Sunday, June 25, 2017

Realities of Foreign Service Life (Book Review #20 of 2017)

Realities of Foreign Service Life: an AAFSW book

This book was a great idea. It is a compilation of essays by FSOs, spouses, and children regarding specific aspects of Foreign Service life. Packing and travel, handling crises and evacuations, finding employment for trailing spouses, education challenges, dealing with depression, handling marriage and divorce, and more are covered in this quick read.

The book is rather dated (2002), the Internet was still relatively new at publishing. (There is a newer Volume 2 I will have to check out.) Some of the resources it provides are still available and applicable, but some chapters on things like communication with America are obsolete. The Foreign Service itself has changed very recently, it's harder with the current hiring freeze for trailing spouses to find Embassy than it has been in a long time. The career hiring Registers are no longer cleared and would-be careerists are now encouraged into non-career Consular service. That culture shift definitely alters decision-making and career trajectories.

A few chapters I found very relevant and helpful:
The chapters on the Yemen evacuating and Kenyan Embassy bombings.
Preparing and saving for the expensive/tricky tour(s) in DC.
Spouse struggling with depression.
The chapter dealing with the pack-out.
Chapters dealing with education.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A Week in the Fall of Jerusalem by Ben Witherington III (Book Review #19 of 2017)

A Week in the Fall of Jerusalem by Ben Witherington III

FTC fair notice: I received an advanced copy of this book on Kindle via NetGalley. This review is my own honest assessment.

This book is an attempt to interest the reader in important non-fiction elements of first century Palestinian life while weaving in a fictional story with familiar characters from the Gospels. Witherington has four different fictional storylines going while including sidebars to examine particular details that come out in his narrative. From the sidebars you can learn more about specific Greek words, geography, artifacts, see pictures, and more. Key takeaways are how houses were designed in Palestine, how we think house churches ran, how slavery and manumission worked, etc. I learned, for example, that Greeks and Romans bleached their tunics white by using urine. It was not unusual for wealthy households to have laundry people on their property washing linens in urine all day. (This will change your thinking on any "white as snow" passage you read for the rest of your life.)

The greatest bit I gleaned from the book was thinking through how fragile the knowledge and memories of Jesus were in those early days. House churches might have had access to parts of Mark's Gospel, but may also have had other Aramaic stories, or told stories from eyewitness memory. I have a greater appreciation for how difficult it was for the Gospel writers to compile their sources, complete the work, and how amazed I am at the hundreds of thousands of manuscript copies we have available today. The Church in the book also seems smaller and more fragile than one might imagine giving the large numbers of conversion given in Acts and the fact that "all of Asia" had heard the Gospel thanks to Saul/Paul.

I read non-fiction almost exclusively, so I found the fictional parts rather contrived. (The sidebars on the advanced Kindle version I received often intersected with the narrative text, so the sidebar began and ended in the middle of stories, so this was a technical flaw I hope they figure out before releasing the full version.) I recently read The World of Jesus by William H. Marty that also attempts to explain much of first century Palestinian history. I followed Witherington's work with Jerusalem's Traitor by Desmond Seward. All three works rely heavily on Josephus' works, but I find Jerusalem's Traitor does a better job of getting to the character of Josephus and actual events in Palestine than Witherington's fictional account. Perhaps Witherington assumes you have already read Josephus to have the information about armaments, battle tactics, etc. that never show up in the actual battle for Jerusalem.

The reader is also subjected to Witherington's minority positions on certain biblical events and characters without being given an alternative view or an explanation. It is not an established fact that Levi/Matthew wrote his Gospel after 70AD. For example, one argument for an earlier date is the fact that Matthew writes more about Sadducees than other Gospels, and 70AD pretty much eliminated them. Witherington assumes Matthew came after Mark and relied on other Aramaic sources as well, plausible. But most scholars reject the idea that "the beloved disciple" was Lazarus, not John. Witherington's account presents that Joanna wife of Chuza in Luke's Gospel is the same as Junia wife of Andronicus in Romans 16:7, and that she was an apostle. No sidebar is given for this justification or how it's apparently impossible for people in biblical periods to share common names, etc. In Witherington's fictional account, Chuza left her when she followed Jesus and she later met Andronicus and became an apostle. My concern is that the reader would consider this fact rather than a hypothesis.

Josephus' life is one of the storylines, but much of import is left out. For example, Witherington leaves out any personal history Josephus had as a governor in Galilee or once being a commander of troops himself. There is also very little about what happened to actual characters in Jerusalem in the fall. The reader doesn't learn that the Jewish revolt had long before brought much of the countryside into war and chaos, and perhaps this shaped life in places like Capernaum more than infighting among Christians and Pharisees. Where are the Sadducees in the fall of Jerusalem? What happens to the corporate psychology of Palestine when the temple is destroyed? It really wasn't so traumatic in the book, a few refugees and stragglers resettling but life goes on. One of the storylines also doesn't really end, I think the author had a difficult time finding a stopping point. I respect Witherington's scholarship and the prolific nature by which he writes books. I have not read his classic Week in the Life of Corinth but might in the hopes that it provides more actual insights into a week in the life of local culture than this book does.

Pros: I learned some facts from the sidebars that will help me as a Sunday school teacher. I also got a greater appreciation for the early Gospel writers and Christians striving to work hard to tell others the stories of Jesus and make sure it's recorded accurately and quickly. This book is a quick read.

Cons: I felt the fiction detracted from the non-fiction. My previous exposure to Witherington was primarily his Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor. The fiction also presented the author's minority positions on issues without stating them as such.

I recommend Jerusalem's Traitor if you really want a week in the fall of Jerusalem, or William H. Marty's book if you want broader political/historical context quickly. 3 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

I am an Institutionalist

I've been pondering Peter Beinart's good article in the April edition of The Atlantic with the bi-line of "America's Empty-Church Problem." The piece looks at survey data on the decline of church attendance and the increase of secularism, intolerance, and more pessimistic outlooks among the un-churched, on both the Left and Right. Beinart is making the point that the increase in hostile division we see has come from a decline in civil institutions. Society crumbles into tribalism when there is less to bind us together to work for the common good and get to know our neighbors.

This piece helped give me a way to describe myself that I had been searching for: an Institutionalist. This is opposed to an "insurrectionist" (as Beinart gives the definition from Chris Hayes' book). More than ever I have respect for the institutions in America and value their importance. This includes churches but also the family. It includes civic and social groups like Rotary Club, the Special Olympics, Parent-Teacher Associations, anything requiring a voluntary commitment to maintaining the service. It also includes liberty, literacy, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, due process, Congress, the Supreme Court, the State Department, etc. It includes being able to drive to work without fear of being pulled over for no reason, and going to a movie without fear of being shot.

I don't believe "we have to burn the village in order to save it," or that we need to "send someone to Washington/Frankfort to blow up the system." Some institutional traditions exist out of years of experience and adaptation. Institutional knowledge is valuable. When you put people in charge who have no institutional knowledge and have to make important decisions quickly, things go unintentionally awry. I saw this firsthand in my previous job in state government. Institutionalists believe in change and adaptation at the margins, with the basic underlying rule of law and respect for the game in place. Public servants swear an oath to protect and defend the Constitution-- it's the underlying institution that must be respected, above the leaders who appointed them. And it is good and helpful to at least learn established policy and procedures, those are often not just burdensome "red tape," and might exist for good purpose.

Recent polling by Pew shows skepticism about institutions is on the rise. "(In 2014) the vast majority (of Americans) still believed in God. But the share that rejected any religious affiliation was growing fast, rising from 6 percent in 1992 to 22 percent in 2014. Among Millennials, the figure was 35 percent." Beinart's article further demonstrates that church attendance correlates with which camp you fall into, and whether you supported Bernie and Trump or the establishment candidates.

During the primaries, Republicans who actually attended church services were much less likely to support Trump than those who didn't. But this group is less influential than in the past because, citing PRRI data, "(T)he percentage of white Republicans with no religious affiliation has nearly tripled since 1990."

The trend is even more exagerrated on the Left:
"In 1990, according to PRRI, slightly more than half of white liberals seldom or never attended religious services. Today the proportion is 73 percent. And if conservative nonattenders fueled Trump’s revolt inside the GOP, liberal nonattenders fueled Bernie Sanders’s insurgency against Hillary Clinton: While white Democrats who went to religious services at least once a week backed Clinton by 26 points, according to an April 2016 PRRI survey, white Democrats who rarely attended services backed Sanders by 13 points."

Beinart notes that two of the more controversial politically-active movements in 2016-- Black Lives Matter and the alt-right movement both reject tenets of Christianity. While the public may confuse the alt-right movement with conservative evangelicals because of support for Trump, "alt-right is ultra-conservatism for a more secular age. Its leaders like Christendom, an old-fashioned word for the West. But they’re suspicious of Christianity itself, because it crosses boundaries of blood and soil." Graeme Wood's piece from the June edition, on alt-right racist Richard Spencer, should dispel any misconceptions. Spencer is an atheist who sees Christianity as something that historically united white Europe, that's its only usefulness to his crowd.

While I find the psychoanalysis of how church attendance leads both Left and Right to be more tolerant somewhat campy, I think the basic point is close enough: Jesus taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves, pray for our enemies, and to bless those who persecute us. He set an example of opposing the Jewish hierarchy and revealing Himself to racial and political enemies--Samaritans and Greeks. You are more likely to be exposed to people from different countries, incomes, races, cities, etc. in a church. It makes it easier to love your neighbor.

But, generally speaking, the decline of civic society goes beyond church attendance. Americans are less affiliated in other ways, and this is affecting political cohesion. Ironically, Hillary Clinton made this exact point in her 1996 book It Takes a Village (my review).

Clinton lamented that people didn't join social groups like bowling leagues and civic groups like the Girl Scouts as much anymore, much less attend church. She basically advocated a stronger civil society vis-a-vis church attendance and service:
"Religion is not just about one’s relationship with God, but about what values flow out of that relationship, how we follow them in our daily lives and especially in our treatment of our neighbors next door and all over the world. Preaching is a distant second to practicing when it comes to instilling values like compassion, courage, faith, fellowship, forgiveness, love, peace, hope, wisdom, prayer, and humility."

Sports arenas are about the only wholly-accepted income and racial-stratifying places left in real life (ie: offline) adult culture. Conversely, it also helps promote the tribalism. (America still not nearly as bad as soccer fans in Turkey and elsewhere where riots over sports are frequent.) Sports also don't do much for the fan in the stands than entertain, there is not a mile of highway adopted by "UK fans" who clean it, for example.

As I observe civic institutions today, be it Boy Scouts, a school drama club, a Sunday school class, a century-old Congressional baseball game, I think "Will they still be doing this in ten years? In five? Or will they be staying home?" And I have a greater appreciation for the people who have the spirit and desire to see that unifying service or tradition continue.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Building Faith Block by Block by Michael & Christopher Ross (Book Review #18 of 2017)

Building Faith Block By Block: [An Unofficial Minecraft Guide] 60 A-to-Z (Kid Only) Survival Secrets

I'm a dad of a nine year old autistic son who loves Minecraft and spends hours each week reading books and watching videos on the game. We do devotionals with him every night and he eagerly engages in family worship, but he does not show much interest in reading Bible stories or watching faith-related videos-- and there is little out there on YouTube worth watching, unlike the endless hours of Minecraft.

So, I was VERY excited to learn about this book and check out an evaluation Kindle copy via NetGalley. It has the same type of Minecraft gameplay tips as other books my son reads, but it relates those tips to a spiritual concept. Each Minecraft concept includes a "Best Tip" for use in the game, a "Read It" passage that relates to the concept from Scripture, a "Think It" passage to challenge the child to understand the biblical lesson, and a "Live It" that applies to real life.

For example, the author talking about bedrock in the game (acquired through a command line code):
"This common mineral can withsatand creepers who attack in the night. It cannot be broken by tools, and it can't be destroyed by explosions. It's the only block that a beacon beam can shine through at night. And it's one of the materials used to create an End gateway portal when the ender dragon is killed. We need bedrocks in our lives. They're solid pieces that go unnoticed--but are so important in life-- having a strong faith, a safe home, and a family that loves us." Dragee90 gives a tip about using bedrock in the game, and then offers Matthew 7:24-25 as a Scripture reading-- building your house on the solid rock. His Think It questions ask: "What is the solid rock? How do we build our lives on it?" His Live it concludes: "There is only one rock-solid truth--one bedrock. Truth comes from God...we build on solid rock by following the teachings of Jesus."

I received a pre-release Kindle copy and the pictures are black and white and the text was organized to make it difficult. So, I'm hoping the actual Kindle version is much better. But nonetheless, I'm buying a paperback version for my son today! While the book says it's geared for 7th graders, I think it's written at a much lower reading level than most regular Minecraft books, so no problem if you have an elementary-aged child. [UPDATE 6/13] I'm very pleased with the paperback version. The pictures are black-and-white and stock photos that look like Minecraft without actually being from Minecraft. But the devotionals keep Elias' attention and make it more fun than others we've tried.