Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Hochstetler Massacre

September 19, 1757, was a terrible, terrible day for the Jacob Hochstetler family in Northkill, Pennsylvania. A new trilogy of historical novels brilliantly tells the story of the massacre that occurred then and the long-lasting repercussions of that tragedy.
The Facts
As the roadside marker indicates, the first Amish-Mennonite congregation in the U.S. was established by 1740 near Northkill Creek in Berks County, Pennsylvania, about 75 miles northwest of Philadelphia. (For some inexplicable reason the date seems to be off by ten days.)
The home of Jacob Hochstetler and his family in Northkill was attacked by a band of Delaware and Shawnee Indians on the night of Sept. 19, 1757. It was an unspeakable tragedy for the family. Jacob's wife, whose name is not known, and two of the children were killed; Jacob and two sons, Joseph and Christian, were taken as captives.
Several months later, Jacob was able to escape from the Indian settlement and to return home. Joseph was 15 when captured and while completely resistant to his captors at first, he gradually assimilated into the Indian community and was reluctant to return to his Amish home when he had the chance to do that several years later.
Christian was captured when he was 11. He had the hardest time going back home when freed and becoming a member of the Amish community again.  
Plaque at the original Hochstetler homestead.
The Trilogy
Ervin Stutzman is the author the “Return to Northkill” trilogy, consisting of Jacob’s Choice (2014), Joseph’s Dilemma (2015), and Christian’s Hope (2016). They are engaging historical novels by an author who comes from the Amish tradition.
On the first Sunday I attended Rainbow Mennonite Church in 2011, I met Clif Hostetler and he has been a good friend (and soon became a Thinking Friend) ever since. Jacob Hochstetler was Clif’s 5th great-grandfather. (The original German name was shortened by many of Jacob’s descendants.)
(Clif loaned me Stutzman’s books, and I enjoyed reading all three of them between April 2016 and January of this year.)
Author Stutzman (b. 1953) was born into an Amish home in Iowa and was baptized in an Amish community in Kansas. He later joined a Mennonite church. Stutzman, who earned a Ph.D. at Temple University, has been the executive director of Mennonite Church USA since 2010—and he is also a descendant of Jacob Hochstetler.
The Lessons
There is room to mention briefly only two of several “lessons” that can be learned from the Hochstetler massacre and its repercussions.
(1) The choice referred to in the first book of the trilogy is primarily about whether Jacob and his sons would use firearms to shoot the attacking Indians. The sons thought they should. Jacob’s choice was to remain true to the Anabaptist teaching of nonviolence. 
In Stutzman’s novel, Jacob tells God in prayer before the attack, 
This farm belongs to you. My family belongs to you. And if people come to take them from me, I will not take up arms against them. I will be faithful to you as my Savior and Lord. You alone are my defense (p. 72). 
Clearly, that choice resulted in the tragic slaughter of Jacob’s wife and two of his children. Many would say it was a foolish choice. But if he had killed some of the Indians then, it is quite likely that a later raid would have resulted in him and all his children being killed.
(2) The Indian way of life is attractively narrated. Far from picturing the Native Americans as “savages,” Stutzman portrays Indian culture in an appealing way that fosters harmony rather than animosity. These books promote deeper understanding of, and harmony with, others (“the other”) as well as nonviolence.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Plantinga's Prestigious Prize

Alvin Plantinga is not a well-known name among the broader public, but his is one of the best known and most respected names among contemporary Christian philosophers. Yesterday (Sept. 24) he was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize at The Field Museum in Chicago.
Who Is Plantinga?
Alvin Plantinga is an American philosopher whose main work is in the philosophy of religion and epistemology. He served as president of the Society of Christian Philosophers from 1983 to 1986.
The son of first-generation immigrants from the Netherlands, Plantinga was born in 1932. He graduated from Calvin College, where his father was then teaching, and then after completing his Ph.D. at Yale University, his teaching career was mostly at Calvin College and the University of Notre Dame.
Plantinga’s most influential books are God and Other Minds (1967), and a trilogy of books on epistemology, culminating in Warranted Christian Belief (2000). The later was revised for a wider audience and published as Knowledge and Christian Belief in 2016.
Also, Alvin Plantinga is the title of a book published in 2007 by Cambridge University in their “Contemporary Philosophy in Focus” series. 
Meeting Plantinga
The Society of Christian Philosophers organized a conference on the campus of Peking University in the fall of 1994. I was able to fly from Fukuoka, Japan, to Beijing (about a 4½ hour flight) and attend that stimulating meeting.
There were several top Christian philosophers from the U.S. there, but it was Plantinga whom I most wanted to hear—and I was not disappointed in what I heard at the meetings and in the personal chat I had with him while walking across the spacious campus of Peking University, the premier university in China.
That academic meeting, which fruitfully focused on dialogue between the Christian philosophers from the U.S. and the Chinese philosophers who taught at Peking University and were atheists, was led by Plantinga. I was impressed by his brilliant mind, his respect for the Chinese scholars, and his deep and reasoned Christian faith.
Plantinga’s Prize
John Templeton was a financial investment whiz and a philanthropist. According to the Templeton Prize website (see here), Templeton (1912-2008) “started his Wall Street career in 1938 and went on to create some of the world's largest and most successful international investment funds.”
After becoming a wealthy man, in 1972 Templeton “established the world's largest annual award given to an individual, the Templeton Prize, which honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.”
The first Templeton Prize was awarded to Mother Teresa, and a wide variety of religious practitioners and academics have received the prestigious, and lucrative, prize in the succeeding years. (This year Plantinga received $1,400,000 as the recipient of the Templeton Prize.)
Some “liberals” have been critical of some choices for the Templeton Prize, such as Billy Graham in 1982 and especially Charles Colson in 1993 and Bill Bright in 1996. But most recipients have not been conservative Christians; for example, the Prize was awarded to the Dalai Lama in 2012 and to Desmond Tutu in 2013.
(For those of you who have the time and interest, I recommend opening the Templeton Prize website, here, and following the links to the various articles and videos found there.)

I am grateful to Alvin Plantinga for the significant contributions he has made to critical thinking as a Christian philosopher. His being chosen as this year’s recipient of the prestigious Templeton Prize accentuates the fact that Christians can, indeed, be deep, cogent thinkers. 

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Bible is Like a Rorschach Test

Long before I read Brian Zahnd’s new book Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God I had made a note to use the above title for a future blog article. Thus, I was surprised when I read this in BZ’s book: “Sometimes the Bible is like a Rorschach test: our interpretation of the text reveals more about ourselves than about God” (p. 14). Quite true!
Literal and Metaphorical Rorschach Tests
Rorschach inkblot #10
The story of the background and development of the Rorschach test is thoroughly told in a book by Damion Searls published earlier this year under the title The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing. (I have only scanned the book, but here is the link to Thinking Friend Clif Hostetler’s review of it.)  
Rorschach created the inkblots test for the purpose of psychological analysis and evaluation. But the popularity of those tests has resulted in their metaphorical use also.
In his book, Searls reports that in 1993 Hillary Clinton said to an Esquire reporter, “I’m a Rorschach test” (p. 263). And then in 2008 Barack Obama said to a New York Times reporter, with a somewhat different meaning, “I am like a Rorschach test” (p. 309).
Truly, as the Rorschach test amply illustrates, people look at the same thing, or same person, and come to widely different conclusions about the nature and significance of those things or persons.
That is true for the Bible also.
The Bible as a Rorschach Test
How people read and interpret the Bible varies greatly. For example, the Bible as seen by fundamentalist Christians is different in multifarious ways from how it is seen by those of us who are not fundamentalists.
The passages of the Bible a person chooses for evaluating current issues tells us a lot about that person. Their use of the Bible is, truly, like a Rorschach test.
For a case in point, consider Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas. Last month (here) I quoted Jeffress saying that God has given Pres. Trump the authority to “take out” Kim Jong-un. That dangerous assertion is based on his selection and interpretation of “God’s Word” as found in Romans 13.
Then on Sept. 11, in commenting on the immigration issue and the “Dreamers,” Jeffress told Fox News (see here) that “God is not necessarily an open borders guy.”
According to the Dallas pastor, the Bible teaches that God has established borders and instituted the government to protect its citizens. Thus, he says, those Christians who emphasize compassion based on Gen. 1:27 are telling only one side of the story.
It seems quite clear than when Jeffress looks at the Bible, he sees a book that supports the current President of the U.S. and the bulk of the Republican Party. That doesn’t tell us much about the Bible, but it tells us a lot about Jeffress and the “evangelicals” who agree with him.
The Proper Criterion
In his book mentioned above, Zahnd emphasizes that all of the Bible should be read from the viewpoint of Jesus. That is, the Old Testament, the letters of Paul, and all other parts of the Bible must be interpreted in light of the life and teachings of Jesus.
Baptists used to have it right: the 1963 version of the Baptist Faith and Message clearly and importantly stated: “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.”
Thus, when Jesus is the basis for interpreting the Bible, we find a perspective considerably different from that of Pastor Jeffress.
What does your interpretation of the Bible say about you?

Friday, September 15, 2017

Problems with Philanthropy

To the Stars through Difficulties is a new book by Kansas author Romalyn Tilghman. I recently read Romalyn’s delightful novel and enjoyed hearing her discuss it on Wednesday afternoon.
The Case of Andrew Carnegie
The Carnegie libraries of Kansas are the backdrop of Tilghman’s novel. Early on she informs her readers that industrialist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) built 59 libraries in Kansas in the early 1900s and that “he gave the country 1689 libraries that served thirty-five million people by 1919.”
That is impressive philanthropy! And it is only part of what Carnegie did with his great wealth.
But on the same page Romalyn acknowledges Carnegie’s “despicable treatment of mineworkers, including the murder of seven men in his attempt to break up the union,” and reports that some Kansas communities “refused to take his tainted money even for the promise of a library.“
She then rightly states that Carnegie was “both a philanthropist and robber baron (p. 7).”  
The Case of John D. Rockefeller
Andrew Carnegie vied with John D. Rockefeller as being the richest man in the world. Like Carnegie, Rockefeller (1839-1937) also started life in rather humble circumstances but through hard work, ingenuity, and shrewd business deals he also became a man of great wealth.
From boyhood and throughout his lifetime Rockefeller was a faithful Baptist church member—and a tither. From his early 50s, he deliberately began his philanthropic activities.
A chapter in Ellen Greenman Coffey’s small book John D. Rockefeller is titled “The Pious Robber Baron.”
In a later chapter, “An Investment in Good Works,” Greenman tells of Rockefeller’s increasing involvement in giving his money away under the tutelage of Frederick T. Gates, a young Baptist minister whom he employed.
Among the many projects Gates (1853-1929) led his boss to support, one of the best-known is the Rockefeller Foundation, established in 1913 after years of planning.
Rockefeller’s philanthropic work, however, was partly in response to the negative publicity he had suffered from Ida Tarbell’s 1904 book, The History of the Standard Oil Company, in which she depicted Rockefeller as “miserly, money-grabbing, and viciously effective at monopolizing the oil trade.”  
The Case of Joan Kroc
Recently, June and I watched “Founder,” the 2016 movie about Ray Kroc, the man who built McDonald’s restaurants into the wealthiest fast food chain in the world—but not without the use of devious means.
Joan was Krok’s third wife. They married in 1969, when Ray was 67 years old, and she inherited his wealth after his death in 1984. Their story is told in Lisa Napoli’s 2016 book titled Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away.
Joan’s $1.5 billion gift to Salvation Army is said to be the largest philanthropic gift ever made by an individual in the U.S. The bulk of that gift has been used to build and maintain 26 Kroc Centers throughout the country.  
Problems with Philanthropy
Very summarily, here are some problems with philanthropy, clearly seen in that of the three people mentioned above:
(1) There is a problem of how the wealth of the philanthropists is gained, particularly when it is by exploitation of workers and shrewd (bordering on illegal) business practices.
(2) Then, most philanthropists tend to aggrandize themselves in their charitable giving. Everyone knows of Carnegie libraries, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Kroc centers.
(3) And then consider these insightful words by William Jewett Tucker, a contemporary critic of Carnegie:
I can conceive of no greater mistake, more disastrous in the end to religion if not to society, than of trying to make charity do the work of justice.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Are Anti-Gay People/Groups Hateful and Mean?

It is rather astounding that the straight/gay issue seems to be the most debated, most divisive, and most destructive point of contention among Christians and Christian organizations today. Is there any way to lessen the discord caused by this contentious wedge issue?
Opposition to the Nashville Statement
The gay/straight problem was thrust into the spotlight anew by the issuance of the “Nashville Statement” on Aug. 29. That statement by conservative Christian evangelicals vigorously upheld traditional marriage and rejected same-sex marriage. (Here is a link to the complete document.)
As could have easily been predicted, there was prompt opposition to the Nashville Statement, including derogatory comments about the signers, many of whom are Southern Baptist pastors and leaders of SB institutions and agencies.
Soon there were public statements from the other side, such as the one by the noted pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. On Aug. 30, she issued the “Denver Statement” which counters point by point the articles of the Nashville Statement.
Bolz-Weber’s statement does not denigrate or malign the signers of the Nashville Statement; she merely contradicts their arguments one by one.
But other opponents have called the signers of the Nashville Statement mean and hateful (homophobic).
Some of the signers may, in fact, be mean and hateful—but are they all and should they all be disdained in that disrespectful way?
Opposition to the SPLC
Perhaps emboldened by the Nashville Statement—or challenged by the opposition to it—on Sept. 6 forty-seven conservative evangelicals sent a letter (see here) asking the mainstream media not to cite data on hate groups compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). 
In part, they wrote:
The SPLC is a discredited, left-wing, political activist organization that seeks to silence its political opponents with a “hate group” label of its own invention and application that is not only false and defamatory, but that also endangers the lives of those targeted with it.
That is a rather defamatory statement against a group whose founder, Morris Dees, has been repeatedly targeted by his opponents.
Moreover, if SPLC identifies some anti-gay Christian organization as hate groups, it is because they have seen how some people have “acted out” against LGBTQ people on the basis of the stated position of those groups.
Opposition to the Opposition
Here is my stance on this prickly issue:
(1) I strongly disagree with the Nashville Statement and basically agree with the Denver Statement. Further, June and I have been supporters of the SPLC since we came back to the U.S. to live in 2004; we have sent monetary gifts to them every year since then and will continue to do so.
(2) Still, it is most likely that those who signed the Nashville Statement did so not because of malice but because of their religious convictions—and those convictions are held primarily because of the way they interpret the Bible.
(3) Admittedly, the anti-gay sentiments of the signers of the Nashville Statement can be, and have been, shamefully used to treat gay people in mean and hateful ways. But for most of the signers that is not their intention; many of them probably seek to be loving without being affirming.
(4) Since many gays and lesbians have been caused to suffer as a result of the teaching and/or preaching of conservative evangelical organizations and churches, the SPLC has every right to oppose the hateful activities which have been spurred by those groups.
(5) Judging others, calling them names, and ridiculing their beliefs only creates greater division, larger wedges, and more animosity. Thus, it is imperative for us Christians to work on building bridges between people with conflicting convictions and incompatible interpretations of the Bible.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Are Sinners Really in the Hands of a Loving God?

Brian Zahnd, founding pastor of the Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Mo., is a man I consider a new friend. I first met Brian on June 25 when I went to St. Joe to hear him preach, and then I drove back to St. Joe to have lunch with him on July 13. I have found him to be a warm and genuine person, an engaging preacher, and an author of engrossing books.
A Bit about BZ
June and I started referring to Brian Zahnd as BZ, partly because we know other Zahnds and other Brians. I could take this whole article just to introduce him, but I will make this part brief.
BZ was born in 1959 in Savannah, Mo., the oldest son of an attorney who later became a county judge. Glen Zahnd was also a leading member of the First Baptist Church in that county seat town.
When BZ was a high school student, he became a “Jesus freak,” and joined other young Christians who practiced their faith in “The Catacombs” in St. Joe. From that group he started the Word of Life Church when he was 22—and he is still the pastor of that congregation, which became and still is a megachurch.
Culminating in 2004, BZ experienced a rather drastic theological change. He turned from what he refers to as “cotton candy Christianity” to what he believes is a more authentic Christian faith based upon a fuller understanding of Jesus Christ.
Because of that change of emphasis, BZ told me that he lost about a thousand members from his church that had had a weekly attendance of about 4,000.
A Bit about BZ’s Books
BZ’s book Water to Wine: Some of My Story (2016) tells about his “conversion” in 2004. It was the first of his books that I read, and I found it fascinating.
Then I read BZ’s 2014 book titled A Farewell to Mars and really enjoyed it also. His views on war and peace are very much in harmony with that of the Mennonites—and he now often speaks at Anabaptist conferences, although his church is not affiliated with any denomination.
BZ’s newest book was released on August 15, and my reading of it prompted this article, for its title is Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God.
The Point of BZ’s Newest Book
When he was a young charismatic/evangelical preacher, BZ made regular use of Johnathan Edwards’s (in)famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” But his theological change in 2004 led BZ to reject what he came to call the “monster God” and to affirm God as the God of love for all people at all times.  
BZ’s emphasis on the unchangeable love of God led him to reject the doctrine of the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ. (You can review here my recent article about PSA, which ended with reference to Rembrandt’s painting of the prodigal son.)
The cover illustration of BZ’s new book is of the prodigal son being welcomed by his loving father. That depiction of God as always loving, always forgiving, always accepting is the key to an adequate understanding of God.
Further, BZ’s emphasizes that “hell” is the terrible conditions some people experience in this life rather than as some future state of eternal punishment decreed by God. To BZ, no one at any time who wishes to experience the loving acceptance of God is ever rejected or caused to suffer punishment by God for any reason.
BZ’s book may seem odious to some conservative evangelical Christians, but it boldly, and correctly, promulgates the “scandalous truth” that sinners really are in the hands of a loving God.