Category Archives: History

Merry Disturbing Christmas!

Nine years ago I wrote a post entitled Herod & Jerusalem based on some reflection on Matthew 2:1-4. I came back across that passage this Christmas season and wanted to offer some new and refined possible responses to the question, “Why was Herod and all of Jerusalem troubled when hearing about Jesus?”  Here’s the text:

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.“ When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.

This version uses the phrase “troubled,” but others use “disturbed” to describe the emotional response by Herod the Great and all of Jerusalem.  Have you ever thought of what all of Jerusalem means?  Does that mean every single person? Does it mean the rich? The religious? The powerful? The educated?  Or does it mean all? I don’t know definitively what all means here as there was no internet or newspaper service, but I would assume it includes at least the rich and powerful who had a vested interest in the politics and leadership of the day. AKA – the rich, powerful, religious, and educated.

And what does it mean that they were troubled or disturbed? Weren’t the Jews waiting in expectation for a Messiah, a deliverer, a King that would restore them to glory?  Why were these Jewish leaders disturbed rather than curious or hopeful?  And what does that matter for us today?  Here are some of my theories….

Here are some of my theories….

1.  Maybe the news of a newborn prophesied King of the Jews disturbed the elite because they feared the disruption of the social order.  The leaders of Jerusalem had established some measure of stability through Herod’s relationship with Caeser Augustus and the fear of Roman intervention. And in any system, there those who benefit from a political administration and those who may not. Maybe all of Jerusalem means those who found a pretty good life under Herod were more worried about losing their status in the face of local rebellion or Roman retaliation than about Biblical prophecies? Word of a new and promised king would mean a challenge to the political order of the day with potential vast ramifications for those with status in that order.

2.  Maybe Herod and all of Jerusalem were more disturbed than hopeful because they could not see God’s way of providing for His people.  Maybe, as people often do, they fell into patterns of belief and thought that God’s promised King would only come through “Kingly” lineage as viewed through the lens of the day. Of course, Jesus does have Kingship in his bloodlines as Matthew’s genealogy attests, but so did a lot of other people. Maybe people were blinded by their own elitism and expectations about where great leaders come from? Maybe the new King should be born a King and the thought that a baby born in Bethlehem could be a King was ridiculous. As such, this child again becomes a threat to the political and social order because he could not possibly be from the right stock.

3.  Maybe the educated and religious elite stopped expecting the Messiah because they liked their religious system they had developed and the control and status they gained from enforcing it? Maybe the news of a newborn Messianic King was disturbing because they were focused on policy rather the story of Israel? Maybe they feared the loss of their tight religious system if Rome got involved in a power struggle?

4.  But maybe there’s a deeper level of disruption involved? While Herod was disturbed no doubt because of the threat to his power and position, maybe all of Jerusalem was disturbed with him because the presence of two Kings brings the question of allegiance to the forefront. The news that a promised “King of the Jews” has come from outside the current royal line means a challenge to current authority. And for all those “around,” it means there will be a day of reckoning, a time to choose.  Who will they give their allegiance too?  In such a time, everyone has to choose. It’s only a matter of time.

Maybe it’s some parts of all of the above. Comfort, status, control, and safety seem to be factors for why all of Jerusalem began to get disturbed and anxious. But at the core, I believe all of this gets at the anxiety of allegiance. When allegiance is secure, these other things are not disturbing even in the face of risk and danger.

All of Jerusalem seemed to be feeling the anxiety of allegiance, even if they couldn’t put a name to it.  And unless we have addressed our own allegiance once and for all, we should be disturbed by Christmas as well.  But is so, is your anxiety because you fear losing power, status, comfort, or control?

This is what makes the incarnation amazing – the promised King came with no earthly power, status, comfort, and with total vulnerability. The foolish things of the world have shamed the wise.

 

Quick Review: Pursuing Justice

One of the books with the most impact on me this year was Ken Wytsma’s Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live & Die for Bigger ThingsI read it in the summer, but I re-read it over the past couple of weeks. Wytsma founded Kilns college and started The Justice Conference. I’ve started going through the last couple conferences via what is on the internet and vimeo.

This book is a primer on God’s heart for justice and offers a corrective to both social gospel as well as gnostic, all that matters is the afterlife,  approaches to the gospel. There’s a strong Biblical foundation offered for what the Scriptures really say about justice and where many of us have gone off to one extreme or the other.

There’s a few chapters I loved.  There is a chapter focused on advent, the incarnation, that was exceptional regarding the call to incarnate into people’s lives and realities as fundamental to Christian life and ministry. Given that I re-read it prior to Christmas this year, my second reading of this chapter was even more meaningful. Maybe the chapter I appreciated the most though was the chapter entitled “Empathy” that connects are hard-wired human ability to feel what other people feel and experience as a key to God’s heart for justice. Without empathy, there is no justice.  There is a paradigm offered in this chapter regarding empathy and “the other” which may come in handy in my PhD research.

Wytsma covers a lot of ground. In addition to the above, he tackles briefly the gospel and politics, the history of the evangelical phobia of “social justice,” and the range of response to justice such as apathy. This book is a great introduction to thinking Biblically about justice and it’s a convicting one that all believers would benefit from.

One of my big takeaways, while not a new conviction, is a deeper commitment that Christian ministry along with its methodology reflects what the Scriptures really teach about the gospel and justice. That’s neither the social gospel or the spiritual escapism often present in evangelicalism today. When word and deed go together, it’s a powerful thing and I’m thankful for those who are helping lead the church towards a more integrated and restorative vision of what it means to be the Church.

I will come back to this book because it also cites really great sources and work from many historical and contemporary justice practitioners. While I’ve read a decent amount regarding justice, there was much that was new to me in terms of stories and anecdotes, but the resources referenced were just as much of a blessing.

 

Quick Review: 7 Men and the Secret of Their Greatness

Over the past year I have, as the opportunities have allowed, have worked my way through Eric Metaxas’ book 7 Men and The Secret of Their Greatness.  I took this book slow and when I was in the mood for a brief biography this was a great go to book, especially via the audiobook version.  Each biography is about 50-60 minutes on the audio book, basically the length of my commute to and from work.

The book includes 7 biographies of men of faith that have had a significant impact on others and society.  The list includes George Washington, William Wilberforce, Eric Liddell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jackie Robinson, Pope John Paul II, and Chuck Colson.

Many of thus are well-known figures, some with movies documenting parts of their stories or journeys. Amazing Grace came out on William Wilberforce, Chariots of Fire on Eric Liddell, and most recently 42 on Jackie Robinson. I recommend all of them.

I personally learned new and significant things about each man that I didn’t know before even though I have been quite familiar with many of these men.  I enjoyed all of the brief biographies, but I was particularly encouraged from my learning on the lives of Pope John Paul II and Chuck Colson, who I did not know as much about. These men are quite different in their personalities, gifts, and historical and social contexts. But the faith and integrity demonstrated that showed up tangibly in service to others is quite the powerful common thread to their impact.

I am not typically a “biography” guy, but this was a great way to expose myself further to the lives and examples of these men and leaders, each in contexts that carried such great challenges.  I recommend the audiobook, which is my preferred mode to do biographies. It was a great antidote for traffic and long commutes.

 

Quick Review – Under Our Skin: Getting Real About Race

Over the last few days I had a chance to read Under Our Skin: Getting Real About Race. Getting Free From the Fears and Frustrations That Divide Us.  This book was written by longtime NFL player Benjamin Watson and was released about a year ago, so while not current to the events of the past year and the impact of Trump and the election, it was written right in the middle of a fairly racially charged season in America’s history.

Part of why I wanted to read this book is because it was a recent reflection on the racial divide in the context of the events of Ferguson, Charleston, Trayvon Martin, and several other high-profile moments that have surfaced much hurt, injustice, and gaps in perspective across racial boundaries in general. Most of these events took place after I moved my family out of the country, so I wanted to read some reflection and insight from an African-American as I lacked real opportunities to engage in much conversation on these matters. Tragically I was left at the mercy of some of the chaos on Twitter to process some of these events and what they might signify to the African American community.

I found this book to be really good.  It’s not an academic book in its presentation, but I appreciated how informative it was on recent events and in chronicling key events and experiences in the struggle for civil rights and in African-American history as a whole. The book was strengthened by many helpful personal experiences and anecdotes from the author’s own life and from his father and grandfather.  These issues need this kind of place – both helpful analysis in historical context as well as personal stories.

I loved that each chapter begins with an emotion such as angry, sad, embarrassed, hopeless, encouraged, or hopeful. These are emotionally charged topics because they touch so deeply on our identity. I found it to be really effective and helpful in the structure of the book to walk the read through the range of emotions on this topic. Such a journey avoids pollyanna theology as well as nihilistic darkness.  Tensions abound and Watson helps navigate a reader through these tensions well in a way that should help people connect with their own feelings and personal journey in these matters.

The book is thoroughly evangelical and it offers a clear roadmap to a spiritual solution in Jesus Christ. The whole book echoes the Scriptures, but he unpacks the gospel and its significance for racism and society in the final chapters. Essentially – he affirms over and over that racial conflict and racial segregation are matters of the heart and only Christ can change hearts.

The books origins are blog-like, so there are times where it reads like a blogger’s reflection. That’s not all bad – because they are good reflections.  The focus on this book also is fairly targeted to the divide in black and white racial tensions.  In the context of recent events, that is helpful for a focused coversation. However, there is not much here that specifically tries to incorporate other journeys.  Neither of the above points are bad, they just speak to the genre of the book and chosen focus amidst a pretty huge conversation topic in general.

It was a really enjoyable and helpful read.  It may be something I use to introduce my kids to some of these issues as they get a little older to be able to think more critically about race and relationships. I recommend it especially if you haven’t done much reflection in the aftermath of the explosive and racially charged events of the past few years.

 

Quick Review – Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas

I recently read David Cortright’s Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas  as part of the Peace Studies PhD program I am currently in.  I had not heard of the book prior, but it blends some of the themes of my current area of study with my enjoyment of history as a history major.

The book is a history of the approaches people and groups have taken to take a stand against violence over the course of the past few centuries, especially the past 150 years or so.  There is a helpful overview of the origins of peace movements, nonviolent strategies, as well as the great barriers that have traditionally undermined peace efforts in the course of history which is perhaps the most insightful and interesting portion of the book.

The history of peace efforts in the face of great international challenges such as World War I, World War II, and other wars was incredibly insightful. There is an abundance of histories written on just about all other aspects of these conflicts, but I had not yet come across an analysis of these events through the eyes of peace advocates.  It was fascinating to read about the various groups, philosophies, different methodologies, and key figures like Einstein among others.

Where the book is really strong is in illuminating the forces that undermine the work of peace when it really matters.  One of the key themes that consistently shows up is nationalism functioning as a barrier to peace efforts.  I’ve known the distinction between patriotism and nationalism, but I came away wanting to distinguish these concepts even more clearly. Nationalism is a key theme that exposed the limits of the peace movements from the World Wars all the way to more recent conflicts.  I was amazed at how much was in place prior to the World Wars to support the peace processes and how quickly much of it dissolved in the waves of nationalism that swept over the countries.

There is a great introduction to the historical movements of nonviolence as well general treatments of the dynamics of violence in society and the difference between pacifism and nonviolence. One of the things that struck me is how leaders of nations time and time again have routinely sacrificed hundreds of thousands of lives because of certain patterns of thinking that history has shown to be inadequate to the moment they faced. It’s a tragedy and a reminder to advocate for Biblically based reconciliation in society and between nations as the path of hope for peace.

 

 

Quick Review: The Kingdom of Christ

I was able to recently read Russell Moore’s The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective and instead of providing a full review I will share some of where I think this as a lot of value.

This is theology and doctrine resource so it’s heavier reading and there were parts where I labored through it.  Other parts were very compelling because the implications are significant for the church’s impact on society and its understanding of its identity and mission.

The book is fundamentally a treatment about how a new unity of evangelical theology and thought has slowly developed since the culture wars of the early 20th century.  The key figure throughout this book is Carl F.H. Henry as Moore unpacks Henry’s critique of evangelicalism in the post-war era and explores his beliefs of what is theologically required for the church to have a faithful and responsible witness to and engagement with society.

The heart of the book is really tracking how reformed and covenant traditions as well dispensational branches of evangelicalism have found some common ground and through dialogue and engagement have corrected some errant theology and found a foundation from which there can be a unified understanding on how to engage society.

Doctrinely speaking, the book takes a fairly deep dive into the integration of eschatology, soteriology, and ecclesiology for the sake of a healthy theology of mission in the world today in the face of the extremes of isolationism and capitulation to the world.   One expression of this that is discussed thoroughly is the liberal protestant movement towards the social gospel compared to the perhaps dualistic isolationist faith of the fundamentalists in the early 20th century.

I found it interesting in that I have one set of grandparents that were fundamentalists (independent baptists) and another grandfather who probably would fall more in line as a pragmatic liberal protestant.  I have both sides of this debate in my own family history and it’s interesting to reflect on the strengths and limitations of each, particularly from a doctrinal standpoint.

But of critical importance for most Christians today is the eschatology piece.  This book is a great resource to really think deeply about how poor eschatology or an inadequate theology of the kingdom of God leads to really poor assumptions about how to engage the world and society. The prevalence of “Left Behind” theology and attitudes that it’s all going to burn any minute so why invest deeply in engaging society is an attitude and perspective that undermines the integrity and witness of the church.  This book provides a healthy corrective to that type of theology.

All in all – while the general outlook for mobilizing evangelicalism towards a healthy biblical and theological foundation seems bleak because of how hard it is to see sound theology spread to the local level and the masses, it is encouraging that scholars seem to be uniting in these core areas in the face of rising new challenges.

 

Quick Review: A Farewell to Mars

I’m excited to share this quick review as A Farewell to Mars by Brian Zahnd was one of the best and most compelling and challenging books I’ve read in some time.  The book in general is a treatment of how the gospel gets coopted by culture to serve national interests – usually through the rationalization or justification of violence as the means to achieve “peace.”

There’s much I can relate to in the journey of the author as generationally I’ve experienced some of the key events that he describes as being critical to his journey at a similar life stage to him.  The challenge of this book is to explore deeply all the ways in which we have actively or passively endorse a path of violence while believing the lie that such violence is “righteous” and that God is on our side.  This can be reflected in our attitudes towards war, politics, international policy, and even action movies!

This is one of the books that I anticipate will be one of the most recommended books to others.  But let me share a couple of the highlights for me in the book.  First, the book has 2 chapters that rank among my favorite of any book I’ve read.  The first was entitled, “Jesus Versus the Crowd” and goes into some of the best treatment of the scapegoating dynamic that fuels violence in community.  This area is an area of great passion for me as a result of my exploration into family and congregational systems theory, but Zahnd gives a phenomenal treatment of it as it relates to violence and society with a great treatment of the Biblical text in the book of John.

The other chapter that really stood out centered on the nature of freedom, which is a critical issue for us to understand since violence and freedom are often presented as hand in hand when we celebrate our national histories.  This was an excellent treatment of freedom, again with the theme of peace versus violence as the greater context.

I think the majority of Christians, especially evangelicals, would find this greatly convicting and it’s why all should read it.  Christians are often portrayed as a violent people in western society today – not always because they are perpetuating physical violence, but because the way Christians engage society or deal with difficult or sensitive issues often tends to reflect language and attitudes that are violent in nature.  Christians need to reclaim the identity as peacemakers that we are called to be and I am grateful for the challenge that A Farewell to Mars brought me.  Can’t recommend it enough to you.

 

 

 

Quick Review: 13 Hours

Over the weekend I read 13 Hours by Michael Zuchoff, which I had wanted to read since seeing the “13 Hours” movie that came out in the fall.  The book and the movie shine a spotlight on the political backdrop, but they really both focus on the actual events of what transpired as opposed to all the political implications (though I know there remains a lot of debate and controversy over what happened).

This is similar in its detail and feel to the Black Hawk Down account.  It’s a survival story, but there’s some dimensions to this one that make it unique and more personally compelling in some ways.  While Black Hawk Down events involved military personnel, these events involved former military who functioned as operators in high risk situations.  The heroes here are contracted workers often on the line between staying in this dangerous life or making a clean break in favor of a domestic life focused on family.

These events or crisis situations all seem to have some common themes – leadership failures, paralyzing bureaucracy that puts lives at risk, and incredible heroism in the face of greater danger.

Some of what stood out to me were the ways in which advanced preparation helped the operators in their defense of the compound – whether it was in reconnoissance or first aid.  In crisis – these operators relied on a lot of instincts and knowledge and there was no time to do much reflective though.  It affirms that there are things we need to have ready to go at a moments notice.  Daniel Kahneman speaks to some of this in Thinking, Fast and Slow where only through a lot of intentional practice do some things transfer from “slow thinking” to “fast thinking.”

It also affirms  what can happen when there is a failure of preparation.  The death of the ambassador in the account was done in part because a lack of preparedness that was accentuated by a lack of resources.

Finally – the book and the film leave you on the note that the real heroes did not get a lot of reward or credit in contrast to many of the CIA operatives and people that they were protecting.  Some of this is because they were contracted, but it’s interesting how power and politics can so often taint the narrative.

So not everyone is into these types of books or movies, but they are helpful in that they bring a healthy dose of reality to you that unsettles you and it takes you into the human condition – both the best of it and the worst.

Quick Review: Jesus and the Jewish Festivals

A couple weeks back I posted a quick review of Encounters With Jesus, which is part of Gary Burge’s “Ancient Context Ancient Faith” series.  I finished another in the series entitled, Jesus and The Jewish Festivals.

Because of my ancient history background I have had a decent amount of 1st century culture and context input, but I have wanted for sometime to get more context on the Jewish Festivals and they play into some of Jesus “I Am” statements in John and contribute to the imagery and symbolism behind some of he teachings and how the gospel writers choose to portray his life and ministry. This book was a great next step for me in that area.

The book covers Sabbath, Passover, the Festival of Booths, and Hannukah especially along with a  chapter on the early church’s contextualization or adaptation of these festivals in their practice in worship.

The content related to the Passover was most helpful and of interest – in part because the author dedicates two different sections.  One to a season of Jesus’ ministry during passover season in which he fees the five thousand and declares “I am the bread of life….” and the second to Jesus’ final days.

As Easter is approaching, I really enjoyed the content related to the passion week and the connections to Passover.  It really helped connect a couple of dots that I had yet to really grasp well.  But it prepared me spiritually as well as anything entering into the weeks before celebrating Easter.

One additional insight I really was intrigued by was the chapter related to Hanukkah.  I was well aware of the context of this celebration, but was not aware, as Burge unpacks, how this celebration has included a reflection upon failed, worldly leadership that included a grieving element as it fits within the context of Israel’s covenant relationship with God.

I really have been thinking about that – an intentional season of grieving over and reflecting upon the lessons of leaders who failed to lead out of God’s ways and purposes as a reminder to current generations about the need to steward that leadership well according to God’s will.  Maybe I need to start celebrating Hanukkah because I love that idea.  Too often we gloss over the past and seek to move forward, but maybe we should have a regular rhythm of being reminded about significant seasons in our traditions where we went astray and paid the price for it for the sake of maintaining a repentant and humble posture before God.

Anyway – I wish these books were longer because there’s so much good stuff in them.  I look forward to reading the next in the series soon.