Book Review: God Among Sages

God among Sages: Why Jesus Is Not Just Another Religious Leader

My Rating – If you are looking for something

Level – Easy read, moderate length (a little repetitive)

Summary
Samples has put a book together that looks at Christ and historic Christianity, and compares Him to the leaders or representatives of four other major religions. The book is broken into three parts – a historicity of Christ, both as a man and God; a short intro to representatives of four other religions and how they compare to Christ; a few thoughts on plurality in the world and the Biblical view of other religions.

The first part of the book is broken into four sections, but overall it is a basic apologetic for the Christ of traditional Christianity. Samples goes through Christ claims of divinity, the reliability of the Bible, and then a few points on the fact that Christ, the man, a person in history, actually existed.

The second part of the book is really the meat and what you’d expect based on the title. It is also broken into four parts and Samples hits on Krishna as representative of Hinduism, Gautama (the Buddha’s birth name) for (obviously)  Buddhism, Confucius, and finally Muhammad for Islam. In each section he outlines the life of the person, the basics of their teachings/beliefs, and then how they compare to Christ.

The final part of the book is broken into three sections, plurality in our world, Biblical view of other religions, and finally a concluding summary of Christ’s claims verses the other four.

My Thoughts
I wasn’t really sure how to rate this book. I liked a good bit of it, but found other parts annoying. I guess it will depend on the perspective from which you come to this book. It is a little too apologetics 101 for me, especially the first part of the book. I understand, that almost by definition, if you are trying to substantiate the claims of Christianity, you have to use apologetics, but what bothers me is really more of the tone. There is a just an attitude and style of argument from those in the philosophical (especially Ontological) and presuppositional  apologetic framework seem to have. It just rubs me the wrong way. If you like it, or are new to apologetcs, the you will probably really enjoy the first section of the book. All that being said, he does a good job summarizing arguments for the reliability of the Bible and Christ’s claims of divinity that all Christians should know pretty well.

The section about the other leaders was a well written introduction. Some of it was new to me and others a good reminder from my high school world religions class. As Christianity declines and more people arrive from different parts of the world, it is becoming more and more important to know the basis of other beliefs. This book could be a good start (Sample pack? sorry) into the study of world religions. He cites other works at the end of each chapter if you want to go deeper. The only part I really didn’t like about the section of the book is that he repeats his arguments (stated in the first part of the book) about Christ again and again in each chapter. Maybe it is a pet peeve of mine, I just dislike redundancy and repetitiveness.

The last section of the book was probably my favorite. Sometimes, I’m not sure I’d necessarily call them moments of doubt, I do wonder, what if all paths lead to God? That does change my view that this is the path Christ chose for me, but what if one day we get to heaven and we find out that everyone is there and they all came through different ways? Maybe that would be kind of neat. Samples summary of the issues with plurality point out that this isn’t really possible. For one thing, not all ‘paths’ even have a ‘god’. Many don’t have an afterlife, but reincarnation. Also, what about people who are on no path, so to speak? Even as you try to be kind and loving and accepting (to some extent) of all other beliefs, it is good to remember that plurality (in the sense of all beliefs being equally valid) is unworkable.

I think many people could learn something from this book. However, it may not be for everyone. It isn’t quite on the level of everyone should read it, but if you are looking for a good intro to either divinity of Christ, reliability of the Bible, any of the four religions covered, or Christianity in a pluralistic world, then you should put this book on your list.

*I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. See more here.

Sermon on the Mount – Salt & Light

Matthew 5:13-16

When I was young and any injury happened to me, my dad had generally one cure in mind – salt. This was especially true in the summer, as I was (still am) one of those people that just gets absolutely swarmed by mosquitoes. I would have cuts and scabs cover my legs and many on my arms, and the solution in his mind was the beach.  Mostly because he just liked going there, but if something couldn’t be cured by salt, you had to add come sun also to, ‘dry it out.’ In winter drinking warm salt water and going outside was the general cure. My brother and I literally had salt put into our wounds, but you get the point – he was a raving madman. However, as I was researching this passage, I came across this quote from Pliny the Elder in his major work, Natural History, – ‘Nothing is more useful than salt and sunshine’ (in Latin, Sale e Sole, so there is a little wordplay, too).

Turns out, the benefits of salt, including its healing power was well known in the ancient world. The many uses of salt included, preservation, flavor, and disinfectant. Salt was also a symbol of loyalty and was used in sacrifices. Famously, Roman soldiers were paid in salt (sale in Latin) which lead to our word salary today. The most common use of salt, and the one that the disciples would most identify with, is as a preservative. Salt prevents decay. Christ is calling on the disciples to prevent decay of the world rotting from sin. This likely has to do with moral decay as the disciples preserved the Law. The word usually translated ‘earth’ here is the same as the word land. Whenever we read the Bible the word ‘land’ should stick out to us as that was the covenant promise to Israel.

Relatedly, when we see ‘world’ we should think gentiles, and/or culture of the time. So what does light do? Most simply put, it illuminates the darkness. Israel, and Christ’s disciples, know God and they are command to remember God and keep his law. The gentiles do not know God. Therefore, they are in darkness. As disciples, we are to give light to those in darkness. That is, preach the Gospel, do good works to glorify God, and bring the knowledge that we have to that whom haven’t yet heard.

There are many verses related to this concept of light. In Isaiah 42 and 49, we are told the True Light is the suffering servant (that is, Christ to come). In Romans 2:17, Paul considers the Jews to think they are the light to the gentiles. We are told that darkness fears the light. In John 5, John the Baptist is called ‘a burning and shinning lamp.’ Of course, John the Baptist is one of the great models of Evangelism.

So, the value of salt and light would be well known the ancient world; a world that didn’t have electricity, and therefore lacked refrigeration and ‘light’ as we know it today. I’ll wrap up with what John Stott sees as the three lesson from these verses.

  1. There is a fundamental difference between the Christian and the non-Christian, between the Church and the World.
  2. We must accept the responsibility the distinction puts on us.
  3. We must see the twofold Christian responsibility of: Preventing decay (salt) and illuminating darkness (light).

It is easy enough to say to Christian, go be salt and light, but as the recent public discussions (from the ‘Benedict Option’ to whatever it is Evangelicals are doing with Trump) have shown, it isn’t that simple. Fundamentalism and monasteries pull us too far from the world, they are the equivalent of putting the lamp under a basket, or as I read one criticism using – salt never did any good sitting on a shelf. Likewise, we can’t just join the world, especially today in the ‘everyone does right in their own eyes’ of moral relativism. We have to be the ones to preserve the moral laws of God. Just remember, at work you may be the only one to view life with moral absolutes, you may be the salt that is preventing decay, or in your neighborhood, you may be the only light your neighbor sees. They may be living in darkness, and it is incumbent on you to shine the Light of Christ into their lives. Salt and light is an incredibly responsibility, one I think most of us do not take seriously enough.

Follow along in the series – Intro, The Poor in Spirit & Those Who Mourn, The Meek and Those Who Hunger & Thirst, The Merciful, Pure in Heart, and Peacemakers, Those Who are Persecuted,

Commentaries used in this series:
Sermon on the Mount (The Story of God Bible Commentary)
The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7 : Christian Counter-Culture)
Studies in the Sermon on the Mount
Matthew (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament)
The Expositor’s Bible commentary : Matthew, Mark, Luke, with the New international version of the Holy Bible (Expositor’s Bible commentary, Vol.8)
Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries)
New Bible Commentary

Book Review: Misbehaving

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics

My Rating: Put it on your list

Level: Moderate to difficult, depending on your base knowledge of Economics and Psychology. Moderate in length, but reads quickly

Summary
Part Thaler autobiography, part time line of the development of the field, with plenty of humorous anecdotes and academic ‘anomalies’, this book does not read like a history of an academic discipline. The book is broken into eight broad chapter based around years in which Thaler worked through differing parts of the development of the field. The chronology starts with him as a graduate student, where he is just starting to look into ideas that would become the discipline, and proceeds up to the present, where he seems poised to hand over the reins to the next generation. Along the way are his stories of getting the discipline recognized by academic journals, struggles with the establishment, and gaining allies (across other disciplines, as well) and students that will become the next generation.

My Thoughts
This book, like the somewhat related book (Thinking, Fast & Slow) by his fellow collaborator, Daniel Kahneman, kind of annoyed me in how well it is written. Thaler has had a nearly five decade career as researcher and writer, so he should write well, but that is not what I mean. His book is funny and reads quickly like a narrative. As I said above, it it part autobiography, and lends itself tremendously to humorous narrative that leaves you interested in reading more. As a pretend internet researcher and writer, I am envious that someone with actual credentials writes so well.

All that being said, I think I missed the subtitle of this book when I first heard about it a few years ago. I heard Thaler on a interview, and knew he was related to behavioral economics, but didn’t quite realize this was book he was promoting. I must have searched his name on amazon and bought the first book I saw, without noticing the reference to ‘Nudge’ on the cover. Nudge was really the book I was looking for, which is more about the research out of Behavioral Economics as it relates to topics like money and health. ‘The Making of Behavioral Economics’ should have clued me in to this book being more of a history. Luckily, I enjoy history and biographies, and as I said above, he is a very talented writer.

One of the first things that stuck out to me was how long he as been in the field. His book starts in 1970, with him as a grad student. I wouldn’t be born for another decade and a half, and I don’t consider myself very young. I’ve heard that Millennials will have between seven and 17 careers over their lifetimes, so it amazes me to read of someone’s history in a field that is longer than my lifetime.

Reading history is always fascinating, because you, with the addition of hindsight, can read and say, ‘how did these people miss this?’ I couldn’t believe some of the resistance he and others would face as the argued against the efficient market hypothesis. I was in high school during pets.com (look it up kids) and the tech bubble and finished grad school a few months before the housing bubble popped, so I struggle to believe in any way the the market is efficient and that people are well informed. Thinking back to my undergrad economics courses, I believe I was taught the distinction between theory of economics (people who Thaler calls Econs) and actual behavior (called Humans). In grad school, the distinction was called that of theory and practice. So, it is interesting to see that a few decades before, saying things like this, which to me are clearly true, would get you laughed out of conferences and barred from academic journals.

This history was interesting, and the debates with other academics were amusing and insightful, but the book really shines with the anecdotes. I won’t go through all of them here, but the include an economist who refuses to sell his wine (for a gain) at the market price while also stating he would never buy it at the price and companies whose stock prices are lower than their subsidiaries (even when purchasing the larger company stock means getting the smaller companies stock included; this means the larger company is valued in negative dollars relative to market cap).

These types of stories are what I enjoy reading. They are amusing on their own, but also challenge your assumptions about certain areas, but even more, make you really question whether you actually know what you are doing. You may think you do everything rationally, but you probably don’t, and that is illustrated time and again in this book. If you are looking for just stories and research results, you are probably better off with Nudge or Thinking, Fast and Slow. However, if you are interesting in Behavioral Economics in general, this is definitely a book to put on your list.

Book Review: Fearless Parenting

Fearless Parenting: How to Raise Faithful Kids in a Secular Culture

My Rating: Probably not worth your time

Level: Quick, easy read; short book.

Summary
The title of this book is a little strange. For the most part, the book is about Biblical parenting in a secular world (which is more or less what the subtitle says). The name comes from the second chapter, where the authors tell you to reject fear as your basis of parenting. That is all well and good, but the response in this chapter is in relation to the first chapter, which might be one of the worst examples of writing in any parenting book, ever. I’d highly recommend skipping the first chapter, if you have any plans on finishing the book.

The remainder of the book is pretty solid; with almost a completely different feel than the first chapter (as if there were two authors…). The first few chapters are general reminders and thoughts on parenting from a Christian perspective that should be familiar to most church-going families. Some of the topics covered later in the book include clothes, materialism, social media, and ‘screen-time’, and they all contain good, practical advise.  The one section where the book really does shine is in discussion of kid’s sports. In it, the author calls out parents who try to live vicariously through their children in sports and challenges parents to ramp down the amount of sports played and to not make them the number one priority in the life of your family. The section of the book was redeeming enough for me to not rate the book lower.

My Thoughts
I wanted to like this book more, but it was hard to get past the first chapter. In it, the author ‘projects’ what life make be like in 2030. Some of the ‘data’ points (such as rising crime, or Trump reducing/balancing the budget) are somewhere between disingenuous to out right lies. In case you decide to fact check (which I did), he heads you off by pointing out that if you think he is being ‘too political’ (or, what I’d call, maybe just being a complete political hack) it is because YOU, reader, are too politically correct. Along with misused data, the author also gives us an Orwellian tinged far right-wing dystopian fantasy; including the suggestion that new government agencies will be created and that pastors will have to submit their sermons/teaching for approval by the state.

Honestly, this first chapter is just embarrassing. It hurts me on two levels. First, as a Christian, it is embarrassing that this book is written by/for and published by Christians. I suppose the author may shrug it off and say, ‘this is just what could happen.’ However, his projections are based on neither facts nor anything to do with Christians. It is straight up far-right political (hackery?, propaganda? fantasy/nightmare? I can’t even come up with the right word for this). It reminds me of the chain email that went around (you probably got it from your mom or grandpa) 2008/2009 that claimed that Obama was the anti-christ and that Revelation said he would be a Muslim. Of course, the book of Revelation makes no such claim, and Islam would not be founded for a another couple of centuries. Overall, I think the first chapter could best be summed up as an email your grandmother would forward you because she is scarred. I think this is probably one of the biggest reasons why young people leave the church today. This is beyond the scope of a book review, but a generation ago, people left the mainline churches because they sounded like democratic party meetings, and now people are leaving evangelical churches because they sound like republican party meetings.

Second, this chapter was bad in it’s use of statistics. George Barna and I both have master’s degrees in City Planning, so I feel he should know better. Which leads me to another criticism of the book overall – with one of the authors being the head of a major polling/research group, the book was very lacking in data. I was interested in this book partly because I thought, with Barna being co-author, it would be data heavy. Then again, based on the first chapter, maybe that is for the best.

This has already gone on too long for a review, so I’ll wrap up quickly. The sections/chapters on social media and screen time offer some great guidelines and I appreciate anytime a parenting book (especially Christian focused) offers practical examples. The section materialism was impressively counter-cultural. It did a good job of calling parents out for their endless wants and purchases as a way of setting a poor example for our children. Finally, I was really impressed with the section on sports. This is something of a sacred cow in America, particularity for things like Baseball and Football (especially here in the South). It is an incredible challenge the author lays out, telling someone you may skip a tournament, or not enroll in a sport because it has games on Sunday. They do well in discussing the impact too many sports have on your family life (e.g. vacation time or even canceling vacations), on your children’s health, and, most convictingly, your own idols (vicarious living, or idol of parenting a sports star in think on how that reflects on you).

I haven’t seen a parenting book really reflect on sports to this extent before, and it almost makes the whole book worth reading. However, due mostly to the drag of that first chapter, I think this book is mostly not worth your time. If you are specifically looking for some guidelines on materialism, social media/screen use, and sports participation, it may be a worthwhile. However, you can probably find some decent guidelines for most of these online somewhere, or perhaps in other books.

*I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Sermon on the Mount – Those Who are Persecuted

Matthew 5:10-12

Verse 10 is the final of the eight beatitudes, then you kind of have verses 11 & 12, just hanging out there. These two verses continue with the theme of persecution, but there is a transition happening here. Grammatically, He switches from using the third person to the second (blessed are those vs. you). Some have argued that these act as a transition section to the upcoming ‘salt & light’ teaching, and I think that makes the most sense. I think Christ is talking more broadly to the crowd and then narrows in to His disciples. Something like, ‘speaking of persecution, it will happen to you, my close followers. Also, you will be as salt and light.’

However, for my purposes, I’m lumping all the persecution in together and then move on to Salt and Light next week. One a side note, in the ‘fun with reading commentaries’ category, D.A. Carson says that it makes sense that Christ will follow peacemaking with persecution, while John Stott, says that it is a strange succeeding point. I’m actually inclined to disagree with both, as I don’t see as much of a connection. Peacemaking is us intervening with two other parties, while persecution is someone else’s reaction to us. I don’t seem them as countervailing actions. Anyway, back on topic.

V10

This might be the most straight forward and easy to comprehend of the beatitudes. For one, it isn’t dependent on us, other people need to act in this instance. So, what is ‘righteousness sake?’ One thing it isn’t, is for being a member of the church, that would be anachronistic to the hearers of the message. As it is the last of the beatitudes, I view is taking up any of the preceding beatitudes. Of course, later on in the Sermon, Christ will expound on a number of laws and even more so in later parable (such as loving your neighbor) that are necessary for righteousness.

Interestingly, the promise of this brings us right back to verse 5:3, where we started. As we discussed, poor in spirit can be seen as knowing you are spiritually bankrupt, which is essentially the opposite of self-righteousness. Now, it is for true righteousness, the promise to come is the same.

V11

This verse becomes much more specific relative to the prior verse. We move from ‘those’ to ‘you’, the disciples, and from ‘righteousness sake’ to ‘because of Me.’ This moves from an inference that something could happen to almost the expectation that something will happen. This should have been somewhat startling to the disciples, remember, this was quite early in Christ’s ministry (the beginning actually). As Jews, they would have some idea of religious persecution in the broad sense, but now they are being told that be doing something specific (following Christ), persecution will happen. People will revile you and say false things about you. With the benefit of hindsight, they should have seen maybe Christ was not the type of Messiah they were expecting.

V12

If the persecution comment wasn’t surprising enough, the statement comparing them to the Prophets should have put them over the top. On the one hand, they are told the reward is great, on the other, they can expect some of the same treatment they knew the prophets had received. Also, to put them on the level of the prophets tells us about who they thought Christ was. The prophets were those that spoke for God, often with direct revelation from Him to the world. If them following Christ meant they would be giving the word of God, then clearly they saw Christ for who he was.

Follow along in the series – Intro, The Poor in Spirit & Those Who Mourn, The Meek and Those Who Hunger & Thirst, The Merciful, Pure in Heart, and Peacemakers.

Commentaries used in this series:
Sermon on the Mount (The Story of God Bible Commentary)
The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7 : Christian Counter-Culture)
Studies in the Sermon on the Mount
Matthew (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament)
The Expositor’s Bible commentary : Matthew, Mark, Luke, with the New international version of the Holy Bible (Expositor’s Bible commentary, Vol.8)
Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries)
New Bible Commentary