Simplify: a review

Back in 2008, I saw a review for Simplify by Paul Borthwick over at Internet Monk, back before Mike Spencer died. I bought the book immediately. I found that despite its price tag ($16.99), it contained a wealth of valuable information. It’s exactly what it says it will be. A book about the practical side of simplifying your life, especially with respect to finances and time. I read it as soon as I purchased it and starting applying its principles. My wife then read it (I lent it to her before we were even dating). And it has helped us to live rather simply. It’s principles are worth revisiting periodically. I was reorganizing my library (it must be done often because I always pull volumes off the shelf and lazily put them wherever I can reach), and saw it and reread it.

 

Simplify: 106 Ways to Uncomplicate Your Life

The downside to the book is that everything in it is available free in thousands of online articles or sites like Wiki-How. But the upside is that all the useful information is available in one volume in a format which could easily be used for family reading time, church study groups, or accountability/holiness meetings with other Christians.

One of the funniest things about the book is that the author suggests it may not be useful on the back. As a sincere question, it’s a helpful reflection. As a sales pitch, it’s genius.

Anyway, the book offers helpful advice for saving money, uncomplicating your life, and managing your time. I highly recommend that you read it with your spouse, read it before you get married, or read it as a sort of guide to subtle but helpful pathways out of bad habits.

4/5, highly recommend unless you’re willing to look this stuff up online.

Book Review: Mere Churchianity

Michael Spencer, Mere Churchianity: Finding Your Way back to Jesus-Shaped Spirituality (Colorado Springs, Colo.: WaterBrook Press, 2010).

Several years ago, maybe when I was in high school, I came across the blog of Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk. One of Michael’s dreams was to help evangelical Christians find an identity that was simultaneously charitable, Biblical, and centered around the traditional practices of protestant piety in a way that put the spiritual focus of individual evangelicals on Jesus himself.

In hindsight, he was a very helpful guide despite not being an extremely good author. Something about his apparent character and earnestness attracted me to his writings. His last year or so of life was pretty rough because he ended up with brain cancer which lead to his death just before the release of his only book. I read the book as soon as it came out and meant to review it and just never got around to it.

Before I move on to specifics in the book, I’ll say that I think it would be helpful for group discussions more than for individual consumption. It’s one of those books that, while insightful, I think requires a group of people to discuss their personal “aha” moments that match the author’s own experience and the experiences of those present. Reading it on your own, if the book doesn’t match what you’ve seen or felt may only be helpful in brief snippets. Onto my typical review strategy:

The Good

The book has some good sections and good lines. The chapter, What Does Jesus-Shaped Spirituality mean brings up some good questions about people who are looking for spirituality over organized religion. For instance, he says, “I am convinced that people who say they are seeking spirituality and not the Christian religion are on the right path. (85)” Based on what most people mean by those two things, he’s probably right. But whether you think he is or isn’t, the point raises good questions about evangelism, faith, and what kind of life churches claim to offer people in the gospel they present. That same chapter ends with this, “I’m looking for a spiritual experience that looks like, feels like, sounds like, lives like, loves like, and acts like Jesus of Nazareth. It’s that simple. (85)” The wonderful thing about this point is that, hopefully, as we grow in understanding of Scripture and through the trial and error experience of following Christ with Christ’s people, we will come to understand Jesus anew and more fully. In other words, a spiritual experience oriented around Jesus simultaneously gives our spirituality an objective orientation (Jesus, crucified, raised, as he is presented in Scripture) and meets us where we’re at (our understanding of Jesus).

Another good aspect is the concept of churchianity. What Michael means by this is the multilayered conformity of Christianity to whatever the churches in the United States happen to be saying/doing at the time without reference Jesus himself. So churchianity includes obsession with certain traditions despite the contradiction between them and Christ, the disordered patriotism of certain factions of the political right, the focus on self-helpy positive thinking rather than Scripture, the mall-like megachurch movements that revolve around consumerism rather than the four gospels, and so-on.

The beginning of the book starts with Spencer’s recollection of his time as a youth pastor making messes at Dairy Queen with his students. I used to get frustrated as a youth group member at the incredible messes that would be made when I went places with the youth group. It was hard for me to imagine an adult allowing that to happen, but Mike explained how the experience of getting a sad note from an employee really affected him (1-7).

The Bad

Michael’s understanding of sanctification is mistaken (142-144). He claims that “the gradual process of becoming…experientially righteous in daily life” is not “true to the message of the gospel… (142.)” But the fact of the matter is that Jesus himself says that people will not only hear his teachings but “put them into practice” (Matthew 7:13-28).  I get what Mike was trying to say, and we should always and ever be skeptical of our alleged spiritual growth, but we also shouldn’t doubt what the Lord is capable of doing in us. I think the most important thing to remember is that the book’s earlier definition of Jesus shaped spirituality entails that those who are spiritual in such a way will come to be more and more the kind of person Jesus envisions his followers to be.

Now, one of the bad things about the concept of churchianity is that it may inadvertently minimize the centrality of church-life to the gospel. Church life includes moral accountability, wise council, public reading of Scripture, prayer, material assistance, spiritual examples, traditions that survived because those who followed them grew in their knowledge of Christ because of them, and so-on. If the gospel is the message of the kingdom of God and the kingdom of God is the reconstitution of God’s people around Jesus, then the gospel is the message about Jesus and his church. It can’t be less than that. So, in one sense churchianity is a good thing.

Sometimes the book feels a bit rant-like. Rants can be good, but looking back on it, it’s neither as fun nor winsome as Mere Christianity nor as argumentatively sound.

Conclusion

Over all, I think the book could be helpful for Christians in a small group context if they’re looking for some answers to the “I feel like something is missing, what is it?” question. Otherwise, there are books that more effectively diagnose the problems of American Protestantism like The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard.

 

Abraham and Happiness

Gen 12:1-3  Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  (2)  And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  (3)  I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Gen 24:1  Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years. And the LORD had blessed Abraham in all things.

 

“Why does Abraham leave Mesopotamia? God’s words in this passage give us some insight into what is at stake. To be sure, God offers Abraham some things that any man might want, whether he is good or evil – to attain fame in history, to be the father of a great nation. But in addition to these, God speaks to Abraham about two moral dimensions that are to attend this project of exchanging the great metropolis for life in a shepherd’s tent in Canaan: Abraham is told that he will be blessed; and he is told that he will be a blessing to all the families of the earth. And in fact, the biblical History is insistent upon both of these dimensions, returning repeatedly to the suggestion that in the subsequent history of Abraham’s children “all the nations of the earth will be blessed”; and telling us explicitly, at the end of Abraham’s life, that “the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things.”[1]

 

The Biblical idea of blessedness (happiness) is not altruism or a lack of interest in oneself. Nor is it a prosperity gospel way of thinking which says that as long as I am prospering I should be happy. But it is, as shown in Abraham’s life in Genesis, seeking and bestowing happiness. Or like Abel, “making good of it (Genesis 4:7)” for yourself, but also for others.

[1] Yoram Hazony, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture: An Introduction (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 111.

 

Scott Adams and the Six Filters For Truth

Scott Adams wrote an excellent book called How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. It’s an atypical book in the personal development/self-help genre because it covers such a tremendous range of topics.

I really appreciated a little list of truth filters that are meant to help readers discern between fact and fiction:

“The Six Filters for Truth[1]

  1. Personal experience (Human perceptions are iffy.)
  2. Experience of people you know (Even more unreliable.)
  3. Experts (They work for money, not truth.)
  4. Scientific studies (Correlation is not causation.)
  5. Common sense (A good way to be mistaken with complete confidence.)
  6. Pattern recognition (Patterns, coincidence, and personal bias look alike.)”

This is shorter than the common topics list for research, writing, and arguing.

Nevertheless, the filter is useful.

Observe Adams’ skepticism regarding the ability of any of these items to give you an absolute insight into reality.

I only partially agree with him. I think that our cognitive faculties are limited, but that we can know truths.

I think the missing piece here is logic. Adams observes that from a rhetorical standpoint, logic/reason is practically worthless.

But it can yield truth. We know this from Geometry, mathematics, and the invention of technologies, and advancements in medical treatment with observable results.

Anyway, a reasoned application of these filters might help you avoid being fooled in life.

[1] Adams, Scott (2013-10-22). How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life (p. 4). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

 

Put Yourself First?

In Scott Adams great little book, How to Fail At Almost Everything And Still Win Big, he says that putting yourself first is crucial for being able to help other people:

“In hard times, or even presuccess times, society and at least one cartoonist want you to take care of yourself first. If you pursue your selfish objectives, and you do it well, someday your focus will turn outward. It’s an extraordinary feeling. I hope you can experience it.” Adams, Scott (2013-10-22). How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life (p. 50). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

For many Christians, this kind of talk sounds verboten. At first glance it appears to contradict several data points in Scripture:

  1. God’s testimonies are opposed to selfishness. (Psalm 119:36)
  2. Love your neighbor as yourself (Levitivus 19:18).
  3. Put the interests of others above your own (Philippians 2:3-4)
  4. Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, mind, soul, and strength. (Deuteronomy 6:4 and Mark 12:30).
  5. Selfishness leads to disorder. (James 3:16)

Now, the kind of selfishness the Bible is against appears to be a sort of self-interest that opposes humility before God, the pursuit of the common good, or the acknowledgment of the importance of others and their needs. In other words, it is living a purely self-directed life. For instance, John Gill’s comments on Philippians 2:4 are:

Not but that a man should take care of his worldly affairs, and look well unto them, and provide things honest in the sight of all men, for himself and his family, otherwise he would be worse than an infidel; but he is not to seek his own private advantage, and prefer it to a public good; accordingly the Syriac version reads it, “neither let anyone be careful of himself, but also everyone of his neighbour”; and the Arabic version thus, “and let none of you look to that which conduces to himself alone, but let everyone of you look to those things which may conduce to his friend”; but this respects spiritual things, and spiritual gifts: a Christian should not seek his own honour and applause, and to have his own will, and a point in a church carried his own way, but should consult the honour of Christ, the good of others, and the peace of the church; he should not look upon his own gifts, he may look upon them, and ascribe them to the grace of God, and make use of them to his glory, but not to admire them, or himself for them, and pride himself in them, and lift up himself above others, neglecting and taking no notice of the superior abilities of others

But, if we were to read Scott’s word “selfish” to mean “self-interested,” then I think the playing field changes. The Bible teaches self-interest and indeed condemns selfishness in the name of self-interest:

  1. Getting wisdom is only guaranteed to benefit yourself in the end. (Proverbs 9:12)
  2. Getting wisdom is showing love to your soul. You’re commanded to be wise, so you’re commanded to love your soul. (Proverbs 19:8)
  3. Proverbs challenges us to be good at our jobs. (Proverbs 22:29)
  4. Jesus appeals to our sense of self preservation to tell us not to be financially selfish or obsessed with riches. (Matthew 16:26)

So, is there a sense in which Christians should care for their own needs and desires first? I think that the answer is yes. For instance, if somebody evangelizes all the time without first repenting and believing the gospel, they may find themselves in the position of those Jesus never knew in the first place in Matthew 7. Similarly, one who has no savings account can have no money for mercy. One who knows not, in depth, the Bible, cannot live to benefit others in a way befitting to the words therein, and so-on.

On the other hand, is selfishness, as I defined it above, evil? Yes.

Book Review: The Gospel of Happiness

Book Review: The Gospel of Happiness: Rediscover Your Faith Through Spiritual Practices and Positive Psychology by Christopher Kaczor

Introduction

I found out about this book from twitter, when James K.A. Smith mentioned anticipating it’s release. I had never heard of the author before, but he’s an ethics professor with his PhD from Notre Dame.

The aim of the book is stated on page 18:

In this book, I highlight the many ways in which positive psychology and Christian practice overlap. I point out empirical findings in positive psychology that point to the wisdom of many Christian practices and teachings. I also provide practical suggestions on how to become happier in everyday life and how to deepen Christian practice based on contemporary psychological insights. All of this points us toward deeper fulfillment in this life, and in the life to come. This is why I titled this book The Gospel of Happiness – because this is good news, very good news indeed (18).

The argument is fairly obvious from chapter to chapter. The chapter titles are:

  1. The Ways to Happiness
  2. The Way of Faith, Hope, and Love
  3. The Way of Prayer
  4. The Way of Gratitude
  5. The Way of Forgiveness
  6. The Way of Virtue
  7. The Way of Willpower

Dr. Kaczor looks at the relevant psychological research concerning each topic as well the Biblical and historical teachings of Christianity and shows their coherence and overlap. After he makes these comparisons he makes recommendations for personal practice.

The Bad
I really found very little objectionable in the book. Perhaps a more New Testament studies oriented definition of the word gospel would have been nice. The gospel is not merely, “good news” because it makes us happy. It is good news because it is an announcement about God’s kingdom. But this weakness is forgivable because the author isn’t a New Testament scholar. Also, it makes very little practical difference to the content of the rest of the book.

There are two formatting issues though: the book uses endnotes which are as annoying as having socks full of fire ants. Also, there is no index. An index would have been wonderful.

The Good
Where shall I begin? For starters, the book takes on Nietzsche’s notion that Christianity makes people weak, miserable, and stupid (183). Many Christians feel guilty about pursuing happiness, power, or success and I think that this comes from adopting a Nietzschean understanding of Christian ethics instead of Biblical one.

Another wonderful aspect of the book is the content of the endnotes. The amount of helpful literature cited is a great library builder.

More importantly though is the content of the book. As stated above the author means to show how positive psychology and Christian teaching over lap and offer practical advice for improving happiness. I’ll summarize the first chapter to show how the author does this so that you can see that he performs his objective admirably:

The Ways to Happiness
In this chapter, Kazcor uses Martin Seligman’s PERMA definition of happiness and shows how Christian teaching and practice, at its best, fulfills the requirements of each piece of the puzzle (21). In this light it is important to recognize that Kaczor and Seligman define happiness as flourishing and well-being, not merely as positive emotion. PERMA stands for positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement (21). Here are summaries of Kaczor’s explanation of each.

  1. Positive Emotions
    Kaczor cites several lines of research that indicate that religious people generally have higher positive emotion than irreligious people (22-23). He does observe that Christians are “called to love God and neighbor regardless how they may be feeling at the moment” (24). He also observes that doing the right thing while experiencing negative emotions is harder. I would add that Kant would say that makes it even more moral. Essentially, Kazcor notes that since we know the our emotions impact others and how we make decisions, we are obligated to care about fostering positive emotions in ourselves in ways that are not contrary to the Christian life. In doing this, we are able to foster well-being and emotional happiness in others (26). What I wish he did observe here was that doing the right thing for our neighbor can lead to positive emotions (he does say this on pages 66-67).
  2. Engagement
    Engagement is our flow or activation of our strengths in order to accomplish some task. Kaczor reminds readers that in Genesis, man was made to “tend the garden.” With this in mind, he notes the importance of legitimate work as a way of experiencing unity with God (29). I’ve written about this myself.
  3. Relationships
    Seligman’s taxonomy of happiness includes relationships as a “rock-bottom fundamental of human well-being” (30). Kaczor here writes about the obvious place of human relationships in the teachings of Jesus. His main focus here is Jesus’ command to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:24). I would have added the importance of embedded personality in ancient thought is simply assumed in the Bible, so much so that while individuals are responsible for their actions, their identity is not merely related to achievements like in Proverbs, but it is linked integrally to their community associations (in Christ, the body of Christ, the church of God, etc).
  4. Meaning
    Kazcor notes that Seligman defines meaning as “belonging to and serving something you believe is better than the self” (32). Kaczor points to the subjective experience of Christian obedience in small things as a level of meaning added to people who aren’t famous for their contributions to the world (33). He also notes the objective question of whether or not anything actually has meaning and notes that Christianity claims to offer objective meaning to the life of the Christian and to explain the objective meaning of the cosmos and human existence in general. If Christianity is true, then meaning is provided for like Paul says, “your work in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
  5. Achievement
    Here Kaczor notes the importance of feeling successful for human happiness, but also notes the traps that Christian morality trains us to avoid: greed, vanity, and social comparison which are all things that positive psychology notes do not actually contribute to overall happiness (40). In my opinion, many Christians are so concerned to talk about God’s grace saving us from sin despite our failure to do good works that they fail to talk about the importance of tackling small and big tasks for God, neighbor, and self in order to be happy. But the Bible does say that with toil there is profit and with mere talk there is only poverty (even talk of God’s grace and no active response to that grace).

Conclusion
Over all I find the book to be a wonderful clarification of the position of Christian theology and the Biblical witness on happiness, but it is not merely that. It also functions as a defense of Christianity because it shows that Christianity is actually good for you. Finally, the book is a great book for devotional reading or for pastors to read in order to help Christians in their pursuit of Christ and of earthly and eternal happiness. I highly recommend it.

Thoughts on completing plus sized reading lists

TLDR:
Here are the five steps to help you read more:

  1. Make a list
  2. Schedule time to read
  3. Shorten it by reading books or taking off pointless/boring books.
  4. Don’t read too many things at once.
  5. Leisure reading is no substitute for religious reading if you’re religious.

Overly Personal Introduction
Many of us have too many books to read. I know I do. There are good reasons for this:

  1. You need to keep up with your field of study.
  2. You are really ambitious to know more about the world.
  3. You genuinely want to decrease your television/non-print/social media consumption.
  4. You want to add specific skills to your repertoire.

There are also bad reasons for this:

  1. You have spread yourself too thin and will not give up on interests that add nothing to your vocation.
  2. You want to impress people whether or not the book is a worthwhile read.
  3. You have no realistic concept of yourself or your capabilities.

Anyway, I always have a humongous list to books to read. This reasons for this vary:

  1. I’m a math teacher. So, I try to read books about mathematical philosophy, symbolic logic, motivational psychology, memory, and pedagogy.
  2. I’m a research and rhetoric teacher. Thus, I try to read books about rhetoric, logic, epistemology, inference, and critical thinking.
  3. I’m a college student. This means that I try to read books about physics, statistics, and computer programming.
  4. I’m a Bible teacher, chaplain, and a seminary graduate. For this reason, I try to read books about ancient history, ancient culture, Greek linguistics, theology, philosophy, and Old Testament theology.
  5. I’m also a nerd. So I read science fiction and have interests solely for fun like warfare, strategy, and tactics, philosophy of mind, and scientific perspectives on fitness.

For the reasons listed above, at any given time my book list (really my to read list, because it includes articles and book chapters) is absurd. It really is. It is not laudable, it is simply silly. In fact, if you talk to people who know me behind my back, they would probably tell you that I read too much, talk too much, and do too little.

Strategery

Anyhow, here is my strategy to get my reading done:

  1. Make a list
    I make a list and divide into topics. This helps me tremendously. You might even find it helpful to prioritize books by putting numbers next to them in terms of urgency or personal importance. There is a difference between urgency and importance. A self-help book might change your life. But a chapter in your math text book might help you pass a test tomorrow.
  2. Schedule Time to Read
    If you do not plan to read and you are not already a reader, then you will not read. If you want reading to become your default pastime, then you must force yourself to do it until it is as natural to read when you have down time as it is to eat when you’re hungry.
  3. Cross things off the list
    When you finish a book, cross it off the list and write a few comments about it: what you learned, whether you would recommend it to others, what could have been better, etc.
    Another reason to cross things off is because you decided not to read them or finish them. If you skim a book and realize it would not enrich your life (it is not important) and it has no data that you need to know that is otherwise inaccessible (it is not urgent), then put it down and cross it off the list with a note: not worth reading.
  4. Never read more than two things at once
    There are obvious exceptions to this such as doing research or having text books to read aside from leisure reading. But exceptions aside, I recommend having a non-fiction book and a fiction book or two non-fiction books. The fiction book could be used to replace television and the non-fiction is something you read in a very intentional way. You might set aside time for a non-fiction book the way you set aside time for golf, going to a movie, or a doctor’s appointment.

    Example: If I’m reading The Everlasting Man by Chesterton and The Hobbit by Tolkien I would read the Hobbit when I have time to burn, but I would read Chesteron and his long ponderous sentences during moments when I commit to sit down and finish a whole chapter.This principle also can apply with articles and chapters for research or lesson prep. If you have time to burn, use the fiction book as a carrot: I will read and briefly summarize this journal article/book chapter before I commit to reading my fiction book.

    In my own world of reading I actually make my books for lesson prep and college into prerequisites for even reading non-fiction that is personally interesting.

  5. Religious Reading is Separate (but not really)
    Religious reading, like reading Scripture daily or studying it in depth every Sunday morning prior to church is something that can be leisurely. Still, Scripture reading, does not necessarily fit the paradigm of leisure reading. If you are a Christian I still recommend scheduled time for reading Scripture that cannot be infringed upon by other reading delights or duties. Of course, such reading must be performed in proportion to other duties.

Those five steps have already been very helpful for me this year.

Aphorisms:

Here are some aphorisms that may help you to read more fully:

  1. If you feel like scrolling on the internet, read instead.
  2. If reading feels like a chore, read anyway.
  3. Some land really just has gold on the surface and skimming can be better than reading.
  4. A steak and some salad is much healthier than fifty pieces of candy.
  5. Don’t talk about reading until you’ve read.
  6. Don’t whine about the books you want to read until you’ve read the books you have.
  7. This one isn’t mine, “Love not sleep, lest you come to poverty; open your eyes, and you will have plenty of bread. (Proverbs 20:13)
  8. Neither is this, “Whoever is slothful will not roast his game, but the diligent man will get precious wealth.(Proverbs 12:27)”*

*The lazy will not read the books they own, but the diligent will reap the wealth of knowledge and experience available to them.

The Devil and Pierre Gernet

I just read the short story The Devil and Pierre Gernet by David Bentley Hart. I’m not sure that a short story has ever left me wanting to sit and talk to its author the way this one has. I’ll post a review soon. Initial thoughts:

  1. The book seems pretentious due to the vocabulary, but Hart just talks that way. If you can read it without a dictionary, the GRE or the LSAT would be a joke (I missed two on the verbal GRE and I had to look things up).
  2. Hart’s descriptions of the emotional life are spot on, which is unusual to find in a public intellectual.
  3. Several of the themes of Hart’s work come up, particularly aesthetics, materialism, and a sort of Trahernian mysticism that the demonic character mocks.

 

Review: Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology

Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology New York, NY: Scribners, 1958

Introduction:

Bultmann really needs no introduction. If you do not know much about him there are numerous articles available online. The main purpose here is simply to review this particular book which is a collection of Lectures he gave at Yale and Vanderbilt in 1951. The topic of the book is Bultmann’s radical method of New Testament interpretation: de-mythologizing. I’ve never heard anybody explain what Bultmann meant by this term on Bultmann’s terms. According to this little volume, de-mythologizing is the interpretation of the mythological statements (statements which presuppose an ancient and, to the modern man, unbelievable worldview) in Scripture in a way that makes them immediately relevant to the person alive. An example would be, “The understanding of God as creator is genuine only when I understand myself here and now as the creature of God. This existential understanding does not need to express itself in my consciousness as explicit knowledge. In any case the belief in the almighty God is not the conviction given in advance that there exists an almighty Being who is able to do all things. Belief in the almighty God is genuine only when it takes place in my very existence, as I surrender myself to the power of God who overwhelms me here and now” (Bultmann, 63). The rhetorical and theological purpose for Bultmann utilizing this interpretive method is given. Bultmann notes, “We can believe in God only in spite of experience, just as we can accept justification only in spite of conscience…de-mythologizing is the radical application of the doctrine of justification by faith to the sphere of knowledge and thought” (84).

The Good:

The book helps you to understand exactly what everybody in your conservative seminary classes is talking about with regard to Bultmann’s methods. The book seems to falsify certain prejudices against Bultmann’s work that are often held by people who have not read it. In this respect it could be useful. As an aside, people I know who were actually connected to the man found him to have a warm piety and one friend noted that he really wanted to visit a church in America and witness an evangelistic service. But apart from that aspect of reading the whole book, there are other pieces that are good:

  1. Bultmann’s insistence upon seeing God’s Word as consistently demanding response is important. If the exegete is only focused upon finding the historical meaning, then there is no possibility for response. As Bultmann notes, “It is beyond the competence of critical study that I should hear the word of the Bible as a word addressed personally to me and that I should believe in it. This personal understanding…is imparted by the Holy Spirit, who is not at my disposal” (54). I don’t find myself entirely in agreement with this because historically speaking people who have studied the Scripture critically have precisely come to repentance about various issues. Now, of course the Holy Spirit makes that possible and of course that repentance is not the results of the critical study for reportage in journals and text books, but that close study makes the meaning which God inspired in the Scripture available to the student and through preaching, discussion, and writing available to the church in the form of knowledge about the text. Bultmann, though making a good point about a necessary distinction has over-corrected. Nevertheless, the Scripture, if one is claiming to be a Christian, must be seen as demanding a response of faith.

  2. The importance of presuppositions to exegesis is repeated often, especially on pages 47-50. But the point is that the questions we ask and the worldview we hold will often tend to influence the answers we get. This is also true if we expect the text to teach this or that dogma, such a presupposition ends up using the conclusion as a first premise.

  3. Bultmann, though never defining the cognitive or moral content of faith, nevertheless gives a good description of its character, “Faith is the abandonment of man’s own security and the readiness to find security only in the unseen beyond, in God” (40). This notion of faith, though it does not take into account the aspect of loyalty, does capture the nature of trust or entrusting oneself to another that is so crucial to the New Testament usage in most places, especially the gospels, Romans, and Galatians.

  4. Bultmann sides against Barth’s notion that there is no natural knowledge of God, “Man does have in advance a relation to God which has found its classical expression in the words of Augustine, “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee” (52).

  5. Bultmann cares about whether or not the non-philosopher or non-historian who is thoroughly enmeshed in a modern worldview and finds miracles unbelievable can still believe the gospel. I think he’s wrong-headed in his solution, but he clearly cares about people having an experience of justifying faith in Christ (35-44). The problem with his approach is that it might be difficult for a believer who struggles to think miracles are possible to do things like pray.

  6. Finally, Bultmann has a mystic’s eye for practicing God’s presence in the otherwise closed causal system of the modern world. His interpretation of Scripture, in this respect, is very similar to the allegorical method of old. Scripture is not just a series of dusty fables, no matter how dated certain passages seem, but it is the book through which God speaks to the church. Thus, the word heaven becomes a way of seeing God as transcendent of our world and circumstances (20). Any passage of Scripture is a call to love others in daily experience (43-44). God’s action is something that can be trusted even when we are in circumstances that clearly seem to betray our belief in God (64). It’s good stuff.

  7. Bultmann does note that he believes that the preaching of the church is true and rooted in an historical (and true) event. This event: Jesus Christ. Which for Bultmann is a summary for the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and present reign of Christ (80).

  8. It’s also very short. I read it this afternoon.

The Bad

  1. Bultmann bases a great deal of his book on a now dated conception of Jesus’ eschatology (11-19).

  2. He leaves, largely, the content of Christian obedience (enemy love, fidelity to other Christians, care for the poor, etc) and the Christian gospel (resurrection, atonement, etc) out of his explanations. That may be because the audience would know those things, but it would be easy to mistake Bultmann’s theory of faith with existentialist “openness to existence” without concrete referents in Christianity.

  3. Bultmann is similarly open to charge number two because he wants to say that God’s actions in history cannot be historically known because they cannot be proven to be done by God. But they can be reasonably believed to have happened and thus reasonably believed to be done by God, if one thinks God to be real. The point being that he opened himself to the criticism that he taught that Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t matter because he makes it seem so unknowable. But he doesn’t leave it entirely unknowable. He essentially says, “Try it out” about the truth of the gospel. Which is pretty cool, I guess.

  4. The book is couched in existentialist language that would be mostly lost on readers today.

  5. Bultmann’s perspective is so truncated in these brief lectures that it is too easy to misunderstand.

  6. The average American is more of a supernaturalist than anybody in Germany would have been in Bultmann’s day, so the book is not entirely relevant to many preachers that I know.

Conclusion:

The book would only really have value to pastors and teachers who read quickly or to scholars whose job is to study not only the New Testament but the history of its interpretation. A clever seminary professor could apply its best ideas in course lectures with footnotes give Bultmann his due without requiring this particular book as a text.

Books of 2013

In 2013 I read, what felt like, less than ever. Nevertheless, here’s what I came up with when formulating a list. I wrote the list ether adding books right after I finished them or while cataloging the books in our study and realizing which ones I had read this year. I’ll briefly comment on anything worth noting in the list if you care to look through it. 

Read in 2013

Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide by Edward Feser – This book is marvelous. I’m writing a full length review now, but if you wish to review Aquinas’ five ways more in depth than you did in Systematic Theology class or if you want an introduction to Aristotle’s metaphysics, this is a must have at a very, very low price. 
Reformed and Feminist by Johanna Wijk-Bos – If you’re interested in the feminist movement in the church (whether sympathetic or not) this book is one that tries to endorse the inspiration of Scripture while exegeting it in a feminist way. Take it for what its worth. She does this with Ruth in the last few pages. 
How to Read Psalms by Tremper Longman – This book is useful, cheap, and brief. 
New Perspective on Jesus by James Dunn  – Best insight from this is Dunn’s remark to the effect that even if all we have in the gospels are impressions of Jesus upon his followers, they are still impressions left by Jesus and thus tell us something of the man. 
Philosophy and Civilization in the Middle Ages by Maurice De Wulf  – Useful, I intend to reread some chapters this year to help me with chronology during that era. 
The Making of the Middle Ages by R.W. Southern – same as above. 
Honor by James Bowman – Good book for understanding honor and why we do not value it as much or in the same way in modern western culture. Whether you agree with his history of honor or not (which I’d say could learn a bit from Bruce Malina or Dave DeSilva for the ancient era), his cultural commentary in the last chapter is very provocative.  
Practical Programming by Mark Rippetoe 
Fit by Lon Kilgore
Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe – The three fitness books above are pretty good. FIT and Practical Programming have a lot of very logical programming suggestions. I’m no elite athlete though, so many of them are simply infeasible for me. 
Wisdom’s Ways: Introducing Feminist Biblical Interpretation by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza  – She defines several strains of feminism in the book. That made it the most useful. Other than it wasn’t particularly helpful for learning to interpret Scripture. It was more useful for understanding why certain feminist scholars interpret things the way they do. 
Who Stole Feminism by Christina Hoff Sommers
The War Against Boys by Christina Hoff Sommers – both of these books were written by a feminist philosopher who has apparently spent a great deal of time studying logic and statistical analysis. Both books are useful for getting past a great deal of nonsense argumentation used in certain circles that make false generalizations about males based of misunderstanding things like statistics. 
How God Became King by N.T. Wright  – Excellent book about the gospels, but Wright often writes with an “I don’t know why this isn’t obvious to all the other people” tone that is off putting. Nevertheless, the content of the book is very useful. 
The Psalms: Why They Are Essential by N.T. Wright  -This is more of a meditation upon the Psalms than a book about how to interpret them. He proposes looking at the earthiness of the Psalter how time, space, and matter intersect. In other words, read to Psalms to help you answer questions like what time is it in God’s timeline, where am I in relation to God’s work on earth, and what am  I doing in my body? 
The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight – Excellent book about how the gospel narratievs are the gospel message that was preached by the apostles in the New Testament Era.
Being and Essence by Thomas Aquinas  – Want to know what Aquinas did with the Aristotelian distinction between being and essence? Read this. 
The Last Superstition by Edward Feser – Feser here defends Aristotle’s metaphysics and then some of Aquinas’ insights about God, nature, and ethics. The last superstition, for Feser, is the mechanistic universe and the abandonment of Aristotle’s metaphysics (which he right argues is presupposed in science, but since it is explicitly denied in philosophy has lead to so many crazy ideas out there). 
Ancient Faith and Modern Physics by Stephen Barr – Book by a physicist who actually knows the old arguments for God’s existence and why they are valid. 
Four Gospels, One Jesus? by Richard Burridge  – Decent book. The gospels are ancient biography and thus give useful pictures of Christ. 
Impossibility by John Barrow – This was a let down. He’s a mathematician who confuses logic with rhetoric. He often finds a logical conundrum, points out how he’s baffled by it, then thinks he’s convinced people that both sides of the debate are wrong. 
Black and Tan by Doug Wilson  – I’ve met Doug several times now. I read this because he’s been accused of racism several times and I just never saw it. Anyhow, he’s not a racist. He just thinks that the Civil War wasn’t about race (whether right or wrong) and he thinks that the gospel takes time to work into the hearts of whole people groups.
Lights in the Deep by Brad Torgersen – Excellent sci-fi shorts. I especially liked Outbound. Its about a boy who ends up exiting the solar system with a very unusual married couple. 
The Irrational Atheist by Vox Day  – Vox is a video game programmer with some very eccentric ideas about God and the world. Even his ideas which I disagree with aren’t irrational so much as (by my lights) wrong. Anyhow, in this book he fairly thoroughly dismantles the previously famous atheist superhero team of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett. The arguments are fairly obvious to anybody who chased down their footnotes or knew the history that was misreported, but Day’s statement of it all is hilarious. 
The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris  – Harris attempted to prove that science provides the material for constructing morality. In some sense that’s not particularly threatening. From a Christian point of view there are many goods to seek that are lesser than God but which it is a moral requirement to discover, seek, and improve our efforts toward. The problem is that Harris has to redefine what good is, thus making his book not about morality after all and he rants for pages about Francis Collins being a dangerous person. It’s neither a careful nor useful book. For a while he was offering money to anybody who could refute it in 1000 words. I still may try to write one using Aristotle and A.J. Ayers (who argues that philosophy and ethics are just non-sense).
How to Read Proverbs by Tremper Longman – Best book on proverbs ever. It’s good devotional material, good intro material, and it is brief. 
The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis 
Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis
Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis
The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis – Lewis’ children’s stories are just as fun as ever. 
Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis – I wrote my review. It is here.
Reading the Gospels Wisely by Jonathan Pennington – A much more thorough book on the gospels than Wright’s previously mentioned effort. If I were to start a seminary this would be one of the first year texts for all students. It is just that good. Here’s his description of the gospels, “Our canonical gospels are the theological, historical, and aretological (virtue-forming) biographical narratives that retell the story and proclaim the significance of Jesus Christ, who through the power of the Spirit is the Restorer of God’s reign. (pp 144)”

God and Explanations by Christopher Martin – This book covers Aquinas’ understanding of knowledge, of science, and of metaphysical demonstration. Martin goes a long way to clear up misunderstandings of Aquinas’ arguments for God’s existence. Favorite quote, “If we want to know about the existence of God, or about the nature of science, we should read Aquinas, not merely the writers of this century. If we want to study Aquinas we should pay him  the compliment of treating as important what he thought of as important. To study Aquinas as Aquinas is a poor piece of flattery, since Aquinas cared very little for Aquinas, while he did care for God and for science. (203)” This book is best checked out from a library because it costs 130 dollars. I found it in an e-book library at my local community college. 
Saving Leonardo by Nancy Pearcey – This is an excellent book that traces the change in philosophical worldview in our culture through our art. She isn’t correct about every discrete piece of art work, but she gets enough of it correct. It’s not a must read, but it is a pleasant read. I’m now curious about the relationship between thinking through a worldview explicitly to determine if you’re correct and that affecting your view of art and then how art can attract somebody to the worldview of the artist. The relationship between our appetites and our reason is all the more intriguing to me after this book.

The Devil and Pierre Gernet by David Bentley Hart – This is a strange collection of short stories. I love it. Many of them I think I’ll revisit. Hart describes food far too often and in too much detail. His vocabulary is also astounding. One story in particular is written from the point of view of gnosticism and is hauntingly beautiful and ultimately dissatisfying and depressing. 
Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis – This book is often over praised or under examined and unfairly dismissed. Lewis’ case for Christianity remains good in my opinion. His undeniably skillful prose also makes it pleasant to read. Few atheist writers match him for eloquence. I’d say maybe Nietzsche could be as interesting and accessible. 
The Experience of God by David Bentley Hart – Best book I read all year perhaps. Hart goes through the classical arguments, definitions, and concepts surrounding the idea of God (not as a name, but as a designation for being as such). He shows how the word for God has fallen into frustrating disrepair and thus made attacking theism really easy for the uninformed.
Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy – This book is about female complicity in the rise of raunch culture. It is somewhat dated (though only 6 years old). The book is important because it points out how the “you go gurl” attitude of sleeping around and acting like a frat boy actually does not achieve female empowerment. The author is, sadly, unwilling to claim that such a lifestyle is stupid, dangerous, and evil for men and women. But it’s a start. 
The Victory of Reason by Rodney Stark – I know one historian who disputes Stark’s understanding of the rise of capitalism, but he’s the guy who gave me the book. It was astoundingly good. It’s about how medieval Europe, precisely because of Christianity and its desire to appropriate Aristotle’s best insights for the sake of moral progress, gave us modern science, careful philosophical reasoning, the technological revolution (because slavery became illegal), and capitalism. Good stuff. 
Saving the Appearances by Owen Barfield – This book packs a punch. I tried to write a review, but I need to reread it. Barfield covers too much. He essentially challenges a major shift in how we understand the ancients and therefore, how we understand ourselves, reality, and our access to reality. All of this ends in a discussion of idolatry and God’s kingdom. It is, from what I can tell, a tour de force that have been utterly ignored by people who are afraid of its import. Or maybe he’s just wrong and I missed it. 
Aesop’s Fables – These are great. My mom read them to my brother when we were children. Loved them then and love them now. 
Deep Exegesis by Peter Leithart – Leithart tried to recover the Quadriga in New Testament interpretation. I get it, but I think nobody will read this and be convinced. I loved the book and have used something like the quadriga for a while, but getting New Testament interpreters to take a misunderstood, maligned, and mocked system that is (on the basis of Christian liberty) adiaphora is a difficult task. I thank him for trying. 
Discourse on Method by Rene Descartes – I use Descartes to teach my students problem solving, but his meditations take you through his argument for God’s existence. Good stuff. 
Common Morality by Bernard Gert – He tried, but it’s mostly just a poor attempt to tell people to be nice. 
Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith
Imagining the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith  – Smith’s books attempt a radical revision or revisiting of an older anthropology of the human person based upon both ancient sources, post modern insights into personhood and embodied human practices, and modern brain science. It’s good stuff. Imagining the kingdom is the best of the two. 
The Electric Sky by Donald Scot – Scot challenges modern cosmology. Not sure if I’m convinced, but he’s got a doctorate in electrical engineering. Doesn’t make him right, but reading the book is like reading a detective novel about stars, quasars, gravity, and electricity. 
Note: I read several other books on feminist theory, but they were for a research assistantship I did and I found them unenlightening.