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Posts Tagged ‘Bible’

Some Short Book Reviews

Posted by Scott Holstad on November 25, 2018

I have a ton of books to review, ideally as many as possible before the end of the year. And my health has been extremely bad, so it’s hard for me to find the time, energy or inspiration to write any. However, today I got a few knocked out, leaving me with just over 150 more (!), so I thought I’d post them all here in one blog post, as they’re all fairly short. Cheers!

 

Forged: Writing in the Name of GodForged: Writing in the Name of God by Bart D. Ehrman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found this a fascinating book and really loved it. Much of it was new to me when I started, but for some reason, I set it aside for awhile while I read other books. And some of these other books went on to assert some of the same things I found Ehrman referring to when I later picked up the book to finish. That doesn’t diminish the research or quality of the material, but it does mean some of it isn’t as “original” as I had previously thought, which is the reason I’ve knocked it down from five stars to four. Still, if you want to learn the “real” story of many of the books of the Bible, particularly the New Testament, when they were actually written, who did and did not actually author so many of the books, this is an excellent source. Definitely recommended.

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God Needs To Go: Why Christian Beliefs FailGod Needs To Go: Why Christian Beliefs Fail by J.D. Brucker

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This short book is decent, not bad, and makes good and legitimate points. The author’s sections include 1. The Absence of Eternity, 2. The Birth of Ignorance, 3. The Flawed Logic in Modern Miracles, 4. The Error in Faith-Based Morality, 5. The Myth of Intelligent Design, 6. The Imaginary End, and 7. My Fall from “Grace.”

While I enjoyed reading it, however, I couldn’t help but think that these are largely issues that have already been addressed, mostly in more detail, depth, and intellectual mastery, by other authors out there, so aside from my feeling good about seeing another (reader-friendly) atheistic book on the market, I don’t feel like it truly contributes too much, certainly little new. Thus, while again I enjoyed it, I can’t help but view it as an average book, and am thus giving it three stars. If you have not yet read Barker, Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and some of the others, this may be a good intro, but I would quickly move on to the meatier resources out there. Cautiously recommended.

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The Templars: The Secret History RevealedThe Templars: The Secret History Revealed by Barbara Frale

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s hard for me to decide what I think about this book. For virtually my entire life, I’ve heard and read rumors, stories, and myths about the mysterious Knights Templar, and most people know about the Holy Grail and have heard stories that the organization continues to secretly exist to the present day. When I got this book, I wasn’t exactly looking for or expecting to find these stories were justified. However, while I admittedly did enjoy learning about how the Templars were founded, and for what reasons, and the qualities one had to have and the sacrifices one had to make in order to become one, this book then quickly turned into basically a dry textbook of history, places, several events, politics, culminating in a very disappointing (for me) end to what had been an admirable organization, complete with confessions tortured out of the Templars who had been arrested due to political BS between the King of France and the Pope. It was further disappointing to learn that at least some of the confessions were true, as in the Templars’ secret initiation rites, which I cannot believe were original, had degraded into something undeserving of the name and purpose of the organization, and personal requirements and standards had been lowered to recruit new members, thus making for a lack of morals in some that would have probably gotten an original Templar killed by his fellows. It was also disappointing to learn of such a once-splendid organization’s demise, and as the primary author was granted access to the “secret” Vatican files, it’s highly likely that the reports of its termination as an organization are and were indeed true, thus destroying my youthful fantasies of a super-secret organization existing over the centuries to the present, exercising power in all sorts of areas. Like I originally stated, I knew that was essentially a myth, but it was still disappointing to read the historical truth.

This is a well-researched, and professionally written history of a fascinating organization that was quite powerful for several hundred years and which still interests numerous people til this day. The writing gets fairly dry at times, even boring, but there’s enough good details and history in it to make it worth reading. I’d give this book a solid four stars and state that it’s recommended.

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Sid Gillman: Father of the Passing GameSid Gillman: Father of the Passing Game by Josh Katzowitz

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’ve always heard about Sid Gillman my whole life, and about how he “invented” football’s passing game. Yet when the great coaches are mentioned, he’s rarely, if ever, included. I’ve always wanted to know why, and I’ve always wanted to know some real details about him. Thus my excitement when I found this book some time back. I held on to it, like it was a treasure, waiting for the “right” moment to break it open and revel in its contents. So I finally did break it open, after waiting a very long time. And didn’t finish it. Because I didn’t enjoy it. I found it, and Gillman himself, tremendously disappointing. It was frankly a disillusioning read.

Gillman does indeed deserve credit for “inventing” the passing game, and he revolutionized the game of football forever. He quite possibly was an offensive genius. He was a lifelong workaholic. He tutored assistants who went on to amazing careers, like Don Shula and Chuck Noll. You could see elements of his game in the way they coached and won. So why isn’t Gillman typically included in discussions of the great coaches? Maybe it was because he never won a Super Bowl, which is a legitimate point, although he did a good deal of his coaching before Super Bowls existed. Maybe it’s also because he was a giant asshole of a person, unlikeable to almost anyone who ever met him. I hated him from about the 10th page on. And in terms of this book, I felt it was boring, redundant, didn’t exactly go to great lengths to argue for his greatness, although it made some efforts, and it kind of felt like the book went out of its way to ensure I’ll never include Gillman in a discussion of the greatest coaches, and nor will anyone else. I don’t know if that was the author’s intention – I tend to doubt it – but that’s what happened with me. I feel the book could have been a lot better, and possibly if a more experienced, more talented writer had been writing such a book, perhaps the outcome could have been different. However, the best I can do is give it two stars and state that I definitely do not recommend this book at all.

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Well, that’s all for now. I had hoped to do more today, but I feel terrible and I’m glad I got to do any at all. However, some of the ones I have lined up are on Japan at the end of WW II, religion, theism, the NSA, changing American military power and foreign policy, nuclear weapons, Biblical archaeology and how much of the Bible it supports as well as shows to be false, atheism, hockey, the history of Rome, the current and future status of the US and China, spies, American classism, the spread of theistic religions, Sparta, nuclear politics, think tanks, and much more. I hope to get to as many of these as I can. Please bear with me and be patient, and thanks for reading what I put down here. I truly appreciate it. Cheers!

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A Review of Paul: The Mind of the Apostle

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 19, 2014

Paul: The Mind of the ApostlePaul: The Mind of the Apostle by A.N. Wilson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I FINALLY finished this book! It took me forever because it’s fairly dry and the content doesn’t interest me as much as that in some other books. Still, this was a fairly interesting book to read. The author is apparently an agnostic or atheist and ensures one understands he believed Jesus was a Jew with no intention of starting a religion, and undoubtedly not the son of God or God himself. If you’re a Christian and you can get past that, you’re good to go. This book presents Paul as THE founder of Christianity and THE individual responsible for asserting Jesus was the Messiah, gone to glory in the clouds, and returning again some day — soon. The author asserts Paul thought Jesus was returning in a matter of months or years, thus the urgency in some of his letters.

When I read nonfiction books, I don’t underline passages — I turn over page corners so I can go back and catch important portions of the text. Normally I will have turned over 10-20 pages in a typical nonfiction book. In this book, I must have turned over 50 pages or more. I often quote from these passages, but I obviously can’t do that here — I don’t have the time or inclination.

Wilson asserts that Paul was a traveling tent maker and that’s how he supported himself, along with donations. He also calls into question whether Paul was a one time Pharisee or not. He alludes to Paul’s potential homosexuality, in his nonstop efforts to force sexual morality on people and in his almost loving letters to Timothy and other men who were his followers. Yes, sacrilege, I know. Still, interesting stuff. Wilson writes,

“Old-fashioned liberal Protestants detected in the Gospels the seeds of modern feminism — Talitha cumi, Damsel arise, became the motto of Victorian Christian feminists. The Jesus of the Gospels outraged Jewish opinion by speaking to the woman at the well of Samaria, and by offering forgiveness to the prostitute who, though she had sinned much, had also loved much. Impossible, says such wisdom, to imagine the misogynist puritanical Paul extending such forgiveness, nor being so much at ease with the opposite sex.”

We also get in-depth details on Paul’s travels here and their context, which I found really helpful. You also get a history lesson on Rome, at the time, and the state of the Jews. Wilson additionally delves into other religions and gleefully admits to Paul having stolen some traditions from paganism for Christianity.

Wilson is pretty hard on Luke and his book of Acts. He asserts much of it is contradictory to Paul’s own writings and probably made up. And his arguments, which I can’t paraphrase here, are good. (I didn’t know Luke was a Gentile.) Wilson also deals with Paul’s intent focus on evangelizing and converting Gentiles, something he argues Peter and James were opposed to. Of Luke, the author writes,

“By the time Luke writes up the story, perhaps twenty years or more later, it must be obvious that the Lord has not come and that all Paul’s immediate prophesies and predictions about the nature of the world and God’s purpose for it, have been not just slightly off beam, not open to interpretation, but plumb wrong. Christianity — not a word which Paul ever used — will have to sort out the contradictions of all that. It it Luke’s dull task to smooth over the cracks and hide the glaring discrepancies in his story, and to persuade ‘dear Theophilus’, some Roman magistrate or bigwig, that the Christians are safe, good citizens. As Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem shows, he was none of these things.”

Wilson deals with Paul’s end, which we don’t know, and for that he takes umbrage. He asserts that Paul could have been acquitted by Nero or some other Roman official, he could have been made a martyr, as many people believe, or — this is Wilson’s own belief — he could have been let go and traveled to Spain, starting churches, but dying in oblivion.

I’m going to end my review with Wilson’s final (and long) paragraph in the book, because I think it’s a good synthesis of what he is trying to accomplish in writing this book.

“It could be seen, then, that the essence of the Gospels, the thing which makes them so distinctive, and such powerful spiritual texts, namely the notion of a spiritual savior, at odds with his own kind and his own people, but whose death on the cross was a sacrifice for sin, is a wholly Pauline creation. The strange contrarieties which make the Jesus of the Gospels such a memorable figure — named his insistence on peace and kindness in all his more notably plausible of ‘authentic’ sayings, and his virulent abuse of Pharisees, his Mother, and the temple authorities on the other — could point less to a split personality in the actual historical Jesus, and more to the distinctive nature of Paul’s spiritual preoccupations a generation later. Even in this respect, therefore, Paul seems a more dominant figure in the New Testament tradition than Jesus himself. The Jesus of the Gospels, if not the creation of Paul, is in some sense the result of Paul. We can therefore say that if Paul had not existed it is very unlikely that we should have had any of the Gospels in their present form. The very word ‘gospel’, like the phrase ‘the New Testament’ itself, are ones which we first read in Paul’s writings. And though, as this book has shown, there were many individuals involved in the evolution of Christianity, the aspects which distinguish it from Judaism, and indeed make it incompatible with Judaism, are Paul’s unique contribution. It is for this reason that we can say that Paul, and not Jesus — was — if any one was — the ‘Founder of Christianity’.”

Interesting, thought provoking book. Recommended.

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A Review of Second Guessing God

Posted by Scott Holstad on February 16, 2013

Second Guessing God: Hanging on When You Can't See His PlanSecond Guessing God: Hanging on When You Can’t See His Plan by Brian W. Jones

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When I picked this book up, I had high hopes for it. After all, according to the title it’s about hanging on when you don’t see God’s plan, and that’s always been an issue for me. I’ve rarely seen a plan. It looked like an interesting book. Another plus for it was that author and minister Brian McLaren endorsed it on the back cover, and I like and respect him immensely.

Jones starts with the following premise: “Why does God allow bad things to happen?” According to Goodreads, this book is Jones’s response to that question. However, I never quite got that. I think if that’s what he was trying to answer, he failed. He did try though. He uses the Israelites crossing the Jordan river from the desert to illustrate that “God is always at work upstream in our lives.” He writes, “Where’s God? Whenever we face a problem in our lives — sickness, job loss, depression, tragedy, or discouragement — God is at work upstream in those situations, beyond our line of sight.” Interesting, but I don’t know if I fully buy it and he doesn’t really go there too much more in the book. He talks about being broken — that “in order for me to notice people in pain and reach out to them with authenticity, I needed to go through a slow, painful process of transformation. It’s the same process he is taking you through.” Interesting. So everyone is broken and going through Godly transformations. I don’t know. He doesn’t argue convincingly for me. Jones later argues for compassion, saying “When we have Jesus’ heart, we see what he sees as if we’re borrowing his eyes.” It seems a bit too trite for me, frankly. I want more theological meat on the bones. But maybe this book is intended for a different target audience, I don’t know.

Jones writes a chapter about doubt. He remarks,

“Perhaps you have a question that is bothering you. Maybe something happened to you or someone you love, and there doesn’t seem to be any rational explanation for its occurrence. How do we resolve these kinds of questions? Honestly, most times we don’t. We live with the ambiguity. We wake up every day knowing full well that we carry around with us just as many questions as answers…. At the heart of a life filled with unanswered questions lies the very nature of Christianity…. Doubt reminds us of this.”

Doesn’t this passage acknowledge that he can’t answer the book’s questioning premise? No one has answers. Isn’t that what he’s saying? The author’s solution to doubt is to reach out to others. Seriously. I’m glad that works for him, but I don’t know that it’ll solve my issues for me….

In the Witness chapter, I come across some big problems that I really don’t like. It’s Hell. Jones didn’t think too much of Hell early in his life, but at some point came to the conclusion that Hell is real and that everyone who doesn’t accept Jesus into his life as their personal savior is damned to eternal Hell. He writes,

“I had always assumed that the Bible contained only a few scattered references to Hell. I was wrong; it is taught everywhere. Take the book of Matthew, for instance, just one book among twenty-seven in the entire New Testament…. Thirteen separate passages record Jesus’ teachings about the judgment of nonbelievers and their assignment to eternal punishment.”

He then throws out words to allegedly describe Hell in Matthew: fire, eternal fire, destruction, away from his presence, thrown outside, fiery furnace, darkness, eternal punishment, weeping and gnashing of teeth. OK. I don’t know why Brian McLaren endorsed this book because he doesn’t believe in Hell in the traditional sense of a fiery place of eternal conscious torment. He thinks that’s flat out wrong. So does Rob Bell, author of Love Wins, a book I’ve read three times and have found great relief and joy in. Bell argues that Hell isn’t mentioned in the Bible 13 TIMES alone, let alone in one book, if I recall correctly. He covers every instance of Hell in his book. These loaded words that Jones throws out refer to the always burning garbage pit outside Jerusalem, if you go by the original Greek, according to McLaren and Bell. Also, words like “destruction,” “thrown outside,” “darkness,” etc, hardly convey images of the traditional Christian Hell. I grew up in a Hellfire and brimstone environment, a strong Calvinist upbringing where practically everyone who wasn’t a true Calvinist was destined for Hell. That, among other things, turned me off to God and Christianity for 20 years. I truly don’t know if there’s a Hell or not, but I think McLaren and Bell do a much better job of arguing their case than Jones does here. Very weak, and disappointing. He lost me as a reader in this section.

Anyway, Jones ends his book by talking about the importance of attending church (and most likely tithing the heck out of yourselves, since he is a minister), and he strangely argues that you should attend the SAME church for the rest of your lives. You shouldn’t church shop. His final words are “That ‘perfect church’ you’re looking for already exists. You attended it last Sunday.” SERIOUSLY??? What if the church you attended was Westboro Baptist? What if it’s a crazy church, filled with nutjobs? What if you don’t feel comfortable there and you do want to attend multiple churches? Is that a crime? Is it a sin? I can’t believe how much importance Jones places on this. I’ve never read this anywhere else. It’s bizarre.

Throughout the book, Jones interjects his own thoughts into various situations from his entire life, and I got the feeling that this book was his form of self therapy. That he was trying to work through things in his life and this is what came of it. I thought it was a book that didn’t answer a hard question and provided some misguided notions and advice, and I think it’s really a failure overall. Certainly not recommended.

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A Review of Jesus Was a Liberal

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 21, 2013

Jesus Was a Liberal: Reclaiming Christianity for AllJesus Was a Liberal: Reclaiming Christianity for All by Scotty McLennan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is interesting. Scotty McLennan doesn’t actually argue very vehemently that the historical Jesus was truly a liberal, but that a liberal political and spiritual ideology can be compatible with Christianity. So, that being said, the title’s a bit misleading. McLennan makes a great case for liberal Christianity in this book, but I think he kind of fails to convince me that Jesus himself was liberal. At least, he doesn’t spend much time on that argument, instead choosing to press the case for liberal Christianity. Once you can get past that, and I found it a bit disappointing, it’s a rather good book and a stimulating read.

First of all, I come from a strong evangelical background that I’ve recently rejected, having found happiness in a mainline church where I live. It comes closest to preaching what I’ve come to believe, and I’m very anti-evangelical, truth be told. I think evangelicals are largely judgmental, intolerant, mean spirited, Republican, haters who are doing a world of evil in this country. I know that might surprise some people, but that’s honestly how I feel after being indoctrinated for the past 45 years. I’m repelled by evangelicalism.

So McLennan immediately identifies the principles of liberal Christianity to start the book. These include

“The Bible is meant to be read largely metaphorically and allegorically, rather than literally. Science and religion are compatible; we are committed to the use of logic, reason, and the scientific method. Doubt is the handmaiden of faith. Love is the primary Christian value, and it is directly related to the promotion of liberty and justice in society at large. All people are inherently equal and worthy of dignity and respect. Free religious expression should be governmentally protected, but no particular tradition should be established as the state religion. There are many roads to the top of the spiritual mountain, and Christianity is only one of them. Interfaith understanding and tolerance are critical. We see Jesus primarily as a spiritual and ethical teacher and less as being identical with God. Living a fulfilled and ethical life here and now is more important than speculating on what happens to us after we die. Nonviolence is strongly preferred in relationships between human beings, groups, and nations. Women and men must play an equal role in religious leadership. And in terms of current American hot-button issues, we tend to be pro-choice on abortion and in favor of marriages for same-sex couples.”

Wow! That’s a lot to swallow at once. And I don’t necessarily agree with all of these principles. For instance, the statement, “There are many roads to the top of the spiritual mountain, and Christianity is only one of them,” goes against my ingrained teaching, although I like it in theory. So too the part about Jesus being an ethical teacher and not identical with God. In my tradition growing up, Jesus was part of the triune God, one and the same. It’s hard for me to shake that. This said, these principles are largely what I’ve come to believe over the past several years and I’m elated to see them in print and elated to know I’m not the only one who sees things this way.

McLennan dives right into the concept of Jesus as God on page nine.

“Although Jesus during his lifetime on earth would never have recognized certain titles later applied to him – ‘coequal with God,’ ‘of one substance with God,’ ‘ the second person of the Trinity’ – the early church began developing these ideas about him soon after death. There’s no doubt that his followers after his death moved from considering him a spirit person or mystic to increasingly speaking of him as having qualities of God and then as being divine himself…. Yet, personally, I don’t believe that Jesus was or is identical with God, nor do I think that’s what he believed either, based on the biblical evidence.”

He certainly puts it out there. Since I was taught from day one that Jesus is God, it’s hard for me to accept this from a minister and dean of religious life at Stanford University, but there you have it. Accept it or reject it, it’s out in the open.

He moves on to abortion.

“’There has always been strong support for the view that [human] life does not begin until live birth. This was the belief of the Stoics, It appears to be the predominant … attitude of the Jewish faith. It may be taken to represent … a large segment of the Protestant community.’… I’m personally part of that large Protestant community that believes that human life and personhood begin at birth [and not conception]…. I’m also personally compelled by the notion that it’s the breath of life that makes us full human beings.”

I know for a fact this is what Jews believe, as I was married to one for a number of years. I was taught early on that life begins at birth, so therefore abortion is allowed by the religious community. That may seem shocking to most evangelicals, but there are scriptural references Jews use to support this (which I don’t have at hand at the moment). My primary complaint about this section is McLennan doesn’t really tie this topic into Jesus’s personal beliefs on the subject, or his proposed beliefs. And isn’t that what this book is supposed to be about?

McLennan moves on to another hot-button issue – women’s roles in the church. Most evangelicals are opposed to having women in leadership positions within the church. This was my own experience growing up. McLennan believes differently:

“A careful reading of Paul’s letters makes it clear that women were among the most eminent leaders in the early Christian church. They were missionaries, teachers, worship leaders, preachers, and prophets.”

McLennan notes Paul as citing Prisca or Priscilla as co-worker, Apphia as sister, Phoebe as deacon, and Junia as apostle. Further, in Romans, Paul commends Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis for having “worked hard” in the Lord. I was never taught this growing up. I wonder why. Why is the Bible such a patriarchal document and why are women feared by Christian men so very much? These comments from Paul seem to recommend women for church leadership positions. McLennan does address Paul’s famous admonition of women in Corinthians about women being silent in church and ties it into first century social propriety. It makes sense.

The author then goes on to address whether the Bible in the “inspired” word of God, something I was brought up to believe without giving it much thought at all. It was an accepted “truth.” McLennan cites NT Wright as writing that some people (evangelicals) assuming the Bible was inspired as “an act of pure ‘supernatural’ intervention, bypassing the minds of the [biblical] writers altogether. This would suggest that God either dictated the Bible word by word or was ‘zapping’ the writers with some kind of long-range linguistic thunderbolt.” He then discusses literal versus metaphorical readings of the Bible and makes a case for metaphorical, citing Wright’s not thinking the resurrection is “the Bible is speaking of a resuscitated corpse.” He shows cases of instances in the Bible that can’t be taken literally (Egypt is a broken reed of a staff, etc.) and ends the section by writing that “To speak of the ‘authority of the Bible’ is to refer to ‘the authority of a love story in which we are invited to take part’.”

Several pages later, he furthers his argument by stating the the Bible is a human product – “not ‘God’s revealed truth’ but a response of these two ancient communities [Israel and early Christians] to God that describes what they think is required of them ethically by God, how God has entered and influenced their lives, what kinds of prayers, praises, and practices are the most appropriate way to honor and worship God, and their hopes and dreams as a people of God.”

At this stage of the book, I’m intrigued by his arguments and persuaded by some of them, but am left wondering where Jesus enters into all of this. He’s not even trying to prove Jesus was a liberal, merely that Christianity can be. Oh well.

Later in the book, McLennan takes on people who accept what they’re taught in the church by blind faith. He quotes Daniel Dennett as being

“deeply bothered … by people who unapologetically take things on blind faith, without subjecting them to logical, scientific, and historical confirmation. He observes that ‘blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging ration inquiry,’ thereby rendering the ideal of truth-seeking and truth-telling its victim.”

Moreover, “Religion is the most prolific source of the ‘moral certainties’ and ‘absolutes’ that zealots depend on. Throughout the world, ‘people are dying and killing’ in the name of blind faith and unapologetic irrationality.”

On the issue of separation of church and state, McLennan finally gets around to Jesus: “Jesus in effect says ‘yes’ – separate church and state.” He uses the passage on rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s. He then goes into describing life in the former Iron Curtain as an example of no separation of church and state, with the communists having an official religion that was heavily guarded in what it could teach.

Many liberal Christians have problems with the concept of the Trinity – three gods in one. McLennan begins the section by asking, “What’s the meaning of the Trinity?” He goes on to provide analogies of how it can be viewed realistically. One such is

“to think of the transcendent God of the universe (out there as the creator of all we knew in nature), the God who walks by our side in human form – both rejoicing and suffering along with us (having known suffering in the extreme of crucifixion) – and the God who is deep within our own souls but also working as the force that ties us together in community with each other. This is one God, but one who can feel quite different in an operational sense….”

Those of you who are familiar with tradition Protestant Christianity – fundamentalism, evangelicalism – know of the topic of being “born again.” One can’t escape it in our Christian culture. Indeed, our presidential candidates must profess to being “born again” if they’re going to get Red State votes. It’s so prevalent, that conservative Christians feel that those who have not been born again aren’t Christians and are destined for Hell. Yet many liberal Christians don’t believe in this concept. McLennan writes that “baptism is not fully effected until one believes, until one actually lays hold by faith of what God has mercifully granted us through the gift of his son, Jesus Christ,” as being the primary belief system for conservatives, and yet it’s been my experience in a mainline church community that the holy sacrament of baptism is the sign one is “saved,” and that one needn’t go, and doesn’t go, through a “being saved” one time experience in order to go to Heaven. Indeed, McLennan writes that one must be “born of water and Spirit.” Further,

“In the gospel of John, John uses another image for being born again: ‘The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Jesus’s offer of a new birth here is connected with wind. It doesn’t sound like something one can grab hold of by conscious intent. The proper attitude would seem to be more like gratitude for an undeserved gift, and a radical openness to the variety of ways it chooses to envelop and massage us.”

Later,

“So there’s being ‘born again’ in this Cheever story, with all the elements of deep, inward, radical change – baptismal water, wind blowing – worked by the Spirit in the inner recesses of the human personality – and of undeserved gifts of life and love, if only we can appreciate them. There’s no self-generated moral reformation. There’s no conscious repenting of one’s sin and turning to Christ. Just sudden regeneration, out of the blue, utterly transformative. It’s in that sense I hope for all of us the experience of being born again.”
McLennan acknowledges that “Easter is the great holiday of Christianity” due to the Resurrection. Then he goes on to ask, “But was the resurrection a flesh-and-blood photographable event? Most liberal Christians like me can’t possibly subscribe to this literalist claim. As I … read the gospel accounts, this was not a matter of a dead person coming back to his prior life of walking around, eating, drinking, and sleeping like the rest of us. Instead, what’s meant by resurrection is that Jesus was transformed into an entirely different level of being, beyond the usual categories of life and death…. [Witnesses seeing him] These are all visions or epiphanies or revelations of Jesus, not meetings with a resuscitated corpse.”

Wow. Heresy and treason to the people and traditions with which I was brought up. Still, it makes one wonder, does it not?

As you come to the close of the book, he addresses political liberalism and writes, “Liberals, often in the face of fierce conservative opposition, have been the ones to guarantee equal rights, and they have made laws that help keep our food and automobiles safe and college education affordable…. Liberal Christianity can point to the Old Testament prophets and to Jesus as the original political liberals.” Yet, somehow, I think, McLennan fails to make the case of Jesus as a liberal in this book. It’s rather ironic. He could have done so much more with this topic, written such a better book, although it’s good in its present form. He ends the book by writing, “Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly. Jesus was a liberal.” I only wish McLennan had shown that Jesus was a liberal. Otherwise, a decent book….
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A Review of The Gospel of Judas

Posted by Scott Holstad on June 22, 2012

The Gospel of Judas: Critical EditionThe Gospel of Judas: Critical Edition by Rodolphe Kasser
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have to confess I started this book out of sheer interest in the subject matter, but I couldn’t finish it — I just thought it was too silly to believe. Maybe I’ve got too much of the traditional four gospels ingrained within me, but for Judas to be portrayed as the favorite and best disciple of Jesus who only did what he was told by Jesus to do and was therefore a hero as he brought about the crucifixion and resurrection strikes me as totally absurd. Not to mention that it was hard to read with all of the missing text that was skipped over and omitted. That was distracting. I couldn’t buy the notion of Jesus appearing to his disciples in the form of a child. You’d think that would have been mentioned in another gospel. And here’s one thing that might seem trite, but it bugs me nonetheless — apparently this gospel was written in the second century. Well, who wrote it? It follows Judas for just a brief period of time up until his suicide, I believe. Well, if he killed himself, how did he communicate the secrets of this text to the ones who would ultimately write it? He was DEAD for Pete’s sake! Isn’t this just some second century made up gnostic tale by people wanting to stir things up? That’s ultimately what it strikes me as. So, yeah, I probably should have finished it and maybe one day I’ll return to it, but I just thought the premise(s) was too absurd to continue reading the book.

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A Review of The Underground Church

Posted by Scott Holstad on June 20, 2012

The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of JesusThe Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus by Robin Meyers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really liked this book even though its idealistic vision is so utopian that its recommendations can surely never be acted upon by most Christians. It’s a heartfelt book with a vision — one of love and caring for all. I like that. Even though he separates himself from the emergent church group, there are some similarities. I’ve read other Meyers books though, and sometimes he comes across as really ticked off. In this book, he really tries to balance his insights and comments between conservative and liberals in the Christian church, although it does finally lean somewhat to the left. That’s fine with me.

In the book, he takes issue with war, calling it a sin many times over. I’m not certain if I buy that since the God I read about in the Old Testament seemed to love war, but maybe he’s right — I’m no expert. He also feels Christians should actually be conscientious objectors, environmentalists, and frankly, socialists. To back this last claim, he cites Acts 4:32-35, which says

“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common…. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostle’s feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”

Interesting. And thought provoking. And quite possibly dead on. Again, I’m no expert. Toward the end of the book, though, Meyers starts making some recommendations of what people in the “Underground Church” should and will do and it’s really overly idealistic. For instance, start up church-sponsored interest free banks. Developing private economic systems within the church. Have pre-church communion meals. All of this he marks as Biblical and it might be so, but I can’t see conservatives (or even some liberals) as going for any of this. Indeed, the book is an appealing read, but as to its practicality, I would say I don’t know of too many — if any — churches that would follow through and become an Underground Church. It just isn’t going to happen in Protestant (evangelical) America. Which is a bit of a shame and shows you how off evangelicals are in general. When they should be concerned about feeding the poor, they — with their Republican politicians — are cutting food stamp programs even now as we speak. It’s truly appalling. Another book by Robin Meyers talks about how the right wing in this country is wrong, and it ties conservative politics to evangelicals and I think it’s a fair point, and as I grew up a strong Calvinist but have since moved on, I’m continually appalled by the Republicans and religious right’s polemics of hatred and greed. Prosperity gospel my ass!

If you get a chance and you’re remotely interested, you should read the book. It’s a well written, well intended, moderately well thought out book. It just won’t be taken seriously by conservatives or most Christians in general, and that’s a real shame.

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A Review of A Search for What Is Real

Posted by Scott Holstad on June 4, 2012

A Search for What Is RealA Search for What Is Real by Brian D. McLaren

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is intended to be a guide for those who are seeking something spiritually, no matter what faith, but yes, primarily Christianity. It’s a little light (especially for McLaren), but the contents are pretty solid and the book is quite accessible. Some of the chapters deal with experiencing God through doubt (a big one for me), why church is often the last place to look for spiritual guidance, why people don’t turn to Bibles in their spiritual search, losing interest, and more. One of the things McLaren writes in the doubt chapter really stood out for me:

“They say that the opposite of love isn’t hate; it is rather indifference. And I have to think that the same is true of faith. Doubt isn’t a spiritual danger sign nearly as much as indifference would be.”

In the final chapter, McLaren writes that Jesus was “scandalously inclusive” and that

“In a world of religious in-groups and out-groups, Jesus created a ‘come on in’ group. The kingdom of God is open to everyone who will come…. It’s like a party to which everyone is invited, rich or poor, employed or unemployed, clear or dirty.”

That section of the book really stood out for me because when I was growing up, the various youth groups in school and church “rushed” (like the fraternity allusion?) the popular kids with the alleged goal of the unpopular kids following the popular kids to God. Yeah, right. It was a total joke. I rode the fence between popular and unpopular and I didn’t like it. As an adult, many churches I’ve been to seem little different. We want the “beautiful people” — those in real need don’t need to come on in. I hate that about mainstream Christianity. Jesus was all about love and inclusive love. In fact, he hung out with hookers and outcasts and told the Moral Majority of his day that the scumbags he was with would have an easier time of entering heaven than they would. (That didn’t go over too well with them.) So, I like what McLaren writes here. I just wish more actual church people would read and realize this….

The book’s chapters all end with interesting discussion questions and a suggested prayer. McLaren tries to stick to guidance, not to telling — as in, he’s not the authority on this, God is. It’s not the best book I’ve read, and it’s not for everyone, but I found it worthwhile and others will too.

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A Review of Searching for God Knows What

Posted by Scott Holstad on June 2, 2012

Searching for God Knows WhatSearching for God Knows What by Donald Miller

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m not a fan of Miller’s Blue Like Jazz. I think it’s an immature book written by an immature writer. This book — Searching for God Knows What — seems a vast improvement to me, albeit still with the same scatter shot, rambling topical approach to the book. I’ve got to admit to being annoyed with Miller’s writing style. It’s certainly not linear, and perhaps I like linear a bit too much, but Miller jumps all over the place. Sometimes I think each chapter of his could stand on its own, as they don’t seem to have all that much in common with each other.

However, I wanted to like this book. I was disappointed, then, to feel like it started out like Blue Like Jazz. At some point, though, Miller seemed to tighten things up a bit. A more lucid, more mature style of writing emerged that I occasionally found gripping. The final pages I found to be quite good, actually. For instance,

“I can’t tell you how many times I have seen an evangelical leader on television talking about this “culture war,” about how we are being threatened by persons with an immoral agenda, and I can’t tell you how many sermons I have heard in which immoral pop stars or athletes or politicians have been denounced because of their shortcomings. Rarely, however, have I heard any of these ideas connected with the dominant message of Christ, a message of grace and forgiveness and a call to repentance. Rather, the moral message I have heard is often a message of bitterness and anger because “our” morality, “our” culture, is being taken over by people who disregard “our” ethical standards. None of it was connected, relationally, to God at all.” (page 185)

How true. I can relate to Miller here so very much. The bitterness and anger preached from America’s pulpits can be overwhelming and, in my opinion, have very little to do with the message of Jesus. Another passage:

“A moral message, a message of “us” versus “them,” overflowing in war rhetoric, never hindered the early message of grace, of repentance toward dead works and immorality in exchange for a love relationship with Christ. War rhetoric against people is not the methodology, not the sort of communication that came out of the mouth of Jesus or the mouths of any of His followers. In fact, even today, moralists who use war rhetoric will speak of right and wrong, and even some vague and angry god, but never Jesus.” (page 190)

Again, so true. I recently became disenchanted with the minister at the church I occasionally attend when he started politicizing his sermons. He had already been slamming pastors like Rob Bell and preaching fire and brimstone messages on Easter while criticizing those who preached rebirth and renewal. Frankly, the only reason I go there at all is to occasionally make my parents happy. I can do without ministers like that one. Why so much hatred in the pulpit, in the churches?

I guess my final thought on the book is that it’s worth a (quick) read, but don’t expect too much. It’s more solid than some of his other works, but it’s not earth shattering. The only reason I give this three stars instead of two is his solid ending to the book.

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A Review of A New Kind of Christianity

Posted by Scott Holstad on May 25, 2012

A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the FaithA New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith by Brian D. McLaren

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I finished reading Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity, all I could say was “Wow!” It blew my mind, mostly in a good way. And it left me with an awful lot to think about.

Countless people have reviewed this book (some rather viciously), so I’m not going to win any awards with some in-depth discussion of the book, but I do want to write about a few things that stood out for me. First of all, the book is based on 10 important questions to be asking these days. The first five are largely theological, and the remaining five are more practical. The 10 questions are:

1. The Narrative Question: What Is the Overarching Storyline of the Bible?
2. The Authority Question: How Should the Bible Be Understood?
3. The God Question: Is God Violent?
4. The Jesus Question: Who is Jesus and Why is He Important?
5. The Gospel Question: What Is the Gospel?
6. The Church Question: What Do We Do About the Church?
7. The Sex Question: Can We Find a Way to Address Sexuality Without Fighting About It?
8. The Future Question: Can We Find a Better Way of Viewing the Future?
9. The Pluralism Question: How Should Followers of Jesus Relate to People of Other Religions?
10. The What-Do-We-Do-Now Question: How Can We Translate Our Quest into Action?

The cool thing about this book is that while the author raises – and addresses – these questions, he admits to not having the definitive answers and invites us all to participate in the “conversation.”

The first question is pretty important – what is the overarching storyline of the Bible? Well, he argues that the basic story – as believed and adhered to by most of Western civilization – is mistaken in its belief systems. He asserts the beliefs don’t come from the Bible, but are instead taken from (at the time current) Greco-Roman narratives. I can almost buy that, but it didn’t appear to me that he made a strong case for how this exactly transpired. He just gives us Plato and Aristotle and declares that this is how we have based everything for centuries. Odd. I would like a greater understanding of this theory.

As a result of this theory, there are a number of Christian misconceptions floating around, such as the world was created in a “perfect” state, when in fact, it was “good” – which doesn’t equal perfect. Another component of this reading is a rejection of the “Fall” of mankind. This got a bit confusing for me at times, but if you buy into his theory, it makes sense. He relates it as a “six-line narrative,” comprised of Eden, Fall, Condemnation, Salvation, Heaven, Damnation. This is what we learn in Sunday school and church our entire lives. This is the basis for believing what we believe. And he asserts it’s wrong. McLaren feels that the Bible is really telling us numerous stories of God’s never-ending compassion and forgiveness, seen over and over again throughout the text.

In another chapter, McLaren asserts that Christianity has had a “constitutional” view of the Bible and this should be replaced with viewing the texts in the Bible as a type of “community library.” As I dislike the constitutional view of Christians I know and know of, this appeals to me. Enough with evangelical fundamentalism, say I! Part of this constitutional view of the Bible is its static state of being, as in everything is settled, so do as I say. McLaren instead thinks the Scripture is inviting us to be a part of an ongoing conversation. This is a refreshing outlook to me.

Still later in the book, he deals with the nature of God, and this reminds me of Rob Bell’s Love Wins in a way (a book I like very much). Basically, if you go by the six-line constitutional way of viewing the world, one could see God as a mean spirited, punishing god, one not worthy of belief or worship. With a new kind of Christianity, in this case with a redemptive community library narrative to go on, it’s foolish to view God as a god who tortures most of humanity forever in “infinite eternal conscious torment” (ECT). Now that makes a lot of sense to me. Why would God create a world with many billions of people and send the vast majority of them to an eternal conscious torment for the few varied sins they commit during their brief and finite period of existence on Earth? It literally makes no sense to me.

McLaren goes on to discuss many other important issues, all in a radical way of viewing things (to me) that I found appealing. He argues that contemporary Christians are “fundasexualists” in their overt hatred of homosexuals, among others, and reminds us that Jesus forgave the adulteress, sought out and mingled with the outcasts of society, and based his world vision on loving inclusiveness. A refreshing look at things from my perspective.

I enjoyed all of the chapters with the possible exception of the last one – on translating our quest into action – where I think he falters a little bit and makes some assumptions that don’t necessarily need to be conveyed as they are. Still, as he starts and ends the book by writing, he’s not producing definitive answers to these questions. He’s merely starting conversations in calling for a radical rethinking of Christianity, Jesus, God, and the Bible.

In reading through reviews on Goodreads and ones found Googling the author, it’s amazing to me how many people hate McLaren. The vitriol is something else. And it’s all coming from “loving” evangelical/fundamentalist Christians – some of the very people he describes in this book, and some of the very people we need to move away from. Some of the best things he’s called are a false prophet and a heretic. Nice to be able to sit in judgment there, isn’t it? It’s amazing to me how contemporary conservative Christianity is filled with hate – hatred of others who do not espouse the same beliefs that they do, who don’t vote the same way, who – quite frankly – may be trying to lead a life set by Jesus’ example of loving others. These Christians just don’t get it and they probably never will. They have too much invested in the Greco-Roman worldview of life to consider alternatives or change. It’s truly sad. I’m giving this book five out of five stars. I think it’s an amazing book that can be life altering, and it’s made me re-think a lot of things that I wish I had re-thought many years ago. Nice job Mr. McLaren.

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Clobbering “Biblical” Gay Bashing

Posted by Scott Holstad on April 9, 2012

Clobbering “Biblical” Gay Bashing –.

This is a very long blog my girlfriend pointed me to dealing with Christianity and Biblical Hatefulness. No matter where you stand on the matter of Christianity and homosexuality, it should prove to be an interesting read. I’d encourage everyone to approach it with an open mind.

For what it’s worth, I grew up in a very strict Protestant home and was taught that homosexuality was a terrible sin. Yet, I have had gay friends since age 13, virtually all of whom I’m convinced God loves as much as he loves me. I have long struggled with my own accepting views regarding homosexuality versus the intolerance ingrained within me from an early age. It’s been difficult, as I can see both sides to some degree, I think….

This blog goes a long way toward answering some of my own questions and dilemmas and it may for anyone reading this as well. For instance, gay Christians have long argued that the notion Sodom was obliterated by God due to homosexuality is a misinterpreted viewpoint. Yet, I struggled with that. God’s (few) words on the subject seemed fairly clear to me, as much as I disliked them.

I’m going to go off subject for a moment, but it will serve as a preface to my main point. My ex was Jewish. She was vehement in her derision of Christians as posers who pick and choose what to believe or discard in the Old Testament. She asserted that God said he does not change multiple times throughout the Bible, and he does. So if that’s true, why can Christians eat shrimp and Jews can’t. Aren’t the Jews following God’s law? This has always proven difficult for me, even with Christians explaining that Jesus (and Paul, sort of…) somehow did away with the old law, and brought a new one into the world. I seemed to somehow agree with her, at times, that you can’t have it both ways, that it’s one or the other — either you follow all of God’s laws, or you follow none, as there’s no point.

Now to this blog. This blog argues a number of things, but it seems to rest its primary argument in the not-too-new notion that these people writing Leviticus 3,000+ years ago knew nothing of sexual orientation, knew only of ensuring that man’s “seed” be treated properly to propagate the Jewish race in its fight for survival. More importantly, the writer strikes right at my main issue — we DO eat shrimp these days! We no longer stone disobedient children to death. We no longer have concubines, nor are we polygamous. We cut our sideburns and beards. Clearly, then, Christianity has moved beyond these stringent laws that Leviticus and the Old Testament gave us, and if we view these as laws to be thrown out because they no longer apply, so too the infrequent mention of homosexuality as a probable sin. What kind of sense does it make to judge gay people (judge not lest ye be judged) of committing grievous sins, when everything else that was a sin back then has been thrown out the window? Am I right? It seems like a very compelling argument to me.

I just gave a brief glimpse into this blog post by Mark Sandlin. Please read it for yourselves, and consider reading the hundreds of comments too. Interesting topic. Well thought out piece, with Biblical citations, and overall, well written. After reading this, I feel like the tension I’ve long felt regarding Christianity versus homosexuality, and by default, my homosexual friends, many of whom are professing Christians, to have been diminished a great deal. This was a nice eye opener for me. Feel free to leave any comments you might have on the topic. Please be polite though. I know it’s a touchy subject for many, but no need to get worked up about it here. Thanks.

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