Review: Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today

Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today
Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today by Adam Hamilton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book provides a solid mainline perspective on understanding the Bible. Hamilton summarizes the content and themes of the Bible and also addresses many good questions people have about it, offering reasonable answers to skeptics while simultaneously gently challenging the inflexible views of many evangelicals. As someone raised generally evangelically without a clear representation of the mainline perspective, I found it helpful in dispelling many false dichotomies that come with interpreting the Bible, and the way it made alternate viewpoints feel less threatening.

Hamilton challenges the popular evangelical idea that “if you can’t trust part of the Bible you can’t trust any of it” by noting that we don’t apply the same principle to trusted teachers and preachers we find fallible yet helpful. He also makes a strong argument that the evangelical definition of “inerrancy” has enough caveats to be almost meaningless (if modern variances or inconsistencies exist because only the original manuscripts were “God-breathed,” but none of the original manuscripts were preserved, than what was the point?). Supporting his “helpful but not necessarily infallible” view is a claim that the “God-breathed” phrase in Timothy, often invoked in defense of inerrancy, was also used to describe early church writings that have never been viewed in the same light. (I am interested in researching this further.)

Even as I appreciated the chance to become – if not totally convinced – at least more open-minded – about a less rigorous yet still solidly Christian understanding of Scripture, I occasionally found his evangelical challenges unconvincingly unimaginative. For example, he claims that the location of Jesus’ ascension is irreconcilably contradictory across the Gospels, which I did not find when I sympathetically reviewed the texts. I also found his attempts to reconcile an affirming stance on homosexuality with an inerrant interpretation surprisingly weak and clearly refutable; I remain convinced you cannot do that without also abandoning inerrancy. And while I am not necessarily opposed to the principle of using Jesus’ words to essentially override other parts of Scripture (while many evangelicals would never echo Hamilton’s language, in practice they are often similar), I’m not sure his approach to interpreting the Old Testament’s violent passages through Jesus is actually based on a comprehensive view of Jesus himself.

Overall, I found Hamilton’s book an excellent presentation of a viewpoint that I found to be much less hollow and inconsistent than I once suspected before I had actually read some of its stronger defenses. I think it would be helpful, both for the reputation of Christianity and for the saving of souls, if evangelicals were more familiar with the existence of this viewpoint, and in less agreement with their equally dogmatic secular opponents that one must either accept every evangelical interpretation or reject Christianity altogether.

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Review: No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City

No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City
No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City by Katherine S. Newman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book provides a detailed look into the lives of the urban working poor. Armed both with comprehensive data and numerous anecdotes, Katherine Newman dispels many myths and stereotypes about those who strongly desire to follow the American work ethic but don’t have the knowledge or connections to move up from where they are. The book focuses on fast-food workers in Harlem, examining in detail their ambitions, skills, work ethic, and challenges. It repeatedly drove home its core point that despite low pay, stressful working conditions, rude customers, and the pressures of school and children that all make a fast-food job barely more attractive than welfare, the deep desire to earn a living is so prevalent among the poor that local restaurants are continually flooded with applications, and many of the few who make it press on despite little chance of advancement. At the same time, the book is nuanced and well-rounded in its treatment of the variety of attitudes, viewpoints, and experiences among poor workers, their employers, and their friends and families. It is hardly the end of the debate for how to improve the lot of America’s urban poor (the solutions offered are generally unconvincing), but for anyone who has ever expressed an opinion on that plight without really knowing anyone living it, this book is a great place to start.

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Review: Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator

Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator
Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator by Ryan Holiday
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is an easy read with interesting stuff about the ways PR/companies/bloggers/media manipulate each other and the ways fake controversies and outrages end up as news due to the incentives of bloggers to get as many views and clicks as possible without taking time to check and verify. I was already familiar with a lot of the ideas, but the stories and examples were intriguing, as well as many of the details and Holiday’s realizations and regrets about the dark side of the business. At times it can feel repetitive, oversimplified, and exaggerated, but there’s plenty of meat to make it worth your time if you’re interested in blogging, the trustworthiness of the news you read, or anything along those lines.

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Review: When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself

When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself
When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself by Steve Corbett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The beginning of the book concisely explains the theology of why Christians should be helping the poor, tying it to general themes of God’s redemption of the world and highlighting the ignoring of the poor as one of the oft overlooked but undeniably major reasons Israel went into exile. The rest of the book expounds upon how to help the poor. Right-leaning readers may like its insistence on overcoming incentives of dependency; left-leaning readers may like its insistence on overcoming superiority complexes of assuming we know best how to help less privileged peoples when we really don’t; all readers should like its combination of common sense, good theology, and personal humility with practical insight into poverty alleviation. I especially liked the suggestion to empower the materially poor by asking “what are your gifts?” instead of “what do you need?” I also liked the bits about savings associations. Overall, this is an imperative read for any Christian involved or interested in helping the poor.

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Review: The Case for a Creator: A Journalist Investigates Scientific Evidence That Points Toward God

The Case for a Creator: A Journalist Investigates Scientific Evidence That Points Toward God
The Case for a Creator: A Journalist Investigates Scientific Evidence That Points Toward God by Lee Strobel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Revisiting this book about a decade after its publishing, I was pleasantly surprised to find well-crafted arguments that included good responses to many counter-arguments I’ve come across since then that I was afraid would be unaddressed. The evolutionary critiques, while useful enough for what they cover, would likely be considered irrelevant by opponents. However, the cosmological portions were fascinating, strengthening the anthropic principle against some of the whittlings I’ve run into over the years. (While it’s legitimate to argue that if some of the “fine-tuning” properties had been different, life would simply have developed differently, that response falls flat against some “before” aspects – some of the properties seem to be necessary for atoms coming together in any fashion at all – as well as some “after” aspects – several properties like solar eclipses and our position in the galaxy suggest that the best place for observing the universe curiously happens to be the place where observers developed) Furthermore, relatively new (to me) ideas like quantum pre-Big-Bang pseudo-nothingness and inflation were already mentioned here (though the interviewed professor would have been surprised if not defeated by the recently announced discovery). The “investigative” writing style is a little overwrought, and some chapters are weaker than others (the one about consciousness may be most likely to be considered refuted by continuing discoveries, though I can’t be sure and would be extremely interested to find out which way things are leaning), but overall this is still a fairly comprehensive summary of apologetic arguments for an intelligent Creator of the universe.

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Review: This Little Piggy

This Little Piggy
This Little Piggy by Parragon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This short story provides scathing social commentary on the differences of economic opportunity and income inequality that divide us today (some piggies can afford to go to market and get roast beef; other piggies stay home and have none). The fact that the pig eats roast beef – another farm animal – is a hyperbolic expression of the ruthless lifestyle of the upper class piggy. The brilliant cry of the final piggy (“wee wee wee”) symbolizes the outcry that will undoubtedly spawn a revolution as piggies deny the selfish ‘I’ and embrace the collective ‘we’. The final twist of this finger puppet book is that by allowing the child to use his or her finger to animate the piggy, the child can visualize the metaphorical representation of his or her inner self, and instead of objectifying each piggy as a disparate finger, as in the classic telling, the child can internalize that each piggy is truly the same piggy, as any individual may find himself the “market” piggy or the “home” piggy at different stages of life, and every individual piggy is also part of the same “piggy humanity” that binds us all together. Paragon has molded an instant classic that will undoubtedly be studied for centuries hence.

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Review: Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic

Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic
Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic by John De Graaf
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Why are we always busy and stressed out despite the huge advances of the last century? The authors convincing detail how productivity and technology increases have left us much richer than our grandparents – but instead of living the same and working less, we acquire an abundance of formerly luxurious (or non-existent) goods without leaving any more time to clean our bigger houses or reorganize, repair, and refill all our stuff. I disagreed with many of the minor points and prognoses that betrayed liberal underpinnings, and it’s a little dated when it talks about shopping malls, but overall Affluenza is a compelling argument that the short-term satisfaction of consumption is ultimately unsatisfying, and the only path to true satisfaction is to embrace voluntary simplicity. It’s largely a secular argument, but it greatly overlaps with a Christian ethos of materialism and possessions.

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Christian books about American materialism and helping the poor

Recently I have been reading several books about Christian theology and how it relates to the modern materialistic American lifestyle and what should be our concern for the poor and needy. Here are my thoughts on three of them.

jesus-of-suburbia-mike-erreJesus of Suburbia: Have We Tamed The Son of God to Fit Our Lifestyle? by Mike Erre (2006) is perhaps the most friendly and accessible. It discusses the revolutionary nature of Jesus’ non-violent Incarnation in the first-century Roman occupation of the Jews, contrasting that with the “safety and security” gospel of the modern American evangelical suburbs. The historical comparisons are similar to points made in  Jesus For President, but without the liberal politics and harsher accusations that may turn off more traditional conservatives.

One of the most interesting parts was when Erre encourages you to stop waiting around for God to directly lead you into something, but instead to just start taking risks doing things to build his kingdom and he will correct you if you’re off-course. He supported this assertion with some Biblical examples, and while I’m not sure if I completely agree with it, I do find it extremely tantalizing.

gods-politics-jim-wallisGod’s Politics: Why The Right Gets It Wrong And The Left Doesn’t Get It by Jim Wallis (2006) is generally less about personal life and more about political policies. Wallis mostly discusses how American politics affects the poor and his opinions about whether the Bible agrees with that or not. As the title might suggest, Wallis often sounds balanced between extremes, and he believes that effectively responding to American poverty requires supporting both government resources (a la the left) and strong families and personal responsibility (a la the right). I liked some of his thoughts, such as interpreting “The poor will be with you always” to mean that Jesus expected his followers to always be found with the poor, even though many suburban evangelical American Christians don’t even know any poor people.

But I’m not sure I followed Wallis in the transition between voluntary giving through local individuals and communities to “forced” giving through the national government, such as his blunt claim that “a budget based on a windfall of benefits for the wealthy and harsh cuts for poor families and children is an unbiblical budget.” Later Wallis actually says, “I often hear people say that the Bible talks about individual charity and has nothing to say about government policies on budgets and tax cuts,” but then he doesn’t really counter that point. I’m still struggling to figure out how much Israel’s mandates should directly apply to modern, non-theocratic governments.

 ron-sider-rich-christiansRich Christians In An Age of Hunger: Moving From Affluence to Generosity by Ron Sider (2005, revised) is perhaps the most famous of these three, and it balances smartly between politics and personal challenges. I liked Sider’s admission that he has learned more about economics since he first wrote the book and his recognition that markets have done much to reduce world poverty in the last couple decades. However I found it equally important to recognize Sider’s points that such progress is limited and has plenty of risks and stagnation therein.  I thought his most provoking claim was that Paul’s writings about hunger and communion suggest that we cannot truly partake in communion while we are full and yet have starving Christian brothers and sisters around the world. Sider’s book has a lot of facts and figures, some of which are missing more context than others, but it also has a lot of practical thoughts and convictions. Of all three of these books I think I would recommend this the most if you are interested in these topics.

Fight: A Christian Case For Non-Violence by Preston Sprinkle

preston-sprinkle-fight I think my journey towards Christian non-violence began as I realized how much the Jewish people of Jesus’ time were expecting their Messiah to overthrow the Roman Empire and how shocked they were when he instead let them crucify him and told his followers to “love your enemies” to advance his heavenly Kingdom. I realized this made it hard to justify talk of overthrowing (relatively less oppressive) modern governments, and I started wondering how many other violent scenarios it might affect, too.

In Fight: A Christian Case For Nonviolence, Preston Sprinkle examines how Jesus’ message of non-violent, forgiving enemy-love is woven through the entire Bible, from God’s gracious protection of Cain the first murderer to the blood of the martyred saints in Revelation. Sprinkle builds his case with astonishing grace and humility (how many authors ask God to “raise up someone” to “write a response” if they’re wrong?), no doubt helped by the fact that he comes not from a liberal hippy protest but from a gun-toting, Gladiator-watching, Republican-voting evangelical background. Sprinkle addresses the most violent passages in the Bible and argues that they fit within a cohesive trend of limiting present violence and longing for a peaceful future.

He also both asks and answers hard questions about the implications of the Bible’s passages on our lives today. I like his point that we often jump into practical scenarios that might justify violence with human logic (sometimes doused in subtle utilitarianism) instead of starting with what the Bible says. Sprinkle argues that many uses of violence are not even effective, but more importantly they may not be faithful to following Jesus. He also contrasts passive “pacifism” with “non-violence,” which still allows are plenty of creative (and Biblical) ways to actively resist evil – just without trying to kill human beings in the process.

Some points are stronger than others. In discussing the violent Promised Land conquest, he convincingly argues that the condemned Canaanites could have known about the God of Israel, responding perhaps to arguments in books like Laying Down The Sword (my review here). But I’m not sure “hyperbole” is the only explanation to avoid contradiction in God’s commands to slay everything that breathes. I love the concept of the prophets pointing towards a future without violence (“they shall beat their swords into plowshares” – Isaiah 2), but I wish he had also covered Joel’s “beat your plowshares into swords.” I also love the idea of all the blood in Revelation belonging to Jesus and the saints, but I’m not convinced of the non-violence of Armageddon (even if Jesus just “declares with cosmic, cruciform authority that He has already won,” there’s still weird parts, where, say, “the birds gorged themselves on their flesh.”)

But difficult interpretations of confusing Bible verses notwithstanding, I found Sprinkle rather convincing in his overall argument that Jesus consistently* preached and lived a non-violent life, that the disciples understood Jesus’ example as compelling a non-violent life (1 Peter 2, for one), and that the early church consistently believed and lived it as well, all while experiencing more intense persecution and justifications for violent retaliation than most of us may ever know! It was in fact this radical “enemy-love” that set Christians apart and led to such a wonderful spreading of the Gospel! The book only delves a little into post-Constantine politics; it’s uncomfortable (but necessary) to think about the civilian deaths and dictator-support at the hand of the “good guys” of America through the years, but I find it even more uncomfortable to think about all the wars throughout history that have literally involved thousands of Christians killing each other.
(*Though I wish he would have covered Matthew 10:34)

I thought Sprinkle had some great arguments about infamous scenarios (“What if someone breaks into your house?” / “What about Hitler?”), mostly related to assumptions about exactly what they’re going to do and exactly how effective you will be at stopping it and the possibilities of things backfiring and violence begetting worse violence (though I find it hard to say the Holocaust could have been stopped non-violently). He offers historical examples of non-violent resistance being more effective (both in preventing violence and in spreading the Gospel) while reminding us that we should ultimately be concerned about what is more faithful anyway. The topic of rape is a potential weak point, addressed only in an intense story about a woman who forgave her attacker who ultimately found Christ. I saw Sprinkle humbly admit in person at AudioFeed that it was very difficult, especially as a man, to advocate non-violence in such situations, but it doesn’t come across as strongly in the book, and of all the ways people could mis-interpret Sprinkle as arguing for passive-ism I really hope they don’t do so in this case. (And I hope everyone could at least agree we should press on towards the goal of enabling women to escape rapists without having to kill them.)

Overall I found Fight to be an “easy read” on a difficult issue, full of interesting, thought-provoking, and challenging ideas. I’m probably part of that rare subset of readers who would have enjoyed the “five hundred pages of endnotes” Sprinkle left out, and I realize there wasn’t enough room to discuss every possible interpretation of every verse that is remotely related to violence. How Christians respond to violence has an immense impact on how we are perceived by the world and how we honor and glorify God, and I am glad Sprinkle is contributing to the discussion in such a gracious and humble manner. If you’re interested in a Biblically sound introduction to the idea of Christian non-violence without the naive, arrogant, or anti-patriotic associations you may have about it, I strongly encourage you to read this book.

Laying Down the Sword by Philip Jenkins (Review)

laying-down-the-sword-jenkins I checked out Laying Down the Sword from the library because it looked like it was about Christianity and violence and I was getting ready to read Preston Sprinkle’s new book on a similar theme. Philip Jenkins writes from a secular academic perspective that sees Christianity and Islam as religions with equally violent texts that are equally capable of more peaceful interpretations.

Needless to say I disagreed with Jenkins on much of his characterizations of Christianity and the Old Testament passages he repeatedly scathes. It is true that the “utter destruction” of the Canaanites in the book of Joshua seems extremely violent and evil, and that this and other similar passages are often difficult to accept. However, I think Jenkins’ lack of understanding regarding the doctrines of both sin and redemption inhibited his reaction to some of the traditional explanations of such passages. Perhaps it was because Jenkins was focused on the human element involved in carrying out these Biblical killings, but I found it interesting that he completely ignored the story of Noah’s Flood; if we can accept God’s treatment of the sins of an entire planet, surely the sins of a few villages are not difficult in comparison. Nor do I see God’s wrath and love as incompatible qualities, and I find it amusingly arrogant when he talks about man applying his limited reason to try to “improve” on such things.

I must concede that Christians throughout history have misused these Old Testament passages to justify violence on other races; the quotes and examples of the flexible interpretation of “Amalekites” over the centuries are quite damning – even heartbreaking – and it is hard to argue that they behaved any better than today’s radical Muslims. Still, at least from my bias, Jenkins tried too hard to equivocate the two religions to fit his hypothesis;  he bends over backwards to explain creative “escape routes” for some of the violent Qur’an passages while almost flippantly using Jesus’ words about jots or tittles “passing away” to restrict similar treatment of the Old Testament – as if the very text of the Bible doesn’t wrestle with the post-resurrectional meanings of the old Law (see: Acts 15, or the entire book of Hebrews). He also didn’t cover the treatment of women; the allegedly patriarchal Bible verses about submission surely pale in comparison to the Qur’an’s explicit approval of wife-beating. But I digress.

I agree with Jenkins’ conclusion that “the fact that a minority of activists derive harsh and violent ideas from the scriptures of Judaism, or any other faith, has no implications whatever for evaluating that religion, or the texts on which it is based.” Yet I disagree with his belief that these passages still illustrate a problem that need to be allegorized away (a method that Jenkins curiously seems to deride some Christians for using before seeming to arrive at the same conclusion himself).

I like Sprinkle’s position (I haven’t read his book yet, but I heard his talk on it at AudioFeed) that the Bible’s violent passages were no worse and probably even less violent than the cultures of the day, and furthermore that the Bible continually trends toward peace, culminating in the “love your enemies” message of Jesus Christ. Jenkins acknowledges but rejects this view, saying the forward-looking peaceful prophets were written at the same time period as the recording of the violent historical Joshua passages. But of course that’s only a problem if you believe the “higher criticisms”; even if they were later recordings of much earlier events, in my view the trend towards peace remains.

Jenkins also claims that the genocidal quality of Joshua’s destruction was unprecedented even for its time; I don’t know history well enough to say whether or not he’s cherry-picking. I do know he ignored any of the myriad references to God limiting Israel’s military strength – from the general ban on chariots to the reduction of Gideon’s forces to Jehoshaphat’s army that was told not to fight (2 Chronicles 20). This doesn’t make the armies’ violent actions less violent, but it does shed more light on the emphasis throughout.

I also was surprised that Jenkins saw the conquest of Canaan as genocidal in nature; I had always interpreted it as more about stamping out other religions than other races – the evidence being the numerous “exceptions” made to those of other races who honored Yahweh, from the story of Rahab to the verses in the Torah about good treatment of the “aliens” among them.

So I found a lot to disagree with, but it was also good to read things from another perspective, and especially to learn about many of the genocidal tragedies that have been carried out in God’s name over the ages. I agree that more Christians should read and become familiar with these sorts of passages, to wrestle with them and to greater appreciate the overall arching Biblical themes of sin, justice, redemption, and – yes – peace.

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