Sunday, December 11, 2016

Book Review with Some Religious Opinions: Snapshots of God

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Snapshots of God

Author: Richard W. Coffen

Date: 2009

Publisher: Review & Herald

ISBN: 978-0-8280-2460-0

Length: 368 pages

Quote: “The biblical passages selected for this book are extremely diverse…some…aren’t what most of us would consider personal favorites…I found it a challenge to encapsulate my understanding of a Bible verse in under 400 words.”

Richard Coffen is one of those pastors who were considered “liberal” when I attended a Seventh-Day Adventist church. By now they’ve succeeded in alienating most of the real “conservatives.” Of course, in this peculiar context, “liberal” and “conservative” have nothing to do with secular politics; Seventh-Day Adventists define these words in terms of how people relate to the church’s traditional rules about modesty, temperance, and frugality. By now it seems that those who wanted to abolish the rules have succeeded in alienating those who had no problem with the rules. Rethinking the rules was touted as a way to make church membership grow. In practice, while the Spanish-speaking Iglesia Adventista del Séptimo Día has grown, the English-speaking Seventh-Day Adventist church has splintered and shrunk. Nevertheless it’s still a fairly large, rich denomination, able to maintain publishing houses that print devotional books by S.D.A. authors.

Snapshots of God is that kind of book. Written not to convert Christians but to inform Christians already converted, it’s one of those devotional books that offer exactly one page of reflections on one Bible verse per day. Review & Herald prints both full-length hardcover books for anyone to read over a whole year, like this one, and ninety-day paperback “quarterlies” for members of different discussion groups in the church.

For those not familiar…S.D.A. “Sabbath School” classes, graded by age, are the interactive part of the weekly church meetings. Members are not required to read the “quarterly” devotional, but will fit into the classes where discussions are liveliest if they have. So the most active members of the S.D.A. church typically don’t even read a book like Snapshots of God as the authors intend this kind of books to be read. They buy them, though—Grandma Bonnie Peters bought Snapshots of God—and leave them lying about for casual reading. Since each page is a self-contained section, books like Snapshots of God are perfect for “reading” in the bathroom, or while waiting for dinner…I read this book (and also knitted a full-sized, original-designed blanket) while waiting on the computer regular readers may remember as The Sickly Snail. 

Coffen’s introduction (and reflection on 1 Cor. 10:11) is the reading for the first day of January. Genesis 1:1 is discussed on the second of January. After that Coffen’s reflections are presented mostly in the order the verses appear in the Bible. The end of January brings us into the book of Numbers; by the beginning of March we’re in the book of Judges, and so on.

One thing of which the Neo-Pagan movement has recently reminded Christians is that God the Father is not, in fact, described in the Bible as male. God is a Spirit, not limited to any gender, number, or form of mortal flesh. The Hebrew language paints very vivid word “pictures” of abstract concepts. On page 27, Coffen discusses the description of God in Exodus 34:6-7, one of several passages in which the Bible writers agree that God is motherly (possessing the kind of mercy the ancient Hebrews believed to be based in the uterus) and has a long nose (is not easily provoked to anger, which the ancient Hebrews metaphorically expressed by, among other things, snorting through the nose). Other texts credit God with upper body strength, which sounds masculine, but ancient Hebrews identified this quality with the feminine figure (El Shaddai means “powerful,” “mountain-like,” or “busty”).  The Hebrew text has some vivid images of male-body qualities, always used to refer to men not to God. The Bible calls God “Father” and “He,” but does not describe God in terms of the corresponding metaphors for human male characteristics.

So, should we “image” God as “He” or as “She”? The Bible warns us against “making images” of either kind. The ancient Hebrew language and culture were so full of gendered imagery and stereotypes about what mortal fathers and mothers did that it’s even possible to read the Hebrew Scriptures as emphasizing God’s transcendence of mortal limits by emphasizing that God can be like either, neither, and/or both mortal fathers and mortal mothers. Each of the Arabs’ “ninety-nine names of God” has a Hebrew counterpart, but the Hebrew scriptures use four primary names for God: one looks like a feminine form, but is used as if it were masculine; one looks like a plural form, but is used as if it were singular; one looks like a verb form, but is used as if it were a noun; and although the fourth is solidly masculine, with connotations of male sexuality, the Bible tells us that when we become enlightened we won’t have much use for that one.

Personally, I’ve often found it valuable to remember that the Bible writers consistently called God a Father—in terms of a culture where fathers depended on their children for economic security, but spent time with their children mostly while teaching their children to do their jobs—rather than a Nanny. Some twentieth century Christians seem to want to worship God as a Nanny who caaares about soothing their feeelings, rather than a Father who holds them to standards. These people may not like to be reminded that in the Bible God is less likely to say “There there everything’s all right” than to say “No, not like that—now watch this—like that! Now try it again!” 

Some feminist friends and writers are attracted to the idea of a Goddess because “She is more like us.” Observing that, in history, women as a group seem to have been better off in cultures where people prayed to God as a Father of Justice than in cultures where women were considered too inferior even to pray to the masculinized images of God and relegated to goddess cults, I continue to appreciate the image of God the Father. But, yes, according to the Bible, my Heavenly Father feels distinctly motherly love and has the specific kind of powerful shoulders and mighty arms that support a full bosom, and may therefore, if we want to be downright silly about it, resemble me more than Gloria Steinem does. This despite the fact that He is also a “Lord” whose rights, implicit in the title “Lord,” include the right to use any of the things He is Lord of in a male sexual way.

Coffen, addressing Seventh-Day Adventists, doesn’t go as far along this line of thought as I just did (knowing that this web site has some feminist and Neo-Pagan readers), but he does discuss the Bible passages that describe God as a remarkably motherly sort of Father, as well as Lord, King, Savior, Creator, and other things. Not all of the texts on which Coffen dwells are descriptions of God; most are.

On page 22, Coffen discusses some of the additional titles used to describe God in the Bible, the “God of…” or “God, the…” phrases: El-Shaddai, El-Elyon, El-Olam, El-Berith. There are others. “God of Abraham.” “God of our ancestors.” In Hebrew possessive forms that link the name of someone addressed with the people speaking become additional forms of the name, giving us Eloi (my God) and Elohenu (our God) and so on. Coffen does not discuss every single one of these names, although that might become a topic for another devotional book some day. He focusses on those four because they, along with El, Elohe, and Elohim, were general Semitic-language words for God that we know were used to refer to the “false gods of the nations” as well as the One God of the Bible.

This line of thought, too, can be followed further. In the Hebrew scriptures the word for the Lord God is Ba’al. This, also, was a general Semitic-language word for “lord,” which has become familiar to us in Bible passages where it’s used to mean the false god of some cult or city. In Hebrew ba’al can mean any “Lord and Master,” whether good or evil, human or divine, and it was used to mean all four. Ba’ali, “my lord,” was what slaves called slavemasters. It was also what wives called husbands in public. (There were female forms, ba’alit and others.)  Privately wives called husbands Ishi, “my man.” Because slavery was still real, the shift of attitude implied by “call me Ishi rather than Ba’ali” was probably stronger than the one implied by “call me ‘Dear’ rather than ‘Sir’.” Ba’ali had some of the connotations of “bull” and “bully.” It was a name that lacks a real counterpart in any language spoken by free people. The God of the Bible is credited with teaching people not to subject themselves to these ba’alim, but, despite a prohibition against “speaking the names” of the false gods, He accepted the worship of people who called him ba’al.

Words, as Coffen observes, evidently are not considered the names of false gods.We can refer to August, or Monday, or Diana Spencer, without violating any religious restriction on worshipping Augustus Caesar or the moon or Diana of the Ephesians. (A.J. Jacobs was joking about this.)

Another controversial point on which Coffen frequently weighs in has to do with the rules for church services, themselves. “A priest had to…be descended from Aaron… Some argue that ordained ministers are the contemporary equivalent of the ancient priests. Therefore, women pastors mustn’t be ordained…then shouldn’t all the necessary qualifications be applied?” “It’s a bit puzzling…to hear people speak of ‘altar calls,’ because there are no altars in our churches. The exposition of Scripture, not an animal sacrifice, is the focal point.” “Ancient places of worship…weren’t places where the worshippers sat down…Literally, the text tells us to come before God shouting.” 

Then there’s “biblical accuracy.” On page 113, Coffen’s focus is on Ezra 2:41: “The singers of the family of Asaph: 128.” “But…Nehemiah 7:44 indicates that the number of people was 148. A clear contradiction.” Not necessarily, if the counts were taken on different days, but Coffen correctly notices that “inspired people can get their facts wrong.” (Isn’t that a consolation to every blogger who has ever published a typo, or an erroneous detail?) Some of the Bible writers’ disagreements on names, numbers, etc., do not actually contradict each other. An army that had eight hundred thousand swordsmen in one year can easily have eleven hundred thousand in another year. A man might change his name. Something that was begun on the seventh day of the month might be finished on the tenth. Nevertheless, although it’s likely that Jesus healed people both on the way into Jericho and on the way out of Jericho, it seems likely that he healed Bartimaeus, specifically, on one occasion or the other but not both, and one of the descriptions of this event contains a scribal error. It’s possible that Matthew had heard a reasonably accurate genealogy for Joseph and Luke had heard one for Mary, in which case they would have been very distant cousins, but if so the gospel of Luke would still contain an error, since its genealogy is identified as Joseph’s.

Adventists have generally tried to ignore these errors in asserting “the inerrancy of the Scriptures.” They have obviously been wrong in denying that the inconsistencies exist. They can still go wrong by allowing too much to be made of the inconsistencies.

On page 117, Coffen takes the first of several steps toward what I see as making too much of the idea that we can ever think we know more than the Bible writers did. “We use communication…in five different ways…Informative communication provides names and information…Cognitive communication shares thoughts… Affective communication shares and evokes emotions…Performative communication produces action…and phatic communication eases tension and builds solidarity.” The Bible writers were not shy about praying for harsh judgments to fall upon evildoers. Coffen, here commenting on Nehemiah 3:37 (“Do not pardon their wickedness! May their sin never be erased!”), wants to smooth everything over: “He was frustrated and was venting his spleen.. It seems to me that God takes our affective language seriously…But He doesn’t take such speech literally.”

It seems to me that nobody was ever meant to take some Hebrew phrasings literally. Others, however, we smooth over at our peril. The thing to be learned from Nehemiah’s prayer, here, is that God Himself cannot forgive sins of which people don’t repent, and people of good will can indeed pray that God will show displeasure with some people’s sins in ways that will get their attention, here and now and forevermore, because that may be the only way those people will ever repent. We do not really promote good, or even nice, behavior by trying to smooth over “wickedness.” We are not practicing love when we “call evil good.” It may be possible to feel as well as to practice real love for rapists and murderers, but it’s not possible to do that by allowing them to commit rapes and murders.

Rather than trying to deny that we feel angry because we see things that are wrong being done, it would be better if more Christians prayed biblically: Correct them here and now, O Lord. Please, for the sake of whatever evildoers may have in the way of salvageable souls, chastise the evildoers before they can do any more evil. Clobber them, as it were with a heavy beam right between the eyes; knock them down, strike them blind, even cripple them if You must, O God, until—like St. Paul—they say, themselves, in sincere repentance, “Wanting to kill those ‘heretical Jews’ who became Christians was wrong, and it would have been better for me to have been totally blind forever, not even just blinded for a few days and thereafter very nearsighted, rather than for me to have participated in another murder like that of St. Stephen.” 

One can understand Coffen’s aversion to this kind of prayer. One does not have to have been a Christian for very long before one hears a highly questionable prayer, often uttered in complete sincerity by a very young Christian, along the lines of “That girl/boy/employer/teacher/scholarship committee rejected me for wrong reasons, O Lord. Please destroy all his/her beauty and prospects and hopes in life, ruin his/her business, let his/her school burn to the ground, to correct their wrong thinking!” 

We need to be clear, I believe, about why this line of thought is not biblical. Nehemiah was talking about hostile, violent opposition to the will of God for a nation, not a mere personal demonstration of a prospective partner’s unfitness or of his own. Most older people can and should say to the young Christian, “Once, long ago, some other young person who was as confused as I was at that time rejected me, too, in abusive and hurtful ways. Partly it was because I was not in fact mature , sincere, or committed enough for the position I wanted, partly it was because s/he wasn’t either. And actually, with hindsight, I now believe that it was in harmony with God’s perfect will that I was never able to ruin my life by making any commitment to that relationship, and I’m grateful that I married and/or worked and/or studied with the people I did.” But nobody could have said that to Nehemiah. Nehemiah’s prayer may sound superficially like “God, please punish my ex-girlfriend for going out with other guys,” but it was completely different.

Coffen classifies several Bible verses as “affective communication,” thereby sweeping away the value of their content...I believe this is always a mistake.

This is not an exhaustive list of the ways Coffen’s opinions may surprise some church members. One I particularly like, and wish Coffen had developed further, appears on page 91: “When it comes to helping the needy, we can do three things, none of which are [sic] mutually exclusive. We can do the good thing by providing financial donations that can sometimes care for the need of the moment…we can do the better thing by enabling the deprived to help themselves…we can also do the best thing by working to eliminate the causes of oppression.” 

In this discussion Coffen quotes (his relative?) William Sloane Coffin, the legendary liberal Quaker behind SANE-FREEZE. I worked with WSC, too. He fell into some, not all, of the same errors George Soros has been working so hard to lead the young back into today. He was, I believe, less blameworthy, because he hadn't lived at the right time to see how socialism is inherently more oppressive even than capitalism. 

A real free market, in which nobody is oppressed, is neither socialistic nor completely capitalistic; it blocks the greedier capitalists’ efforts to set up protectionist schemes that keep newer, smaller competitors out of the marketplace. Coffen doesn’t discuss the beauty of a really free market that is wide open to newcomers, in which young, poor people with little to invest can still out-compete huge corporations because their businesses are smaller and more flexible. For Coffen’s audience, that’s a “secular” thought, likely to be excluded from “religious” thinking. For me, “Proclaim liberty and justice by freeing up the market” is as “spiritual,” as much of a biblical commandment, as “Feed the hungry” and “Thou shalt not murder.”

But discussing all of Coffen’s differences from all those other devotional writers whose books Seventh-Day Adventists have read, at breakfast or on buses or in the bathroom, would mean writing a whole new book. I might enjoy writing that book. You’re not paying me to write it (yet). I’ll say just one more thing about Snapshots of God, here. You were wondering whether he says any of the things you expect, the things the other books said, about God’s forgiving love and our need to forgive our brethren and the joy of worship and how we can live without knowing when this world may give place to the next. He does. I think something between one-third and one-half of Coffen’s devotional reflections are non-controversial, standard Christian thoughts about the ideas Seventh-Day Adventists hold in common with all other Christians (and with Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists). Coffen expects all his readers to have read plenty of reflections on God’s goodness and the benefits of good behavior. He expects the reader to want both to think about new ideas, and to be reminded of the old ones.

If you're looking for a devotional book that will at least challenge you to study the Bible in greater depth, this is one. It will probably appreciate in value over the years; these Adventist devotional books aren't reprinted and thus become collectors' items. Currently, although you can get it even cheaper from other web sites, if you buy it here Snapshots of God is a Fair Trade Book. Send $5 per book + $5 per package (you could fit at least one other book into the same package) + $1 per online payment to this web site, and out of this we'll send $1 to Coffen or a charity of his choice.