jerusalem became Goodell's target, primarily to be a witness to Armenian Orthodox Christians and others there in a goal to see revival and a return to Scripture as opposed to oppressive traditions and he and his wife set sail in January, 1823 (p. 91-92). Initially, they and their fellow travelers lived in Malta where they ran a printing press which printed Gospel tracts in Greek and Armeno-Turkish, which is Turkish written in Armenian characters. Interestingly, the English government forbid dissemination of tracts on the island itself so as not to stir up the Greeks.

"Some idea of the extent to which the press was used may be gained from the statement that from July 1, 1822, to Dec. 31, 1828, there were issued at Malta, of books and tracts, 7,852,200 pages, and more than 5,000,000 pages were put in circulation" (p. 129). 

After several months, they set sail for Beirut, arriving in November. This part gets interesting because the Greeks have revolted for independence from Turkey, causing issues for trying to settle anywhere in the area. There is an anti-tax rebellion in Jerusalem that eventually has to be put down by an Ottoman Pasha. The Americans enjoyed the protection of the English consul in Beirut, given that there was not an American equivalent or a State Department at the time.

"The winter was spent in the study of the Turkish, the Arabic, and the Armenian languages; but the missionaries entered at once upon their work of preaching Christ in the house and by the way, wherever they found an opportunity or could make one. They distributed the Word of God in various languages, the books being furnished by the British and Foreign Bible Society" (p. 100). They were a local curiousity, with people of all ethnicities stopping by and often leaving with a tract or a Bible or having heard the Scripture read in Arabic or other local language by Americans who surely could barely speak it. This is both convicting and unbelievable:

"We almost daily read the Scriptures in Ancient Greek, Modern Greek, Ancient Armenian, Modern Armenian, Turkish Armenian (or Armeno-Turkish), Arabic, Italian, and English, and frequently hear them read in Syriac, Hebrew, and French" (p. 104). 

This is also pretty amazing, written in 1835:
"I had read the whole New Testament through five or six times in Ancient Greek, several times in Turkish, Armeno-Turkish, and Modern Greek, several times in Italian, Latin, and Arabic, and between fifty and sixty times in English; air this not carelessly, but with thought and reflection, and not only with attention of the mind, but with a sincere and prayerful desire of the heart to understand it, and that the more I read it the better I liked it" (p. 218).

Eventually, a local Maronite priest began to stir up opposition to the missionaries and forbid others to visit their homes or taking Bibles or tracts from them. This begins the long pattern of the book with Catholics and Armenian Orthodox threatening excommunication with anyone forming their own fellowships or having anything to do with the Protestant missionaries. Persecution took many forms, mostly affected the local converts, and ebbs and flows throughout the book. In every locale, the missionaries are aided in life and translation work by local converts with interesting testimonies. These, in turn, suffer much persecution and some are killed. Everyone faces excommunication for even speaking to the missionaries. In some cases, the locals resist the patriarchs after seeing the education that the missionaries' schools provide for their children. In the worst cases, the excommunications lead to trade bans which impoverish the converts. The worst of the persecution broke out around 1839, impoverishing many in the Armenian quarter. Cyrus Hamlin's memoirs cover this in more detail.

All the while, the Goodells host Westerners in a Sunday house church fellowship in each locale. Pliny Fisk died at the Goodell's in 1825. In 1826 a Greek force lands in Beirut which leads to an Ottoman seige and much intrigue. Goodell's house is raided by Ottoman soldiers and Goodell demands, and later receives, official redress. Europe eventually supports the Greek cause, which causes more dangerous complications. Just as the Armenian Patriarch in Istanbul apparently gives orders to expel the Americans from the continent, the Sultan happens to send his Janissaries to raze the Armenian quarter of Istanbul, killing many and burning their churches, which happens to save the American missionaries' positions in Beirut. Eventually, Goodell sends his family to a Maronite convent for protection, and he sneaks there occasionally in secret, fearing Turkish assassins bribed by the Armenians. By 1827, the French and English withdraw their consuls and the missionary work is suspended; the Goodells return to Malta.

By 1830, Goodell had completed his first edition of an Armeno-Turkish New Testament, which would be widely disseminated, later edited, and for which he would later write a commentary on some books. He laments that there is no available Turkish translation of the entire Bible, nor had the Turks translated the Koran into Turkish, which would have made his job of finding Turkish religious words more easy. He remarks that there are not even any Islamic prayer or devotional books found in Turkish. (I find this curious because Turks today study the Koran in an old Osman Turkish dialect which requires special training, I used to see advertisements for courses at mosques when I lived in Ankara.) Goodell does report of work of the British and Foreign Bible Society to translate the full Scripture into Turkish in the 1850s (p. 427). Goodell labors with a couple of Armenians to complete the task of translating the Old Testament into Armeno-Turk as well, which he would complete by 1841 in Istanbul. Reportedly, it is Goodell's translation that found wide dissemination throughout Central Asia and the Middle East wherever the Armenian diaspora was to be found. I am curious how his text affected the next official translation of Scriptures into Turkish. There is probably a dissertation to be written on scriptural translation in Turkey.

In 1831, at the age of 39, the Goodell takes his family to Constantinople (Istanbul) where they take up residence in Pera. Plague and fire are constant hazards in the lives of people then, causing many problems for months on end. Soon after getting settled, their home and all possessions, including much of his translation work, burn in a great "conflagration" (p. 139-149). Goodell often writes of having to quarantine his family and steam the mail and parcels they receive from infection. Some days the plague suddenly kills hundreds, other days fires take out hundreds of homes. 1831 also saw a ridiculous hail storm with stones as large as 14 inches in diameter destroying homes and killing animals. In 1837, a plague wiped out a significant part of the population, including some among the missionary families (p. 240).

There were reportedly one million people in Istanbul at the time, 15% of which were Greeks and Armenians, and 5% were Jews (p. 151). In the Ottoman days it was declared that the minorities govern themselves under officials appointed or at least approved by the Sultan. They were generally left to their own affairs with little Turkish interference.

Among the Americans in Istanbul at that time were Henry Eckford, shipbuilder to the Sultan, and Commodore Porter, a former Naval officer and official representative of the U.S. government (1831-1839. I have a copy of Porter's autobiography which I am certain is quite interesting). Porter and Goodell become good friends, Porter is supportive of the ministry and offers his residence to the Goodells at one point. The first American known to be born in Istanbul is Constantine Washington Goodell in 1831, after the fire. He would also die there of illness some years later. They have other children but few of their births are recorded, they just begin to show up in the letters and diaries, and only in the epitaph at the end do we hear what becomes of them.

The work in Istanbul was two-fold, establishing Lancastarian Schools for Greeks and Armenians and translating Scripture into Armeno-Turkish. The schools were controversial both for educating girls and using the Bible in classes. Goodell and the Americans were careful never to speak out against the Armenian church, but simply shared their beliefs when asked and provided Bibles and literature. Tracts given out years previously would find their way into many hands, some of which became converted. Goodell's prayer was for the Armenian Orthodox church to experience reform and revival from within, and he eventually saw many converts among priests. Persecution against the schools ebbed and flowed over the years, but some high-ranking Turks investigated establishing their own Lancastarian schools. It's important to recognize that the persecution the missionaries faced were by Catholic and Orthodox churches, sometimes on directive from St. Petersburg or Rome. Goodell recounts in a letter that 99 of 100 cases of persecution "come not from the Turks, but from these corrupt churches, — the Turks never of themselves showing a disposition to molest us, and being drawn in to side with our persecutors only when under this terrible outside pressure" (p. 464).

The missionaries eventually lived to see two edicts that dramatically increased the religious freedom of the entire population, including the right of one religion to convert to another. While it was not always protected faithfully, it was hailed as a great relief by the missionaries and the result of much prayer and work by a favorable English consul and others in the West.

There are a lot of observations about Turkish, Armenian, and Greek culture and Istanbul generally that would be fascinating to people who live there today but which I will not repeat here. Goodell, supposedly being able to hold his own in Arabic, Armenian, Greek, and Turkish, was widely acquainted with happenings. The book notes many other American travelers and missionaries who came and went during his forty years abroad. There are also some Ottoman military defeats that raised fear in the capital, particularly in 1833 when the Sultan ceded Syria to a viceroy.

"(T)he Turkish character is not altogether a compound of ignorance, grossness, barbarism, and ferocity, as it has been sometimes represented, for they have certainly some redeeming qualities. As a nation, they are temperate and very frugal. They make much less use of animal food than is common with ourselves; and it is only within a few years that they have begun in some places to transgress the laws of their prophet by indulging in wine. They are hospitable, but ceremonious; very easy and dignified in their manners, but, if report be true,, vicious and beastly in their habits; extremely kind to their domestics, and especially to their slaves; exercising unbounded benevolence towards the whole canine race, and not unfrequently a moderate degree towards some of their fellow-men; but furious in anger, and in executing vengeance on their enemies, terrible. They are much inclined to superstition, and, in general, attend strictly to the externals of their religion. Their natural gravity and taciturnity give them, in the view of strangers, the appearance of being haughty and disdainful ; and, indeed, they have a lofty national pride, which is in some instances so prominent as to be extremely offensive. But, after all, there is something in the Turkish character which I always admire; and I have frequently made the remark that, should they be brought under the influence of the Gospel, they would, to my taste, be the most interesting of all the Orientals" (p. 183).

This quote could have been written in 2015:
"The Mussulmans on other occasions as well as this have been frequently pointed out to me by Europeans as being a most sincere, devout, and praiseworthy people in respect to their devotions; and their punctilious observance of them, anywhere and everywhere, has been held up as an example for Protestant Christians to imitate. And yet these same Europeans would call us bigots, fanatics, hypocrites, and more names and worse than could be found in any dictionary, wore we to pray in that way in the streets, in the coffee shops, in the public places of resort, in the midst of our business, or wherever we might happen to be prays."
He concludes the thought about his observations about the ineffectiveness of religious devotion among the Turks:
"Nobody ever feels' that his life and property are in any degree the more secure because he has fallen into the hands of those who have just risen up from their prayers. No one is ever supposed to be the less covetous, the less selfish, the less impure, the less a cheat, a gambler, a liar, a defrauder, a murderer, because he prays. Nothing is farther from his own thoughts, or the thoughts of the bystanders, than that his prayer should exert any transforming influence upon his character" (p. 257-258).

At the height of the 1839 persecution, Sultan Mahmoud dies and his son Abdul Medjid ascends to the throne. Soon after, a great fire burned much of the Armenian quarter in Pera, destroying much of the wealth of the minorities there. Goodell reports that this was seen by the Armenians as a divine sign to stop persecuting the Protestants, and relief was given. Further relief came when Sultan Abdul Medjid issued what was hailed as the "Magna Charta of Turkey," the Hatti Sherif of Gül Hane (p. 280-281). The Hatti Sherif guaranteed some rights to liberty, including religious liberty. Later developments culminated in an 1844 decree and the more comprehensive 1856 Hatti Humayoun which even gave all people in the empire the right to convert to other religions and some freedom from government interference in religious affairs.

"There are few events in the history of nations more remarkable than these attempts at reform, and these constitutional guarantees, emanating not from the demands of the people, but from the throne of one of the most despotic governments that has ever existed, and steadily carried forward in opposition to the wishes of the official force of the empire" (p. 281).

The book also contains glimpses of the stresses of missionary life. Goodell writes a letter confessing his frustration at not being able to meet everyone's demands of him and explaining his daily routine. He is constantly being asked to write letters and report his happenings to American supporters, which takes time. He conducts religious services and baptisms for other Westerners, regardless of denominational affiliation. He's responsible for his own family as well as other missionary families. He has schools to run on top of his important work of translation. He's called upon by many in the community to converse on many things. At one point, his family forgoes coffee and other amenities in order to be in solidarity with budget cuts at the American Board.

"I seem to myself to be like the poor man who tried to please everybody, and pleased nobody, and accomplished nothing for himself. I must try more to please my blessed Lord, and let the whole world go" (p. 288).

Eventually, they see a dramatic "revival" among the Armenian Orthodox, with many leaving the church (and being excommunicated) starting their own churches in various parts of Istanbul and greater Anatolia. By 1846, Goodell records witnessing the ordination of new Armenian pastors in Istanbul and the growth of the church there.

"There are now seven evangelical churches in Turkey, and, before you receive this, there will probably be eight. These churches of the living God have nowhere to assemble but 'at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation,' in a private house, or in a room rented for the purpose, no house of prayer having been yet erected for any of them. The church of Constantinople was organized nearly two years ago, with forty members, and sixty have since been added to it, there having been additions at every communion" (p. 388-389). 

In 1856, Goodell writes that the number of Protestant churches in Turkey had grown to at least 30, only three of which were in Istanbul; services were sometimes performed jointly in Armenian and Turkish (p. 446).

The Goodells send some of their children back to the U.S. to study and return themselves in 1851 for the first time since leaving the U.S. thirty years prior; William travels the country visiting family and preaching in churches while his wife rests. He reportedly visited 18 states and traveled 21,000 miles in their two years stateside (p. 413). He even published a book about his observations about the changes he saw in America. He laments what he sees as the decline in the aggressiveness of the church, the lack of growth or desire for growth. I am pretty sure he would not be surprised at the state of things in his native New England today.

Goodell remarks upon returning to Istanbul in 1853:
"No romantic views of missionary life beckon us back; for we have had too long and too much experience in all the sober realities of this kind of life to feel the influence of any such romance. No glowing speeches from venerated fathers in the church now inspire us with enthusiasm to return to the scene of our former labors; for 'the fathers, where are they?' Their voices are silent in death, or faltering with age. No, it is only a strong sense of duty that urges us to return" (p. 418).

The Crimean War breaks out in 1853, creating many changes in Istanbul, but this affected Goodell's work apparently much less than Cyrus Hamlin's as recorded in Hamlin's memoirs. The Hatti Hamayoun granting religious freedoms was partially a result of Turkey's alliance with England and France. In 1859, Goodell writes of Turks frequently dropping in on Protestant services and reports of many converts and Bible-readers (possibly in Arabic?):

"Within the last five or six years, several hundred copies of the Holy Scriptures every year have been sold to the Turks. The history of these we never knew; but we now begin to find among the Turks those who really seem- to be Bible Christians, spiritually minded, who, with no teacher but the Bible, have become wise unto salvation. How many minds are thus awakened, and how many hearts are thus ; affected, it is impossible at present to say. "We are told of thousands but if they be counted only by hundreds, or even scores, it is still a great work. Facts are coming to our knowledge every day that fill us with astonishment. It really seems as though the heavens were about to 'drop down upon us abundantly.' A nephew of one of the pashas here, who lives with his uncle, and who was educated by him to be one of the four great Mollas of the empire, is a candidate for Christian baptism. More than 20 Mussulmans had been baptized in Constantinople, and one of these, Selim Effendi, who had taken as his Christian name Edward Williams, was licensed to preach the Gospel."

By 1863, Goodell had finished revising his translation of the Bible and commentaries he had written, turning his last days' efforts toward preaching. One of his sons returns to the U.S. to fight for the Union, and he remarks of other U.S. delegates who return to fight for the South. A daughter and son-in-law were laboring as missionaries in Harput/Elazığ in Eastern Turkey. By 1865 it is decided that William Goodell and his wife should retire to the U.S. to live with their Stateside children and live out their remaining days. They engage in travel and some speaking engagements before Goodell suddenly takes ill and passes away in 1867, he is buried in West Philadelphia in the same cemetary as Commodore Porter. Mrs. Goodell dies in 1871. The book concludes with epitaphs and memorials from Goodell's former coworkers and friends, and the Hatti Hamayoun and Gül Hane proclamatıons are reprinted in English as appendices.

"He was a man of courage as well as a man of peace" (p. 537).

Like Hamlin's books, I would like Goodell's to be as widely-read as possible. 5 stars.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Sermon of the Week (7/19 - 7/25, 2015) Ecclesiastes by Tom Schreiner

Tom Schreiner is an extraordinary Bible scholar to have in one's church every Sunday, so those at Clifton Baptist are quite blessed. He has been walking through Ecclesiastes and I have found the sermons quite good. The theme is the futility of trying to find ultimate joy and satisfaction in anything other than God. I highly recommend his Ecclesiastes overview as well as all the others found here.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

In the Shadow of the Sword by Tom Holland (Book Review #56 of 2015)

In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire
I started writing a review of this book and realized that my notes as well as the additional history I needed to look up and read more on were so long that it would take days to write it, so I will summarize. I learned much from this thought-provoking book. I have read Hourani's History of the Arab Peoples and will now need to lower my rating of it, one realizes that author left out so much of religious and cultural importance in the centuries both before and after Mohammed. I have read other histories of Islam and the Middle East but all omitted the details that this book includes, and the devil truly is in the details. The author is tying together multiple strands of Middle Eastern history to help the reader understand the historical context that a historical Prophet Muhammed would have lived in and Islam took root in. He also details what we know about the history of early Islam and the never-ending wars between adherents of Islam for power.

Although not its objective, this book does a great job helping a Westerner understand that the inter-Islamic war we see raging in the Middle East and North Africa today is neither new nor unusual in history. (By this I mean Saudi-backed Sunnis fighting Iranian-backed Shia in Yemen, multiple Sunni states fighting ISIL in Syria, Fatah fighting the PLA in Palestine, etc. The book also provides many historical reminders that Christians throughout the ages have tried to interpret biblical prophecy/eschatology through the lens of events around them. Who was the fourth beast of Daniel? Was it Rome? Was Constantine's conversion the foretold fall of the fourth beast? When Rome crumbled and fell speculation about the Beast shifted to the followers of Mohammed. When Arab tribes fought wars amongst themselves, the certainty about the prophecies became more uncertain. I enjoyed the citation of so many ancient sources by the author.

Holland points out that there is no well-preserved history of early Islam. No complete history was compiled until the 9th century, no writings exist prior to two centuries after the Prophet. Even the battles that Muhammed fought in the Koran cannot be verified. There is one Jewish record of a "false prophet" invading Palestine dating around two years after Muhammed's reported death. Ibn Is Sham's biography circa 800 AD is about the most authoritative that can be found.

The author attempts to investigate the roots of Islam-- what can we piece together about the Prophet and the Koran? Is it possible to provide the historical/critical analysis of the Koran that is so popular with the Bible today? (Ans: No) Where was Muhammad from? Where was the Koran written, and when? He presents surprising evidence that the Koran and sayings of Muhammad were not important to early Islamic chieftans who conquered, and warred with one another, in the name of Islam. The Koran was later declared eternal and uncreated, hadiths recorded were eventually examined and narrowed, while still containing various contradictions and historical problems.

More interestingly is the author's hypotheses of various verses in the Koran being inspired by or copied from the religions present around Mecca at the time, including gnostic Christianity, Judaized Christianity, Jews and Samaritans, Greco-Roman pagans, Arab pagans, and Zoroastrians. This explains why it contains stories of Jesus found in Gnostic gospels like Thomas, creeds from Zoroastrianism, etc. Biblical texts are always being discovered and compared to one another, thousands of manuscripts exist and are endlessly studied and compared. In contrast, supposedly the earlist Korans were recently discovered in Yemen, and while two scholars were invited to examine the texts access was barred after one claimed it contained differences from the accepted, authoritative (eternal and uncreated) Koran.

One story found in the Koran but appearing to have ancient Christian roots is that of the Seven Sleepers. Holland writes that the legend originates around Ephesus, but this appears to be quite uncertain and controversial in reality. Nonetheless, it was widely-known enough that it found its way into the reported words of the Prophet.

In Part II of the book, the author explains the history of Persia as well as the Sassanians, the role of the "Shah of Shas" which long predates Islam or Christianity. I found the explanation of Zoroastrianism and the Shah's role as "protector of the true religion" interesting. Priests had to make up a story to go with the "mathra" of Zoroastrianism. Early adherance to Islam took on a decidedly Zorastrian style in Persia, and much of how Sharia law is administered owed itself more to the religions around the area than to anything in the Koran itself.

A brief history of the Jews is explained, from the exile in Babylon and the formal writing of the Torah and the first commentary on the text, to the Jews initial hailing of Muhammad as a liberator of Jerusalem from the Romans to their eventual disappointment.

We moderners forget that ancient communities were not as segregated as we like to imagine. Jews and Parthians converted to Christianity and retained aspects of their former lives. Samaritans battling Justinian's soldiers fled to Persia and took their religious beliefs with them. There were Christians living like Jews in Mesopotamia, and Christians fell into conflict with Zoroastrians. The author cites records that Zoroastrian communities sometimes accepted or embraced Christianity, or at least tolerated Christians, because they performed miracles-- healings, exorcisms, etc. that modern Christian cessationists would be uncomfortable thinking about. In any case, Christianity of 600-800 A.D. was a "kaleidescope" of theology and practice. It was this world that Muhammad would have traveled and interacted in.

Holland includes the history of the Roman Empire's entrance into Palestine and Syria and its conflicts with the Persians among others. Probably 1/3 of the book focuses on the time of Justinian, his codex, his interpretation of Christianity, the fight to renew the wide borders of the Empire, and the Plague which wiped out much of Christendom's population and set the stage for Islamic conquest through Anatolia and into Europe. I recommend Justinian's Flea as another detailed account of this period.

In all, I give this book 4.5 stars out of 5. There are some points where he retells a story (like the Seven Sleepers) for dramatic effect without explaining that he is telling perhaps one disputed version of the story. But his hypotheses are worth examining. I read an article recently by another historian saying that perhaps Islam is popular because the Koran has not been subject to the same textual analysis and criticism that the Bible and other religious texts have been subjected to. I think that is ultimately the unspoken conclusion the reader gleans from Shadow of the Sword. Legends often come from actual events but are embellished to fit the needs of the storyteller. The early adhererents of Islam put together a story to maintain unity among warring factions to make war on other "incorrect" factions and fill the void left by the dying Roman empire. Disagreements about the story still remain and factions are still fighting for power and control in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman and British Empires (outside the scope of this book), so 2015 looks a lot like 715.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Podcast of the Week (7/5 - 7/11, 2015) Tom Doyle (2 parts) and William Lane Craig on Islam

I've been swamped with work the past couple weeks, so my podcast and book reviews are lacking. I recently finished this book and found these podcasts fit nicely into my week afterward.
The first two come from the Crescent Project which is an interesting ministry to check out. Tom Doyle, author and traveler of the Middle East, tells many fascinating stories of the dreams of Jesus being had by Muslims all over the Middle East. Part 1 and Part 2 (mp3s). Listen to the first part of Part 2 and be amazed.
William Lane Craig recently spoke at a National Religious Broadcasters meeting on The Concept of God in Islam and Christianity (transcript and downloadable mp3s). Craig argues that the understanding of the Christian doctrine of the trinity as found in the Quran is mistaken-- it was Father, Son, Mary. He argues that the Christian doctrine of the trinity is rational and that the Muslim concept of God is rationally objectionable:

"I’d like to finish out my first point by offering an argument for why it is plausible to think that God is a Trinity. To begin with, God is by definition the greatest conceivable being. If you could conceive of anything greater than God then that would be God. Every Muslim who dies with the cry, “Allahu Akbar!” on his lips recognizes this point. God is the greatest being conceivable. Now, as the greatest conceivable being, God must be perfect. If there were any imperfection in God then he would not be the greatest conceivable being.A perfect being must be a loving being, for love is a moral perfection. It is better for a person to be loving than unloving. God, therefore, must be a perfectly loving being...
according to the Qur'an God’s love is reserved for the God-fearing and the good-doers; but he has no love for sinners and unbelievers. Thus, in the Islamic conception of God, God is not all-loving. His love is partial and has to be earned. The Muslim God only loves those who first love Him. His love thus rises no higher than the sort of love that Jesus said even tax-collectors and sinners exhibit."

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Toxic Workplace by Kusy and Holloway (Book Review #55 of 2015)

Toxic Workplace!: Managing Toxic Personalities and Their Systems of Power

I stumbled across this book while trying to make sense of my workplace. This is the first book I've seen that takes a detailed look at what to do with a dysfunctional organization member and prescriptions for preventing future misbehavior. Like most business-related books, the prescriptions seem common sense but so few organizations implement them. A prerequisite for this book would be Crucial Conversations, as the authors promote some similar best practices in communication when alerting the toxic member to his behavior and how best to communicate to bring about results.

I looked at this book primarily through the lens of church discipline, as I found it quite relevant and I recommend this to anyone who reads the IX Marks literature. The authors surveyed managers and lower-level employees at hundreds of organizations to get feedback on "toxic" individuals and how they'd been dealt with. The result is a convincing argument about strategies that don't work, some of which seems counter-intuitive. Leadership intervening or confronting the person is not nearly effective as peer intervention. Firing the person, all else constant, will not solve the problem. There are cogent explanations that just to "expel the immoral brethren from among you" is not enough because you have to deal with the structures that were constructed both to enable and avoid the toxic personality. The entire culture of the organization has to be addressed. You have to build a culture with clear mission and expectations about negativity and acceptable behavior, so that everyone can be evaluated against clear standards. Exit interviews are crucial with anyone leaving your church to help identify organizational weaknesses that can be fixed.

Who is truly "toxic" or what is a "toxic environment?" Workplaces where illegal activity, like sexual harassment, are obvious but not the focus of the book. Toxic people are defined as having characteristics of intimidation, using subtle putdowns, negativity, shaming, and cynicism to assert their will on others. There is a "passive hostility" that everyone is aware of and would rather just avoid. He or she can be distrusting and territorial, often micromanaging if she's a manager, and taking an interest in other peoples' business as though its his own purview. There is a narcissism about them as well. The toxic are even willing to sabotage team efforts if things are not done to their liking. The authors find that, remarkably, the toxic individual is usually truly "clueless" of his or her toxicity. Most have lived their lives without anyone having the uncomfortable conversation with them about their behaviors.

Toxic people are often enabled because they are never confronted, or there exists no standard by which to confront the person. Many are kept on because their work is "necessary" and management is willing to put up with the toxicity so long as there is productivity. The authors write that this is a false choice-- while that individual may be productive, the overall effect on the organization is likely negative, hence he or she should be replaced with someone who could do the same job without the negativity. The authors don't mention professional sports, but after reading Michael Lazenby's biography of Michael Jordan it is clear that he is a toxic individual. I thought about him, Kobe Bryant, Barry Bonds, and others who were MVPs of their sports and often loathed by coaches, owners, and teammates for their toxic attitude. But in some cases, like Jordan, the toxic individual truly is the best at what he does and one cannot argue with a 72-win season. Toxic individuals often have "toxic protectors," a small group of loyalists who either fear or truly like the individual or at least seek his favor. Sometimes the structure of the organization or the lack of explicitly-stated values also protect the toxic.

I think there are times when I am the toxic individual. I know too much or perhaps am the "wet blanket" that extinguishes someone else's bright idea. There are individuals who I may think are toxic but many others seem to like. There are some in other departments who my own department interacts well with, but whose own department thinks are toxic. It's a bit tricky to put a finger on. But toxic people are generally avoided by others and eventually drive the "best" and most talented out to other organizations, leaving only the toxic in the organization. By the time management confronts them, if at all, it's too late-- the structures and defense mechanisms in place will still lead to organizational decay.

I most appreciated the comment recorded by the manager of a government agency, who stated that he bucked the stereotype of not being able to fire government employees. The manager set clear standards and values for his department by which every subordinate knew he or she would be evaluated. This allowed him to deal with problems and fire those who were unwilling to meet the standards could either quit or be fired. Simply restructuring, moving a person to a different position or changing the work assignments, was ineffective by itself. You must have a known system of values or the problem behavior will continue.

Part II of the book deals with how to change the culture of the organization, and communication strategies with the toxic organization member. The organization needs to include its values on the employee review form (what, conduct regular performance reviews?). "Respect" should be on the list of values, but management should also allow employees/members to state their own values and determine which values should be included on employee evaluations. (My government office actually has this, but some departments have abandoned doing them.) There need to be set rules for how feedback will be shared in the future.

The authors discuss team development surveys and 360 degree evaluation. If using 360 degree evals, do them with utmost confidentiality, with info kept even from the supervising manager. The authors have cautions about using a consultant; a consultant can help guide your organization through change (the authors are such consultants) but you cannot outsource dealing with toxic employees to a consultant. Above all, termination should be a last resort-- do the heavy lifting of changing your organizational culture and let the toxic person decide either to reform or leave. Research found that the toxic individual actually changed for the better, at least for a while, and many left when they decided they didn't like the reform. The authors discuss "renewal" and moving forward after a toxic individual leaves-- there needs to be a healing process and a time to deal with the various organizational weaknesses that were exposed. Like most business books, there are charts and diagrams for holding these types of discussions and formalizing a strategy.

I would recommend this book to anyone who has the power to influence an organization to which he is a member. It gets a bit wordy, but is very thought-provoking. I give it 4 stars out of 5.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

The Accidental Universe by Alan Lightman (Book Review #54 of 2015)

The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew
I have read several of Brian Greene's and Stephen Hawking's books detailing the history of modern physics, string theory in its various iterations, and the theoretical possibilities of a multiverse. Lightman does a much better job summing up the philosophical implications of theoretical physics in very stark form. He is also much more transparent about the fact that there are Nobel prize-winning physicists who don't buy the multiverse theory and believe in a Creator and an intelligence behind the design of our universe rather than a theoretically infinite number of universes created by no intelligence. Lightman admits the "fine-tuning" of the cosmological constants necessary for our universe to be the way it is are astronomically improbable. While charitable to his colleagues who believe in a higher power, Lightman disagrees with them. In Lightman's view, we are simply a random collection of molecules put together by chance. "We are an accident," he states, a mathematical improbability in our own universe -- "one millionth of one billionth of a percent in our universe is life" -- but when the denominator is infinity (the infinite multiverse) improbable is relative. "Science can never know how universe was created," yet he's certain how it was not created.

He details early in the book what this means for humans. He loves his daughter, feels attached to her, cares for her. But then he remembers that she's just a random collection of atoms and, like his own atoms, will one day be nothing more than scattered into the universe. He admits this is hard to wrap his mind around, his mind longs for eternity and he is "self-delusional" in his longing for immortality. But since everything in the universe decays or dies and the law of entropy says that everything moves from order to disorder there can be nothing more than this. Life is therefore meaningless, absurd. Not since Hawking wrote in Black Holes and Baby Universes that we have two options: God, or  grand unifying theory that explains everything from the Big Bang to why I ate a salad for lunch. Hawking rejected the former and later recanted on the GUT (which was supposed to bridge quantum mechanics with the standard model), basically the multiverse via string theory has replaced his GUT. Meaning, again, that both the big bang and my salad were random and need no explanation.

It's odd that Lightman even uses the word "life" in the book since how do you define a random collection of atoms whose extinguishing means nothing as "life"? What is consciousness? If I were to kill his daughter, why would that be wrong, I'm just scattering her atoms about the universe? The fact that his brain has evolved to find that idea repulsive is his own problem. Atoms have no ethics and it's silly to call things that are random "evil." For an MIT professor who also teaches philosophy he surprisingly doesn't raise the question. Odder still is that he later heralds natural selection and the ability of millions of cells to transmit information when reproducing without noting that some atheist biologists have concluded that this is impossible without some sort of guided process. How did the basic building blocks of life know that they needed to survive? These biologists have followed Lightman's logic to its conclusion, apparently unknown to Lightman himself, that we are the result of a completely random process.

I have also read physicist Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics, critiquing string theory and modern physics in general. I highly recommend that book to anyone who thinks string theory is all that there is. There are alternative, testable theories out there. Which is another irony because Lightman writes that science "must be verified and tested" but doesn't apply this to either string theory or the multiverse. Stephen Hawking wrote in The Universe in a Nutshell that you would need a particle collider larger than the size of the universe to test some aspects of string theory. Yet Lightman hails theoretical physics as "the purest form of science."

Cosmologist George Ellis was quoted recently in Scientific American criticizing physicists like Lightman and Lawrence Krauss who have moved away from physics and science to pure metaphysical hypotheses which are not testable.
"Krauss does not explain in what way these entities could have pre-existed the coming into being of the universe, why they should have existed at all, or why they should have had the form they did.  And he gives no experimental or observational process whereby we could test these vivid speculations of the supposed universe-generation mechanism. How indeed can you test what existed before the universe existed? You can’t."

Lightman's essays contradict themselves in this regard: he praises scientific measurement and cheering on the work of phsyics toward a complete set of the fundamental laws of our universe while earlier saying that if the multiverse is true them most of physics is "useless" as there is "no point" in explaining why things in our universe are the way they are-- it was just random. Other universes are flat, some are round, some are finite, some are infinite, some contain the null set, and in some universes every law that holds in ours doesn't hold, and vice-versa.

Lightman contends that a God "consistent with science" can only exist outside the universe, never intervening in its immutable, unchangeable laws. This rules out anything miraculous, whether there is evidence or not to the contrary-- and he examines no evidence or testimony of the physically unexplainable. (I read Eric Metaxas' Miracles just prior to this book, the first bit of which argues philosophically against Lightman's conclusions.) God is the watchmaker who let the universe wind up, go and never intervenes, somehow can't intervene without the entire universe falling apart according to Lightman. Lightman rejects the "immanentism" of Spinoza and Einstein.

The essays also contain brief explanations of the importance of symmetry and discovery of the Higgs-Boson. There is also some overview of philosophical history but nothing in-depth. As I wrote above, he ignores his own theory's implications for ethics and the problem of evil. He writes of how he had somehow a sort of mental connection with a bird once, yet seemingly forgets that this, like his daugher, was purely random and meaningless. He cites plenty of deist scientists along the way, and criticizes Lawrence Krauss for being critical of faith. He considers faith to be rational, and rightly notes many scientific, economic, and political achievements that have come forth from theists who felt their exploration of science was a way to understand better how God created things, wrong-headed though they were. But this again ignores the fact that it's hard to define what is "ethical" or an "advancement" when we're purely random and there are no consequences, ultimately, for our actions.

He concludes the book with some futurist silliness that reminded me of Lightman's fellow multiverse proponent Brian Greene in The Hidden Reality where Greene writes that another plausible alternative to the multiverse is that nothing in our world is actually real, we could all be living in a simulated multiverse. A "software glitch" explains why we can't reconcile quantum mechanics and the standard model or discover all of the fundamental laws. We are just Sims in someone's video game, and those playing us are also likely Sims, who are being played by Sims and so on. Physics has truly set philosophy back millenia.

As I wrote above, Lightman's work does a great job showing the logical conclusion of the multiverse in a succinct fashion. I recommend reading it for yourself, but only 3.5 stars because as another sympathetic reviewer writing for the left-leaning magazine Salon pointed out: "Perhaps Lightman contradicts himself."

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Miracles by Eric Metaxas (Book Review #53 of 2015)

Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life

This is my first encounter with Metaxas' writing outside of childrens books he wrote early in his career that my son has. I read atheist-humanist physicist/philosopher Alan Lightman's The Accidental Universe immediately after this book, and I highly recommend the two juxtaposed. Lightman's book confirms Metaxas' summary of modern physics and cosmology, while taking the completely opposite view. For a preview of the cosmology of the book, check out Metaxas' article in the Wall Street Journal last year, which is supposedly the most-clicked article the history of the website.

Much of this book is autobiographical. Metaxas is of Greek-German descent and was raised in a Greek Orthodox church. When he later comes to a saving faith, he encounters his church in different ways. He reconnects with his German roots in the process of writing his bestseller Bonhoeffer, and he describes what he believes are supernatural events around that book. Metaxas is a good student of C.S. Lewis, quoting heavily from several of his works. I think this book is targeted at two audiences: Hyper-cessasionists like John MacArthur and atheists/materialists skeptical of anything unexplained by nature. On the former, Metaxas notes it would be inconsistent with God's character to intervene throughout history recorded by Scripture to reveal himself to others and encourage His followers and not afterward. To the latter, besides arguing for the probability of design in the cosmos, he also provides testimony that is verifiable by eyewitnesses of various events. One cannot prove either that God created or did not create the cosmos or that any of the recorded events happen, but one can give evidence "beyond a reasonable doubt," which he states is his purpose. Metaxas was a member of Tim Keller's Redeemer Presbyterian, so you know he's been discipled with good doctrine. He's widely considered orthodox and uncontroversial, but some of the details of the miracle accounts are troubling for their somewhat "anything goes" implications. I highly recommend reading the last chapters of Augustine's classic The City of God before reading this book as you'll see similarities between the miracles that Augustine observes and recounts and what Metaxas recounts. It does not appear Metaxas has read Augustine, which is too bad.

The first chapters deal with cosmology. I have read Lightman, Hawking, Greene, Smolin, and others on the issue of cosmology, string theory, M-theory, and the multiverse. Why do things exist, and why do they keep existing? Metaxas recounts all of the "fine-tuning" of the cosmological constants necessary in order for our current universe to exist and for life to exist on earth:

"For instance, if the ratio between the nuclear strong force and the electromagnetic force had been off by the tiniest fraction of the tiniest fraction—by even one part in 100,000,000,000,000,000—then no stars could have ever formed at all. Feel free to gulp. Multiply that single parameter by all the other necessary conditions, and the odds against the universe existing are so heart-stoppingly astronomical that the notion that it all “just happened” defies common sense. It would be like tossing a coin and having it come up heads 10 quintillion times in a row. Really?"

Since the SETI experiments in the 1970s, scientists have come out with increasingly stringent requirements for life to exist elsewhere such that now the odds of our own existence are something like one in ten to the fiftieth power. This is why many scientists, physicists included, do not reject the existence of a Creator.

Hawking and Lightman deal with the anthropic principle in their books, and argue that the only true way around it is the theory of the multiverse, which they readily subscribe to. Comsmologist George Ellis was quoted recently in Scientific American criticizing physicists like them who have moved away from physics and science to pure metaphysical hypotheses which are not testable.
"(Lawrence) Krauss does not explain in what way these entities could have pre-existed the coming into being of the universe, why they should have existed at all, or why they should have had the form they did.  And he gives no experimental or observational process whereby we could test these vivid speculations of the supposed universe-generation mechanism. How indeed can you test what existed before the universe existed? You can’t."

Lightman argues that since all scientific laws are immutable, God cannot interfere with them-- if he created the universe he's the watchmaker who wound it up and let it go. All events thereafter are the result of random chance as the processes play out. Metaxas' point is that the evidence suggests otherwise-- both that there was an order to design and that things today happen non-randomly, and that the laws of nature are violated. And if everything that happens here is a result of random assembly of molecules, then we have no basis for calling anything a "life," ethics, laws, morals, etc. The randomness of string theorists does not play well with the theory of natural selection, which requires information be transmitted non-randomly via genes. He notes Nobel prize winners in various fields, including physics, who uphold Design as a possibility. For Lightman et al, the multiverse is the answer-- the highly improbable becomes probable when dealing with infinite possibilities that co-exist at the same time. Metaxas calls this "laughable," agreeing with George Ellis and other physicists as this unscientific way out of dealing with a Creator. Metaxas writes that he stops short of calling the media's assumption of materialism being correct and intelligent a "conspiracy."

Miracles are events that happen to people which could not have been caused by man's intervention alone. The creation of the universe was a miracle. God answering any prayer is a miracle, as are the various processes in our body such as its ability to heal. One valid criticism of the book is that it's hard to delineate "mysterious natural process" from "miracle" at some points. Waking up is a miracle.

If you can accept that a Creator God made it and sustains it, then His ability to intervene in the space-time continuum without making everything fly apart doesn't seem a stretch. From cosmology, Metaxas moves to the life of Jesus-- God intervening in the biological process and implanting His nature into a man that develops naturally. Metaxas looks at some of Jesus' miracles and notes that while see the feeding of the large crowds as miraculous, we miss the thousands of healings that took place as "they brought their sick to him and he healed them." He also engages in a couple lengthy sermons related to interpreting the miracles. "The feeding of the 5,000 show God's generosity," etc. This was perhaps weak and unnecessary. He addresses the common arguments against the Resurrection, and does so pretty succinctly. Many Christian apologists I know of always come back to the high likelihood of the resurrection given all available evidence when faced with doubts in other areas. From Jesus, Metaxas moves to conversion stories.

All of the stories in the book are from people Metaxas knows personally, which creates a small sample size but lends reliability that Metaxas vouches for the person's trustworthiness. He tells several conversion stories, giving his own testimony of a changed life and that of others who he saw radically change after turning to Christ. Metaxas does not deal with any radical changes from those joining cults or other religions, nor tell any miracle stories by those who are not Christians or did not later become Christians. This is a weakness of the book. It may also imply that God's common grace does not go from the general to the more specific.

From here, Metaxas retells five healing miracles, the most radical is that of an innmate on his deathbed with AIDS being completely healed of the virus. That is a long story that is worth reading as it also involves another inmate's radical conversion, which has miraculous aspects as well including visions, voices, favor from authorities, and electronics that suddenly stopped working. Another woman is healed of a documented deadly nut allergy that had debilitated her. From there, Metaxas moves to stories of visions, healed marriages, encounters with angels, and phenonenal coincidences. One problem is that there are no journalistic efforts on Metaxas part to verify medical records, eyewitness accounts, etc. In some cases it's simply one person's word-- sincerely held, but lacking credibility to a skeptic. If you are saved from drowning by someone who scoops you out of the water and disappears then that's a miracle, but if no one else sees it then it's just your word. He explains premonitions he had in writing his Bonhoeffer biography, dreams with strange consequences.

Perhaps the more controversial is the story of Lutheran pastor Paul Teske who had a stroke while preaching--his watch also stopped working at that precise moment. He believed God had spoken to him that he'd be healed 28 days later. He went with his wife to a Benny Hinn crusade on the 27th and 28th days. While he was brought on stage and "slain the spirit" by Hinn on the 27th, the healing came while he was in his seat on the 28th, after which Hinn brought him up to give testimony. Hinn then prophecies that he will have a healing ministry. Teske has since written a bestseller titled Healing for Today and appears on TBN.

I find it odd that Teske would feel the need to go to a Hinn crusade on the day he felt he needed to be healed. Hinn is a false teacher, making several unbiblical statements, false prophecies, etc. from stage. Metaxas has no commentary on this, which is somewhat troubling. However, I don't see a lot of criticism of evangelicals of Teske like one will find of Hinn. Interestingly, this person claims he was healed of stroke symptoms after hearing this story listening to the audiobook:

One of Metaxas' final miracles was particularly troubling; a Catholic widow prayed to her husband in heaven for intervention in a particular court case. She essentially demanded a sign from him that he was her husband and cared for her. Metaxas does not comment on whether this is biblical or sound practice, which is troubling. In the end, the judge in the case remarkably had known her husband decades before and he'd had a profound impact on his life. She sees this as a sign from her husband, rather than from God. Not everything supernatural is from God, which is important to remember and is left out of this book.

Metaxas notes that for many of these who have been healed or have had visions of heaven, their fears are removed and they live life differently, demonstrating greater trust in God and willing to take more risks. Those who have had a near-death experience with a vision of heaven no longer fear going there, and have a renewed sense of purpose. Don Piper is not mentioned in the book but I have seen him speak and can testify to his own renewed sense to share the Gospel with others after his documented resuscitation.

In all, I give this book 3 stars out of 5. The author has collected evidence against materialists who argue nothing supernatural can occur. But that evidence is poorly documented. It is also lacking much theological foundation for a Christian. Reading this book at face value, I might pray to a dead relative or think Benny Hinn is legit, which is problematic biblically. The strengths are the summation of cosmology and evidences for the resurrection as well as the testimony of the Christians in this book who are living truly different lives than before and give all glory to God.