I should state at the outset of my review that I am a white, 46 year-old, educated, public special education teacher who happens also to be a man. I am a Christian and I have bachelors degree in theology and bible teaching and a masters degree in education. I am a public school teacher as a second career so I am not very far up the pay scale and thus I am, by definition, not-wealthy. Finally, I am married and have children. I want to dispel, at the outset, any of the concerns my readers may have about whether or not I am biased or prejudiced in any way at all.
Well…I suppose I am. I suppose everyone has a fault or two they have to reckon with in this lifetime while they work out their salvation with fear and trembling. Reading this book, I got the sense that Ms Harper has all the sins of everyone in the world pegged–and there are a lot of sins to reckon with according to her, plenty of guilt to go around. I am not entirely opposed to her pointing out sin–preachers, good and bad alike, do that. The problem I had with this book is that the majority of sins in this world have, evidently and only, been committed by a very small minority of people; namely, rich, white, men in positions of power. And as I read through the book as a relatively poor white man, who has evidently been handed everything in life because of my relatively pale skin color, I couldn't help but wonder if the solutions to the world's problems would go away if all the white men who have exploited black people and poor people and the environment and women and other minorities; who have schemed and exploited and pillaged their way to economic prosperity; who have never suffered at the hands of anyone; would simply repent or, well, die.
The subtitle of the book is 'How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right.' This is audacious to say the least because her solution has very little to do with what Paul describes as the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11. What is more amazing, however, is that as I read through the book which is thick with what some might call the 'Liberal Democrat Presidential Platform,' is this: there are people all around who think that her solutions to the problems she describes can be solved in better, less blame-assigning, guilt-compounding, accusatory ways. What is amazing is that someone who would agree with her every single jot and tittle has been president of the U.S. of A. for the last seven and a half years–and yet this book was still deemed necessary. The policies she would champion have been the policies of this nation for nearly eight years…and yet this book was still necessary?!
You may well have guessed that I didn't like this book. I will give a few reasons for my dislike. (I assure you my dislike is purely philosophical and theological.) Aside from the pretense of being a book about 'solutions' when it's really a book about 'blame', Harper has an a prior commitment to a view of Scripture that I don't think most conservative Christians readers will find helpful. For example, she dates the book of Genesis as "the youngest of the first five books of the Bible, like written just after the fall of Babylonian empire and at the end of the exilic period (ca. 538-450 BCE)" (18). Throughout the book she will use short phrases like 'most scholars now believe' (e.g., 143). This is misleading, at best, because it depends entirely upon which 'scholars' one reads. Among her favorites are Gerhard von Rad, Walter Brueggemann, Phyllis Trible, and Jim Wallis–none of whom are recognized for their theological or canonical conservatism. It is easy enough to find a host of Bible scholars who can produce compelling linguistic, archaeological, theological, and historical reasons for early dates of important Bible books like Genesis (and, furthermore, demonstrate compelling reasons why such books as the Pentateuch are not scraps cobbled together by some imaginary priestly class but are unified wholes written with a singular purpose, by a single author).
She also makes selective use of statistics. For example, she notes that in 2015, "forty percent of unarmed people killed by police were black men, yet they make up only six percent of the national population." But this is only part of the statistic (and it may not be entirely true because it does not tell us the racial demographics of the cops who shot 'unarmed' black men or the circumstances under which they were killed, etc.; don't get me wrong: I am no fan of the current authoritarian tactics of many police forces across this county. My point which is that this statistic is selective at best and misleading at worst.) It doesn't take much effort to do a google search and come up with a set of statistics that demonstrate that black men kill each other at an alarming rate in this country–a fact perhaps more lamentable than the fact that police kill all sorts of unarmed people–Black, White, Latino, etc. See this article by Allen West for statistics that are easily verified. Statistics like this are used to prop up support for movements like 'black lives matter'. (She even advocates taking the 'Harvard Implicit Association Test' which, evidently, helps us know if we are racist ('implicit bias', 154).)
Another problem with the book is the constant whining. She constantly laments the slavery history of the United States. Yes. We all lament it. It is a terrible aspect of our history. Yet: "At the same time, the God-shaped abyss in my soul was hungry to be filled. Born black in a white world, a woman in a man's world, I became a child survivor of bullying, sexual abuse, and divorce. I was lost and trying my best to be okay" (61). Or, "I suffered the humiliation of being placed in general-education classes even though I had been in the highest reading group in a competitive class in Philadelphia" (55; the students in my special education class would not think being in general education a humiliation; nor would the 98% of the population who also 'suffered' in GE). But seriously. Everyone has had to suffer. I am a white man and no one has handed me anything. I was bullied as a young boy and worse. I grew up poor. I'm still paying for my education. We all have a history. But I submit that my suffering is no worse than hers; and hers no worse than mine. It's different, but none of it is beyond the hope of Jesus. Part of the glory of belonging to Jesus is that we are not defined by our history, but by our future. A significant part of the problem with this book and its underlying assumptions is that it is mired in the past, seemingly unable to think about Jesus has, indeed, set us free. We are called to forget what is behind and press on to what Messiah has taken hold us for.
Kingdom making means acknowledging sin and repenting, making recompense when necessary, and pressing forward in hope. It doesn't mean dwelling in the past or oppressing people with guilt for the sins of their fathers.
Finally, there are some things in this book that are simply mind-mindbogglingly absurd and beyond my ability to believe. For example, Harper would have her readers believe that climate-change related conditions are largely responsible for the rise of such terrorism organizations as ISIS. "Imagine living in a land where there is no water," she writes. She then goes on to explain that because Syria had no water, a vacuum was created, people revolted against al-Assad, a war resulted, and (sarcasm deleted) ISIS was born (107-109)! All of this because of climate change–something for which there is no scientific consensus! (It seems to me that ISIS was created because some people in the world like to kill other people in the name of their religion–a point that doesn't escape Harper when it comes to white slave owners from another era but does when it comes to Islam.)
Enough of the problems with this book. I assure you I can go on for another thousand words, but I won't. My point in highlighting these points is to note that her arguments are open to interpretation at best and specious at worst. I am simply an optimist and this book is far too rife with blame and accusation to be of any useful optimistic hope. I think it will appeal to a certain part of the population, but I think many folks will see the logical holes, the fallacious arguments, the distorted history, and the misappropriation of Scripture and put the book down. Or never buy it to begin with.
I do want to end on one positive note. Of all that I have criticized, and I assure you I have more that I want to say, I did find chapter 10, "Shalom Between the Nations" to be an exceptionally well written and compelling chapter (aside from her application of Jubilee on pages 169-170). Here I think that Harper gets it right when she talks about the way 'empire' has corrupted the vision God has for this world in Jesus. She has some excellent observations about how 'war' and 'empire' are mentioned together early in the Biblical narrative (165) and how our leaders tend towards corruption and oppression. I thought she also had some rather brilliant thoughts about how the problem of 'empire' can be salved, "God has broken into the universe to disrupt the reign of humanity. A confrontation is brewing between the dominion of humanity and the dominion of God. God will confront the rulers of this world in the person of Jesus" (174). I think the confrontation already happened at the cross and in the resurrection. Nevertheless, this is, in my opinion, the best paragraph in the entire book.
Sadly it doesn't make the book worth buying. There are twelve chapters, a forward by Water Brueggemann, a conclusion, and end notes. It begins with a short 'study' (chapters 1-3) of the early chapters of Genesis and then drives into a more practical and political application of what Shalom will look like in areas such as self, gender, creation, families, race, nations, and God himself. Each chapter concludes with a 'Reflection Exercise' where we are invited to do things like support the Paris agreement (115), support Black Lives Matter (156, 160 #6), and listen to the stories of women (99) among much else.
The problem is that this is not a book of Good News, Gospel. It is not a book about how the death and resurrection of Jesus already confronted the world and how through it God has begun to set things to rights. It's a book about all the things that Harper perceives as injustice or inequity in this world and her leftist political agenda for fixing them–I dislike the terms 'leftist' and 'right wing', but for lack of better terminology at this point, I submit to their use. I don't think we can have it both ways: the government cannot at once be the problem and the solution. If the Gospel is the solution, then the solutions will come one person at a time. Slowly. As a mustard seed takes root.
In some cases, she is correct in her identification of the problems, but misses the mark entirely in her solutions. And if I as a white, 'privileged', man have my biases, it's hard to see how Harper has none. I read a lot in this book about how she has been humiliated, shamed, or treated unfairly–none of it is right or just. I agree.
But I read very little, if anything, about her own culpability. Everyone in the book is guilty: Abraham. David. Solomon. Cops. Ben Franklin. White men. Adam. Her parents. And many more.
Everyone seems guilty. Except her.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase Subversive Jesus (Amazon, $14.00)
- Author: Lisa Sharon Harper
- On the Web: Lisa Sharon Harper
- On Twitter: @lisasharper
- Academic Webpage:
- Publisher: WaterBrook Press
- Pages: 227
- Year: 2016
- Audience: I'm not sure
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this book via the Blogging for Books bloggers review program in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.
I was almost immediately turned off by this book when one of the first things I saw was a quote by Shane Claiborne. I pressed on because that's the deal and eventually arrived at page 24-25. What I read on those two pages inspired me to press on further:
From the time of the murder of every young boy after Jesus' birth to the day of his crucifixion, Jesus was opposed by an empire intent on maintaining the status quo. This kingdom labeled Jesus a troublemaker, rabble-rouser, dissident, community organizer, agitator, nonviolent revolutionary, renegade, rebel, and traitor. But none of this was a surprise to God, for God was preparing the world for the coming revolution.
Many of our Sunday schools continue to encourage followers of Jesus to embrace a respectable Jesus, an agreeable teacher with pleasant stories to tell about how to be good. But no one would crucify this Jesus. No one would be threatened by such bland personal morality. Instead, they'd invite this Jesus over for a cup of tea and a chat about the weather. (24-25)
At this point, I was fairly well hooked. I mean, if this was the basis for everything else Greenfield was going to write in the book, then how could it go wrong?
Greefield goes on over the next eleven short chapters to explain to his readers all the various ways that he and his friends believe Jesus is subversive. Jesus is subversive in sharing, parenting, charity, suffering, and vocation among others. And, sure enough, Greenfield and his followers have all managed to flesh these various subversions rather well. It is very compelling the way he and his family have lived out these subversive behaviors that Jesus evidently taught, lived, and advocated. "He came to inaugurate the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. He came to subvert the world as we know it" (27).
I'm torn, frankly, as to whether or not I like this book. There are times when I was all over it and marking up my pages, underlining sentences, posting quotes on Twitter. When Greenfield talks about money and power and how the birth of Jesus took place in that shadow and then goes on to talk about Jesus preaching an alternative to empire–wow, I was hooting and hollering and jumping up and down on my couch.When he poked the bear and said, "Today, too many of our churches have concocted a dozen ingenious reasons why these stories no longer mean what they say," (78) I was again stunned that someone had the nerve to say it, and mean it.
Then there were other times when I was fairly well convinced that I was reading the party platform of the liberal wing of the American government. There were times when I felt as though Greenfield was loudly condescending towards those reading the book who might take exception with his particular understanding of what kingdom means and how we might go about being subversive. There were times when I deeply disagreed with his particular take on something Jesus said or did (for example, his conclusion that the feeding of the 5,000 was a mere 'beautiful miracle of sharing and abundance', 51.) And there were times when I felt that his activism bordered on the absurd (for example, the Pirate Flash Mob is something I seriously doubt Jesus would participate in precisely because it is absurd. See chapter 9, 'Subversive Citizenship.')
In the end, I came down on the side of liking the book. It seems to me that what I heard him saying is that what really matters is Jesus and love in Jesus' name. We need not be divided by our binary code of political opinions if we are united in our passion for the Lord's heart.
I think there is a lot about this book to commend and I do recommend it to my readers who want their faith to be challenged and who want to start living a more Jesus driven, Kingdom oriented life.
There are parts of this book that people are going to like. There are parts of this book that people are going to hate. As I noted above, I'm not sold on all of his exegetical points and I'm not sold on all his practical applications of said exegesis. At the end of the day, however, this is a book that tells the story of how one family decided to live out their vocation among the poor of the world. I think they do it well and I think it would be great if more people could live in such a way. That's not, necessarily, Greenfield's ambition though: "You must resist the temptation to do nothing because you can do only a little or because you can't like someone else who seems more radical. It takes many candles to overcome the darkness" (164). He goes on, "There is nothing prescriptive about the stories I have shared in this book. The stories are merely demonstrations of how God has worked in my life and the lives of those around me" (164-165).
That is a helpful caveat and helped bring the book to a good close for me. Each of us is called to a place in life and we struggle to live out that life faithfully in the place God has called us. The Lord called Greenfield to live among the poor and enrich their lives. He called me to educate children with special educational needs–many of whom are poor and living in single-parent environments. Others will have their own calling to be faithful to. It's not always easy. Greenfield's book, despite my reservations, is a helpful corrective and a powerfully prophetic word to the church in America that has grown too Conservative, too Binary, and too wealthy to mount any formidable offense against the powers of darkness that prevail in this land. Prophets like this are necessary for the church to wake us up. One only hopes it's not too late.
I love the quote he includes on page 27 from Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador: "A church that doesn't provoke any crisis, a gospel that doesn't unsettle, a word of God that doesn't get under anyone's skin, a word of God that doesn't touch the real sin of the society in which it is proclaimed–what gospel is that?"
Herein is the challenge for Christians–especially American Christians–who live in a sterile environment where faith amounts to a mere tithe on the first day of the week. I think this book is a wonderful example of a radical alternative to the empire of this world, a counter-cultural challenge to be exactly the opposite of what this world expects Christians to be: white, clean, tidy, and full of all the right answers. This book got under my skin, it unsettled me, it challenged my privilege, and my values.
Let's hope that the provocation continues in me and begins in others.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase Subversive Jesus (Amazon, $11.40)
- Author: Craig Greenfield
- On the Web: Alongsiders
- On Twitter:
- Academic Webpage:
- Publisher: Zondervan
- Pages: 182
- Year: 2016
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this book via the BookLook bloggers review program in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.
In today's circles of American Churchianity, leadership is all the rage. There are seminars, Twitter pages, books galore, and so much more teaching us how to be the leaders we ought to be in the world and in the church. Walk into a Christian book store and I'm certain you will find an entire section of shelving dedicated entirely to books about leadership. It is really quite a sight to behold.
Into the fray of those who claim to know what leadership is and how we ought to do it jumps mega-mega church leader Perry Noble and his latest tome, The Most Excellent Way to Lead, a book about, you guessed it, leadership. The entire book is based on his novel idea that when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 13 he had in mind leadership. Thus: "Paul is continuing his discussion about leadership here, and when he says he's going to show you the most excellent way, I believe he's saying, 'I will show you the most excellent way to lead.'" (6) This is most convenient for the outline of the book (but I seriously doubt that is what Paul was writing about in 1 Corinthians 12-14 or that Paul had any inkling towards American mega-church leadership styles).
Each chapter then explores leadership from the perspective of love. That is, if love is patient, so is leadership. If love is kind, so is leadership. And so on and so forth all the way through to 'Love never fails.' This is a novel approach to leadership and along the way Mr Noble explores leadership as love through the lenses of his own experience of success and failure. He is rather transparent in the book and some of his stories are nice and others are funny and a couple I simply did not believe were true at all. I can take or leave his anecdotes. There were too many illustrations about himself (for example, the number of times he reminded his readers that his church has 400 staff members and a $50 million dollar budget; I didn't care the first time and I didn't care the last time and to be sure, nothing about either of those statistics necessarily means he is an expert on anything.)
The end of each chapter features a page with several 'summary statements' about the material found in the preceding chapter. This will make excellent Tweets if the reader happens to be on Twitter and I suspect that is exactly what they are there for. There are also a series of questions for the reader as well: questions to ask yourself (about your own leadership) and questions to 'ask your team.'
Along the way he pieces together some leadership ideas from the story of David and Saul found in 1 Samuel. This is fine; although, again, I seriously doubt that it was leadership in particular that the author of those stories had in mind. I have a hard time with books that use Scripture in this way–as if it were written to satisfy a set of principles or ideas that we have about how to do things in a culture thousands of years removed from theirs. I am not sure that this is why Scripture is or was written and preserved for us so many years later and I am going to deduct points in every review I write that treats the Bible as a mere handbook of principles for whatever the cause du jour happens to be.
In some ways, this book felt like insulation for Mr Noble. Mr Noble is a preacher, excuse me, leader, at a very large church in South Carolina–over 400 staff and a $50 million budget!–and that means he is exposed a lot. We have seen in the recent years that a lot of mega-church preachers have fallen into disrepute and scandal and have brought great shame upon themselves and their churches. So, in some ways, exposing, in book form, the inner workings of how he does things at the place he leads kind of serves as insulation for the decisions he makes along the way. That's how a lot of this came off to me while I was reading. In other words, it's awfully difficult to criticize the guy who has written a book about how to do the very things he is doing.
The bottom line is this, there's nothing inherently wrong with the book–my complaint about his 'use' of Scripture notwithstanding. There are a lot of helpful principles, thoughts, and ideas that people in leadership positions can use to help their organization be a much better place. And how can a person complain about a book where love is somewhat the focus? It's true. That is a difficult thing to do. Nevertheless, I didn't find that book all that appealing or interesting–and mostly because I did have such a hard time with the way he used the Bible to formulate his outline. If you are one of those folks who sucks up leadership books by John Maxwell or whoever, you will enjoy this book. If you are not, you won't. The book has a limited audience, in my opinion.
This is a one-off review of a book written by someone whose sermons I have never listened to, whose church I have never attended, and whose other books I have never read. I'm sure in a lot of places Mr Noble is well respected and loved and admired and among his peers, these thoughts will resonate. Perhaps justly so. Jesus said that if we want to lead, we should follow; that the first will be last; that we should take up our cross and deny ourselves. Jesus said the servant is not greater than the Master who washes feet. Jesus said, simply, love one another. None of this, to be sure, Noble will deny. But at the end of the day, that is not how he comes off in this book.
Noble tells his readers that "if I'm going to receive criticism from someone, they need to meet the following requirements: 1) they must love Jesus, 2) they must love the church, 3) they must love me." (122) What he doesn't tell us is if he himself has to meet the same standards. It might be implied, but it's not explicitly stated.
He tells us over and over and over, from the first page to the last, that he is a leader. That tells us what we need to know about the content. What we must ask ourselves is this: does Noble's vision of leadership correspond with what Jesus told us about being a disciple. Really. That's where it breaks down for me.
Leadership is overrated.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase The Most Excellent Way to Lead (Amazon, $9.89)
- Author: Perry Noble
- On the Web:
- On Twitter:
- Academic Webpage:
- Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
- Pages: 288
- Year: 2016
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this book via the Tyndale blogger review program in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.
I suppose the right thing to do, based on the current status of this book on Amazon (95% of the reviews are 5-Star), is to write a favorable, positive review and post it for everyone to read and enjoy. I'm a little late to the game so I feel no particular compulsion to be altogether favorable in my review.
To be fair, however, I don't think Ms Wojo wrote this book with any man (aside from her husband) whatsoever in mind so it could be that she simply wasn't speaking to my version of the species. That's fine and at the heart of my review is that thought: the book simply did not speak to me as a man. There's nothing sexist or unfair about that assessment. Rather, just an honest evaluation of where I was with this book.
On the other hand, sentences like this: Before you know it, the feeling of wanting to give up has saturated your spirit and you feel like you can't take even one more step. You have lost every ounce of strength in your mind, body, and spirit" seem to speak across the sexes and engulf us all in the pathos of her writing and I think, at times, she does a good job of remind all readers that God is available, that he understands us, and that he is consistent.
The book is a very self-centered book and I don't mean that in a pejorative way. I simply mean that the book is about Ms Wojo and her life experiences: her joys, her sorrows, her marriage, her children, her faith, and her life. It is mixed with stories from the Bible and she is trying to understand her life in light of those stories she reads in the Bible. And although I have no use whatsoever for her particular 'use' of Scripture (stories generally pulled from context and applied to situations the Bible writers did not envision), I do appreciate the fact that the book is filled with more than an abundance of Scripture spread throughout the book. I would appreciate more context for those stories, but that's just a personal thing.
The book is also very typically a book about the 'problems' of American Christians. I don't think this book will have much of an audience in poorer nations where Christians are actually suffering. However, it will appeal to many in the mainstream American church where Christians suffer from the pressures of pressure, fatigue, burnout, poopy diapers, grocery shopping, and child-rearing. I'm not at all discounting the struggles of Ms Wojo at all. Struggles they are; and real. But there is a sense in this book that much of what she has struggled with is uniquely American and could be solved as much by a trained secular psychologist. Again, I'm not discounting the real pain she has endured in her life. That's not my point, so please don't misunderstand the point I am making which is that while some folks may relate to her easily, I think there is also a lot who will not.
Each chapter deals with some particular issue Ms Wojo has experienced in her life and she works hard to relate this to our Christian experience by blending stories, Scripture, quotes, and more into a narrative that explores feelings, and emotions and which eventually draws out some principles designed to guide us through the negativity often felt because of these experiences. At the end of each chapter readers will find "Pillars of Truth to Lean On", a bullet point list of Scriptures associated with the chapter's content. Finally, there are "Stepping Stones' at the end of the chapters which are coordinated with the One More Step journal.
At the end of the book, readers will find Discussion Questions, some perfectly Tweetable block quotes, acknowledgements, a selection of hymn titles that guided the writing of the book, information relating to MPS, and end notes.
Again, I am certain this book will find its way into the hands of someone who needs to read this book. Unfortunately, I wasn't one of those people. There's nothing particularly wrong with the book. I just didn't like it or find that it spoke to me where I am at. That doesn't mean it won't be helpful for others especially those going through difficult times of the loss of a child or or a parent or a child with a particular disability. At the end, she points them to Jesus: "Jesus not only heals broken hearts, but he also transforms broken hearts into his hands and feet that carry his love and share it with others" (192).
That's enough for anyone and would have been a fantastic opening salvo.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase One More Step (Amazon, $8.99)
- Author: Rachel Wojo
- On the Web:
- On Twitter:
- Academic Webpage:
- Publisher: WaterBrook Multnomah
- Pages: 208
- Year: 2015
- Audience: Probably Ladies
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this book via the Waterbrook Multnomah blogger review program in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.
I preached a couple of weeks ago (again!) and I decided to use Matthew 13 as my text. I had been doing some light research on the chapter and taught a little of it in my Sunday school class so I took the next logical step and went ahead with a full blown manuscript. It preached fairly well although I would agree with anyone who said it's a bit long. It preached long too. Anyhow, here's the text of the sermon. Enjoy.
The Kingdom of God
Sermon Text: Matthew 13
One of the things we understand from Jesus, that is, things explicitly taught by Him, to us–about how to do something–is how to pray.
So, when Jesus, for example, said “I will make you fishers of men,” it’s not like he explicitly told you and me–and I assume the majority of us are not fishermen in the sense that Jesus’ first disciples were–how it is that we are to go about doing such a thing. For that matter, what does it mean to be a ‘fisher of men’?
But some will argue that he did in fact teach us how to make disciples at the end of Matthew 28 and thus we do, in actuality, have our blueprints for how to be fishers of men.
We might also take the idea of worshiping in Spirit and truth. We do not really gather from his conversation in John 4 what that means or exactly how such worship might look–and I assume it would look profoundly different in our culture than it would in Samaria in the first century, or in Africa in the 21st century.
But whatever else we may decide about such things as these, and they may be radically different from person to person while remaining profoundly orthodox, is that at the end of the day, Jesus did teach us how to pray. We know the sort of things he taught us to pray–things that are typically quite different from the things we pray for, safe travel, sunshine and safe travel–not that there’s anything wrong with these things but that they are different from what he specifically said to pray for.
And, to put a fine point on this, Jesus told us specifically to pray, “Your kingdom come.” I have heard a lot of people pray before that the Lord provide us with daily bread, and forgiveness of sins, and that his will be done. But I have heard few, very few, people–elders, deacons, preachers, prophets, or little old faithful ladies–pray that God’s kingdom come.
And why? What is it about this kingdom that prevents us from praying ‘your kingdom come’?
It seems that even in this context of Matthew 6, it’s not as odd as it might seem to find Jesus talking to his disciples about the Kingdom. Matthew has had the kingdom in mind from the beginning of his Gospel when he started with a genealogy of ‘Jesus Messiah, the son of King David, the son of Abraham.’ When you start a book by talking about kings, the reign of kings, and the sons of kings well, then I suppose we ought to assume that perhaps the idea is going to be featured in the rest of the book.
And so it is and so it goes. Over and over again in Matthew we see a clash of kingdoms: Jesus collides with Herod near his birth, he collides with the satan after his baptism and many other times too, at times he collides with his own disciples, and other times with the leadership of Israel. Finally, he collides with the kings of Rome.
Matthew’s Gospel is one telling you and me not so much about how to be saved–in some strange sense of going to heaven when we die–but about how God was once again becoming the King of this earth and thus bringing about to fulfillment his plan which he announced in creation–if He created this heavens and the earth, then the heavens and the earth and everything in them are his and he will rule them–and specified in the person of Abraham in Genesis 12–that is, his plan to bless all nations through Abraham and the promised Seed who would crush this earth’s kingdoms which are so masterfully under the control and direction of the serpent.
And in some way we see God becoming King in Jesus and we see Jesus reclaiming the heavens and the earth for God through his death and his resurrection: All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me, he said, now you go and tell this story and make disciples.
Scott McKnight writes, “I lay down an observation that alters the landscape if we embrace it–namely, we need to learn to tell the story that makes sense of Jesus. Not a story that we ask Jesus to fit into. No, we need to find the story that Jesus himself and the apostles told. To us common idiom, If Jesus was the answer, what was the question?’ Or, better, ‘If Jesus was the answer, and the answer was that Jesus was the Messiah/King, what was the question?’ (22) McKnight goes on to state, quite bluntly: “What is the kingdom story of the Bible? Until we can articulate the Bible’s kingdom story, we can’t do kingdom mission.’ (23)
Part 3: What the Church Needs. Now.
We've been taking the last Sunday of each month the past couple of months to visit other churches in our area. This, in conjunction with our travels to preach in various churches, gives us the opportunity to see how the Lord is working in our part of the world.
It appears, from what we can tell, that God is working in one of two ways. On the one hand, there are struggling, dying, small churches dotting the land around us. They are congregations full of few generations (which is a nice way of saying that they are filled with older people who have never left the small town where they were born). There's nothing particularly fancy about these churches. They still have fellowship dinners–carry-in–and sing songs from a hymn book. They still do traditional things like read Scripture as a call to worship and clutter up the spirit of worship with strange meditations before communion and too many announcements.
Yet these churches plod on day after day. They turn over their preacher every couple of years and operate on significantly small budgets. But they are still here, alive, and contributing to the Kingdom of God, in some way, right where they are. They wield very little power in this world. Yet here they are still here–living, breathing, and worshiping.
On the other hand, there are what I call hip churches. They are large and have virtually cut themselves off from anything resembling tradition. Their preacher is young and doesn't own a suit. They are spread out over large areas and consume a lot of resources. Their buildings are new and ergonomic. Everything is a production. The music is loud and modern and has a lot to do with singing about how great our problems are in this world and how God is somehow greater if we just open our eyes and see. These churches wield a lot of power and influence in the world precisely because they are so large.
And they too are here. They press on every day and face problems that are proportional to their size. Every church has problems and really it's simply a matter of size that determines the nature of the problem and solutions. They have large budgets and I suppose this might be one of the problems they face: how do we keep people interested and the money flowing? They are, nevertheless, here and they, too, are contributing to the advancement of God's kingdom–sometimes in spite of themselves–but here they are: living, breathing, and worshiping.
In Mark 1, we have seen that Mark had something to say to the church about preaching and repentance. In this third post of my short series, I'd like to look briefly at what he says about power. Here's what John the baptist said, "After me comes the one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
If I hear him, and I think I do, he is saying something like this: the One who comes after me will not only come in power but he will also empower you. Now it could be that John was talking to the individuals in his audience that day and probably was, but it could also be, and I think it is more likely, that Mark has him speaking to us, the Church in every generation who reads this verse. After all, these words were recorded for us and we read them. Right? So I suspect that even though these words were uttered a long while ago by a preacher we would surely not listen to then any more than now, the words nevertheless mean something to us or at least should.
I also noticed this: John makes a connection between power, baptism, and the Spirit in verse 7-8 and then in verse 9-11 he makes another connection between power, crucifixion, and Jesus. Here's how I see this. Mark uses a word in verse 10 when Jesus is baptized that our Bible's have translated 'ripped' or 'torn.' There's nothing particularly fancy about this word in Greek. We sometimes transliterate it as 'schism.' The interesting thing about this word, though, is that Mark only uses it's verb form two times. Once, here in Mark 1:10 at Jesus' baptism and again in Mark 15:38–at Jesus' crucifixion: "The curtain in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom." So, if I hear Mark, and I think I do, he is saying there is a serious connection between this Jesus who comes in power, who baptizes us in the Holy Spirit, and his crucifixion.
The crucifixion and the necessary resurrection are both a part of this powerful arrival of the Spirit of power.
Here's my point: this is what John the baptist preached. Look what Mark wrote: And this was his message. Or: And he was (continually) preaching saying. He was constantly preaching to whoever would listen that someone was coming who would do things in power of the Spirit. This echos the Older Testament prophets who made similar statements. In particular Zechariah who said, "This is the Word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: 'Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,' says the Lord Almighty." (4:6). Now John says that this Spirit is the power of Jesus and that it was beginning with the arrival of Jesus and that it's full manifestation was to be realized at his crucifixion and resurrection. This is why he makes the connection between Jesus' baptism and his crucifixion.
This is what the prophets preached. John was another in that long line of Israelite prophets who announced this powerful arrival. Paul the apostle would later make this connection too when he wrote to the church at Corinth: "For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power" (1 Corinthians 4:20). The kingdom is about power. The prophets said it. John clarified it. Jesus brought it. Paul preached it. The Spirit is it. Here it is: the power of the church is the presence of the Holy Spirit.
It just so happens that this morning I listened to a rather old lecture by Professor NT Wright from 2012. In this lecture, he made something of a similar point as I am making here. He said:
"The way God rescues people from sin and death is by overthrowing all the powers that held them captive. And the way he does that is not with superior firepower of the same kind, but with a different sort of power altogether…The power that is let loose transformatively in the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And it will continue to work until every tongue confess and every knee bow."–NT Wright, How God Became King: Why We've All Misunderstood the Gospels (my emphasis)
So what am I saying? And how does all this tie together? What does visiting churches around the area where I live come into play here? What does the church need? Now? Well, I think it's rather simple, isn't it? The church needs prophets who will proclaim this message of the power of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. John didn't come in any fancy way. He came as a prophet of old, like Elijah. He used words that reminded us of Zechariah and Isaiah (or quoted them outright). He's the one prophesied by Malachi. He preached a message that pointed unalterably to Jesus–the one who came with power and the Spirit.
John didn't come doing miracles. John didn't come from a high class of people. He didn't stand in the temple. He didn't write books or anything like that. He simply, continually, preached the good news, the Gospel, that God was beginning to do what he had promised he was going to do: return to his temple and set all people free from the bonds of captivity and exile. There had been 400 years of silence, sin, and exile in Israel–490 years said Daniel–and this is what God did: He sent a prophet to proclaim his Good News. Nothing more. Nothing less. He sent a preacher to preach, prepare, and proclaim in power the coming of Jesus.
John came along and simply said: you want to be free? The power to set you free is in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
That is power!
I think this is what the church needs now. We live in desperate times, don't we? People are desperate for hope and healing and many churches and christians do little more than point to a political candidate and say 'vote for her or him.' Churches keep plodding along as they always have–but with remarkably little demonstration of the Spirit's power. Some are old and dying and plodding along. Some are new and living and plodding along. But where is the Word of God? Where are the prophets? Where is the Spirit? Where is the Power? We will get things done not by strength and might but by the Spirit of God. How are we, as the prophets of God, manifesting this Spirit of power, the Spirit of God here, among ourselves and in the world in general?
Or is the church devoid of prophets?
How can we get out of the way so that the Spirit's power is evident among us?
How can we preach in such a way that when we are finished people will know that Jesus is arriving? How can we preach with such power that people know who empowers us?
What the church needs right now is the sort of prophets who will stand up, like John did, and take their place among the long history of Israelite prophets who proclaimed God's enduring message of hope that in Jesus God is becoming King of this world for all people and that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue will confess.
So here's a further point: it makes no difference if the church is small and dying or if the church is large and living. The same power is available to both and ought to be manifest in and among both. The same Holy Spirit of Jesus is available to the dying church as the living church. And perhaps if more dying churches recognized this there would be less dying churches. And if the living churches recognized this perhaps their fruit would be even greater.
Most of what we preach in the church is superfluous. Seriously. What we need in the church is prophets. Prophets who stand up and proclaim the unfiltered, unadulterated, Word of God. I'm tired of fluff. How are we, as the church, demonstrating the power of the Spirit of God among us?
I want power. Let's hear the prophets speak and so say with the congregations of generations gone by: Maranatha! Come Holy Spirit!
Or maybe our prophets will speak so powerfully, as a demonstration of the Spirit, that the Spirit will simply come among us, shake the place where we are meeting, and enable more of us to go forth and proclaim the Good News that Jesus is King!
Part 2 of 3: What the Church Needs to be Preaching. Now.
In part one of this short series of posts, I talked about what I think the church needs to be doing now, namely, preparing the way for the coming of Jesus. By preparing the way, I mean: calling people to repentance. It may seem simple and, perhaps, a wee bit out of sync with all the fancy things that churches are told they ought to be doing, but it seems to me that everyone needs to repent–including the church. In fact, the apostle Peter himself wrote: "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). Funny that Peter said this to the Church!
My point is, hopefully clearly, that there is always room for repentance and that perhaps this ought to form more our core message even today.
So there's that. John preached repentance. Jesus preached it. Paul preached it. Peter preached it. Clearly this is an important aspect of our preaching. But there's also another important part of our preaching that I want to explore in this short post. It has to do with the Kingdom.
For whatever reason, I can count on my one hand the number of sermons I have heard about the Kingdom in the local church. One sermon stands out because I was still in college at the time and didn't understand a single word the preacher preached. He preached from Matthew 13 and used Robert Farrar Capon's book The Parables of the Kingdom and its rather complicated (at the time for me) text to expound upon what Jesus was saying about the Kingdom. To this day I'm not sure I understand what the preacher said that Sunday or what Capon wrote in his book.
Scott McKnight has done a superior job teaching us about the Kingdom. His book Kingdom Conspiracy was a shockingly devastating book that nails it from the first page to the last. I took a lot from the book. Here's one thing McKnight wrote:
Kingdom mission flows from the kingdom story, and that story focuses on on God at work in history as God brings that history to its focal point in Jesus as King. That kingdom story, then, focuses on God as King through King Jesus. That story counters all other stories, especially stories that make humans kings and queens and thereby become stories of idolatry. […] This kingdom story tells the story of a kingdom; kingdom is a people, and that means kingdom mission is about forming the people of God. That is, the kingdom mission forms a kingdom people and that kingdom people in the present world is the church. This means kingdom mission is all about forming and enhancing local churches as expressions of the kingdom of God in this world. Which leads us back to a central reality of kingdom theology: there is no kingdom without a King. (123)
He says on the next page, which also happens to be the first page of chapter 8 "The King of the Kingdom", this: "Indeed, God is king, but God rules through his Son, the Messiah, the Lord, King Jesus." (125)
A little later he writes, "This ideal-king psalm [Psalm 72] leads to one of the most important observations about kings and kingdoms: kings determine what their kingdoms are like" (his emphasis, 128).
There is so much more I'd love to share, but this is a short post and you really should get your own copy of the book. But here's the point, from Mark 1:1: "The beginning of the Gospel about Jesus the Messiah." He then goes on to tell the story of Jesus: the things Jesus said, the things Jesus did, the places Jesus visited, the people Jesus interacted with, and the things Jesus preached. So, from the get go of Mark's Gospel, we, the readers, know that this is the Gospel (good news) about Jesus.
A few verses later, Mark tells us that John the baptist had been put in prison and that Jesus picked up where John left off. Mark wrote, "Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of God. 'The time has come,' he said, 'the Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the Gospel'" (Mark 1:14-15). Well this is certainly interesting isn't it? Mark says the Gospel is about Jesus, the Messiah. Then John prepared the way for this Gospel to be preached. Then Jesus came on the scene preaching this same Gospel. And Mark uses the same word in all three places: 1:1, 14, and 15 all contain the word 'gospel' (or, as some translations say, 'good news.')
What are we to make of this? Well, if I may put a very sharp point on this, I will say: Jesus went around preaching…himself. The good news, or Gospel, is Jesus. Jesus preached that the kingdom of God was 'near' (interestingly, after he started preaching) and that because of this proximity, we ought to…wait for it…repent and believe the gospel! This is remarkable, isn't it?
Now, I think about this. The content of the Gospel is Jesus (of course this is fleshed out for us in several places; 1 Corinthians 15 comes to mind). It's what Jesus preached–and somehow this good news about Jesus, this Gospel, is related to this Kingdom of God he also proclaimed as near. We need to think about how, in our pulpits, we are going to make this connection both central and clear. We need to be telling a different story from our pulpits. We need to be constructing a different mission in our churches. We need to be preaching a different kingdom in our congregations. We need to be assuring the church and the not-church that Jesus is king, has received all authority in heaven and earth, and will be returning to claim his rightful place as King of this world.
We need to talk about the good news that Jesus is King. That Jesus rules.
In short: we need to be talking an awfully, significantly, larger amount about Jesus. We need to talk about the things Jesus did: he did miracles, he showed compassion, he demonstrated God's mercy, he loved unconditionally. And we need to talk about these things not as mere object lessons for how we can live better lives, but for the sake of themselves, for the sake of Jesus. In other words, these are the things Jesus did that characterize the Kingdom he said was near! Are we talking about them in our churches? Why do they matter? Why did Jesus do them? What do they signify or point to? What do they tell us about Jesus?
We need to talk about the things Jesus said. What did he say about himself? What did he say about the Kingdom? What did he say about humanity's need for repentance? What did he say about God's wrath, God's love, God's mercy, God's church, and the way of life he called us to? Jesus said his life was defined by the cross and resurrection. He told us that our way of life will be defined by taking up our cross, denying ourselves, and following him. Well, what are we saying about this life? What did Jesus say about the kingdoms of this world? What did he say about the end of exile, forgiveness of sins, and return to the Land? And again: we ought to talk about these things as part of the meta-narrative they are embedded in and not as if they were merely ways to help us live a better Americanized version of Christianity. We tell of the things Jesus said because Jesus said them. They are his words to us! We ought to listen to what he said. And we ought to preach them.
What story are we telling in the church? The world has all sorts of narratives out there floating around and many people are falling for them hook, line, sinker, and bobber. What story are we telling? Are we merely telling the story of mere salvation? Is it a mere join the club kind of thing? Or is it something greater, grander, better, bigger, badder, more magnificent and spectacular, and grandiose–and I'll run out of adjectives before I can run out of talking about the peculiar beauty and power that is the Kingdom of God Jesus was telling us about in his story. It's sad when our politicians speak more about Jesus than the church does. Jesus didn't call us to spend a lot of our efforts preaching theology–as important as that is–but he did tell us to spend a lot of time talking about himself. Jesus is the Way. Jesus is the Life. Jesus is living water. Jesus is the bread of Life. Jesus is truth. Jesus is the Resurrection. Jesus is I Am. That's who and what we ought to preach.
I wonder: are we selling people short by not telling them this story? It's a better story, isn't it? I'm not content with the stories of this world. I want a better story. I'm willing to bet there are other folks who feel the exact same way. So let's tell them the story of Jesus–for the sake of Jesus and nothing else. When people come to the church, they should hear the story of Jesus–for the sake of Jesus. I think Jesus is far less concerned about us leading 'good' lives here in America than he is about his kingdom being proclaimed and the good news about himself being heralded from our pulpits.
So the question remains: What ought the church to be preaching? Now? I think the answer is simple: Jesus.
Nothing more. Nothing less.
Part 1 of 3: What the Church Needs to be Doing. Now.
Been thinking about church. I do that a lot for some reason. It's not like I have anything else to do with my time. (/sarcasm). The truth is, I'm fairly heavily involved with my local church through helping lead worship (singing, playing guitar, reading Scripture), teaching a Bible school class, and teaching at a small, local Bible College. I also do pulpit supply whenever I can, wherever I can. I wish every day was Sunday, sometimes.
I have a love/hate relationship with the church. I have spent my entire life married to the church. It has seen my best days (baptism, wedding) and my worst days (termination, heartbreak). I am almost 46 and the church has never not been a part of my life in some way, some shape, or other. So this post isn't about any church in particular, it's about the church in general. It's a short sermon sans a pulpit.
Here's the first of three things the church ought to consider when the church considers its appearance and mission to the world. All three will be drawn from Mark's Gospel, chapter 1.
First, preparing the way. The last thing faithful Israelites heard from the prophets before a what must have been a dreadfully long 400 year silence, was this: "I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me…I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes" (Malachi 3:1, 4:5). There's a lot more to Malachi's thoughts, but this is where Mark's Gospel begins. That is, he begins by telling his readers that this is what the prophet(s) said, and this is what happened, "And so John the baptist appeared in the wilderness" (Mark 1:4a).
I doubt seriously this is what people had in mind. Maybe they expected some flashbang or shock and awe. Maybe they thought about fire from heaven or miracles galore. Maybe they thought and end to the Roman occupation with a giant military coup. Yet there was John. Preaching a "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." So, it seems, what Mark is telling us is this: the way John prepared the way for the Lord's arrival, the way he prepared people for the appearance of the Lord in his temple, was this: Take personal inventory of your sin and repent. Imagine that such a task–preparing the way of the Lord–could be accomplished with such an unflashy medium. Preaching: repentance.
This is decidedly not how we prepare the way of the Lord in the church. Instead we draw them in with fidgets and gadgets and gimmicks. And all churches do it. To an extent, some churches even make repentance a gimmick. John did nothing fancy. He simply went out and preached that people needed to repent. Interestingly enough, when Jesus took up the mantle of gospeling after John was put in prison, he did the same thing: "The time has come. The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news" (Mark 1:15). John didn't even draw people in with supernatural power. He went as far away from them as he could in fact–the wilderness. He didn't hang out at all the swank places eating rich fair–he simply at locusts. He didn't look particularly fashionable–he wore scratchy camel hair and a belt. Yet people went to him. And listened. And were baptized by him.
Maybe there is something to what John was doing? Maybe the Lord knew what he was doing? Maybe we need to imitate John? Maybe part of our preaching objectives ought to be calling people to repentance from their sin?
How is it that such a simple message was able to prepare a generation of people for the arrival of the Lord in his temple? And why don't we do more of this in our churches? I mean, isn't the Lord going to return someday to claim his bride? Maybe the best message that the church can preach to the world and to the church is that they and we need to repent.
I've been thinking about it. There's a lot to do in the church in America, here in the last days. Maybe it is time for the church to stop pushing a gospel of America and to start preaching repentance again. It's just a thought. Maybe it is time for the church to abandon all the tricks and gimmicks and all the sermon series' about How a Good American Can Have a Happy Outlook on Life.
Maybe it's time for real power in our pulpits again.
I saw the other day in my Twitter feed where someone quoted a certain political candidate as saying if he is elected to the presidency Christians will have power in this country. Everyone knows that such statements are merely populist in nature, but if it has even a thread of truth in it, the church ought to be afraid. The church doesn't need power (and I'll demonstrate this in a future post). The church needs prophets. The power will come, but not from politicians. This is all another post. In the second post, I'll write about preaching the Kingdom.
Me and a friend have been working our way through some pretty good books. I'm just a little more ahead of him, but he is plowing his way through slowly and making some amazing discoveries in the works of Scott McKnight and NT Wright among others. We have both had our theological worlds shredded–and for the better!–but we always kept coming back to the same question: how does this 'reign of Jesus'/'kingdom of God'/'Jesus is King' stuff play out in every day church/christian life?
That is really the question any theology needs to answer, in my opinion. I think NT Wright is brilliant theologically and Scott McKnight is spot on when it comes to the Kingdom of God and the Gospel. But I think even they would admit that if their theology has no practical legs, it's not worth all that much when it comes to the church. This is why, in my opinion, their work is so refreshing: it has legs, and arms, and hands, and so much more. It's not just for the head or even the heart. It's for those who work. This is the problem I have found with my own tradition's theology for so long. It limits itself to a mere 'join the club' type of rhetoric. It appeals to the head, sometimes the heart, but rarely to the appendages. Too much it focuses on getting 'saved' without really understanding or knowing what that means.
This is where Michael Frost's book Surprise the World has picked up what was lacking in my own understanding and in a few short pages provided a shell to enhance the framework and platform built by McKnight and others. I am not saying McKnight or Wright are devoid of practicality, so don't misunderstand my point. Nor am I saying that Frost is devoid of the framework or platform. I simply haven't read enough of Frost to know at this point. In short: I like this book. A lot.
I like this book because Frost, who has heretofore been unknown to me, bridges the small gap that I think exists between a robust Kingdom theology and a robust 'here's how Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places' practicality. This is not to say that these other two are devoid of practicality. Not at all. It's just that in this book by Frost one is able to see the platform and the framework upon which he is constructing his ideas. His near constant use of the phrase 'God's reign and rule' to under gird these 5 habits is what captured and held my attention. Here is a christianity that is finally getting out of itself. This is no mere book about habits to make you a better you. This is a book about getting out of you and into Jesus–it's about bringing his rule and reign to bear on this world in meaningful, Kingdom driven, Christlike ways. It's about having a solid reason to be a missionary every day instead of the mere 'hey, it's time to get saved and join the club' kind of rhetoric that we typically hear from our pulpits.
He is focusing primarily on 'mission' in the book and the way we go about bringing God's reign and rule to bear on this earth. He writes, "Mission is not primarily concerned with church growth. It is primarily concerned with the reign and rule of the Triune God." (21) It is this idea that permeates the book and supports his ideas. I love it! "Mission is both the announcement and the demonstration of the reign of God through Christ" (21). He couldn't be more correct and in this I begin to make the connection between the 'drowning' and the 'breathing.' I will spare you my thoughts on missionary work, but suffice it to say that perhaps a new model is needed in some parts of the world.
The only part of the book that kind of bothers me is the habit of 'listening.' It's not that I think listening to the Holy Spirit is a bad idea. Far from it. But this idea of 'centering prayer'…I'm just not sure about because, frankly, it sounds weird. Prayer is prayer. I get that he clears up any confusion that it might be confused with Eastern meditation. That's good. But for all the emphasis he places on being in tune with Scripture and Jesus I found this chapter/habit to be lacking. Prayer is prayer. Silence is silence. I think it's quite OK to be quiet during prayer and let the Holy Spirit pray for us. 'Centering prayer', frankly, bothers me precisely because of the imagery that it brings to mind. I'm sure the Bible even talks about meditating day and night on the Scripture, but again I think this is something different from what Frost is suggesting. I'm willing to be wrong on this point, but right now I remain unconvinced. Maybe I'm bothered by calling it 'centering prayer.' Maybe not. I simply do not see, in the Scripture, and overwhelming call for Christians to engage in this sort of prayer life. That's my opinion.
The other habits, though, are spot on in my judgment: blessing, eating, learning, and being sent. I especially love the part of learning about Jesus. We simply do not do enough of this because we are too concerned about getting people to say a 'sinner's prayer' or getting them baptized or whatever. Let's slow down and learn from and of the Master.
I have minor quibbles with the way he interprets some Scripture. For example, is take on 1 Corinthians 11:23-28, is a bit strange, but it doesn't necessarily impede what he is saying. Sometimes his language is a bit awkward. For example, I don't know what it means to 'craft a blessing' (38) but I'm not willing to build a mountain of protest against it. I simply think that blessings are often more random and spontaneous than planned or 'crafted.' Other times, I found his writing to be quite breathtaking. For example, when talking about reconciliation between God and humans being at the heart of Christ's work on the cross, he draws the obvious conclusion that such reconciliation between warring people should be a core expression of God's reign and rule (87). To this I offer a hardy Amen. I suppose more Christians need to hear this–especially some who call themselves 'conservative' and yet go out of their way to wish death upon anyone who wants to see peace with those who practice Islam and upon those who practice Islam.
It is such 'conservative' Christians who have turned me off completely to the conservative movement in the church. We should pray for peace, pray for our enemies, and feed those who wish to bring us harm–as evidence that Jesus rules and reigns in our own lives too. We have a long way to go in our understanding of Jesus and the church if there is a single person among us who wishes death to another human being simply because they wish death upon us. Jesus did not call us to hate those who hate us, but to bless them. We do not promote the reign and rule of God through force or violence or aggression or through inflamed rhetoric, but only through a loving embrace, a hardy meal, and through the imitation of Jesus.
Jesus healed the blind, the lame, the lepers, and the deaf–and even raised the dead–as evidence of God's kingdom coming in glory. Therefore, it should be reasonable to suggest that wholeness, the healing of broken people, is primary evidence of that reign today. (92)
This is a short and yet remarkable book. I am always glad when the Lord brings to me a book like this and I am even happier when I can write a positive review to share with my friends. I highly recommend this book. To be sure, Frost is recommending that we make these five habits (BELLS) more than mere habits. "I want you to make a habit of them. I want you to inculcate these habits as a central rhythm of your life…Missional effectiveness grows exponentially the longer we embrace these habits and the deeper we go with them" (99). It's hard to disagree.
I want to say exercise caution, but I also want to say to live under His rule and reign with reckless abandon. The simplest acts of blessing and grace can be missionary work. This book helps the reader see that even in the seemingly small acts of blessing God works mightily. You do not need to be trained in preaching or missions to be a missionary. You need to be willing to be a blessing to all, feed anyone and everyone, pray with all kinds of prayers, learn about our Master, and get sent into the world.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase Surprise the World (Amazon, $4.99, paperback); (Tyndale, $4.99, paperback)
- Author: Michael Frost
- On the Web:
- On Twitter: Michael Frost
- Academic Webpage: Michael Frost
- Publisher: NavPress
- Pages: 125
- Year: 2015
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this book via the Tyndale Blog Network in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.
Read: Matthew 12; Exodus; 1 Kings 1-11
In his short little book simply titled Following Jesus, NT Wright waltzes through several New Testament books and explores their main themes and ideas. Among the books explored is the Gospel according to Matthew. Of Matthew he writes:
Matthew's whole gospel is, in fact, a Coronation Anthem. And the only sensible reason for going to church and hearing Matthew read is so that we can learn how to join in.
But who is being crowned King? Matthew gives him two names, and explains them both. He is to be called 'Jesus', which means 'YHWH saves'–because, says Matthew (1.21), he will save his people from their sins. That is, he will deliver his people from their exile, which was the punishment for their sin. He will be the King who will go down into exile with his people and lead them up and out the other side. And the real exile is not the Babylonian one. It is the satanic exile of sin and death.
The second name is 'Emmanuel', which means 'God with us' (1.23). Matthew has drawn together the two threads of Jewish expectation. First, God will save his people from their sins; yes, and he'll do it through the King, Jesus. Second, God himself will come and dwell with his people. Yes, says Matthew; he'll do that, too, through the King, Jesus. This book celebrates the coronation of the saviour, the God-with-us-King. (25)
Well, that's a wonderfully beautiful way of saying it. I've said it with several more words, to be sure, and so has Matthew. But Matthew is building his Gospel brick by brick (if I may change the metaphor) and will not be satisfied until he laws the final brick, the capstone to the entire edifice: the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. In the meantime there's a lot of ground to cover. This is where we meet chapter 12 of Matthew. And it is overwhelming.
One thought, governing two aspects of Israelite history, bookends this chapter and thus defines for us everything going on in the middle. First, in verse 6: "I tell you, something greater than the temple is here." This must have absolutely sent shock waves through the community. People just didn't talk about the temple that way, but Jesus did. I think perhaps he wanted them to keep the temple in perspective or maybe he wanted them to think about the temple in a new way–not so much as a place, but as a person in whom all that the temple offered was reserved and unleashed.
I suppose we are kind of that way with our own buildings now too. And the sad, sad reality is that in our modernish ways we tend to invest a lot more of our time and resources in our properties than we do in our people. And maybe Jesus was making a similar judgment about the people of that generation. The key is found in what he says: I desire mercy, not sacrifice. In other words, I care far more about people than I do about your rituals. They never escaped that trap. I wonder if the church of now will? Jesus said this. Jesus said that mercy is more important than ritual.
This is a message the church has yet to hear.
There's so much kingdom talk in this chapter. One thing that stands out is that now the agitation and aggression towards Jesus is heating up. Now the Pharisees are openly plotting to 'destroy' him. Now they are actively thinking that Jesus is a mere agent of the devil. Jesus keeps on going. He will continue to be a man of healing and hope. He will continue to be merciful to all who desire mercy. I guess Jesus' thinking is that the more people line up against him, the more merciful he will be. I mean seriously: how depraved does one have to be to plot against someone who heals another person? Yet that's what they did. Jesus heals, and he's in league with the devil. Jesus heals, and he's a threat to the power structures and must be destroyed. Jesus lets his people eat, and he's little more than the leader of a sinful band of degenerates.
No one says such things about the church. I suspect that's because we don't do these kinds of things that arouse the suspicions of others.
The chapter ends much as it began, in verse 42: "The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here." Solomon, man of wisdom and wives, was indeed a great king. He wasn't as great as his father, but he was special. Now Jesus says that even Solomon is eclipsed by Jesus.
Jesus is greater than the temple. He's greater than Solomon. He's greater than sacrifice; he's greater than wisdom. And he will keep pressing on doing good to people and preaching the kingdom of God.
You have to admire Jesus…even though 'admire' is a poorly chosen word. Something greater. And? This something greater says that what really matters is mercy. Jesus, the King, Emmanuel, the Son of Man, says that what matters for his disciples, for those who would follow is this: mercy.
NT Wright concludes his chapter on Matthew in Following Jesus with these words, "In the kingdom of the Son of Man, the power that counts is the power of love. It is the rule of Emmanuel, God-with-us." (31) Jesus says he is building a family of brothers, sisters, and mothers around himself. He is the center which holds us together and how does he hold us together? Mercy, love. And what is he saying to us? Be merciful. Love.
This is the something greater: the teaching, embodied in Jesus, that what matters here and now is mercy, not sacrifice.
Go and be merciful.
One day I was scrolling through my twitter feed and this person I follow posted a link to this book. The link said the book was free. I wrote to the person who posted it, never heard back, waited a few days and downloaded the free Kindle version of this book.
Turns out the book is only roughly 70 pages. Turns out the book is little more than a diatribe against Christians who choose to use instruments in worship services. Turns out this was not worth the 2 hours it took me to read it. So my review will be brief.
If you are a Christian and you have chosen to worship alongside Christians who use instruments in worship, this book is not for you. There is nothing in this book that will persuade you to believe the way the author does. He exegesis of certain passages of Scripture supposedly refuting the use of instruments in worship is specious at best an legalistic at worst. It's a fairly typical diatribe by an 'old school' member of the a capella church of Christ. He spouts the same line of reasoning those familiar with the debate have heard ad infinitum.
I try to read everything with an open mind and this book was no different. But really the subtitle of the book tells the reader all they need to know about the direction the book will go: Examining Excuses for Instrumental Music in Worship. Really. Use of the word 'excuses' tells the reader this is not a friendly book. And it's not. We who choose to use instruments do not need 'excuses.' We have chosen to worship God the way we have chosen and we will not be judged by anyone for doing so.
On the other hand, if you are a Christian and you have chosen to worship alongside Christians who prefer no musical instruments in worship, then this book might be for you. In truth, though, you will not likely find anything new in the book that you haven't already heard from those who espouse this point of view. You will likely agree, say a few 'amens', and give the book to your friends. But let's seriously stop with the absurd exegetical nonsense that these 'ideas' are found in the Scripture. It's a choice we are permitted to make, not a command (or, more likely, a lack of command) we are required to obey.
I might be inclined to acknowledge some of his points as valid if it weren't for the rather condescending and judgmental way that the points are made. To be sure, others far more astute than I have done the hard work of refuting the arguments put forth in the book, so I'm not going to bother. This is a book review, and my review is that this is not a very good book. Some of the arguments are fallacious, some of the exegesis is specious, and there are quite a number of typos. (If you want me to list them, please feel free to email me.)
What is really sad is that many of the leaders in the Churches of Christ (a capella) and Christian Churches have worked very hard in recent years to bridge these gaps. It is sad, to me, that the christians of this world continue to make the church of Jesus Messiah so unappealing to the world at large. It is sad that some are so bound to a form of legalism that they effectively cut off fellowship with others or judge them in error. I simply cannot imagine trying to live up to that standard of 'christianity.' Books like this go a long, long way towards opening wounds that should never be opened and causing grief and frustration for those who would seek Messiah.
And they go a long way towards preventing Christian fellowship among brothers and sisters which I am certain the devil delights in daily.
I cannot say anything positive about this book. It's simply not the kind of book that seeks to reconcile or bring healing to the church. It's the kind of book that seeks to perpetuate open wounds and create more. This is unfortunate. It might do to remind ourselves that every good and perfect gift comes from God. It might do well to remind ourselves that what really matters when it comes to Christianity is Jesus. It might do well to remind ourselves that perhaps the reason why the churches 'back then' didn't talk about musical instruments is that a) a lot of the instruments we use didn't exist and b) if they did the churches probably couldn't afford them and c) if they could afford them they were too busy spending money on widows, orphans, and the poor.
There are far greater things for the church to worry about right now than whether or not we use mechanical instruments in worship. It might be time to let this sacred cow die and get on with them. But I doubt there are enough people in the church to make this happen.
In case you don't want to open your book, here's Matthew 11. I have only a couple of thoughts today.
After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee. 2 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples 3 to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” 4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
7 As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. 9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written:
“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. 15 Whoever has ears, let them hear.
16 “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:
17 “‘We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not mourn.’
18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”
20 Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades.[e] For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”
25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.
27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
It's an old cliche by now, but what if the things Jesus said about himself are true? I say that in the sense that they are true but with the idea that, of course, there are people who do question these things and others who dismiss Jesus as out of his mind altogether. Nevertheless, the things he says in here are, on the surface, outrageous to most of our minds. In our pluralistic world, overrun by the notion that all religion is created equal, essentially worshiping the same god, and that all paths lead equally to the same eventual outcome, it is difficult to make the sort of statements that Jesus made and be taken seriously by anyone.
Look what he says about itself.
All things have been handed over to me by the Father. Well, back in the early chapters, the devil tried to do this. And at the end of the book, Jesus again says all authority is his. We like to claim authority for ourselves. Politicians are really good at it. We think we have the right to dictate the outcomes and the parameters of religious experience and what some generically call 'salvation.' But Jesus is saying that only he has the authority to make such claims. All is a fairly exclusive and limiting word in this context.
Then he says that no one knows the Father except the Son. And that it is the Son's prerogative to reveal the Father to anyone he chooses. Well, this sort of stamps on the feet of the crowd that wants to be nice to everyone and declare all religious experiences are equal opportunity stairways to the Father. I know it's the modern thing to do, you know, being nice to everyone about their peculiar religious expressions and experiences. Jesus is making some fairly stiff claims here about himself and about God. I can see how people might be offended.
He says some other things too about rest, and yokes, and labor, and burdens. He says some awkward things about John the Baptizer and some of the kings of earth ('reed shaken' being a reference to a Herod). He said some strange things about Sodom–things we would dare not say. He said some things about the fickle generation he was among–and none of us are so willing to call today's generations what they are: fickle and temperamental, mere infants, unrepentant. You see all these things Jesus is saying are not mean. They are honest evaluations of the sort of people he was ministering to.
He has words for kings. He has words for would be disciples. He has words for the current generation. He has words for the unrepentant cities–we won't dare pronounced such sweeping judgments on the cities of this earth, will we? He has words for those who have ears and will hear. And to all of these people he pronounces a beatitude: Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.
So as you read through this eleventh chapter, what do you think about Jesus? Are you offended? Are your ears attuned to his words? Are you ready to take up his burden or the burden of the world? Many folks, even many so-called Christians, are offended at the words of Jesus, his words of exclusivity. We don't want to offend or give offense or hurt someones feelings. But Jesus said these things, he invented them, and we can either accept them or reject. Being offended is a cop out.
Don't be the fickle crown, wavering back and forth between a dirge and a delight. Choose Jesus. That's all.
I know that the popular thing to do when getting free books in exchange for reviews is to write a wildly favorable review that causes readers to swoon and books sales to accelerate. Every time I write a review for one of these publishers, and the review happens to be negative, I sit on my hands to avoid biting my nails while I wait for their email informing me I'm no longer a member of the club. I have to be especially careful when writing reviews of books written by so-called celebrity pastors.
I didn't like this book. I'm not sorry about that. I found it very difficult to engage Smith's writing style and I don't think he's particularly funny. I found it very difficult to understand his use of Scripture (I mean, if you are going to put at the beginning of each chapter that we ought to read such and such a Scripture, the I think the author ought to deal with the entire passage of Scripture, in context.) And frankly, I am tired to death of the 40 day metaphor. It is time-worn, boring, and just a little ridiculous at this point in the history of Americanized Christianity.
Each chapter, as noted, has a reference to a passage of Scripture the reader is to read, a few pages of 'devotional' material, and some questions for reflection at the end of each chapter. There are, surprise, 40 chapters. There is nothing coherent about the selections of Scripture that author wants us to read. I'm not about to speculate as to why he chose them; it's a chicken and egg kind of thing: did he write the devotionals to fit the Scripture or choose the Scripture to fit the devotionals? I'm just not sure. But the problem with such a motley collection of Scripture is that they can be made to say anything we want and fit any context we want. This is the main problem with many of these types of books.
What I am anxious for is an author who has the nerve to write a devotional that travels through an entire book of the Bible and whose devotionals consistently hammer home the point the Scripture is hammering home. But that's not how devotionals are written; that's how commentaries are written. And we certainly wouldn't want anyone to mistake a private, 40 day devotional, for a hardy, stout commentary. I will continue to belabor this point in my book reviews because I am convinced it is a massive misuse of Scripture's intended purpose and that it does not strengthen the church but, in fact, weakens it. The Biblical authors wrote cohesive books that pointed to Jesus. Not short, pithy passages that helped us navigate through the trials of America.
At some point, someone has to listen.
Another significant problem I had is this. I'll grant you that Smith has 300 some thousand Twitter followers. That's great. That doesn't mean that any of us actually know him (I'm not one of them.) I'm not going to bother noting all the times a chapter began like this: "I…". A few will suffice to make the point:
- I have a reaction when dogs approach me. (4)
- I like Disney songs. (5)
- I'm glad I'm no longer single. (6)
- The other night I was up late. (12)
- I'm fairly certain, after intense biblical research, that math is from the devil. (17)
- When I was nineteen… (22)
- I recently discovered the glorious phenomenon known as emoji. (28)
And so on and so forth.
I'm a little concerned about someone whose only experience seems to be with himself. I'm a little more concerned with someone who feels that the rest of us need to know about it in order to have the Word of God make sense to us. I do not mean that in jest at all. A serious question: why would I, as a reader, want to know so much about Judah Smith, a preacher I will never talk to, never meet, and whose life as a celebrity pastor contradicts everything that seems to me to make sense about the Jesus we are called to follow? Why so much 'I'? Truth? It's a little arrogant to think I am that interested.
Finally, I'm a little concerned with the overall intent of the book which is stated on the first page of the introduction to the book: "I hope these devotional thoughts and Scripture readings inspire you to live the fullest, most complete life possible. That's what God wants for you, and I believe he will show you how to do that as you learn to focus on him" (vii). How does he know that this is what God wants for me? And where is the Scriptural justification for making such a statement? Is it in John's Gospel, chapter 10? And if that is true, wouldn't it be better time spent reading the Gospel instead of this book? It's a shallow idea, to be sure.
I hate to say it, but I simply did not enjoy the book. It may be helpful or a good read for someone, it wasn't for me. Everyone seems to have an idea about what we need as Christians, but very few are pointing us in the right direction. I'm not sure this book lives up to that standard either. I agree that God's love is at times illogical, but I also think that God's love is profoundly logical. It does make sense even if it doesn't make sense. Because, Jesus.
It would have made better sense if he had written 40 days of meditations about Jesus instead of 40 days of meditations about himself. Jesus helps me understand God's love; this book did not.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase Life is_____. Forty-Day Experience (Amazon, $12.13, paperback)
- Author: Judah Smith
- On the Web:
- On Twitter: Judah Smith
- Academic Webpage:
- Publisher: Thomas Nelson
- Pages: 232
- Year: 2015
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this book via the Thomas Nelson BookLook Bloggers book review program.
I was contacted by the author of the Smile & Succeed for Teens and asked if I would be willing to read and review the book on my blog. I agreed and several or a few days later I received a small packet in the mail from the author which included the book, a bookmark, a nice thank you card from the author, and a small promotional packet. It was all very nicely organized and put together. It made a good impression on me from the start.
I mention that I was contacted by the author because, frankly, this is not the sort of book I normally read and review. It's in a genre that I do not tend to gravitate towards, but I decided to go ahead and give it a whirl because a) I have teenage sons, b) who work in retain, and c) need to learn how to smile more.
It took only a day or so to read (it took me much longer to write the review, sadly) because it is not a particularly dense book. The book is illustrated nicely throughout which makes the reading speed along and provides some opportunities to learn a concept visually. I appreciated this and I think it will make the book a little more accessible to teen readers–the prospective and intended audience.
There are seven total chapters in the book dealing with topics related mostly to customer service and people skills. Key to the entire scheme is that people need to smile more and frequently. I remember hearing a lot of these ideas when I worked in retail. Such advice like smile when talking on the phone and making good eye contact are fairly standard protocols and not really unique. Nevertheless, for the beginner in any customer service related environment, these starter keys are going to be essential because they are simply things one mostly 'learns' through trial and error. Most training in the world of retail goes something like: here's what we do/sell, go out and do/sell it. Most training, at least in my retail experience, had little to do with how to actually carry yourself on the job. There was not a lot of emphasis, when I worked in retail (except when one fouled up and had to be corrected by 'the manager'), on the more personal side of customer service: patience, smiling, professionalism, etc. We were just always told 'the customer is always right' which is, to be sure, a crock of something but I suspect it was the best way our managers knew how to tell us to be nice to everyone even when they were so clearly wrong. It was also a way of saying, 'Neither your personal integrity matters nor that of the customer. Just find a way to get that dollar from their wallet into our cash register.'
This is probably why I do not work in retail. Be that as it may.
Other aspects of the book are fairly standard life skills regardless of whether you are working in retail or the sanitation department: be courteous, shake hands, look people in the eyes, say please and thank you, listen to people when they speak, and so on. These things are called common courtesy and I suspect that many of us–adults included–could stand a refresher course in these things. So, arming a teen with these helpful courtesies before we look at them and say 'Go get a job' might prove to make the world a happier place and retail a more pleasant experience for everyone–especially since our retail world is littered with teenagers working their first job.
I think this is a book that would be helpful to teenagers who are getting started in the world of employment but the really they are not the key. The key will be getting the word out to parents who might purchase this book for their child(ren) or employing people who work with teens to buy the book and give it to young people who would benefit from it. I should also point out, in case it hasn't figured out, this isn't just a book for teens or for kids who are working in the retail market. There is a lot in this book that will benefit humans in general. If this book gets into the hands of teens, I think the style and format will appeal to them because it's easy reading and the reading blocks are short. The print is a larger size which makes the pages go by rather quickly.
The book also contains 'Wired Tips' which are short, pithy attention grabbing truthy kind of sayings. There are a lot of bullet point lists which may appeal to those with short attention spans. There are also quotes from important people that usually have something to do with the content of the chapter. At the end of the book readers can find the notes from the book, a series of helpful service organizations that one may wish to be involved with on a volunteer basis, and a fairly substantial index (given the size of the book). The cover is appealing and eye catching and notes that the author has won some awards in his life. Finally, as mentioned above, the book is heavily illustrated which will appeal to those who, again, have different learning styles or short attention spans.
I'll be passing my reader's copy along to my own sons simply because I am hopeful they will start smiling more and perhaps find some helpful information they can use for their daily walk. I recommend the book. There's nothing inherently deep or earth shattering about the information contained inside. The author has done a fine job of putting his experience into a practical, hands-on, common sense way of dealing with people in virtually any walk of life. We all need to know how to smile more often and how to be courteous to other people.
PS-This book may also appeal to special education teachers who are working with students who are so-called 'higher functioning.' Teaching students who will be eligible to work among the general population to practice these common courtesies may prove worthy of our time especially since, in my experience, many such students start out working in general retail settings.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase Smile & Succeed for Teens (Amazon $9.95, paperback)
- Author: Kirt Manecke
- On the Web: Smile the Book
- On Twitter:
- Academic Webpage:
- Publisher: Solid Press, LLC
- Pages: 131
- Year: 2014
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this book by the author in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.