A Farewell to Mars by Brian Zahnd (Review)

For me, as for many Christians in America, it has often been difficult to separate our commitments to Jesus and our patriotism as Americans.  I remember singing songs to the greatness of America at church around national holidays.  More recently, I remember being at a Christian conference that recognized a national holiday with a powerpoint presentation that seemed to praise American warplanes.

Brian Zahnd seems to have a similar history.  In his book A Farewell to Mars, he tells much of his story.  Once upon a time he was the patriotic pastor, preaching nationalistic sermons, praying war prayers and basically seeing part of his job as a Christian pastor to call for God’s blessing to the American military machine.  Over time he came to see the idolatry in this and moved to a nonviolent position.

When I first noticed this book, I expected it to be the story of how a pastor moved from seeing Jesus as sanctioning American wars to sanctioning nonviolence along with a good bit of argument that Jesus teaches nonviolence.  There is a lot of the former, but it was the latter that was pleasantly surprising.  Zahnd does not tread the usual ground that people do when arguing for or against nonviolence.  His book is not about proving, from the sermon on the mount and elsewhere, that Jesus’ followers ought to be nonviolent.  Instead he paints a picture of who Jesus Christ is and was and reasons from that into nonviolence.

This makes the book both readable and fresh.  If you’re new to the whole idea of a nonviolent Jesus, this book opens the door for you.  And if you’ve read books on this subject before, this book is unique enough to deserve a reading.  At the same time, if you have the usual questions about nonviolence, Zahnd’s book does not give answers.  For example, he makes the claim that God never commands the killing of anyone, drawing a line from Abraham to Jesus.  What about all the stories in the Bible where God does appear to command such killing?  Zahnd does not go there.  Also, many people bring up how the picture of Jesus in Revelation fits in, will Jesus leave behind nonviolence to take on the war-like qualities of Mars at the second coming?  Again, Zahnd does not go there.

So do not read this book expecting a full-proof argument for nonviolence that answers all questions.  Read it more as a testimony of how one pastor changed his thinking.  Zahnd is one of many who is moving towards such conclusions, coming out of an evangelical, God bless American and her wars, background.  It’d be interesting to know why so many of us (I suppose I’d fit in this group too) are making this change.  Are we just doing a better job studying the Bible?  Something to do with the end of Christendom?  Some other sociological reason?  Questions for another day, I guess.  All in all, a great book to read!

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How (Not) To Be Secular by James K.A. Smith (Review)

A few years ago I worked my way through Charles Taylor’s magnificent A Secular Age.  That book was one of the most challenging and rewarding books I’ve ever read.  It is definitely in my top five of all time, that despite me knowing I need to re-read it sometime to fully get what Taylor is saying.  The basic question Taylor asked is why it was so easy to believe in God in 1500 and so difficult in the year 2000.  What has changed?

The common secularization thesis is that as people learned science and became modern they left behind religion.  Taylor’s book shows that this substraction story is simply not how it happened.  He seeks to tell a different story.

It is a fascinating book and certainly changes the way you look at our world once you read it.  That said, I found myself wishing there was some sort of summary book out there.  First, such a short book would help those of us crazy enough to read Taylor’s tome.  Second, it would be a valuable resource for pastors and others who don’t have the desire to plod through 800 pages of narrative philosophy.

James K.A. Smith has provided us with such a book, How (Not) to be Secular.  Smith has become one of my favorite writers recently and this book just adds to my admiration.  He distills Taylor’s great work.  This will be one of the books I will recommend most to my pastor friends, even my college students.

The only part I found odd, out of place even, was near the end.  Smith was talking about how Taylor argues that much modern Christian consciousness has removed the wrath of God, leaving only love.  Smith mentions Rob Bell in passing as an example of this.  It seemed like a cheap shot.  Bell’s musings on hell, punishment (or lackthereof) and universalism aside, there are real biblical questions about what the future judgment entails.  Taylor may be on to something, perhaps God’s wrath is more distasteful to Christians today then in other eras.  But maybe this distaste has driven Christians to a renewed study of the topic in scripture, just as Luther’s distaste for indulgences led to his study.  And there are much better people pursuing this study then Rob Bell, I think of the likes of John Stott who rejected the traditional eternal conscious torment view.  It seems a valid question to be decided in Biblical exegesis, regardless of how tasteful or distasteful we moderns find the idea.

That aside, the other 99.5% of the book is fantastic!  Highly, highly recommended.

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After Virtue by Alasdair Macintyre (Review)

In my twenties I read a lot of books.  I was in seminary, reading assigned readings, and then I was starting out in ministry reading books on leadership and spiritual formation and the like.  Over time I began to notice some authors were referenced in numerous books I was reading.  Now in my thirties, it seems as if I am reading the authors who were often being quoted in books I read in my twenties.  Alasdair Macintyre is one such author.  I’d heard of his books numerous times but it wasn’t until a friend told me I seriously should read him that I finally did.

It feels odd to call this a “review” of After Virtue, just as I always feel weird reviewing any book that could be considered a classic.  This may not be a classic, but it has been incredibly influential in moral philosophy and I am nowhere near a philosopher.  That said, this is the sort of book that I love reading.  It stretches me.  It is not as easy to read as those spiritual formation books of a few years back for it is the deep well which those authors were drawing on.  But there is tremendous benefit in going to the well yourself rather then letting someone else get the water.  I think a lot of my pastor and ministry friends would not only benefit from this book, but would receive great intellectual stimulation in reading it.

Macintyre asks early on, why is it so difficult to have a debate over morals in our society?  People on both sides of the argument can give solid, cogent cases for their points but there never seems to be any headway made.  Right there I was hooked.  Whether it is gun rights, gay marriage, abortion, foreign affairs, or economics, this problem is clearly apparent.  We argue and argue and argue.  More often then not our arguments devolve into simple assertions, saying more about how we feel then anything else.  That is because there is little common ground to gain headway in the “anything else”.

What I loved about this book, and what makes it readable, is Macintyre makes his case through looking at history, telling a story.  He argues that the division between history and philosophy is artificial and unhelpful.  The historical situation in which a philosopher lived was always very important.  So instead of dry, difficult philosophy, Macintyre gives us a narrative.

His argument is that we have lost teleology, the sense of where a human life ought to be going.  In the past moral decisions fit into a life lived towards a clear goal.  It was akin to playing a game of chess – some moves are better then others and all moves are oriented towards a clear goal.  Once this was removed it became impossible to present a rational moral system.  Macintyre argues that all who have tried in the last three centuries, from Kant’s categorical imperative to Mill’s Utilitarianism, have failed.  Our morals may be similar to those of before, but we’ve lost the ground for them.  All we’re left with is preferences, some prefer one thing and some another.  Macintyre’s solution is a call for a return to Aristotle’s virtues that would lead us to our life’s best ends.

Overall, a fantastic book.  I will definitely be reading more Macintyre in the future.

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Unity and Diversity (Listening to the Saints)

I am writing a series of posts as devotionals for my college students this summer.  Many of these have been inspired by Pascal’s Pensees, but I am also reading portions of the early church fathers.  This post is inspired by Clement of Rome.

There is debate in scholarly circles, but in general all the books that ended up in the New Testament were completed by 100 AD.  But it is not like Christians stopped writing!  Other Christian writings exist, some from right around this time.  One of the earliest of these comes from Clement of Rome.  If you are Roman Catholic, he is considered to be the fourth pope.  The tradition says he was ordained into ministry by Peter himself, the disciple of Jesus (and first pope).  He was bishop of Rome from about 92-99 AD.  For a point of reference, the traditional dating of Revelation is during this time.

Clement has left us one writing, a Letter to the Church in Corinth.  I personally find this fascinating because I always want to know what happens next.  When I watch a movie or read a book, I wonder what happened next.  We read about Corinth in the Bible, Paul wrote 2 letters to them (1 and 2 Corinthians).  From these letters we see a church that is very divided, with everyone having their own favorite teacher.  There were divisions between rich and poor, some people seemed to look the other way in the face of blatant sexual sins (a man sleeping with his stepmother).  Well, what happened next?

Forty years later, based on Clement’s letter, the church in Corinth still has issues:

Why are there strifes, and tumults, and divisions, and schisms, and wars among you? Have we not [all] one God and one Christ? Is there not one Spirit of grace poured out upon us? And have we not one calling in Christ?19 Why do we divide and tear to pieces the members of Christ, and raise up strife against our own body, and have reached such a height of madness as to forget that “we are members one of another?” Remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, how21 He said, “Woe to that man [by whom offences come]! It were better for him that he had never been born, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my elect. Yea, it were better for him that a millstone should be hung about [his neck], and he should be sunk in the depths of the sea, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my little ones. Your schism has subverted [the faith of] many, has discouraged many, has given rise to doubt in many, and has caused grief to us all. And still your sedition continueth

Clement of Rome. (1885). The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, pp. 17–18). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.

The church is very divided today, we have a myriad of denominations – Presbyterians and Pentecostals, Methodists and Mennonites, Catholics and Calvinists and so on.  This is not ideal.  Yet if we think there was once a time when the followers of Jesus lived in idyllic unity, we are wrong.  There were divisions practically right from the beginning.  It took a few years for enough church hierarchy and government to build up enough for them to actually kick each other out (you have to have a formal institution to excommunicate people from).  Before this, in the days of more informal groupings, people just didn’t get along and gossiped and caused all sorts of problems.

So why do I share this text with you in the middle of the summer?  Well, one reason I have loved working on campus is somehow we manage to overcome these divisions.  We get Christians from all sorts of backgrounds here and you manage to worship and serve others together.  You have discussions about your beliefs, but we have not had a schism over them.  In this I like to think campus ministry is a model for the wider church, showing that we can disagree and still be united.

The second reason is that I think this is one of the bigger questions skeptics have today.  How can I know which church to join if you’re all divided?  If you have the truth why can’t you get along?  Having some sort of answer to those questions is important.  More important is being able to model unity on campus is one of the best answers we can give.

Third, we need to realize we are all different and that is okay.  Christian faith is all about unity in diversity (you could talk about the Trinity here, three in one, but that might get a little heady).   God loves and welcomes all people in Jesus.  You do not need to give up your cultural or even your complete personal identity to be a Christian.  Lamin Sanneh is a well-known African theologian and he found this to be one of the most unique things of Christianity.  Other religions are tied to a culture, so to convert is to learn specific cultural forms.  Christianity, on the other hand, affirms all cultural forms.  We don’t demand you learn a special language, we translate the Bible into your language.

But this is hard.  We want to think we have it all figured out and everyone should be like us – our style of worship, music and so on.  The challenge is recognizing our differences while focusing on what unites us – Jesus Christ.  We all come to God on the same terms – faith in Jesus:

And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen

Clement of Rome. (1885). The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, p. 13). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.

May we find beauty in our differences and be unified in Jesus.

Let our whole body, then, be preserved in, Christ Jesus; and let every one be subject to his neighbour, according to the special gift bestowed upon him. Let the strong not despise the weak, and let the weak show respect unto the strong. Let the rich man provide for the wants of the poor; and let the poor man bless God, because He hath given him one by whom his need may be supplied. Let the wise man display his wisdom, not by [mere] words, but through good deeds. Let the humble not bear testimony to himself, but leave witness to be borne to him by another.13 Let him that is pure in the flesh not grow proud of it, and boast, knowing that it was another who bestowed on him the gift of continence

Clement of Rome. (1885). The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, p. 15). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.

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Pascal’s Wager – A Leap of Faith (Reflections on Pascal’s Pensees)

If you’ve heard anything of Pascal, it is probably his famous “wager”:

Let us then examine this point, and say, “God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions” (Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (pp. 67-68). . Kindle Edition).

If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is” (Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (p. 68). . Kindle Edition)

According to the doctrine of chance, you ought to put yourself to the trouble of searching for the truth; for if you die without worshipping the True Cause, you are lost.—”But,” say you, “if He had wished me to worship Him, He would have left me signs of His will.”—He has done so; but you neglect them. Seek them, therefore; it is well worth it” (Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (pp. 70-71). . Kindle Edition).

Pascal’s Wager has been criticized by many.  The basic argument is that if you believe in Jesus and are wrong, if there really is no God, then you lose nothing for after death you no longer exist.  But if you believe there is no God and are wrong, you risk hell.  This alone, so it goes, means you ought to believe.

Now if this was how Pascal actually formed things, it would be a faulty argument.  But I don’t think this is what he meant.  First, for Pascal, both belief and unbelief can make at least some sense.  So Pascal’s starting point is a rational examination that leads to the conclusion of uncertainty.  If you think and read and study and conclude that you still aren’t sure, the wager becomes a relevant argument.  It is not an argument made in the face of any rational belief.  Instead, it is an argument made when rational belief has taken you some of the way there but you can’t get any farther.

I suppose if you employed your rationality and concluded you were certain there was no God, the wager would not be for you.  But Pascal would not agree that rational argument leads to where you think it does.

Once again, the wager comes at the end of a long search which the searcher deems at least somewhat inconclusive.  You think there might be a God, but aren’t convinced.  You find some of who Jesus is and what he said convincing, perhaps you find other arguments and ideas intriguing.  But the problem of evil and suffering or some other such problem leads you to balk.  What do you do?  You must make a decision, for even not making one is to make one.

If you take Pascal’s wager you are taking a sort of “leap of faith.”  It is a dive into uncertainty, embracing the mystery, and believing in this leap you will find God.  I don’t think the wager works if you leave it as a mere rational point, if at the end of thought you simply choose to “believe”.  In other words, the wager does not lead to belief as a mere assertion of agreement (I believe 12 eggs are in a dozen, the sky is blue and God is real).  Instead, the wager points to a belief as a radical trust, more akin to the relationship with a spouse: I am not sure what the future holds but I trust that as I leap into this future, you are with me.

What do you think of the wager?

 

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Having Faith and Doubt – When Both Sides Sometimes Make Sense (Reflections on Pascal’s Pensees)

I’ve been sharing reflections on portions of Blaise Pascal’s Pensees (Thoughts), writing with my students at PSU Berks in mind.  Today I come to one of my favorite quotes from the book:

This is what I see and what troubles me. I look on all sides, and I see only darkness everywhere. Nature presents to me nothing which is not matter of doubt and concern. If I saw nothing there which revealed a Divinity, I would come to a negative conclusion; if I saw everywhere the signs of a Creator, I would remain peacefully in faith. But, seeing too much to deny and too little to be sure, I am in a state to be pitied; wherefore I have a hundred time wished that if a God maintains nature, she should testify to Him unequivocally, and that, if the signs she gives are deceptive, she should suppress them altogether; that she should say everything or nothing, that I might see which cause I ought to follow. Whereas in my present state, ignorant of what I am or of what I ought to do, I know neither my condition nor my duty. My heart inclines wholly to know where is the true good, in order to follow it; nothing would be too dear to me for eternity.

Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (pp. 65-66). . Kindle Edition.

Pascal is saying, it seems to me, that both embracing belief in God and rejecting belief in God make sense to him.  He can see why and how a person could go either direction.  He sees too much to deny God’s existence, but too little to be certain.

I am right there with Pascal on this one.

I used to seek certainty.  When I began pursing my faith more intentionally in college and when I began reading and studying I hoped I would come across a book or argument or something that would clinch it.  I believed that out there somewhere was a formula that, once I saw it,  would bring certainty about God, Jesus and the Christianity.  I eventually realized that such certainty was impossible.  Yet when I see books and blog posts and podcasts by certain apologists and apologetic organizations, it seems that many others are seeking this certainty.  Or, at the very least, there is not much humility out there that recognizes the other side might just have a good point or two.  Instead there is often a smug, condescending attitude that acts as if all obvious truth is on our side.

I write about my tribe, Christianity, but it looks like there is just as much smugness and condescension on the other side.  For many atheists, the sheer obviousness of unbelief means anyone who cannot see it is blind.  As one atheist, in the podcast Unbelievable, recently defined it, faith is believing what you know is not true.  It only takes a complete lack of, or refusal of, understanding of the other side to come to such a conclusion.  You may not find the other side’s arguments and evidence convincing, but a minimal recognition that some do should adjust such a faulty definition.

Too much certainty on two sides of any issue leads to shrill shouting, points to whoever can out yell the other, but to little engagement and understanding.  And I suspect many of us sit somewhere in the middle, perhaps leaning to one side or the other, saying that both sides at times make good points.

Am I absolutely certain there is a God and that Jesus is the human appearance of that God in history?  No.

Are there dark days when I begin to think maybe the universe is just a meaningless void? Yes.

Is there enough out there to push me to embracing the hope and faith in the life and message of Jesus? Yes.

The thing is, faith is not about certainty.  I can’t recommend Greg Boyd’s book Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty enough.  Real faith is honest – a trust in God that admits it is not always easy.  Real faith is open to questions and doubts and humble enough to know you don’t have all the answers.

And I believe that, for college students, it is such a real and honest faith that admits to doubts and can understand those we disagree with that our friends will find compelling enough to want to engage with us.

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Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Review)

It is probably not surprising for a thirty-something pastor type of an evangelical background proclaim his enjoyment of NT Wright’s dozens of books.  Like many in my profession, NT Wright is one of my favorite writers.  His work has done more to shape my understanding of Jesus and Paul then that of any other writer or scholar.  Even better, many of his works are completely readable for any Christian, you don’t need a seminary education to get what he is writing.  I’d love to see more people pick up an NT Wright book.

That said, he is also a brilliant scholar.  His big books on the New Testament are amazing.  First was The New Testament and the People of God.  Then came Jesus and the Victory of God, which is probably my favorite of his books, as it examined the life and ministry of Jesus.  Third was The Resurrection of the Son of God which has a following among those who do apologetics, since Wright defends a literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus.  But it is much more than that, not just defending that the resurrection happened but talking about what it means.

Last fall Wright released the long-awaited fourth book in this series, Paul and the Faithfulness of God.  Perhaps “book” is the wrong word to use, for it is a two volume tome clocking in at over 1700 pages (well, 1519 is the last page before you get to bibliographies and such).  My lovely wife got me this book for Christmas, figuring the $50 price tag made more sense as a gift then it would for me to just buy it myself.

Since then I’ve read the book in chunks.  It is broken into four parts.  Parts 1 and 2 take up the first volume and after reading them I took a long break.  I took another long break after finishing the chapter in part three on election (not coincidentally, this was days before my son was born).  A little while later I took it up and managed to finish the whole thing just before my wife’s maternity leave ended and I put my “at-home-dad” hat back on.

What can I say about a 1500 page book on the Apostle Paul?  If you want a summary of the book, you can find one easily.  I’ll just say it is amazing in both depth and breadth.  It is not a book just for scholars, Wright writes in such a way as to deserve (and he does receive) wide readership.  Overall, it is a fantastic book.

To some degree, if you’ve read Wright’s other works you may know the direction some of this would take.  Wright places Paul solidly in his Jewish context.  This meant that Paul, or Saul of Tarsus as he was before meeting Jesus, was a Pharisee in the first century, living under the rule of Rome in a culture infused with Greek thinking.  As a first-century Jew, Paul lived at the end of a long story, the Hebrew Bible, that had not yet been finished yet.  And it was his encounter with Jesus that led him to realize that Jesus truly was the Jewish Messiah who brought this grand narrative to a fulfillment.

One thing Wright emphasizes over and over is that Paul was Jewish.  Setting Paul up as the founder of Gentile Christianity, opposed to Judaism, is a false start that has been taken by many.  Instead, we see Paul doing just what we would expect if he believed Jesus was the Jewish Messiah – Paul rethinks his entire worldview, specifically monotheism, election and eschatology.  It is these three topics that take up part three of the book.  In terms of monotheism, Paul rethought the Jewish belief in one God in light of Jesus.  This chapter could be seen as a sort of argument for Jesus’ identification with God.  I find Wright’s argument makes a lot more sense, though it is not just a simplistic “Jesus = God” in the way we think of it.  For Wright, Paul saw Jesus doing things that Israel’s God was expected to do.  From this Paul wrote things that may have put later Christians on the road to the Council of Nicea and the Trinity, but he was not there yet himself.  In other words, to simply ask Paul, as people ask today, “Was Jesus God?” is to form the question somewhat wrongly.  For Paul Jesus was not a mere man, but Paul was not writing a fully developed Trinitarian theology.

Early in the book Wright argues that the ancient world was dominated by Stoic philosophy, similar to panetheism, while our world is more Epicurean, similar to Deism.  So Paul is answering Stoics and our challenge is to apply this to an Epicurean world.  All that to say, Wright is not giving us apologetic fodder to win arguments, he is giving us a picture of a first century Jew rethinking his tradition about God with Jesus now at the center of that tradition.

Election is another topic that Wright has some great things to say.  Too often “election” has been taken to mean that God chooses some people to save and go to heaven while everyone else can burn.  Wright argues that election was always a choosing for the benefit of the world, Abraham and Israel were chosen to bring blessing.  Paul rethinks this in light of Jesus, seeing the Christian church, made of Jew and Gentile, as chosen to bring this blessing to the world.

Here is a place where people may want Wright to write more.  What about those who never heard or who reject?  What view on hell does Wright have?  He does address that a bit in another book, but he leaves it here.  Why?  Because that was not the question Paul is asking, and this book is about Paul!

Ultimately, Wright argues that in all this Paul is creating Christian theology that will feed the church in its mission.  Jesus did what God would always do, open the door to relationship with God to all peoples.  This point is made through various images, for example, Jesus is the rebuilt temple through whom any and all people can know God.  There is no replacing of Jews by non-Jews, instead in Jesus all people, both Jew and Gentile, can know God.  But in leaving behind Jewish traditions, as Paul did, there was a hole in the life of God’s people.  Paul’s work filled this hole.  He created an understanding of Jesus, a theology, that would carry the people onward into the future.

There is so much more to say about this book.  I thought it was interesting how we see Christianity as a religion, but most in Paul’s day would have seen him doing philosophy.  First century pagans did not go to religion to learn ethics, that was what philosophy was for (not counting the Jews).  The beginning and end of Wright’s book where Wright delves into this first century world and how Paul was responding to it is fantastic.

Overall, its a great book.  I can’t recommend it enough for pastors, teachers or anyone who wants to spend a lot of time learning about Paul.

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