Sunday, November 29, 2015

No One Left to Lie To by Christopher Hitchens (Book Review #92 of 2015)

No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton
Hitchens' work is probably the first I would give someone asking "why should I be concerned about another Clinton presidency?" or someone who espouses Clinton as one of our greatest Presidents. Presidents always see approval ratings rise after they leave office and the cognitive dissonance is amazing. Hitchens writes his book not as part of the "vast, right-wing conspiracy" but an aggrieved liberal living in Washington, D.C. and being friends with many connected to the Administration, with the added perspective of being a naturalized citizen and having traveled the world. Hitchens does not hide his friends, being critical of people like Sydney Blumenthal for being in the tank.

Hitchens' razor wit and ability to cut through the Clinton spin and get to the facts is amazing. As an atheist, it's not clear to me what basis he makes his moral judgments and outrage about the Clintons. If there is no ultimate authority of right or wrong, who is he to decide that their behavior is, in fact, unethical, and not just in his own opinion? I suppose one could say that he is writing given the laws we have on the books; those should therefore be enforced. To avoid confusion, I will therefore leave his atheism aside.

His commentary on the current political campaign is sorely missed. In 1999, Hitchens wrote that Hillary was a "a tyrant, a bully, and a lie."  Judging from this Slate piece on Hillary Clinton's first presidential campaign, Hitchens would be alarmed at how quickly HRC is able to either deflect or rewrite history and would be voting for Bernie Sanders. Hitch wrote this for Slate in 2008:

"Indifferent to truth, willing to use police-state tactics and vulgar libels against inconvenient witnesses, hopeless on health care, and flippant and fast and loose with national security: The case against Hillary Clinton for president is open-and-shut. Of course, against all these considerations you might prefer the newly fashionable and more media-weighty notion that if you don't show her enough appreciation, and after all she's done for us, she may cry."

Hitchens is critical of the media's inability of unwillingness to call HRC's lies for what they are. The media was slow to fact-check Hillary's claim to have being named after Sir Edmund Hillary, who was likely actually unknown to her mother as it was years before he had climbed Mt. Everest. But HRC's claim was, years later, still being used by the Clinton campaign to create a narrative about her character formation. Revelations of Pakistanis and others contributing to Hillary's US Senate campaign were also coming to light as Hitchen's book went to press.

Not long ago, I finished Clinton, Inc. and Clinton Cash both of which were published recently. I would rate Clinton, inc. a little lower after reading Hitchens' work as it mainly expands on the weaknesses and shenanigans that Hitchens describes. While the book has been ignored as right-wing screed, Hitch is much more critical of Bill Clinton than anything Fox News would dare to air. Clinton Cash would have Hitchens' approval for following the money and influence of the Clintons post-White House, and I recommend it as a follow-up to Hitch's work. He would surely be critical of both works as not going far enough.

Hitchens is most critical of Bill Clinton as a champion of liberal (ie: left) ideals but in reality a traitor to them. Hitchens fact-checks the Clinton campaign's claims of being champions of civil rights in Arkansas, noting that some of Clintons' claims about standing up to bigots as a child were highly unlikely. Arkansas was the only state left without a civil rights statute after Clinton left office, something he never proposed. It's well-remembered that Clinton got the Democratic nomination even after skipping New Hampshire, but less-remembered why. He had fallen in the polls after the Gennifer Flowers revelations and flew back to Arkansas to sign off on the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, an African-American convict who was brain-damaged due to a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Hitchens notes that while Clinton is remembered by some as the "first black President," he "played the race card both ways" in his "Southern strategy" to win the Democratic nomination, appealing to the conservative Dixiecrat voting block.

The author has a strong criticism of Clintonian welfare reform, for which Hitchens predicts a disastrous result of throwing large amounts of minorities off of public assistance from his 1999 standpoint that did not actually happen. Hitchens cites Dick Morris' quotes of Hillary's dismissal of "our little friends" the White House was willing to sacrifice in their process of "triangulation" to develop centrist policies that actually favored Republicans. Interestingly, future Bush speechwriter and conservative columnist David Frum is quoted at the time as noting that Clinton was garnering great popularity by championing and then co-opting Republican strategies such as welfare reform and financial deregulation. Hitch painfully notes that the Democratic establishment was far too eager to go along with Clinton, who after all was elected along with a Democratic Congress and Senate through which he could have passed a number of liberal policies but chose not to.

Hitchens reminds us that insurance companies helped craft the Clinton healthcare plan, while Hillary sold the plan as being opposed by the insurers. Republicans today would likely rather have the Clinton plan than the Affordable Care Act, but both moves created easy targets of government overreach even as they incorporated Republican ideas. "The era of big government is over" was patently false as Hitchens notes the draft-dodging President went against his Joint Chiefs in enlarging NATO and signing off on billions of pork barrel defense contracts. Mandatory sentencing, expanded police laws (which Clinton now regrets), roving wiretaps, CIA expansion, are all Republican domains that Clinton expanded.

The biggest enemy in the Clinton camp is Dick Morris, who existed for a long time via codename and not as an official adviser. Hitchens relies heavily on quotes from Morris himself as well as George Stephanopolous who claimed that "For a while, Dick Morris was the real President." It's Morris' triangulation that causes Hitchens so much angst. But liberal intellectuals who fend for Clinton, like Gore Vidal and Arthur Miller, also earn Hitchens' ire.

The most damning evidence against the Clintons was the Wag the Dog of bombing Iraq and the bogus bombing of a pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan.
As the NY Times reported: "the evidence that prompted President Clinton to order the missile strike on the Shifa plant was not as solid as first portrayed. Indeed, officials later said that there was no proof that the plant had been manufacturing or storing nerve gas, as initially suspected by the Americans, or had been linked to Osama bin Laden, who was a resident of Khartoum in the 1980s."
Hitchens and others' investigation of the Al-Shifa pharmacy bombing was that it never contained chemical munitions, and had no connections to terrorism. Hence, its owner sued the US government for damages. Hitchens writes that the Joint Chiefs and FBI Director Louis Freeh (who had agents in the region doing real terrorism investigations) were kept in the dark on the raid, and the CIA opposed it. Clinton had permission from the UN Security Council to strike Iraq but canceled the operation until months later when impeachment proceedings began. Hitchens bemoans both Clinton's eagerness to kill to save his own face as well as his wanton obstruction of justice. (All the evidence is laid out in the book, I'm just summarizing here.)

Like Clinton, Inc. Hitchens documents the history of retribution against people like Kathleen Willey who made accusations against Clinton. Hitchens writes that he is one of the few in the media who did not suffer attack dogs, despite giving a deposition in the Starr investigation. Hitchens uncovers the story of an anonymous woman who claimed to be raped by a younger Clinton, whose story was known to a few friends and corroborates with the stories of others like Juanita Broaddrick. The chapter "Is there a rapist in the White House?" is quite an uncomfortable read. Hitchens blasts Al Gore as being spineless in calling Clinton out for his character.

Hitchens takes it easy on the "monotheists" who were so critical of Clinton during his presidency, but notes that Ralph Reed and others attacked Clinton for the wrong things. The greatest charge in the impeachment trial, for example, was Abuse of Power. Conservatives were guilty of their own mismanagement and generally frustrated that Clinton had co-opted so many of their own causes (welfare reform, etc.). Liberals, thinks Hitchens, should have known better.

I give this book 4.5 stars out of 5 for its rapier wit, succinctness, and appeal to truth and reason. Read it and be the judge yourself.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Sermon of the Week (11/22 - 11/28, 2015) Francis Chan confesses sins, including plagiarism.

I'm surprised this sermon hasn't gotten more notice in the blogosphere.

This sermon is on John 15, connecting to the "true vine" and was "preached" by Chan at an Oxygen conference (iTunes). (Date is 10/26 on the Crazy Love podcast) I haven't listened to many Chan sermons but I've read Crazy Love and Together Forever. Chan obviously sets an example in devotion to Christ above all.
While this sermon for an intellectually-inclined audience contains his preface that he is no intellectual, along with self-deprecating seminary story, it quickly gets amazing as Francis Chan confesses sins of lying in order to protect his pride and self-consciousness about his lack of intellectual prowess. He tells a story about having someone else write a paper for him to present at a Together for the Gospel Conference after being invited to speak by D.A. Carson (Chan remarkably did not know who Carson was when he called). I imagine there were quite a few at this conference who noted Chan's inability to answer Mark Driscoll's question about the paper, and Chan left the conference early. Chan is imploring his audience to be the same honest.

Moreover, Chan confesses that he does not love Jesus as much as he once did, does not feel that passion as deeply. He discovers this while reading his past journal entries.

Not many pastors get up on stage and confess a sin, particularly something like plagiarism. There are some subtle critiques of the intellectual cult modern theologically-inclined Americans fall into (myself included). We get more puffed up about what we know than how much we love Jesus and obey His command to love and care for one another. Very humbling and surprising sermon.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

An Open Letter to @RepAndyBarr Congressman Andy Barr re: Refugee Resettlement

Dear Mr. Barr,
I am writing to register my protest of your vote to end resettlement of refugees from Syria and elsewhere. I formerly lived in Turkey and saw the plight of refugees waiting on resettlement in the US and elsewhere via the UN agencies on the ground. There are a good number of Christian missionaries working with these people, many of whom are indeed in their plight because they are too young (children) or infirm (elderly) to make the dangerous trek across the sea to Europe that the media has spotlighted. In the past week I received an email from some of those American workers who are quite appalled at the position the US has taken. I am writing you as much on their behalf as I am my own. I find your vote illogical for the following reasons:

1. Of the 859,629 refugees admitted to the US since 2001, only three have been arrested for plotting acts of terror (to be committed outside the US) and none were carried out.

2. 15,000 murders are committed by Americans each year, roughly 116 out of every 50,000 Americans are murderers. Of the many mass-shootings perpetrated in the US since 2001, I can think of none committed by refugees. Therefore, the refugee population is significantly less likely to murder than our own population.

3. You have often reminded us that our nation is at war. As such, we have asked our soldiers to sacrifice and take risks in going places we personally would not dare. Shouldn't we as Americans also be willing to make sacrifices? Is facing an orphan looking for resettlement with relatives in the US more of a sacrifice than what you would vote to authorize our soldiers to do?

4. ISIL and other extremists are using your vote as propaganda, reminding the Syrian people that they have repeatedly been betrayed by supposed allies in the West. Why aid the enemy?

I would be glad to see you recant and apologize for your vote. Please do so quickly, or you risk losing my vote. Thank you for your time, attention, and service.


Justin Tapp
For those of you who have found this post to your liking, one easy way you can donate to help refugee efforts in Turkey is through PayPal to a church in Ankara that is assisting the hundreds of Syrian refugees who are in the city. See details here.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant (Book Review #91 of 2015)

Story of Philosophy
Durant and his wife are apparently best known for an 11-volume The Story of Civilization, published between 1935 and 1975. Durant wrote the original The Story of Philosophy in 1926, "which was considered 'a groundbreaking work that helped to popularize philosophy.'" He and his wife were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1967 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977.

I've devoted part of my reading in 2015 to catching up on works and ideas of philosophy that I missed out on in not having a liberal arts education (not that I would have paid much attention back then anyway). I have read Plato/Socrates and Aristotle but was relatively ignorant of most of the others presented, having heard only overviews of Kant, Nietzsche, and Russell by other authors. Durant's perspective is clearly Western/American and I note many commentators recommending Russell's own work on the history of philosophy over this one. This is clearly Western thought. I do not know what "important" aspects of the philosophers Durant omitted, but he notes in the preface that this relatively brief, one-volume account is not intended to be comprehensive. 4.5 stars out of 5, as I believe Durant did a goob job accomplishing what he set out to do. It certainly must have been difficult to be knowledgeable enough about the works of each philosopher to summarize each's thought and critique them. The book is definitely readable and there are attempts at humor. It has held up almost 100 years later.

I think Durant does an excellent job on each philosopher, the context of his ideas, and his influence on his contemporaries or those who came later. Each chapters starts with the life of the philosopher and the historical-political context he was writing in. He then summarizes the philosophical ideas found in the published works of the philosopher, quoting at length from many. Durant then criticizes the ideas and finds reasons for inconsistencies and what ideas have not endured.

Philosophers covered include Plato, Aristotle, Bacon, Spinoza, Voltaire, Kant, Schopenhauer, Spencer, Nietzsche, Bergson, Croce, Russell, Santayana, James, and Dewey. In dealing with the first four, Durant has to delve a bit into Jewish and Christian philosophy. I spotted a few false premises in that exercise. But I found Spinoza to be rather fascinating, whether dealing with biblical interpretation or time and metaphysics. He is someone who I would read further as I've read he's important to contemporary Jewish thought. One common theme I found in all the philosophers (minus Nietzsche) was a distrust of the nature of man, and therefore the state. Even socialists like Russell could become disillusioned by what they saw in the realities of the new Soviet Union. Voltaire, for example, had many things to say about faith and the humility that comes with the recognition of our own limitations and the unknown.I found Voltaire's comments on politicians the most amusing:
“The art of government consists in taking as much money as possible to a class of citizens to give to another”
“Politics has its source in evil than in the greatness of the human spirit.”
However, I thought it odd that Durant claims Voltaire wrote the first philosophy of history, don't we credit that to Augustine and his City of God?

I understand now how Kant could be seen as rather dangerous. He seemed to say religion was useful for keeping a society moral, but apparently had no objective measure of that morality, as he did not trust the Bible or anything else as authoritative. Moral relativism prevails, but herein lies the inconsistency. What Kant might assume is "moral" I might disagree with, who then is right? This gets back to Voltaire's potential tyrany of the "mob." Shelley and Hegel drew from Kantian ideas.

Schopenhauer's ideas seem most problematic to me. While Schopenhauer acknowledges that the will is "hungry" and evil, he rejects the "pessimism" of Christianity's teaching of man man who is hopelessly depraved. He either overlooks or rejects the Gospel of redemption being available as a free gift apart from man and the redemption of all of creation at the end of the world. Schopenhauer seems to echo Ecclesiastes in saying "knowledge increases sorrow," and therefore puts life ahead of books/academia. "If you spend all day reading, you will never think." Schopenhauer and other philosophers had a very low view of women, himself seeming to argue that men should ignore them and just let the race go extinct. To be involved with women seemed to have costs that outweighed potential benefits for the species. I thought Durant had good critiques of Schopenhauer's cynicism. It's also true that by increasing knowledge we can increase our joy as well as sorrow. "Wisdom is a bittersweet delight," writes Durant.

Whereas mathematics inspired philosophy from the Greeks to the 18th century, the 19th and 20th century philosophers were essentially inspired by biology. Darwin changed how philosophers thought about the mind and self-knowledge, as well as the evolution of ideas. Spencer sought to find the underlying truth in religion. This strikes me as coming back to the Kantian problem of deciding who or what determines "truth." Just as Spinoza brought about literary criticism of Hebrew scriptures, later philosophers seem to fall into the laziness of saying "don't take Scripture literally" without bothering to notice that some Scripture is poetry, some is historical biography, etc. To his credit, Spencer does not try to reconcile creation and science, they are both "inconceivable," ie: uknowable and unverifiable. Science today makes many unverifiable premises, and I appreciate physicist philosophers like Alan Lightman who acknowledge that we can never prove how the universe was formed. Spencer was critical of communism and forced equality as being contrary to obvious human nature. Durant critiques him as having "rushed into generalizations" perhaps to hastily publish his work, much of which was published posthumously.

Nietzsche is pretty stark and is what so many in the West who hold to Aristotilian logic and thought (namely Christians) point out is the logical conclusion of moral relativism and godless life. To Nietzsche the good is the "one who survived." Might makes right. Judge everything by its effect on biology. "Mankind" does not exist and the well-being of the most of mankind is not the goal-- such egalitarian ideals like democracy hinder the development of the Superman, who is the goal. "Power is the good, weakness the bad." All war is good; war weeds out the weak, raises up the ├╝bermensch, and makes others subservient to him. Democracy, like Christianity and feminism, but be eradicated as they prevent the Superman. "The slave is noble only when he revolts," hence Christian ideals of loving ones neighbor and considering others as better than yourself is harmful to biology.  Czarist Russia was the ideal especially as it was contrary to the Jews. Nature abhors equality. Durant thinks much of Nietzsche's thought is "obviously" flawed, but seeing how the West cannot seem to come up with an honest moral or philosophical response to the brutality of ISIL I'd say it's not obvious anymore. But, who doesn't want to be the Superman? Each of us would love to impose our own tyranny on the world, to be moral arbiter. But none of us would like it if the other imposed his will. Hence, moral relativism is problematic. Durant notes that Nietzsche himself broke down, probably insane.

The last chapters on contemporary philosophers move quickly. Russell moved from being calculating mathematician to insightful philosopher. Heir to a great name in British history, he argued for Socialism but was disillusioned and brought back to the reality of human nature by what he witnessed in Soviet Russia. Croce was an interestingly self-taught philosopher. Santayana taught at Harvard and elsewhere and is most remembered for his "those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it." Santayana's skepticism of democracy has implications for America's current political polarization: Democracy leads to a struggle between different parties such that nobody is content and everybody wants something. Each reform brings a new government institution, and each new institution brings more abuse with control. Dewey was a proponent of pragmatism. He was against the liberal arts education, arguing that universities should train people for whatever employment would get him or her the highest wage or help increase the nation's output.

Durant concludes by pointing out that while America has not yet produced great philosophers or philosophy, it is only a matter of time. France, for example, basically had to develop and plateau before it could develop philosophers. "America must live before it can philosophize." Perhaps our current age of apparent "secular stagnation" will lead to a philosophical renaissance in the US. If that renaissance is what Christians call "revival," then I welcome it.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Alone With God by John MacArthur (Book Review #90 of 2015)

Alone With God: Rediscovering the Power and Passion of Prayer (John MacArthur Study)
I read R.C. Sproul's Does Prayer Change Things followed by Tim Keller's epic Prayer before downloading this one. I recommend Sproul's brief work over this one as a first book. MacArthur's work gives the "what" and "why" of prayer, but not so much the "how," which Keller's work spends a good deal of time on. There is little in MacArthur's book looking at how people have prayed through the centuries, in contrast with Keller's work.

In his writing, MacArthur is content not to reconcile God's foreknowledge with our responsibility. It's a mystery he lets stand. We know that God is sovereign over events, yet we are commanded to pray. He does give a theology of prayer and looks at several New Testament examples. Praying is part of our overall spiritual health that helps us be "worthy of our calling." While giving a basic defense of Calvinism, MacArthur exhorts the reader that evangelism begins with prayer; the Bible says so (Matthew 9:38, 2 Timothy 2:25, etc.).

The best part is the line-by-line approach to the Lord's Prayer, a chapter for each. I note that MacArthur encourages Christians to submit to their governments and pray for it. He of course has the stance that the American Revolution was sinful rebellion. He reminds the reader that "we cannot legislate morality," so evangelical efforts of lobbying are mostly a waste of time-- better off praying for our leaders' hearts to be convicted toward repentance.

MacArthur gets points for succinctness and biblical application. But he delves too much into Greek etymology of words to make his point, that is similar to his book Slave. Three stars out of five.

Podcast of the Week (11/15/2015 - 11/21/2015) Naive Realism on the You Are Not So Smart podcast

Episode 62 of YANSS. "In psychology they call thinking that you see the world as it truly is, free from bias or the limitations of your senses, naive realism."

Everyone believes that if everyone else were as informed about a subject as they were, they would reach the same conclusions. It presupposes that other people will put as much credibility on the sources you draw your conclusions from as you do. Being aware of this cognitive bias should make you more humble about your own opinions and your conversations with others about theirs.

Psychologist Lee Ross is interviewed. I note that Ross claims he has "never met someone who met with the other side because he thought he might be wrong or misinformed." In other words, people only meet with the other side to convince others of their own opinion rather than try to weigh evidence against their opinion.

My at least semi-awareness of this bias is one reason I read books by people with different worldviews than my own. I may reject their arguments against my own worldview, but in doing so I know better why that is. I may also be able to find valid points in their arguments that I had not thought of before.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Prayer by Tim Keller (Book Review #89 of 2015)

Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God
Keller is one of my favorite author/pastors and this was the third book I'd read (Every Good Endeavor, The Reason for God). While this book is important, it is not great. I think Keller failed to achieve the goal in his preface: to write the first book he would want to give people on prayer. The References are a full 1/3 of the book, and Keller comments extensively on them, which is annoying for the reader. When you're 50% through the book and you already have 300 footnotes, that's a slog. I would give someone R.C. Sproul's Does Prayer Change Things as a first book, it better summarizes the conclusions Keller spends pages reaching. Sadly, Keller does not include that in his literature review.

Keller himself admits: "The best material on prayer has been written" (loc. 70). This book is both an attempt to survey that literature, work out a theology of prayer, examine various Christian forefathers' approaches to prayer, and offer some methods of prayers to the reader. The section looking at Augustine, Luther, and Calvin's approaches to prayer and all three of their takes on the Lord's Prayer is worth three stars in itself. It should be published as a shorter book in itself. (Really, this book is three or four books in one). The practical methods of prayer at the end are also good, but somewhat depressing unless you, like Luther, want to spend four hours praying every day. It strikes me that Keller admits he had been a pastor a long time before he really developed a prayer life, sounds like he did so after his kids were out of the house. I highlighted too much in this book to review entirely.

For example, Keller highly recommends that you  first approach God with precursory prayer, choose from a number of short scriptures to pray from to get your mind right. Then, engage in Bible reading and meditation. Read a passage 3-4 times, list anything that it tells you about yourself; list any examples to be followed, commands to obey, promises to claim. Choose the verse that is most striking and helpful, and paraphrase it in your own words. But don't take it out of context-- this should be in addition to separate time of really studying Scripture with the use of commentary. You shouldn't meditate on a passage until you understand it, and you shouldn't combine your deeper Bible study with your prayer/meditation Bible study (how many hours are there in a day?). (Note: I've been reading some texts for years with a ton of commentaries, sermons, and aids, and still don't "understand" them completely.) So, the outline above is for a passage you already know.
When meditating, ask the following (loc. 3334):
"What does this text show me about God for which I should praise and thank him? What does this text show me about my sin that I should confess and repent of? What false attitudes, behavior, emotions, or idols come alive in me whenever I forget this truth? What does the text show me about a need that I have? What do I need to do or become in light of this? How shall I petition God for it? How is Jesus Christ or the grace that I have in him crucial to helping me overcome the sin I have confesed or to answering the need I have? Finally: How would this change my life if I took it seriously-- if this truth were fully alive and effective in my inward being? Also, why might God be showing this to me now? What is going on in my life that he would be bringing this to my attention today?"

Then, pray with adoration, confession, petition, and thanksgiving. Pray for your needs and those of others. Then, take a final time to "enjoy him and his presence." There are other helps to pray through Scripture or to use something like the Book of Common Prayer to get you started. But you should avoid relying on these alone and avoid prayer lists that your church may hand out as it may just cause you to read and not think, not actually reach out to God with your mind and heart. In addition, set aside time in the evening to read and pray a Psalm, work through the Psalms twice a year in addition to a reading plan that takes you through the entire Bible in a year. An Appendix lists Calvin's daily prayer method, what he does when he gets up, when he eats lunch, before bed, etc.

If that sounds overwhelming, you're not alone. But the book is full of insights and wonderful quotes from the aforementioned plus Packer, Spurgeon, Jonathan Edwards, John Owen, etc. He notes that Owen, a Puritan, was remarkably spiritual-- prayer involved an emotional experience of God. "The irony is that many conservative Christians...neglect the importance of prayer and make no effort to experience God, and this can lead to the eventual loss of sound doctrine. Owen believes that Christianity without real experience of God eventually will be no Christianity at all" (loc. 2390).

There are also some wonderful retelling of Gospel truths. That when we confess and repent, we need to do so in light of what Jesus did for us and not make it "self-flagellation, even a self-crucifixion, through which we try to convince God (and ourselves) that we are so truly unhappy and regretful that we deserve to be forgiven" (loc. 2733). The Gospel changes our repentance.

Keller also goes through the various contexts of prayer, for various needs, by ourselves, congregationally, etc. Presbyterians, like other more liturgical churches, tend to have common creeds and prayers that Keller says are helpful in educating people to pray (loc. 3242):

"Calvin wanted Christians to learn private prayer from the public prayers and the Psalm singing in gathered worship. Luther wrote that he prayed twice a day, either by hurrying to his room 'or, if it be the day and hour for it, to the church where a congregation is assembled.' This shows how important it was for the great teachers of the church that our prayer life not be completely privatized. It is right and necessary that we learn to pray not merely from reading the Psalms and the rest of the Bible but by hearing and reading the prayers of the church.
Many churches today, especially those with what is called contemporary worship, give congregants almost no help with prayer at all in this way. The only prayers congregants hear are 'spontaneous' expressions of worship leaders, or the final prayer of the preacher at the end of the sermon. Time-tested and carefully considered prayers are not provided as they were in times past. This means that many Christians today will have to search out such prayers, and that is where Cranmer’s matchless 'collects' as well as other resources, such as Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine Hours or Arthur Bennett’s The Valley of Vision, can be helpful."

I learned a lot from the book and it was a slog to get through. I would recommend it to anyone looking to deepen their prayer life and have an overview of what that has looked like in works by Christian authors through the centuries. But for a new Christian or someone just wanting some basics, this is not your book. The best advice is just to pray, and keep praying. 3 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Eleven Rings by Phil Jackson (Book Review #88 of 2015)

Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success
There was much less about practical coaching and management wisdom than I hoped for in this book. It's not evident that Jackson is reading and learning from other management and leadership works himself, or other coaches other than those who have already been with him for years. He quotes a few Buddhist works or proverbs but that's about it, so I found him to be pretty intellectually shallow despite being famous for giving his players books. "The soul of success is surrendering to what is" is supposed to mean something. Rather late in his career, after a few seasons with Kobe Bryant, Jackson writes he contacted a psychologist for advice. The advice seemed superficial at best "focus on positive reinforcement" and Jackson didn't use it long. This kind of helter skelter application of shallow psychology doesn't strike me as very well-educated or thoughtful.

Jackson learned a lot of his coaching from Red Holzman while playing for the Knicks. One lesson from Holzman was when asked the difference between winning and losing: "I go home, drink a scotch, and enjoy the delicious meal my wife is cooking." Jackson returns back to the Zen proverb of what one does both before and after enlightenment: Chop wood, carry water. Jackson revels in breaking Holzman rival Red Auerbach's championship record.

There are a few points Jackson makes up front about how he tried to instill teamwork into the Bulls and Lakers. One that stood out was: "Turn the mundane into the sacred." Rituals build unity, this is reminiscent of Charles Duhig's The Power of Habit. For example, Jackson has his teams stand in a circle before and after practice, everything in a circle. He calls the team area the "tribal room," etc. Sometimes he even led tense Laker teams in silent moments to synchronize their breath. He is famous for giving his players books on road trips, and he recounts which books he gave which players. This practice has earned Jackson the reputation as being somehow book smart, whereas as I point out elsewhere that doesn't really seem to be the case.

Generally, there doesn't appear much that sets apart Jackson from other coaches other than the rings. Having read books by other championship coaches I was interested to see if there were any lessons or daily principles they follow. The only constant with Jackson appears to be meditation for stress relief and emotional regulation. But the meditation doesn't help his anger issues and he deals with years of repressed anger after his daughter is assaulted and Kobe Bryant is arrested on similar charges. His parents were Pentecostals who erroneously taught him that "anger was wrong" (Jesus got angry plenty, after all), and this had harmful consequences for him. Given some of his other behavior, I find his method of zen meditation rather unappealing and incomplete. He's had broken marriage, a range of ups and downs with his players and management, and I don't see any particular reason for his success other than acquiring big-market talent. Sometimes that talent agreed to work together and with him, at other times it didn't. He had issues with management at every stop.

One omission that stands out is any praise for other coaches like Gregg Popovich of the Spurs who consistently beat the Lakers with the non-flashy, team basketball that Jackson apparently espouses. But Popovich and co. don't get nearly the media attention or the book deals. The only coaches Jackson praises are those on teams that he beats, like the staff of Larry Bird's Pacers. He clearly dislikes Pat Riley. He doesn't praise any of the teams that beat the ego-driven Lakers, or admit the contradiction of humbler teams dismantling his own.

Last year I listened to Ronald Lazenby's biography of Michael Jordan, so I had a vivid picture in my mind of Jackson's years with the Bulls and was eager to hear his own take. Jackson's version of those years is pretty scrubbed or wasn't much I hadn't heard before. Jackson inherited a Bulls team that was peaking under the greatest and most competitive player who ever lived. He doesn't have much negative to say about anyone in Chicago other than Jerry Krauss. In Lazenby's book, he claims (from one of Phil's other books?) that Jackson leaked dirt on Jordan for Sam Smith's book The Jordan Rules. The book infuriated Jordan and Jackson apparently had done so to motivate him. An assistant coach took the heat and got fired. Jackson simply writes in Eleven Rings that he tried to save the assistant coach. Contra Lazenby's account, Jordan isn't found on the back of the team bus drinking beer with Ron Harper while relentlessly haranguing Krauss after games. In Eleven Rings, it's Scottie Pippen who once gets drunk and tells off management. Jordan comes across as somewhat selfish, but is contrasted later as much more selfless than Kobe Bryant, who Jackson had a real feud with. Jackson recounts a funny story of a team manager assigned to watch Rodman during a road trip and the cross-country adventure he took him on. In the end, the Bulls players hated their management and the management couldn't afford to pay them all.

Jackson seems to have a difficult time communicating with his players, and on at least one occasion in the book an assistant pulls him aside to correct him. Jackson provides no insights on how he chose his assistants (other than Tex Winter), mentors them, delegates tasks, etc. They just exist in the background. Jackson plays the media against his players sometimes, leaking things or making side remarks to the media that enrage his players; Kobe made it a condition of playing for him in his last stint with the Lakers that he "be more discreet with the media." Then Jackson reacts incredulously when a player gives an interview blasting his teammates and angst ensues.

Jackson's attempt to "bring the Buddha" to the Lakers for a championship is somewhat amusing but definitely not a magical experience. Kobe Bryant is vilified as an immature, selfish jerk. Then, later noted for being a good teammate and talking like someone who meditates and has found his inner self. Kobe admits that Phil is right and that he grew as a person. Then, we go back to Kobe the selfish jerk who yells at teammates to "give me the damn ball" and causes the team to self-destruct.

Jackson makes no secret of favoring Shaq, creating a rift between himself and Jerry Buss and Kobe Bryant by demanding they trade Kobe. This despite the fact that Shaq shows up overweight and out of shape every fall and takes half the season to get back to form every year, something Kobe couldn't stand. After one year of working together, Shaq and Bryant decide they can't coexist. Jackson introduces Shaq to Sidartha to warn him away from materialism; an unrepentant Shaq writes a book report.

Maybe as the last dig at Kobe, Jackson writes a paragraph comparing him with Michael Jordan. Jordan was stronger, making him a better defender and rebounder. He was a less-selfish teammate and found other ways to help his team when his shot wasn't falling. He shot a higher FG% (partly by driving more to the basket) at his peak and only relied on his fadeaway in the later years. Kobe, on the other hand, relies on his jumper more and shoots a lower FG%. He famously doesn't pass the ball if he wants his shot and doesn't play defense with any great intensity. Rick Fox apparently wrote that Kobe competes with himself and didn't behave the same way off the court as on, while MJ was competitive in everything non-stop.

I give this book 2 stars out of 5. If you're an avid Lakers and Bulls fan you might want this book, but you've probably already read what's in it. There are no great insights into managing a coaching staff or finding a way to maximize the strengths of your team to win if you don't have Hall of Fame talent on it.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Love Wins by Rob Bell (Book Review #87 of 2015)

This book is what happens when you don't lend out your manuscript to others to push back on. To let others with opposing viewpoints (or maybe even a similar one) find your errors in logic, contradictions, and other cognitive biases. I read this book after reading Tim Keller's The Reason for God and the contrast couldn't be more stark. Keller, whose book Prodigal God Bell ironically cites favorably at the end, writes with pristine logic and dozens of citations. Bell doesn't.

Bell's writing and critique of the Church are really similar to those of the New Atheist variety including Christopher Hitchens and former Pentecostal Jerry DeWitt. Some of his theological statements and biblical interpretation also remind me of John Shelby Spong (who is basically a deist).

The axiom at the center of Bell's logic is that a God of love cannot and does not choose. God's sovereign election has been a difficult truth of the Bible for millenia. I happened to read Love Wins while studying to teach Genesis 25-28 on Jacob. In Genesis 25:23, Rebekah is told the destinies of her two children before they're born. The Apostle Paul deals with the desire to consider this unfair in Romans 9:11-23, which is worth reading in its entirety (HCSB):
11 For though her sons had not been born yet or done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to election might stand— 12 not from works but from the One who calls—she was told: The older will serve the younger. 13 As it is written: 'I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau' (Malachi 1:2-3).

14 What should we say then? Is there injustice with God? Absolutely not! 15 For He tells Moses:

'I will show mercy
to whom I will show mercy,
and I will have compassion
on whom I will have compassion.' (Exodus 33:19)

16 So then it does not depend on human will or effort but on God who shows mercy. 17 For the Scripture tells Pharaoh:

I raised you up for this reason
so that I may display My power in you
and that My name may be proclaimed in all the earth. (Exodus 9:16)

18 So then, He shows mercy to those He wants to, and He hardens those He wants to harden.

19 You will say to me, therefore, “Why then does He still find fault? For who can resist His will?” 20 But who are you, a mere man, to talk back to God? Will what is formed say to the one who formed it, “Why did you make me like this?” 21 Or has the potter no right over the clay, to make from the same lump one piece of pottery for honor and another for dishonor? 22 And what if God, desiring to display His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience objects of wrath ready for destruction? 23 And what if He did this to make known the riches of His glory on objects of mercy that He prepared beforehand for glory— 24 on us, the ones He also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?

So, Bell's axiom is already arguing against clear Scripture. Just as the examples of Jacob's deceitfulness in Genesis 25-27 and of Pharoah's cruelty in Exodus, God works all throughout the Bible to accomplish His purposes through sin (see the Gospel accounts of Jesus' commentaries on own death or Acts 3:17-18). Bell approaches the Bible as the typical American -- God loves me, so why does he allow bad things to happen? The Bible is His story, not ours. If God is omniscient, then He must have known when he breathed life into Adam that he would sin and He would send Jesus to die to atone for it and put an end to the devil's schemes (Genesis 3:15).

Bell spends the book railing against what he claims Christianity teaches-- that we obtain salvation by what we do, say, believe, or think. This is not the Christianity of the Bible and certainly not what my church teaches. We are saved only by God's grace, as Paul writes in Romans 9 above -- "So then it does not depend on human will or effort but on God who shows mercy" Ephesians 2:8-9: "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast." Bell writes like this is some radical new discovery instead of what has been taught by orthodox Christianity for thousands of years and emphasized most clearly by the Reformation, in this case he is similar to evangelist-turned-atheist Jerry DeWitt. Any other Gospel is a false gospel.

Bell is also correct that Gospel promises are as much about today as they are about eternity. Romans 8:1 tell us there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. This is very freeing and there are wonderful helps in Gospel-based counseling like Robert S. McGee's The Search for Significance. But Bell cites no such works, apparently thinking all of his ideas are new, evidently never bouncing them off anyone remotely familiar with the Bible before publishing. This is unhelpful to the reader who may have grown up thinking they can't drink, must wear their hair or skirt a certain way, or certain other things contrary to the Bible.

So, onto eschatology. First, in bells quick walk-through of New Testament scriptures related to hell, Bell errs in interpreting Jesus' comments about heaven and hell as "mostly about" today and not about the kingdom-to-come instead of realizing them to be, in many cases, both. He calls heaven what other books focusing on a theology of work call "calling," - working at whatever you feel brings you the most pleasure in God when you do it. If heaven is here, and all of its promise is here, then why isn't Bell performing miracles as the Apostles were performing them? He doesn't mention much supernatural, heaven being "here" is simply when hungry are fed and justice is done.

In other cases, Bell stretches to reach one possible interpretation of a passage and claiming it to be THE interpretation. Looking at Luke 18:18-27, Bell claims Jesus' list of of the Ten Commandments was focusing on the six dealing with interpersonal relations and that Jesus left out the one on coveting, because that's what hoarding our possessions reflects. It's a nice idea, but not necessarily correct. Jesus could have been giving a truncated list, or Luke could be truncating it as such so the readership got the idea that Jesus was referencing the Ten Commandments. Jesus leaves out of this list what he elsewhere calls the greatest two. So, Bell makes himself out to be a rather unhumble authority on Scripture. Another example is in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, one in a burning place while the other is comforted by Abraham (Luke 16:19-31). Bell interprets the "chasm" that separates them as the callousness of the rich man's heart. Bell turns this parable to be about the here-and-now for Jesus' audience rather than a here-and-then; the rich man being told he could not come back from the dead to warn his friends (implying also he has to continue suffering) to repent was simply a reference to Jesus' resurrection and that's that. If the rich man had truly repened in that moment of pain when asking Abraham for a drop of water, rather than seeking his own needs, then he apparently would be saved. Because of the false axiom Bell rests upon-- that God cannot choose.

Bell does not mention satan and demons much, I gather he does not believe in them as literal spiritual beings, like angels. He also does not seem to have a coherent eschatalogical construct (premillenialist, amillenialist, etc. although he seems to confuse a premillenial view of Jesus' reign on earth with the New Kingdom of Revelation 21?). But he endorses a literal New Heavens and New Earth at the end of the age of Revelation 21. Bell highlights the last verses: 25 Each day its gates will never close because it will never be night there. 26 They will bring the glory and honor of the nations into it. 27 Nothing profane will ever enter it: no one who does what is vile or false, but only those written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Bell writes that this kingdom's gates never close means that this city is present while those who have not yet repented and accepted Jesus as Lord are still roaming around outside. The gates are always open and they are always welcome to leave their old ways behind. But people are free to suffer in their own sin of their own choice and be left outside. The view seems to have been inspired by C.S. Lewis' allegory The Great Divorce, which Bell also references at the closing of the book. But in the end, surely everyone will join the party in the city gates and thus "love wins."

This universalism begs the question: why did the early church suffer like it did to spread the message of the Gospel? They weren't being persecuted for taking care of the sick and feeding the poor, which they were doing, but because of their message of "foolishness," - namely that Jesus Christ was God, suffered on a cross, was buried, and rose again. Why did Apostles take such pains to warn their churches of the "wrath" of God coming on the godless (Romans 1:18)? Why did they encourage their flocks to live holy lives? 2 Peter was written perhaps even after the Apostle Peter's death and certainly after Paul's. Peter exhorts believers in Asia to continue on in their faith through persecution?
1:9 "The person who lacks these things is blind and shortsighted and has forgotten the cleansing from his past sins. 10 Therefore, brothers, make every effort to confirm your calling and election, because if you do these things you will never stumble. 11 For in this way, entry into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be richly supplied to you."
In 1 Peter 2, the author reminds Christians that God will eventually bring justice on the ungodly and rescue His children just as he did Noah's family in the flood.

My question to Bell is: Rescue them from what? Decades spent needlessly suffering in the unloving world that doesn't acknowledge God before inevitably turning to Christ at the end? Is their reward simply being first in line? What do you do with 2 Peter 3:7 "But by the same word, the present heavens and earth are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men?"
Are you an annihlationist for those who do not know Jesus before His return? But you forsee a New Heaven and New Earth in Revelation 21 the way premillenials await a 1,000 year reign of Christ on earth (where at the end of 1,000 years we learn some still haven't truly submitted to Jesus)? An end where eventually everyone makes it into the city certainly doesn't line up with a plain reading of anything in the New Testament.

Further, what do you do with the resurrection of the dead? Jesus spoke much about His own resurrection as well as the resurrection at the end of the age. That doesn't seem to fit into Bell's thinking. Bell makes the same critique of heaven that Hitchens does-- it sounds more like North Korea. How can people rejoice when they know their loved ones are being tormented? This again sounds like an American lens: it's got to be about me and God has to do things that make sense to me.  If the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, because only God can be all-satisfying. God must be infinite, or He is not God, so it's not hard to imagine that in a perfect world with His presence I can be infinitely satisfied with Him; there would therefore not be room for sorrow.

The lack of clarity and logical rigor of the book makes me think Bell's answer is likely "I don't know." Bell chooses to believe some parts of Scripture and ignore others, I guess he gets to choose what's truth. As such, the book doesn't say much that can be defended easily. He hasn't done his homework (again similar to Jerry DeWitt, among others). If I could give it zero stars, I would. Bell's eventual elucidation of the freeing power of the Gospel gives me just enough hope that someone might hear the needle of truth in the huge haystack of error.