Friday, September 21, 2007

On the True Doctrine: A Discourse Against the Christians, by Celsus

This polemical work was produced by a conservative second century pagan named Celsus. It is the only work critical of Christianity to survive from that era. It was preserved mostly intact from the church father Origen who pretty much quoted this entire document in his Contra Celsum. It’s a very short but really elucidates what was going on in the century after the composition of the New Testament.

Paul said that the cross is a stumbling block for Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. After rading this, I can clearly see that he was correct. Celsus complains shrilly that Christianity is an anti-intellectual religion that attracts the most vulgar (by this he means poor) people in society. It is like a virus upon the Roman Empire that can’t be stuffed out. He derides it as a religion of “women, slaves and children.” The fact that Christians were persecuted everywhere to him proves that the Christian God doesn’t care enough to save his own people from danger. To him, religion is about enhancing one’s earthly life. He could not understand why Christians would give up their lives for Christ.

His main criticism of Christianity is a criticism of the character of Jesus himself. The fact that he died on a Roman cross, was poor, born in the boonies, and lived a relatively obscure life proves to Celsus that Jesus couldn’t be who he said he was. He contrasts the story of Jesus to the Greek myths of Hercules and other noble heroic figures who fight for what they want and conquer their enemies. That Jesus would willingly die in such a humiliating way does not comport with Celsus’ idea of divinity.

Being very Platonic in thinking Celsus is fast to compare the saying of Christ with those of Plato, concluding that Plato is much more high-minded and intellectual. Of Christian worship, Celsus said, “The religion of the Christians is not directed at an idea, but at the crucified Jesus, and this is surely no better than dog or goat worship at its worst.” The Platonic belief in a metaphysical realm of Ideas or Forms makes them inclined to think that the physical world is bad compared to the metaphysical realm.

What’s fascinating is that Celsus many times mistakes Gnostic beliefs as Christian. Back then the Gnostic heresy was very pervasive. He knew both Gnostic sources as well as the New Testament documents. He not only takes aim at Jesus but at Paul as well who he claims nullified the Law of Moses by claiming that God changed His mind. Also, he was quite offended at the saying, “The wisdom of the world is foolishness with God.” Since Celsus believed strongly in a mix of pagan religious ideas and secular philosophies of the age, he saw this as an attack on the foundation of his own worldview.

I recommend this book to those interested in ancient history and the beginnings of Christianity. This work is another example that Christianity was born out of strife and conflict. Jesus didn’t come to bring peace to the Earth but a sword.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Book Review: Confessions, by Saint Augustine

Summer is almost over and I’ll thus be reading a lot less, at least when it comes to leisure reading. In any case, this is a famous Christian work by what many believe to be the greatest theologian in Christian history. To be quite honest, this was a very tough read for me, especially near the end. When Augustine was speaking about his life experiences, the book was great but when he started getting deep into philosophy, I lost interest. As the footnotes in my version make clear (Henry Chadwick was the translator) Augustine was very much influenced by Platonic and Neoplatonic philosophy. His whole thought world was very different then our own. His philosophical musings were elaborate but eloquently irrelevant to me personally.

His entire outlook on his past sins, the virtues of his mother and the all pervasiveness of God’s grace were what gripped me the most about this work. Despite all his faults, God’s forgiveness brought by His grace touched Augustine profoundly. In one story from Augustine’s childhood he stole peaches from a neighbors tree just for the thrill of doing something wrong. He agonizes over this sin that most people would not have mentioned. Sin isn’t just about the wrongness of the crime itself but the state of one’s whole heart in committing particular sins. Jesus was correct when he spoke about an evil treasure coming out of an evil heart. Sin is a privation, a twisting distortion, something that is unnervingly banal, while living in the Spirit is truly living in the light of true goodness, beauty and life.

Augustine had a very metaphorical interpretation of Genesis that would rub a both young Earth and old Earth creationists the wrong way. Reading that reaffirmed by belief that Genesis and the Bible as a whole aren’t meant to be a science textbook but is the gift of God’s revelation to us. One does not have to take any type of literal reading of Genesis to be a Christian.

Overall, I recommend reading the biographical parts of this book and skipping most of it, unless of course you are a big ancient philosophy buff.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Humble Apologetics, by John G. Stackhouse

This was recommended to me by a friend and I found it to be excellent. The book generally got better as I turned the pages. At first Stackhouse had a habit of saying things about pluralism, postmodernism and consumerism that I already knew but when I reached the second and third parts of the book where he speaks of conversion and communicating apologetically, I was hooked. I found myself whispering “yes” out loud in those parts of the book as he clearly articulated many points that I’ve thought in my reflections on the proper use of apologetics in evangelism as well as the nature of conversion. Reading this book was like emerging from forty days in the proverbial desert of conservative evangelical thought on this aspect of Christianity.

This book clearly refuted the evangelistic methods of Ray Comfort in my mind. (If you don’t know who Ray Comfort is consider yourself fortunate.) Ray separates evangelism and apologetics in his mind, embracing a crude caricature of the former while completely discounting the latter. In reality, apologetics and evangelism go together because one has to put on the evangelist’s hat to communicate the good news of the gospel and use apologetics when one is challenged about the veracity or goodness of that news. Apologetics, meaning the art of defending the faith and advancing the faith intellectually to others, needs to be conducted with humility always in mind, since God incarnated himself here on Earth in humility. Also, the current challenges of postmodernism and pluralism to the Christian message can’t be dealt with if we are puffed up with pride. The apostle Paul had this principle in mind when he spoke to the Corinthians not in “lofty words” but in “fear and trembling.” Intellectual honesty was also stressed in this book. When engaging our non-Christian peers we must remember that the whole of Christianity does not depend just on our efforts or our words. We shouldn’t try to bring people to a “crisis point” where they either choose to accept or reject Christianity. Instead we must remember that most will not change their whole worldview just because someone presents a good argument. Engaging the evangelism and apologetics is a team effort and we are only called to play a part. In actuality, real change in that unbeliever’s life can only come through the providence of the Holy Spirit.

This book has successfully inspired me to actually engage with my neighbors on these matters. I think that was the main strength of the book. One doesn’t have to have all the answers, but can focus on nudging others towards the faith without being overly pushy. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation. We are just clay vessels called to be co-workers of Christ in this venture. I heartily recommend this book for anyone who is struggling with how one ought to go about engaging in apologetic discussions with non-believers. I also think this applies to believers as well who need encouragement and care to proceed along the path of sanctification in the faith.

Book Review: Simply Christian, by N.T. Wright

I have to say that I was disappointed by this book. The book is broken up into three sections. The first focused on the echoes of God’s voice in our desire for justice, morality, beauty and truth. The second focused on the story of God through Israel culminating in Jesus Christ. The third was about Christian life and practice. I think that Wright was aiming to write a Mere Christianity type book a la Lewis style. When it came to presenting the story of God’s work in Israel and the person of Christ, I think Wright did an excellent job far surpassing Lewis. I think my disappointment probably was due to listening too many of Wright’s lectures before I read this book so I already anticipated pretty much everything he said. I would loan this book to interested non-Christians although I am leery of some details of this book.

Firstly on page 72 Wright makes a move that is common to Christians who are historians of the first century. I admire him for honestly saying that he is telling the story of Israel from the point of view of a first-century Jew. Thus he side-steps the modern debate about whether the Old Testament events of Moses, the exodus and all that other stuff really happened or not. Since Wright has a whole chapter on the story of Israel, this raises a lot of doubts in ones mind right off the bat. If the story of Israel is fundamentally legend then doesn’t that have serious implications for Jesus and the veracity of Christianity? I don’t think just saying that a “first century Jewish” perspective is enough. Wright ought to have at least dealt with the issue rather than avoiding it. Avoiding the issue opens up a serious hole right in the beginning of Wright’s argument.

Also, while Wright does mention contemporary moral problems such as U.S. imperialism, world peace and whatnot, he doesn’t mention abortion at all. Mentioning contemporary issues in being a Christian without mentioning abortion is more than a little disingenuous. The doctrine of hell is also absent. Besides a few brief comments in a few of his lectures, hell does not come up at all. The only thing he says in his lectures is that we have a medieval conception of hell that is a heritage gained more through Dante more than Christ. Otherwise, there is no talk of hell at all in this book. Since I am struggling with this very issue in my faith right now, I find Wright’s avoidance of this doctrine very troubling.

For these reasons this book was an annoying read. Wright spoke of the desire of justice being a universal basic want of all people but I don’t think he does justice to the issue of OT historicity, abortion or hell. Such topics need to be discussed, not avoided.

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

Let me say up front that there will be no spoilers in this brief review, just my general comments about this book and the end of the Potter series. Overall I think this book was good. I found it better than the fifth or sixth book but not as good as the first four (which in my opinion were the best in the series.) For me, fiction has to be very economical with words since long drawn out stories (think Fellowship of the Ring) are tiring and unnecessary. The Christian symbolism in this story was well done and I commend Rowling crafting such a good series with a powerful Christian subtext. I would say more but I’d rather just encourage everyone to read this book/series for themselves. Don’t rely on the movies alone since they (as typical for movies) don’t do justice to Rowling’s books.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Book Review: Post-Modernism 101, A First Course for the Curious Christian, by Heath White

It’s been a while since my last book review. This book was very succinct. Part of me liked that while another part of me wished that the author would explore some of the issues in more depth. This is especially true in the sections about how Christians ought to respond to the postmodern turn in both philosophy and culture.

Although, I sympathize with some aspects of postmodernism, mainly concerning it’s critique of Enlightenment arrogance. I agree with postmoderns that Enlightenment thinking has emphasized a type of objectivism that is subtly (or not so subtly) used to gain political power. However, humans can’t escape from their own point of view just they can’t escape from the law of gravity. This does not entail that one can never reach truth but that one ought to critically examine both one’s intentions and the evidence at hand. Moral relativism is the most troubling aspect of postmodernist thought that confronts the Christian who wishes to share the gospel with the postmodernist. The gospel speaks of our sin against God’s moral law. The Christian is thus thrust into the position of defending moral realism (or absolutism) when she presents the gospel. I think this is increasingly becoming a challenge for Christians not just with secular postmoderns but with secular moderns as well. As time passes our culture is becoming less and less Christian. Sadly, that is true of the church as well.

The most fascinating part of postmodern thought is that everything becomes a matter of literary criticism. The truth or falsity of a claim or set of claims is seen not from the empiricist viewpoint but through the lens of literary criticism. It becomes a matter of buying into the narrative or meta-narrative, as the case would be concerning Christianity. I wish he spoke more about the philosophy behind this but I think that one should not reject this out of hand but look more closely at this. Perhaps this new way of coming to truth can be brought to the advantage of Christian evangelists and apologists. I would have to research more to find out if this view is really good or if it is terrible.

The author makes a good point near the end of the book that many postmoderns live in a pessimistic world devoid of hope. I think that Christians can really speak to these people on this. In a world of relativism, Christianity is anchored to real hope. Unlike the arrogant modernist who confidently has faith and hope in his own reason, the postmodern does not even have that. I think this is a positive development because such people would be more open to relying on God than the modernist, both secular and Christian. Kierkegaard once said that to need God is perfection. St. Paul would add that abiding in faith and hope is great but that the greatest thing is to abide in love. The Christian ought to remember this when interacting with all people.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Book Review: The Future of Christianity, by Alister E. McGrath

In this book, the British professor McGrath, discuses what he sees as the future trends in Christianity culminating in an interesting chapter on the growing irrelevance of academic theology. Basically, Christianity is incredibly successful in the Third World while it will continue to stagnate in the West. The Evangelical and Pentecostal movements will factor in significantly in the next century, displacing the older mainline Protestant denominations. He also predicts that Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy will continue to be strong forces in global Christianity. He noted an interesting phenomenon in that some Evangelicals are converting to Orthodoxy. He thinks this is the case because Evangelicalism is a recent addition in the Christian family and that some evangelicals want to have a stronger sense of attachment to historical Christianity and thus become Orthodox.

Most of the book was merely interesting, not rising to a very insightful discussion since McGrath only had 155 pages to write in this Blackwell Manifesto. If it was longer, I probably wouldn’t finish the book. This was the first McGrath book that I actually finished since he does have a tendency to get a little dry at times. The main weakness of this book is that McGrath tends to tell me things that I already know. This either means that McGrath ought to be more original or that his target audience isn’t as well read as I am which is entirely possible.

The last part of the book that discussed the irrelevance of academic theology in the life of the Christian laity was particularly fascinating. McGrath outlined the biases of academia and how the assumptions of the laity and academia are in many instances diametrically opposed. For example, in academia, the gospels are thought to tell us about the specific gospel writers and their particular communities of faith while for the common Christian, the gospels tell us about Jesus. Basically, the academic theologians and those in biblical studies largely have secular assumptions that are not accepted by most Christians outside of the academy. McGrath outlines well how the pressures of the academy don’t necessarily coincide with the interests of truth, academic excellence and faith. In fact, according to McGrath, theology is trapped in a cerebral box that makes Christianity into a set of intellectual ideas and concepts rather than a holistic way of life. The picture that McGrath paints about academic theology is quite grim but to his credit he does outline a brief idea about how to fix this problem.

McGrath speaks of the need for “organic theologians” or people that tackle theology in the context of their faith communities and to evangelize to people outside the Christian faith. These would be people who use their intellect to engage with the Church and everyone else rather than theologians who only write for other academicians in a language that only they can understand. He cites C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy Sayers as examples of people who effectively did this. None of these were professional theologians but they all helped communicate theology to Christians.

Overall, this book is merely okay. It isn’t by any means really bad but it isn’t really good either.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Book Review: The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton

This was a fascinating read. Chesterton’s prose is clear and poignant making the story a mostly easy read if you forgive the century old English expressions and such. The novel is rich in symbolism about man’s perception of free will, Nature, and the ultimate question of God. It’s a novel that one thinks about long after reading it because it elucidates the various mysteries of both the human condition and the metaphysics of the universe. Few pieces of fiction have been able to implant in me such a sense of wonder and mystery, as The Man Who Was Thursday. I very much recommend this book.

Appearances rather than realities seem to be the point of much of the imagery in the book. I would go on further but I want to give a spoiler warning. If you are interested in reading this book, don’t read any further.

The novel is an inverted mystery novel in which villains are revealed as being actually good people, while the real mystery is the enigmatic man named Sunday, the head of the Anarchist Council. Syme, the main character, manipulates his way into the leading Anarchist Council, to undermine its efforts since he is a police officer. Through the book he makes quite a few interesting discoveries about the other members of the Council and finally goes on a quest to figure out the both sublime and bestial Sunday.

The final chapters of the book are my favorite, although this is not to say that the whole book isn’t good. Chesterton does a good job of cultivating the sense of adventure throughout the novel but the ending chapters are best because they elucidate the meaning behind much of the symbolism in the story. Sunday represents what Nature is separated from the revelation of God. The backside of Sunday represents the part of Nature that is seen apart from revelation. Syme even comments that in this world we’ve only seen the backside of things when in the next we will see things face to face, or something to that effect.

Someday I would definitely consider buying this book and reading it more thoroughly for symbolism since I probably didn’t catch everything. If I ever was to write a novel with a strong biblical allegory, I’d definitely look to The Man Who Was Thursday as my inspiration.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Book Review: Mozi, Basic Writings, translated by Burton Watson

I had to read this one for my Ancient Chinese History class. Mozi was one of the first philosophers in China, this work being perhaps the oldest piece of Chinese philosophy we have (sections of The Analects may be older).

I choose Mozi out of the other ancient Chinese philosophers because he is the most Christian. His ideas of universal love and the justice of Heaven echo a lot of later Christian ideals. When I actually wrote my essay on him though, the differences between him and traditional Christian thought grew more apparent. For Mozi, universal love is done out of pure utility. You love others without partiality because if everyone did that then the world would be a better place. It is a command of Heaven only because Heaven is interested in utility.

However, Heaven in Mozi’s conception cares about justice in the way that God does in Christianity. Mozi says that murdering a man anywhere brings up the wrath of Heaven who cannot ignore that innocent blood has been shed. “Heaven” for Mozi just denotes the highest standard of order, rather than the Christian conception of a personal God.

Basically, while Mozi’s methodology and reasoning is quite distinctive, his main ideas are very Christian, especially in his conception of universal love. I think this work shows that God is bigger than just the Christian church and has shown bits of his truth to all cultures. In Christ we have the perfect revelation of God, but that does not mean that God left everyone else in the world completely without some sort of witness to Himself.

Book Review: Wild at Heart, by John Eldredge

This was a good book that tries to get at the core psychological issues facing men today. Men aren’t acting like men as God created them to be. God is wild and free but much of the church today preaches a tame view of God and thus men in the church tend to be bored since being a Really Nice Guy is not very exciting.

Every man (and woman) is made in the image of God. When God created Adam, He bestowed upon him the divine image. Any honest reading of the Bible shows that God is far from tame. From cover to cover He is a dangerous God. Almost the entire Bible is about God fighting the forces of darkness. From the flight out of Egypt, the conquest of Canaan all the way up to the ministry of Jesus and the mission he gives the apostles, God is clearly contending against evil. In each of us is that innate desire for a battle to fight. We are called to fight with God against the forces of evil in “this present darkness.”

Eldredge speaks about the wound that most men receive that makes them internalize that they are not really men. Usually this wound to a man’s pride is dealt by his father whom the boy looks towards for confirmation of his masculinity. A lot of the time the father gives a negative or equivocal response the shatters the world of the boy. Personally, I think Eldredge might be going too far in this generalization. I think ultimately the responsibility lies with the individual because only with the individual and God can the situation change. I wholeheartedly agree with Eldredge that bestowal of masculinity ought to reside fully with God.

By asking the right questions to God and seeking after Him can we find out our true name. Our false self is built around the fears that we’ve accumulated through the old wound that we’ve received. Only through God, who sees into a man’s heart, can one be saved. Eventually the false self is found out and exposed. Like a man who has cheated on his taxes for years finally got caught one day, our lives eventually force us to face the truth. C.S. Lewis said that, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts at us in our pain. It is his blow horn to rouse a deaf world.”

Later in the book, Eldredge speaks about spiritual warfare. Like Jesus who rebutted the temptations of the devil with Scripture, we are called to do the same. By following the guidance of God revealed in the Scriptures, we are able to overcome the Enemy. I think the danger of “spiritual warfare” talk is in the words of one of my friends the speaker could start thinking of himself as God’s “power ranger.” I think we ought to take our cues from Scripture on this subject without overly dramatizing it. Scripture is sparse on details instead speaking about spiritual realities. Let’s take the latter to heart and avoid the former.

After the spiritual warfare section, the book got more boring but I did get some good advice about choosing a career/life path that may prove quite invaluable. Since this book is psychological in nature, I endeavor to journal about it when I get the time. Overall, I recommend this book, although I wish Eldredge went a little lighter on the movie references.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Book Review: The Horse and His Boy, by C.S. Lewis

This is a children’s book but I wouldn’t read it to my children. While I liked The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, this book was not as original as either of those. The plot was plodding and there was a lot of hidden racism/ethnocentrism throughout the novel. For example, the turban-wearing darker skinned desert people to Narnia’s south were always derided as being “slavish” and generally ugly while the fair skinned Northern people were “noble” and “free.” While I could expect the story to be more sympathetic to people of lighter skin color, Lewis’ habit of constantly telling the reader this was annoying.

The main theme of the book is fate and while it was merely okay, it did not really pay off for reading the book. If you are going to read the Chronicles of Narnia, I’d recommend avoiding this book.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Book Review: Shattering the Darkness, The Crisis of the Cross in the Church Today, by Joseph Foreman

This was a difficult book. It was not difficult because it was hard to understand but because it was very simple to grasp. The author of the book, Joseph Foreman, was a leader in the Operation Rescue movement in 1988-89. Operation Rescue was the organization that blocked the entrances to abortion clinics preventing people from going in and killing their unborn babies. Throughout reading this book, I found myself wanting to wiggle out of their logic, to try and believe that one can do other things besides this to advance the pro-life cause, but whatever objections I brought up seemed to be not based on reason but based on my own selfish desires. I don’t rescue because I have legitimate Christian objections but because I don’t want to get persecuted by this society. This book is difficult to review because it hits so close to home in that it asks the sincere Christian, “Why aren’t you rescuing the little ones?”

Conservative Christians tend to believe that abortion is killing a human life. However, most of us are content with just voting for pro-life candidates, helping out at crisis pregnancy centers, etc. The difference in Rescue is that they act as if abortion was taking a human life rather than just trying to get rid of it via political means. The question is how a Christian ought to act if people are killing children every day in public? Act of terrorism obviously isn’t following Christ’s example just as doing nothing is not in keeping. Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one the least of these, you did not do it to me.” Matt. 25:45. By blocking the doors to abortion clinics in the late 1980s these people stopped the killing of these children saving actual lives in a self-sacrificial way. For these actions society rewarded them by beating them, arresting them, putting them in jail for months on end, taking their property and pretty much doing things that people tend to try to avoid. Like the Christians of the first few centuries A.D. these people literally lost everything for what they were.

They are an indictment against the Church, and against me personally, in that they actually act in accordance with their beliefs. Christians are much derided for not practicing what they preach, especially in America where we all lead quite comfortable lives. Operation Rescue failed because the Christians involved couldn’t consistently stand up in the face of persecution. Taking away their material possessions, taking away their freedom and ripping apart their families was an understandable disincentive to rescue. People tend to be selfish, even and especially Christians in America. Christians in America are unfortunately more American than Christian. Again, I know that in this judgment I am judging myself.

Rescue was even more dissuaded perhaps because it reminded people, especially Christians of something that is extremely uncomfortable and unsettling about our faith. That something is the Cross. Rescuing children who would be aborted is costly in that it calls for near total self-sacrifice. It shows that the Cross is diametrically opposed to the idolatry we Americans have brought into our lives speaking against the gods of Comfort, Security, and Man’s Opinion/Law. For the last two thousand years every generation has had to say, “If you are the Son of God, come down from that cross.” Matt. 27:40. God as revealed through the Christian scriptures has always been the one who sides with the poor and downtrodden, the large masses of suffering people throughout history; the people no one speaks for or cares for.

Only the Cross, exemplified in those early Christians who were burned as human torches and fed to the lions in the Roman coliseums, can shatter the darkness around us. Only through humility and the obedience that comes from faith can we transcend our tiny self-centered existences and seek to rescue. I am not merely talking about rescuing in front of abortion clinics but rescuing in all aspects of one’s life. It’s about denying the self to rescue an unsaved friend, sacrificing your time and energy to serve your neighbors or just serving your wife by doing always doing small things for her that she does not see.

“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Matt. 10:39. The Christian calling is not easy and our natures are opposed to it. That’s why we can only succeed in being “salt of the Earth” and the “light of the world,” through the grace of God made effective through true repentance and faith in Christ. Only through having faith and obedience to the gospel can the Cross finally shatter the darkness.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

First Post

Hello blogdom!

I've created this blog for the explicit purpose of reviewing books that I've read. I've read so much in the past but since I haven't taken notes on those books or wrote reviews about them to critically examine and reflect their content, I've only remembered what got "stuck" in my mind. Through this blog I hope to refine my thinking and hopefully garner enough interest so that people will feel compelled to challenge my views. The virtue of intellectual courage without humility becomes sheer arrogence as intellectual humility without courage is mere cowardice.

I'll post again whenever I finish a book. Since I'm in college for the next two months or so the number of posts will be relatively few. Perhaps by summer I'll read more. In any case, this will be a very infrequently updated, although if people comment I'll definitely entertain conversation.

Currently I am reading, Faith and Reason: Searching for a Rational Faith by Ronald Nash and Shattering the Darkness: The Crisis of the Cross in the Church Today by Joseph Lapsley Foreman. Recently I've acquired the habit of reading only parts of books. On this blog I'll only review books that I've completely read. It remains to be seen if I will finish either but tentatively I've planned to read them completely.