Books: Counterfeit Gods

July 31, 2016

I came across a quote from Timothy Keller’s book Counterfeit Gods while doing some Bible study. I’m not sure now what that quote said, but it impressed me enough to get Keller’s book from the library.

I have often heard in sermons that idols are not just statues of gods that people bow down to, but anything that takes first place in our lives instead of God. Money is often given as an example of something that can become an idol. But while that makes sense in the abstract, it is difficult to identify specific examples in people’s lives where something has become an idol, except in some more extreme cases.

Keller provides a definition of an idol, or a “counterfeit god” as he calls often it, that is clearer to me. “A counterfeit god is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living.” Or, even clearer: “An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, ‘If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.'”

Keller goes on to use various Bible stories to illustrate ways that people make an idol of children, romantic love, money, success, or political power. I’m not sure I agree with his interpretation of these Bible stories in every case, but he provides a new way of looking at some of them and of relating them to modern life.

Finally, he suggests ways we can identify the idols in our own lives. He suggests that we ask ourselves

What do you habitually think about to get joy and comfort in the privacy of your heart?

  • How do you spend your money?
  • How do you respond to unanswered prayers and frustrated hopes?
  • What are your most uncontrollable emotions?

I might have preferred that he spend more than the last five or so pages discussing how to replace idols with Christ. But the book, after all, is about “counterfeit gods,” not about how to know and worship the one true God. People have to recognize the counterfeits before they can turn from those to the truth, and there are certainly abundant resources out there for people who want to know God better.


Guest blog post: Could it be?

February 7, 2016

[Today’s blog post is written by my husband]

In several articles I have read recently, I have seen “true Christianity” equated with a liberal/progressive ideology (see below for links). In the course of article, they make certain assumptions about the understandings and motivations of “conservative” Christians, make broad generalizations, and seem (to me) to take a morally smug/superior view – very like what at least one author accuses the “Christian right” of doing. Only one author – Paul Prather – even admits to the possibility that the real truth lies in between in a balance between the two, and that is done in a throw-away line that is essentially ignored the remainder of the article.

It is not my goal to impugn the authors, or point up the shortcomings of the progressive Christian theology and ideology. Rather, I want to try to help these folks understand the where many (and dare I say “most?”) conservative Christians actually come from when they make their statements and support their causes. I will be using the article by Paul Prather the most, since his is the only one that does not dismiss the conservative understanding outright, and actually gives a comparison. Read the rest of this entry »


Books: Palace of Darkness

January 18, 2016

I was recently introduced to the novels of Tracy Higley by a comment on one of my recent posts. The library didn’t have the book he mentioned, perhaps because The Incense Road was just published last year (it is a collection of novellas, individually available only on Kindle as far as I can tell).

But one of the libraries in the system did have Palace of Darkness: A Novel of Petra, and I just finished reading it yesterday. As historical fiction it is an absorbing read. It begins in Rome for Julian, in Damascus for Cassia, and as a result of the death of someone important in each of their lives, they both flee to Petra, where of course they meet. Read the rest of this entry »


Books: The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass: Adrian Plass and the Church Weekend

January 16, 2016

Looking at my 2016 Reading Challenge, I had wondered how I would find “a book guaranteed to bring me joy.” There are books by favorite authors that I know I will enjoy, but that’s different from books that bring me joy.

As it happens, I had already ordered the latest book in Adrian Plass’ Sacred Diary series, as a Christmas present for our whole family. We’re read – and re-read – all the previous books in the series, and I was happy to discover he had written a new one.

If you haven’t read Adrian Plass before, you might want to start by reading the previous five books, starting with The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass Aged 37 3/4. Some reviews say his latest is not as laugh-out-loud funny as some of the earlier books, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to my husband while he was reading just the first chapter.

I find it more quietly amusing – but then, I rarely laugh out loud. What I appreciate about Plass’ writing is how well he weaves together humor with wisdom and with a view of God who loves us more than we can imagine.

A lot of what passes for humor these days is just making fun of people, but while Plass gently pokes fun at human foibles, it is always good-natured fun. People do such foolish things, but it’s not a reason to despise or disdain them. (Though I don’t think I could stand spending much time around Minnie Stamp, a new character in this volume.)

There is always an assurance that we are loved by a God who not only loves us but actually likes us. I know I find that hard to accept, though I’m not sure exactly why. Because I don’t think someone who knows all there is to know about me would like me? Because I think I need to want to work hard for God’s approval, otherwise I’d take it easy? Or because so few Christian books seem to convey that same message?

If I tried to convey what Plass’ books are like, I’m sure I’d fall far short. So if you have a chance to read some, find out for yourself.


Books I’ve been reading

December 28, 2015

I haven’t found enough computer time or the inclination over the past couple of months to post about the books I’ve been reading. Back when I started this blog, it was easier for people to comment, and the blog was a way of having a conversation of sorts with other people who were interested in some of the same things. But these days it’s mostly a monologue.

But I have plenty of time this week, since the college where I work is closed between Christmas and New Year’s. So I’m going to try to post about some, at least, of the books I have found most interesting. Not a post for each, but grouped by some characteristic the books have in common.

I’ll start with books based on Biblical characters, because I just finished one yesterday and it is fresh in my mind. But before I get to that one, I’ll start with one I read a few weeks ago, since it is set about one generation earlier.

I noticed The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks on the New Books shelf at the library, first because it was by an author whose other books I had enjoyed – People of the Book and Caleb’s Crossing. When I saw that it was about King David I eagerly checked it out of the library.

As with other retellings of Bible stories, it is not the plot that draws one it – after all, anyone familiar with the Old Testament knows what’s going to happen – but the characters, exploring their feelings and motivations. Much of this is inevitably speculation, especially with those who play a minor role in the Bible stories, but it’s always interesting to see how it might have been.

The character with whom Brooks takes perhaps the most liberties is her narrator, Natan the prophet. (Throughout she uses transliterations of Hebrew names which are closer to the original Hebrew than the versions we are familiar with from the English Bible.) We know next to nothing of Natan from the Scriptures, only that he speaks God’s words to David, whether of blessing or rebuke.

Brooks invents for Natan a backstory and a personality, though as narrator he tells others’ stories more than his own. He is not zealous for God (as one assumes from the Bible) so much as for the truth, and serves as mouthpiece for God because he really has no choice in the matter when visions seize his mind and the divine voice uses his mouth (though in a distinctly different voice from his own).

It is of course where the Bible says least that Brooks can be most inventive, offering a somewhat far-fetched explanation as to why David’s brothers despised him, a circumstance that also helps explain why he allows his sons to turn out as they did. The story of Natan’s origins is equally unlikely, and does more to explain David than Natan himself.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Brooks uses the idea, common today among those who read modern assumptions back into Biblical characters, that David and Yonatan were lovers in a homosexual relationship. For some readers, that may be a positive thing. A Washington Post book review asserts that

The one true love in the novel, beautifully drawn in its complexity and sheer joy, is between David and Shaul’s son Yonatan (Jonathan). It is this story that most fully humanizes the king, finally allowing us to see him as a man of great soul.

I tend to see it more as Brooks catering to modern values. For many people today, it may be hard to envision a soul-deep love between two men (who are not related) that finds its highest fulfillment without a sexual component. Personally, I would like to see a good storyteller depict such a relationship and show how it is not diminished by the lack of sexual expression.

But David’s relationship with Yonatan is hardly at the center of this novel anyway, any more than his harp-playing is, although both always hover in the background. It is about his rise to power and then his efforts to hold onto power, even as his own bad choices bring about tragedy within his own family.

He doesn’t come across as all that much of a hero. As one review points out, David is depicted as “power-hungry, duplicitous, murderous and cruel.” Perhaps there is too much effort to show what a flawed human he is, rather than a divinely favored king set on a Biblical pedestal.

It is a good reminder, however, that just because many things he did were not explicitly condemned by God as was his behavior in the matter of Uriah and his wife, does not mean that what he did was good or right. In the Bible study I lead, we have been reading through 1 Samuel, and I have noticed that Bible study guides I have looked at online seem to assume most of the time that David is in the right if Scripture does not say otherwise. But is that a valid assumption?

In the end, the character I found perhaps most intriguing is young Schlomo (Solomon). In the Bible, we see nothing of his childhood, only the young king appearing fully formed and full of wisdom – at least the wisdom to ask for wisdom, and then receive it as a gift from God along with great riches and power.

In Brooks’ novel, he is an inquisitive child, not expected (by anyone but Natan who has foreseen the future) to become king, and thus left free to pursue his interests in learning about nature, philosophy, and anything else he can learn with the help of his tutor Natan (who knows the future king needs guidance). His adult interest in learning of all kinds makes far more sense when it is an outgrowth of his natural childhood curiosity.

It was this aspect to his character that also contributed to my interest in reading The Legend of Sheba: Rise of a Queen by Tosca Lee, which I also found on the New Books shelf of the library, and just finished reading yesterday. It is told from the point of view of Bilqis the queen of Saba (known as Sheba to the Hebrews), but of course it concerns Solomon a great deal as well.

The story of her visit to Solomon in the Bible had always struck me as a bit odd. Would a queen of such great wealth as hers is described really travel that far with such a huge entourage to see if the reports of Solomon’s wealth and wisdom were true? And what was the purpose of all those rich gifts, on both sides?

Lee’s novel presents the journey as part of Bilqis’s project to impress trading partners with her country’s greatness, as well as to give both her and Solomon the opportunity to meet one another, after they have exchanged written correspondence which has increased their mutual curiosity and desire to know one another.

Solomon comes across as a man unable to find what he really wants in life. As readers of the Bible know from Ecclesiastes, he has tried everything life has to offer, including all the luxuries available to a rich and powerful king. He has hundreds of wives, yet as Bilqis realizes, he has no one – until she arrives – who really knows him. She understands, because she feels the same weariness with the demands of ruling a country.

Solomon also feels trapped between his desire to achieve political power and stability, which he accomplishes by his many marriages to daughters of allies, and his God’s disapproval of his foreign wives with their foreign gods. He has justified it to himself, but even during Bilqis’s visit, he faces increasing unrest among his own people, who resent both the forced labor he requires and the presence of this pagan queen.

Bilqis, meanwhile, increasingly doubts her own god’s care for her. She has long wondered what the gods make of human prayers and sacrifices, and questions how one can truly claim to love a god when all that is done for the god is to secure what one wants from the god.

Solomon suggests a different perspective, where one loves God by loving other people, who are made in God’s image. His words sound good, but clearly he has not done very well at putting them into practice in his own life.

Lee drew on legends related to Solomon and the queen of Sheba that I was not aware of, from the Kebra Nagast, a work describing the origins of the Solomonic rulers of Ethiopia, considered to be the descendants of the Queen of Sheba and Solomon.

On the whole, I think both books accomplish what I look for in this type of fiction. They bring the historical setting to life, they offer alternate ways of seeing a familiar story, and at their best they offer new insights into people and their relationship with God. And they’re well-told stories that I enjoyed reading.


Books: Barchester Towers

September 7, 2015

I picked up this audiobook some time ago and was intrigued by what I read on the back cover about it. But it said it was a sequel, so I figured I ought to read the first book first to properly enjoy it. And the library didn’t have the first book on CDs.

A few weeks ago, though, I was chatting with my friend who works at the library (and leads our monthly book club), and she was suggesting books on CD I might enjoy. One she suggested was Barchester Towers, and she assured me that it didn’t matter whether I had read the first book, and that this one was better anyway.

Read the rest of this entry »


Inductive vs deductive Bible study

July 25, 2015

Note: This post is written by my husband. An ordained Presbyterian pastor, he has plenty of experience both studying the Bible and leading Bible studies.

Inductive versus Deductive: Does there need to be a conflict?

I lead a couple of Bible Studies. Recently, as we finished one of them, and the group looked at what would be next (I decided to let them choose), they came across the terms “Deductive Bible Study/Reasoning” and “Inductive Bible Study/Reasoning”. When researched, articles promoting one were always very dismissive of the other. And the members of the study still didn’t really get what the point was. So, I am writing this article to try to give MY take on it.

Read the rest of this entry »


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