Friday, July 25, 2014

Important Perspectives on the Hebrew Scriptures

Bible Jesus Read, TheBible Jesus Read, The by Philip Yancey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mr. Yancey's personable style is one element that is makes The Bible Jesus Read a winner for me. Don't expect cold exegesis or hellfire ranting, but a friendly, honest exploration of a few of the (for him) troublesome books of the Hebrew Scriptures, a la Kathleen Norris (whom he quotes a few times). One should not expect theological ramblings, though the theology seems pretty solid to me. One of the cornerstones of Yancey's argument is that these books of the Bible are about different aspects of God's relationship with Creation. To that end, this book is about Philip Yancey's evolving relationship with these powerful, but baffling works.

After an introductory chapter outlining why the author felt led to explore these books and his approach, he tackles Job. Probably my favorite part of The Bible Jesus Read, it reorients the reader concerning the legendary suffering of the title character, demonstrating that the story is more about faith than about pain. Then comes a look at Deuteronomy, where Yancey imagines the thoughts and feelings of the soon to die Moses as he makes his last speech to the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land. While an interesting exercise, I felt this was too speculative. I kept wondering, "How would he (Yancey) know this?"

The fourth chapter is about my favorite book of the Bible: Psalms. Here Mr. Yancey does a masterful job looking at the famous poems as much from a literary point of view (without being academic) as from a religious perspective. He reminds the reader that these verses, though part of the canon of Jewish public worship, are very personal words from people of varying socio-economic and political perspectives, and even those that make us uncomfortable portray a people with faith in a God who can take their bitterest complaints.

Next, the author covers Ecclesiastes. For me, this is one of the most interesting parts of the book. Ecclesiastes is a tough, depressing part of the Bible, but other than repetition of the statement "Everything is meaningless!" I put my finger on why. But Yancey helps the reader see the theme in its context. Written probably after Solomon's death but certainly during a time when the people were still reaping the benefits of his reign, the book explores the emptiness of having it all. The sixth chapter is about the prophetic books, and though I would have like a more detailed look at a single prophet, I realize that it would be disingenuous to pick one, and to get at them all would take another book. Besides, the chapter seems rambling and repetitive to me. It does have an important idea that should those who struggle with this part of the Bible. Readers are encouraged to look at these writers less as men who foretold the future, and more as seers, people with the ability to observe the world (past, present, and sometimes future) more deeply than most.

The final chapter of The Bible Jesus Read works to make the point that what Christians call the Old Testament does more than foretell Jesus as Messiah, but has additional resonance for Christians. It should not be segmented so we can find lessons for daily living, but seen as a more complete picture of our relationship to God than the New Testament alone provides. I suspect that non-Christian readers may find this ending a bit tedious. However, Yancey's story about attending a performance of Handel's Messiah does make for a fascinating connection.

A brief word about the title. It seems a little misleading in that the author spends little time discussing Jesus' responses to or references to these the Hebrew Scriptures. However, the main audience seems to be those who are familiar with the New Testament, most of whom assumed that Jesus was well verses in these writings. I suppose The Bible Jesus Quoted or The Scriptures Jesus Read More Carefully Than the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law isn't very catchy.

The Bible Jesus Read was first published in 1999, but is not at all dated. And despite a couple of missteps, at least for me, the book is overall quite edifying.

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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Repent! Or Perish?

"Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."

Reading this is troublesome for me because on the surface it seems that Jesus is contradicting himself, or at least the picture of a nice, forgiving man who wants us all to know that God love us. But taken in context, we find that the contradiction lies in us, not Him.

The same Jesus who said this also told people he had healed their sins were forgiven. Once his disciples, assuming that there was a direct correlation between sin and suffering, asked if a man born blind or his parents had sinned. The Lord's answer was neither, but "that the works of God might be displayed in him." We find that Jesus does not adhere to formulas and calculations, but always to glorify His Father.

Jesus told the woman caught in adultery "go and sin no more." It is clear He does not condone wrong action. However it is also clear that Jesus was more concerned with the sinful nature in humans that in the specific acts that resulted in that nature.

The people speaking to
Jesus when He pronounced this warning were asking him for a response to a rumor about a heinous act, one they surely believed showed how horrible the authorities were. Supposedly Pilate had mixed the blood of people he'd killed with sacrifices. Remember that those who watched Jesus were looking for a Messiah who would be an military leader against the Romans and who would restore Israel as the world power.

The people questioning Jesus did not get what they hoped for. They might have wanted
The Lord to focus on the injustice; however, He countered that the sins of others (Pilate or those who were murdered) did not negate the truth of their own sinfulness.

A minister may tell you that the word repent means to turn around. But the way most people react to the word, one would think its meaning is, "Stop doing whatever it is you are doing that I don't like that I'm sure displeases God, and then you will be okay."

Injustice happens, and along the way we may well suffer unfairly at the hands of another. But pointing our finger at the sins of others seems a good way to block the finger of God from touching and healing us.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Work and Healing: Dispelling a Myth

But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the people, "there are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day."

I could not help but wonder, as I read this passage, "If people are working, how can they come to be healed?" The woman in this story, ignored by the leader, had been locked in her pain for eighteen years. She "could not fully straighten herself." How was she going to work? How much longer should she wait for healing, especially from someone who has no interest in the women and men in his charge, much less the Spirit of God?

The story tells us something of our present times. Too often people in power, in an effort to protect what they think belongs to them, make mistakes about the nature of work and the reality of suffering. How often have we heard a politician or minister or some other talking head say, "If you are sick, get a job (or a better job) so you can go to the doctor to get better"? These may not be the exact words, but it is the intent of their logic.

People are inherently selfish, and will fight to protect what they believe belongs to them, instead of understanding that all we have comes from God, and that God's purpose for us is to love Him. And to love him, we must love others. John wrote, "If anyone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen." 

That "brother" includes the woman who has suffered for eighteen years coming to you on the day you have set aside for yourself.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Never Mind the History; Enjoy the Story

The Wife of John the BaptistThe Wife of John the Baptist by K. Ford K.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Wife of John The Baptist is not likely to be what readers expect, and for the most part, that is a good thing. I found myself disappointed by a couple of things, but that should not stop readers from giving this novel a try.

The story is told through Hessa, the daughter of a Greek merchant and a young woman with an extraordinary gift. When she touches something, she can tell about more than its authenticity and quality. She knows its history. When she touches the hands of others, she knows if they are honest or if something is troubling them. Her ability is useful to her father, who dotes on her, and encourages her with tales of his adventures.

When a mysterious young traveler named John appears in town, Hessa's life changes dramatically. Before long, he has won her heart and she marries him against her father's wishes. There is passionate honeymoon, and then she joins John in his wandering.

They seek solitude, partly so John can be alone with God, but it seems mostly so John can avoid people who are all too ready to make him the prophet his father said he would be. But after they lose their first child, John decides to take on disciples and live in community so that Hessa will have a proper midwife for her next pregnancies.

Eventually, John succumbs to the pressure of becoming a prophet. The problem is that several factions are seeking him as a leader against the hated Romans, and John does not believe a revolution can come by armed force. He does discover some sort of power in baptism and begins to perform them in the Jordan. It is then that John's pronouncement against Herod's marriage to his brother's wife gets him into trouble.

Though there is a surprising lack of sensory details, this is still a very interesting story, not just about John and his bride, but about the people and politics of this time. I had trouble putting it down. The characters are well-drawn and authentic. And John and Hessa's love for each is not just the passionate attraction of two young people, but romance that builds rather than wanes as they get older. For me, this made the story richer and more satisfying.

While a novelist does not have any obligation to stick to every particular of history, especially a history many prefer to believe, I am not thrilled with some of the deviations and omissions from John's story. John's purpose to announce the arrival of the Messiah is completely ignored, and Jesus is relegated to a single, brief sentence, where John is said to have been "very impressed with him." Readers will also find differences between K.Ford K.'s portrait and the Biblical account. Most of these are minor, but I suspect those looking for something to solidify their beliefs will be disconcerted.

I was also disappointed with the ending, not because it isn't "happy," but because it seems to all too mystical where little hint of such is provided by the story. The reincarnation angle seems to give the novel a more Hollywood ending than the reader would expect.

These problems do not detract completely from the story itself, but I must confess most of them troubled me. However, this novel is gratifying, and its challenges should not put off good readers.

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Friday, June 27, 2014

An Uncomfortable and Necessary Memoir

Where Fault Lies: A Survivor's Story of Game, Shame & BlameWhere Fault Lies: A Survivor's Story of Game, Shame & Blame by Carrie May Lucas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I did not enjoy reading Where Fault Lies. I am not supposed to. This story is not just about rape, but the relationship the victim had with her attacker and her very painful and real struggle for justice as she works to heal.

This memoir could easily have been titled Red Flags, especially considering the first third of the book, where the reader sees an intelligent woman getting duped by a man who is clearly not just a jerk, but a psychopath. Aspects of Sayed's personality which show his damaged mind seem to be what make him more attractive to Ms. Lucas. Sayed reminds her that people are in his life until they are no longer of use to him. There are no second chances with him; people who stand up to him or displease him are "cut out." Sayed leads her to believe that their relationship is unique and that the rest of the world cannot possibly understand how special what they have is. But he is grooming her to be controlled.

As I read this section, I could not help but wonder why not only women are attracted to men like Sayed, but why anyone would even be friends or have business associations with him. We see by the end of the book that he is a complete fraud. I am surprised no one else notices this.

The second third of the book is about the rape itself and the immediate aftermath. Here readers see Sayed's brutally in not just a physical sense, but emotionally as well as he makes his victim feel bad for his hurt feelings. Soon after, he breaks off the relationship and her reaction is what is normal for a rape victim, but he uses her actions against her and twists the events to make himself look like the injured party. His behavior further demonstrates what Ms. Lucas makes clear through the whole book: that rape is much more about power and control than about sex.

Where Fault Lies is painfully detailed throughout. The final section of the book brings us into work place and the social circles and the family relationships where rape is hardly believed or brushed aside because doing something (even merely listening) is uncomfortable and inconvenient. We see callous police and sympathetic lawyers working for underfunded advocate agencies. We see a self-centered assailant who is willing to do almost anything to save his reputation and multiply the harm he has caused. Most of all, we see a human being tormented and emotionally beaten down before finding a measure of (not complete) triumph.

There are times when the details are too much and don't help the narrative, and Ms. Lucas, independent to a fault, is not going to be very likable to a few readers. However I see these issues as minor. One might say these are all the more reason to read the book. NO ONE deserves what happened to Ms. Lucas. A sub-segment of our society claims that an independent and stubborn woman deserves such treatment, but no one does, and justice should be for everyone, not only those who conform to our twisted scale of likability. This is a story that needs to be read and thought about deeply, not just by women, who face these threats more often, but by all of us. Too easily people dismiss rape as something deplorable, but never let the whole of the act touch them. This memoir forces us to be more than emotionally affected. And that is needed.

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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Great Hymns Find Fresh Treatment

Instrumental albums are not terribly popular among Christians, and when most American Christians hear instrumental music, it is typically bland or syrupy versions of comfortable and safe hymns played as background. Rarely do we see skillfully played, fresh versions of some of the world's most meaningful music, and so believers should not be surprised when few take their music seriously.

Richard Souther, however, is no ordinary musician. His own compositions are beautiful and uplifting. And though he primarily works with a palette of keyboards and synthesizers, his recent project, Hymns Revisited, has the solo piano shining like a candle in a darkened chapel. Souther's arrangements and sensitive playing are simply remarkable.

The album opens with "Morning Has Broken," introduced with an improvisation that is like opening slowly onto a new day, like waking gently. This song is followed by rendition of "Fairest Lord Jesus" which manages to be stately without sounding pompous. Next comes one of my favorites of this project: "It Is Well With My Soul." Here Souther melds the joy and fire of the original tune with flights on the keys (particularly the left hand work) that accentuate the quiet power of faith.

Much of "I Surrender All" sounds stark, almost naked, as the chorus sounds like a lone voice crying out to a God who is sure to save. Here there are also flurries and improvisations that never stray so far from the original as to be unrecognizable, but which put me in my mind a heart led by the wind of the Holy Spirit. Next comes "Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus," a good follow up as it sounds less like evangelism than a word spoken to the troubled, surrendering soul.

For some reason, iTunes and Amazon have marked "Softly and Tenderly" as explicit. Explicit what? Explicitly beautiful piano? Explicitly true to the beauty of the old tune? Explicitly warm and inviting? Explicit in expressing a faith so deep it needs no words?

Next comes "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" sounding like heart dancing.  A solo piano version of this tune can go very wrong, by making the song either too maudlin or so much like a romp that the sense of joy is lost. But Souther keeps at just the right tempo. This is followed by "Come Thou Font Of Every Blessing," which like the first three tracks is stirring and soulful. I've always loved this song, so I think I'm particularly sensitive to poor versions of it. This is one of the finest I've ever heard.

The last two songs on Hymns Revisited are "I Need Thee Every Hour" and "His Eye Is On The Sparrow." The first played like the gorgeous and thoughtful prayer it should be. I find myself inwardly bowing as I hear it, wanting to be closer to the great God it addresses. The latter also is also like prayer, but not the expression one gives to God, but what God returns in the conversation.

So many musicians would take these hymns and turn them in to Liberace-like opportunities to show of their ability to add flourishes, drawing attention to the player and not the music. Others merely render the melodies and assume that because the songs are traditional, they will move the listener. Both approaches diminish the power of these great songs and hide the very God they purport to reveal. Many people would claim that without the words, there is nothing to be said. But Richard Souther's album is so well done it demonstrates the scope and love of a living God. I cannot recommend it more highly.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014


One might expect, if one knows of the work Charlie Peacock – either as a producer, songwriter, or musician– that if he wanted to make a solo piano album, it might filled with standards of pop tunes and well-known jazz songs. And he could do that and do it well.  But Peacock doesn't do this on Lemonade. He fully embraces the spirit of improvisation and what we get is delightfully quirky sometimes but always delightful. 

My favorite tunes on this album include the more introspective pieces such as "Like Monet's Table," "Homeless in the Cosmos," and "How Maria Fell Behind." Other songs, like "Jude, as in Hey Jude," may take some getting used to by listeners who are not used to the twists and turns of improvisation a la Keith Jarrett, but I think the rewards are worth the time spent.

For me, there are too few jazz albums by Charlie Peacock. Prior to Lemonade, he had only given us Love Press Ex-Curio and Arc of` the Circle with saxophonist Jeff Coffin. Mr. Peacock's work in other genre's is stellar and much better known, but let's hope it does not take another several years to bring us another fine jazz album.