Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Christmas/New Year's Book Bonanza

Our Christmas/New Year's traditions have developed into a cool East-West hybrid that spreads the celebrating out for much longer than we're used to in the States. Let me explain.

Our local Church, Light of the Gospel, has services and youth performances on and around the 25th of December and, as a family, we do stockings and one family gift on that day. Most of the people around us don't acknowledge that date as anything special, so we keep it low-key and focus on the family and faith aspects of it.

The big day for Ukrainian gift giving is January 1. Of course, everyone is up late celebrating the New Year and boy, do I mean late. Not-quite-professional-but-highly-impressive fireworks get going at midnight all over the city and go strong until about 1:00AM. Then, after decreasing in frequency just a bit, they continue until 4:00 or 5:00AM. This year featured a bunch of youngsters misfiring a sky rocket that flew a few feet off the ground (horizontally instead of vertically) and exploded into the side of a car about 150 feet from us. I was torn between anger over such irresponsibility and curiosity over what would have happened if it exploded under the car, all the while thanking the Good Lord that we weren't any closer to the incident than we were. Mishaps and lateness notwithstanding, fireworks everywhere you turn is a great way to bring in the New Year.

So, the drawback to combining gift giving with New Year's is the sleep deprivation that accompanies all activities on January 1. But the pluses outweigh the minuses. First, all of the materialism that accompanies the gift giving is clearly shifted away from the celebration of the Incarnation. Second, nothing happens on January 1 so you have all day to lounge around and put together all of the stuff that a 4-year-old receives at this time of year. Third, no matter how hard they try, my parents' Christmas box never arrives before the 25th. This year it arrived on Thursday, which would have been late if we were counting on it for Christmas. But since we do presents on New Year's — blammo — presents on time!

You'd think that it's all over and done with, right? Well, given that this is an Orthodox country and thus follows the Orthodox calendar, Christmas is officially celebrated after New Year's on January 7. So, instead of being out of school from December 27-31, Dietrich will be out of school from January 3-7. Thus, more rest and recreation is ahead of us a family. Also, more celebrating is ahead of us as our Church takes advantage of the holiday to focus on Jesus' birth with a more evangelistic thrust the second time around, hoping to present the Gospel compellingly to any nominal Church-goers who may be simply trying to do their "religious duty" on that day.

The above, apart from explaining how we celebrate the holiday season, is mostly just a set up for why I'm bragging about my gifts on New Year's and not on Christmas. I always ask for books at the holidays — I take 'em any way I can get 'em — but this year I really scored. 10 books total and I want to read all of them right now! Realistically, I should make it through 4, maybe 5 of them in the next year so, if you want to know what I think, check back next year at this time. Here they are, in no particular order. If you've read any of them and have any thoughts, please comment.

Michael F. Bird & James Crossley, How Did Christianity Begin? A Believer and Non-believer Examine the Evidence (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008).

This book was advertised in First Things and caught my attention. I'm already about 20 pages into it. The fact that the "non-believer," Crossley, believes a lot things that non-believers are not supposed to believe should make the debate a lot more interesting.

John Mark Reynolds, When Athens Met Jerusalem: In Introduction to Classical and Christian Thought (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009).

John Mark Reynolds is a dynamic and deep thinker and delivers a great lecture. It's probably safe to say that he delivers too many a great lecture given the time it took him to complete this book (I remember talking to him about it at least 10 years ago). In any case, this book should bring clarity to the often misunderstood relationship between Christianity and ancient thought. If I teach philosophy again in the fall, this book is definitely on my summer reading list.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 8 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010).

Obviously, Bonhoeffer is respected in this house, but I've always been embarrassed that I've never read this key collection of his final thoughts. By the time I knew that I should read it, the English translation of his complete works was already in process and I wanted to wait for it in that series. Now that it's out and I have it, I will consume it forthwith.

Peter Kreeft, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Heaven but Never Dreamed of Asking (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1990).

I'm teaching a course in March/April that includes eschatology and I don't have a lot of books on Heaven (mostly because there aren't a lot of specifically theological books on the topic) for preparation. Kreeft is an excellent writer and has another book on the existential case for Heaven that is awesome so, I assume this one will be too.

Michael Rydelnik, The Messianic Hope: Is the Hebrew Bible Really Messianic? NAC Studies in Bible and Theology, Vol. 9 (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2010).

The NAC Studies in Bible & Theology series is awesome! I read Jason Meyers' The End of the Law, also from that series, and am still adjusting my worldview in light of it. I'm collecting all of the books from the series so, there isn't a specific reason why I asked for Rydelnik's book other than that I didn't have it yet. But I'm always glad to be forced to spend serious time with the Old Testament, which this book will do. And how can it not be beneficial to wrestle with Its promises of a Messiah that are ultimately fulfilled in Jesus?

Keith Ward, The Big Questions in Science & Religion (Conshohocken, PA: Templetom Press, 2008).

If I have an academic hobby (as opposed to a specialization), it's digging deep into the science-religion debate. While poking around on a few years ago, I came across this book and it promises to be a fresh look at some of the major questions that come up in that debate. Who knows when I'll get to this but I can't wait 'til I do. (The page for this book at Templeton Press says that the book is in Russian. If so, I may be reading it sooner than later. That's exciting.)

Thomas Flint, Divine Providence: The Molinist Account, Cornell Studies in Science & Religion (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998).

Molinism is the major view of divine providence in Talbot School of Theology's Philosophy of Religion and Ethics program and I need to know more about it than I do. William Lane Craig has a good introductory text on the view; Flint's seems to be the more scholarly and philosophical counterpart to Craig's book. Explaining how God can be sovereign while man can be free is not an easy task. I'm looking forward to seeing how the Molinist account compares to the standard Calvinist and Arminian/Wesleyan accounts.

D.A. Carson, Divine Sovereignty & Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2002).

One of the major contenders for a Calvinist explanation of the divine sovereignty/human freedom problem is compatiblism, which Carson contends for in this book. Carson is an amazingly sharp thinker and I expect to read a very well-argued and very biblical case for the view when I get around to tackling this book. I'll try my best to read Flint and Carson back to back, if I can.

Christopher Morgan & Robert Peterson, eds., Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004).

This book is also to prep for my upcoming eschatology class. The bummer is that it is the second time I've had to buy the book. I don't have a good system for keeping track of books that I lend out (call it irresponsibility or communalism). So, at some point in the last few years, I let someone borrow the book and never got it back. I've asked everyone I can think of if they have it and, with no positive results, my poor wife had to buy me a book that we'd already spent money on in the past. The good thing is that its a great collection of powerful essays that argue for a biblically faithful view of hell so, if the person who has it reads it, they'll be really well informed about where not to go when you die.

Bruce A. Ware, ed., Perspectives in the Doctrine of God: 4 Views (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2008).

I love the multiview book series by all 3 major publishers (B&H's Perspectives series, IVP's Spectrum Multiview series and Zondervan's Counterpoint series and here and here). This format forces the authors to succinctly state their view and to interact with others who share a view different, often radically different, from their own. This particular book would be good to read before I read Flint and Carson, as it would give the Arminian and Open Theist perspectives on the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom, as well. Maybe the summer of 2012 will be dedicated to that research project.

I hope you had a merry Christmas and as happy a New Year's as I did.


mcdonnel said...

Hey Eric, I would be interested in looking at the "End of the Law" book when it could be available.

Sam said...

Merry Christmases, you guys. There's one more book for you, on its way on a boat right now. It's not nearly such a serious or meaningful book as any of these, but I'm hopeful you'll enjoy it.

eric O said...

of course you can borrow the book. it will be in your box tomorrow.

another book! last year will likely be unsurpassed in book acquisition. is the book, by any chance, the one on baseball umping that you wrote about on jit fong's blog? if not, maybe i could borrow that one in may.

Sam said...

It's not the umpiring book, but of course you can borrow that one whenever I see you.

ladyjane said...

Oh, read Letters & Papers's so great! Did you know I have a book with just letters between Maria and Dietrich? Aunt Connie somehow had it and gave it to me. Happy reading, no matter which one is first, Jane

eric O said...

unfortunately, i can't tackle letters and papers yet. it would consume me and i have other study projects that must come first. i am thinking of making it the only book that i take on vacation, however, so we'll have some bonhoeffer to discuss then.

you showed me the book of letters between maria and dietrich when we were back to have our dietrich in '06. i didn't have time to read it then. but when we were back in '08/'09, when i did have time for it, i forgot all about it. oops.

i'm a few days away from finishing the debate book that you guys got me about the origins of Christianity. debate books can be repetitive but this one, not being a transcription of a live debate, is much broader and deeper than most. it's a great discussion and the "secularist," as he calls himself, has some new and interesting ways to divest Jesus of divinity and explain the origins of Christianity without recourse to the supernatural. it really gets the apologetics juices flowing. thanks again for the gift.

eric O said...

i finished bird and crossley's book yesterday and it was great. it's unlike any debate on the topic that i've read before. these guys discuss everything: ancient world religions, the Gospels, the new perspective on paul, and much, much more.

my main criticism of bird, the evangelical, is that he did not always give good responses to crossley's actual arguments. he did a great job at painting a good picture of the Christian explanation of the rise of Christianity, but he didn't always to respond to crossley's criticisms. if i, as a non-historian, can develop historically decent refutations of crossley, surely bird could have done so, as well.

my main criticism of crossley (besides his rejection of any supernatural explanation, which is almost a given in a debate with a secularist/naturalist/atheist) regards his problem with the Gospels. if there is an event in a Gospel that seems to portray Jesus as God, but that event is not found in any other Gospel, crossley dismisses it on the grounds that, if it really happened, surely the other Gospel writers would have included it. he responded this way at least 3 times, if not 4 or 5. this is a ridiculous response. Jesus ministered for several years, preaching and miracle-working the whole time. the Gospels give us such a small, albeit absolutely amazing, portrait of all that He said and did. there are undoubtedly countless things that Jesus said and did, all indicating His divinity that are not recorded in any of the Gospels. it seems simply irresponsible of crossley to write off a particular divinity-confirming statement or act of Jesus simply because only one Gospel writer chose to include it or, as crossley would say, invent it. if each Gospel were about 25 times longer and more akin to a biography, maybe his argument would stand. but in light of the nature of the Gospels I see no reason to give crossley's argument any credit.

regardless of my criticisms, the debate is engaging and challenging. if you read my blog and don't skip my theology/philosophy posts, you should read the book.

eric O said...

here is the review in my apologetics bibliography:

Michael F. Bird & James G. Crossley, How Did Christianity Begin? A Believer and Non-
believer Examine the Evidence (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008).

Not following the standard format usually found in debate books, this apologetic gem is necessary read for any apologist at an intermediate level or higher. Bird, an Evangelical, and Crossley, a secularist, are historians and the debate is over the historical explanation for how and why Christianity developed. Rather than focus on a few central pieces of data, as most debaters of this topic tend to do, the authors move from the dating of the Synoptic Gospels to the reliability of the Gospel of John to the resurrection to the religious milieu of the first century to the significant sociological factors of the time to the relationship of Jesus and Paul to the Law, all at a deeper-than-normal level and with a different-than-usual approach. As often happens, the authors at times talk past one another. But, for the most part, Bird and Crossely go head to head, offering alternative explanations for the birth and rise of Christianity, starkly revealing the incompatibility between the theistic and secularist interpretations of history. Bird is completely open to the supernatural and presents the data — sometimes compellingly and sometimes not so compellingly — as evidencing God's intervention in history through the Person and work of Jesus Christ and the Church that bears His name. Crossley will not accept any such events and goes to great lengths to show how often-interpreted supernatural events are not much more than run-of-the-mill occurrences in the ancient world. For him, it was the perfect alignment of cultural, religious and sociological factors that allowed a mere man to be recast as God and it was the perfect balance of theological believability and political manipulation that allowed orthodox Christianity to push forward Its version of history. New Testament scholars Scot McKnight and Maurice Casey offer Evangelical and secularist critiques, respectively, of Crossley and Bird, also respectively, which bring in other perspectives to the table and liven the discussion. The book's major flaw is the omission of closing, summary statements by each author. Nonetheless, the debate is as compelling as it is complex and should stand as a stimulating challenge to both Evangelical and secularist worldviews and should result in future debates of a similar nature.