Becoming Dallas Willard (Review)

The first Dallas Willard book I read was The Divine Conspiracy, which is a great title for a book. Saying there is a “divine conspiracy” afoot makes potential readers curious, like there is something about Christianity that this book will tell you even if you grew up in church. I was curious enough to pluck it off the shelf in a small English-language church library in Prague when I was teaching there just after college, and read it mostly on train rides to and from teaching appointments.

For many books with titles like that, their promise of newness ends up disappointing. The “new” thing being promised is just a modern rehashing of what some heretic taught in the second century. But in the case of The Divine Conspiracy, what Willard was offering was a return to the “with-God” life that Christians have enjoyed throughout the centuries. The conspiracy was that you could interact with God directly in the here and now, that you could live life in the kingdom of God now and not have to wait for some future time. In short, the divine conspiracy is what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount.

4610Willard (who died in 2013) wasn’t a professional theologian, and he wasn’t a pastor. He was a philosophy professor who spent his entire career teaching at USC. Yet he is probably most widely known for his writings on Christian spirituality—The Divine Conspiracy is probably the most popular, but there’s also The Spirit of the Disciplines, Hearing God, Renovation of the Heart, The Great Omission, and Knowing Christ Today.

Gary Moon tells the story of how this obscure philosophy professor came to be so well-known as a spiritual writer in his biography Becoming Dallas Willard: The Formation of a Philosopher, Teacher, and Christ Follower. The book follows Willard from his poor childhood in rural Missouri, to meeting his wife Jane in college at Tennessee Temple, to graduate studies at Baylor and the University of Wisconsin, to teaching philosophy at USC, to his rise to prominence as a teacher of Christian spirituality. According to Dallas, this fame happened organically, without his asking for it: “I’m afraid to say this, because I’m afraid to burden someone else. But I never ask for a promotion. I never ask for money. Of the Christian books I’ve published, all have been solicited from me by the publishers” (138).

The most difficult part of writing a biography of a man like Willard has to be holding together his philosophical and spiritual interests in an engaging narrative. Most of the people who pick up this book are going to be interested in Willard because of his Christian writings, but it isn’t enough to focus on that. Moon knew that he had to show how Willard’s vocation as a philosopher informed his spiritual writings—and to do that, he had the tall order of explaining a lot of philosophy to people who may have never read a book on philosophy.

Moon does a fine job at this, especially delving into Willard’s interest in Edmund Husserl, the founder of a school of thought called phenomenology (interestingly, the former Pope John Paul II was also a Husserl scholar). Willard was interested in phenomenology because he was looking for a way to understand epistemology—how we know things about the world around us. Dallas wanted to find a philosophical basis for realism—the idea that things exist in reality apart from our perception of them. According to Willard,

Husserl offered an explanation of consciousness in all its forms that elucidates why realism is possible. He helped me to understand that in religion you also have knowledge and you are dealing with reality. What Jesus taught was a source of knowledge, real knowledge, and not merely an invitation to a leap of faith. … [We] live in a world that is real, and this applies to morality as well as to physics. … I would never have chosen to work at philosophy as a profession but for the single—though multi-faceted—issue of realism. I have always felt that realism had to be true, because there is just no way that the objects of our world—whether particulars or universals (a tree or galaxy, a color or shape)—could, being what they are, be produced or sustained in existence by acts of thought or perception. (96)

This, Moon shows, is how Willard’s work as a philosopher and spiritual teacher are held together. He believed that the world exists apart from our perception of it—and not only the physical stuff of the world. Real knowledge of the world includes moral and spiritual knowledge.

Moon sums all this up by giving us four main areas of focus across Willard’s career as a philosopher and spiritual teacher (Willard himself told these to his former student J. P. Moreland eight months before his death):

  1. A robust metaphysical realism. “There is one mind-independent world ‘out there,’ and it and the entities within it are what they are independent of our thinking about them” (193).
  2. Epistemic realism. “The intentionality of the mind places it in direct contact with its various objects of attention. Nothing stands between the knowing subject and items of knowledge in cases of direct awareness” (193).
  3. Models of the human person and Christian spiritual formation. “He was committed to the idea that our view of the nature and practice of formative beliefs and exercises should flow as naturally as possible from our view of the human person” (193).
  4. Spiritually formative Christian practices produce results that are objectively testable. “He was deeply concerned to establish Christian spiritual formation and its practices as items of genuine knowledge. In short, spiritual formation could—and should—be measurable and have a place in the university alongside other domains of public knowledge” (193–94).

Willard’s thought was so deep and rich that I hope someday someone (maybe one of his former students?) will write an intellectual biography that puts his thinking into its broader context in both theology and philosophy. Moon’s biography gets into this a bit, but its main purpose is to serve more as a general introduction to Willard’s heart and mind. In spite of Moon’s dig at editors on page 177 (Not cool, man. Not cool.), I’d recommend it to everyone who is curious about Willard, especially people who are just starting to become aware of him and are looking for some background. While I hope that heftier biography is still coming someday, I’m glad Moon had the courage to be the first.

Note: Thanks to the publisher, InterVarsity Press, for a review copy of this book.

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All Together Different (Review)

Jesus desired that those in his church “may be one,” but it is all too evident that this is often not the case. And it isn’t just denominational differences; it’s hard for individuals to get along in a single church. How do church leaders begin to address the problem of disunity?

J. Brian Tucker and John Koessler, who are both associated with Moody Bible Institute (Koessler teaches at MBI in Chicago, and Tucker at a Michigan seminary campus), have attempted to answer this question in All Together Different: Upholding the Church’s Unity While Honoring Our Individual Identities. They believe that the answer to disunity is not to force cultural uniformity but to glean lessons about how to get along from the Bible and research on social identity theory. (By the way, Tucker and Koessler don’t really talk about divisiveness in the United States. While some of what they say could possibly apply to the country at large, they are focused on the church.)

9780802418081That phrase above, “research on social identity theory,” is a clue that this is not a light Christian living title. The book may have a bunch of Slinkies on the cover, but it’s not for kids—or even for adults who are interested in something fluffy. Take this sentence from the introduction: “What is needed is the recognition that existing social identities must be a part of the way the church’s theological constructs are communicated. In other words, by paying attention to issues of identity, we are able to discern which theological constructions are best suited for clarifying those issues of identity that need to be transformed in the life of the church” (13). If sentences like that are not your cup of tea, then maybe this isn’t the book for you.

But for those who actually get excited at the prospect of putting on their thinking caps, this is an enjoyable read. First Tucker and Koessler look at the slippery concept of identity, and then how Christians’ identity ought to be formed primarily by the Bible—and specifically the concept of being “in Christ.” Individuals have different senses of identity, like Russian matryoshka dolls, but there is always one “master identity.” Christians must have their being “in Christ”—united to him and to each other—as their master identity. Without that, nothing will help a church get along.

In the latter part of the book, they look at three common stress points in church: race, sex, and generational differences. I thought these three chapters, while somewhat helpful, were the weakest part of the book. It may just be the nature of the case that in a chapter each they weren’t able to treat these issues with the depth and nuance they deserved.

All in all, though, this is a helpful book for pastors and other church leaders who are looking for ways to see diversity as a gift rather than a threat in their churches. The final chapter gives nine principles for moving forward, and church leaders could do a lot worse (and have done a lot worse) than prayerfully studying and teaching principles like “Allow faith to transform your identity,” “Only God can tell you who you really are,” and “Don’t be afraid to live like an outsider” when it comes to the wider culture.

Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

Ready Player One (Review)

I have a confession to make. Even though I review a lot of books on this blog, I don’t make the time to review EVERY book I read. Especially fiction or audiobooks, which I often don’t spend enough time with to develop reviewy thoughts. But a year ago I was looking for something fun to listen to as I walk to work, and checked out the audiobook of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (RPO), narrated by Wil Wheaton, from the library. In the last month, with the movie adaptation coming out, I also read the book in paperback. Now that I’ve gone through it twice, I’ve thought about it enough to warrant a review.

Ready Player OneThe premise of RPO is, to put it as simply as possible, “What if Willy Wonka were a video game designer?” It is a quest story set in a future in which the real world is pretty bleak, so everyone spends all their time in a virtual reality program called the OASIS. It has been five years since the death of James Halliday, the primary designer of the OASIS, who upon his death sent out a virtual announcement that he had hidden an Easter Egg somewhere in the OASIS. Those who sought the egg would along the way have to find three keys and unlock three gates, and the one who found it would get Halliday’s fortune.

The protagonist is Wade Watts, a high school student living in Oklahoma City, whose online persona is called Parzival—a variation on Percival, the Arthurian knight who quested for the Holy Grail. Even though it’s 2045, Wade’s desire to find the egg has led him to adopt Halliday’s own obsession with pop culture from the ’80s, the decade in which Halliday grew up. This allows Cline to dive deep into his own ’80s pop culture obsessions. If Wade spends hours and hours watching movies like WarGames, Ghostbusters, Real Genius, Better Off Dead, and Revenge of the Nerds, it’s not gratuitous; it’s for the egg!

I was pretty young in the ’80s, but I do have an older brother, so a good amount of the ’80s pop culture references were not lost on me. But there is also some next-level nerdery: there are not just references to mainstream pop culture like Star Wars, but more obscure things like Dungeons & Dragons modules and glitches in particular ’80s arcade games. In the context of the story, these work to show Wade’s worthiness to find the egg. He doesn’t just get mainstream references; he gets the most obscure references. 

The best thing about this book is the plot, which has Wade competing against other individual hunters—his best friend Aech, his love interest Art3mis, and two Japanese avatars named Daito and Shoto—to solve clues that will help them find the egg. In both the OASIS and in real life he is also going up against the real bad guys—an evil monolithic corporation, Innovative Online Industries—who want the egg because it will allow them to seize control of the OASIS.

Your Mind Is What Matters

In spite of the engaging plot, there were a couple of things that left me unsatisfied about RPO. Most of the book pushed a kind of gnosticism, in which the real world is devalued and the only thing that matters is the mind. It is true that in the end, Wade finds out that the virtual world is not everything. He learns from Halliday’s mistakes that “as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness” (364). He has his real-world friends, and the last line of the book is about how for the first time in a long time, he didn’t feel like logging in to the OASIS.

Yet this is also a mixed message, since near the end there is also a statement that Wade and his best friend, Aech, had “known each other for years, in the most intimate way possible. We’d connected on a purely mental level” (321). The end of the book pays lip service to the idea that engaging in the real world is better than engaging in the digital world, but this rings somewhat hollow after the glorification of the mind and degradation of physical reality in the entire rest of the book.

Tyrannical Nostalgia

Cline found his own Holy Grail in writing this book: a way to dive deep into his ’80s pop culture nostalgia without it being entirely gratuitous (although certain passages, like the description of Parzival’s modified DeLorean—which plays absolutely no part in the plot other than to show readers, again, how obsessed with the ’80s Wade is—do indeed tip the scales into gratuitous territory).

In the book, Halliday’s creation of the contest is driven by nostalgia. He even re-created inside the OASIS the town where he grew up, “drawing on his memories to recreate his hometown exactly as it was during his childhood” (102). Halliday goes a step further, wanting everyone else to be nostalgic for the same things he is nostalgic for.  The character Ogden Morrow, who co-founded Halliday’s gaming company, said this about him: “Jim always wanted everyone to share his obsessions, to love the same things he loved. I think this contest [and for Cline, this book] is his way of giving the entire world an incentive to do just that” (122).

That sounds pretty creepy to me, especially since nostalgia itself is a kind of false remembering. Halliday couldn’t recreate his hometown “exactly as it was during his childhood,” because the real thing and his memories of it are different. Things are never as great as you remember them later. Throughout RPO, I was reminded of a quote from C. S. Lewis, from his sermon “The Weight of Glory”:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

Halliday has not only given in to the worship of his own past; he has tried to force everyone else to bow down to it as well. Trying to strong-arm other people into sharing your obsessions is a kind of megalomania, and is doomed to end in frustration.

The Poison of Pride

And speaking of megalomania, humility seems to not be a virtue in the RPO universe. Wade takes pride in his ability at games and in his ability to get an obscure reference. While their goals are different, I got the sense that Wade was every bit as arrogant and self-absorbed as the faceless corporation he was fighting against.

I get it that there is, in the world of geekdom, a resistance to shame. Other people (the jocks! The popular kids!) try to make you ashamed of being obsessed with science fiction and video games, and you respond by rejecting this shaming and becoming proud of them—by wearing the term “geek” with pride. But pride has its own pitfalls. The proper response to shame is not pride, but humility. Humility is the antidote to both shame and arrogance. By the end of RPO, Wade is virtually all-powerful. But we haven’t seen anything in him that makes us believe that he will handle power well.

As I mentioned above, I did really enjoy the plot of this book. The quest for the egg was fun and engaging, and Cline was good at keeping the pages turning. Yet ultimately I was dissatisfied with the values of the world he created, even inside the OASIS. It seems like every other utopia—attractive-looking but flawed.

Note: I received this book for review from Random House’s Blogging for Books program (RIP). I wasn’t asked to give a positive review.

The Pietist Option (Review)

There are an abundance of options that Christians have to help them cope with the Western world at this particular cultural moment. The “option” language all started with Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, which he wrote about in his columns at the American Conservative for years before he published a book by that name. Since then others have come up with (among others) the Augustinian Option, the Kuyper Option, and the Walker Percy Option.

Now, not all of these options are necessarily at odds with one another or even anything new. In fact, I’m convinced that a lot of this “option” conversation is just people taking advantage of Dreher’s new nomenclature to argue for the same theological commitments they’ve been boosting for years.

5194At any rate, last fall, historian Chris Gehrz and pastor Mark Pattie gave us another option—The Pietist Option (IVP Academic, 2017), which calls modern-day Christians to learn from the renewal movement, later called “Pietism,” that Philipp Jakob Spener kicked off with his 1675 book Pia Desideria (“pious desires”).

The book comes in two parts. Part one consists of two chapters that introduce the state of contemporary American Christianity and make the case for adopting a hopeful attitude in spite of difficult circumstances. Part two is much longer, and consists of six specific proposals for renewal of Protestant churches drawn from Pia Desideria:

  1. A more extensive engagement with the Bible
  2. A renewed emphasis on the priesthood of all believers
  3. An understanding of Christianity as a way of life, not merely an assent to certain doctrines
  4. A commitment to an irenic spirit in the face of theological disagreements
  5. A commitment to spiritual formation for the whole person for the whole of life
  6. A proclamation of the good news rooted in the proclaimer’s own experience of God

In many ways these are standard evangelical beliefs. In fact, Gehrz and Pattie are up front about the fact that “Pietism has disappeared not because it failed, but because it succeeded” (4). It was a renewal movement that did its work of renewing, and The Pietist Option is Gehrz and Pattie’s argument that we need another, similar renewal movement in our time.

I was not an impartial reader when I came to The Pietist Option; I was predisposed to like itIn my young adulthood as a Christian, I was more influenced by the Reformed stream of Christianity: My family has roots in the Christian Reformed Church, and I attended both CRC and Presbyterian churches (but also, for most of my childhood, a Southern Baptist one). I would not even now explicitly repudiate that stream of Christian belief, but during my time in seminary I was drawn more and more to the ethos of Pietism. As Gehrz and Pattie write, Pietism is more about instincts than particular beliefs. I found that I shared those instincts: I wanted an engagement with the Bible that shaped my identity, not just my beliefs (though beliefs were incredibly important, I found they were not the whole story); I wanted to have an irenic spirit whenever possible; I was committed to the whole mission of God, but in terms of proclamation and service. Eventually, I came to the point that I joined the Evangelical Covenant Church, where I continue to make my home.

Yet not everyone likes the Pietist Option. Notably, there was a review from the (Reformed-leaning) Gospel Coalition that said: “The same Continental Pietists who gave us Pia Desideria and Wesley’s ‘strangely warmed’ heart also gave us Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schleiermacher.”

But did they? Isn’t it just part of living in a fallen world that good things may be corrupted? As G. K. Chesterton wrote, “It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.” Wouldn’t it be better to say that when you detach Pietism from a conscious dependence on the Spirit you end up with Schleiermacher, just as when you detach Calvinism from Calvin’s own focus on the Spirit you end up with Protestant Scholasticism and, later on, Max Weber or even modern-day New England? Simply because something may be corrupted doesn’t mean it is in itself bad. As for myself, I am not convinced that the theology of Schleiermacher is inherent in Pietism.

In this time when “evangelical” has become a term loaded with negative political baggage, I wonder whether the term “Pietist” will make a comeback. I’m hopeful about it, but am not entirely sure it will; in some people’s minds it still has negative connotations of individualism, quietism, or (as in the TGC review) theological liberalism. I don’t know what a resurgence in Pietism might lead to down the road, but I think in the short term those who are looking for renewal and revival in American Christianity could do a lot worse than recovering a Pietist spirit that seeks to foster a living faith and love toward God and neighbor.

Note: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

 

The Southern Steps and the Wailing Wall

This is the twenty-fifth and last post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel last summer (to read them all, click here).

June 28 AM

After emerging from Hezekiah’s Tunnel and taking vans back up toward the Temple Mount, our group made our way to the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount’s retaining wall through an ancient sewer. I’m still not sure why we went through a sewer to get there, but it was kind of neat. It didn’t smell like a sewer, at any rate.

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At the base of the Temple Mount’s retaining wall, we could see heavy stones scattered on the ground, some of them possibly right where they fell when the Romans destroyed the temple in AD 70. Above us was what is left of Robinson’s Arch. To our left, and up, was the entrance to the Western (or Wailing) Wall. One of the stones on the ground in front of us was a replica of the top corner stone from the Temple Mount that had fallen among the others. On it were carved instructions that indicated a shofar was to be blown from there at various times such as the beginning of the Sabbath. The original is in the Israel Museum.

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From the southwest corner we made our way east to the Southern Steps, which were where the main entrance to the temple was in Jesus’ day. As we walked we heard a haunting, guttural call to prayer from the gray-domed al-Aqsa Mosque above us. At first it was hard to know what it was; the loudspeakers distorted it so that it hardly seemed like a human voice. It may also be that it sounded strange because we were hearing multiple calls to prayer from other mosques in the area.

fullsizeoutput_277fAfter walking around on the Southern Steps and looking at the gates that had been closed up there, we went back around the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount, where we had lunch before we went through security to enter the area next to the Wailing Wall. Before I went, I was a little confused about what the Wailing Wall was, so I’ll explain it here. It is one section of the western side of the retaining wall around the Temple Mount. It isn’t all that remains of the temple, but it is the closest place that Jews can get to where the temple used to be and pray. On the Temple Mount itself, only Muslims are technically allowed to pray.

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Inside the area, there are separate spaces for men and women, with the men’s area being larger. When we were there, most of the people were Jewish, with a few other non-Jews like us sprinkled in. Anyone who wants to can go up and touch the wall and pray, and find a crack to insert a written prayer. Before approaching to pray, Jews wash in ceremonial basins that are set back from the wall. I went up to the wall, touched it, and prayed, but I didn’t write a prayer down to leave in the cracks.

After spending some time there, several of our group walked back to our hotel through the Muslim Quarter, stopping to get a smoothie along the way. Later that afternoon I would go back out and walk along the Via Dolorosa by myself, and we would have our farewell dinner at a rooftop restaurant and gather once more back at the hotel to share our reflections on the trip, but the official itinerary of our trip ended at the Wailing Wall—so I’ll end my reflections here too.

fullsizeoutput_2859As I mentioned when I wrote about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I found myself conflicted over what it meant for me to visit the Wailing Wall. On the one hand, I think it’s entirely plausible that this is very close to where the ancient temple was, and in it the holy of holies where the God of Israel manifested his presence in a special way. It’s a significant place because of that fact alone.

Yet as a Christian who believes that Jesus is the true temple, the fullest manifestation of God’s presence there has ever been in the world (Matt 12:6), and that his church, united to him by his Spirit, is also the true temple of God (1 Cor 3:16–17), I do not believe that anyone needs to come to the Wailing Wall in order to get closer to God or have his ear. When Jesus came, the temple became redundant. God’s presence is not closer here than it is anywhere else.

So here is where I get into my opinions on geopolitics, which I haven’t really shared during this series describing my trip to Israel. While some Christians believe in an end-times scenario that requires the temple to be rebuilt, I do not. While I do believe that Jesus will return, I don’t think he requires the temple to be rebuilt, or Jews to be occupying the land of Israel, for that to happen. That is based on a particular interpretation of biblical prophetic texts that I disagree with. I think there are pragmatic reasons for the United States to be allied with Israel (they’re a representative democracy in the Middle East, they’re probably a nuclear power, etc.), but not theological ones.

I think it’s important to clarify this because just couple of weeks ago I overheard a man in a restaurant discussing President Trump’s declaration that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. The man in the restaurant said that all Christians believed Jerusalem is the capital and the temple should be rebuilt. But he’s wrong.

I don’t know what the solution is, but I think that decisions in this matter should be made out of concern for justice and the flourishing of all people involved, not because certain actions would fulfill prophecies. I believe there are no prophecies of Christ’s return that depend on Jerusalem being the capital or the temple being rebuilt for their fulfillment.

Nevertheless, in this Christmas season where we celebrate Christ’s first advent, I still look forward to his return and pray with the early church: Marana tha! (Come, Lord)! (1 Cor 16:22)

 

Hezekiah’s Tunnel and the Pool of Siloam

This is the twenty-third post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel in the summer of 2016. I’m almost done, I promise (to read them all, click here).

June 28 AM

Leaving the calm environs of Saint Anne’s, our group walked outside the east wall of the Old City through the Lions’ Gate. The day was cloudy, and cooler than pretty much any other day of the trip so far. Once outside, we made our way south, with the wall of the Temple Mount on our right and the Kidron Valley on our left.

There is now a Muslim cemetery in this area, but also a walkway that allows you to pass on through without having to weave in and out of tombstones. This pathway took us past the Golden Gate, walled up since the Middle Ages.

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At the southeast corner of the Temple Mount, our group leader, Tim, stopped us and pointed out the differences between the stones of the wall around the Temple Mount. The smaller stones toward the top date to the Middle Ages, and the larger stones below date to Herod’s temple, destroyed by the Romans in AD 70.

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Once past the southern edge of the Temple Mount, we arrived at a narrow hill running north-south called the City of David. The City of David contains ruins that have been labeled the Royal Quarter. This may include the palaces built by David and Solomon, though I think that hasn’t been established definitively. When we got there our Israeli tour guide, Ariel, told us about what had been excavated there.

For us, the main point of interest in the City of David was the Siloam Tunnel, also known as Hezekiah’s Tunnel after the eighth century BC king of Judah who likely had it built between the Gihon Spring and the Pool of Siloam (according to 2 Kings 20:20 and 2 Chronicles 32:2–5, 30). An inscription was found written on the walls of the tunnel that describes the day it was completed. The original inscription has been removed, but there is a copy of it inserted where the original used to be. Here is how it read:

[ … when] (the tunnel) was driven through. And this was the way in which it was cut through:—While [ … ] (were) still [ … ] axe(s), each man toward his fellow, and while there were still three cubits to be cut through, [there was heard] the voice of a man calling to his fellow, for there was an overlap in the rock on the right [and on the left]. And when the tunnel was driven through, the quarrymen hewed (the rock), each man toward his fellow, axe against axe; and the water flowed from the spring toward the reservoir for 1,200 cubits, and the height of the rock above the head(s) of the quarrymen was 100 cubits.

—James Bennett Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament , 3rd ed. with Supplement (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 321.

The tunnel is open for people to walk through, and has cool water in it that ranges from the ankles to the knees. The height of the tunnel varies quite a bit. The clearance is very high in some places and requires stooping in others. There is also no light inside, so we all made sure we had sandals or water socks on, got out our flashlights, and trooped through single-file. It took about 20 minutes. We stopped at one point, turned off our flashlights, and sang the first verse of “Amazing Grace.”

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(A couple of minutes later I jokingly suggested to Kurt, who was walking in front of me, that we sing the classic passing-the-time tune “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” which he proceeded to do. He was later blamed for this act of levity, so I want to make clear that I suggested it to him. And others joined in. You know who you are.)

At the western end of the tunnel is the Pool of Siloam, which, like the Pool of Bethesda, played a role in one of Jesus’ healings (he told a blind man to wash his eyes there in John 9:7). Thanks to this trip, I’ll never get them confused again. Unlike the Pool of Bethesda, though, this site is only partially excavated. The remainder of the original pool is located on land owned by the Greek Orthodox Church, and they have not given permission to dig.

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I could probably say this about any of the sites we visited on this trip, but what struck me most about Hezekiah’s tunnel is that this is the stuff of real life. The ruler of a tiny ancient kingdom was worried about Assyria, the fiercest military power of his time, and wanted to prepare Jerusalem in advance of a possible siege. So he expanded the city wall in a certain spot and dug a tunnel to bring a water source inside the wall.

When the siege did eventually happen, in 701 BC, Hezekiah and Isaiah the prophet cried out to God, and the besieging army of Assyria was annihilated overnight. The tunnel Hezekiah had dug created a pool that was still there seven hundred years later when Jesus told a blind man he had just healed to go wash in it.

The sudden death of much of an army, the healing of a blind man—these are very unusual events. Miracles, even. But the Bible places them side-by-side with the kinds of things, like an engineering project, that we see every day. God acted in the midst of everyday life—and, I believe, continues to act. Am I looking for what he is doing?

 

How to Interact with People Who Disagree with You (Review)

Like many (maybe most) people who use social media, I have a like/hate relationship with it (“love” would be too strong, but “hate” isn’t). On the one hand, I find it useful for connecting in small ways to people I already know, and getting to know a few people I didn’t know before (although I never accept friend requests from people I don’t know on Facebook, and rarely interact with people I haven’t met in person on Twitter).

On the other hand, a whole lot of the time social media looks like everyone on it has collectively decided that the foolishness described in Proverbs 18:12 (“Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions”) is actually wisdom after all. It seems that these days, in real life as well but especially on social media, there are only two options when you’re faced with a substantial area of disagreement with someone else:

  1. ignore it (this is for when you want to maintain cordial terms with someone you interact with in real life); or
  2. vanquish the enemy.

9780451499608In his book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, Alan Jacobs presents a third, seemingly forgotten way: thinking. Not burying your head in the sand, as in #1 above, and not assuming you know the solution from the beginning and using any means necessary to destroy those who stand in your way, as in #2 (what Jacobs calls “Refutation Mode”), but thinking. Using your noggin. Exerting the little grey cells, as Hercule Poirot used to say.

This is a short book, at just 157 pages. In spite of its somewhat grandiose title (but more in keeping with its more modest subtitle), this is not a book about how to think in general but more specifically about how to get past social and psychological barriers that prevent you from thinking in the first place. Because the problem is not merely that we aren’t trained to think very well, but that even if we have been trained, we don’t tend to do it. It’s hard. It doesn’t give us the rush of blood to the eyeballs that vanquishing the enemy gets us. But then, vanquishing the enemy doesn’t usually work either, since enemies almost always don’t stay vanquished for long.

Alan Jacobs tells us the circumstances in which we are most tempted not to think, so we will be on guard in just those situations. For example, when we are tempted to circle the wagons around our own group: “The person who genuinely wants to think will have to develop strategies for recognizing the subtlest of social pressures, confronting the pull of the ingroup and disgust for the outgroup” (23). And when we tend to repeat keywords, metaphors, and myths whose primary purpose is to communicate that we are part of a particular group: “In search of social belonging, and the blessed shortcuts that we can take when we’re in the presence of like-minded people, we come to rely on keywords, and then metaphors, and then myths—and at every stage habits become more deeply ingrained in us, habits that inhibit our ability to think” (105).

When it comes to advice on how to think, though, Jacobs doesn’t exactly give us a to-do list. There is a “Thinking Person’s Checklist” on page 155, but it is less a checklist and more a list of things to remind yourself of from time to time, like “4. Remember that you don’t have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness,” and “Try to describe others’ positions in the language that they use, without indulging in in-other-wordsing,” and my favorite, “12. Be brave.”

This is a fun little book; Jacobs clearly derives a good deal of joy from writing, and it’s contagious. Sadly, though, I think the people who are most likely to need this book are the least likely to read it. They are still trying to vanquish the enemy, and they haven’t yet seen the shortcomings of this approach.

People who already show a degree of epistemic humility, who acknowledge that they don’t have the answers and like to seek out the best counterarguments, are most likely to read it but are the least likely to need it. You have to want to be that kind of person in the first place to derive benefit from this book. Somewhere in life, you need to be humbled. You need to come to the realization that the world is more complex than you can understand, that you can’t get everything you want by looking for the right levers to pull. It’s a good realization to have. I wish it for everyone, and myself on a daily basis most of all.

So here’s my recommendation: if you’re just starting to see the futility of “vanquish the enemy” mode, please please pick up this book.

Note: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher. I was not asked to give a positive review.

Pool of Bethesda and Saint Anne’s

This is the twenty-second post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel in the summer of 2016. I’m almost done, I promise (to read them all, click here).

June 28 AM

First thing in the morning on the last full day of our pilgrimage to Israel, we gathered outside our hotel and made our way out the New Gate. Our first stop of the day was on the other side of the Old City in the Muslim Quarter, just north of the Temple Mount and close to the beginning of the Via Dolorosa.

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We were here to visit what remains of the Pool of Bethesda, where Jesus healed a lame man according to John chapter 5. It is quite large and deep, and you can descend the steps into it (there is very little water in it now).

After an introductory talk from our group leader, Tim, the group split up and poked around in the ruins for a few minutes while we tried to imagine what it would have been like to be at this pool when it was a gathering place for “the blind, the lame, the paralyzed” who were waiting for an angel to trouble the waters.

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Then we went into Saint Anne’s Church, which is right next to the pool. It’s a medieval church built by Crusaders, and in virtually any description of Saint Anne’s in any tour book you will see a mention of its remarkable acoustics. When you enter the church, you have an overwhelming urge to sing. So we gathered in the space in front of the altar and did.

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Then we went back outside to the leafy courtyard between the church and the street and split up into our “family groups”—bunches of about four people each that we always kept an eye out for when we moved from place to place so we didn’t lose anyone. We then spent some time sharing prayer requests and praying for each other.

This stop, with an ancient site right next to a medieval church, gave me a window into a very different kind of trip to Israel. Our trip was largely focused on archaeological sites, which I was very grateful for; I loved being able to walk around the ruins, feel the heat, and imagine what it would have been like to have been there during biblical events.

A different kind of trip would have focused more on Christian history—on the ways in which the church over the centuries has commemorated biblical events and taught about them. I’m glad our trip focused on archaeological sites, and I’m glad we got to go to some sites that you don’t always see on an Israel trip itinerary, like Arad. And we did visit a few churches—St. Anne’s, of course, as well as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the church built over Peter’s house in Capernaum.

If I ever go back to Israel, though, I think it would be nice to supplement this first experience by exploring a few of the churches we didn’t make it into, like the Church of the Beatitudes or the Church of the Nativity.

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Shrine of the Book and Church of the Holy Sepulchre

This is the twenty-first post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel in the summer of 2016. I’m almost done, I promise (to read them all, click here).

June 27 PM

Once we got to Jerusalem, the hiking part of the trip was largely over. On this day, we had gone to the Mount of Olives, Gethsemane, Herodium, and Bethlehem, and had barely broken a sweat. The final stop in the afternoon was the air-conditioned and comfy Shrine of the Book, where several of the Dead Sea Scrolls are on display along with the Aleppo Codex. The roof of the building looks like a lid on one of the clay jars where the famous scrolls were found.

fullsizeoutput_2764The Shrine of the Book is on the grounds of the Israel Museum, which is focused on art and archaeology. Also on the grounds, close to the Shrine of the Book, there is an open-air model of what first-century Jerusalem looked like before the revolt that began in AD 66 and ended in the destruction of the city, including the temple.

We weren’t able to visit Qumran during our time at the Dead Sea during this trip, but I’m glad we made it to see the scrolls themselves. And the model is fascinating. Here’s a panoramic view of it, looking toward the temple complex from what would have been the Mount of Olives:

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We boarded the bus and passed by the Knesset, then returned to our hotel in the Old City of Jerusalem with a couple of hours to spare before dinner. My dad and I wanted to see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was not far from our hotel in the Christian Quarter, so we hustled over there and looked around for a bit before heading back to the hotel in time to eat. But at dinner, our group leader, Tim, said he would lead anyone who was interested to see the church, so my dad and I went back and spent a bit more time inside.

Is978At this point I can’t remember what I noticed on the first visit versus the second visit a couple of hours later, so I’ll just give some overall impressions. Just inside the entrance to the church is a large stone slab. I didn’t know what it was, but I saw several people (mostly women) kneeling around it with bags they had brought with them. Out of these bags they took items like small crosses or pieces of cloth and rubbed them on the slab, then put them back in the bags. I found out later that this is called the Stone of Anointing, where Jesus was allegedly prepared for burial.

Both the sites of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial are also supposed to be inside the church. To get to the site of the crucifixion, you climb some stairs just inside the main entrance to the right. The site of the burial is in a rotunda on the main floor, to the left of the Stone of Anointing. In the center of the rotunda is a shrine, a small building called an aedicule, outside of which pilgrims form a line so they can be let inside a few at a time by an unenthusiastic priest. When we were there, the aedicule was encased in scaffolding.

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The aedicule and the dome above

 

Once inside the aedicule, you crouch through a low doorway, three or four at a time, into a cramped space with another stone slab (smaller than the Stone of Anointing) on the right. Under this slab is, according to tradition, where Jesus was buried. You kneel for a minute or so in front of the marble slab. You can touch it. Then the unenthusiastic priest tells you your time is up. I didn’t take any pictures inside, but National Geographic ran a photo essay last fall on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that included this picture of the inside:

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Source: Unsealing of Christ’s Reputed Tomb Turns Up New Revelations

I know that many people have had meaningful spiritual experiences inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and maybe at another time it would have been the same for me. But on this visit, being inside the church was more disorienting than anything. Maybe it is because I went in cold, not really knowing what to expect. It began with the trinkets being rubbed on the Stone of Anointing, and continued throughout. I was constantly looking around to see what other people were doing, and wondering why they were doing what they were doing.

It’s not that I don’t think the site has significance. The site of the crucifixion and burial don’t look anything like what they would have looked like in the first century, but I have no reason to doubt that these are really the places where Jesus died and was buried. Because longstanding tradition has placed it here, I do think this is likely where it all happened.

But as I wandered through the church, from the site of the crucifixion to the Stone of Anointing to the aedicule to the Chapel of Adam, deep in the bowels of the building, this was my prayer: I’m so glad you’re not here anymore. It’s amazing to think that a site could be so important because Jesus rose from the dead and left it: “He has risen! He is not here” (Mark 16:6).

Herodium and Self-Preservation

This is the twentieth post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel in the summer of 2016. I’m almost done, I promise (to read them all, click here).

June 27 AM

After being turned away at the Temple Mount and then visiting the Mount of Olives on the morning of our first full day in Jerusalem, our group traveled south to an ancient site called Herodium, which is today in the West Bank. This was one of several palace fortresses built by Herod the Great. Out of all of them he decided that he wanted to be buried here, according to the Jewish historian Josephus (Wars of the Jews 1.673). The archaeologist Ehud Netser found what is likely Herod’s tomb in 2007. When it was found, the ossuary (bone box) in the tomb had been smashed. It may be that a generation after Herod’s death, during the Jewish revolt from AD 66–70, the Zealots rebelling against Rome took hammers to what was left of Herod.

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Herodium is an impressive spot, built into the top of a flat-topped hill. From this hill you get panoramic views: to the northwest you can see Bethlehem, and even Jerusalem a bit farther away due north. To the southeast you can see the wilderness sloping down toward the Dead Sea. And though Herodium is in the Judean desert, you get a nice breeze at the top of the hill. Maybe that’s why Herod liked it so much.

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The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t say where the magi met with Herod to speak with him about the birth of Jesus, though it does say they went to Jerusalem initially (Matt 2:1–12). Since Herod loved this spot, it’s not impossible that they met him here. In any case, when standing on top of the hill, it’s not hard to imagine the wise men (however many of them there were) coming out of the wilderness to the east. And with Bethlehem so close by, it’s also not hard to imagine jealous old Herod looking down on it and fretting about this new king who was entering the world right under his nose.

He did all he could to preserve himself and hang on to what he’d worked for—including killing opposition leaders, young children, and members of his own family—and it was still taken from him. It’s hard to submit, hard to let go of control, but in the end we will all be forced to do so whether we want it or not.

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After enjoying the views and hearing about the history of the place, we went down into the tunnel system built into the hill, where we took a pause in the coolness, prayed, and sang. Then we continued through the tunnels out of the fortress and drove into Bethlehem.

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In Bethlehem we had lunch and browsed around one of the few souvenir shops we visited on the trip. I bought a miniature olive-wood nativity scene, because how can you not when you’re in Bethlehem? I also bought a small icon magnet of St. Nicholas that now adorns our refrigerator. Of course, St. Nicholas has nothing to do with Bethlehem, but he’s come to have a lot to do with Christmas.

On the way back in to Jerusalem, we got stuck in traffic and one of us (this is the internet, so I’ll never say who) had to go to the bathroom and ended up going by the side of the road, shielded by umbrellas. Whenever our group of travelers gathers again, it seems that moment always comes up in conversation.