Archive for the ‘Bible’ Category
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 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 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.
Eugene Peterson wrote, in his book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, "Jesus' imagery, to be followed soon by his sacrifice, is totally counter to our culture of more, more. Could Jesus have made it any clearer? We don't become more, we become less. Instead of grasping more tightly to whatever we value, we let it all go: 'He who loses his life will save it.' 'Blessed are the poor in spirit' is another way Jesus said it." (102)
This tenth chapter of Matthew continues to expound upon this cost of following Jesus that Jesus began outlining in the 5th chapter. I'm not convinced that in the church here in America we give sufficient though to what it means to follow Jesus. I really don't. Often times, it's a matter of being baptized or catechized or initiated–the church is like another club we join with a set schedule and dues. That's not what the church is nor is it what Jesus said it would be like.
Even now, here in America, we are beginning to feel the crunch of a lot of things. A lot of the things we are feeling are trickling down and having an impact on the church. Jesus called it! Jesus said that discipleship is not a walk in the park or a trip to Wal-Mart. Let's be honest: the church in America hasn't had it rough. At all. It's not persecution when people call you names or when they disagree with you over evolution or climate change. Let's be frank, can we? We have it made as Christians here in America.
But maybe we are starting to feel the tables turn a little. Maybe the economic woes have affected Christians and churches? Maybe the constant threat of terrorism affects us too. Maybe job insecurity is another factor? But you know what? None of this is persecution of the church. None of this is persecution of Christians.
Jesus did speak to his disciples, the original twelve, and gave them a hint of what it might be like to belong to him, to follow him, and to be with him. I'm not sure how far we want to apply these things to our lives as Jesus followers here in America or even in this 21st century. Maybe the things Jesus said in the tenth chapter of Matthew were only intended for those original twelve? Whatever the case may be, Jesus sent them out, gave them clear instructions, and give them a clear indication of what they were going to face along the way.
He promises they will be provided for. Sounds fair enough. It may not always be a piece of pie with whip cream, but they will get along. It sounds boring and wrong for an American to say this, but I wonder how many American Christians would still be Christians if 'getting along' were the sum total of their daily existence? Our motto is typically something like, 'We need to get ahead.' Jesus said in the sixth chapter, pray for daily; pursue the path of righteousness; don't worry about what you need for each day. Our problem in America is often that we think material blessings are blessings. To an extent, we are 'persecuted' with too much. Ask yourself, can you be a faithful Christian if Jesus asks you to simply 'get along' each day with what he provides?
He promises there will be persecution. Yep. Sheep among wolves, serpents among the innocent and all that. Devious children who will kill you for a quarter. Immoral judges. Constantly on the run to this place or that place. We are told we will be no better than Jesus. Ask yourself, are you better than Jesus? Do you suffer with the righteous? Do you pursue justice? Have you been called the satan yet? Has something you have done been called the work of the devil? Can you be a faithful Christian if Jesus asks you to suffer for righteousness? If we are the sort of people who think that we will escape all this, ask yourself this: when secular America finally collapses under the weight of its own hubris and immorality, do you think that the church will be spared? Judgment begins with the house of the Lord. Are you prepared to be faithful?
He promises an opportunity for testimony and proclamation. I suspect, however, that we may not very much like the opportunities provided for us. Where will you be when Jesus asks you to testify? Where will you be when he asks you to acknowledge him before men? Where will your heart be when the time comes to confess with your mouth what you claim to believe in your heart? Are you prepared not just to confess some random, generic God but specifically the Jesus who makes exclusive and divine claims to being the only way to life? It's a tall order. You may have to reject your family. You may have to reject your children. You may lose your children or parents or siblings because of it. Are you prepared?
Are you prepared to take up your cross?
Are you prepared to lose your life?
The upside down culture of the Kingdom of God–the very one that Jesus told them to proclaim: 'And proclaim as you go, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand' (7)–is about such things as losing to gain; dying to live; starving to eat; being poor to be rich; being called the devil in order to oppose him; revealing the hidden and hiding the revealed; giving away your last cup of water in order to receive a reward you cannot hold; proclaiming not peace, but war? Are you prepared to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons? Are you prepared to live hand to mouth? Are you prepared to be uncomfortable? Are you prepared to beg for a place to lay your head or a mouthful of food? Maybe Jesus didn't mean we would do all this, but where does it say he didn't? The upside down nature of this kingdom is this: what the world values, Jesus does not. And yet everything matters–even our hair.
I cannot help what is written. I can only talk about what is there. And what is there in the tenth chapter of Matthew is scary stuff. Just ask yourself: Is this what you signed up for? Or were you hoping to skate by? Are you prepared to die in order to live? It's upside down. I know. But there it is.
Where are you?
Let. Life. Go.
The eight chapter of Matthew, close on the heels of the Sermon on the Mount, is a spectacular introduction to the Jesus we follow. What is probably most amazing is the variety of people that Jesus meets along the way after he came down from teaching.
This is probably significant. It probably means something amazing that Jesus said all that he said about what his followers look like (in chapters 5-7) and then goes on to demonstrate those things in his own life in the chapters that follow. What is compelling about this eight chapter is that Jesus makes it plain that his work, the work we see on display in chapter 8, is a matter of the kingdom. Look what he says: "I tell you, many will come from the east and the west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven." This is encouraging as the context indicates Jesus was about the business of healing the servant of a Roman Centurion.
So, then, look at the sort of things that happen in chapter 8.
The first thing that is different about this Kingdom is that Jesus touches people; lepers to be precise. It's an unheard of thing. This is one sort of person Jesus stretches out his hand to touch. And when he does, Jesus doesn't become unclean. Who are the 'unclean' people in our culture that Jesus would likely reach out and touch? Go, then, be his hands.
Next, notice that this kingdom also has room for the oppressors among us. Roman Centurions were probably not well known for their likability. They worked for the enemy, the oppressor, the hated Romans. Yet Jesus says this enemy as more of a shot at the feast of Abraham than does some who are natural born sons of the kingdom. That's a strange thought, isn't it? It makes me wonder who the enemies are in our culture. Can you identify them? If you can, go and be Jesus' welcoming committee.
Then go on in the story….Jesus also touched his mother-in-law's hand and healed her…he healed those oppressed by demons–a large population among our own culture I am sure. Notice Jesus: he heals by touch, he heals from a distance, he heals by a word…he heals anyone who asks and everyone who comes to him with a need. He carries our sickness and weakness–he sort of takes it into himself and in himself disease has no triumph. But he also makes something else clear to his would-be disciples: this is no easy row to hoe.
Discipleship, as explained in chapters 5-7, has a cost. Here in chapter 8 he lays out some of that cost.
You have to be prepared to live on the run. There's no settling down. There's no staying put. If you are going to follow Jesus, be prepared to live like Jesus.
You have to be prepared to prioritize like Jesus. Jesus said we have to think about what matters and there may simply be times when the priorities of this life are no longer priorities. We have to discern what matters most when we follow Jesus. It's hard. I know it is, but Jesus doesn't seem to mince words.
And finally….we need to seriously consider who he is and 'what sort of man' he is. Who is this that even the winds and the waves obey? Are we prepared to follow a man who touches lepers? Are we prepared to follow a man who heals the enemy? Are we prepared to follow a man who takes our disease into himself? Are we prepared to follow a man who has no place to rest and who tells us that the dead will bury their own? Are we prepared to follow a man who can calm winds and waves?
We need to ask that: are we prepared to follow a man who calms winds and waves? The same man who orders disease to leave and sickness to vanish is the same man who commands the winds and waves.
And the last story….are we prepared to follow a man who sacrifices an entire community's economy for the sake of two men who were held captive by demons? Evidently the people of the Gadarenes did not: they begged Jesus to leave them. At least they were honest. They were not yet ready to follow a man who did all this sort of stuff.
Are we? This is the Jesus we follow and this is what marks his kingdom. Are we prepared to follow that kind of King? Are we prepared to touch and talk to and meet the sort of people Jesus did?
If not, then maybe we are not quite ready to follow him just yet.
Read: Matthew 7; Revelation 7; Genesis 12; Ephesians
I had a short, interesting 'conversation' with someone on Twitter tonight. I'd like to tell you he was a thoughtful fellow, but after one exchange he unfollowed me. Luckily for me, the conversation was picked up by another person who thoughtfully engaged me for more than a few tweets and we became sort of friends.
The original tweet, written by a self-described 'author and campus pastor' (whatever that means) went like this: "Proximity breeds compassion. If u don't understand people of a different skin color ask yourself if your friends and church are all the same." Well, I took exception to this tweet because it's based on a profoundly ignorant and unnecessary premise that a person's lack of understanding is necessarily due to a person's associations or, put more negatively, if a person has all the same color friends at play or at church then one probably doesn't understand people whose skin color is different. Ugh. I'm not sure a person can possibly be more ignorant about race relations than this person.
And what's worse is his follow up to my response. He wrote: You're going to be miserable in heaven. Look around: you live in a multiethnic world. My point was ways to understand others.
Clearly. Maybe instead of approaching things negatively he should have said: If you don't understand people of a different skin color go hang out with some of them. But instead, he chose judgment which is not very Jesus-like.
So, because I don't spend my evenings and weekends with people whose skin color is different from mine, I'm going to be bored in heaven. Even though Jesus will be there and I'll be fellowship with people of all sorts of backgrounds…I'll be 'miserable.' Somehow I doubt it.
Anyhow…what about 'race' relationships? I wonder if the best way to forge relationships, compassion, and understanding is to force a relationship where one does not exist? I wonder if that's what Jesus had in mind when he created the multi-ethnic church of Israelites and Gentiles, men and women, black and white, and so on and so forth? Or maybe the people Jesus wants me to understand are the people that I happen across each and every day of my life? I'm thinking of the little children in my classroom–disabled children, black, white, male, and female. Or maybe he was thinking of the white folks my wife and I ran into at a restaurant this evening? Or maybe it was the black men I used to work with many years ago in a small shop? Or maybe it was the black women I went to graduate school with? Or maybe it was the African man that I hosted in my house for dinner and conversation about 2 months ago? Or maybe it was math teacher who happened to be from Iran?
You see my point is this: I don't think Jesus requires us to force anything as far a relationships are concerned. Why would he? He was fairly consistent about his commands for us: Love people. Love people whoever they are, wherever they are, and whatever skin color they are. Love people. If you don't understand people of a different skin color, don't ask questions, love them. Go and love them. Or, better, whenever 'they' happen across your path, love them. If 'they' are laying in a ditch, love them. If 'they' ask for your cloak, give them your tunic as well. The point is that the Christian is defined by his/her love for other people–and it makes no difference who that person is.
If you have to force something, you really need to ask if it is love. If it isn't love, you really need to ask yourself if you are of Messiah.
And this works both ways, my friends because guess what? In all likelihood my pasty white Ohio winter skin is different from your skin color too.
Really it's that simple. Or, here in the seventh chapter of Matthew he says it this way: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This sums up the Law and the Prophets.
Do you see that? Do you hear it? Jesus is saying something like this: Along life's way you are going to come across a lot of people. They might be black; they might be white. They might be an Israelite; they might be a Samaritan. They might be purple; they might be pink. They might be a man; they might be a woman. But it doesn't matter who you come across if you belong to Jesus, treat all people with the dignity and love you hope to be treated with by others. Jesus isn't saying we have to go out of our way to force relationships because what he is saying is that if you are a Kingdom person you won't have to force relationships. You won't have to because you will already be in a relationship built upon a foundation of love. Relationships will happen naturally and easily. We can simply move from place to place, from person to person, without fear or awkwardness, loving them all as Jesus calls us to do.
So here's a final point. I don't think Jesus is saying we have to go crazy in this life trying to understand every single person and every single ethnic identity. In some cases, this will be virtually impossible. On the other hand, what he is saying is this: don't do the world like the satan, don't do the world like Herod, but instead go and be kingdom people. When you are a kingdom person your life will be markedly different and people will notice as much without you having to actually announce it. So go! Be my disciples and be marked by your pursuit of the kingdom of righteousness, be marked by your love for your enemies, be marked by your willingness to do more than is asked of you, be marked your prayers for those who persecute you, be marked by your inconspicuous love for others, and be marked by being willing to do for others (love) what you would have them do for you (love).
Do you see? Jesus called us to be different and when we are different…things will be different. We will love people without them having to call attention to their skin color and without us having to announce that we love them. A few months back, a man from Liberia, Africa came to my house. He sat at my table. I served him a bodacious Mexican cuisine that my wife and I prepared. Afterwards he sat in my living room and I served him a cup of hot tea. We talked about Liberia. We talked about his work. We talked about Jesus. When it was done, we prayed together.
We were like old friends who were meeting again for the first time–two friends who had no past, but certainly shared a future. He loved me and accepted my hospitality. I loved him and shared with him whatever he asked for. But you know what? It makes no difference because at the end of the day, he didn't eat with a white man from the USA and I didn't eat with a black man from Liberia. Two disciples of Jesus sat, ate, shared, enjoyed fellowship, and loved each other. And that was enough. I'm certain that in heaven, I won't be miserable because it will be just like that day: unforced, unrehearsed, pure love in Messiah.
Read: Matthew 3; Psalm 2; Isaiah 42; Genesis 22; 1 Peter 1:1-12
It is quite impossible for me to overstate how important it is for us to see the big picture in the Bible. We are so accustomed to reading the Bible to find either how to be saved (in some way that we usually get to retain our American identity and be Christians) or as a great search for how to live a successful happy life.
But the big picture is not limited to a few verses here or there that tell us some magical formula for how to join the 'safe and happy' club. Scott McKnight sums up brilliant the point: "The messianic, lordly, and kingly confession of Jesus is not incidental to the Bible. It is the point of the Bible, and the gospel is the good news that Jesus is that Messiah, that Lord, and that King." (The King Jesus Gospel, 141).
This 'big picture', though, is, again, not confined to the New Testament. It is the message that was heralded for years in the Old Testament. Listen to Peter's words: "Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicated when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories" (1 Peter 1:10-11). The OT prophets were struggling to understand Jesus, to point to Jesus, to announce the coming kingdom which was in Jesus. Periodically we get glimpses, glimmers. Only in the New Testament do we get the full taste.
There's an old saying that floats around the church and goes like this: The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed; the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed. It's kind of corny, but it is no less true: the Old Testament was telling its way to the New Testament. Matthew says from Abraham to David to Jesus and all points in between (Matthew 1). Matthew 3 points out for us an even greater connection because he says that the prophets also pointed to John as 'the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.' John was heralding the announcement that what the prophets had been pointing to was now beginning to happen.
The Kingdom was coming, the King had arrived, it was time. And there was only one direction he was pointing: Jesus.
I'm sure when Isaiah said that he was talking about YHWH, but now here is the New Testament saying that John announced Jesus. And when John announced a Kingdom that was coming, he was also point to Jesus. Whatever else might be said, our eyes are being trained here to look away from Herod (chapter 2), to look away from John (3:11-12), to look away from a certain ancestral connection (3:7-10), and to look directly to Jesus. Of Jesus, the voice from heaven said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." This, interestingly enough, is the same sort of language used in Psalm 2, a royal Psalm, when a King was ascending to the throne.
John cuts through it all too when he announces Jesus. John announces a Kingdom and points to Jesus. John baptized with water, but pointed to the greater baptism of the Holy Spirit which would be brought about by Jesus. John called people to repent, but pointed to Jesus as the final arbiter of righteousness. John was a voice in the wilderness who prepared the way, but deferred to a greater voice from heaven that announced Jesus as the Son. John came as a messenger, Jesus came as Messiah.
Advent is a time to think about this arrival. John announced a lot to the people:
1. The coming wrath (v 7)
2. The coming kingdom (v 2)
3. The coming Lord (v 3)
4. The coming Spirit (v 11)
5. The coming King (v 17)
We too are heralds. We too have an announcement to make to people about this King, and this Kingdom. We too have something to say about the Holy Spirit. We too have something to say about the coming of the Lord to visit this planet. Now as we prepare through Advent for this announcement at Christmas time, we pause to allow the Lord to teach us words to say. We are mere 'voices.' We are no more worthy to untie Jesus sandals than John was. Yet we have a message to proclaim. We may not always know exactly when to say it; we may be in a wilderness too. All John knew was that he was a voice pointing not to baptism, ancestry, or his own good looks. John's message was Jesus.
The message is simple and complex, but the essence of it is what I wrote above, what is concealed in the Old Testament, and what is revealed in the New Testament: The King has come, the Kingdom is here, the Spirit is available, the Lord has visited us, and only in Him will we avoid the wrath.
During Advent we allow the Spirit to prepare our hearts to receive the one who visited us all over again and we prepare for his soon arrival again, here, among us. We will not miss him when he arrives and we hope others will not either. So herald his coming! Announce his arrival! Prepare the way of the Lord!
John's message was Jesus, should ours be anything less?
Read: Matthew 2; Psalm 2; Revelation 12; Genesis 12
I thought a little more about that genealogy from Matthew chapter 1: "The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham." So, in some way, Jesus is related to David and Abraham. OK. And the Lord made promises to Abraham ("I will bless all nations through you") and to David ("Your offspring shall forever sit on the throne of Israel"). Now Matthew tells us these promises are somehow fulfilled in the birth of Jesus, the Messiah. So I'm thinking…hear me out…maybe the promise to Abraham originally was that God would bless the world through a king, a ruler. Maybe all along the plan was that God would be king of not only Israel, but of the nations.
Later Jesus says that 'all authority on heaven and earth has been given to me.' Why would he say such a thing? What could such a thing even mean? Well, I think it's fairly clear what he means: I am the King. Now, keep that in mind and let's see Matthew 2.
What is amazing about chapter 2 of Matthew is the mention of Herod: "Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.'" Well, this is all very, very tantalizing isn't it? But it doesn't stop there because Matthew goes on to give us a fairly good description of just who this Herod was.
Ten different times Herod is mentioned in this chapter and we are not given a glowing report. He was 'troubled' by this report that another king had been born and that people wanted to worship him. He summoned the wise men secretly and questioned them–intrigue (see Daniel 11). He was so dangerous that the wise men had to be supernaturally warned (12)! We are told that he wanted to 'search for the child, to destroy him' (13). He becomes furious that he was duped (16) and ordered that all babies 2 years old and under be slaughtered. And, finally, we learn that he died (15, 19) and that his offspring, Archelaus, evidently worse than his father, was ruling.
Here's my point. From his very birth, Jesus was in conflict with the kings of the earth. Why? "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?" Right there is your answer. There was conflict because Herod saw that he had a rival for the hearts and affections of the people of Israel. Herod, like Belshazzar in Daniel 5, saw the writing on the wall. The question the chapter is opening up for us is this: Who is the rightful king of Israel? Who is rightfully the heir of David, the son of Abraham (1:1)?
All we learn about Herod in Matthew 2 is that he was a fearful man, paranoid, secretive, prone to anger, violence, murder, that he died, and left offspring to rule who was, evidently, worse than Herod himself. That's what Matthew tells us about him. Herod was so fearful and unworthy of his position that he murdered innocent children. He did not rule in love, but by fear.
Then Matthew goes on to give us 26 more chapters concerning Jesus–the one we were told in chapter 1 is the rightful heir to the throne of Israel. I don't think this means Jesus is necessarily opposed to earthly kings or rulers. And I don't think those rulers who rule with justice and righteousness need to worry much either. But there is a conflict because Herod rules this way: the sword, fear, aggression, violence. Jesus rules another way: by dying. Jesus is the one who would later say to his disciples, "Put your sword back in its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Matthew 26:52). Jesus would surrender to violence at the appropriate time, but not until then (see Revelation 12). Jesus would demonstrate his rightful kingship by surrendering to the violence of Pilate, Herod, and others and eventually overcoming it in his Resurrection.
Jesus stands in marked contrast to the kings of this earth because on the mountain in Matthew 28 he said, 'All authority has been given to me.' All. "The point is that now, with Jesus's death and resurrection, the rule of the king of the Jews has been established over the nations, as in Isaiah 11 and Psalms 2, 72, and 89. His followers are to go and put that rule into effect" (NT Wright, How God Became King, 115). Yep.
So what? Well, here's the thing: Jesus is either king of the entire world or someone else is, but if Jesus is king then no one else can be. Herod tried to cling to that title, but he didn't understand that his rule was derivative. That is, like Pilate, he had no authority except that which was granted him by God (John 18-19). The kings of this world do not recognize this either in our day. They just don't. They think the world is their plaything and that they can do as they like, when they like, with whomever they like. Humans are stupid like that. Jesus' point is very simply this: the kings of the world did their worst to him, they tried from a very early age to kill him and end his rule before it began, but Jesus undid them. He exposed them for what they are. He triumphed over them at the cross and the Resurrection.
We have one king. It is not a president. It is not a prime minister. It is not a high priest or a pope. It is Jesus. He rules because he lives. Kings will come in conflict with him and they will lose because at the end of the day all authority belongs to Jesus. And no one else.
So what? The question is: Who is the rightful king of Israel, and consequently, the World? And: To whom have you given your allegiance: Jesus or or someone else?
There's only one king.
In his book Simply Jesus, professor Tom Wright lays out for his readers his case that the Bible is, ultimately, a book about Jesus.
“So if, as the Jewish people believed, they were the key element in God’s global rescue operation, it was doubly frustrating, doubly puzzling, and doubly challenging that the Jews’ own national life had itself been in such a mess for so long. By the time Jesus went about Galilee telling people that God was now in charge, it was close to six hundred years since Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians, the greatest superpower of the time. And though many of the Jews had come back from exile in Babylon and had even rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, they knew things weren’t right yet. One pagan nation after another took charge, ruling the Middle East in its own way.”
In particular, the Jewish people believe that the Temple was where their God was supposed to live. The Temple was the place on earth where ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ actually met. They saw ‘heaven’ as God’s space and ‘earth’ as our space, the created order as we know it, and they believed that the Temple was the one spot on earth where the two overlapped. But the Temple seemed empty. God hadn’t come back.
So where did the hope come from? How on earth do you sustain hope over more than half a millennium, while you’re watching one regime after another come and go, some promising better things, but all letting you down in the end? How can you go on believing, from generation to generation, that one day God will come and take charge?
Answer: you tell the story, you sing the songs, and you keep celebrating God’s victory, even though it keeps on not happening….This is the story of the Exodus…This is the story Jesus’s hearers would have remembered when they heard him talking about God taking charge at last….When he was talking about God taking charge, he was talking about a new Exodus. (NT Wright, Simply Jesus, chapter 6)
He makes similar, and yet somewhat concluding comments, in another book How God Became King:
That is to say, when Jesus died on the cross he was winning the victory over ‘the rulers and authorities’ who have carved up this world in their own violent and destructive way. The establishment of God’s kingdom means the dethroning of the world’s kingdoms, not in order to replace them with another one of basically the same sort (one that makes its way through superior force of arms), but in order to replace it with one whose power is the power of the servant and whose strength is in the strength of love.
…Jesus, after all, has come to Jerusalem and found the Temple no longer the place where heaven and earth do business, but the place where mammon and violence are reigning unchecked, colluding with Caesar’s rule. Jesus himself, the evangelists are saying, is now the place where heaven and earth come together, and the events in which this happens supremely is the crucifixion itself. The cross is to be the victory of the ‘son of man,’ the Messiah, over the monsters; the victory of God’s kingdom over the world’s kingdoms; the victory of God himself over all the powers, human and suprahuman, that have all usurped God’s rule over the world. Theocracy, genuine Israel-style theocracy, will occur only when the other ‘lords’ have been overthrown.—205-206
So we live in a world much like the world of the Israelites: Fractured, chaotic, rising powers and falling powers, messiah’s everywhere, promises for luxury, means to ends, terrorists, power, influence, intrigue, Hollywood, and celebrity. There’s also the constant bombardment of sin and the war against the flesh.
The church often does its best to imitate and mirror the world and so we do silly things like publicly declare our political affinities on Facebook and Twitter. And we rant (self?) righteously about the influx of Syrian refugees because clearly Jesus told us to be more careful about our own safety than about who we love. And we are, of course, concerned about salvation—our own, to be sure.
This is the world. And this is the church. We keep trying to wrangle power unto ourselves or sell ourselves to the ones we think offer us the best chance of being safe or whom we think we will share their power with us so we can continue to be the church and American. We do this because for some strange reason we have allowed ourselves to think that being an American is more important than being a Jesus follower. We think loving the right people is more important than loving all people. We think as long as I am blessed I can be thankful. We, even the church, keep pointing to the American Dream and American Government as the solution to the world’s woes.
The Bible steadfastly points to Jesus, the Messiah, the Lord, the King as the solution. It’s not without significance that while the world points to everything but Jesus as the fix to what ails us, Jesus continually said: I. Am. The way.
And for the apostles, writes Scot McKnight, “it was all about King Jesus.”
So, Thanksgiving. This is what I was asked to speak about today because we are approaching that time of the year when we make a point to be thankful. It is that time when we, Americans, gather together with family and friends and enjoy the fruit of our labor and the company of our people.
It’s also the time when we will forget about what really makes us human because we will spend some time the day after Thanksgiving being thankful for nothing except that which is green and or plastic.
But I digress. I want this sermon to be uplifting to you and I’d like to answer a specific question: for what can we, the church, be thankful? Or maybe I should phrase it this way: What can I say to you this morning that will sustain your hope and enable you to give thanksgiving in the midst of all that we see in our world—all the violence, hate, death perpetuated as it is by the leaders of this world.
If you pay any attention to things at all then you know full well that the world is not quite happy right now. There’s a lot of grumbling and complaining and fighting and war and terror and politics and disease and confusion and tumult and chaos. Everybody is fighting something or someone somewhere. It’s all very disheartening.
Everyone is seeking power.
I see nation rising up against nation. I see brothers rising up against sisters. I see children rebelling against their parents. I see Republican Americans rising up against Democrat Americans. I see one Christian denomination rising up against another Christian denomination. It’s all very disheartening.
It’s all very stupid. Especially when the church imitates it.
This book, Agents of Babylon, contains thirteen different chapters, an epilogue, an appendix, and a couple of other book sections. Each chapter is divided into roughly two sections. In the first section, Jeremiah offers his readers a 'fictional narrative about the subject of the chapter' (x) and in the second section he gives his readers an 'exposition of the Scripture behind the [fictional narrative].' It's a unique approach to a book written about the Bible and one that I did not fully appreciate. I read only the first three chapters of the 'fictional narrative' before skipping each subsequent one and going straight for the 'scripture behind' it. In short, I didn't appreciate the fictional narratives. I think they added too much to the narrative of Daniel, speculated entirely too much, and, to a certain degree, detracted from the narrative of the Book of Daniel.
The Book of Daniel does not need a fictional narrative to help explain its point, to make its point, or to point to its point. Then again, perhaps as justification for writing another book on Daniel this fictional narrative was necessary. I think it could have been eliminated and the book cut from nearly 400 pages, down to about 250 and the substance could have been deeper and better. As it is, however, the fictional narrative is, frankly, out of place. I didn't appreciate it at any level.
With that said, I'm a little uncertain my take on this book. On the one hand, Jeremiah starts out exactly where I would have started: "Daniel 1:2 introduces us to the theme of the entire book: the sovereignty of God" (13). I think this is dead on and correct and throughout the book he touches upon this very point and, at times, does so well for example, "May we live lives of astonishment over how God has broken into human history for our benefit–to give us a future and a hope that is absolutely certain" (219). On the other hand, the book delves into the nether regions of millenial, Antichrist, and physical Israel theology that does nothing to inspire hope or courage and everything to drain me of vitality and strength. It's my opinion that the theological perspective under-girding the majority of this book is misguided and as much fictional as the Fictional Narratives. An example should suffice to make my point.
In chapter 10, The Herald, Jeremiah quotes from Clarence Larkin (1850-1924). Here's the quote:
Daniel's seventieth week (Daniel 9:24-27), Jesus' Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24), and John's seals, trumpets, and vials (Revelation 6:1-18:24) cover the same period, and are Jewish and have no reference to the Christian Church. (257)
I simply cannot comprehend how a respected preacher can quote something so unbelievably wrong with a straight face. But this is the kind of result one gets when a theological system is the lens through which one reads the Bible. There is so much emphasis on the trees in this book that, despite the good beginnings, the forest missed almost entirely. How one can account for saying that three lengthy, significant portions of the Holy Writ have no bearing on the church is stunning. I suppose we may as well excise those portions from our Bibles and throw them away. But here's the point: in order for Millenial theology to work, that is exactly what one must do to Scripture. I don't think I'm the only one who sees the significant problem this creates.
Here's another problem I had with the book. I took a fairly long look at the the Notes section of the book. Considering the type of book this is, and who it is intended for, the notes are fairly detailed and I appreciate that very much. But I also take a look at who is being noted, what works are being quoted, and when the works quoted were written. Aside from Jermiah's own works and a couple of other non-specific titles, the works the author cites as authorities on the Book of Daniel range from Calvin's 1853 commentary to Stortz's 2004 Preaching the Word contribution. Along the way there are citations from 1879 (Seiss), Larkin (1929), Keil (1877), Scofield (1945), Anderson (1909), and others. This is 2015. Are we as readers really supposed to take seriously a book whose author has, apparently, not read anything on Daniel since a 2004 publication whose overall Amazon rank is over 800,000? These other men were great. Sure. Their books are classic and probably somewhat important. Yet there are countless works available from reputable scholars in the last ten years that Jeremiah has, apparently, not even bothered to investigate. This was disappointing. (As also was the absence of a bibliography which a work of this sort should have.)
I appreciated that Jeremiah was not afraid to keep this book in its historical context. There is a great deal of emphasis placed on this book as prophecy and I think that is important given how many writers and scholars write off Daniel as pseudo-prophecy (ex eventu). I appreciated that he didn't skimp when it came to his exegesis of the individual chapters of Daniel but that he took the time to explain concepts and other difficult to understand aspects of the book. I didn't always agree with his conclusions, but I appreciated that he took the time to do the work nonetheless.
There are some helpful charts, graphs, and illustrations that add flavor to the book and help the reader visualize a concept from Daniel. I also appreciated that at the end of each chapter Jeremiah added a brief 'Daniel for Today' section to help the reader make some relevant applications. Again, I'm not buying all his applications, but at minimum they get the reader thinking about the content of Daniel. I would appreciate more depth to these applications, but I can read other books to obtain the depth I desire.
Here's the bottom line, and I'm gonna stop because I can go on all day knocking the theology behind this book and nit-picking every little thing I dislike about it, there's nothing in this book that is entirely 'wrong.' For all I know, Jeremiah and the pre/post-millenialists of the church could be correct. I'm not staking my faith to it, but the truth is that they are, to one degree or another, looking for Jesus. And this gives me some courage. For my money, the system is entirely too clean, it all fits together too neatly, and the dates are all too convenient. I don't think Daniel is about giving us a specific historical timeline about this or that. I think Daniel is about pointing us to Jesus whose Kingdom will come upon us when we are not expecting it, will not find its origins from earth, and which will destroy all the other kingdoms that seek to kill, steal, and destroy. At the end of the day, I'm not looking for a timeline. I'm looking for hope. I'm not looking for a particular evil person (e.g. the so-called 'antichrist') or event; I'm looking for the return of Jesus and the Kingdom that takes over the world, the Kingdom not built by human hands, the Kingdom that belongs to the saints of the Most High.
While we don't know when this world as we know it will come to an end, we know from the prophecies of Daniel and others what will happen: Christ, the invincible Agent, will appear; He will cleanse the world of its evil; and He will set up His perfect Kingdom, which will completely reverse the ravages inflicted on earth by the Fall. (340)
I'm not going to support his methods of dating or the theological overlay that necessarily accompanies this statement, but I will support generally the point he is making: Daniel teaches us about a Kingdom that is coming to earth, whose origins are not here, and whose King is not like the kings of this earth. This I support. And here I agree with the author.
PS-One final aspect of the book that I thoroughly enjoyed and found appropriate was the appendix titled The Agent of Agents. Many books take the approach that the Bible is about 'I' and 'Me'. Agents of Babylon does this a lot too, but I was super impressed with this appendix precisely because the first word of every sentence is 'He', as in YHWH. This was an exquisite addition to the book and one that I wholly embraced. See pages 341-350 for the appendix in question.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase Agents of Babylon: Amazon ($13.74); Tyndale ($24.99); Christian Book Distributors ($15.49)
- Author: David Jeremiah
- On the Web:
- On Twitter: David Jeremiah
- Academic Webpage:
- Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
- Pages: 361
- Year: 2015
- Audience: christians, prophecy buffs, preachers, general, millenialists
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided an advance reader's copy courtesy of Tyndale Publishing's Tyndale Blog Network blog program in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.
Every now and then I come across a book that hooks me with the title. Sometimes after turning the cover and reading the first couple pages I find the old adage to be true that I should not judge a book by its cover or, as in this case, the title. This was not one of those times. I had previously seen this book on Amazon and added it to my wishlist and by chance came across it when I was browsing NetGalley's publishers one day. I was thrilled to find the book. I was even more thrilled to read the book. And, now that I am finished with it, I am absolutely ecstatic about its content. I don't think I am overstating the case when I suggest that this reading of Luke-Acts is one of the most significant and important readings since Robert Tannehill's reading in The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts was published.
Kuhn's thesis is stated succinctly in the introduction (and repeated periodically for emphasis): "This study aims to introduce reader's to Luke's two-volume work, focusing on its urgent call for Theophilus and others to embrace Jesus and the Kingdom of God" (13*). And introduce us he does. But he does even more than merely introduce us to a theory or an idea about the Gospel according to Luke. Kuhn digs deeply even as he surveys the landscape of the massive two volumes. He reaches into the nooks and crannies and sheds like in the darkened corners of Luke's literary masterpiece. He explores the caves of literary technique and rhetorical devices. He demonstrates how Luke parallels characters and stories in the two books. What I appreciate the most about this book is that Kuhn looks at Luke as a piece of literature that should be, and needs to be, interpreted. In other words, Luke had a purpose in mind when he wrote and it is the readers' job to read his work as a piece of literature and discover that meaning. Kuhn's thesis demonstrates that the purpose behind the book isn't all that difficult to discover if the reader reads well.
It is Kuhn's contention that Luke is writing a piece of Kingdom work designed specifically for Theophilus and generally for anyone who reads it. There are things associated with this Kingdom of which he (Luke) writes that Theophilus needs to thoughtfully consider before, or now that he already has, walks in this Kingdom way, this following of Jesus: "This is meant to challenge Theophilus and others to understand that they cannot truly embrace the Kingdom while still participating in the norms and values of Rome" (232). When I read this statement, I leaped with excitement. 'Yes!' I shouted as I took out my phone and started to Tweet the quote. It is this, I think, that we most often miss as Christians saturated by American values and norms. Somehow or other we have taken to believe the silly notion that being American is equivalent to being a 'Christian.' Kuhn goes to great lengths to demonstrate to Theophilus that he cannot have it both ways. And if Theophilus cannot, how much less can we?
But this is exactly what makes this work by Kuhn so special: everything is kept in context. The books of Luke and Acts are kept in there historical and social contexts so Kuhn's work begins with a fairly detailed exploration of Roman culture. Part 1 thus takes up about the first 70 pages or so of the book. Frankly, this part of the book is kind of boring although essential to Kuhn's theory of Luke-Acts as a whole. I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I did the second part of this contextual reading of Luke-Acts: the literary context. Part 2 thus spans pages 71-202 and is, in my opinion, the best part of the book. Granted, it gets repetitive at times because as he explores one literary aspect there is necessarily some overlap with another. Kuhn spends a significant amount of space writing about Luke 1-2 and 24 and draws such beautiful meaning out of the chapters that I am tempted to say I will never read those chapters the same way again. And, to be sure, some of the most brilliant exegesis is on display in part 2 that I have seen in a long time. Part 3 tells of the book's theological context and spans pages 203-274 and Kuhn reasserts his position that one of Luke's main objectives was to "call Theophilus and other members of the elite to abandon their privileged stations and their allegiance to Rome and to embrace the Kingdom of God and Jesus as Lord" (299).
It may be that Kuhn overstates his case when it comes to Luke's focus on the 'elite' and I'm not sure it will hold up under closer scrutiny. Others will no doubt challenge his idea of this being Luke's focus but I'm not so sure that the idea should be waived off–especially if Theophilus was in fact Luke's patron and Luke himself was a member of the Israelite elite. If Kuhn is correct then perhaps Luke-Acts is even more significant for the American church than previously thought. The problem of course lies with those who will preach these books. If the preaching of Luke-Acts continues to be a mere monologue before an invitation to something we tend to call 'salvation', as is often the case, then the bulk of the books will be nothing more than prolegomena to Jesus' death and Resurrection and Pentecost. But if by some strange chance preachers actually start reading Luke-Acts and discerning his entire message then perhaps the affluent American Church might start to be challenged the way Luke intended the affluent to be challenged: "Instead, as indicated regarding Acts 17, the gospel proclaimed by Luke is one that calls upon humanity to turn their allegiance from Caesar and the kingdom of Rome to another realm and another as Luke. Luke's aim was not accommodation but resistance" (15).
I think this is a message the American church desperately needs to hear.
Which leads into my final point. In college I remember hearing and learning how one of Luke's purposes in writing the books was to demonstrate to certain Roman officials that Christianity was no threat at all to the pax Romana of the time. Christians are peaceful people as is demonstrated by Paul on several ocassions in Acts. So: "Luke's aim was not accommodation but resistance. He considered the reign of God to be not a benign reality but a deeply subversive and disturbing force that was already undermining the foundations of Rome and all earthly claims to power" (15). He writes later, "I find it equally unlikely that Luke-Acts was a narrative designed to convince elite persons used to squashing resistance to their rule that the Christian movement was compatible with Rome's maintenance of elite wealth, status, and control" (307).
Christianity is dangerous and subversive. I think American Christians need to hear this message too and it needs to start being preached more thoughtfully from the pulpits of our churches. The problem is that we have been coddled by American culture and lulled to sleep by this coddling. But Luke will have none of this: the Church is the force, the movement, The Way, that turned the world upside down. It was the world that put Jesus to the cross, how can we then partner with this world? It seems to me that the church nowadays is far more content to set the world right side up again by being satisfied to work hand in hand with the very kingdoms that Jesus came to destroy. Not only do we tell the world, "the Church means you no harm," but we have listened to the world when they tell us, "we mean the Church no harm." This is not the experience of the church or Jesus in Acts and Luke.
This should be more carefully considered by pastors, preachers, and theologians and more prophetically proclaimed in our pulpits. I think we are seeing more and more the results of this hand holding experiment in the church.
I could go on and on but I must stop. I love this book. I'm not ashamed to confess that this is a book I absolutely love and will read again soon. I am glad publishing companies are making more space for books that talk about the real, Biblical meaning of the Kingdom of God and in the case of this present book, Baker Academic has done us a huge favor and I applaud them. More publishing of these kind of books where the literary purposes of the bible's authors are discussed is necessary. I cannot say enough about how important and well done this book is and how, if you are a preacher, you should buy it, read it slowly, and carefully consider how you will challenge your congregation to live up to the high call of God: "…as one who manifests the identity and mission of Yahweh, Jesus the lowly one, not Caesar, is Lord and Savior of all" (267).
The book utilizes end notes and the hyperlinks to and from these notes worked well on my Nook. There is a substantial bibliography which is most helpful and also a large subject index which also had working hyperlinks. The book is of a scholarly flair, but it is accessible to most readers who share an interest in reading such works.
Buy this book. You will not be disappointed and you just may find that your own world is being turned upside down in the process.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase The Kingdom according to Luke and Acts Amazon (Kindle, $15.65) CBD ($19.99) Baker Academic ($28.99) (Prices current as of July 7, 2015)
- Author: Karl Allen Kuhn
- Publisher: Baker Academic
- Pages: 367 (Nook epub version); 336 (paper)
- Year: 2015
- Audience: Christians, pastors, preachers, college professors, students of New Testament
- Reading Level: College Level
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free reader's copy courtesy of Baker Academic via NetGalley.
*All page numbers I note are references to the epub version of this book on my Nook reader and may not correspond to the pages in a paperback version or location on a Kindle.
For those of you who visit, I'd like to direct your attention to a new project I am working on: Studies in the Bible as Literature. This is a google site that I am building where I will post my teachings on the books of the Bible. There is a lot to do and there will be more as I am adding new content every day.
Along with Bible studies (I am currently working through the book of Daniel), there are links to amazing places, sermon manuscripts, book reviews, audio, and more. Give it a try. It's a 'move at your own pace' kind of thing right now.
Title: Jesus Outside the Lines
Author: Scott Sauls
Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
Disclaimer: Happily I was provided a free copy of Jesus Outside the Lines via Tyndale Blog Network in exchange for my free and unbiased review of the book. Joyfully, I present to you my review–free of additives, preservatives, and sugary marshmallow shapes. Just my undiluted opinion, free of charge, here at Typepad and around the web at such places as GoodReads, Amazon, and elsewhere. Thanks for reading.
I noticed a couple of times in the book that Saul's quotes people with whom we might have a difference of opinion or two. In the introduction, he quotes as a source of authority Chris Stedman who happens to be a chaplain, at Harvard, and an atheist. There's a part of me that kind of cheers that Sauls finds something in common with Stedman, but there's another part of me that shudders because in quoting Stedman as an authority, early on in the book, he is allowing Stedman to set the agenda for the book. Maybe that's a good thing; I'm not sure. To be sure, he also quotes from Tim Keller and Tim Kreider and Jesus and Dostoyevsky and dozens of others. Slowly he builds his case that we should all be able to talk to one another peacefully even though we may disagree with one another on about every conceivable subject. So:
Is it possible to profoundly disagree with someone and love that person deeply at the same time? Is it possible to hold deep convictions and simultaneously embrace those who reject your deep convictions? (xxv)
Do you want to be known for the people, places, and things that you are for instead of the people, places, and things you are against? Do you want to overcome the tension of wanting to be true to your beliefs and engage the culture? Are you ready to move away from polarizing conversations and toward Jesus and your neighbor? (xxvii)
This is the thesis of the book and the rest of the book explores this thesis with, surprisingly, some depth. And not surprisingly, he begins by discussing politics. I was prepared to roll my eyes frequently but early on he wrote this, "…when it comes to kings and kingdoms, Jesus sides with himself" (5). I agree. Then he ends with this thought concerning you and me: "Seek first the kingdom of God…, and all these things will be added to you" (19). I have engaged enough political debates on blogs and FB to know where my buttons are and I am able to simply avoid those conversations.
This might be key to all of our understanding of loving people and disagreeing with them. When I see a thought I disagree with, I assume first that it is just that: a thought. In other words, I try to remember that on the other side of the thought there is a person that I love or who may love me. IF I cannot handle the thought, I don't engage it because I prefer to remain in love and in friendship with the person who wrote it. It takes a lot of work, but learning not to be bothered by other people's ideas is a huge step in maturity. Learning how to peacefully disagree is another step in the journey. Learning how to see people instead of mere thoughts is Jesus. Being able to laugh with others, learn from others, listen to others, and love them deeply is probably something close to divinity.
Sauls frequently confronts the reader with the idea that Christians haven't always been the most gracious, kind, and loving people on earth when it comes to our disagreements with those who hold to a different worldview. We have tended to get all worked up, start campaigns, or believe, naively, that the only way to win a conversation is to elect a certain politician who will make our point of view law. That'll show 'em! I think Sauls does a fairly good job of helping us bridge that massive gulf between what we believe and how we treat others because of those beliefs. He tackles some fairly significant topics along the way towards peace–because ultimately, Sauls is playing the role of the peacemaker in this book–such as abortion, money, sexuality, church, poverty, and suffering. At times his thoughts are deep and at other times his thoughts are a little confusing; at times his exegesis is spot on and at other times it is a bit sketchy; and at times his voice is clear and prophetic and other times he really needed a better editor.
With all that being said, the book grew on me. I started out with my typical skepticism and by the time I got to the end I was in a fair amount of agreement with him. The book is subtitled: A way forward for those who are tired of taking sides. No one should get this book and attempt to read it with the expectation that Sauls is going to lay out a step by step set of instructions for this 'way forward.' Instead, he is going to tell us some stories, talk to us about Jesus, point out where our flawed definitions of Bible things have caused us to see things with eyes fixed on the wrong thing. The book is going to cause the reader to stop and listen to Jesus and to 'examine the self.' Maybe all of us would do well to pause each day and examine ourselves or ask God to do a deep search of our souls and see if there be in us any unrighteous thoughts or way. The Spirit searches all things. Maybe we should invite the Spirit in for some housecleaning.
Interestingly, the following quote sort of summed up the book for me: "If Christianity has something to significant to contribute to the question of suffering and evil, it is that Christianity is incredibly realistic about how messed up the world is" (153-154). I have two thoughts, one negative and one positive. First, the negative, 'if' is a big word. I think I understand his point, but I also think that given the nature of our our faith (cruciform), 'if' is a bit too squishy. Here I believe his sentiment should have been a little more concrete and affirming. Second, the positive, if his point is true, and I think it is, then we (christians) are, and should continue to be, incredibly realistic about how messed up the world is. Let's live in hope that God has redeemed this world, but also let us be incredibly real about the hope we have in Jesus precisely because of the suffering he endured.
So this, which I think is Sauls' point: let's be honest. Let's stop acting like the world is so easily divided into 'us and them' or 'we and they' or 'me and you.' All have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God. Problem in the church is that we simply forget this because we come to church on Sundays. We seem to forget that we, too, were 'once like them' (see 1 Corinthians 6:9-12; Ephesians 2:11-22). If there should be any compassion, it should flow from this idea that we were once like those with whom we so often disagree. And if there is compassion and mercy it should not come from arrogance or hypocrisy or condescension, but from compassion, weeping, and grace. I think a large part of the problem with the church is that we have forgotten to remember…many things.
I came away from this book reminded to be sober in my thinking about others–especially those with whom I have philosophical or theological differences. I came away reminded that even though Sauls nicely divides the world in binaries, that the world is not so easily categorized as black and white.
Sauls does a good job balancing the book between self-deprecating stories and faith-hero stories–but he is never the subject of the faith-hero stories. He quotes all the standard folks we would expect to see in an Evangelical publication: Lewis, Chesterton, Volf, Lamott, and more. He quotes plenty of Scripture; although, at times it was mere prooftexting. I prefer larger quotes with more context and a little deeper exegesis, but it doesn't kill the book that he does not do things this way. The notes are all at the end of the book, there is no index, and there are no references. He ends the book by again quoting a lengthy swath of ideas from an atheist. I'm not sure how I feel about that, even the thoughts might be helpful, yet it does fall right in line with the theme of his book.
All in all, this was a helpful book and as I noted above, Sauls words and style grew on me as the pages were turned. There is a lot to think about in this book and he certainly makes us pause for a draft of reality as it relates to our own faith in Jesus and how we go about treating other people in the world. Get to know people. Step away from stereotypes. Listen to their words and engage thoughtfully. But always bear in mind that there is a person speaking to us and we may not know all there is to know just by reading a FB update or Tweet. Talk to people, not ideas; dislike ideas, not people.
Maybe we should do two things. First, join Jesus outside the lines already drawn and, second, stop drawing new lines.
Title: Permission Granted
Author: Jennifer Grace Bird
Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press
"To the Church, then, has been given the charge of proclaiming the Word of God. This revelatory Word is not a concatenation of human opinions and ideas but rather is God's own proclamation, the very means by which he speaks, even into postmodern society."–David Wells, Above All Earthly Pow'rs, 176
If I had been paying attention, I would have seen the endorsement by Rachel Held Evans on the front cover and I would not have selected this book for review. I should have known better. Here's the bottom line to this book: Jennifer Grace Bird did 'take the Bible into her own hands' and she made an absolute wreck of it and embarrassed herself along the way. There is nothing new whatsoever about what she wrote: she is regurgitating the arguments of folks like, Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels, and John Dominic Crossan (and others) all over again–time worn arguments that question whether the Bible is God's Word and whether or not we should pay attention to it, and whether or not we can believe in the God who is there. I've heard that argument before, "Did God really say…?" And although she says: "My intention is not to leave you in the lurch, with your entire faith system challenged," she writes. "My ultimate intention has been to have you look at where you have placed your faith. Is it on the words in the Bible, or on the God the Bible points to?" (187) this is not what one comes away with after reading this book. (And, to be sure, this is a false dichotomy which I have not the space in this review to address.) (Interview)
There is nothing original about Bird's intellectual pursuit to 'read what the Bible really says.' There is nothing interesting about it. There is nothing compelling about it. It has a niche audience: those who are already on board with her absurd ideas about Scripture and her silly angry-feminist hermeneutic (I invite you to read carefully and slowly her work and notice how many times she makes pejorative remarks about men). What's amazing is that there are hundreds and thousands of women scholars and preachers who read the same Bible Bird reads and come away with a radically different understanding and application of the words written.
I think a large part of the problem is that Ms Bird seems to think that just because it is written in the Bible that this automatically translates into God's approval of it. Take for example polygamy in the Bible. Just because the Bible records many instances of polygamy is not an indication that God approves of polygamy. Remember in the garden, there was one man and one woman, which later Jesus affirmed. This was the ideal. After sin enters the world, then we see a break from the garden ideal and marriage corrupted. Bird seems to think that we should read the Bible at face value without our bifocals: one lens reminding us that we are sinful and live in a sinful world and the other lens reminding us that Jesus has redeemed us. To be sure, there is a lot of stuff in the Bible–stuff like rape, murder, slavery, and war–that God is not in favor of and certainly doesn't approve of, but is God at fault because the authors of the Bible truthfully report these events? Or is God evil because these things happen? Bird spends a lot of time in this book saying things about God that made me shudder. For all her talk about those who 'read the Bible literally' Bird seems to suffer from a profound sense of inability to distinguish one type of literature from another (she does acknowledge on page 7-8, and 11 that readers of the Bible should be aware 'of genre', but I do not recall that she employs this warning herself and her favorite term to use is actually 'myth'). In other words, she is, frequently, a worse literalist than those she accuses!
Pause for a moment and consider what that means.
I do not know too many preachers or scholars or theologians in general who would argue that there are not 'issues' when it comes to parts of the Bible. That is to say, I do not know of anyone who thinks that Genesis 1 and 2, for example, are telling us the exact same story of creation. On the other hand, I do not know anyone who believes this means they are also contradictory either. So too with the Gospels. Just because we are given four 'versions' of the Jesus story, where each author makes a particular point about Jesus (which I thought Bird handled and explained fairly well), does not mean that we are given contradictory stories about 'how to be saved' or that we have to decide 'which Jesus is the real Jesus.' Bird is rather difficult because she believes that variety means disunity and that differences mean contradiction. She actually had some good thoughts in chapter 9 ("Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?"), but she takes her conclusions from these thoughts in strange and rather unorthodox directions. Hmmm.
And to be sure, one really only needs to read her introduction to the book (xi-xvi) to understand what she is going to do with every single chapter in the book–whether writing about sex or violence or the virgin birth or John 3:16 (she made a big fuss out of John 3:16 only to tell us that we ought to read all of John 3; duh.), it is all too much for her. In her mind, we cannot trust many, many parts of the Bible because it contains things that do not pass her 'litmus test' of 'who God is and is not' (188). So she has created a god, held this god before her face while she read the Bible, and anything that does not comport with this god of her creation is suspect and therefore worthy of being tossed out into the rubbish heap. Think about that for a minute. Does that sound like the sort of author who is not trying to 'leave us in the lurch' or 'poke holes in' our faith? Hmmm.
Every now and again the book has text boxes where Bird engages in a brief excursus on some topic she finds particularly in need of reinterpretation (e.g., heaven and hell, the name 'christians', fun facts, depiction of Jews in the Newer Testament, etc.). There are also a few charts that are somewhat useful and also some charts for the reader to fill in to help better understand a concept she discusses (e.g., creation accounts, dualism in John's Gospel). Unfortunately, there is no index for subjects discussed or for Scripture referenced or discussed (although, to be fair, looking at the table of contents should give the reader a fairly good idea of what scripture can be found and where.) Each chapter ends with a series of discussion questions which may or may not be helpful after reading the chapter they are attached to. Finally, I was frustratingly disappointed that there is not a single page of references. She quotes several scholars in the book and I would have been pleased if there were references where I could check her work or dig deeper for myself.
I'm not going to bother addressing her conjectures about the sexuality of people such as Paul (whom she conjectures, based on the letter to Philemon, might be a homosexual) or David and his relationship with Jonathan. I'm not going to bother addressing her quite apparent disdain for men and the way 'they' have handled Scripture throughout the generations and kept women like her from being 'ordained' (a wholly unbiblical concept in it's own right if she would take time to investigate it). Nor will I address her rather lazy attitude towards sexuality (all of it). And I'm not going to bother dignifying her stupid idea that it was 'actually God who has misled the humans, not the serpent' in Genesis 2-3. Hmmm.
All of this, and much more besides, gives me reason to pause and question what exactly her agenda is in writing this book. Bird assures us that her task is 'not to poke holes in anyone's faith' (19) but rather to go 'for the 'mark of an educated mind,'" (121; she assures us of these things frequently). But I don't think she accomplished either point. Her questions will cause weak minded people to stumble in their faith and intellectual people to question how she got this book published in the first place. What follows, on page after page, is simply lazy exegesis with a lack of enthusiasm towards understanding.
Her 'questions' and controversies have been written by others, have been answered by others, and these questions and controversies have always been full of holes, based on faulty logic, and, frankly, in no way intellectually astute. I tend to mine books when I read them so, yes, there are times when I think she has a rather brilliant insight (e.g., much of her discussion on Job was helpful and, in my opinion, on the mark; and in one of her excursions, the one on 'heaven and hell' (p 182-183), she makes some good points too; and other places). And, yes, she is decidedly correct that we should read all of the Bible and not just the parts that make us all warm and fuzzy. Furthermore, she is also correct that there are difficult things in the Bible for us to accept about God, about ourselves, and about the Christian faith in general; nevertheless, her questions have been answered a thousand times over by scholars, preachers, theologians (men and women alike). The nuggets I was able to mine in this book are too few and too far between to make this worth the time of serious readers in search of an intellectual pursuit or faith strengthening exercise.
There's just nothing new here (literally, she retreads time worn arguments with hip language for a new generation of skeptics and they will eat it up!) and it literally brings me to tears that she is in this place (and that she teachers students in a university). I think this book comes up way, way short on both supporting faith or providing stimulation for the intellect. I would like to meet the people she claims 'confront these issues in the Bible and come out the other side…often even stronger in their faith than when they began!' (187). Seriously.
So again I will note that I think this book has a niche audience and it is those people who already believe like she does. This book will in no way strengthen the faith of anyone and it will not provide intellectual stimulation for anyone either. In fact, you will probably left with the same 'sinking feeling in' your gut when reading it as Bird often expressed she had when writing it. The church right now needs a high view of Scripture and Bird's isn't even off the ground.
Author: Randy Frazee
Additional links: Believe the Story
[Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this book by Zondervan Publishers in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.]
The problem with this book is that there is nothing necessarily wrong with it. I think. I mean, you can read through it and not be offended, or unsettled, or argumentative. There's nothing in it that's going to make the person write the author and rip him a new one. There's nothing in it that will start a theological dialogue spanning the next year or two or start a publishing war. It's a fairly standard, straightforward, new Christian handbook.
Then again, there is everything wrong with it. This is the kind of book a person reads if they are interested in being comfortable in their faith, self-centered in their faith, and really understanding very little about what it means to 'think, act, and be' like the Jesus of the Bible. It's like he's saying that all Jesus was about was making people who think, act, and do certain things, in certain ways so that they fit into the club.
Yes. That's what I'm going for with this review: there is nothing about this book that actually inspires me to think, act, and be like Jesus. Instead a person comes away thinking, acting, and being like your every day, standard, run of the mill join the club, go to church, and be good kind of Christian. There's nothing exciting about this book. There's nothing revolutionary about this book. There is nothing revelationary about this book. In a word, it's boring.
To get through this book, the reader has to wade through countless tired illustrations and stories that have been regurgitated in other books (like, say, the story of Steve Saint p. 178-179; great story, but I'm sick of hearing it), wrestle with some troubling statements (like, say, 'If we want to have a relationship with God and have eternal life, then, Jesus says, we need to do good works' (his emphasis); even in context this statement makes little sense, p 41), listen as verse after verse of out of context Scripture is 'applied' to a systematic theology of 'life after baptism' (for example, the out of context thought that Jesus talked about money all the time, p 146), and plod through a nearly 300 page book of randomly generated, arbitrary 'practices' and 'beliefs' that are supposed to make us wholly Christian (for example, in his list of worship 'convictions' on page 97-87, there is a conviction about God, a personal God, salvation, The Bible, Identity in Christ, Church, humanity, compassion, stewardship, and eternity but nothing, specifically, about Jesus, Kingdom, hope, grace, the Holy Spirit, etc.)
There were times, yes, when I thought the author handled Scripture fairly well and was able to draw out significant and meaningful applications and thoughts. For example, on pages 100-102, he does a little exegesis of the story of David dancing before the ark of the Lord. He does a great job of contrasting David's actions with those of Michal, Saul's daughter. In this place, I thought he was dead-on and did a good job. Then there were times when I thought he was off target. For example, when he talks about Matthew 25 and the king who separates the sheep from the goats. He could have given us more context and showed us that Jesus wasn't talking about the poor and imprisoned in general but those who are 'the least of these, his brothers and sisters' (See pages 166-167).
I also thought he did a good job in the beginning (pages 18-20) talking about eternity and what it will be like. Here, he and I are in nearly full agreement. His discussion of what eternity is like, what 'heaven' is all about, and what will happen in the consummation of the ages is, in my opinion, probably the best part of the book. '
But there is so much more he could have talked about and written about in the book. He had nearly 300 pages and I feel like I didn't really read anything. For a seasoned Christian, this is a one sitting book because there will be a lot of skimming and skipping.
It should be noted that there is not really, necessarily, anything wrong with the book. He gives us ten things we probably should believe even if I would formulate those things differently, eliminate some of them, add others, and develop their theology from a more contextual format as opposed to his style of plucking Scripture from its context. He gives us ten things we ought to 'do' and who among us will argue that any of those ten things are 'bad' or 'wrong'? Of course we should worship, pray, study the Bible, and more. Sure; I have no argument there. And finally, I'm not saying there's anything wrong with 'being' like Jesus when it comes to love, peace, self-control and more. The church might be a happier place if more of us practiced such things. So, yes, Amen to all of those things. (Except that in the introduction to Part 3: Be Like Jesus, he didn't bother to tell us that the ten things he will write about are actually the fruit of the Spirit. I get about being connected to the Vine, but that's not the context of Galatians 5 where his chapter headings come from.)
I just think these things have been said by others and better. These things are on the shallow end of what is meant to be a deep faith and all of these things need to be spoken of in the greater context of who Jesus is and what Jesus did. The title of the book carries the name of Jesus and I simply didn't find enough Jesus in the book. Maybe he should have taken ten stories about Jesus and simply expounded upon them–that would be compelling reading. Here's the thing, the church simply does not need another program for spiritual development (whatever that means). They are all over the market place and the church is over-saturated with these sort of books. I realize it's too late since the book is already published, but I wonder if there is no end to these sort of books? There is so much more to the Jesus story than mere spiritual disciplines and can the fundamentals of Christian faith really be narrowed down to a mere ten different (arbitrary) beliefs?
At the end of the book, this is the spiritual formation of one man for his church, but I'm not of the opinion that this is the best program of formation of life in Jesus for a larger body of Christ. I get that it is for a new believer (I think it is anyhow) and that depth isn't necessarily the point (although it should be!) Nevertheless, some depth would be nice. I don't understand why the only place to get depth from authors is to go to the academic side of publishing houses. I hate to be that way, but self-centered spiritual disciplines and belief in tiny fragments of things Scripture says in a larger meta-narrative are simply not going to produce the sort of Jesus people that will stand up when life really starts to suck for us who are comfortable here in American churches.
We need our preachers who write books to do more, to say more, to help end the drought. We need our publishing houses to give us more depth–less books, more depth. I hate to say it, but this book is simply not all that helpful.