Monday, July 21, 2014

Audiobook Review: Love Walked Among Us

A theme of this blog is exploring what it means to love in Christ. Paul E. Miller's book, Love Walked Among Us: Learning to Love Like Jesus, is a good addition to that discussion. Miller fills his book with many illustrations from both the biblical narrative and his and friends' lives. This approach really helps ground the principles, brings many of them to life, and creates a real-world application.

Unfortunately, that's where my praise stops, although I have to say at the outset that it was very difficult to pay attention to the content. I repeatedly have said that I love it when the author reads his/her own work when it's nonfiction. Miller has good inflection and sometimes displays his passion. However, this very well may be the worst produced audiobook I've ever listened to. Miller's pressured speech and regular stumbles and misreadings made it very challenging to listen to. I love audiobooks and listen to them regularly, plus my wife has narrated and edited some audiobooks, so I have some familiarity with the production process. Stumbles are normal, but that's what going back and re-recording the line and editing is for. The narration was so bad I actually contacted the publisher to ensure I didn't accidentally receive a draft version. I was told they attempted to fix what they could but were unable to re-record.

The errors and narration were distracting in the way that a poorly written paper with frequent spelling and grammatical errors are distracting (at least to me), preventing the core message from coming through. When I could hear the content honestly, I'm not sure I really heard anything particularly new or challenging. There were some good lessons, but I think there's other resources that are more effective at sending this message.

The complaint I had about content was that Miller seemed to make regular assumptions about various things that are not always reasonable. I recall during one biblical example, he said something like, "Jesus thought..." Except that Jesus' thoughts weren't in the biblical narrative. We can guess what Jesus thought, felt, etc., but we need to acknowledge that we're speculating and cannot be absolutely sure. It is this type of presentation that leads to rigidity in theological interpretation. There are also times when he gets facts wrong about people and fields. For instance, he talked about how psychologists look to Freud as a source of wisdom and guidance. Sorry, Miller, psychologists largely haven't relied on Freud for several decades. These kinds of statements, along with the poor production, made the book lose credibility to me.

If you're interested in this book, read it, don't listen to it. I cannot recommend the audiobook version at all, and the content is just "okay" from my perspective...

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, July 7, 2014

Identity in Love

Yesterday, I had the privilege of giving the sermon at my church. The title was Identity in Love, exploring how the development of our moral identity formation makes a difference in justice and how we approach people, with the goal of the Gospel being to have our identities rooted in love. You can listen to it below or at

Monday, June 23, 2014

Do we need authority?

Our society (and many of our ideas) are based in authority. We structure our organizations around hierarchies of authority. We based decisions on documents we consider authoritative, often in a reified way. Much defense of the Bible seems more to do with an apparent need for a transcendent authoritative source.

But do we necessarily need such authority? Psychologically, it seems like we are soothed by making decisions based on such authority. Authority is a good way to bring differing opinions into alignment (or submission), but is that always a good thing?

The Society of Friends (Quakers) have no such structure of authority--anyone can bring up an issue, speak, etc. For decisions, they seek consensus. What would our society be like if we approached decisions and structure like that? It may take more time, but is that necessarily a bad thing, especially if we structured life around that extra time?

In my mind, this requires a greater tolerance for ambiguity. If we cannot tolerate ambiguity, authority is important to give a sense of structure and clear definition. But as many of us have experienced, those structures and clear definitions are not always that satisfying, meaning, or even accurate.

How would our faith be different if we didn't depend on "objective" authority so much? What if we relied more on communion with God and listening to the Holy Spirit?

Monday, June 9, 2014

Roman Context of Scripture

In most hermeneutic discussions of the Bible, I've traditionally heard a lot of talk of the Jewish context. That makes sense, especially with the Old Testament. After listening to the historical fiction The Advocate, I am realizing how important knowing and recognizing the Roman (and Greek) context of the New Testament is.

Randy Singer's story revolves around his imaginings of who Theophilus (of Luke and Acts fame) could have been. I realized through the course of this book how little I ever really learned about Roman culture (I'm kind of surprised about this frankly). The audiobook is 15 hours, so it took many days to listen to. During this process and the few days since completing it, I have been starting to view various New Testament passages differently, considering the Roman culture in which much of it (especially the texts attributed to Paul) were written. It helped me challenge some assumptions about interpretation and really pushes against some traditionally conservative interpretations (in my opinion). I have long firmly believed we have to interpret Scripture in the original historical and cultural context (as much as we are able). The Roman context is absolutely central and very unique and different from traditional Jewish contexts. Suddenly, various stories make even more sense.

For instance, the phrase "Jesus is Lord" seems particularly significant in contrast to Caesar is Lord of the Roman Empire. The divinity of the emperor was standard belief, and acknowledgement of his role and power was in that phrase. While I've heard pieces of that before, becoming immersed in a fictional framing of the culture gave the phrase new life. It also reminded me of the particularity of much of Scripture to a particular time and place. Would we say "Jesus is Lord" if the Incarnation occurred today? It doesn't have the same meaning that it did living in the Roman Empire.

Especially post-Constantine, much of Western Christian culture specifically is derived from Roman culture (probably more than Jewish culture). I wasn't familiar with the tradition of the Vestal Virgins; ladies who were married to the state and sworn to remain virgins (until their 30 year duty was completed). Could this have been the precursor to the Roman Catholic nun tradition?

Even the trial and execution of Jesus was centered in Roman culture. Yes, the Pharisees may have brought Jesus to Pilate, but Pilate has a backstory (and Singer's characterization is compelling) and thought process that is distinctly Roman in origin. We mustn't forget that crucifixion was not a Jewish rite. It was Roman with a long history in asserting power and dominance.

One of the more disturbing parts of Singer's book is the vivid explanation of the violence and fundamental lack of value of human life that was prevalent throughout Roman culture. When reading Scriptural references regarding the ways people treat each other and the role of slavery, having a better understanding of what this looked like in Rome (rather than in US history) really helps us better interpret the Bible. Verses that seem to reference a penal substitutionary theory of the atonement are given a completely new clarity in this Roman context, providing a particular framework for people to understand Jesus' sacrifice in a way they could understand.

One of the things that I really appreciated about this story is how Jesus' story was presented as rather tangential for the vast majority of the book. While some Christians may not like this, it really puts context to the initial impact of Christ's life on the Roman Empire--people didn't pay too much attention. Even when Paul is introduced (far past the halfway mark), he doesn't initially seem to be a major player in Theophilus' life. This approach helped me better understand the possible context Paul is entering and speaking to when he pursues his ministry to the Gentiles.

The flow and content of the book was rich and engaging. It's been a while since I listened to an audiobook that I wanted to keep running after my commute was over. David Cochran Heath's narration accentuated this, bringing dynamic life to the characters. The characterizations of famous historical characters and events sparked my interest and prompted me to spend a good amount of time reading even more about Roman history. Again, it's been a while since a book prompted me to do further research on a topic, so I give Singer a lot of credit!

Readers/listeners should remember this is historical fiction, and it is not intended as a hermeneutic guide, as far as I'm aware. But it's one of the stronger Christian fiction stories out there. It's definitely one that is not as cheesy as many and doesn't get too heavy-handed. It takes a fairly traditional view of how Scripture was written, for better or for worse, but I think people of all stripes can enjoy the story as an opportunity to explore a possibility of the origins of Theophilus and the books of Luke and Acts.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, May 19, 2014

Is Biblical Archaeology Helpful to Faith?

When I was living with my grandpa, one of our monthly traditions was to go to a local meeting of the Biblical Archaeology Society. I long have had interest in archaeological findings, as I think it provides a richness and context to a variety of historical narratives. So getting the opportunity to review Discovering the City of Sodom: The Fascinating, True Account of the Discovery of the Old Testament's Most Infamous City was exciting.

Drs. Steven Collins and Latayne C. Scott explore the story of how Collins sought a new location for Sodom and his argument for Tall el-Hammam as the site of biblical Sodom. I found myself regularly tuning out of the first part of the book, detailing some of the historical arguments. While I've listened to many of narrator Sean Runnette's audiobooks, there was a lack of passion to hold interest in more nuanced intellectual arguments (and people who know me know I love those discussions :) ). It felt more like he was truly just reading a paper he knew nothing about. Unfortunately, I'm discovering a lot of Christian nonfiction narration is like that...

The explanations as to why Tall el-Hammam made sense as biblical Sodom was where more of my interest re-arose. Hearing about the historical context and how archaeology can help us better interpret the Bible is helpful.

I also really appreciated how Collins ended his book addressing the various critiques of his work. Some arguments center around whether a biblical Sodom ever truly existed while others debate biblical interpretation. Collins' biblical interpretation centers around a theory of true narrative representation. While I won't claim to fully understand this approach, I think it makes a few too many assumptions demanding the historicity of the biblical texts. I see it being driven more from a perspective of people's faith needing the Bible to be historically true than honestly approaching the texts and how they were meant to be read.

This doesn't mean they are not historically true. I don't see any need for the story of Sodom to be historically true. However, I think those who deny archaeological data supporting biblical Sodom's historicity due to their interpretations of the Bible aren't being fair or honest, either. While I am most definitely not even a novice or amateur at reviewing archaeological material, Collins' arguments make sense to me. His willingness to engage in debate and address disagreement lends credibility. He does seem to want to be academically honest with himself and others.

However, at the end of the day, does it matter whether Tall el-Hammam is biblical Sodom or not? Whether biblical Sodom was historically real or not? The latter may impact some people's respect of Genesis, but I think there's problems with that approach. I'm not sure identifying the physical location and archaeological remains of biblical Sodom really adds much to our understanding of the biblical world or narrative. Other archaeological sites can provide clarity, especially to more important narratives (yes, I'm saying the Sodom narrative is not one of the most critical). Some stories really can be elucidated more by archaeological evidence. But I'm not sure what the value added is to the Sodom narrative beyond it being it being interesting...

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, May 12, 2014

Against the Death Penalty

Earlier this month, Al Mohler wrote an editorial on CNN's Belief Blog about why Christians should support the death penalty. There were so many things wrong with this article that I was going to write some of my reactions. Thankfully, Roger Olson (who has FAR more followers than I do) wrote an excellent piece noting the many inaccuracies in Mohler's regularly flawed "logic."

One of my big areas of interest is in transformation and motivation (both of particular interest to both theology and psychology). I'll reiterate what Olson said in response to Mohler: the death penalty does NOT act as a deterrent. While many Christians may say it is a deterrent for them, they also probably wouldn't ever engage in the kind of crimes that would get the death penalty anyway. So who is it really a deterrent for?

This gets into a larger discussion of motivation. Many people (especially fundamentalist Christians) advocate for aversive punishment. While that may work for people who normally follow rules anyway, it's not terribly effective for those who are not necessarily automatically compliant. I would put the death penalty as an aversive punishment. And people who commit crimes to earn the death penalty are likely not terribly compliant. So we need to figure out a different approach.

Hint: Reinforcing desired behavior is the most effective approach for all people. But that means we have to approach people with grace, and why would Christians want to do that?!

This, then, also gets into the idea of transformation and redemption, absolutely central concepts to the Gospel and for me, a much more compelling reason to oppose capital punishment. If central to our faith is the idea that anybody can be redeemed (and ultimately at any time), then we need to give that opportunity. By killing someone, we are essentially stating that there is no hope for this individual. Is that our right? Should we really remove the ability of God to touch this person's life? Or some good to come through this individual? There's plenty of biblical stories about such redemption, transformation, and God using evil for good...

But Mohler and others argue that some people deserve death. We can get into long and drawn-out arguments over who can decide who deserves death. But let's suspend that. Let's assume some individuals do deserve death (frankly, hearing just a synopsis of the crimes the Oklahoma individuals have been convicted of gives me a gut reaction of them deserving death) AND that there is no doubt of guilt. Particularly for those who believe in the penal substitutionary theory of atonement (which Mohler avows), then we all deserve death. Yet because of Christ's sacrifice, we are spared.

If God will grant a pardon from death, why shouldn't we do so, even if death is deserved?

Monday, May 5, 2014

Does the Building Matter?

Last week, I asked, "Does Dress Matter?" in regards to how we dress at church. This week, I want to look at the relevance of our buildings that (supposedly) inspire worship. Many readers know I was heavily involved in the Crystal Cathedral Ministries. My wife and I had our first kiss, got engaged, and got married on the campus (plus the last Star Trek movie was filmed there, which is awesome! :) ). But it was also regularly criticized for its opulence (okay, the women's bathroom was definitely extreme). Recently, there was an interesting post from a former critic of the building, recognizing some potential benefits of the architecture.

Yes, a lot of hungry people could have been fed with the money from building the Cathedral (and many other buildings worldwide). But how much have such buildings inspired people spiritually (and subsequently resulting in financial donations)? We'll probably never know for sure. However, I can say that these buildings have definitely inspired me over the years and helped keep me focused on the priorities of faith. This can seem ironic since the building can seem so superficial and in contrast to last week's post. But one of the things I loved about the grounds was how they emphasized a connection with nature, being able to see God all around us. The Chapel in the Sky was one of my favorite places, being able to see the surrounding community for miles, reminding me of the importance of touching all of these lives.

Extending one of the arguments from last week about the importance of making worship time different, I think the building really can do that. I've been part of congregations whose buildings are clearly churches, with stained glass windows and history built in, and those whose buildings were warehouses and looked more like theaters. I can't really imagine going back to the latter option. Part of it is in the style of worship that is too performance-driven for me now. But the other part is that those types don't feel like anything special or different. Walking into the Crystal Cathedral feels special. Walking into my current congregation's building feels special. It helps put me into a different mindset. There's a reason the Temple was to be created a certain way with increasing reverence for the increasing sanctity of the divisions, culminating in the Holy of Holies.

But I would resort back to my recommendation from last week. How about we create buildings that are meaningful to our own worship? After all, even buildings are simply social constructions (literally and figuratively). Just like dress, we shouldn't obtain a building to build our egos, but rather reorient ourselves to the reason we're worshipping.


Got a question, struggle, or doubt you'd like to see addressed here? Contact me, and I'll try to discuss it (and may even help you get an answer).