The Rhetoric Of Religious Dissent

One of the more obscure causes I have a great interest in is the dispute between Calvinists and Arminians [1].  Of course, Calvinism has been the source of a great deal of jokes, and some more serious discussion, and there are more than a few Calvinists who come here not to troll but rather to determine whether to read books about free will.  Earlier today, though, a friend of mine sent me the link to a fascinating paper [2] dealing with the result of anti-Calvinist writing on the state of religious toleration in the Dutch Republic, and I would like to discuss this paper and its implications on those of us who write about religious matters in the contemporary equivalent of pamphlets, in ponderous and foreboding blog entries as this one, or magazine articles or other related means.  As someone with a deep interest in the writing of satire and other works of literature with religious and political points to make, and someone who has a personal stake in the survival within societies and institutions for candid but temperate truth telling, it is striking how relevant these studies are to contemporary life.

How does one express dissent on matters of religion in such a way that one does not end up finding exile or intolerant abuse?  The dispute over free will versus determinism, which the author of the article considers “settled” because of the way it was handled within the Dutch Reformed Church, even if it continues to rage on, is nonetheless notable in the way that the debate was carried on by writers.  Some writers chose to write witty dialogues in play form, or elegant fables where meaning is woven into layers of discreet text.  Other writers engage in libelous or at least impolite polemical conflicts where the tension and hostility escalate as each side counters the accusations of the other.  Even discussions of matters like tolerance often find themselves hijacked by discussions of other matters of contention, to the point where people seek to co-opt others, even others long dead, in contemporary arguments.  The result is a situation where people on all sides of a dispute often seek to find the worst that can be said about others, to make it as public and embarrassing as possible, and to tie people with others in such a way as to discredit their argument by ad hominem argumentation.

One sees this particularly strongly in the Arminian controversy.  Those opposed to Calvinism saw that the Dutch Reformed church had not sufficiently distinguished itself from the excesses of Calvin’s Geneva, which included the burning at the stake of innocent men more righteous than Calvin.  There were libels based on false accusations about personal behavior and the false claim that a strong stand in favor of free will on the part of believers was a step towards accepting the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.  Long-dead figures like Erasmus, who never in fact split from Rome, even if his witty criticism of the corruption of the late 16th and early 17th century Catholic Church set the stage for the Reformation by bringing its abuses to public light, and lowering the resulting respect of the learned lay public for corrupt ecclesiastical authorities, became used as a way of demonstrating that the ideas of Arminius were not novelties, but were in fact of longstanding status within the Dutch Reformed tradition.

In some ways, those disputes are never entirely settled.  Even if a particular institution may know peace by throwing out those who disagree with them, the battle between different views can extent for many decades, or even centuries, after the original claimants are dead.  Even where the institutions made by disputants have radically changed or even collapsed after their death, so long as their arguments survive, even in the hostile prose of their enemies, those arguments have the power to attract those who are willing to stick up for ideas form a long ago that may not have received a fair hearing in times past.  There are no new truths, but there are many cases where truth claims are decided on grounds other than truth.  Then, of course, there is our own limited abilities to understand the truth.  We feel that a subject is too important to tolerate error, but our own ability to understand and grasp absolute truth is flawed and limited, and as a result we endanger our own place in judgment by being harsh to others in areas where we need mercy for ourselves.

At times the arguments of centuries ago appear to lack a sense of relevance to our own lives, but the argument between Calvinists and Arminians to this day remains important.  To be sure, the Calvinists won the argument within the Dutch Reformed Church, and Arminians ended up finding a great deal and trouble for their defense of truth against error.  Even to this day the subject can start rhetorical warfare–I have been unfriended on social media once it became clear that I was an open Arminian, even now, four centuries after the dispute began in the Dutch Republic.  Perhaps of even more contemporary relevance, I have witnessed several political candidates for high office in the United States who lost races they should have won because their Calvinist religious beliefs led them to make statements about rape and sexual abuse that lost them decisive segments of the voting public.  To be a consistent Calvinist in the contemporary political atmosphere of the United States is to be a political loser.  This is not to endorse our contemporary political scene in the United States, which I find deeply troubling, even to the point of being abhorrent.  Rather, it is to say that old arguments never entirely die off, they simply move to a new address and are fought over again by different people in different institutions, and sometimes with different outcomes.

[1] See, for example:


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Book Review: Hearing God In Conversation

Hearing God In Conversation:  How To Recognize His Voice Everywhere, by Samuel C. Williamson

[Note:  This book was provided by Kregel Book Tours in exchange for an honest book review.]

Having previously read a book by the author [1], and finding it, somewhat ironically, to be a bit moralistic, I was not prepared for how good this book was going to be.  In reading this book, it became increasingly obvious, in the best way, that this was an author who had, like me, read far too many books where people are attempting to promote Eastern transcendental meditation [2], and he decided to write a book promoting a biblical view of meditation, and it manages to be a stellar book on Christian mysticism, a recognition that we must remain humble about the communication we think we receive from God and check it against the clear and unambiguous divine revelation.  Here is a book that manages the trick of encouraging people to listen to and be sensitive to the gentle nudge of God without going hog wild about supposed private revelations that contradict what the Bible says.  It is remarkable there are not more books like this one about the subject of spiritual communication, but part of what makes this book so good is that its principles about communicating for God work also address matters of communication with other people.

There are eighteen chapters and two appendices to this book, which takes up about two-hundred pages.  The author moves in a systematic fashion from the origins of his faith in his family background, the first time he heard God’s voice, the importance of conversation with God [3], how to recognize the voice of God, the purpose of scriptures, Christian meditation, speaking to listen, brainstorming with God, hearing God’s voice for others, hijacking conversations, asking questions as a way of connecting with God, cultivating a holy curiosity, knowing how to be sure one is listening to God’s voice, developing a friendship with God, understanding the emotions and experiences of God, seeing how God speaks in the detours of our life, hearing  God in the ordinary aspects of life, looking at how God shouts in silence, and appreciating the God who guides.  The appendices deal with answers to arguments over whether we can expect direct communication with God in our contemporary age, and a sober look at questionable and excessive practices in contemporary Christian mysticism, a thoughtful place to look for those who have concerns about there being any role for God speaking to us here and now.

Although the author is a remarkably tough-minded person, who feels free to criticize certain aspects of contemporary culture, particularly the excesses of Pentecostal worship and the way that some people seem to get a high out of experiences without finding appreciation of God’s ways in more settled aspects of life.  What is a revelation about this book is the way that the author is able to discuss his own spiritual life, and the way that he sought the counsel of others in discerning God’s voice rather than seeing spiritual communication as a way to go it alone, and how he sought to deal with what he perceived to be divine hints and nudges and gentle pokes in a spirit of humility, viewing it as a way of providing gracious comfort and encouragement to other people.  This book is a deeply encouraging one for those who wish to read how to better communicate with God, and see how communication with God can lead us to be more sensitive and understanding with the people around us, which is a great part of the goal of any spiritual improvement in our lives.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

[3] See, for example:

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Book Review: Uninvited

Uninvited:  Living Loved When You Feel Less Than, Left Out, And Lonely, by Lysa TerKeurst

[Note:  This book was provided free of charge by BookLook/Thomas Nelson Publishers in exchange for an honest review.]

I am of deeply mixed opinions when it comes to this book.  On the one hand, there is a lot, perhaps too much, that I can identify with in this author.  She writes from a painfully honest sense of vulnerability, including a lot of awkward and embarrassing and uncomfortable experiences from her life, including parental abandonment, the breakup of friendships, romantic troubles, the fear of rejection, insecurity, problems in communication, and the like.  She makes some comic hay out of her difficulties, and includes a great deal of helpful scriptures and stories that help frame her struggles, like the stories of Hannah and Abigail (which takes up at least two chapters of this book).  On the other hand, the author strays from encouraging if awkward personal stories to painfully trite, even offensive, advice.  The author would have been better served to stick with the stories, and try not to give rehashed and warmed over motivational advice, although the author meant this as a motivational book, so her use of tedious cliché is perhaps to be expected for the genre.  This book appears to be written for overly emotional women with daddy issues [1], and it will likely encourage its target audience.

The contents of this book are organized somewhat haphazardly, and it appears, at least when one gets to the end, that the real core of the book is in the “bonus chapter” that some people are likely not to read at all.  The chapters have all kinds of cutesy titles, dealing with questions of honesty, questions we must consider, dealing with our paranoid fears that others hate us, feeling alone in a crowded room, dealing with trust issues and the breakup of friendships into years of cold silence, the disruption of normal life, corrective experiences, dealing with the hurt of rejection, working to feel unthreatened by the success of others, things we must remember when we are rejected, our enemy’s plan against us, miracles in the mess, moving through the in-between periods of life, wanting to run away, and dealing with the fact that what we think will fix us does not actually do so.  After this, the author transitions into her real point, talking about what it is like to live with her and encouraging the reader to take an assessment in how it is like for others to live with them, and a chart of corrective experiences.  Intermixed with a lot of personal stories, perhaps a bit too personal, is terrible advice that sounds like the rehashing of  clichés from people like Stephen Covey and Jim Rohn.  Thankfully, the stories are sufficiently engaging that one can almost forgive the author’s total lack of creativity in framing this advice for the reader.

The reader of this book is faced with the serious question of how this book is to be judged.  Does the open and painful vulnerability on the part of the writer make one more compassionate and empathetic for her struggles and those like her, including a large portion of her reading audience, even when she spouts offensive self-help tripe to the reader as words of divine wisdom?  Perhaps these clichés are what she uses to encourage herself, and she feels that others would be similarly helped by the advice, which is a woefully misguided interpretation.  At the core, this book feels like a terrible self help book that masquerades as both a personal memoir of considerable honesty and an attempt to wrestle with and claim the biblical promises of comfort and help for believers, and the recognition that unpleasant rejection and difficult personal experiences can be the sign of a harsh but ultimately beneficial grace.  This is a worthwhile insight, it should be noted, but it is unclear what sort of book the author is trying to write.  If the structure of the book and its ultimate aims were more clear, and there were fewer clichés, this book would have a lot more to offer.  Sadly, as it is, this book must be praised for its effort even if its execution falls short.  Hopefully the author does not take a review like this one as a personal rejection, and rather sees it as an opportunity to improve, and to encourage herself with stale bromides she will hopefully not repeat in future efforts.

[1] See, for example:

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It Seems So Out Of Context In This Gaudy Apartment Complex

It is well known that I have a taste for somewhat racy gangsta jokes [1], and this sort of joke can easily go over the wrong way.  After all, there are few people more conspicuously white as I am, to the point of caricature, to the point of making Dynamite Hack look like real boys in the hood.  This is not an exaggeration.  Yet despite my love of self-caricature, it is not entirely in mocking, and it is certainly not meant to be disrespectful to anyone with far greater street cred than I possess, like the members of PM Dawn [2].  Part of the necessary context is that I spent a considerable amount of my life, as a high school student in East Tampa and then as a college student in South Central Los Angeles, living in the ghetto.  If I am tragically unhip white boy, more white than Dan Hartman [3], I am someone who has actually lived in relatively hip areas, and lived there under the same conditions as my neighbors dodging bums and irritated at the cops as well as the less than particularly bright drug dealers who assumed that white people were potential customers and not neighbors.

The context we put to comments is a big part of what determines how we view a given comment.  More than most people, I think I require a great deal of context.  This has not always been to my benefit.  Anyone who has shared more than a few dinner conversations with me, and given my love of social eating, this is a fairly large group of people, has likely seen at least a few examples of my razor sharp wit, with my native skill at figuring out the most awkward thing to say and then zinging on it like a laser-guided missile.  I have had cause to lament these witty comments on many occasions [4], especially because I usually end up poking far more fun of myself with my wit than I poke fun of anyone else around me, and the fact that my wit often pokes at my own sensitivities and preoccupations, few of which have done me much credit with other people, some of whom are just as sensitive as I am, and not nearly as witty in response.  It is not charitable to engage in a duel of wits with unarmed people.

Wit has been one of the casualties of our culture’s slide towards immense self-seriousness.  Wit requires a certain amount of ironic distance from ourselves, a realization that something is crying out to be said, even if, like many an ill-timed rapier thrust, it exposes us to a fair share of ridicule in turn.  Sometimes things need to be said, even if the only people who can say them are wildly inappropriate at doing so, and they should be told in the funniest way possible, because there are some truths that can only be told as a joke because they are too serious to talk about any other way in polite company.  There are plenty of people, of course, who would argue that my company is not polite company, but if I sometimes struggle to be polite company, largely because my wit is frequently directed at the unexamined premises and ironies and contradictions of the people around me, I at least appreciate polite company.  At least I appreciate company that is polite enough to smile and laugh at my attempts at wit, and not to be offended by them.

What is the context that helps us to understand someone’s behavior?  Sometimes, in order to properly understand someone or something, we need to understand something of a person’s biography and background, something of a person’s drive to use humor and wit as a defense against the injustice and absurdity of life, and as a way that terribly serious people sometimes seek to take life just a bit less seriously than they would otherwise be inclined to do, to make a joke in order to feel less awkward.  If one felt as awkward as I did on a regular basis, they would likely be every bit as witty.  Of course, it is hard to give others credit when it comes to the context that they need to be properly understood.  Because we know ourselves better than we know others, unless we are spectacularly unobservant, we are aware of the sort of context that others need in order to respond to us appropriately.  If we are charitable people, we will give them that context, and if we are fortunate enough, others may even return the favor to us, so that we may have the context that we need to understand those we are around, and who are often the unfortunate victims of our witty barbs and lighthearted jests.

[1] See, for example:



[4] See, for example:

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Book Review: Makers And Takers

Makers And Takers:  The Rise Of Finance and The Fall Of American Business, by Rana Foroohar

[Note:  This book was provided free of charge by Blogging For Books/Crown Business in exchange for an honest review.]

I am probably not the sort of reader who is best equipped to give this book a fair hearing, but I will do my best.  On the positive side, this book was immensely easy to read, and managed to provide a look at a lot of reasons in which finance screws over the larger population, many of which are the subjects of my own ironic reflections [1].  It is certainly a left-wing populist book, one that cites Elizabeth Warren and the organizers of the Occupy Wall Street movement like a believer would quote scripture.  Not being generally fond of books that try to pretend as if they are fair-minded and are avoiding the pitfalls of socialism when they disingenuously do precisely that [2], I found this book to be morally and intellectually dishonest, and so even where I agreed with the author’s crusade against finance and its excesses, I found the author to be slippery and untrustworthy, and that is a fatal flaw in a book that seeks to present social problems and solutions to those problems. Without confidence that the author is a person of integrity, all that remains is reading political propaganda that one is hostile to, and that is not nearly as much fun.

This book is about 300 pages of material divided into an introduction and eleven chapters.  The first ten chapters give various aspects of the problem, in the author’s mind, concerning the rise of finance in contemporary American business culture:  a history of the rise of the finance, the decline of business under the influence of statistical management, the failures of MBA programs, the rise of shareholder activism, the way even old-fashioned companies emulate financiers, the destructive effects of Wall Street control of commodities and the use of derivatives, what happens when wall street owns Main Street including a great deal of housing properties, the end of retirement, the skewed taxation that benefits financial companies and their various shell games, and the revolving door between public service and lucrative private positions for many in the financial world.  The last chapter presents some socialist aims at solving the perceived financial crisis before an acknowledgements section and the usual bibliography and index.

The title of this book, as many readers will likely recognize, seeks to reverse the idea of makers and takers by considering financiers as takers and public and private unionized employees as “makers” of what is useful in society.  The author is too intent on scoring political points, making fun of Republicans, and settling scores within left-wing politics by mocking Obama’s Treasury team and engaging on a pro-Hillary Clinton argument to make a fair argument.  This book will likely rub any reader the wrong way unless they have already drunk the left-wing kool-aid of the occupy comment, Comrade Warren, and others of their ilk.  It is striking, and somewhat disappointing, that when given an easy target to pillory like financial firms and their ways, that the book muffs the job.  This book, if it is to be found anywhere in the future other than the discount bins of hipster independent booksellers, is likely to be remembered, if at all, as an example of a book that has a great prose style and miserable tone and content.  It is an immense disappointment, a sign of how politics ruins so many areas of our society, including publishing.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

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Book Review: Schloss Nymphenburg

Schloss Nymphenburg, by Klaus G. Forg

While I was waiting for dinner last night at the home of a friend, as is frequently my fashion, I picked up a coffee table book [1].  As might be expected, this short book (less than 100 pages, albeit fairly large pages) comes with a few surprises.  One of the main surprises is that this book is mostly written in German, although about a quarter or so of the contenet, give or take, is translated into four other languages:  English, French, Italian, and Japanese.  For those whose German is even less proficient than myself, and my German is not particularly good, the book offers a great deal aside from the text, and that is a large number of elegant and high-quality photos of the mansion, its outbuildings, garden, objects d’art, and a fine collection of Chinese tapestries.  As someone who enjoys reading books about manorial houses, this was the sort of book I enjoyed reading even with the linguistic challenge the book offered.  There are likely plenty other people who would agree with me as well.

The contents of this book are well-organized and divided into several sections.  The first section discusses how Nymphenburg Palace is a world-famous attraction, something that can easily be believed.  Then there is a lengthy section on the main palace, a look at the contents of the park, and then a look at Amalienburg, Badenburg, Pagodenburg, and Magdalenklause.  In the German, but not in the English, French, or Italian language sections, the book contains somewhat detailed discussions of the people involved in building the palace and the precise conditions involved in the acquisition of the various lovely paintings and tapestries and the creation and expansion of the garden.  The other languages provide a much more brief discussion of the building and its contents, but the photos alone offer sufficient detail that it is plainly obvious just how gorgeous a sight this house must have been to its inhabitants and how it remains so for contemporary travelers.  Of perhaps greatest interest, aside from the way the palace looks, is the way in which it represents a tribute to the struggle on the part of elite families to procreate and carry on their family name, something that many of us an relate to in our own way.

There is a lot to appreciate about a book like this–it offers a good deal of linguistic challenge for those who want to try their hand at German or any of the other languages the book is written in, it offers beautiful pictures with some compelling family stories, and it is the sort of book that one can read quickly and with great pleasure while waiting for dinner.  A coffee table book that serves this set of qualities is something to be appreciated, and this book gives credit to its author, photographer(s), and publisher.  There was likely pleasure at every step of the way in this book’s production and there would likely be pleasure to be found by anyone who picks up this book idly and reads through it over the course of a few minutes.  What is not to appreciate about that, even if most of the language is difficult to understand?  Some things in life are simply meant to be enjoyed.

[1] See, for example:

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The Tears Of God Are The Meaning Of History

As someone who has shad more than my share of tears at the results of my own folly or the sins of others, I have often found it worthwhile to reflect on the tears of God [1]. It is a striking but often unrecognized truth that God desires communication with people. Perhaps it is something so basic that we neglect it, and perhaps as well issues of communication, being at the core of so many of our own problems as human beings, are often areas of difficulty when it comes to our own spiritual lives, whether we struggle in areas of prayer or whether the desire for communication with God becomes twisted into some sort of holier than thou mysticism that privileges people for certain claims of divine communication, rather than seeking to use communication as a bridge between believers and as a way of encouraging one another in our mutual godly walk.

What did God do after the initial sin of mankind? Genesis 3 describes God anthropomorphically as walking in the garden in the cool of the evening, seeking a conversation with Adam and Eve. Given the horrors of sin that had been unleashed upon the world, it might have been understandable had God been in an angry mood, but God instead asked a series of gentle questions to Adam and Eve, questions that were answered with uneasy attempts at evasion and a lack of repentance. Yet God’s attempt at a genuine and friendly conversation is notable. Strikingly, after having honored Abel’s sacrifice and rejecting that of Cain, God attempts a friendly conversation with Cain, remarkable for its gentleness and kindness, and yet Cain totally failed to master his sin. Even after the sin of murder, God dealt with Cain in an immensely gracious manner, responding to his fears of vengeance and the rather petulant statement that God’s punishment of exile was more than he could bear, despite the fact that he deserved far worse.

More successfully, God had plenty of conversation with other believers in the Bible among ancient history. For example, Enoch walked with God, and was delivered from the hostility of his neighbors as a result. Abraham walked with God as well, and was considered a friend of God. Jacob wrestled with God, and during that wrestling had a conversation with God. God communicated with Joseph through dreams, and Moses had enough conversations with God that it affected his face and led him to have to wear a veil because of the way that his closeness with God made other Israelites uncomfortable. Indeed, perhaps most tragically, God wanted a personal relationship with the Israelites, but his ardor terrified them, and led them to want to distance themselves from any relationship with God, and to have Moses (and Aaron) as intermediaries. Nor was this an isolated occurrence, as continually throughout biblical history God wanted to commune with His people, but His people did not want to have a relationship with Him.

Perhaps most poignantly, we find this a problem during the life of Jesus on this earth. What prompts Jesus’ own greatest sadness was the fact that despite His outgoing and conspicuous love for His people, they simply did not want to be saved from sin, but rather wanted deliverance on fairly narrow physical terms, from their hunger or from diseases or from Roman oppression. And when it came time for Jesus Christ to bear the burden of the sins of humanity as our sacrifice, He was cut off from that communication and from that intimacy with His Father that he had enjoyed for eternity, and His cry about being forsaken by God is something that those who have felt the dark night of the soul and felt themselves to be cut off from intimacy with humanity and utterly abandoned can relate to in all of its terrors and grief. We are all relational beings, and since God created us in His image, that is one aspect of His nature that we share, however that desire for relationship has been corrupted in our own relationships with God and with other people through sin and folly.

One of the most common difficulties that people face in areas of apologetics is justifying the ways of God when it comes to the suffering of supposedly good people. We wonder, and understandably so, why God allows horrors like the Holocaust, or allows helpless and innocent infants and children to be raped and abused. Yet the sorrows and troubles we face, and those we inflict on others, are the result of people doing what is right in their own eyes, and not turning from their native bent and forsaking their wicked ways. We are beings possessed of free will, for it is only beings who are free to decide and free to act that can choose to love. With the granting of free will–a gift we do not deserve, nor one we tend to use wisely–the possibility of rejection is a given. God does not look upon our struggling and our suffering with a detached air of resignation, nor does he storm through our lives like a bull in a china shop, destroying our idols and our illusions, but rather he speaks to us as He spoke to Elijah, with a still small voice in the midst of the fires and tempests of our lives, a voice that is easy to miss. He speaks in the silence that infuriates us, and He speaks through gentle nudges and pokes that require a certain sensitivity to recognize, and a certain amount of humility and faith to respond to. The tears of God, and our own, are part of the price for the freedom we hold so dear, and abuse so promiscuously, but because we are free to choose between life and death, blessing and cursing, God must urge us rather than compel us to choose life so that we and our descendants may live. For, fortunately for us all, God does not desire the destruction of the wicked, but rather that they repent from their wicked ways and seek after Him, so that they may live. The tears of God are tears of compassion and mercy, and God willing, we will respond to them in time that we may avoid our own tears of great grief and misery over the course of our lives.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: The Spiritual Warfare Answer Book

The Spiritual Warfare Answer Book, by Dr. David Jeremiah

[Note:  This book was provided free of charge by BookLook/Thomas Nelson Publishers in exchange for an honest review.]

Late Sabbath morning, when I finished reading the previous book from the publisher, I found that there were no additional books available for me to request in hard copy, so I requested this book as an e-book.  The book was an easy one to request and an easy one to appreciate as well.  If you have an interest in spiritual warfare and demonology, this book will read like a basic primer on the biblical views of these subjects, a quick and handy reference for future re-reading.  As someone who thinks and reads more than my fair share about demonology [1], without it being a personal obsession, I found this book to sit on a fine balance between showing interest in the subject and not being too extreme about it.  That is a balance that ought to appeal to many of the readers who find this book and its subject matter of interest.

The contents and structure of this book are worthy of mention.  The book itself is labeled as an answer book, and this is an accurate title.  In generations past, this book would likely have been called a catechism, because that’s what it is, a series of thematically organized questions that are given brief and clear answers.  The questions of the book, and their answers, are divided into several sections.  The book begins by addressing the terms of engagement of spiritual war, answering the obvious questions about whether and why we are involved in spiritual war as believers against the forces of darkness.  Then there are a series of questions and answers directed to understanding Satan and the demonic world.  After this there comes a series of questions and answers dealing with biblical statements about our weapons in this warfare.  After this comes a short section on the warfare of prayer and then a conclusion, after which the book includes a warrior’s prayer, some scriptural guides to prayer and spiritual warfare, some notes on the author and other works of his, and reference notes and an index.

There are some books on this subject that are long on personal stories; this is not one of them.  This is a book that sticks pretty resolutely to basic and practical questions people would have about the application of the Bible to spiritual warfare.  There are some obvious caveats about what kind of reader will appreciate this book.  For one, this book is very straightforward question and answer–those looking for a lot of personal stories will be very disappointed.  The book has encouraging things to say, but it does not speak from the point of view of the author as, say, an exorcist giving memoirs, but rather speaks from someone giving straightforward biblical exegesis.  It should go without saying that if the would-be reader does not take the biblical stories about Jesus’ casting demons out of people or about biblical statements on the spiritual world with the utmost seriousness than the reader will gain very little out of the book.  This book is aimed at believers in the Bible who have, perhaps understandably, only a slight degree of knowledge and more interest in the area of our warfare against the forces of spiritual darkness.  Such an audience will find much to enjoy and appreciate here, and much of practical use in that area.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: The Plane Above

The Plane Above:  Secrets Of The Astral Sea, by Rob Heinsoo

As someone who reads and plays more than my fair share of role-playing games [1], I often find books that offer unintentional insights, far beyond their ostensible purpose.  Such it is here.  This particular book is designed for those who are playing or planning high level heroic campaigns for heroes that have seen and done everything and are bored with normal challenges, forcing even more extreme dangers and risks, and even more outlandish scenarios.  As such, this particular book has a fairly small target audience, namely those who are extremely serious about table top role playing and who have committed a fair amount of time to study a given imaginary world.  Even so, this book offers particular and striking insight for those who take this book as a reminder of territorial and internally divided nature of the fallen world, with a strong degree of knowledge in heathen religious worldviews, as this particular book offers a campaign that bears a striking resemblance to our own planet if viewed from a point of view that emphasizes the spiritual reality rather than a geographical accuracy.

The contents of this book are fairly short, at about 160 pages of material, and divided into four chapters.  The first chapter examines some of the issues of in-game astral adventuring, exploring some of the themes likely to bring adventurers into this dangerous place.  The second chapter looks at the so-called divine dominions that can be found here, including some details about their history and denizens and geography.  The third chapter looks at the deep astral sea, including a look at the races of the area (couatls, githyanki, maruts, and quom) and the shattered dominions that are missing their rulers and are existing in a state of considerable ruin.  The fourth and final chapter gives a detailed look at various residents of the region, in alphabetical order according to their general “class” from abomination to quom, with notes on their tactics and special abilities.  This sort of information would be useful to those who are planning campaigns in the area, but is likely to be of little interest to anyone else unless they happen to be a student of demonology.

For those who are not adepts at Dungeons & Dragons, there are few reasons why one would want to read this book.  Among them is the curious reason of seeing what it is that demons think of themselves.  This game has an insanely complicated demonology, to the level that basically all of its gods are demonic in nature, all of them deeply divided among themselves, of limited capacity, and with a certain tendency to deify brave and noble adventuring heroes, serving to blur the line between human and demigod.  Great levels of hierarchies and intense competition over honors and offices and favor mark the benighted beings of all alignments here, and they can basically said to be all bad, regardless of whether they claim to be good or neutral or evil.  Few people will likely be interested in pondering the various schemes of demons to increase the span of their domains, to fight off the rightful ruler of their domain, or to reverse the isolation brought upon by their rebellion, but for those who have such an interest, this book offers surprising insight.

[1] See, for example:

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Wherever The Carcass Is, There The Vultures Will Be Gathered Together

Somewhere in the course of my voluminous reading about Abraham Lincoln, I remember coming across a funny witticism of his [1] when it came to people looking for the spoils of office.  He quoted the Bible, saying, “Where the body is, there the vultures will be gathered together.”  The statement drew a lot of humor from his audience.  At the time, the spoils system was in operation and presidents were expected to be at the center of a large distribution of patronage, giving the offices of federal governments to political allies to repay them for services rendered.  And truly, although this is a somewhat flippant use of scripture, it is a worthwhile story to introduce how the Bible can be applied to many situations.  There are two passages where Jesus Christ makes similar comments about bodies and eagles being gathered together, and the English translation views them both as the same, something that hinders us from understanding these passages.  In the light, therefore, of the fact that the Bible does have insight to give, and in the spirit of Abraham Lincoln’s inventive use of scriptural application, let us seek to understand what is meant by these passages and what it means for us.

Luke 17:31-37, speaking of the context of deliverance from the dark times as the Day of the Lord approaches, tells us that “In that day, he who is on the housetop, and his goods are in the house, let him not come down to take them away. And likewise the one who is in the field, let him not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife. Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it. I tell you, in that night there will be two men in one bed: the one will be taken and the other will be left. Two women will be grinding together: the one will be taken and the other left. Two men will be in the field: the one will be taken and the other left.”  And they answered and said to Him, “Where, Lord?”  So He said to them, “Wherever the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together.”  There is a lot to unpackage here, including the fact that this passage is among those which have been misinterpreted about the rapture to give rise to terrible religious fiction like the Left Behind series.  Our point today is merely to examine the context of verse 37.

In this case, the word used for body is soma, a word that is commonly used to refer to the flesh or the physical body by Paul, among others.  The term is also used to refer to the body of Christ in sometimes mystical terms.  What we find here is eagles protecting the body of Christ, and that this protection is not universal.  An imperfect analogy can be seen in the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, where the eagles occasionally give deliverance to the godly in battle, or help them escape, but whose behavior cannot be coerced and is seen as a miraculous deliverance.  That is what the Bible has in mind here, not something that can be compelled or induced on our part, but something that is seen as and appreciated as a miracle of divine favor for those who are fortunate enough to be able to experience it.  To what extent the visualization of these eagles as something literal, in light of, for example, the complicated portrayal of angels in the Bible, is helpful or not is likely something that will only be able to be determined after the fact.

The other passage that, in English, is translated nearly identically is, upon further analysis, a very distinct image.  Matthew 24:26-28 tells us:  “Therefore if they say to you, ‘Look, He is in the desert!’ do not go out; or ‘Look, He is in the inner rooms!’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together.”  This happens to be the verse quoted by Abraham Lincoln, and the context is a different one.  The word for body, for example, is ptoma and not soma, a word that means corpse or carcass and not a living body.  Likewise, instead of protecting eagles, the Bible has the vulture in mind rather than the eagle.  The image, rather than divine protection for some believers from danger, is one of the great feast for the birds among those who rebel against the return of Jesus Christ and whose apocalyptic death is responsible for our visions of the battle of Armageddon, even though this encounter happens near Jerusalem.

How do we compare these passages together?  For one, it appears that in the end time, there will be birds gathering around both believers and unbelievers.  For believers, it is eagles, symbolic of angels, gathering around to protect them.  For unbelievers, it is vultures gathering around to feast off of the dead bodies of those who have opposed Jesus Christ.  The question we have to ask ourselves, is what sort of body do we wish to be–the Body of Christ dwelling in unity and harmony in love or a carcass–and what sort of birds we wish to be gathering around us.  We do not have a choice about either being a body or having birds gather, the only question is what kind.  Few choices are presented as starkly as this one is.  What do we decide?

[1] See, for example:

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