Sunday, June 27, 2010

All the People in the Bible

By Richard R. Losch, 578 pages, Eerdmans.

Serious Bible readers will love this look at the vast number of characters in the Bible. Losch turns to the latest historical and archeological information to give us an excellent understanding of the multiple relationships among these people, obscure or famous to the Bible story.

Discussions on each character offers glimpses into the society of the time. Abdon, a judge who appears in Judges, was probably quite rich because he owned many donkeys, something peasants wouldn't have.

The complicated lineage of the Herod family is traced in detail, with each known member of the dynasty described. Herod Agrippa, for instance, "was well educated in his religion. He was a faithful practicing Jew, perhaps the only one in his family."

The entry on Mary of Bethany in All the People in the Bible offers the slightly different perspectives on her in Luke and John, concluding, "In either case she is an example of deep love and unquestioning commitment."

The Birth of Jesus According to the Gospels

By Joseph F. Kelly, 106 pages, Liturgical Press.

This informative, scholarly study of the birth narratives found in Luke and Matthew examines the details of the biblical origins of Christmas. Kelly keeps in mind European and North American Christmas traditions, but reminds us that the writings were not intended to create a holiday with evergreen trees, candy canes, and a commercialized "holiday season."

The Birth of Jesus According to the Gospels does not offer a popular or cultural understanding of Christmas, but traces the broader points of the gospel writers, and their Christologies, or theologies of who Christ was. The evangelists' storytelling techniques hold theological significance for us today:

"The evangelists followed their Lord; they did not use miracles to engender faith but presumed that their readers had it already.... [T]he evangelists wrote as believing Christians for other believing Christians," and did not try to prove God's existence or Jesus' saving work. Members of the believing community, they wrote for others in that community.

Many common and not-so-common elements of contemporary Christmas culture are discussed. For instance, while most people find genealogies in the Old and New Testaments to be boring and meaningless, Kelly explains the theological meaning. In the gospels of Matthew and Luke, they meant to establish Jesus as following David's line, even if Joseph was not his biological father. In those times, it was sufficient for a man to recognize a child as his legal child for the son to be considered as following the genealogical line.

The author's insights into the ancient world in which Jesus and then the evangelists lived are interesting and help us understand many things, such as why Luke has to dedicate his writings to a certain Theophilus (because a writer needed the financial support of a nobleman during an era of no bestsellers, where most people were illiterate).

Kelly also contrasts Catholicism's veneration of Mary as a white aristocratic Nordic woman with the reality that she would have been a dark-skinned peasant woman with callouses on her hands and feet from all her labor.

The Birth of Jesus According to the Gospels offers nothing to the sentimental Christian, but many fruitful insights for those with historical or archeological interests.

Friday, June 18, 2010

World Religions: What Every Christian Needs to Know

By Gerald R. McDermott, 144 pages, Bakerbooks.

McDermott's World Religions breaks away from the current bland multicultural reading of religions, and gives the various belief systems a Christian-based judgment. The history, theology, ethics, and varieties of each religion is explained, before McDermott offers the Christian view of what these various religions lack. This honesty and integrity is important for inter-religious exchange. World Religions contains some information about inter-religious dialogue.

McDermott respects the various faith traditions by, for example, showing how each one has many diverse groups and traditions. He suggests that Hinduism, in its vast diversity, be called Hinduisms, since its broad diversity means that it cannot be called one religion.

Encyclopedia of New Religious Movements

Edited by Peter B. Clarke, 686 pages, Routledge.

Editor Peter Clarke points out that our anti-tradition, individualistic, internet age (what some call "post-modern") has led to the creation of countless new religious movements (NRMs). Traditional religions around the world are being uprooted because of aggressive capitalism, which radically re-structures societies. Religions are not geographically tied, as they once were, but have become global phenomena, meaning that everyone in the world has access to Islam, for instance. Previously, Islam was principally a Middle Eastern, African, and south-east Asian belief.

Japan's post-World War II society has produced many NRMs, mostly based on Buddhism or Shintoism, helping people in that country follow traditional beliefs and practices in the modern world. Many of these new movements were started by women, and followers typically feel strong ties to the leader, and venerate them after they die.

India's many meditation- or neo-Hindu-based religious movements often had much to do with the struggle over national identity occasioned by the British Raj. Many Hindus wanted to purify the old beliefs, or use them as a way to kick out the Brits.

The various entries also examine Western religious movements of the last 150-odd years, including the teachings of Carl Jung and their religious implications. He was drawn to many eastern mystical practices, such as yoga or the Chinese i-ching divination practice. Like most Western movements, Jung favored the individualistic over the societal, communal view.

The New Age movement and its predecessors in psychology, shamanism, and Western writings on eastern mysticism tended to emphasize individual empowerment and self-fulfillment at the expense of family, duty, and honor.

Some movements give traditional Christian language and symbolism new meanings. A Course in Miracles "uses traditional Christian language and imagery, such as Father, Son, Holy Spirit, truth, grace, and forgiveness, but modifies traditional meanings to fit an idealist, neo-Gnostic worldview."

The Encyclopedia of New Religious Movements includes entries on recent developments in old traditions. Thus Focolare and Opus Dei are included, though the entry for Opus Dei is, predictably, biased. Its bibliography only lists 1 book, by an author critical of the movement.

The encyclopedia is useful for those who want an academic approach to religion, though like any other undertaking nowadays, it has its biases.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Billy Graham, His Life and Influence

By David Aikman, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 339 pages.

Billy Graham's immense influence and success as an evangelist came from his deep yet simple piety and his need to be liked, David Aikman argues convincingly in his biography of "America's Pastor."

Rather than a fawning account of the evangelist's life, Aikman never shies away from the weaknesses. Graham was perhaps too close to certain presidents, including Johnson and Nixon. The author shows how the preacher's straightforward approach to people crossed into naivete. Graham was, perhaps, used by Nixon, giving to this president a spiritual aura and religiosity that Nixon never developed on his own.

Graham was hurt personally and in the public view, at least for a while, by Watergate.

The biography portrays well Billy Graham's gifts as a preacher. Readers get a sense of the great successes of the 1950s crusades, when Graham became a much-loved national celebrity. The book also covers the evolution in the pastor's theology, from the fire-and-brimstone fundamentalism of the 1950s to a more ecumenical, sometimes peace-oriented dignified world Christian leader of the later decades.
By this time, Graham had long been working with mainstream Protestant ministers and even the Catholic Church, much to the dismay of the fundamentalists, who remained suspicious of both groups of Christians.

Aikman doesn't seem to grind any axes in this well-balanced biography, making the book a good introduction to a central figure.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Primary Source Readings in Christian Morality

Edited by Thaddeus Ostrowski and Robert Smith, 237 pages, St. Anthony's Messenger Press.

This excellent introduction to Catholic ethics as taught by the magisterium offers the primary writings of popes, academics, and pastors all reflecting on good and evil.

The authors don't shy away from sin, and especially original sin, but instead warn about the depth of this in our individual and social lives. The book takes on social sin and justice issues, even linking justice work to the Eucharist.

In following the Ten Commandments, this book is easy for the novice who wants a good introduction to the general issues. It is also beneficial to well-read Catholics who want engaging writing. Rather than a legalistic view of ethics, the authors in this book try to get at the spirit of relationships as well as of the individual. We must fulfill our responsibilities to others and to see the spiritual rather than outward and legalistic character of our actions. Good and evil have spiritual dimensions to them that go far beyond their immediate effects.

Just as importantly, readers will get a sense of the link between theology and ethics, which was one of the most urgent issues in John Paul II's moral teachings. He wanted moral reflection to be grounded in a person's relationship with Christ rather than coming from abstract ideals divorced from the biblical and Catholic theological tradition. Our actions must reflect our belief in God.

The Catholic Faith Handbook for Youth

By Brian Singer-Towns and others, 474 pages, $18.95, St. Anthony's Messenger Books.

The authors attempt the near-impossible, and offer an introduction to the Catholic Church in one short book. With informative side-bar boxes giving details of important personages, or of various Catholic practices, the book succeeds in showing the depth of the faith.

The Introduction section reminds readers of the essential connection between faith and reason, as well as between the Bible and tradition, as proclaimed by the magisterium. From this Introduction onwards, the authors clarify a lot of Catholic vocabulary, including infallibility, revelation, stewardship, and salvation history.

Whereas the Catholic Church can appear to be an imposing edifice of hierarchy, ritual, and philosophy, this book shows a simple way of living the Catholic faith. Its recipe for reading the Bible is "The PRIMA Process: Pray, Read, Imagine, Meditate, Apply."

The book spends several chapters explaining the meaning of the Creed to faithful living. It keeps to the simple, straightforward approach with an easy-to-understand discussion on the Trinity, including the idea, "God is not solitary," and therefore, "We are made for community" since we are made in God's image.

The truth of the incarnation is revolutionary, even if we forget that sometimes: "When Jesus Christ took on human nature, he was able to reveal his Father to us in the way that only a child can speak about a parent." These words also point to the mysterious nature of redemption and the trinity, since we can't ever fully understand the full nature of Jesus and therefore of his Father.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Bad Christians, Good Muslims

By Brian Welter

Social justice Christians, like the kind I studied with and under in the United Church of Canada, are utilitarian in their approach to God. They use God for their political adventurism and in telling their sentimental, often anti-male, feminist stories. Only the most obnoxious of human beings would do this to God.

In contrast, an article at discusses a Sufi order's intimacy with each other and with God. The members chant the Koranic names of God throughout the evening, addressing each other as Brother.

"The chanting ended. I was given fruit juice, dates and baklava, and introduced to several members of the group, who extended the eastern courtesy of touching their hearts as they shook my hand. I may have been feeling light-headed, but the room seemed to be charged with celebration and a strong sense of brotherhood - as if we were a sports team that had just won an important fixture.

When it came time to leave, one of my brothers called out: “Have a good evening!”

It was nearly one o'clock in the morning."

Raised a Catholic, I spent over 3 years in the United Church, studying theology and engaged in ministry, and never once felt a sense of brotherhood. The femini-nazis psychologically assaulted men, with the silent approbation of the hippy male professors. This reflects the fact that the failure of modern Christianity is an internal failure, as Pope Benedict alludes to in saying that the Church has brought the evils of pedophilia on itself. Don't blame the media, in other words.

Ironically, the liberal denominations, like the United Church of Canada, are the ones suffering the worst loss of adherents and voice in society, desperate though they are to conform to the values of the mainstream. The lack of brotherhood (or sisterhood, despite all the feminist propaganda) is total. Rejection of the creeds, community, and masculine leadership has led to the downfall of Christianity.

Evangelical Christians, and Protestants in general, practice gimmickry more than anything. Protestant spirituality = gimmickry and fadishness. Protestants are always coming up with new, improved religion, whether it's the Emerging Church, the Deep Church, Neo-Monasticism, or some dramatic announcement by a famous pastor. I simply can't keep up with the factory of theological trends. The evangelicals are as gimmicky and trendy as the social justice Christians.

The Islamic brotherhood and sense of stability contrasts sharply with this. The true "menace" of Islam is that it is drawing people away from secularism and these goofy churches because of its integrity and community, its sense of service to others, and its allowance for patriarchy and masculinity. These last two are in sharp contrast with my experience with liberal Protestantism, where men are treated like H1N1.

Christianity, with such writers as Jean Vanier, Henri Nouwen, and the screeching feminist chorus, has become a therapeutic religion. Christians no longer categorize good and evil in absolute theological terms, as they should, but in terms of feelings. Don't call bad bad, just find the underlying causes, especially the social causes. Find someone, or something, to blame. No one, especially non straight white males, is responsible for their actions anymore. Just tell your story, get a little emotional, and boldly declare that you are getting on with the new version of you.

Islam, because of its reverence for the Koran, would never humiliate or lower itself to therapeutic religion. Bad is bad and good is good. The hierarchy, the patriarchy, remain. They remain because they are good. For Christianity to escape its downfall, it must embrace patriarchy and masculinity. It must refashion a Christian knighthood. Forget all the hippy theologians, and just get on with it, without the gimmickry, and without trying to please women. You'll never please them so forget about them. Perhaps the best church would be an all-male church!

Christians could learn a lot from Muslims. First, separate the men from the women during church services and for everything concerning religion. Don't just have a "men's group" and a "ladies group." Make it a practice to separate the men from the women at Church. That would reduce a lot of the feminization at church. When people complain about "churchiness," what they're really complaining about is feminization of church life.

Put men back in firm control of every aspect of church life.

Religion should make men more masculine and women more feminine. Christianity has failed to do this, turning women into coarse she-men, and the few men who still bother going to church into sissies or clod-footed Mr. Beans too shy and inept to order a coffee at Starbucks. Christianity has made men useless.

Islam is the answer if Christianity is not willing to remasculate men. Christians should be ashamed of their treatment of men. They deserve the secular, anti-Christian society in which they live. They helped build it, after all. Think about abortion: 50% of Canada's population is supposedly Catholic, and the other half is largely Protestant. So why is abortion even a consideration, an issue. Christians from 2000 years ago have staunchly opposed abortion. If Canada were ever 50% Muslim, would there be abortion?

Promote the Fatherhood of God. Remind people that God is not a utilitarian thing to use for their projects. Nor is God to be used for people's personal development. God is not the psychoanalyst. People should go to the psychoanalyst for therapy. God is about the things of God. People should remember how the ancient Israelites feared God. While the original Hebrew meaning might not be the same as how we take the word "fear," there was at that time no doubt a deeper awe, reverence, and respect for God than Christians and secularists have now.

Muslim men chanting the name of God all evening is a pure way to relate to God, because nothing is being asked. God is not being used. Men are together, building brotherhood, and therefore community (which can only be built through brotherhood - hence the dire need nowadays for patriarchy, masculinity, and fatherhood).

Islam now is superior to Christianity because male-bashing is not allowed. Christian male-bashing is often subtle, as when a Christian magazine hypes up the adventures and successes of women while the same publication is silent about men, especially white straight men. This is a very common practice in the United Church of Canada, the Anglican Church, etc. If you want to lose male church members, and eventually die out as a denomination, do it the United Church way: Dramatically highlight the greatness of women, repeatedly, and remain silent about men and their achievements. Then deny that you are biased.

Men deserve more, and if we must join Islam to find it, then let's do it. This is such a sad thing to happen to Christian tradition.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Catholics and Slavery: A Compromising History

By John Perry, 204 pages, Novalis.

"Like a mutating virus that continues to threaten the health of the human community, the slave trade has taken on new forms. The reality of life as a slave, or as the offspring of a slave, continues to be cruel."

The author's above words form the core around which he weaves the inconsistent Catholic reaction to slavery. This reaction has been complicated by the Greek New Testament, which doesn't seem to explicitly condemn slavery outright, probably the author muses, because the early Church and therefore the New Testament writers expected the world to end imminently. They didn't fight a social justice fight because the return of Christ would right everything in the cruel, unjust world.

Yet while Saint Paul and other early Christians failed to question the institution and existence of slavery, they did demand from Christian slave owners that they respect their slaves and "ease the actual conditions of slaves and to establish the relationship between slave and owner on the basis of charity and acceptance of legitimate authority and the human condition as it existed at that time."

The idea that slavery is always objectively evil came to the Church only slowly. Aristotle, on whom the Church depended for much of its philosophical thinking from Aquinas onwards, and biblical writings such as Genesis 9 muddled the issue for centuries.

Catholic thinkers focused more on the charitable treatment of slaves rather than on the outright abolition of its various forms, including medieval serfdom, when aristocrats didn't own the serf as a person, but owned the serf's labor.

Perry examines a few cases of slavery so as to show the ruinous human side of it. The sugar cane estates of the Dominican Republic, he claims, use Haitian slave labor. Even when Haitians have been working in brutal conditions for several generations, they are usually not eligible for citizenship or other forms of legal recognition.

Catholic religious orders and establishments attempt to minister to old Haitian sugar cane workers in need of health and dental care, old age pensions, and housing. It also helps some of these workers get legal recognition from the Dominican authorities. With the need so dire, these charities represent only a drop in the ocean.

Because Perry's definition of slavery is so expansive, he risks sounding like he has an anti-Catholic agenda. Though he highlights the efforts of certain religious who opposed the grievous treatment of slaves in South America, he also accuses the Church itself of practicing a kind of slavery, including modern slavery, through its various orders.

It turns to sensationalist cases for this, including the case of women from India being sent to Europe to train to be nuns by unscrupulous church officials who pocket big margins from their recruitment and training fees. A deeper examination of contemporary and historical sexual slavery and human trafficking (which are both covered) could have replaced this sensationalism.