Jul 01

The Qur’an

By Kenneth Feucht books 4 Comments »

The Qur’an, by Muhammed

I’ve been quite curious about the contents of the Qur’an since it is so often quoted today in issues regarding to dealings with the Muslims. There are many that quote the Qur’an as a book of violence, though I’ve wondered whether those oft-quoted passages were taken out of context and thus mis-interpreted. The only way to give the Qur’an a fair chance would be to read the book through and through, cover to cover, and let the book speak for itself.

Any criticisms that I might have of the Qur’an are not intended to be criticisms of Muslims. I have many friends that are Muslim, and even a few relatives that are Muslim, and find them to be good people. I would never intend to use my comments on the Qur’an to reflect either good or ill of those people. This is solely a book review and not a person review.

The Qur’an is organized into a total of 114 suras, or chapters, and seem to be organized from the longer to the shorter suras, though not in precise order. Each sura has a title given to it, usually taken from a word or phrase found within the sura. The title is a very poor indication as to the prevailing topic within that sura. The suras are all independent, and none of them connect with others, either preceding or following. To discuss the book, it would be easiest to discuss the prevailing themes of the book rather than individual suras.The particular translation of the Qur’an that I read is by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, whom I presume is a devout Muslim as well as a scholar in both the English and Arabic language, and thus competent at the task. This particular translation has very few bad reviews, and mostly excellent reviews on amazon.com where I purchased the book, and thus seems to legitimately reflect the real contents of the Qur’an as found in Arabic.

Style of writing in the Qur’an

Amazon describes the Qur’an as the greatest literary masterpiece in Arabic. The Qur’an was written by only one person in one language, and has only one persistent stylistic form. It is a polemic against the heathen. There is no poetry. There is no prose. There are no systematic discussions. There are historical reiterations of Old Testament themes, mostly from the books of Moses, but they are told in a rambling fashion, providing no historical details as might be found in the Old Testament. Mohammed occasionally refers to contemporary history, but he does not elaborate that history, so that the translator must provide footnotes to explain the situation. Thus, the Qur’an is not a work complete in itself. No sura more than several paragraphs long has a consistent theme, but is a compilation of a flow of ideas. The repetition is intense, as sura after sura seems to say close to the same thing. There is no development of ideas, as might be found in Psalm 119, Ecclesiastes or Romans. Mohammed seems to have been forgetful of what he just wrote, but perhaps he was simply repeating himself to drive home a point. There are frequent inconsistencies in the Qur’an, and though those inconsistencies could be viewed as simple interpretative challenges, for the casual reader, it is often difficult to identify exactly what Mohammed was saying. The entire book is more a rant against anybody opposed to Mohammed, than a thoughtful development and argument for the Muslim faith. There is no delight in serving God reflected in the Qur’an as might be found in the Psalms and other passages of the Christian Bible.  As a literary work, the Qur’an does not excel.

What is right about the Qur’an?

There is much right in the Qur’an which orthodox Christians and Jews would agree with. Certainly the word “islam” means “submitted to God” and thus “Muslim” as “one submitted to God”. Christians could all agree that our primary function in life is submission to God. Thus, we would be correct in calling ourselves as Muslims, save that the word now has a very specific connotation. The Qur’an often mentions allah as all-knowing, all-powerful, all-wise, able to create by his word, and is a moral being. This is consistent with Judeo-Christian belief regarding the nature of God. The Qur’an encourages believers to live in a specified manner, maintaining honesty, being charitable to the poor and orphans, and acting with care toward fellow believer. This is consistent. There is a strong distinction between the believer and unbeliever, the faithful and unfaithful, which is also consistent with Judeo-Christian beliefs.

The consequences of unfaithfulness and immoral behavior will eventually need to held in account, as this life is the only beginning of a life after death, and judgement awaits all people, some destined to the fires of hell, and others to the bliss of paradise. This also is found in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures.

Prevailing themes and pertinent thoughts

  1. Paradise and hell
    Many often poke fun at Christianity as a fire and brimstone religion, a religion that focuses on nothing but going to heaven or burning in the fires of hell. Yet, many of those same people will offer sympathies for the Muslim religion. It must be assumed that they have never read the Qur’an, since the topic of paradise (heaven) and hell (the fires) are mentioned in nearly every one of the suras, and often to excessive length in the suras. There is far more about the final judgement and afterlife in the Qur’an than in the Scriptures. From the reader’s perspective, the Qur’an is overly excessive in its mention of hell fire. Muhammed’s mind might have been a little hot in the desert.
  2. The present life on earth
    The Qur’an has a very dim view of life on earth. It is a sub-life, a temporary period of trial for the eventual welcome into paradise. Current life is pictured as a lesser existence, and that our presence here is for testing only. This is contrast to the Judeo-Christian view of life as a good and complete, though fallen existence. Life may be hard and oftentimes seemingly meaningless, but the emphasis is the God created us to enjoy His creation, and gave us good things to help us accomplish that end. Our first duty is to praise God with a joyful heart, something not seen in the context of the Muslim faith.
  3. The believer vs unbeliever
    Similar to all faiths, great contrast is drawn between the believer and unbeliever. The Qur’an suggests a somewhat unique approach for the believer to the unbeliever. The descriptions of the relationship of believers to unbelievers in complex and difficult to sort out. Friendship with unbelievers is highly discouraged, as it could lead to loss of faith. Migration to an unbelieving country is strongly discouraged as is betrays trust in allah. Whenever the Qur’an encourages friendship with others, it specifically refers to friendship with other “believers”, i.e., friendship with other Muslims. There is never a call to charity or help to the unbeliever. Muslims have frequently been very friendly to me, and I can only assume that that friendship is in defiance of the Qur’an.
  4. God
    The Islam view of God is drastically different from the Christian view of God. Mohammed is very careful to emphasize that god never begat a son, and that the concept of Jesus as God is a polytheism or perversion. Thus, he fails to understand the Christian notion of the Trinity, as no Christian would consider the Trinity as a trio of three gods. Mohammed fails to understand that this nature of God defies human explanation or understanding. To fail to comprehend a complex issue does not make it false; it simply means that the complexity of God is only fitting for a “real” god. The Muslim god is a non-complex god. God is all-powerful, but he never escapes having a human-like character in the Qur’an. His size and power ultimately defines his holiness and goodness, and thus are the only things that differentiate allah from man. Allah is gracious and merciful, yet it is a mercy of a human type. Allah would never die to save his enemy, which is exactly what the Christian God did. The pronoun for allah is frequently pleural in the Qur’an (we, us) yet there is no explanation as to why the pleural is used, especially since the Muslim doctrine adamantly states that allah is “one”. The Muslim approach to god seems much different than found in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, especially referring to the Psalms. There is no reflection on the joy of being under God’s protection. There is no joy reflected in the worship of God. In the Muslim Scriptures, allah calls the believer to prayer at certain times, and those calls must be slavishly obeyed. Allah is definitely a different “god” from Jehovah.
  5. Battle against the unbelievers
    Much ado is made about the Qur’an call for Jihad, or battle against the unbeliever. I frequently see quotes from the Qur’an calling for the death of infidels and those outside the Muslim faith. In fairness, there are occasional passages, but also passages warning against taking undo violence to those outside the faith. Certainly, terrorism is NEVER called for within the Qur’an, and one could assume that terrorists are acting outside of the stipulations of their own Scripture.
  6. Reiteration of Old Testament Stories
    There are many Old Testament stories re-told in the Qur’an, including that of Adam and Eve, Abraham, Lot, Moses, Jonah, and others. The New Testament is occasionally quoted, though the NT stories are not told. The stories as told in the Qur’an are always different from the OT stories, and often different enough as to be impossible to be simultaneously true with the OT account. This would mean that the differences could not simply be accounted for as differing points of view. Which calls into question as to which account is the correct on (assuming that at least one account reflects a true event that actually happened). This issue leads to a deeper problem for Muslims, in that it is known that the Qur’an in its infancy had many forms. How will the Muslim know that his “Scriptures” are really accurate? He can’t know, assuming that even carefully protected text of the Old Testament “failed” to survive and needed “correction” and reinterpretation by Muhammed.
  7. Statements against the Jewish and Christian faith
    While I’d like to assume that the Qur’an has a neutral stance regarding the Judeo-Christian faith, I fear that it is not neutral. There are many condemnations regarding Christian belief. I mentioned above the Old Testament stories. Considering how carefully the OT was transcribed from century to century, it is unlikely that significant textual degeneration occurred in the OT. Muhammed is very confused as to the doctrine of the Trinity, and completely fuddles up the notion of God having a wife and a son (Jesus). The Qur’an issues frequent proclamations that believers in the Trinity will be going to hell. There are no subtleties or hidden suggestions here; it is very overt. In essence, either the Judeo-Christian Bible or the Qur’an is true, but not both.
  8. Women
    Outside of the OT stories in the Qur’an, the Qur’an has no stories, and thus women are mentioned only as a societal element. It is clear that the women of Muhammed are lesser people. One could argue that the Judeo-Christian Scriptures also hold women in a lesser state than men, yet to say so confuses status with hierarchical authority. In the Qur’an, I do not see women elevated to a status of worth equivalent to men. In terms of relations, Muhammed does protect women in the area of divorce by making sure that they are provided for, but never calls to question the issue of divorce itself, and does not give grounds for or against divorce. Thus, the Qur’an pictures women as important but of less value than men.
  9. What the Qur’an doesn’t mention
    I’ve read through the Qur’an only once, and have no intention of reading it through again. I was specifically looking for certain things that are often are associated with the Muslim faith, but that I did not find in the Qur’an. I can think of a few examples. A) Full Burquas are not called for. Women are instructed to dress modestly, but no where does it call for the covering of everything including the eyes. B) 70 virgins are not promised in paradise. Generally, only one maiden is assured of the faithful men. C) Terrorism is prohibited and not condoned by the Qur’an. It is mentioned that to slay another Muslim means condemnation to the fires of hell, yet terrorist self-sacrifice is doing exactly that. Terrorism is never mentioned as a means of absolving all prior sins and gaining favor with allah. D) The touching of pigs is not prohibited but just the eating of pigs, and even then, if pig is eaten out of the desperation for survival, it is promised that allah would be understanding and merciful. E) Strong intoxicating drink is prohibited, but alcohol specifically is not prohibited. F) The mandatory use of only Arabic in the legitimate reading of the Qur’an is hinted at but never explicitly mentioned. G) The call to prayer is not specifically mentioned, and call to prayer five times a day not mentioned. In all, this suggests that much Muslim practice and beliefs are not based strictly on the Qur’an. I realize that Muslims have other writings that they rely on, but how they view those writings in relation with the Qur’an is uncertain to me.

Summary

The dear reader of this review might argue that I inappropriately read the Qur’an with a Christian bias. That is totally correct. The Qur’an makes truth claims, and it is the responsibility of the writer  (Muhammed) to add legitimacy to those truth claims. In the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, truth claims were also accompanied by miracles to substantiate the truth of the prophet. Muhammed is very quick and repetitive in defending the absence of miracles in his time on earth, yet he offers no other valid reason for accepting his truth claims. I have no reason to believe Mohammed over any other person claiming to offer prophecy and truth claims that supplement the Judeo-Christian Bible. The Mormons are a perfect example, and I would be very interested in seeing how a follower of Mohammed might challenge the claims of Joseph Smith, save that Joseph Smith was a polytheist, and thus “clearly” wrong. The Qur’an is not a supplement to the Christian or Jewish faith, but in direct opposition to it. Because it would be inappropriate in this book review, I did not elaborate on the differences in doctrines of the Muslim and Judeo-Christian faith. The most notable difference is that the Qur’an repeatedly calls allah merciful, yet that mercy must be earned. In Judeo-Christian doctrine (which I think is adequately maintained throughout the entirety of the Old and New Testaments), mercy is not something to be earned but is granted to undeserving sinners. Thus, the real meaning of grace in Judeo-Christian thinking is never found in the Qur’an.

There is a high amount of concurrence between Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinking, including the belief in only one God, a belief that God is a moral God, and a belief in an ultimate judgement. Many of the ethical statements are in accord. So, what do we make of the Muslim faith? Historically, the Muslim faith is an offshoot of Christianity. Like so many of the Judeo-Christian heresies, from gnosticism to Arianism to present day Mormonism, Muhammedism is sufficiently deviant from the Judeo-Christian faith both in its description of God and it’s belief system as to warrant the term “heresy”. It remains a heresy of the Judeo-Christian faith since retains much of the skeleton of its original Christian origin.

I am left in great confusion as to the behavior of Muslims based on the Qur’an. They claim to be “people of the book”, yet much of their practice is completely outside of what is mentioned in the Qur’an. My reading of the Qur’an does not draw the illustration of the present day Muslim. Perhaps they might be better known as “people of an Arabic tradition”. I am also confused as to why they don’t stand up against their fellow Muslims that choose to engage in terrorism, being that the Qur’an forbids terrorism. Muslims seem to not really believe their own Scriptures.

I am glad to have read the Qur’an in its entirety, and perhaps multiple readings might soften (or perhaps harden) my position. The question still remains… what is true? Is it the Qur’an? The Bible? Neither? If either the Bible or the Qur’an are true, then there is an eternity of implications for that. It behooves the reader to make than decision.

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Mar 31

The quirks of Presbyterianism

in relation to my Anabaptist roots

My wife and I are religious schizophrenics—we are deeply rooted in both the Presbyterian and Anabaptist traditions. These traditions seem to be polar opposites, though in many ways, the opposite is true. I would like to briefly explore my thoughts on their similarities and differences.

History

My wife and I grew up in the Apostolic Christian Church (ACCA [Apostolic Christian Church in America] and ACCN [Apostolic Christian Church Nazarean]), which are actually two denominations of the Amish-Mennonite Anabaptist tradition that split in the early twentieth century. It is a denomination, in spite of their quirks, that is still dearly loved by me. I consider myself as having a world view shaped by their teaching, notably that of fervor for God’s word, of intense love for the Brethren (which is a non-sexist word and includes females), and anti-militarism. For various pragmatic reasons, our family attended Moody Church while we were living in Chicago, Illinois when I was in surgery residency, a church we also dearly loved, especially with the preaching of pastor Irwin Lutzer. We attended a Baptist church while I was in the Air Force in Biloxi, MS, and really did not like it at all. There was a PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) church in town, but did not attend there because we felt the Presbyterians were heretics and totally off base. It was during my time in Biloxi that I started reading intensely on Dispensationalism versus Reformed theology, and became convinced that Reformed theology (Calvinism, if you wish), had a more consistent approach to Scripture in its entirety than either Dispensational or Anabaptist theology. I also realized that the description of “Calvinism” by Anabaptists and Dispensationalists was entirely in error. On moving to Puyallup, WA, we attended a generic Christian church for a little over a year. I absolutely hated it for its irreverent worship style and weak theology. On recommendation of a close colleague at the hospital, our family broke down and started attending Faith Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, WA, a member of the Presbyterian Church in America denomination. The pastor was the son of the first president of Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, and well acquainted with Francis Schaeffer. He was a large drawing point for us. We have been there ever since, with no plans of leaving. We had never formally left the Apostolic Christian Church, and have no idea whether they still consider us to be “members”. Our departure was more by incidence of our life’s journey, rather than a formal choice to leave the ACCN. Thus, my wife and I still consider ourselves to be a part of both worlds.

Comparisons of Anabaptist/Reformed theology

Theology was the driving force for leaving the generic church and going to a church that has Reformed doctrine. Contrary to many thinkers, Calvinism is everything but “once saved, always saved”. This is especially true of the covenantal manifestations of Calvinism. In fact, what is portrayed as Calvinism and what is the true meaning of Reformed doctrine are unrecognizable. I’ll offer several examples. Perseverance of the saints as a doctrine means that the saints will persevere in holiness. It never was intended to mean that a person could never “lose” their salvation, except for that if one is truly saved, they will persist in holiness. The discussable issue on this topic for both Anabaptists and Reformed thinkers relates to assurance of salvation, even though arguments for assurance will follow different lines of thought. Both Anabaptists and Reformed thinkers share the necessity for godly living. A second topic of contention is that of limited atonement, which is a terrible phase that means particular redemption. Most Reformed thinkers advocate a universal calling, and bona fide offer of the gospel for all. The only realm of contention regarding particular redemption is that the Reformed thinkers will say that Christ’s death was EFFICACIOUS only for the saved, something that even Anabaptists would ultimately agree with, unless they hold to the doctrine of ultimate universal salvation for all. The doctrine of total depravity would be an area of contention between Anabaptists and Reformed thinkers that would not be resolvable. Oddly, this is not an issue commonly fought over. Nobody wishes to consider themselves to be Pelagian, so one will usually default to a semi-Pelagian position regarding total depravity, which in my thinking is a most confused approach to depravity. As GK Chesterton has noted, total depravity is the one and only doctrine which is easily verifiable in real life.

The baptism of infants is a point of contention with Anabaptists which is usually terribly misunderstood. Baptism is considered neither a confirmation of salvation nor a witness to the world of salvation. Rather, it, like circumcision, is a representation of a covenant with God.  This covenant has both promises as well as obligations. Much of the obligation is on the parents to raise their children as Christians, and duly expect them to make a profession of faith throughout their life. Many non-Reformed churches have a dedication ceremony which is neither Scriptural or meaningful, save for trying to imitate the ceremony of infant baptism. In terms of when a person actually becomes a Christian, the Reformed doctrine refuses to define a precise method. In fact, virtually every New Testament conversion that is discussed is different. Some children of believers may be converted in utero, others in childhood, others after a period of sinful life, and others never. The point is that the Christian will always need to persist in their profession of faith until death.

Some of the ramifications of the doctrine of predestination may be troubling to the Anabaptist until they give worthy pause to what is actually being said. Predestination most certainly is NOT fatalism, i.e., that the course of history has been set in motion in which nothing will change. I would refer the reader to J.I. Packers’ “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God” to grasp this issue. It is certain that we are both totally determined yet totally free in our decisions and actions. The explanation for this remains in the divine wisdom of God which cannot be explained. Finally, I wish to note that when one looks at both the Anabaptists and Reformed churches, there are multiple splits numbering in the hundreds to thousands. Most of these splits are related to some subtle doctrinal issue which presents itself as irreconcilable to the church leaders. Even in my lifetime, I’ve seen a number of splits in churches (both Apostolic Christian and PCA) that are inexplainable save for our persisting depravity.

Both the Reformed and Anabaptist traditions are quite intense about their theology and hold it of great importance. The Reformed thinkers have approached theology in a more systematic fashion, and win out in terms of have a more consistent and organized theological base. Unfortunately, the Reformed church knows this, and it tends to breed a very strong sense of arrogance on their part for having “the best” doctrine. The Reformed folk also manifest a sense of divisiveness in their theology, discussed kindly in a recent internet article by John Frame (http://frame-poythress.org/machens-warrior-children/). This article discusses 21 topics that are highly divisive in the PCA church—I think that he is kind, and under-estimates divisive issues, and I mean divisive enough that various groups would hold charges of heresy against contrary thinking. I have seen Presbyterians approach theology with such opinionated aggressive as to wonder if they were not terminally constipated. A recent move in the PCA condemning the theology of federal vision had a vitriol of extreme proportions, yet one had a challenge even defining what one meant by federal vision!

Anabaptists also excel in divisiveness, and there are countless sub-factions of Amish, Mennonites and the like. This Anabaptist divisiveness can either be theological (like a recent ACCA split debating whether or not a Christian could/does sin) or practical (like whether it is permissible to grow beards or have lightning rods on your house). In the Anabaptist circle that I grew up in, theology was a constant discussion. Our discussions as kids were quite crude and seriously misinformed, but we took theology quite seriously and it was a typical subject of discussion when we would get together. I don’t see that fervor in the Reformed church youth—after all, since they hold the “correct” theology, by bother discussing it?

Church polity/discipline

While this may sound strange, both the Reformed and Anabaptist traditions tend toward the Presbyterian model of polity, in contrast to the Congregational or Episcopalian models. Anabaptists do not generally have a paid clergy, though there are exceptions to this rule. Yet, there are central Anabaptist structures, and national meetings of the elders that are akin to the annual presbytery/synod meetings that occur in Reformed circles. The interest of both traditions is to maintain commonalities in theology and worship that define the denomination. To the surprise of Anabaptists, the conservative Reformed denominations (such as the PCA) take church discipline very seriously, and do exercise member expulsion for various sins or absence of repentance. The terms of expulsion or other forms of church discipline differ, but yet there is a very strong sense of the necessity of the church to exercise discipline of its members, and preach the value of a godly lifestyle in all things.

Worship style

The similarities between Anabaptist and Reformed worship is greater than their differences. Both hold a very high estimation of worship and formality in their church meetings. This is true, even though the Anabaptists do everything possible to remove distinctive display elements to their worship, including the display of crosses in church, the wearing of special garments by the ministry, or other outward displays. Oddly, Anabaptist members usually are required to have special garments, such as specially defined head coverings for females, and distinct dress for men. The Anabaptists would never call their service a “high-church” style, yet it has a formality and regulation that is uniform and consistent between churches and enduring through the years. Both Anabaptist and Reformed thinkers have an equal problem with the current contemporary worship service, which consists of worship as entertainment.

Music

The Reformed churches would love to think that they have the great advantage in music. In this regard, they are sorely wrong. As a matter of fact, Presbyterians simply cannot sing. It is true that many Reformed members go on to become professional musicians and that musical instrumentation in the church is of high value. Many Anabaptist churches, including the ACCA denomination which my parents came out of, never even used a keyboard in their services. Yet, I would estimate that most Anabaptist members had home musical training, and greater than 90% were able to sing in 4 part harmony during worship services. They would stay on tune, even singing a cappella. If you examine closely their hymnody, the Anabaptists mostly drew on the German Lutheran/Bach choral tradition, with far more complex harmonies and melodies than could ever be found in a Reformed/Presbyterian congregational hymnal. In addition, the Anabaptists would sing those songs quite well. Playing or singing the ACC hymnal (Zion’s Harp) is far more challenging than playing or singing the PCA Trinity Hymnal. The Presbyterians are slightly more cautious regarding good theology in their songs, but even there, the ACC hymnal has much better tunes for praise, consecration of one’s life, the afterlife, suffering, and general worship than any Reformed Hymnal. The British and Scots just were not as artful in music as the Germans!

Fellowship

In the Anabaptist family, one feels like family. It doesn’t matter where you go in the world. If you encounter another “AC”, you might as well consider yourself a real brother or sister. You are always welcome in their home, as you would welcome them into your home. Much of your free time would be spent at church or with fellow AC’s. The Presbyterians also maintain a sense of community, but no where near the intensity that is found in traditional AC circles. It is common in Anabaptist communities to see them going out of their way to care for each other. An example are the nursing homes that the ACC’s have developed in conjunction with their churches. These serve several uses. First, they care for the debilitated elderly while keeping them out of the ward of the state. Secondly, they allow elderly in the nursing homes to be useful and active, rather than simply shuttering them in. It is a shame that Reformed churches cannot develop such a modality—I presume that they are in fear of “offending” the state or its ordinances.

The fellowship among Anabaptists extends in other ways. Most of the brethren of the AC church could be assumed to be “trustable”. By that, I mean that if there were business contracts or other dealings that transpired among two brothers in the AC denomination, even if the agreement was verbal and not in print, one could assume that the agreement would be faithfully adhered to. It is not the case in the Presbyterian world, and though members all consider themselves as Christian and adhering to the laws of God, your probability of integrity among the “faithful” in the Presbyterian church isn’t much higher than you’d find from somebody randomly picked from the telephone directory or pulled off the street. Indeed it is a sad state of affairs when professing Christians are no different than the world.

Influence in the world/Politics

The Anabaptists tend to stay out of politics. Yet, a number of its sons do go into politics, such as one of the long-standing senators from Illinois who grew up in an ACCA home. The first Presbyterian politician of great acclaim also shamefully happened to be among our worst presidents—Woodrow Wilson. America would have been better off without Presbyterians in government. Presbyterians have served as a positive influence in society, the best example being that of Francis Schaeffer, though often his actions were at odds with those of the Presbyterian church, explaining why he tended to act independent of any Presbyterian mission board. To this date, Presbyterian actions in politics frighten me. While I appreciate their willingness to act as salt and light in the world, and influence the political structure for good, many of the actions of devout Presbyterians have been more detrimental than good on society. I wait pensively for how Donald Trump proves to be as president since he states that he is Presbyterian—his saving grace might be that he is despised by many prominent Presbyterians of both the conservative and liberal stripes. Contrariwise, the action of Anabaptists have also been a touch problematic in that they have not been willing to confront society in the public square and speak truth. Their policy of “letting the world go to hell as we will maintain our private devotion to God” might absolve them from taking a stand for truth and righteousness in the public square, but their failure to speak out will be ruled against them at the last judgement. In my final analysis, I will act like a Presbyterian in the public square, but will shy away from getting political advice from the Presbyterians and vote like a traditional Apostolic Christian.

Summary

My wife and I are caught between two worlds. We love our Anabaptist heritage, and we love our current Presbyterian situation. We see both the best and the worst of both worlds, and see neither as distinctly superior to the other. I could not have had a better time growing up in the ACCN denomination in Portland, Oregon. It nurtured me well in the faith. Yet, we remain most happy in my current situation in the PCA church. We have a beloved and wonderful pastor, our faith has grown steadily under his preaching, and doctrinally we’ve been challenged and grown in ways which never could have happened in nearly other setting. Thus, we feel doubly blessed.

In a previously quoted article, John Frame speaks at length about ceasing quibbling about petty doctrinal and behavior issues in the church. It is a plea for Christian charity and humility among other Christians. I saw this in action when I took a class in systematic theology from JI Packer, experiencing  graciousness of abounding proportions when angrily challenged and confronted on touchy topics in class. I wish that I could manifest the spirit of Dr. Packer! Francis Schaeffer also wrote much about Christians fighting among each other, and his book “The Mark of a Christian” emphasized that as important as doctrine and behavior may be, love for each other needs to shine out strongest.

We will remain Presbyterian for now, but our hearts (and hopefully our behavior) are Anabaptist. Without a doubt, in heaven, these issues will all work out, and we will not have to take sides as Catholic, Anabaptist, Generic Protestant, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Reformed, Anglican, Baptist, or Orthodox. Christ isn’t divided, and I pray that the church would seek more the spirit of unity in Christ than of obscure technical differences.

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Oct 24

seekingallah

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, by Nabeel Qureshi ★★★★

This is an autobiography of the conversion of Nabeel Qureshi from a devout Muslim faith to Christianity. Nabeel was born in the USA, but grew up in a Pakistani Muslim family belonging to a sect called the Ahmadi. Living in Virginia, he was challenged in his faith by a close Christian friend David Wood. David and Nabeel met in high school, and continued on together in college, until Nabeel eventually applied to and was accepted into medical school. Through a number of years and Nabeel seeking inconsistencies in his faith, he finally had a series of dreams which led him to become a Christian. The book is written in multiple very short chapters, and so is somewhat spasmodic or convulsive  in the way it is read. There is a lengthy appendage to the book. I appreciated this book as a means of describing the challenges of bringing a Muslim person to faith in Christ. Nabeel has written several other books, one on Jihad and another on the distinctives of Muslim versus Christian theology.

Because Nabeel grew up in the USA and to a small sect of the Muslim faith, he is somewhat lacking in seeing the result of a large community of regular Sunni or Shiite Muslims. I am not challenging Nabeel of deficits in knowledge of the Muslim faith, but note that having lived for a while in two Muslim countries (Bangladesh and Extrem Nord Cameroon), my picture of the Muslim faith in those countries (as can be found in most Muslim countries) is less romantic than his views. The people appear bound by an ugly task-master of an intolerant god, with joyless worship of this uncaring and merciless otherworld being. Nabeel shows a kinder, gentler Muslim faith more closely related to its Christian roots, explaining why it is dangerous to categorize all Muslims as dangerous jihadists. Note that I view the Muslim faith as a Christian heresy (which it is!). This kinder, gentler subset of Muslims probably represents a small minority of Muslims just as most “Christians” are Christian in name only. The only problem is in being able to sort out one from the other.

Qureshi shows the reader the formidable challenge of witnessing to the Muslim. The most important aspect is not in having an encyclopedic knowledge of Muslim faith and doctrine, but in simply being able to share clearly the Christian faith, including the resurrection of Christ, the doctrine of the trinity, the formation of the canon of Scripture, etc., and to know why these doctrines are important.

Qureshi continues to write. He has appended this book to fill in 10 years of time since he first became a Christian. He frankly discusses the problems of his family rejecting him for his faith. He discusses finishing medical school, but deciding upon going into the ministry instead, and now works with Ravi Zacharias. Only recently in the news is it known that Nabeel has an advanced gastric cancer and probably will not live too much longer. It will be sad to see the loss of such an interesting person.

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Jul 07

MetaxasKeepIT

If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, by Eric Metaxas ★★★

I ordered this book on-line in February from Amazon, and it arrived in the mail in late June. I’ve read another book by Metaxas which intrigued me, leading to me to order this book. I found out about the book on Facebook, coming from Metaxas’ blog site. I typically appreciate how Metaxas writes, and so felt that I would enjoy reading this book. I’ve met and chatted with Metaxas, I find him to be most likable, and would love to engage in more conversation with him. He is bright, and mostly right-on. The other book by Metaxas that I’ve read was “Bonhoeffer”, a stimulating read, though a book for which I felt Metaxas would frequently draw erroneous conclusions, such as to state that Bonhoeffer was a martyr, which he most certainly was not. That discussion might be found in my review of that text. But, let’s get on with “If You Can Keep It”.

The book is seven chapters, with an introduction and epilogue. I’ll comment on the chapters after I briefly summarize them. The introduction presents the topic, titled by a phrase uttered by Benjamin Franklin at the constitutional convention. When asked whether we would be a republic or a monarchy, Franklin noted that we would be a republic, if we could keep it. Focused on that phrase, Metaxas seeks to restore through the book the zeal to keep this republic founded roughly 230 years ago. Chapter 1 begins the argument by noting that a republic can function only in the environment of moral people. Government cannot make us moral, and each citizen must hold the responsibility for personal morality. Chapter 2 introduces a concept borrowed by Os Guinness called the golden triangle. Specifically, the triangle is that freedom requires virtue, virtue requires faith, and faith requires freedom. Chapter 3 was simply a summary of the ministry of George Whitfield in America, leading to a spiritual revival. Chapter 4 notes how civilizations will have historical heroes that are venerated. He discusses the American heroes that are too commonly forgotten, such as Nathanial Hale, and the founding fathers, including Paul Revere. Chapter 5 builds heavily on the importance of moral leaders, contrasting the immorality of such leaders as Bill Clinton to that of Cinncinaticus, George Washington or William Wilberforce. Chapter 6 explores further the idea of American exceptionalism, and why it is important in thinking about our country. Chapter 7 is a plea that one must love their country (America) in spite of its faults. The epilogue recalls the sentimental experience of Metaxas seeing the statue of liberty in the New York harbor soon after the 9/11 tragedy.

What is the problem with this book? Several…

  1. Metaxas doesn’t express deep insights into the real nature of America, and with what has gone wrong. Perhaps the seeds of destruction were sown at the writing of the constitution itself? Perhaps America’s “exceptionalism” has been not the virtue of its wonderful constitution but its transitory moments where many Americans actually had a true faith in the God of Christianity? Perhaps many of the symbols that evoke sentimental emotions with Metaxas are false symbols, such as the statue of liberty, which is about as pagan as you can get. Not that I dislike Lady Liberty, but I acknowledge that the Christian faith has a seriously different concept of the entire notion of liberty and freedom than pagan or humanistic sources provide for. Metaxas almost hints on that in the book, but fails to follow through, lapsing back into a “God, mother and apple pie” notion of America.
  2. Metaxas confuses general morality with a Christian morality. He spends much time talking about the importance of American’s being moral, but fails to explain why any morality not grounded in Scripture is really a false morality. In essence, morality essentially becomes what the state deems to be good and right. If tolerance becomes the greatest virtue, so be it, because the state has declared it to be so.
  3. Public heroes are nice and important, but only in the light of how they lived consistent with Christian beliefs. I can hold Latimer and Ridley as far greater heroes, dying for far greater principles, than that of Nathanial Hale, or those that perished in the Revolutionary and Civil wars. Heroes now tend to be sentimental figures that do not inform the public into taking a costly moral stance. Metaxas completely confuses this in his book on Bonhoeffer, who was executed for his attempt to assassinate Hitler, which might be noble, but certainly true heroes like David from Scripture had better restraint when an opportunity to assassinate evil Saul presented itself.
  4. The golden triangle, with deepest respect to Os Guinness, seems to be nonsense. There are no specific definitions of virtue (whose morality?) or faith (in what?) or freedom (from what or for what?). Faith in the Christian sense does NOT require freedom, but affords a much greater freedom than is offered by the constitution or any other man-created document or system of government.

Metaxas labors long about the importance of love for country, being sure to dismiss the “my country right or wrong” notion. He argues that you can love a country while hating the sins of that country. But, one’s love for country is far more complex than just “loving” America. Is he talking about America as a system of government? Do we idolize the good but seriously flawed constitution, the “living” document that now controls our country? Do we love it for its extreme secularism, that refuses to take a stance as a Christian nation, and supporting equally Islam, Buddhism, and even Satanism as legitimate religions of the land?  Metaxas doesn’t mention that our only real citizenship is a heavenly citizenship, and on earth we are strangers and pilgrims. It’s not that we are solely citizens of an other-worldly realm, but that we have dual citizenships, and must reconcile how to deal with that, being both members of planet earth and asked to care for the earth, yet members of a heavenly kingdom. Some have responded by claiming that the US system is too far gone, and moved to a country which tended for stronger Christian sympathies. Others have moved on to more oppressive nations, though with the thought that they are subject to a King that is not the prince of this world. Others, like myself, stay, realizing that this is my Heimat, my homeland, that I can have an influence for good in the community in which I live. I do not find America to be exceptional, but like the prophet Jeremiah, spend my time weeping that my nation could have made better decisions but have gone the way of inevitable judgment of a most serious nature.

I see our government as far more corrupt than meets the eye. I see the constitutional structure as fatally flawed in that it is primarily a secular humanist document, and we are now reaping the consequences of that structure. I see the loss of a public Christian morality as the essential loss of anything that once was good about our country. I don’t view ourselves as having a representative government, or that our votes have any substantial meaning. A plethora of events within the last twenty years have shown that a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” does not exist in the USA, and that it will never return, save for a cataclysmic revival in our country. Why can’t Metaxas see this? I don’t know. I ponder the imponderable question as to how the majority of our “well-informed, greatest-nation-on-earth” citizens could vote in a fool and evil person to be their president. I find it even more confusing that some of my Christian friends voted and still stand behind that man, and will soon vote in an even more evil, corrupt liar. These Christian friends are very moral people as well as well educated intelligent folk, and so a generic “morality” just doesn’t explain how to fix America, as Metaxas’ thesis claims.

There is much that Metaxas says correctly in this book. I appreciate his insights into American history and his dissatisfaction with the current status of our country. I appreciate his appeal to return to a moral stance. I would find it easy to get along with Metaxas if we were to meet in public, and could easily become a good friend with him. I hope that with time and age, Metaxas would write a text about America lacking the sentimental statements and the sense that America is a city on a hill that we all wish it would have been. I would hope that Metaxas’ love for America would remain strong, but become more mature,  perhaps seeing America the same way that Jeremiah saw (and deeply loved) Judah.

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Jan 21

SchaefferDuriez

Francis Schaeffer, An Authentic Life, by Colin Duriez ★★★★

I haven’t thought much about Francis Schaeffer recently, but realized through conversations with younger Christians that Francis Schaeffer is no longer a recognizable name. This is to the shame of the church that he and his thinking aren’t occasionally brought back to mind. For many of us that became Christians in the 60’s and 70’s, especially during the era of the Jesus movement, he was quite influential at shaping our thinking and world view. I have read or listened to other biographies of Francis Schaeffer and his work, including the Tapestry and L’Abri, written by Edith Schaeffer, listened to the Covenant Seminary course on Francis Schaeffer, by Jerram Barrs, and have met and spoke at length with Edith Schaeffer and Francis’ son-in-law Udo Middelman, have read his complete works at least twice and watched both of his film series several times, but have never met Francis Schaeffer personally. I also have many friends who have spent time at L’Abri, all of whom would say that their contact with Dr. Schaeffer was heavily influential at affecting the remainder of their life course. My own pastor had spent many hours as a child with Francis, being that his father was president of Covenant Seminary. With that in mind, I review this book.

Colin Duriez, who has spent a number of years at L’Abri and much time with the Schaeffers, is a most capable person to be writing Schaeffer’s biography, and can include personal anecdotes, as well as the result of an interview with Schaeffer toward the end of Schaeffer’s life, in 1980, and this interview is contained in the appendix of the book. The biography is short, and thus is going to be missing in some important details. Specifically, other biographies suggest that Schaeffer was more of a churchman than is presented in this book. He was quite involved up to the end with his Presbyterian denomination, which eventually became the Presbyterian Church in America. His books such as The Church before the Watching World and others witness Schaeffer’s true concern for the Christian church as found in denominations, even though Schaeffer felt as much at home in a Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Orthodox or Pentecostal church as he did in his native Presbyterian church environment.  Duriez speaks often and peripherally about Schaeffer’s philosophy, yet doesn’t develop it systematically. True, Schaeffer would identify himself as an eclectic mix of evidentialist, presuppositionalist, etc., and yet there is meaning to Schaeffer’s madness over and above trying to create a philosophy that was primarily evangelical in it’s intent. Words and thinkers (like Dooyeweerd) are thrown out without offering the reader at least some explanation as to why these people are being mentioned in the context of Schaeffer’s life. I loved the story of Schaeffer visiting Karl Barth, and wish that could have been further elaborated.

Duriez mentions frequently Schaeffer’s love for art museums, with an affection for modern art. Schaeffer appreciated some of the contemporary filmography, but tended to be highly selective in what he considered worthy of review. Duriez also mentions Schaeffer’s love for contemporary rock music, and knowing the words to many songs for the big rock groups of the 60’s and 70’s. Oddly, Schaeffer had a particular distaste for much music such as that of Wagner, and many 20th century musicians. Schaeffer rarely ever mentions Bach’s music as formative of a broader Reformed Christian community. This selection of particular appreciation for the arts has permeated Schaeffer’s disciples, almost to the point that they view Schaeffer as their cultural pope. I find that to be a touch disingenuous.

Outside of my criticisms, the book was an enjoyable read. Schaeffer is sadly being forgotten by the Christian world, and it is to our detriment. Nobody within Christianity has yet risen that was as capable as Schaeffer at providing both a philosophical justification for Christianity while demonstrating the need for Christians to be obedient to the word of God. His was not an ethereal philosophy, but very practical, since it emphasized the need to never divorce religion from experience or history.

 

SchaefferLittle

Francis Schaeffer, A Mind and Heart for God, edited by Bruce Little ★★★★

This short book was taken from a conference given in 2008 in Wake Forest, NC, which included five talks. I’ll briefly mention each talk.

Francis A. Schaeffer: The Man, by Udo Middelmann. This is a very brief but delightful summary of the life and thinking of Schaeffer.

Francis A. Schaeffer: His Apologetics, by Jerram Barrs. Jerram surveys the apologetic methodology of Schaeffer, concluding that Schaeffer was most interested in evangelism, and never ever thought of himself as an apologist for the faith. Thus, Schaeffer avoided debates, and avoided fixing himself within any apologetic category.

Francis Schaeffer in the Twenty-first Century, by Ronald Macaulay. This talk addresses the question as to whether Schaeffer was a prophet in foreseeing future troubles in the world. Schaeffer would have vigorously denied being a prophet, yet his cultural predictions have essentially become true. Schaeffer was particularly sensitive to a culture that advocated freedom without a Christian basis for it, or a Christian church based on religious sentiment rather than a dynamic belief in the word of God. Macaulay hits hard on Schaeffer’s war against contemporary pietism, which I appreciated. This was a delightful chapter to read, but am left wondering what Schaeffer would have been saying in today’s world. It is different than 50 years ago, in that, now that truth is universally accepted as unknowable, people no longer ask questions. The solution to any crisis in life is now resolved not by seeking philosophical consistency, but by seeking a hedonistic resolution for the moment without concern for future consequences. I would wonder regarding Schaeffer’s approach to the current political scene, now in a truly post-Christian scenario. “Speaking the truth in love” is going to take a different form than Schaeffer manifested throughout his life, perhaps being more pointed such as found in Christ’s, or perhaps Jeremiah’s ministry. What would Schaeffer say to a culture now overrun by the anti-Christian culture of the Muslim faith? I don’t believe that we could predict his response, and even if we could would still wish to defer to guidance from Scripture. Again, Schaeffer should not be treated as the political-cultural pope of our age, and he would agree with that if he could speak from the dead.

Francis Schaeffer: His Legacy and His Influence on Evangelicalism, by Jerram Barrs. Much of this talk focused on Schaeffer’s evangelistic method as it affected Jerram Barrs himself, as he became a Christian under the influence of Schaeffer. Barrs offers 8 points that characterize the nature and style of Schaeffer’s evangelistic methodology.

Sentimentality: Significance for Apologetics, by Dick Keyes. This talk has come under criticism from Amazon.com reviewers as being only peripherally related to Schaeffer, and not directly about him. Yet, I really enjoyed this talk, and felt that because it so heavily reflected Schaeffer’s thinking, that it was a worthy inclusion in this text. Sentimentality is displaced emotion that is directed toward the self. It denies a world that is not fallen, and does not result in appropriate responses. Though not mentioned in this chapter, my first thought was the outpouring of emotion when one watched Mel Gibson’s The Passion, yet I’ve to hear of even one life changed from this emotional Sintflut. Keyes discusses the result of Christians controlled by sentimentality, and how to deal with the sentimental person, by bringing them back to reality through some point of contact with reality.

I wonder how many more Francis Schaeffer conferences will be seen in the future, especially as those who lived in the 60’s and 70’s and were influenced by Schaeffer now are becoming a dying breed. Hopefully, his thinking will live on through such institutions such as Jerram Barr’s Francis Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Seminary. The history of institutions devoted to a good cause seem to be rather sad. Just look at such institutions as the YMCA, which is now neither young, doesn’t know the difference between a man or woman, is definitely not Christian, but sadly remains an Association. Schaeffer’s books will live on, and hopefully will be read by our children’s children for many more generations. I pray that someone in a future generation will rise and capably question the culture, and be able to confront the culture as Schaeffer was able to do a half century ago.

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