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Review: Jesus Interrupted by Bart Ehrman

I tried to give Bart Ehrman’s criticisms of the Gospel texts as unbiased a hearing as possible by listening to the audiobook of Jesus, Interrupted. Not that I am fully unbiased, but I at least feel like I’m at a place where I might be less biased about Biblical criticisms, and generally more open to progressive interpretations, than I have ever been. I made it more than halfway through but was unable to finish, after too many frustrating arguments that seemed no more enlightened than the very fundamentalism the author was critiquing.

A few notes:

  • Ehrman is emphatic that there are real discrepancies between the Gospels which ignorant Christians overlook by never taking the time to read passages side-by-side and notice their obvious inconsistencies. He promotes some interesting examples, but the fundamental flaw in his argument that there are irreconcilable discrepancies is that they require not just modern Christians but the original readers and compilers of the Bible to have been unaware of them. He even argues for discrepancies within the book of Luke that would have required Luke himself to be unaware of them. It has always seemed more reasonable to me that potential discrepancies are a clue, not that the texts are errant, but that we are not approaching the texts the same way the original readers did. (The book Misreading Scripture Through Western Eyes has certainly reinforced this idea for me.)
  • One type of alleged discrepancy regards the order of events in different tellings of the same story. Ehrman’s simplistic dismissals actually reminded me of young earth creationist (YEC) arguments alleging that there are geological layers in the wrong order, which prove the whole column is totally false. At a simple glance, the order does seem wrong in some cases, but there are more informed, nuanced explanations that account for more complexities that make sense, suggesting that certain parts can be out of order without falsifying the integrity of the total system. (In fact, there are even YEC interpretations that accept the order of the geological layers. In general, many of Ehrman’s complaints about the Bible reminded me of some forms of YEC complaints about modern science.)
  • Sometimes, Ehrman would set up straw men arguments. He would claim a discrepancy in the text, describe a bad explanation and dismiss it, while ignoring better explanations (example: Peter and the “six” crows to explain two different denial stories)
  • Some of Ehrman’s discrepancies were not event-based but claims of general thematic or theological differences. Leaving aside the question of whether thematic differences can simply be expressing different aspects of a complex truth, some of the claims simply felt like cherry-picking. Ehrman claims a discrepancy between Jesus’ anguish in Mark and his confidence in Luke – but Luke records his Gethsemane prayer, which certainly seems plenty anguished to me.
  • Ehrman’s criticisms of Paul’s letter felt no stronger. If 2 Thesslanonians is truly discrepant from 1 Thessalonians, why didn’t the early church notice it? There is an interesting point that Ephesians and Colossians seem to use different sentence structures; 10% of their sentences are “long” while Galatians and Philippians only have one each. Misreading Scripture suggests the common cultural practice of collaboration could easily account for these kinds of differences while still maintaining the truth of Paul’s direct, personal involvement.

Overall, while I believe there are many Biblical passages that may not be intended in as quite the literal, sequential, precise narrative sense that is the expectation of modern readers, I remain unconvinced that there is evidence to suggest that the texts could not have been divinely inspired or may have been subject to forgery, etc.

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Review: Locking Up Our Own by James Forman Jr.

Provides nuance to the story of mass incarceration in a way that challenges simplistic liberal and conservative narratives around racism, from the experienced perspective of a black public defense lawyer. It describes how and why punitive laws were built piece by piece throughout the country in response to drug and crime crises, specifically the role played by black leaders in majority-black cities.

The book details the growing alarm in black communities over rising crime and drug crises in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s that led to an increasing willingness to endorse harsher criminal justice measures in the face of limited options. The August 1979 cover of Ebony said “Black on Black Crime: The Causes, The Consequences, The Cures.” In another instance, “Rev. Jesse Jackson… pointed out that more blacks had been killed by other blacks in one year than had been lynched throughout history.” Eric Holder was an instrumental pioneer of pretext-stop policing, which ended up disproportionately punishing blacks for minor infractions, on the hopes that it would contain gun crime.

A chapter on the history of black policing taught me that black people were not even allowed to be police officers in many cities until halfway through the 20th century, and even then faced explicit discrimination and restrictions, such as not being allowed to arrest white people, and even after explicit racist practices were removed, unofficial discrimination continued for decades.

The book ends with the somewhat bittersweet hope that the excesses of mass incarceration can be undone, over time, just as it was built, piece by painstaking piece.

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Review: Blue on Blue by Charles Campisi

Blue on Blue: An Insider’s Story of Good Cops Catching Bad Cops is Charles Campisi’s account of his service over multiple decades in the New York City Police Department (NYPD). As chief of the department’s Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB), “the police who police the police,” it’s less a riveting narrative and more an organized collection of stories about catching crooked cops, peppered with Campisi’s opinions about all kinds of things related to police work and its public perception. The book will challenge both the dogmatic cop hater and the dogmatic cop apologist, describing more corruption in the police – but also police working harder to stamp out that corruption – than some on either side may expect.

Some of the stings to catch crooked cops are impressively elaborate. Some of the stories of criminal mistakes are downright (and occasionally darkly) hilarious. Overall, this is a very “pro-cop” book, contrasting the overwhelming majority of under-appreciated honest cops with the inevitable “bad apples” that Campisi spent his career expelling. Campisi takes ample opportunity to correct misconceptions, misunderstandings, and misrepresentations of police work by those who don’t understand it from the outside (important things for informed cop critics to recognize). For example, sometimes a corruption story would hit the press, and they would be accused of hiding it if wasn’t for the media exposure, even though IAB had already spent hundreds of hours behind the scenes gathering evidence against the perpetrators. Campisi also presents compelling evidence that the modern NYPD is cleaner, more professional, more fair, and more effective than earlier periods in its admittedly troubled history.

On the flip side, Campisi clearly demonstrates the temptations of power and the constant vigilance required to minimize corruption (important things for informed cop supporters to recognize). The NYPD should be commended for specifically addressing these challenges – for example, forcing regular officers into two-year IAB stints to overcome the cultural perception of internal affairs as less-worthy “rats”. Yet the challenges remain formidable, and some of Campisi’s details suggest his opinions may be a little optimistic. The chance involved in some of the stings, and the difficulty of proving previous crimes, makes one wonder how many other incidents slip through. Campisi doesn’t think there’s a solid “blue wall of silence,” giving copious examples of good cops exposing bad cops, but he also shows the heavy cultural incentives cops have to overlook abuses. Even with the infamous travesty of Louima and the broken broom handle, while cops eventually exposed Volpe, they initially were silent, with union reps backing them up, making one wonder how often other things stay hidden.

The Louima story reveals another major shortcoming with the book: its treatment, or rather lack of treatment, on racial issues. “In a perfect world,” it wouldn’t matter that Louima was black and Volpe was white; Campisi understands that “in this world,” it does, but he doesn’t seem to understand why – as if the incident itself is independent from the world in which it occurred. He is astonished that Volpe did what he did and unable to explain it, seemingly oblivious even to the possibility that a dehumanizing attitude toward black people could have played any role in allowing it. Campisi also only sees positives to the city’s “stop, question, and frisk” policy, as if its large effects on innocent minorities are acceptable collateral damage in the war on crime, and not counterproductive to it, and he predicts ominously that its severe reduction will lead to increased crime. But crime has only decreased to new record lows in the two years since. Campisi’s remarks still include some useful facts and perspective, but for better coverage of NYPD’s relationship with minorities, see Corey Pegue’s highly riveting Once A Cop. (Campisi also cautions against having too much “community” in “community policing,” saying “muggers and armed robbers are never going to show up at a Community Council meeting to discuss their problems.” While there’s an overall point to be made, the violence-reducing gang-member call-ins described in David Kennedy’s Don’t Shoot come pretty close to that!)

This brings me to two striking threads common in books on the NYPD. The first is the remarkable contrast between New York City’s current and past crime levels. Major categories like homicides have now dropped almost 90% from their peaks (so have “officer-involved shootings”). Visceral descriptions of NYC’s lawlessness of, say, the late 70’s, always give me hope that if they could turn things around from there, it’s never too late for my city of St. Louis, either. The second, however, is that NYC has an apparent advantage in its sheer size. NYPD has a force of over thirty-six thousand officers! Their IAB has more officers than some city’s entire forces, and they can afford to set up elaborate stings and throw resources in various directions. And positive changes can have positive effects on millions of people. Both threads are demonstrated in dramatic fashion throughout this book.

Many people have polarizing attitudes toward police officers, though most of us want the same things: safe streets, low crime, and a fair application of justice for all. Maybe Campisi’s book can be a resource towards that end. While there may be major disagreements about how systemic “bad cops” are, perhaps we can all agree on the importance of stopping their bad activities, from the injustices they inflict on their victims to the ways they ruin the good names of other officers. Perhaps people from opposite sides can join in hearty cheers when Campisi expresses indignation that “too often” the PBA union “seem to forget that every cop’s most basic sworn duty is not only to enforce the law, but also to obey it.” If nothing else, perhaps this book can at least help people who like to express their opinions on these important matters to be just a little more informed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christian books about American materialism and helping the poor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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