Here’s Part Two of my book briefs, as promised.
John N. Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature? I’ll review this one differently. Follow along:
Background: Although sixty years ago they were singing a different tune, nowadays the majority of non-conservative OT scholars claim that there is nothing unique about Israelite religion. Building upon the work of Harvard Divinity School professor G. Ernest Wright, a previous generation of OT specialists argued that “the differences between the Israelite way of thinking about reality and the way in which Israel’s neighbors approached that topic were so significant that no evolutionary explanations could account for them” (11). Now they claim that Israel’s Scriptures are shot through with myth just like the nations that surrounded them.
Definition of myth: Nailing down a definition of myth is not an easy feat. After surveying all the options on the table, Oswalt offer his own definition: “myth is best characterized by its common understanding of, and approach to, the world,” and labels this understanding of myth “continuity.” By this he means that everything in the world is connected (44–46). In contemporary jargon we might say that the countries surrounding Israel were either pantheistic or panentheistic (49). This led worshipers to believe that they could manipulate the deities by participating in certain rituals (55). In this respect, Israelite religion was different from that of its neighbors because the God of the Bible reveals himself as desiring mercy and not sacrifice (Hos. 6:6 et. al.). Worshipers could not manipulate God by going through the religious motions. Rather, the sacrifices one offered must be expressions of a worshiper’s heartfelt devotion to God.
Some OT scholars argue that while Israel employed myth in its early years, it eventually set this aside and opted to write more straightforward history (think Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles). On this front Oswalt says OT scholars must ask why: If one assumes that Genesis and Exodus are myths—that is, not factual accounts of what actually happened—then why did Israel stop writing myths? And more to the point: Why did all the surrounding cultures continue to employ it? Oswalt insists that OT scholars cannot overlook this point. They must answer the following question: If Israel was not unique, then why did they change their methods while everyone else around them kept on with business as usual?
Similarities between Israel and other ANE Cultures: What about the similarities between OT religion and that of the surrounding nations? Here’s the short answer: Superficial similarities do not mean substantial agreement. True, Israel shared similar characteristics and practices with other ANE cultures—law codes, sacrifices, and ritual cleansings—but these similarities are not the main issue. As Oswalt asserts, “What is significant is the way in which the Israelites utilize these features in a belief system that is radically different from anything around them. . . . [W]hat is significant about Israelite religion is not that some unique idea appears, but that the whole way of thinking about reality is unique and that it is absolutely thoroughgoing in the Bible” (92).
Bottom Line: I found this book insightful in many ways, but I doubt it will change the minds of those convinced of the opposing position. As I already mentioned, sixty years ago OT scholars held that Israel’s religion was utterly unique, but now believe otherwise. What brought about the change? If you assume it was because new evidence was unearthed you’d be wrong (12ff.). Oswalt surmises that the shift in belief was due to the transformation in thinking that took place in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States of America, which brought with it a rejection of authority and a repudiation of revelation.
Ryan T. Anderson, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment. Anderson’s book is a one-stop-shop introduction to the main issues swirling around the current transgender debate. In it he summarizes and rebuts the arguments advanced by transgender activists as well as provides first-hand testimony from those who have “de-transitioned”—that is, those who either started hormone treatment but opted to stop, or who underwent gender reassignment surgery but afterward regretted doing so. (For some reason, the media doesn’t share their stories.) Additionally, he also delves into what makes us men and women, explains why children should not receive puberty blockers or hormone therapy, and argues that society should not go along with the transgender revolution. As you might imagine, activists have trashed his book (especially Andrea Long Chu, albeit briefly.)
But their critiques are unjust. Contrary to their descriptions of Anderson’s tone, he writes with empathy throughout. Chu and others, however, interpret everything through the lens of power and therefore assert that Anderson and company are guilty of “peddling bigotry under the guise of concern” (apparently Chu and his coterie are gifted in clairvoyancy). The goal of the book isn’t to change the minds of transgender activists but to inform open-minded people of what’s at stake in the discussion of transgender rights. The crux of the issue is this: Since those on opposing sides in this debate inhabit two entirely different moral and epistemological universes, resolution will not be forthcoming. And therein lies a life lesson: Moral disagreements are irresolvable so long as participants in a given discussion do not share the same first principles.
Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2, God and Creation. I can’t say it better than Gayle Doornbos: Bavinck’s doctrine of God is like no other. Not in the sense that it’s a departure from the classical tradition, but in that it is far richer than most evangelical accounts. As with the other volumes in his dogmatics, the one word that best summarizes this work is comprehensive. To give you an idea, I took fifty-one pages of notes! The sheer magnitude of the book precludes any succinct summary. Instead, I’ll simply say this was the best book on the doctrine of God I have read and plan to revisit it frequently. By far, my favorite section of the book was Bavinck’s treatment of God’s omniscience, especially his engagement with Molinists and their theory of middle knowledge. According to Bavinck, the problem with proponents of middle knowledge is that they want to try to bring together two mutually exclusive views—libertarian freedom and exhaustive foreknowledge (202). They argue that a person’s decisions are entirely free, the human will is indifferent, and therefore in no sense determined. But if that’s true then God’s foreknowledge cannot be exhaustive. As Bavinck notes, humans receive their “being” and their “being able” from God. But according to the theory of middle knowledge, “It [the human will] sovereignly makes its own decisions and either accomplishes something or does not accomplish something apart from any preceding divine decree. Something can therefore come into being quite apart from God’s will. The creature is now creator, autonomous and sovereign; the entire history of the world is taken out of God’s controlling hands and placed into human hands. First, humans decide; then God responds with a plan that corresponds to that decision” (201). In light of the foregoing, Bavinck wonders, “What are we to think, then, of a God who forever awaits all those decisions and keeps in readiness a store of all possible plans for all possibilities? What then remains of even a sketch of the world plan when left to humans to flesh out? And of what value is a government whose chief executive is the slave of his own subordinates? . . . In the theory of middle knowledge, that is precisely the case with God. God looks on, while humans decide” (201). In sum, tolle lege!
Thomas J. DiLorenzo, The Problem with Socialism. Currently serving as an economics professor at Loyola University, Maryland, DiLorenzo wrote this book in light of a 2015 yougov.org poll, which indicated that 43 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 to 24 had a favorable opinion of socialism—indeed, a higher opinion of socialism than they did capitalism. Given these approval ratings, DiLorenzo provides a basic introduction to socialism, along with brief snippets of its—how do I put this delicately?—less than stellar historical pedigree.
Briefly: While college students roar with approval when Bernie Sanders and others promise free education and healthcare, they should recall a rather important fact: nothing the government provides is free (3, 99). “Single-payer healthcare” means tax payer healthcare, which means higher taxes. True, these same crowds gesticulate gleefully when politicians vouch to raise taxes on the wealthy in order to pay for these “entitlements,” but they should at least know that high income earners find ways around progressive income taxes, which means the tax burdens are placed on other earners (136). Additionally, these responses ignore decades of research demonstrating that government-run monopolies reduce the quality of goods and services, and are also less efficient (4, 44). Also, the fact that the ruling class in socialist countries are exempt from their own policies should be a sign that something isn’t right (104)! In all socialist countries, the common people live in poverty while elites enjoy privileged lives (7).
Speaking of elites, intellectuals and professors at leading universities tend not only to sing the praises of socialism, but also view it as their responsibility to help usher society into this state of utopian bliss (see Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society for a comprehensive analysis). DiLorenzo, for his part, argues that this explains why socialism attracts unethical leaders. It requires someone willing to impose his or her will on others, all the while promising, “Trust me, this will be good for you!” For the socialist, the ends justify the means. Hence, violence is permissible in order to get the job done.
And there’s no getting around the evidence. The body count in socialist regimes is staggering:
USSR: 20 million deaths.
China: 60 million deaths.
Vietnam: 1 million deaths.
North Korea: 2 million deaths.
Cambodia: 2 million deaths.
Eastern Europe: 1 million deaths.
Latin America: 150,000 deaths.
Africa: 1.7 million deaths.
Afghanistan: 1.5 million deaths
(Numbers cited in The Black Book of Communism published by Harvard University Press)
George MacDonald, The Diary of An Old Soul. A year’s worth of mesmerizing poems sure to capture the heart’s longing for the transcendent. I loved it. Here’s a snippet:
How many helps thou giv’st to those would learn!
To some sore pain, to other a sinking heart;
To some a weariness worse than any smart;
To some a haunting, fearing, blind concern;
Madness to some; to some the shaking dart.
To some thou giv’st a deep unrest—a scorn
Of all they are or see upon the earth;
A gaze, at dusky night and clearing morn,
As on a land of emptiness and dearth;
To some a bitter sorrow; to some the sting
Of love misprized—of sick abandoning;
To some a frozen heart, oh, worse than anything!
To some a mocking demon, that doth set
The poor foiled will to scoff at the ideal,
But loathsome makes to them their life of jar.
The messengers of Satan think to mar,
But make—driving the soul from false to feal—
To thee, the reconciler, the one real,
In whom alone the would be and the is are met.
Me thou hast given an infinite unrest,
A hunger—not at first after known good,
But something vague I knew not, and yet would—
The veiled Isis, they will not understood;
A conscience tossing ever in my breast’
And something deeper, that will not be expressed,
Save as the Spirit thinking in the Spirit’s brood.
Matthew Barrett, None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God. A helpful introduction to classical theism. Although promoted as being in the vein of an R. C. Sproul kind of book, I can’t say I agree. Barrett is helpful at many points, but he doesn’t write as clearly as Sproul did.
John Webster, The Culture of Theology. Edited by Ivor Davidson and Alden McCray, this volume consists of a series of reworked essays and unpublished lectures by Webster. While covering a range of topics, my favorites were his entries on the character and habits of a good theologian and the humility required for a right reading of Scripture. For Webster, the Christian theologian must pursue 1) the fear of God, 2) a teachable spirit, and 3) freedom from self-preoccupation (11). As for the appropriate way to read the Bible: Since Christian theology arises out of the “shock” of the gospel (43), discharging our task properly calls for roots in astonishment (60–61). And whereas the fallen intellect inclines toward Scriptural manipulation in order to undermine and domesticate the Bible, the believing heart adopts a hermeneutic of humility, and in turn, is accosted by God, and consequently slain and made alive by him.
Thomas Watson, All Things for Good. A theologically weighty and practically pungent meditation on Romans 8:28.
 Those genuinely interested in this topic should consult Bruce K. Waltke, “Myth, History, and the Bible,” in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), Ch. 18.
 Some OT scholars say there is nothing of historical value in the OT until the time of David and Solomon—hence the minimalist, medialist, and maximalist positions with respect to OT history. See C. Hassell Bullock, “History and Theology: The Tale of Two Histories,” in Giving the Sense: Understanding and Using Old Testament Historical Texts, eds. David M. Howared Jr., and Michael A. Grisanti (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2003), Ch. 4.