Monday, November 24, 2008

Out of the Salt Shaker & into the World, by Rebecca Manley Pippert

This is a great book on evangelism that I wish I could put into practice. Someday, I hope to do so. Right now, I am at a point in my life where I need to see more ‘fruits of the Spirit’ before I go around trying to evangelize unbelievers. Obviously, I don’t think I need to be morally perfect in order to do this, but I do think that part of conversion, perhaps the main part, is manifesting a transformed life; a transformed will. If Christianity is just a worldview (as listening to many evangelical apologists could lead one to believe) than it is just a subject of ideological debate. Faith is supposed to be so much more than that. Now, let’s get to the book itself.

The author rightly points out that in evangelism we should be ourselves. By communicating our true selves to others, they can see that we are not being fake, not hiding something. Given the general suspicion that Western people have of Christianity, this is very important. Through mirroring the Jesus, we must be bold, willing to challenge people to make a clear choice, while also being compassionate. Religion isn’t something just for the scholar or the theologian, but for the poor and downtrodden. Jesus brought it to them by reaching out to them. The woman at the well was one example of this. In our society, it is easy to surround oneself with wholly like-minded people on every subject from religion to politics. Jesus challenges our tendency to barricade ourselves in comfortable environments.

“Jesus is Lord,” is a phrase that identifies Jesus as the one in charge. If he was about the poor, the marginalized in society, then we cannot call ourselves Christians unless we are also concerned about the people society has forgotten about. The children starving in Africa, the millions of children dropping out of school in America, or the plight of the unborn, are just some examples. It is easy to be self-consumed, thinking only about your own satisfaction and happiness. Jesus reminds us that we are mortal and that we are ultimately accountable to God at the end of the day.

Pippert asks us to ask ourselves, “Does my life reflect only religious activity or does it bear the mark of profound love?” This is a key question that separates the religion of Jesus from that of the Pharisees. Do we really care about people in our lives? Jesus is clear that how we treat and think of others reflects what we think about God. Jesus balanced being radically identified with the world with being radically different as well. We must not wait for stimulating intellectual answers or the right feelings before we obey Christ.

The author notes that we tend to either over-identify with the world ensuring that we are no different from them or we separate ourselves from the world. Since we are called to be salt and light, we must both not hide and not give in to the ways of this world. Pippert writes, “We must ask ourselves, How do I interpret the needs and lifestyles of my friends? Do I look at their messy lives and say ‘That’s wrong’ and walk away? Or do I penetrate their mask and discover why they are in such trouble in the first place? And then do I try to love them where they are?” For me, I definitely fall on the side of a ‘whatever floats your boat’ mentality. As stated in the first paragraph, I don’t think I’ve fully converted yet to Christianity. Just because I have a Christian-type worldview does not make me a Christian. Doctrine is essential to Christianity, but doctrine alone isn’t the full picture. “The Creed does not belong to you unless you have lived it,” Pippert quotes the Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow as saying.

Pippert goes into three models of trying to bring the evangelism into our conversations with friends and strangers. The most attractive one for me is controlling the conversation by asking probing questions. Socrates was the exemplar of this. By asking ‘why,’ one can get to the heart of things. The value judgments and basic view of life that the person has. By digging deeper, their values and beliefs can be compared with those of Christ. Another method that goes back to Christ is to provoke a person’s curiosity. This means sharing what you believe in such a way that isn’t conversation ending, but thought-provoking. Jesus’ ‘living water’ statement to the woman at the well is a good example of this.

Looking over where I underlined in this book really brings out the obvious fact that apologetics serves evangelism, rather than existing for its own sake. Since I love intellectual things, I tend to forget this. This book is a great call for Christians to be more serious in the faith and thus in their witness to the world.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Death as a Salesman: What’s Wrong With Assisted Suicide, by Brian P. Johnston

This very succinct book illustrates what is wrong with euthanasia. There are many things wrong with it, but the core problem is not just a debate over the facts, (i.e. what is going on in the Netherlands, the realities of pain management, etc.) but a spiritual struggle. Since the dawn of history, humans have always had dependents in their midst who are infirm through age or sickness. How societies have treated such people is a good measure of the moral health of that society.

How is this the case? Well, those that kill the weak implicitly are saying that the value of human life is dependent on what a person can do. If a person can move about, communicate, think rationally, than they are worth helping. If they lack any of these (or a combination of these) than their lives are meaningless. Death would be a mercy for such human non-persons. Oftentimes such individuals are deemed a nuisance since they don’t contribute anything to society but drain resources. Implicit in this statement is that being a cog in the larger social wheel is the key measure of a life’s value. Absent from all this, is the notion that human life is valuable in and of itself. This Christian notion is fundamentally democratic while euthanasia represents the absolute opposite in both Christian and democratic terms. As Belgian physician Philipe Schepens puts it:

“Euthanasia constitutes a major breach against the laws of humanity. It could in fact signify the abandoning of the very concept of democracy and relegate us to a new world and society which will be totalitarian. A society in which people may dispose of the very lives of others, where you have to be declared fit by others to receive from society the right to live. A society in which the individual can exist only if he is wanted by others, and who therefore ceases to have absolute value. A society in which the weak must yield to the stronger. This is more than decadence. This is a gradual return to the law of the jungle, to an animalistic society where the survival of the fittest is the rule.”

The ancient Greeks condemned suicide and even the Greek term ‘euthanasia’ which means ‘good death’ is a neologism which was never used by the ancients in the same way we use the term. This tradition is summed up in the Hippocratic Oath, “I will give no deadly medicine, even if asked, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect.” Hippocrates, the Greek doctor who first really deserved the name, as he separated the practice of medicine from magic, knew that a physician who could kill as readily as he could heal, would have a trust deficit with his patients to say the least. Killing the weak is not a new enlightened concept, but an old and rejected one.

The rest of the book discuses the horrors of the euthanasia experiment in the Netherlands, the realities of pain management, and good hospice care. The other major topic are those vulnerable to euthanasia. The poor, elderly, depressed, disabled and infirm are obvious targets. Such people deserve love and care, rather than encouragement to commit suicide. Ultimately assisted suicide is for those that society no longer cares for. It responds to the human need for love in times of distress with the coldness of intentionally taking such people out of this world an out of our lives.

“The man who kills a man kills a man. The man who kills himself kills all men. As far as he is concerned, he wipes out the world.” G.K. Chesterton

“Hold back those who are being drawn to death,” Book of Proverbs

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Rise of Christianity, by Rodney Stark

This is a fascinating book on the rise of Christianity from an obscure backwater province of the Roman Empire to the dominant faith of Europe. Stark makes the case that the Christian faith succeeded for a variety of reasons. Since this is the first book on the subject that I’ve read, I can’t honestly evaluate his case that the mission to the Jews probably succeeded (more on this later) and that early Christianity wasn’t wholly confined to the poor. The other parts of his case seem to be more traditional and intuitive.

To address the issue of the class basis of early Christianity, Stark looks both to historians and the NT documents themselves. Since Marx and Engels, it has been popular to assume that the early Christians were all from the lowest classes of society; slaves and the poor. Against this notion, Stark quotes a recent historian, E.A. Judge, who was one of the first to deliver a major dissent to this opinion. According to Judge, from what we know from the documents of the first several centuries, early Christians were most likely urban dwellers, and dependents in city households. In other words, it was a largely middle class movement. I am skeptical of Stark on this point. Celsus, a second century critic of Christianity, noted that Christians tended to be illiterate slaves and women. He could have been overstating this, but I tend to trust him more than Judge. Also, the evidence would under-report lower class Christians since they are not literate and thus do not write. Stark is basing his thesis here on his modern observation that new religious movements tend to be based in the privileged classes. While this is true of contemporary America, it seems unwarranted to generalize these findings to the first several Christian centuries.

Stark, however, does make a better case that Christianity did better than most people assume with the Jews. This is particularly true of the Hellenized Jews who were looking to hold to their traditional faith but were slowly becoming more like their pagan neighbors. Christianity brought together both Gentiles and Jews in a new faith that combined aspects of both cultures. Hellenized Jews tended to be urban just as the growing Christian was. Just as there were Jews who wanted to both retain their culture and become closer to the Gentiles, there were Gentiles called ‘God-Fearers’ who had an affinity for the ethical monotheism of Judaism but who didn’t want to take the final step of obeying the Law. Pauline Christianity fit the bill for both these groups. Stark does a good job of arguing this point.

The rest of the book focuses on the fascinating reasons why Christianity supplanted paganism as the religion of the Empire. In an era of epidemics and huge natural disasters, Christians had a faith that gave hope and meaning to a world filled with vast suffering and death. It also gave prescriptions for action. While pagans fled the cities in the face of deadly plagues, Christians cared for the sick; those forgotten and left for dead by society. Christians funded charities to help people, pagans did not. This not only built up antibodies in the Christians who survived the plague but also made the surviving pagans who were helped by Christians more likely to convert. So effective were these charities, that the pagan emperor Julian tried to set up pagan charities in an effort to save the declining religion. Alien to paganism, was the idea that because God loves humanity, demonstrated through the sacrifice of his Son, he wants us to demonstrate the love to one another.

Another factor that spurred Christian growth was the role of women. Women in the Greco-Roman world weren’t treated very well to say the least. Their status in Christianity was better. By prohibiting infanticide and abortion, Christians had a far higher ratio of women to men than in the larger Roman society. In a recent excavation of a villa in the port city of Ashkelon, archaeologists discovered a ancient Roman sewer that was clogged with the refuse of nearly a hundred murdered babies. Philosophers supported abortion on demand, as evidenced by Tacitus who even supported infanticide. This combined with a pagan culture that held marriage in low esteem, created space in which a Christian church that honored children would be much more fertile.

Christianity succeeded because it stood head and shoulders above a culture that was spiritually thirsty and dying. The proliferation of pagan mystery religions, where religion was more like a commodity bought for a price, was vastly different than a religion that had a strong ethical teaching. Hyper-pluralism created an atmosphere of ‘cheap religion’ that became increasingly meaningless to those seeking something real from religion. In a culture where watching people getting torn apart is a spectator sport, infanticide was something recommended by philosophers, coupled by brutal divisions between ethnicities and sexes, Christianity gave converts nothing less than their humanity.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

New Blog

Hello All,

I have started a new political blog here:

It is my pledge and goal to post on each blog at least once a week.


Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Evidence for Jesus, by R.T. France

This was a mildly interesting book that could have been better if France’s discussion of the New Testament itself was more illuminating. This is a popular level book written in the mid-eighties so it is kind of dated. He emphasizes the important point that a lot of the writing from the 1st century have not survived. He then goes on to discuss the non-Christian evidence for Jesus. This analysis, like his analysis of the New Testament, is critical and evenhanded. After reading so much blatant Christian apologetics, this approach is both more honest and credible.

Tacitus is the main Gentile writer who mentions Jesus. There are others but to France, Tacitus is the most important. Tacitus states that Jesus was a Jew from the Roman province of Judea who was crucified under the procurator Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius. Interestingly, France does not take this as ‘independent testimony’ since Tacitus could just be getting his information from what the Christians thought about their own origins. He gets this opinion from G.A. Wells who argues that Jesus was a mythic creation and not a historical figure. I tend to think that while Wells might be correct on Tacitus, I find it hard to believe that this information is not from some credible source since Tacitus was no friend of the Christians and would probably not accept whatever they claimed uncritically. However, Wells could be right.

The Jewish historian Josephus also mentions Jesus. France notes that the martyrdom of James, the brother of Jesus, as a Christian leader in 62 A.D. is generally agreed upon as historical. It is true that this mentioning of Jesus was embellished by Christian scribes, but most scholars believe that Josephus really did mention Jesus, but without the obvious Christian sympathies. Thus, the debate is about how Josephus mentioned Jesus rather than if he really did. The later Rabbis also referred to Jesus in a very veiled manner in the Talmud. Basically, the claim that he was a heretic that led Israel astray.

France spends far too much time on the non-Christian evidence. His discussion of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gnostic second to third centuries writings are thorough but pretty much irrelevant since they were written much later than the NT documents and don’t really contain any apparent real historical evidence about Jesus.

Finally, when we get to the NT, France does a decent job of defending the fact that the claim that Jesus rose from the dead dates to very early from the crucifixion. The creed of 1st Corinthians 15 is key here. When the discussion turns to the gospels, he notes the bias inherent in the form-criticism of Bultmann who a priori discounts miracles. The rest of the discussion of the NT is pretty conservative and predictable. Since I’ve heard it all before I didn’t think it was that interesting. Overall, the book was informative but quite dry.