Groseclose Studies the Hallel Psalms

Win Groseclose. 2015. The Egyptian Hallel Psalms: An Exposition of Psalms 113-118—Observations: Practical, Exegetical, and Theological. New Sewickley Township, PA

Reviewed by Stephen W. Hiemstra

At Passover, the Egyptian Hallel Psalms are sung before (Ps 113-114) and after (Ps 115-118) the Passover meal. This implies that hymns sung after the Last Supper, as recorded in Matthew 26:30, were likely Psalms 115-118 (1).In his commentary, The Egyptian Hallel Psalms,Win Groseclose cites these objectives:

“My hope, as you reflect upon these psalms is that they encourage you in your worship life, but that they cause you to think and reflect upon how you can live out your praise and worship of our God in a way that draws outsiders into worship alongside of you.”(2)

The purpose of an expository commentary is more generally to describe and explain the passages under review.

Background and Organization 

Win Groseclose is the Senior Pastor, St. John’s (Burry’s) United Evangelical Protestant Church, Rochester, PA, an Adjunct Professor of Theology, International Theological Seminary of Donetsk, Ukraine, and graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi.[1]He writes in these chapters:

  1. Praise Yahweh, You Servants of Yahweh (Psalm 113)
  2. When the Mountains Leapt (Psalm 114)
  3. Glory in God Alone (Psalm 115)
  4. For a Thousand Tongues to Sing (Psalm 116)
  5. Oh, For a Thousand Tongues to Sing (Hymn)
  6. The Nations Should Praise (Psalm 117)
  7. For He is Good (Psalm 118) (vii)

The first chapter is preceded by an introduction. Because Grosdeclose organizes his book around the Psalms, let me sample two of them, Psalms 113 and 116, as examples.

Psalm 113

Grosdeclose’s exposition organizes his comments primarily verse by verse following his own translation of the Hebrew.  For example, in verse 1 we read:

“Praise Yahweh, praise him you servants of Yahweh! Praise the name of Yahweh.”(Ps 113:1, Grosdeclose’s translation)

“Praise the LORD! Praise, O servants of the LORD, praise the name of the LORD!”(Ps 113:1 ESV)

“αλληλουια αἰνεῖτε παῖδες κύριον αἰνεῖτε τὸ ὄνομα κυρίου”(Ps 112:1 BGT)

‎הַ֥לְלוּיָ֙הּ׀הַ֭לְלוּעַבְדֵ֣ייְהוָ֑ההַֽ֜לְלוּאֶת־שֵׁ֥םיְהוָֽה (Ps 113:1 WTT)

For purposes of exposition, I have cited Grosdeclose’s translation along with the English Standard Version, the Greek Septuagint (BGT), and the original Hebrew (WTT). Several observations can be made:

Grosdeclose uses God’s covenant name, Yahweh (יְהוָ֑ה), while normally Jewish tradition substitutes the word, Lord. Yahweh is too sacred in Jewish tradition to use outside of a worship context. Most translations, starting with the Greek, use the word, Lord (κυρίου). 

In his discussion of verse 2 (6), he notes the focus on the sacredness of the name and relates it back to the Second Commandments:

“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.“(Exod 20:7 ESV)

We see an echo of concern about the name in Philippians 2:9 (7).

In his discussion of verse 3, he relates the phrase—“From the rising of the sun to its setting”—to Joshua 1:8: 

“This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it.”  (Jos 1:8 ESV)

Grosdeclose, like the Psalmist, is clearly interested in the Law of Moses and its careful study. We note that veneration of the name (of God) is a theme in all three of these verses. We also observe that the Greek Septuagint (the first translation of the Old Testament that took place in 200 BC) frequently organizes these verses differently than the Hebrew—in this case, verse one of Psalm 113 is found in a different chapter in the Greek. 

Psalm 116

Grosdeclose observes that the Hallel Psalms frequently appear in the hymns. In this case, he finds a parallel with the hymn, O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing, written by Charles Wesley. Wesley’soriginal edition had noneteen stanzas, just like Psalm 116 and with a similar theme—Thanksgiving. Grosdeclose is so impressed with this hymn that he devotes an entire chapter to reviewing it.

Grosdeclose’s attention to translation shows up again in verse where he depresses theologically from common translations:

“I have loved because Yahweh will hear; my prayer of supplication.”(Ps 116:1, Grosdeclose’s translation)

“I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy.”(Ps 116:1 ESV)

“αλληλουια ἠγάπησα ὅτι εἰσακούσεται κύριος τῆς φωνῆς τῆς δεήσεώς μου.”(Ps 114:1 BGT)

‎אָ֭הַבְתִּיכִּֽי־יִשְׁמַ֥ע׀יְהוָ֑האֶת־ק֜וֹלִ֗יתַּחֲנוּנָֽי  (Ps 116:1 WTT)

Again, we observe Grosdeclose sticking closely to the exact wording of the Hebrew. The key phrase is: I have loved because. I have loved is one word in the Hebrew (אָ֭הַבְתִּי) followed by the word because (כִּֽי). The Greek (and the Vulgate) agrees on this point, but also adds the word hallelujah (αλληλουια). 

The English Standard Version and most other translations insert a reference to God, presumably because the parallel cited in verse 2. The parallel mimics only the phrase starting with because. Thus, Grosdeclose’s New Testament cite—

“We love because he first loved us.”(1 John 4:19 ESV)

–seems like a direct quote of Psalm 116 verse 1.

Assessment

Win Groseclose’s book, The Egyptian Hallel Psalms, is an interesting exposition of

Psalms 113 through Psalm 118 with special attention to the translation from Hebrew. It is interesting both to those looking for a devotional reflection on these psalms and those interested in underlying translation issues.


[1]https://preacherwin.com.

Groseclose Studies the Hallel Psalms

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Wenham Outlines Law in Psalms, Part 2

Gordon J. Wenham. 2012. Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Most Christians have a longstanding, often personal relationship with the Psalms. 

In my case, when I went to Germany as a foreign student in 1978, I carried a New Testament with Psalms—the only book in the Old Testament (OT) that I spent much time with at that point in my life. Later, I took an active interest in the entire OT and added a Psalm to my daily devotions.

As a chaplain intern at Providence Hospital in 2011-2012, when I asked patients their favorite Bible verse, six out of ten answered Psalm 23. Pentecostals often answered Psalm 91, but many times mentioned even more interesting verses. Chances were good, however, that these other verses were also Psalms.

Introduction

In his book,Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically, Gordon Wenham notes that the Psalms and Isaiah are the two Old Testament (OT) books most often cited in the New Testament and as many as 121 out of 150 Psalms are cited or alluded to (181-182). Examples cited by Wenham include:

  • Luke’s Gospel amplifies the Psalter’s concern for the poor and women (182). 
  • The New Testament focuses on the righteous suffering highlighted in the laments that pervade the Psalter (185). 
  • First Peter has been described by some as a sermon based on Psalm 34 (186-189). The first three chapters in Paul’s letter to the Romans draws heavily on the theology of the Psalms, particularly regarding the nature, effects and consequences of sin (193).

He takes other examples from the Book of Hebrews (194-197) and Revelation (197-201).

In part 1 of this review, I gave an overview of Wenham’s argument. In part 2, I will look more closely at three of his arguments: the focus on law, reading the psalms, and comments on the precatory psalms, such as Psalm 137 cited in part 1.

Law in the Psalms

The relationship between the law and the Psalms is highlighted as a theme for Wenham’s book in its title: Psalms as Torah. Torah is the Hebrew word for law, but it also means instruction, as Wenham reminds us (7). Using the poetry of the Psalms to teach the law is a bit like using stained glass windows to teach the illiterate stories from the Bible in years past or, today, coming out with a comic book edition of the Bible for the functionally illiterate.[1]

Wenham argues his case for the law being found in psalms first through the structure of the psalms. The Psalter divides into five books just like the Pentateuch and the first psalm (1) and the longest psalm (119) both focus on law. In the first sentence of Psalm 1, we read:

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.”(Ps 1:1-2 ESV)

Likewise, we read in Psalm 119:

“Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD!” (Ps 119:1)

In both topic sentences, the first word is blessed and it is related to delight and walking in concert with the law, which is an obvious source of emphasis to a postmodern reader. 

Less obvious is why Psalm 119 is highlighted in the Hebrew requires some explanation. Psalm 119 stands out in the Hebrew for three reasons: It is the longest psalm, it is an acrostic psalm, and it is found in the middle of book five. The first two reasons are related—an acrostic psalm has strophes beginning with each letter of the Hebrew alphabet—aleph to tau. The last reason—being in the middle—is the point of emphasis in a chiastic literary structure. Think of a chiastic structure as a journey where you go (ABCD), then return by the same route (DCBA), and the purpose of the journey is focused on your destination (D). Each of these three reasons highlight the importance of Psalm 119 to the overall purpose of the Psalter and Psalm 119 focuses on the law.[2]

Wenham make two other interesting points about the law in the psalms. First, the law appears in the Psalms often stated in positive terms rather than prohibitions found in the Ten Commandments. Instead of talking about adultery, for example, the psalms emphasize the blessedness of family. Second, Psalm 119’s acrostic structure pictures the law encompassing widely God’s will for humanity, not narrowly, as found in the Ten Commandments which anticipates Jesus’ interpretation of the law, not the compliance attitude adopted by the Pharisees.Just like Psalm 1 talks about delighting in the law, Psalm 119 expands rather than contracts the Ten Commandments.

Reading the Psalms

Wenham offers numerous pointers for reading the psalms, many times simply in passing, in part, because the ethical instruction provided by the psalms frequently is unconscious (1). Many psalms, for example, are written in the first person, addressed to God, and report on events that are outlined very briefly. The fifty-cent theological word that describes this sort of writing is laconic—using very few words—which my Old Testament professor repeated in practically every lecture.

Wenham summarizes speech act philosophy defining these words:

  • Performative acts—words that change our status, like a marriage vow.
  • Commissive acts—words that offer a promise.
  • Expressive acts—words that name an emotion.
  • Declarative acts—words that affect a change.
  • Assertive declaration acts—assertions that carry the weight of a declaration (65-67)

In prayer we often do more than one of these acts, a kind of exchange of vows with God. Noting the use of the first person, the kinds of acts, and the poetic and laconic language highlights the highly personal nature of the psalms and their use in prayer.

Justice and Pecatory Psalms

Pecatory psalms stand out in the Psalter because they are prayers that wish someone ill. Many times critics of the Bible will highlight these psalms in their complaints because they are decidedly not politically correct.

Wenham notes:

“Wheras modern readers see judging primarily as condemning the guilty, the Old Testament views judging primarily as an act vindicating the weak and exploited.”(113)

This point highlights the change in social position between the average first century Christian and today’s Christians in the United States. People routinely experiencing persecution will look on justice differently than those insolated from persecution. Thus, reading the pecatory psalms requires a change in perspective.

Let’s return a minute to Psalm 137, cited in part 1 of this review:

“O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”(Ps 137:8-9)

The writer of this psalm is a Jew living in exile in Babylon. When female slaves are taken, their babies are typically murdered so the psalmist here is evoking lex talionis, a eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (Exod 31:23-25; Lev 24:17-21; Deut 19:19-21) or, in modern parlance, the punishment should fit the crime. Wenham notes that the psalmist does not suggest that they will take revengence themselves—punishment is left to God. In other words, the psalmist is simply asking for justice that has up-to-this-point been denied (112-113). 

If our postmodern sensitiivites have been offended by these pecatory psalms, it is only because we are accustomed to living in a relatively just society.

Assessment

Gordon Wenham’s Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically is an unusually clear guide to reading and understanding the Psalms, which should be interesting to any serious believer wanting to deepen their faith. I suspect that scholars will be citing this work for a long time.


[1]Wenham notes that most ancient societies encouraged enculturation through memorization and use of music. Hymns, poetry, and songs are memory aids for a periods before the modern era when paper was expensive and people learned their scripture through memorization.

[2]The middle of the first book of the psalms, Psalm 19, likewise focuses on law. 

Also see:

Thompson: Paul’s Ethics Forms Community

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Wenham Outlines Law in Psalms, Part 1

Gordon J. Wenham. 2012. Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

If you have ever thought of the Psalms as mysterious, you are not alone. The structure and the content of the Psalms can mystify. While no one would quibble over the majesty of passages like:

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.”(Ps 19:1-2 ESV)

But what do you make of:

“O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”(Ps 137:8-9)

Postmodern readers are unlikely to hear such passages advocating child smashing as anything less than praying for God to commit war crimes. So, the Psalms clearly mystify us.

Introduction

Gordon J. Wenham’s Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically sets forth these objectives:

“It is the ethic taught by the liturgy of the Old Testament, the Psalter, that is the focus of this book. The psalms were sung in the first and second temples, and in the subsequent two millennia they have been reused in the prayers of the Jewish synagogue and the Christian church. As we will see, the psalms have much to say about behavior, about what actions please God and what he hates, so that anyone praying them is simultaneously being taught an ethic.”(1-2)

Wenham goes on to explain:

“This book, then, is an attempt to begin to deal with a blind spot in current biblical and theological thinking. I have called it Psalms as Torah out of my conviction that the psalms were and are vehicles not only of worship but also of instruction, which is the fundamental meaning of Torah, otherwise rendered ‘law’. From the very first psalm, the Psalter presents itself as a second Torah, divided into five books like the Pentateuch, and it invited its readers to meditate on them day and night, just as Joshua was told to meditate on the law of Moses (Ps 1.2; Josh 1:8).” (7)

This relationship between the Psalms and the Pentateuch proved interesting to me and motivated my purchase of this book.[1] 

Background and Organization

Gordon J. Wenham studied Old Testament (OT) at Cambridge University and has worked also at King’s College London, Harvard University, and in Jerusalem at the Ecole Biblique and the Hebrew University. He is the author of OT commentaries on Genesis, Leviticus, and numbers, and several other theology books.[2]

Wenham writes in ten chapters:

  1. Jewish and Christian Approaches to the Psalms
  2. Critical Approaches to the Psalms
  3. The Psalter as an Anthology to be Memorized
  4. The Unique Claims of Prayed Ethics
  5. The Concept of the Law in the Psalms
  6. Laws in the Psalter
  7. Narrative Law in the Psalter
  8. Virtues and vices in the Psalter
  9. Appeals for Divine Intervention
  10. The Ethic of the Psalms and the New Testament (vii)

These chapters are preceded by several prefaces and an introduction. They are followed by conclusions, a bibliography, and several indices.

Memorizing the Psalms

A key insight that Wenham offers is the effect of memorization and putting the Psalms to music on ethical teaching. In my own case, I can remember memorizing Psalm 23 and Psalm 100 many times through the years, even in different languages, and I prayed Psalm 8 daily as a centering prayer for about 10 years. I used to joke, be careful what songs you sing because once you get Alzheimer’s, they are the last thing that you forget—you don’t want to leave this world singing the Oscar Mayer Wiener jiggle!

Wenham notes that many Psalms are written in the first person. Repeating such psalms in prayer or song accordingly is like repeating a vow before God, yourself, and others. He writes:

“If we praise a certain type of behavior in our prayers, we are telling God that this is how we intend to behave. On the other hand, if in prayer we denounce certain acts and pray for God to punish them, we are in effect inviting God to judge us if we do the same. This makes the ethics of liturgy uniquely powerful. It makes a stronger claim on the believer than either law, wisdom, or story, which are simply subject to passive reception: one can listen to a proverb or a story and then take it or leave it, but if you pray ethically, you commit yourself to a path of action.”(57)

Because many of us grew up singing hymns and liturgy inspired by Psalms, this tradition helped insulate us from less reflective and negative influences that seem so pervasive today—it’s not just the Oscar Mayer Wiener commercials.

Assessment

In part 1 of this review, I have given an overview of Wenham’s argument. In part 2, I will look more closely at some of his arguments, especially the innovative form that law takes when presented in the Psalter. I will also go over his view on the precatory psalms, such as Psalm 137 cited above.

Gordon Wenham’s Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically is an unusually clear guide to reading and understanding the Psalms, which should be interesting to any serious believer wanting to deepen their faith. I suspect that scholars will be citing this work for a long time.


[1]In seminary I did word studies in seminary to track this very relationship and found relatively few direct citations of the Ten Commandments or of Moses because some liberal scholars have alleged that the Pentateuch was a later development contrived by Israelite kings, such as David, to invent an ancient history that did not exist. Why? If Moses did not exist, he could not have authored the Pentateuch and various provocative prohibitions. Likewise, the miracles surrounding the creation of Israel, which liberal dispute, could not have been real. 

[2]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Wenham.

Wenham Outlines Law in Psalms

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Thompson: Paul’s Ethics Forms Community

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Kling Classifies and Raises Political Debate

Arnold Kling. 2017. The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides. Washington, DC: Cato Institute.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

It is fair to say that zoology’s proclivity to classify has left an oversized mark on the social science over the past few decades. While writing about lists, like three ways to improve your XYZ or ten things you need to know about ABC, continue to be popular, classification schemes pitting variables in tension with one another provide unanticipated analytical insights. They also produce better charts!

Introduction

In his book, The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides,libertarian writer Arnold Kling writes:

“My goal in this book is to encourage people to take the first step towards healthier political discussion. I believe that this first step is to recognize the language of coalition mobilization so that we can resist being seduced by that language.”(3)

Kling sees the dominant three political languages as progressives (P), conservatives (C), and libertarians (L). These three languages are articulated in terms of polarities P (oppressor-oppressed), C (civilization-barbarism), and L (liberty-coercion). 

Kling’s leanings are ironically obvious from his cover’s display of colors of the French flag (bleu, blanc et rouge), which to my mind brings the image of socialist leaning during the Cold War rather than the current red-blue dichotomy in recent U.S. elections. Back then, the chief alignments were capitalist, communist, and socialist, which implied a bit of both along with strident denial of any communist influence. Kling’s trichotomy developed after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that eliminated the primary external threat and resulted in more energetic competition among internal groups for limited resources and influence.[1]

Group Cohesion

Characterizing the dominant political tribes today in terms of the language of their discussion is an interesting way to highlight their differences without choosing sides. Kling is careful to outline examples of commentators that utilize these preferred polarities to draw attention to how the language itself highlights group affinities, how prestige is earned within a group, and how boundaries among the groups are defended. One example that Kling cites is from the 2012 gaffe by Mitt Romney when he was secretly recorded saying:

“All right, there are 47 percent who are with him [Barack Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name-it.”(32)

Romney was speaking to republican donors who Kling classifies as conservatives trying to strengthen civilization and keep the barbarians at bay, but progressive pundits argued that he had no sympathy for the oppressed (33). This gaffe was widely perceived to be a turning point in the presidential race both because of the characterization of progressive pundits and the perception that Romney [widely perceived as having an Eagle Scout image] had not previously expressed his true and negative beliefs about his opponent.

More generally, King outlines the three dominate affinities in eight examples:

  1. Dealing with the Holocaust
  2. Tax reform
  3. Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
  4. A 1992 Fed study of mortgage lending to African Americans
  5. Abortion and Unwed Mothers
  6. War on Terror
  7. Baker refusal to serve a homosexual wedding
  8. Soda Taxes (14-20)

Kling writes:

“Consider the goals that a political pundit might have. One goal might be to open the minds of people on the other side. Another goal might be to open the minds of people on the pundit’s own side. A third goal might be to close the minds of people on the pundit’s own side.” (33-34)

In this context, political pundits serve as tribal whips in aligning votes with tribal objectives driving greater polarization of the electorate.

Fast and Slow Reasoning

 The need for closure is associated with our natural aversion to uncertainty, ambiguity, and general impatience, which is a source of cognitive dissonance (59-60). Studies of divisive issues tend to reinforce our dominant political affinity at the presuppositional level because we tend to accept information consistent with our affinities unconditionally and to discount information inconsistent with these affinities, a tendency that Kling describes as motivated reasoning(60-63).

Kling looks for strategies to move beyond our default political settings. The first and most important is to be aware of the three dominate political affinities and to understand their polarities. Listening for their political language will allow you to identify biases and their basic logic. An important second strategy is to slow down political discourse. Kling observes that quick responses to emerging issues are more likely than more deliberative responses to adhere to dominant affinities.

The Ideological Turing Test

Kling offers an interesting standard for improving political discourse that he calls the Ideological Turing Test. Turing invented one of the earliest computers and argued that artificial intelligence could be described as equal to human intelligence when in a blind test a human subject could no longer distinguish between a human and computer in email (or telephone) correspondence. Kling argues that we will finally understand our competitors in the political realm once we could successfully masqueradeas a member of an opposing tribe. 

This Ideological Turing Test, if applied, would help move beyond trading straw man characterizations of one another and promote real understanding.

Assessment

In his book, The Three Languages of Politics, Arnold Kling works to promote more enlightened political discourse through mutual understanding. This book is a quick read and readily accessible to anyone interested in more civilized political conversation.


[1]An echo of the previous alignments can be heard occasionally when progressives are characterized as cultural Marxists, a label that is typically rejected out of hand.

Kling Classifies and Raises Political Debate

Also see:

Thompson: Paul’s Ethics Forms Community

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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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MacIntyre Chronicles Ethics Story

Alasdair MacIntyre. 2002. A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century (Orig Pub 1966). Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

I used to joke that any mathematics text with the words, like simple or elementary in the title, was neither simple or elementary—at least on first reading. The truth of such titles can only be known to those who persist with multiple readings. Ethics is similarly a field much like mathematics that gets easier with repetition.

Introduction

In his historical narrative, A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century, Alasdair MacIntyre repeats the premise: “Moral concepts change as social life changes.” (1) After writing about a third of his book on ancient Greek philosophical and moral thought, MacIntyre observes:

“The Division of labor and the differentiation of function in early societies produces a vocabulary in which men are described in terms of the roles they fulfill.”(84)

History of Good

An example that he works out in great detail is the notion of the word, good, writing:

“The word αγαθός, ancestor of our good, is originally a predicate specifically attached to the role of a Homeric nobleman. ‘To be αγαθός,’ says W. H. Adkins, ‘one must be brave, skillful and successful in war and in peace; and one must possess the wealth and (in peace) the leisure which are at once the necessary conditions for the development of these skills and the natural reward of their successful enjoyment.” (5-6)

Not just everyone could be good and we would immediate judge a “good” Greek tribal warlord harshly for behaviors not commensurate with our own standards of goodness. In fact, MacIntyre argues that even later Greek literature after the development of city-states would find such behavior reprehensible. In this new Greek social context, αγαθός loses its original meaning predicated on the role of a Greek tribal warlord (a presupposition) and takes on a new meaning—a general sense of approbation not tied to any particular role.

Moral Context Matters

 More is at stake here than a lesson in ethnolinguistics. Fast forwarding past a long narrative history of philosophical ethics MacIntyre opines:

“In discussing Greek society, I suggested what might happen when such a well-integrated form of moral life broke down. In our society, the acids of individualism have for four centuries eaten into our moral structures for both good and ill. But not only this: we live with the inheritance of not only one, but a number of well-integrated moralities. Aristotelianism, primitive Christianity simplicity, the puritan ethic, the aristocratic ethic of consumption, and the traditions of democracy and socialism have all left their mark upon our moral vocabulary. Within each of these moralities there is a proposed end or ends, a set of rules, a list of virtues. But the ends, the rules, the virtues differ… It follows that we are liable to find two kinds of people in our society: those who speak within one of these surviving moralities, and those who stand outside all of them”(266)

Given this moral dilemma, Kierkegard’s admonition that we must chose to adhere to a particular morality speaks directly to our moral circumstance (215).

Background and Organization

Alasdair Chalmers MacIntyre (1929- ) is an Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame educated at Queen Mary, University of London, University of Manchester, and University of Oxford. He is the author of numerous publications, including: Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue, 1913-22(2006), Dependent Rational Animals(1999), Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry(1990), Whose Justice? Which Rationality?(1988), and After Virtue(1981)[1]

MacIntyre writes in 18 chapters preceded by two prefaces, corresponding to the two editions of the book, and followed by notes and an index.

Observations of a Keen Mind

While the narrative flow of an historical treatise is central to its development and reading, such books are often remembered more for particular insights shared along the way. MacIntyre’s insights go beyond a brilliant statement of the obvious.

MacIntyre writes: “The Bible is a story about God in which human beings appear as incidental characters”(110) The divine theme may seem obvious but today many authors offer lengthy critiques of the cultural context of the Bible seldom posing to note that God appears at all. Surprisingly, he goes on to write: “the whole problem of Christian morality is to discover just what it is.” (111) In developing this theme, he is not disrespectful at all, but notes how Christian morality has evolved to speak to the particular contexts in which it is found. He contextualizes Christian ethics without suggesting that it is arbitrary or relativistic. How else could the Holy Spirit serve to guide us in our daily walk?

Assessment

Alasdair MacIntyre’s A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century provides aperceptive and assessible overview of the history of philosophical ethics. Seminary students and pastors will benefit from taking the time to absorb this work.

[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alasdair_MacIntyre. https://philosophy.nd.edu/people/emeritus/alasdair-macintyre.

MacIntyre Chronicles Ethics Story

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Kreeft Outlines Jesus’ Philosophy

Peter Kreeft. 2007. The Philosophy of Jesus. South Bend: Saint Augustine’s Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Every kid in Sunday school knows that if the pastor asks you a question, the answer is always Jesus. And so it is with philosophy (9).

Introduction

In The Philosophy of JesusPeter Kreeft (3-5) observes that we are all philosophers—even Homer Simpson, even Jesus. If we are all philosophers and espouse a philosophy, then what philosophy do we embrace?Philosophy (philo-sophy) is taken from the Greek expression for love (philo) of wisdom (sophy). Kreeft (6) divides philosophy into four primary questions:

  1. What is? (metaphysic)
  2. How do we know what is real? (epistemology)
  3. Who are we? (philosophical anthropology)
  4. How should we be? (ethics)

Why is it that we use intimate words like espouse (to marry), embrace (to kiss), and love to describe our relationship with wisdom?

Background and Organization

Peter Kreeft[1]is a professor of philosophy at Boston College, a Catholic school. He structures his book in four chapters, one for each of the questions cited. These chapters are proceeded by an introduction in three parts and followed by a summary and indices. 

Four Philosophical Questions

Let me say a few words about these four questions. Note that Kreeft considers the ordering of these questions as important:

“The logical order of questions is this: we must first know something is real before we can know how we know it; and we must first know who we are before we can know what is good for us.”(8)

In my own writing, I found it helpful to reverse anthropology and epistemology in this ordering. Our relationship with God comes first as person to person before we begin to intellectualize it or wonder how to respond to it. Our anthropology also seriously affects how we deal with knowledge and wisdom, which tends to give anthropology higher priority. In this sense, I agree that ordering does matter.

Metaphysics

Kreeft (10) starts his metaphysics of Jesus with the observation that he is a Jew. This is an interesting observation because throughout history Jesus’ ethnicity has been deliberately blurred to make him more acceptable to gentiles. More to the point, however, is that God chose to reveal specifically to the Israelite people (11), who later in the Bible became Judeans and known to the world as Jews. 

The distinctiveness of the Jews comes, in part, because no other ancient language other than Hebrew has the word, create. Only God can create out of nothing (13). Kreeft boldly proclaims that God can only be referred to as He because he impregnated non-being with being. The earth is Mother Earth, which is part of the created order that God stands apart from (14). The Hebrew God is transcendent, standing apart from time and space that are bound up in the created order.

If you think creation is a word game; you would be wrong. There are no paths up the mountain to God because he stands outside of the time and space in which we are bound. We cannot approach God metaphysically; he must approach us (51), which as Christians we believe he did in sending Jesus Christ. Creation is the reason that Jesus is the exclusive path to God. Obviously, lots more could be said about metaphysics here.

Epistemology

Kreeft focuses his discussion of epistemology on truth about being (47). He writes:

“What must we know? Only two things: who we are and who God is.”(50)

This is the person-to-person dialogue that I referred to earlier.

Kreeft (51) makes my earlier point about the importance of creation with these words:

“We can’t know God, ultimate Truth, by climbing any human tower, whether it is built of the babble of words or of bricks [Gen 11:1-11]. We can only know God if God comes down.”

God always must take the initiative in our dialogue with him (54). This is why Kreeft observes that no convincing fiction about Jesus has ever been written that credibly extends his wisdom (58). We can quote him; we cannot one up him.

Anthropology

Kreeft (69) observes:

“Know thyself, said Socrates, at the dawn of philosophy. But know thyself seems to be an unsolvable puzzle.”

Pope John Paul II observed: “Jesus alone shows man to himself.”(69) Kreeft writes:

“Christ is the answer to the question [puzzle]: What is the meaning of human life? Who are we meant to be? The answer is that we are destined to be little Christs.”(74)

The Bible says that we were created in the image of God (Gen 1:27) so Kreeft’s observation should come as no surprise to Christians.

Ethics

What are we to do? Kreeft writes:

“There are really three moral questions, three basic parts to morality: how should we relate to each other, to ourselves, and to God?”(95)

The basic answer to every question in Kreeft’s philosophy is Jesus, not a perfect answer, but a perfect person (119).

Assessment

Peter Kreeft’s The Philosophy of Jesusis short, readable book that changed my life. I have spent the last six years since graduating from seminary writing about these four questions from philosophy as they pertain to Christian spirituality. I commend this book to you.

[1]http://www.peterkreeft.com/home.htm.https://www.bc.edu/bc-web/schools/mcas/departments/philosophy/people/faculty-directory/peter-kreeft.html.

Kreeft Outlines Jesus’ Philosophy

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MTA: Course Correction with Case Studies

Mahan, Jeffrey H., Barbara B. Troxell, and Carol J. Allen. (MTA) Shared Wisdom: A Guide to Case Study Reflection in Ministry. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

During my Clinical Pastoral Education at Providence Hospital, I learned about pastoral care in an institutional setting. My two classes both had six students and we divided our time between patient visits and classroom activities. These activities included lectures, group projects, sharing autobiographies and genograms, and offering each other feedback. Probably the most feared and most helpful activity involved sharing verbatims that were case studies of patient visits that did not go well.

Introduction

In their book, Shared Wisdom, A Guide to Case Study Reflection, authors Jeffrey Mahan, Barbara Troxell, and Carol Allen (MTA) write:

“This book is offered as an invitation to those involved in ministry—whether in congregations or in specialized settings—to engage in a process of reflection on their practice of ministry.”(12)

The goal of case studies is to equip the presenter to return to ministry with greater insight and confidence in themselves and in God’s provision and protection. (19).

Case studies are most helpful when they assist participants in learning from their mistakes, but, of course, focusing on mistakes requires that one first admit to them. In a world in which politicians and celebrities daily lose their jobs over a single mistake, even in the church it is totally counter-cultural to admit to and talk about mistakes. The need for confidentially is accordingly multifaceted—both those studied and those bringing forth the study need to have the process treated confidentially.

The Case Study

MTA recommend a case composed of five parts:

  1. Background. Usually a case study focuses on a specific event that requires some context be provided.
  2. Description. In describing the event, usual dialogue is given to illustrate what happened and how the presenter responded.
  3. Analysis. “Identify issues and relationships, with special attention to changes and resistance to change.”
  4. Evaluation. The presenter assesses their performance–what worked, what did not work, and why.
  5. Theological Reflection. How does our faith inform this event? (116-117)

A case is about 2 pages single-spaced and the presentation should run about an hour.

In my experience, the choice of events to write up as verbatims is critical in revealing your strengths and weaknesses in ministry. At one point when another student was going through their case study, it became obvious that I had visited the same patient shortly after the presenter—my experience and hers were completely different.[1]

Background and Organization

The authors are all former professors of practical theology. They write in seven chapters:

  1. How Wisdom is Shared Through Case Study
  2. Writing, Presenting, Clarifying
  3. Personal Wisdom
  4. Professional Wisdom
  5. Theological Reflection
  6. Reflection on the Presenter’s Ministry
  7. Futuring (ix)

These chapters were preceded by an introduction and followed by a four-part appendix.

Assessment

Shared Wisdomby Jeffrey Mahan, Barbara Troxell, and Carol Allen is a helpful guide to case studies, particularly as practiced in Clinical Pastoral Education. MTA use sample case studies to illustrate their points. More generally, the use of case studies in ministry is a helpful team building activity that will have the added benefit of deepening the experience of particular staff. In the context of individual ministry, it can’t hurt writing up difficult encounters in aiding spiritual reflection.


[1]My visit is summarized in my memoir, Called Along the Way, because it helped motivate me to focus on Hispanic ministry.

MTA: Course Correction with Case Studies

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Smith: To Plato’s Cave and Back, Part 2

Huston Smith. 2001. Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief. New York: Harper Collins.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Some people simply cannot look up. Sunshine and glimmering stars pose no attraction like plain old dirt. Now, I am not talking about farm folks whose relationship with the soil is almost mystical. No, soil is not the same thing as dirt. Dirt is an urban plague more like weeds in a flower garden or the stuff under fingernails. Dirt is a frame of mind—a cynicism that cuts to the core. 

Introduction

In Why Religion Matters, Huston Smith writes:

“Materialism holds that only matter exists [like dirt].Naturalism grants that subjective experiences—thoughts and feelings—are different from matter and cannot be reduced to it, while insisting that they are totally dependent on it.”(83)

Smith likens this philosophical presupposition of modernism and postmodernism as like the man who pulls his window shades down so that he can only see the lawn.

In part one of this review I have outlined Smith arguments and the structure of the book. In part two, I will look at his arguments in more detail.

Modernity’s Tunnel

The tunnel is an analogy to Plato’s cave where prisoners are chained to a wall so that the light at the end of the tunnel casts shadows in front of them that they mistake for reality. After a prisoner escapes, learns that reality does not consist of the shadows as believed and returns to inform his fellow prisoners, they refuse to believe him and murder him, a reference to Socrates.

Smith writes:

“It is by now a Sunday-supplement [a newspaper analogy] commonplace that the… modernization of the world is accompanied by a spiritual malaise that has come to be called alienation…At its most fundamental level, the diagnosis of alienation is based on the view that modernization forces upon us a world that, although baptized as real by science, is denuded of all humanly recognizable qualities: beauty and ugliness, love and hate, passion and fulfillment, salvation and damnation.”(2)

Smith has no problem with science as a method of inquiry, but he rails against scientism that attempts to convert the method into a worldview. He sees scientism adding two corollaries to science:

“first, that the scientific method is, if not the only reliable method of getting at truth, then at least the most reliable method; and second, that the things science deals with—material entities—are the most fundamental things that exist.”(59-60)

I am reminded of the story of the drunk who loses his keys one night and only searches in the light around the lamppost supposing that the keys could only be there.

Traditional verses Modern and Postmodern Worldviews

Smith sees five fundamental points of contention between the traditional and modern/postmodern worlds views.

  1. “In the traditional, religious views spirit as fundamental and matter derivative…The scientific worldview turns this picture on its head…
  2. In the religious worldview human beings are the less who have derived from the more [created in the image of God]. Trailing clouds of glory, they carry within themselves traces of their noble origins…Science reverses this etiology, positioning humanity as the more that has derived from the less [grown up germs] …
  3. The traditional worldview points towards a happy ending: the scientific worldview does not…
  4. …the traditional world is meaningful throughout. In scientific worldview, meaning is only skin-deep, ‘skin’ here signifying biological organisms on a single speck in the sidereal universe…
  5. Finally, in the traditional world, people feel at home. They belong to their world, for they are made of the same spirituality sentient stuff that the world is made of…Nothing like this sense of belonging can be derived from the scientific worldview.”(34-38)

Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem

Since I first read Smith’s book in 2002, I have cited one reference repeatedly—to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem from mathematics. Smith writes:

“From Aristotle to Turing, mathematicians have tried to establish systems that are complete. Gödel smashed that dream. His famous Incompleteness Theorem states that in a formal system satisfying certain precise conditions, there will always be at least one undecidable proposition—that is, a proposition such that neither it nor its negation is provable within the system. Jacques Derrida’s denial of any single meaning in a text sounds like a direct extension of this.”(89)

In practical terms, the human mind is a nearly complete system such that depression is a turning inward on itself and losing the necessary external reference point necessary for stability. This is why the therapy for depression is to break out of the usual routine, which offers such an external reference point.  Other applications of this theorem can be cited in economics, computer science, and other logical fields.

Assessment

Huston Smith’s Why Religions Matteris a captivating book. Smith is a master story teller with an encyclopedic grasp of world religions, philosophy, and potpourri. My first reading influenced my thinking profoundly; my second reading after seminary proved equally interesting.

Smith: To Plato’s Cave and Back, Part 2

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Smith: To Plato’s Cave and Back, Part 1

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Smith: To Plato’s Cave and Back, Part 1

Huston Smith. 2001. Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief. New York: Harper Collins.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Often the toughest part of any controversy is to ask the right question. Asking good questions requires deep knowledge of the subject, proper timing, and good intuition. In the scientific method,[1]the most challenging step is the first one where a felt need is converted into an hypothesis. Everyone can complain about needs, but it takes knowledge, timing, and intuition to form a working hypothesis.

Introduction

In Why Religion Matters, Huston Smith writes:

“In different ways, the East and the West are go

ing through a single common crisis whose cause is the spiritual condition of the modern world. That condition is characterized by loss—the loss of religious certainties and of transcendence with its larger horizons…The world lost its human dimension…” (1)

We are in a spiritual crisis characterized by a lost sense of God’s transcendence. The culprit? Smith writes:

“modern Westerners who, forsaking clear thinking have allowed ourselves to become so obsessed with life’s material underpinnings that we have written science a blank check…This is cause of our spiritual crisis.”(4)

While Western civilization could have accepted the benefits of scientific inquiry, but retained its traditions; it did not. Instead, it accepted materialism and shunned metaphysics that strives to explain everything not explainable through empirical observation and testing.

Three Philosophical Periods

Smith (11-22) outlines three philosophical periods—traditional, modern, and postmodern—focused primarily on their metaphysical assumptions and the principal problems that they addressed. The traditional period focused on the religious problem—how do we related to the cosmos? The modern period focused on problem of nature—providing food and shelter. The postmodern period has focused on the social problem—how we get along with one another. 

Smith chief issue with the modern and postmodern periods is that they are metaphysically handicapped. Focusing only on looking down, they have left us unable to find meaning in life and deprived the living of their humanity. Here we discover Smith’s reason for writing:

“I am convinced that whatever transpires in other domains of life—politics, living standards, environmental conditions, interpersonal relationships, the arts—we will be better off if we extricate ourselves from the world view we have unwittingly slipped into and replace it with a more generous and accurate one. That, and that only, is the concern of this book.”(24)

Smith is, of course, commending a traditional worldview with God at the center of our universe. (21-22).

Background and Organization 

Huston Cummings Smith (1919 – 2016)was born in China in a missionary family. He attended Central Methodist University and the University of Chicago. He taught religious studies at a number of schools, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Smith writes in sixteen chapters in two parts:

PART ONE: MODERNITY’s TUNNEL

  1. Who’s Right about Reality: Traditionalists, Modernists, or the Postmoderns?
  2. The Great Outdoors and the Tunnel within It
  3. The Tunnel as Such
  4. The Tunnel’s Floor: Scientism
  5. The Tunnel’s Left Wall: Higher Education
  6. The Tunnel’s Roof: The Media
  7. The Tunnel’s Right Wall: The Law

PART TWO: THE LIGHT AT THE TUNNEL’S END

  • Light
  • Is Light Increasing: Two Scenarios
  • Discerning the Signs of the Times
  • Three Sciences and the Road Ahead
  • Terms for the Détente
  • This Ambiguous World
  • The Big Picture
  • Spiritual Personality Types
  • Spirit

These chapters are preceded by acknowledgments, preface, and introduction and followed by an epilogue and Indices.

The tunnel is an analogy to Plato’s cave where prisoners are chained to a wall so that the light at the end of the tunnel casts shadows in front of them that they mistake for reality. After a prisoner escapes, learns that reality does not consist of the shadows as believed and returns to inform his fellow prisoners, they refuse to believe him and murder him, a reference to Socrates.

Assessment

Huston Smith’s Why Religions Matteris a captivating book. Smith is a master story teller with an encyclopedic grasp of world religions, philosophy, and potpourri. My first reading influenced my thinking profoundly; my second reading after seminary proved equally interesting.

In part one of this review I have outlined Smith arguments and the structure of the book. In part two, I will look at his arguments in more detail.



[1]The scientific method consists of a number of steps in problem solving: felt need, hypothesis, data gathering, analysis, decision, implementation responsibility bearing.

Smith: To Plato’s Cave and Back, Part 1

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Jung: Counselor as Secular Priest

Carl G. Jung. 1955. Modern Man in Search of a Soul (Orig Pub 1933). Translated by W.S. Dell and Cary F. Baynes. New York: Harcourt, Inc.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Back before I started seminary in 2008, I read whatever interested me. My urge to read was seldom random. For months on end, I might read about a particular topic like Perl programming, military history, or binge on a series like Horatio Hornblower novels.

Today, after so many years of reading and an imperfect memory, I am often unable to pinpoint where I got certain ideas until paging through one of the books in my library. Carl Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soulis one such book and it is source of a surprising number of my better ideas.

Problem Statement

In his book, Jung’s chapters read as if they had been composed as independent essays, but they make sense together and build together towards his theme as he writes in the middle of the Great Depression (1930s) from Switzerland:

“Today this eruption of destructive forces [World War One] has already taken place, and man suffers from it in spirit. That is why patients force the psychotherapist into the role of a priest, and expect and demand of him that he shall free them from their distress. That is why we psychotherapists must occupy ourselves with problems which strictly speaking, belong to the theologian.”(Jung 1955, 241)

This analysis suggests that much of the increase in psychiatric problems that we currently stem from inadequate attention to spiritual matters, not some mysterious, psycho mumbo jumbo as is usually argued. In other words, the pastor is correct in saying that many people are looking for love in all the wrong places when they should be addressing God.

Neurosis

Back before psychiatrists cataloged their diagnoses with diagnostic manuals, they talked about the vague notion of neurosis. Jung provides as reasonable an explanation of neuroses as can be found:

“Most of our lapses of the tongue, of the pen, of memory, and the like are traceable to these disturbances, as are likewise all neurotic symptoms. These are nearly always of psychic origin, the exceptions being shock effects from shell explosions [PTSD] and other causes. The mildest forms of neurosis are the ‘lapses’ already referred to—blunders of speech, the sudden forgetting of names and dates, unexpected clumsiness leading to injuries or accidents, misunderstandings of personal motives or of what we have heard or read, and so-called hallucinations of memory which cause us to suppose erroneously that we have said or done this or that.”(Jung 1955, 32)

The biggest problem cited by his patients? “I am stuck.”(Jung 1955, 61) Can you image the traumatic effect in the 1930s of having a large family and you lose your job? Jung’s primary answer to being stuck? Learning how to play like a child again (Jung 1955, 69)

Approach to Psychoanalysis

Jung (1955 30) breaks psychoanalysis into four steps: confession, explanation, education, and transformation. Here we witness the priest at work.

Confession

Jung (1955, 31) writes:

“As soon as man was capable of conceiving the idea of sin, he had recourse to psychic concealment—or, to put it in analytical language, repressions arose. Anything that is concealed is a secret. The maintenance of the secrets acts like a psychic poison which alienates their possessor from the community. In small does, this poison may actually be a priceless remedy, even an essential preliminary to the differentiation of the individual.”

That Jung would start with an analysis of the effects of sin is mind-blowing for those who want to scrub the word from our modern and postmodern vocabularies. Ignoring sin as we do is almost to invent new secrets that Jung describes as poison.

Explanation

After the catharsis of confession, a patient must have an explanation to avoid a relapse (Jung 1955, 37). If the catharsis fails, it is because the patient is unable to deal with their shadow-side (subconscious) that is the part of their own personality that they try to hide, even from themselves.

Education

Those unable to deal with their own shadow-side oftentimes have problems with other people’s weaknesses as well. Jung (1955, 43) see the need to education these people in basic social skills.

Transformation

Jung (1955, 52) sees transformation of a patient oftentimes being limited by weaknesses in the psychoanalysts themselves. A good psychoanalyst must be able to walk-the-walk, to be a good example their patients.

Personality Classifications

Jung is best known today for his classification of personality types. Jung (1955, 89-91) distinguished introvert from extrovert, sensation from intuition, thinking from feeling, judging from perceiving. Using these distinctions to classify an individual’s preferred reflective tendencies, sixteen different personality types can be identified. 

One can develop hypotheses about how that each of these types would learn and respond to particular challenges. For example, Myers and Myers (1995, 149) write:

“The five types that favored the stable and secure future were all sensing types. The warmest of the sensing types, ESFJ, characteristically favored service to others. Seven of the eight intuitive types favored either the opportunity to use their special abilities or the change to be creative…” 

Personality types are not predictive in a deterministic sense because people change their classification preferences over time, but they indicate tendency or probability.

Background and Organization

Carl G. Jung (1875-1961) was a Swiss psychiatrist and student of Sigmund Freud. He wrote in eleven chapters:

  1. “Dream Analysis in Its Practical Application
  2. Problems of Modern Psychotherapy
  3. The Aims of Psychotherapy
  4. A Psychological Theory of Types
  5. The Stages of Life
  6. Freud and Jung—Contrasts
  7. Archaic Man
  8. Psychology and Literature
  9. The Basic Postulates of Analytical Psychology
  10. The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man
  11. Psychotherapists or the Clergy.”(Jung 1955, v)

These chapters are preceded by a translator’s preface.

Assessment

Carl Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul is an amazing book.Jung originated a lot of the techniques of analytical psychology and his patient case studies are a window into the mindset in the 1930s. His picture of the psychologist as a secular priest changed my image of the counseling profession forever. This book is of obvious interest to counselors, pastors, and seminary students, but others would likely find it a fascinating read

References

Myers, Isabel Briggs and Peter B. Myers. 1995. Gifts Differing: Understanding Personality Type(Orig Pub 1980). Mountain View: Davies-Black Publishing.

Jung: Counselor as Secular Priest

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