Thursday, July 20, 2017

Latitude Arts Community in Lexington -- support their work!

Our son recently signed up for a co-op of summer activities with other children in the central Kentucky autism community. One of the hosts is Latitude Arts, located just off National Ave. in Lexington (behind La Petite Delicat and across the street from Mirror Twin Brewing). I am so impressed with this organization.
Their goal is basically to help equip and empower those in the "disabled" community to be creative through art. Part of their mission statement:
"We believe that community itself needs a broader perspective regarding disability issues.  We believe in the potential of all people.  We believe that people thought to have disabilities have unrecognized potential.   We believe that human services can do more to support people to realize their potential.  We believe that community supports for people considered to have disabilities can be improved, upgraded, and developed.  We believe that people thought to have disabilities are not less fortunate, but people who, with appropriate supports, will contribute to the greater good of the community."

They host a large art studio where members of the disabled community can come and create things in an encouraging and friendly environment. Some of these items are displayed elsewhere, some are sold in local craft fairs to raise money for the center. Elias has painted, created, and done weaving. I think this is a fantastic idea and organization and I support their goals.

Check out more photos on their website.
You can support Latitude by donating art supplies or cash.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Bible: A Very Short Introduction by John Riches (Book Review #25 of 2017)

The Bible: A Very Short Introduction

I like Oxford's Very Short Introduction series but was disappointed with this one. I am comparing this book to the Very Short Introduction to the Koran (4.5 stars), which I found to be much more informative than VSI: The Bible (2 stars). VSI: The Koran describes the importance and history of the language of the book, gives an outline of the books contents while examining some chapters in detail, gives a history of interpretation and various schools of thought in history, and generally gives a lot of information about the book itself. VSI: The Bible does little of this. The author gives no outline or overview of the contents of the book, no explanation as to what the purpose of the book as a whole may be, and doesn't even tell the reader what makes the manuscript evidence of the Bible so unique compared to other works of ancient literature. We have over 20,000 fragments of the New Testament with more than 5,300 manuscripts and the author does not deem that worth mentioning. He doesn't mention any of the adventures there have been in discovering these manuscripts. I'm not sure why Riches took the route of explaining the long-lasting impact of the Bible through history rather than just giving an analysis of the book itself, but I'm not sure I can recommend this work to anyone. If you're just wanting to briefly know "What is the Bible?" then I recommend instead a work like Neil Lightfoot's How We Got the Bible.

Instead, the author, apparently a Christian historian, focuses on how people have used the Bible through the ages, the various religions and sects that have arisen making claims on the Bible, and how the Bible--and Christianity--has contributed to the foundations of culture in the West. On this latter point, the author interestingly writes that since the West built its society and culture on the Bible and later abandoned/forgot it, it no longer has a basis by which to critique its own culture. The art from Michaelangelo to Bach were influenced by the Bible. The ideals that laws were built on likewise have roots in the Bible. The American experiment, likewise, was started by colonists who were eager to have the freedom to worship according to their interpretation of the Bible. Anabaptists, Quakers, and various American sects have likewise used the Bible to contribute to American law and culture, founded universities, hospitals, and charities, etc. This is all well and good but doesn't introduce what the book is.

There is some information about the Bible but not a great overview and explanation as was in VSI: Koran. The author only ends the book with a look at the historical-critical method of interpretation and its caveats. He does understand early dates for New Testament works and gives a little bit of language and literary analysis using select examples from the Old and New Testament, mainly to show some diversity. He explains some of the dividing of the Old Testament and the importance of histories in fixing canon. Riches does deal some with differences between Eastern Churches and Western Churches in their canons and the books of the Catholic Apocrypha, but does not really explain much about those books either or explain why they're not in the Jewish canon.

In all, this is one of the least-helpful of Oxford University's Very Short Introduction series. Two stars.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport by Richard J. Mouw (Book Review #24 of 2017)

Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport: Making Connections in Today's World

What a great little book from a humble author. Mouw is the President of Fuller Seminary and is experienced being on faculty at other Presbyterian institutions. This work gave me much respect for how Presbyterians treat institutions-- like their faith and the creeds along which it developed. This book is both a defense of and an appeal to the institution of Calvinism along with a confession of, and a plea for, epistimological humility. It is also a great book about applying theology to every inch of ones life. I find Calvinist/Reformed are very good at a theology of work and this work, by an academic no less, is a good addition to that literature.

The title comes from a scene in the movie Hardcore where George C. Scott plays a pastor awkwardly explaining his faith to a prostitute in an airport by briefly walking through TULIP. Mouw worries that the rote strictness of the recital of doctrine becomes a wedge between the truthful theology it conveys and its relevance to our everyday lives. "What does Calvinism have to say to our present world? How can I best be a Calvinist in the twenty-first century?...What do the Canons of Dordt mean for people who hang around in the Las Vegas airport?" (p. 15). Calvinists may recite Heidelberg One ("My only comfort in life and death is that I am not my own") but be guilty of acting unloving toward their neighbors.

Mouw has spent his entire life reading, memorizing, and thinking deeply about these subjects. He might have memorized the Canons of Dordt. You should not take his views on Calvinism lightly. But he is a self-described " eclectic Calvinist" (p. 116). He explains in the book how he's wrestled with its practical application and implications. He's thankful for the work of Abraham Kuyper (who Tim Keller is also thankful for) who famously said "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!" This is, in essence, Calvinism. God is sovereign and holds all things together and orders every circumstance to bring greater enjoyment of Him for His glory. That should bring us humility, joy, and gentleness; not a prideful and harsh spirit that Calvinists may have a reputation for.

The author wisely observes that "our biographies shape our allegiances" (p. 19). Mouw explains the circumstances in which he was raised in a household of faith that led him to Calvinism, just as his Lutheran friend was led to his. One of my favorite Baptist pastor/theologians says "I'm Baptist because I was raised Baptist," and I appreciate this spirit which I have yet to find in anyone under age 50. "I find being Protestant the best way for me to be a Christian. And I find being Reformed the best way for me to be Protestant. And I find being a Calvinist to be the best way of being Reformed" (p. 20).

Mouw is not ashamed of Calvinism, he finds it "important" to use the label rather than the "Reformed" that many do today (and gives good reasons why). He walks through the TULIP acronym at the beginning, accurately noting that while all Christians hail the sovereignty of God in their doctrine, Calvinism uniquely "rigorously guards this emphasis on divine sovereignty by refusing to allow any other theological point to detract from it" (p. 27). In explaining the relationship between God's sovereignty and man's free will, Calvinists would rather "waffle" on the latter in order to prevent any dilution in their thoughts about the former. (Calvinism was first truly introduced to me by John Piper in Desiring God. I describe my own conversion to this point similarly: The God that John Piper was preaching was bigger than any God I had heard preached before. I found this infinitely powerful God to be more attractive to me similarly to how large masses attract objects more strongly than smaller ones.) The author still struggles on "Limited Atonement" after a lifetime of study and spends a chapter unpacking it. He makes a statement that I wrestle with: "There was no chance that he would die for a people who would not accept his salvation" (p. 35). But Jesus said "forgive them Father, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). The only way I can reconcile these is by looking at the other letters of the acronym and remember that I would not accept Jesus if God had not unconditionally extended irresistable grace to my totally depraved self who also put Jesus to death.

Unconditional election-- "divine selectiveness"-- is the one Mouw tends to get the most pushback on. He notes that election is at the heart of Jewish religion, something which often goes unnoticed. Complaints about God making "arbitrary" decisions about peoples' salvations are "better understood as (complaints) about the facts of life." Mouw encourages the Christian not to be prideful or "take glee in our chosen status" (p. 33). Limited atonement is a necessary doctrine that Mouw can defend "if I have to," but one he'd rather leave on the shelf. But he offers three options: Interpret the inclusivist biblical texts to be the "more precise ones"  (ie: TUIP), take the pluralistic texts to be the more precise ones (stricter Calvinists), or Mouw's preferred option: live uncomfortably with the tension between the texts. On this point, Mouw notes he has read deeply of Puritan and Dutch Calvinist literature and thought about the issue and does not know "how to proceed further" (p. 42). (I suspect Calvinist theologians who don't pause and sense any tension between the texts are undiagnosed autistics). Later in the book, Mouw writes that he hopes for a "divine generosity," that the people he has meet who do not yet profess Christ as savior and have had serious issues with the church (one woman who was abused by the church, for example) preventing them from even considering Christ will yet experience salvation at the end (p. 87-88). He also argues this position from the writings of Calvinists in history.

Mouw offers the advice of Welsh Calvinist Owen Thomas: "'(Calvinists) will spend an hour's exegesis upon the word 'world'; it will almost take his breath away to utter 'all'; he will circumnavigate land and sea to avoid meeting 'everyone'.' But the fact is...the Bible uses the a fairly straightforward manner" (p. 45). IOW: Don't succumb into confirmation bias or its corollary desirability bias. But the best advice: "Sometimes it is important to know when the moment has arrived to stop thinking about the mysteries and simply to start singing" (p. 46).

In the chapter Not a Stranger, the author demonstrates the importance of drawing on God's sovereignty in counseling in the most difficult of circumstances, such as the unexpected loss of a child. He tells the tale of a minister trying to comfort a Dutch congregation that experienced great loss. The congregation rightly responded "Minister, no stranger did that to us;" they knew the promises of God in Romans 8:28-31. He cites a book by Jerry Sittser, himself a sufferer, and how he worked through a theology of loss. There's a reminder that in giving His own son, God knows loss.

Mouw takes his Kuyperian Calvinism into social activism as well. We are "elected to something, and serve in an "office" selected by God. "God elects us to participate in a covenant community that shows forth his sovereign rule over all areas of life" (p. 65). He has tried to be an obedient peacemaker and protested wars. He's tried to be an "agent of God's sovereign rule" (p. 68). He makes a very interesting statement: "I am a theocrat...Everyone who believes in the God who actively reigns over his whole creation is a theocrat. I hasten to add that this does not mean I want to impose 'Christian culture' on everyone...(But) the Christian community is called here and now by God to be a witness to the larger world of what it is like to live our lives in open acknowledgement of God's sovereign rule over all things" (p. 69).

This is a great theology of work quote (p. 72):
"God cares deeply about all the 'stuff' of our daily pursuits: the things we deal with in our workplaces, in our friendships and family relationships, in our leisure-time activities. This is what the psalmist is proclaiming when he writes that the 'earth is the Lord's and everything in it' (Psalm 24:1)...I have learned to appreciate in acknowledging that Jesus Christ is not only my personal Savior but the Lord over all my thoughts and the Ruler over all spheres of life."

It's a small 127 pages. I picked this up along with Letters to a Young Calvinist at a local Goodwill and am pleased with my 99 cents. Like all books by Presbyterians it will give you a greater appreciation of creeds, church history, and inspire you to read other books. This is the easiest read you will ever find from an academic philosopher.  Five stars.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Baptist Polity As I See It by James L. Sullivan (Book Review #23 of 2017)

Baptist Polity as I See It by James L. Sullivan
It's a shame that there aren't more reviews of this book. I don't really know of another book like it, although I do hope that someone has penned a more recent version that is a standard textbook at Southern Baptist seminaries like this used to be (one 2007 reviewer remarks he wish he'd had it in seminary, so I guess it's not used much anymore). I've been a Southern Baptist for 30 years, and am currently an ordained deacon. But I did not know half of what was in this book, on the basic history of the Southern Baptist Convention, the basic makeup of the Convention (a mistake I have made for 30 years that this book corrects quickly: the Convention is the annual meeting, not the name of the denomination), its processes, organizational charts, how the state conventions work, how SBs differ from other denominations, how the Cooperative Program was developed, various challenges it faced and overcame up to 1983, etc. He also clarifies many common misconceptions people have.

Sullivan was a pastor, Sunday School Board (now Lifeway) President, Southern Baptist Convention President (1976-1978), State Convention President, and held a host of other positions. This book is both his explanation and a defense of how the denomination operates, arguing that it's the best for various reasons. Sullivan was no liberal, the only criticisms I've seen of him suggest he was naive to how liberal some of the teachers at Southern Baptist seminaries had become. There certainly is no hint in this book of a need for the eventual "Baptist Reformation," which is now a cornerstone of SB seminary historical teaching. The reality is that Southern Baptists have always been in the middle of the Conservative camp, its Convention Presidents almost always Conservative theologically, as Sullivan suggests in his diagram on p. 198. The "Reformation" following Sullivan's publishing simply affirmed and solidified this position. "Southern Baptists might be called conservatives with the little letter c but not conservatives with a capital C...(and) fundamentalists with a small f...Southern Baptists sometimes have a rather disconcerting tendency to interpret doctrines from the limited perspective of their own denomination...a person who is a conservative in the general religious field can sometimes be looked upon as liberal in Southern Baptist life...The point I'm making is that ultraconservatism should be avoided just as studiously as liberalism. Sometimes it is more dangerous to us" (p. 199). The ultraconservatism he warns about are a few specific schism movements in the early 20th century (J. Frank Norris) as well as strong feelings like Landmarkism and the insular mindset of Independent Baptists.

Where I think this book is great is in briefly teaching the history of Baptist faith in America and the emphasis on liberty, both of the believer and of individual churches. I think the more recently popular movements within Southern Baptist life, such as the 9Marks movement, Desiring God, etc. re-root Southern Baptist life in the Gospel, but seem also to divorce it from the Baptist history. Mark Dever, for example, is much more apt to include a Puritan or an Anabaptist in his sermon, but someone critical to making up the 1845-modern era Southern Baptist ranks may never make a cameo. (Like Dever, Sullivan is critical in the book [p. 82] of the unbiblical Deacon Boards that make up many SB churches, as well as "autocratic" pastors that are contrary to the principle of liberty at the heart of Baptist heritage.) Sullivan does not dwell much on the murky and debated beginnings of Baptists but does discuss how the different Baptist groups coming to America "buried their hatchets" and adopted the phrase "unity in diversity" (p. 39). Southern Baptists, traditionally, have emphasized a "unity in diversity." But this is difficult in practice because "there are certain people who find it difficult to cooperate with those who do not hold views identical to their own" (p. 203). But that is what has made the Convention so remarkable, the way debates are moderated on the floor and voted on democratically, it is hard for extreme positions to win out. I don't know if it began with the "Reformation" or not, but it would seem that diversity is less than it might be. There has been somewhat of an ongoing battle between Reformed and more Arminian-leaning teachings that I think Reformed are winning now; and my limited understanding from other evangelical denominations is that a similar trend is happening elsewhere.

Early Southern Baptist churches only met irregularly, maybe once or twice a month depending on the weather or the season. (P. 51 quotes an anecdote that one church objected to having year-round Bible studies because it was "too many meetings.") The hour they met was chosen to be ideal for morning chores and travel time. Hence, the 11am hour became sacred. Sullivan notes traditions such as these that became difficult to break, particularly the sacrosanct 11am hour. Sullivan does not gloss over slavery as the reason for the establishment of a Southern Baptist Convention in 1845. He includes the original 1845 Constitution and speech of explanation by William B. Johnson in the appendix. American Baptists had previously affirmed that slaveholding was a non-essential disagreement. But they abruptly changed their mind and would not allow slaveholders to be funded as missionaries, despite nothing being in the official American Baptist Constitution about it. The offended Southerners broke ranks and formed their own. The 1845 language is an appeal to liberty away from the "pressure of men's hands" that limit what one can and cannot do. But Sullivan repeats throughout the book that Southern Baptist polity allows it to be very flexible and "progressive in methodology," while conservative in theology. Its polity and emphasis on individual and church liberty allows for that dynamic and makes it "the best."  "While Baptists will defend the right of any group to practice the hierarchical system if it wishes, we prefer to go another way, choosing democratic processes magnifying the worth of each individual and the importance of each local congregation" (p. 80).

The guidelines, rules, and laws that the Southern Baptist Convention follow have changed very little, even though methodology has changed (in the 1940s, Sunday School was the hub of North American evanglism, now it is NAMB). Yet Southern Baptists are largely ignorant of those rules and never take part. That is something Sullivan would have liked to see corrected, calling on every member, particularly leaders, to be better-educated on polity. This would correct an ongoing problem of people moving from a State Convention committee to a national committee and not understanding the different rules and purposes. It would also connect SB's back to their history of liberty. "It is only by teaching Southern Baptists thoroughly about the basic principles of Southern Baptist polity that we will be able to avoid the risk of our denomination's moving unconsciously in an ever-increasing way toward centralization, or control in the hands of a few. If that sad day ever occurs, it will not only be disruptive; it will be catastrophic for Baptists" (p. 52).

In all, this book gave me a greater appreciation of Baptist history, liberty, and the Southern Baptist Convention as an institution. Four stars out of five. I see there is a revised 1998 version, I'm reviewing the 1983.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Jerusalem's Traitor by Desmond Seward (Book Review #22 of 2017)

Jerusalem's Traitor: Josephus, Masada, and the Fall of Judea

I picked up this book after reading an advance copy of Ben Witherington III's A Day in the Fall of Jerusalem (3 stars), a historical fiction narrative of days in 70AD complete with factual tidbits in sidebars. I also recently read William H. Marty's The World of Jesus (4 stars) that looks at the timelines, political intrigue, and family trees of first century Palestine as well.

If you don't want to read Josephus in the original, then Seward's work will suffice. He retells Josephus' works in an engaging fashion and adds some commentary as well as context. He supplies commentary to the reliability or possible motives behind certain passages. There is also a little bit of what is known from recent archaelogy or anthropology, and the latest of what historians believe about Josephus' life. It is not for an academic audience, it is entertaining.

Some bits that I gleaned:
Josephus was a follower of John the Baptist and probably like his father, who was likely of the party of the Pharisees, most likely in the lineage of priests. He also hung out with stoics. Josephus famously testifies to Christ (the Testimonium Flavianum) and that particular passage's authentication is debatable but Seward comes down on the side of it being plausibly authentic and moves past it fairly quickly.

We underestimate today how threatening and subversive monotheism was to Roma and its culture. This is the primary reason why Jews and later Christians were persecuted, either locally or widely. People familiar with the New Testament also underestimate the sheer brutality of living in that age, the frequency of wars, rebellions, and political intrigue that could lead to mass-slaughter. We can gloss over that today. Josephus, for example, wrote of the cruel Gessius Florus, who was procurator over Judea from 64-66. Florus would antagonize the Jews, desecrating their synagogues and removing money from the Temple treasury for the Emperor. The Jewish protest led to a Roman crackdown and many deaths. Josephus records that Samaritans, erstwhile rivals, joined in Florus' soldier's activities and the spark of rebellion quickly spread into a fire. While King Agrippa, who considered himself a Hebrew, tried to make peace the growing series of reprisals between Greeks and Jews became basically a civil war, even places like Galilee. This culminated in an outright pogrom in Caesarea. (Witherington's narrative ignores any part of this civil war runup in his text, which looks at areas in Galilee just after 70 AD, it's like nothing ever happened and there is no tension and no mention is made of Josephus having actually been a one-time governor of Galilee.)

Josephus may not have been actually acquainted with Nero, but apparently knew his wife, Poppea. Poppea was allegedly instrumental in getting Gessius Florus his position, but Josephus writes of her as a God-fearer who had sympathy for the Jews. Agrippa frowned on Nero and Seward writes of what is known or surmised about Nero's behavior.

Josephus was a capable commander of men but was a terrible governor of Galilee in peacetime. At the outbreak of the Jewish War, Josephus fought the Roman army in Galilee and led his men to a cave, allowing some to commit suicide before he himself went over to the Romans to help Vespasian. Josephus became useful as a translator, negotiator, and recorder. But historians differ as to whether Josephus actually got the lands and patronage that he writes about. He prophecied that Vespasian would become Emperor, and this apparently gained him the favor he needed and he enjoyed a good relationship with Titus Vespasianus, the next Emperor.

The true enemy in Josephus' works become the Zealots, telling his fellow Jews that the Zealots had betrayed the peace-loving Romans who had at least allowed them to maintain their Temple and worship. Therefore, "you are not just fighting Romans, but God." According to Josephus, the Zealots set off a class warfare that was brutal. He claims they were butchering or starving people inside Jerusalem's wall and them throwing them over. Josephus maintained a spy network of some sort within Jerusalem and encouraged surredner. However, Roman legionnaires were also ripping open Jewish captives after one captive was found to have swallowed some gold to smuggle it out of the city. This gruesome act discouraged surrender and just made matters worse. In Josephus work, both Jews and the Romans were at fault for destroying the Temple.

Titus, commanding the Roman seige of Jerusalem, reportedly absolves himself of guilt after hearing of atrocities and cannibalism inside Jerusalem. (Titus also had an affair with Bernice, daughter of Herod Agrippa, and he later dismisses her after he becomes Emperor.) Joseph accredits all of the actions and destruction to the hand of God and as punishment on the Jewish people. Masada would fall years later, and Josephus records Eliazar and the Masada suicide pact. After the destruction of the Temple, the Torah would be the center of Jewish worship and culture. Josephus wrote "Our Law will live forever."

The author also provides a brief summary of the later Bar-Kokhba War and the fate of Palestine as well as Josephus. Titus eventually became Emperor for only two years and his nephew, the insane Domition, succeeded him. Josephus had to defend his work and reputation at points in his life. Jews and Christians were increasingly heavily persecuted as the Emperor went mad.

One weakness of Seward's work is that he does not examine all the manuscript evidence of Josephus' work. My understanding from other sources is that there are some differences in the manuscript fragments and issues in translation. Josephus claimed Titus and Vespasian as sources and offers a letter from Herod Agrippa II testifying to the good quality of his book.

I give this book four stars out of five. You're likely better off to read, or listen to, the entirety of Josephus' works since they're freely available. But this is an in-depth summary and easy to enjoy. If you are more interested in understanding the context of the time in Palestine in which the New Testament was written, then check it out.