Review of ‘Menachem Begin’ by Daniel Gordis

Unknown Daniel Gordis, Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul (New York: Schocken Books, 2014). Hardback

“The state begins in violence. However lofty the ideals of a new country or a new regime, if it encounters opposition, as most new regimes and countries do, it must fight. If it loses, its ideals join the long catalogue of unfulfilled aspirations.”

Richard Brookhiser wrote those words at the outset of Founding Father, his study of George Washington. I thought of them often as I read Menachem Begin, Daniel Gordis’ new book on the life and character of Israel’s sixth prime minister.

The history of few states has been attended by such perpetual violence as has that of Israel. Its founding Zionist ideal was a response to anti-Semitic violence, at least in part. (The other part was the millennia-long Jewish hope of return to Jerusalem.) Its independence was gained through terrorism against the British Mandate and battles with invading Arab armies. Its history has been beset by life-and-death wars against neighboring Arab countries, not to mention constant conflict with Palestinians. And then there are the fractious relationships among Israelis. (“Two Israelis, three political parties” is a joke I heard decades ago.) The name Israel means “one who wrestles with God,” but the wrestling has been with humans too.

Menachem Begin participated in many of those struggles. He was born on August 16, 1913, in Brest-Litovsk, Poland, to Zionist parents. At age 13, he embraced the distinctive Revisionist Zionism of Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, who advocated the establishment of the Jewish State in Israel—by force, if necessary. He entered his twenties with the Nazis taking power in Germany, and fled Poland after Germany invaded on September 1, 1939. He would eventually lose his parents and brothers in the Holocaust. He was arrested by the Soviets in Vilna and detained there for a year for anti-Soviet, anti-Communist activities. Released in September 1941, he and his wife Aliza made their way to Palestine by spring of the next year.

There, he quickly assumed command of Etzel, an acronym for Irgun Tzvai-Leumi, the “National Military Organization.” This Jabotinsky-inspired paramilitary group used violence to drive the British out of Palestine. Controversially, Begin gave the orders to hang two British sergeants as retaliation for the hanging of two Etzel fighters. He gave the orders to bomb the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which housed the British Mandatory government. And his organization, together with the more radical organization Lehi (aka, Stern Gang), was responsible for the massacre at Deir Yassin, in which 107 Arab residents were killed. The mainstream Haganah both foreknew and approved of the King David and Deir Yassin operations, though they denied it at the time, a denial that permanently blackened Begin’s reputation.

When the British evacuated Palestine, the war for independence and against the Arabs began in earnest. Haganah, Etzel, and Lehi combined to form the Israeli Defense Forces, though conflicts among those organizations led to the Altalena affair, in which Haganah forces (including Yitzhak Rabin) fired on a supply ship being unloaded by Etzel personnel (including Menachem Begin). The pre-independence conflicts led to the formation of rival political parties after 1948. For 29 years—from 1948 to 1977—Begin led the opposition. Then, on the verge of wanting to retire, he became Israel’s prime minister.

Those years saw highs and lows. Under Begin, Israel gave refuge to Vietnamese boat people. It began to receive an influx of Soviet Jews. It began to airlift Felasha Jews out of Ethiopia. Most importantly, Begin negotiated peace with Anwar Sadat’s Egypt, the first Arab country to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. (And, it should be noticed, the peace has held till now.)

More controversially, under Begin, Israel expanded the Settlement Movement that had begun under the previous government. (Israel had captured the West Bank, Gaza, and Sinai Peninsula during the Six Day War, and had begun building settlements not long afterward.) Most controversially, with Ariel Sharon as Begin’s defense minister, Israel invaded Lebanon, and its Lebanese Christian allies massacred Lebanese Shiites and Palestinians in the Sabra neighborhood of Beirut near the Shatilla refugee camp.

So, how does one assess the legacy of Menachem Begin? Should one emphasize the hanging of two British sergeants, the King David Hotel bombing, the Deir Yassin massacre, the Settlement Movement, and the Sabra and Shatilla massacre and decide that Begin was a terrorist and a tyrant?

Or, should one assess his legacy focusing on his struggle to establish the Jewish state as a refuge from anti-Semitism; his government’s benevolence to Vietnamese boat people and Ethiopian and Soviet Jews; and especially his Nobel Peace price-winning negotiations with Egypt and decide that he was a great statesman and man of peace?

Daniel Gordis’ biography makes a compelling case for the latter, one that I find, in the main, convincing. Begin’s Zionist ideals, precisely because of his lifetime of Zionist efforts, will not join the list of unfulfilled aspirations any time soon. By the same token, however, we can never forget that precisely because all states begin in violence, none of them—including Israel—are entirely beyond reproach.

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.

Review of ‘Preaching in an Age of Distraction’ by J. Ellsworth Kalas

Unknown J. Ellsworth Kalas, Preaching in an Age of Distraction (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2014). Paperback / Kindle

Ours is an Age of Distraction.

The ubiquity of smart phones and social media, together with the crush of the 24/7 news cycle, creates an overload of information that renders concentration difficult. The proliferation of options regarding household necessities, entertainment options, and extracurricular activities renders even the best decision-makers anxious.

Should I buy oatmeal or cream of wheat? A specific brand or generic? Instant or… Wait, my cell phone is ringing. My wife wants me to pick up our son from his play date and take him to baseball practice before we all go to church tonight.

As ministers of the gospel, we are distracted. Our parishioners are distracted. Our culture is distracted.

How do we preach as such people to such people in such an age? How do we become undistracted preachers ourselves?

J. Ellsworth Kalas sets out to answer these questions in this little gem of a book. Kalas is a United Methodist minister and senior professor of homiletics at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Like John Wesley, his spiritual forefather, Kalas wants preachers to speak plain truth to plain people. To do that, they need to cultivate excellence in their own lives so that they can minister with excellence to the people of God.

In many ways, Preaching in an Age of Distraction is a primer in homiletics, covering the standard topics: the preacher’s spiritual formation, preparation, and sermon content and delivery. But using distraction as a fundamental problem to solve gives poignancy and piquancy to his remarks. The book helps preachers move from distraction to excellence.

Preaching in an Age of Distraction is an good book—an instant classic, I hope—for pastors just setting out in their ministries, as well as those stuck in the mud who need help out.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.

Review of ‘Seeing Black and White in a Gray World’ by Bill T. Arnold

Seeing-Black-and-white Bill T. Arnold, Seeing Black and White in a Gray World: The Need for Theological Reasoning in the Church’s Debate Over Sexuality (Franklin, TN: Seedbed Publishing, 2014). Paperback / Kindle

Few topics generate as much heated conflict among Christians as homosexuality does. Should pastors solemnize and churches recognize same-sex marriages? Should denominations ordain non-celibate gays and lesbians for ministry? The conflict over these questions has been evident among mainline Protestant churches for some time now, but it is increasingly appearing among evangelical Protestant churches too.

In 2008, Adam Hamilton—who pastors America’s largest United Methodist church in Leawood, Kansas—published Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White. In that book, he argued that a “third way” on the topic of homosexuality was both possible and preferable—as well as on other topics that divide Christian. The book was influential among United Methodist pastors and more broadly on what one might call “liberal” evangelicals.

Bill T. Arnold is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, as well as a professor of Old Testament studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Seeing Black and White in a Gray World is his critique of Hamilton’s book, focusing on the need for a theological approach to the question of homosexuality, one that he believes is lacking from Hamilton’s book.

Arnold lays out his case clearly, logically, and graciously. He argues that a “third way” on homosexuality is not possible because solemnizing same-sex marriages and ordaining non-celibate LGBT persons is either right or wrong as a matter of moral principle. A “third way” is not preferable because unity should not be bought through a compromise of moral principle. And a “third way” does not necessarily represent progress because the Church always stands in a tensive relationship with culture, with the goal of transforming it. To do this, the church must sometimes issue a prophetic critique of cultural trends, such as the increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage, not just a spiritual affirmation of them.

Arnold also argues that the traditional Methodist process of theological reasoning—the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience—should lead the United Methodist Church to reject same-sex marriage. He pinpoints the crux of the controversy in that denomination as a debate between what Scripture teaches about homosexual conduct on the one hand and a contemporary social construction of homosexual experience on the other. In his judgment, too many Methodists—including Hamilton, to a degree—give experience a weight equal to or greater than Scripture. This, he points out, is not how the Quadrilateral is supposed to work. Tradition, reason, and experience may confirm what Scripture teaches—or help us understand it better—but they cannot be used as independent norms that contradict and overturn explicit biblical prohibitions.

Finally, Arnold repeatedly points to the longstanding practices of the United Methodist Church a moderate way to deal with the controversy. These practices combine the teaching of holiness with the practice of hospitality, the former a core doctrinal tenet and the latter an important moral virtue. The biblical affirmation of marriage as a man-woman institution need not—must not!—be construed as permission to be unkind or unloving to people who experience same-sex attraction. By the same token, the biblical practice of hospitality cannot be taken as an endorsement of sexual practices the Bible prohibits.

Proponents of same-sex marriage within the United Methodist Church will probably not like Seeing Black and White in a Gray World. But it seems to me that whether or not they agree with Arnold on the topic of homosexuality, they must agree with him that there is no “third way.” If Scripture prohibits same-sex practices, the United Methodist Church cannot permit them. If Scripture permits same-sex practices, the United Methodist Church cannot prohibit them. There is no mediating alternative, no “gray.” There is only “black” or “white.” This means that Adam Hamilton’s search for an alternative is doomed to fail.

Those of us outside the United Methodist Church, in evangelical Protestant churches that do not affirm same-sex marriage, would do well to read Arnold’s book too. It sheds light on the debate over homosexuality in the Church without generating more heat.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.

Mozilla’s Orwellian Announcement about Brendan Eich’s Resignation

In 2008, Brendan Eich donated $1,000 to a group that supported Prop 8, which amended California’s constitution to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Voters passed the ballot initiative by 52 percent to 48 percent.

In 2014, Eich–who created JavaScript and cofounded the Mozilla Foundation–became CEO of Mozilla Corporation. Because of his support for Prop 8, OkCupid (an online dating service), several Mozilla board members and employees, and Mozilla users called for him to step down. Yesterday, he did that.

My purpose in this post is not to argue about same-sex marriage. For the record, I voted for Prop 8, so you can guess my views. Nor is it to argue whether companies have rights to set standards for their employees. They do.

My purpose is rather to point out the sheer Orwellian nature of the official statement about Eich released by Mitchell Baker, executive chairwoman of Mozilla. Here is it, in its entirety, with my comments in bold brackets.


Mozilla prides itself on being held to a different standard and, this past week, we didn’t live up to it. [No joke!] We know why people are hurt and angry, and they are right: it’s because we haven’t stayed true to ourselves. [Right. (a) How does a corporation stay true to itself if, as many on the Left claims, corporations aren’t people? (b) Given that Eich was a cofounder of Mozilla–present at the creation, one might say–how can he be excluded from the “ourselves” to which you claim you didn’t “stay true”? Less obliquely, you “proved false” to one of your founders. Wasn’t that also an act of betrayal to your community?]

We didn’t act like you’d expect Mozilla to act. We didn’t move fast enough to engage with people once the controversy started. We’re sorry. We must do better. [And by “you,” you mean that group of Mozilla users who support gay marriage and protested loudly at Eich’s new job as CEO. Presumably, you didn’t bother to take into account–or care about–Mozilla users who do not support same-sex marriage. But, whatever…]

Brendan Eich has chosen to step down from his role as CEO. He’s made this decision for Mozilla and our community. [In other words, you’re a jerk, but he’s a stand-up guy. And by “chosen to step down,” do you really mean “given the option to resign or be fired”?]

Mozilla believes both in equality and freedom of speech. [Excellent!] Equality is necessary for meaningful speech. [Okay, but why “meaningful” rather than “free”?] And you need free speech to fight for equality. [Absolutely!] Figuring out how to stand for both at the same time can be hard. [Only if your desire for equality trumps your commitment to free speech.]

Our organizational culture reflects diversity and inclusiveness. We welcome contributions from everyone regardless of age, culture, ethnicity, gender, gender-identity, language, race, sexual orientation, geographical location and religious views. Mozilla supports equality for all. [Except people whose views don’t support same-sex marriage.]

We have employees with a wide diversity of views. [One less diversely-viewed employee as of yesterday.] Our culture of openness extends to encouraging staff and community to share their beliefs and opinions in public. [Unless it involves donating money to support Prop 8 in 2008.] This is meant to distinguish Mozilla from most organizations and hold us to a higher standard. [Meant to, but in this case did not.] But this time we failed to listen, to engage, and to be guided by our community. [Now I’m just confused. You’ve transitioned from “encouraging staff and community to share their beliefs and opinions in public” to “fail[ing] to listen and “be guided by our community.” This implies that your commitment to your staff’s sharing exists in reverse proportion to your users’ liking what they share. And, it needs to be remembered, that Brandon Eich was a founding member of that community and that not all Mozilla users support same-sex marriage. So, you’re failing to listen to that segment of your “community” that complains most loudly. Point taken for the next time.]

While painful [especially for Brandon Eich, whose lost his job], the events of the last week show exactly why we need the web. So all of us can engage freely in the tough conversations we need to make the world better. [Except, of course, when that “tough conversation” involves same-sex marriage. Then we punish employees whose views we don’t like.]

We need to put our focus back on protecting that Web. And doing so in a way that will make you proud to support Mozilla. [How can you “protect that web,” the one that allows “tough conversations,” when you defenestrate an employee who engages in that conversation?]

What’s next for Mozilla’s leadership is still being discussed. [I bet. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the discussion involved lawyers.] We want to be open about where we are in deciding the future of the organization and will have more information next week. However, our mission will always be to make the Web more open [except to opponents of same-sex marriage] so that humanity is stronger [except opponents of same-sex marriage, whom we hope lose their jobs at tech companies], more inclusive [unless they donated to Prop 8 six years ago] and more just [where justice is defined as hounding opponents of same-sex marriage out of their jobs]: that’s what it means to protect the open Web [except for Brandon Eich; we’ve closed his Web just a little].

We will emerge from this with a renewed understanding and humility — our large, global, and diverse [but not too diverse…wink, wink] community is what makes Mozilla special, and what will help us fulfill our mission [to extirpate troglodytic supporters of traditional marriage from our ranks]. We are stronger with you involved [because it took quite a few people to push Brandon Eich out the corporate window].

Thank you for sticking with us [unlike how we treated our cofounder, Brandon Eich].

Mitchell Baker, Executive Chairwoman

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