Archive for the ‘books’ 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 suppose the right thing to do, based on the current status of this book on Amazon (95% of the reviews are 5-Star), is to write a favorable, positive review and post it for everyone to read and enjoy. I'm a little late to the game so I feel no particular compulsion to be altogether favorable in my review.
To be fair, however, I don't think Ms Wojo wrote this book with any man (aside from her husband) whatsoever in mind so it could be that she simply wasn't speaking to my version of the species. That's fine and at the heart of my review is that thought: the book simply did not speak to me as a man. There's nothing sexist or unfair about that assessment. Rather, just an honest evaluation of where I was with this book.
On the other hand, sentences like this: Before you know it, the feeling of wanting to give up has saturated your spirit and you feel like you can't take even one more step. You have lost every ounce of strength in your mind, body, and spirit" seem to speak across the sexes and engulf us all in the pathos of her writing and I think, at times, she does a good job of remind all readers that God is available, that he understands us, and that he is consistent.
The book is a very self-centered book and I don't mean that in a pejorative way. I simply mean that the book is about Ms Wojo and her life experiences: her joys, her sorrows, her marriage, her children, her faith, and her life. It is mixed with stories from the Bible and she is trying to understand her life in light of those stories she reads in the Bible. And although I have no use whatsoever for her particular 'use' of Scripture (stories generally pulled from context and applied to situations the Bible writers did not envision), I do appreciate the fact that the book is filled with more than an abundance of Scripture spread throughout the book. I would appreciate more context for those stories, but that's just a personal thing.
The book is also very typically a book about the 'problems' of American Christians. I don't think this book will have much of an audience in poorer nations where Christians are actually suffering. However, it will appeal to many in the mainstream American church where Christians suffer from the pressures of pressure, fatigue, burnout, poopy diapers, grocery shopping, and child-rearing. I'm not at all discounting the struggles of Ms Wojo at all. Struggles they are; and real. But there is a sense in this book that much of what she has struggled with is uniquely American and could be solved as much by a trained secular psychologist. Again, I'm not discounting the real pain she has endured in her life. That's not my point, so please don't misunderstand the point I am making which is that while some folks may relate to her easily, I think there is also a lot who will not.
Each chapter deals with some particular issue Ms Wojo has experienced in her life and she works hard to relate this to our Christian experience by blending stories, Scripture, quotes, and more into a narrative that explores feelings, and emotions and which eventually draws out some principles designed to guide us through the negativity often felt because of these experiences. At the end of each chapter readers will find "Pillars of Truth to Lean On", a bullet point list of Scriptures associated with the chapter's content. Finally, there are "Stepping Stones' at the end of the chapters which are coordinated with the One More Step journal.
At the end of the book, readers will find Discussion Questions, some perfectly Tweetable block quotes, acknowledgements, a selection of hymn titles that guided the writing of the book, information relating to MPS, and end notes.
Again, I am certain this book will find its way into the hands of someone who needs to read this book. Unfortunately, I wasn't one of those people. There's nothing particularly wrong with the book. I just didn't like it or find that it spoke to me where I am at. That doesn't mean it won't be helpful for others especially those going through difficult times of the loss of a child or or a parent or a child with a particular disability. At the end, she points them to Jesus: "Jesus not only heals broken hearts, but he also transforms broken hearts into his hands and feet that carry his love and share it with others" (192).
That's enough for anyone and would have been a fantastic opening salvo.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase One More Step (Amazon, $8.99)
- Author: Rachel Wojo
- On the Web:
- On Twitter:
- Academic Webpage:
- Publisher: WaterBrook Multnomah
- Pages: 208
- Year: 2015
- Audience: Probably Ladies
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this book via the Waterbrook Multnomah blogger review program in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.
I was contacted by the author of the Smile & Succeed for Teens and asked if I would be willing to read and review the book on my blog. I agreed and several or a few days later I received a small packet in the mail from the author which included the book, a bookmark, a nice thank you card from the author, and a small promotional packet. It was all very nicely organized and put together. It made a good impression on me from the start.
I mention that I was contacted by the author because, frankly, this is not the sort of book I normally read and review. It's in a genre that I do not tend to gravitate towards, but I decided to go ahead and give it a whirl because a) I have teenage sons, b) who work in retain, and c) need to learn how to smile more.
It took only a day or so to read (it took me much longer to write the review, sadly) because it is not a particularly dense book. The book is illustrated nicely throughout which makes the reading speed along and provides some opportunities to learn a concept visually. I appreciated this and I think it will make the book a little more accessible to teen readers–the prospective and intended audience.
There are seven total chapters in the book dealing with topics related mostly to customer service and people skills. Key to the entire scheme is that people need to smile more and frequently. I remember hearing a lot of these ideas when I worked in retail. Such advice like smile when talking on the phone and making good eye contact are fairly standard protocols and not really unique. Nevertheless, for the beginner in any customer service related environment, these starter keys are going to be essential because they are simply things one mostly 'learns' through trial and error. Most training in the world of retail goes something like: here's what we do/sell, go out and do/sell it. Most training, at least in my retail experience, had little to do with how to actually carry yourself on the job. There was not a lot of emphasis, when I worked in retail (except when one fouled up and had to be corrected by 'the manager'), on the more personal side of customer service: patience, smiling, professionalism, etc. We were just always told 'the customer is always right' which is, to be sure, a crock of something but I suspect it was the best way our managers knew how to tell us to be nice to everyone even when they were so clearly wrong. It was also a way of saying, 'Neither your personal integrity matters nor that of the customer. Just find a way to get that dollar from their wallet into our cash register.'
This is probably why I do not work in retail. Be that as it may.
Other aspects of the book are fairly standard life skills regardless of whether you are working in retail or the sanitation department: be courteous, shake hands, look people in the eyes, say please and thank you, listen to people when they speak, and so on. These things are called common courtesy and I suspect that many of us–adults included–could stand a refresher course in these things. So, arming a teen with these helpful courtesies before we look at them and say 'Go get a job' might prove to make the world a happier place and retail a more pleasant experience for everyone–especially since our retail world is littered with teenagers working their first job.
I think this is a book that would be helpful to teenagers who are getting started in the world of employment but the really they are not the key. The key will be getting the word out to parents who might purchase this book for their child(ren) or employing people who work with teens to buy the book and give it to young people who would benefit from it. I should also point out, in case it hasn't figured out, this isn't just a book for teens or for kids who are working in the retail market. There is a lot in this book that will benefit humans in general. If this book gets into the hands of teens, I think the style and format will appeal to them because it's easy reading and the reading blocks are short. The print is a larger size which makes the pages go by rather quickly.
The book also contains 'Wired Tips' which are short, pithy attention grabbing truthy kind of sayings. There are a lot of bullet point lists which may appeal to those with short attention spans. There are also quotes from important people that usually have something to do with the content of the chapter. At the end of the book readers can find the notes from the book, a series of helpful service organizations that one may wish to be involved with on a volunteer basis, and a fairly substantial index (given the size of the book). The cover is appealing and eye catching and notes that the author has won some awards in his life. Finally, as mentioned above, the book is heavily illustrated which will appeal to those who, again, have different learning styles or short attention spans.
I'll be passing my reader's copy along to my own sons simply because I am hopeful they will start smiling more and perhaps find some helpful information they can use for their daily walk. I recommend the book. There's nothing inherently deep or earth shattering about the information contained inside. The author has done a fine job of putting his experience into a practical, hands-on, common sense way of dealing with people in virtually any walk of life. We all need to know how to smile more often and how to be courteous to other people.
PS-This book may also appeal to special education teachers who are working with students who are so-called 'higher functioning.' Teaching students who will be eligible to work among the general population to practice these common courtesies may prove worthy of our time especially since, in my experience, many such students start out working in general retail settings.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase Smile & Succeed for Teens (Amazon $9.95, paperback)
- Author: Kirt Manecke
- On the Web: Smile the Book
- On Twitter:
- Academic Webpage:
- Publisher: Solid Press, LLC
- Pages: 131
- Year: 2014
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this book by the author in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.
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.
About the time I finished reading Lazarus Awakening, I also finished The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited by Scott McKnight. In his book, McKnight argues that part of the problem with the Gospel today is that we, Christians, do not really know what to do with the story because we do not really understand what the story is about in the first place. He argues that the Gospel is "all about the Story of Israel coming to its resolution in the Story of Jesus and our letting that story become our story" (Kindle, 153). He goes on to write: "There is one and only one way to become People of the Story of Jesus: we need to soak ourselves in the Story of Jesus by reading, pondering, digesting, and mulling over in our heads and hearts the Four Gospels. Genuine soaking in this story always leads to the Story of Israel because it is only in that story that the Story of Jesus makes sense" (Kindle, 153, his emphasis).
He is, of course, correct. We become who we are meant to become when we know Jesus–not when we fluff our way towards warm, fuzzy feelings.
When I was a mere twenty-two years of age, I was ordained into Christian ministry. I accepted the charge given me by the elders of my home church preach the Gospel wherever I went and to be welcomed by the church. I chose for my preaching text that evening the passage from John 11 upon which this book is constructed. I recall that sermon very well because I chose John 11 as an allegory for my own personal resurrection from several teenage defeats and struggles and conflicts. I preached it nearly exactly the way Joanna Weaver has constructed her book from being in a stuck place to coming out of the tomb to leaving our graveclothes behind. It was a tightly constructed sermon worthy of my twenty-two years of age. And it very well may be the worst sermon I ever preached precisely because I'm not sure I really understood preaching at that time let alone Jesus.
To this day, I am embarrassed by that sermon.
I think every person is going to have to decide for themselves if they think Weaver handled the text of John's Gospel in an appropriate manner. I have not read the main text, only the study guide, but if the study guide mirrors the main text, then there are likely serious exegetical and theological issues in the book. Here's how the Study Guide begins: "The story of Lazarus shouts hope to our anxious hearts: 'You are loved. You are accepted.'….So are you ready, my friend? It's time to learn what it means to truly live" (1, her emphasis). But you see all the emphasis in this opening salvo is focused on 'me.' (I was also left mouth agape after reading pages 20-21 where every passage of Scripture is redirected to talk about 'I'.
- Do you ever feel stuck…
- As though you have one foot in a new life…..
- Do you struggle to believe that God could love you….
- I know I have…
- You are loved…
- You are accepted…
- We can cry out to our Savior…
And there is so much more…so many more first person personal pronouns…it's so overwhelming. I'm not denying that any of these things are true. They are. Yes, we are loved. Yes, we are accepted. Yes, we can cry out to God. Yes. Yes. Yes.
But John 11 is not the place to make those points. John 11 doesn't make those points. John 11 may as well be a fairy tale if these are the points we can gather or make after reading the story of Jesus' actions in that chapter–the chapter where his emotional roller coaster is painful to watch (he loves, he gets angry, he weeps, he resolves, he is troubled–all of this because someone died), the chapter where he gives an advance sign of Who he is and What he is about and Why he was there in the first place. The story of John 11 really isn't about us or, for that matter, Lazarus. It's about Jesus the one who came to complete Israel's story, the one who came not just to put a stopper in death, but to completely unravel and demolish it–as previewed by his demonstration at Lazarus' tomb.
From my perspective, Weaver did not handle the text appropriately; furthermore, I think it matters if authors do or do not. I have grown weary in my middle years on earth of what passes for Bible Study materials in our churches. I have grown weary of what is passed off by publishing houses as worthy of our money and time. I have grown weary of authors who take the Scripture and make it little more that a christianized version of Stephen Covey or Tony Robins. Seriously.
That's my take on the substance of the book: It's deplorable. If you need to feel good about yourself, fine, do so. But please read Scripture carefully, in context, and try hard not to make outrageous points about it from your specious exegetical methods.
As far as it goes, however, I'm sure there's nothing about the book that will cause anyone harm. It's a fairly fluffy study guide book featuring eight weeks' worth of study. There are places for prayer requests, homework, memory verses, 'Israel Moments' (coordinated with the DVD), and so much more. I'm sure it will all be helpful to someone. It just wasn't for me. I simply cannot envision a scenario where I would use this material to teach a small group or my Bible school class on Sundays.
The DVD packaging is nice. One box contains three DVDs. Each disc contains 2-3 lessons and 2-3 'Israel Moments.' I didn't care for the DVDs any more than I cared for the Study Guide. I had a lot of trouble making a connection with the host for some reason. This is simply a package that didn't work for me at any level–mostly for the reasons I stated above concerning Scripture.
I'll give this program 2 stars and I'm probably stretching to get there. I think we are right to study the Bible. I think there might be a place for such esteem building programs. I'm not sold entirely and as I get older and more widely read I find myself bored with all the feel good finding yourself in God's heart kind of teaching. I want Jesus. I want to hear his story. I want to hear what he did and how The story finds completion in Jesus. I want to know how the story of Lazarus advances God's promises to Israel and, by extension, to us. I want to know more about Jesus. I know enough about myself. What I really want to know is Jesus because I think if I know Him and know Him deeper, well, then I will, like John, decrease and Messiah will increase.
Seems to me that should be a lofty goal considering Jesus, who being God in very nature, didn't consider it but humbled himself, taking on flesh. I want to know Him. I don't need esteem. I need Jesus.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase Lazarus Awakening Study Guide and DVD Combo Amazon ($27.96); Waterbrook Multnomah ($39.99)
- Author: Joanna Weaver
- On the Web: Lazarus Awakening
- On Twitter:
- Academic Webpage:
- Publisher: Waterbrook
- Pages: 142
- Year: 2015
- Audience: small groups, women
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided an advance reader's copy courtesy of Waterbrook's Blogging for Books blog program in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.
I only recently jumped on the Scot McKnight bandwagon. This year, in fact, although I have followed him on Twitter for a while and, if I am not mistaken, reviewed a book he wrote on Fasting a long while ago. I became interested in McKnight's writing when I saw another of his books called The King Jesus Gospel and in his important book Kingdom Conspiracy. I have also seen his name mentioned by NT Wright here and there. I enjoy McKnight's work because I think he has important things to say that more people ought to be listening to. I think when it comes to the Kingdom and the Gospel McKnight is dead on point. Now I'm kind of convinced that he's on the right track when it comes to the local church. I'm sure at some point along this journey he'll go off the wall and disappoint me, but so far, so good. Fingers crossed.
I don't say it too often about authors because there are so few authors that I truly appreciate–whose work truly resonates with my own heart. I say that because so many authors who write books for the church are afraid to get dirty, say the hard things that need to be said, and actually dig deep enough in Scripture to challenge the status quo. I don't find any of that to be true about McKnight. He writes his books like he writes his Twitter feed and blog: straight up and if you don't like it, well? We may not want to listen, but McKnight (among others) is saying something important. It's time for the church to hear what is being said.
But seriously, McKnight's commentary and arguments are nuanced, but not so much that they are misunderstood. I think he writes clearly enough–even if at times he has to repeat himself in order to make his point. Sometimes those of us who read are a bit of a challenge to those who write. We have to listen carefully or we might miss the bigger picture someone is painting.
So these three books of McKnight's I have mentioned so far are, I think, some of the most important books I have read. In truth, I don't think he's saying anything I don't already believe. It just so happens that he is smart and got the book deal and I got to teach special education. As I noted above, McKnight is really only doing what needs to be done–it's kind of revolutionary in a way because maybe if more people start writing books like he is writing, saying the things he is saying, and alerting Christians to what the Bible really says, then maybe, just maybe the church will hear what the Spirit has to say. Lord knows it's not like we actually read what the Bible has to say. Seriously. I say this because I read a lot of books and I see the things being written….and it's kind of…thin. I like McKnight's work because he consistently finds a way to take his readers deep into the Scripture without causing them the sort of palpitations that get their itchy fingers dialing the phone trying to get someone fired for preaching the truth.
So, A Fellowship of Differents. I don't think I disagree with much in the book, but I do have a serious question to ask. McKnight is selling us this idea that the church ought to reflect the culture in which we live. That is, the church ought to be made up of all sorts of people: different cultures, different colors, different tribes, nations, orientations, ethnic backgrounds, and so on and so forth. I don't disagree. We all together make up Israel expanded. Yep. No complaints. In fact, the book of Revelation is keen on this point too: "After this I looked and behold a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes, and peoples, and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…" (Revelation 7:9)
But how do we make this universal vision of the church a local reality? In fact, is it necessary to do so? Let me give you an example. The church I belong to and worship with is white. Very white. There is one person in the congregation who is African-American–a young girl. She is quite welcome. She is quite active. She is quite happy. My own family has brought her to worship and taken her to dinner and so on. I'm not bragging. But here's my point. The community is small and I don't even know if there are any black families in the community. When I was growing up in that town, there were two such families. My question is this: for all the call to diversify the church, and yes! diversify!, how is a church in a white-washed town supposed to do such a thing? There's not a single personal or theological reason people of color are not among us. It's simple demographics.
I don't understand why it is 'wrong' for a church to resemble the community where it is located. I get the point McKnight is making, but I don't think it's quite as 'easy' to simply remake the church the way he thinks it should be made. Most congregations resemble the neighborhood where they are situated. Mine is no different. Maybe this works itself out in a different way practically so maybe that is his point. Maybe we are simply not practical enough as Christians when it comes to how we relate one denomination to another. Maybe we need a Revelation 7 kind of vision. Maybe this book will help us. Maybe the church is diverse and we need to simply celebrate what we have.
Maybe more of us ought to think and believe that 'we are Christians only, but not the only Christians.' It's just a thought.
McKnight says something I like very early on: "These three principals are a way of saying that local churches matter far more than we often know." (15). Yep. I agree. Which means, as far as I can tell, that more emphasis ought to be placed on the work that local churches do, that more preachers ought to take seriously what they preach, and that more congregations ought to take seriously the things that the Bible says defines the church. So McKnight is right to ask: What is the church supposed to be? And: If the church is what it is supposed to be, what does the Christian life look like? (17). From which I draw the obvious conclusion: Why are there so many preachers on television?
Yep. So, if the local church matters, and these two questions are right, then what is the problem? Well, I suppose you'll have to read the book to find out what McKnight proposes. I have a hard time not recommending his writing. It's accessible and deep. Mostly what I like is that when he handles the Scripture, he doesn't yank a single word from a single verse from a single chapter from a single book and develop an entire theological dogma from it. This book, like what I've read of McKnight in other places, deals with context: literary, historical, and contextual. The reader will not agree with all of McKnight's conclusions. I didn't. But that doesn't mean the conversation isn't stimulating and worth the effort.
I recommend this book because it challenges us to think about the value of the local church and challenges us to keep that church in context and out of context. At the end of the day, this book is an apologetic for loving people because we love God who loves people. It's kind of hard to argue with that logic.
Notes are appended at the end. There is a Scripture index and subject and name index too.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase A Fellowship of Differents (Amazon: $15.92)
- Author: Scott McKnight
- On Twitter: @scotmckight
- Academic Webpage:
- Publisher: Zondervan
- Pages: 272
- Year: 2015
- Audience: preachers, christians, anyone who likes McKnight's work, etc.
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided an advance reader's copy courtesy of BookLook Bloggers blog program in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.
This was a really exciting book that I enjoyed immensely. It was well written by two exceptionally intelligent individuals. It is accessible, but not condescending. It is intelligent, but not stuff. It is a science book written for lay-folk like myself who find the mysteries of the universe to be both a source of wonder and a picture of sanity. It all makes sense; it makes no sense.
That's pretty much my takeaway from this book: In truth, we pretty much no nothing about the world in which we live even if we happen to know enough to fill millions of pages with ink and letters and words and sentences. There is a lot we know and perhaps even more that we do not know. At the end of the day, science is an endless journey of discovery which takes us from the gargantuan complexities of galaxies to the uber-minutia of quantum mechanics and biology. Who knows how these things even hold together are what keeps them from imploding or exploding? The book is filled with rampant speculation about such things as the authors note, "…we cannot yet be sure that all of the features we have just described are quantum mechanical." (325).
But isn't it fun to explore, predict, test, and retest?
It kind of makes me wonder every now and then what would become of science and scientists if we ran out of things to investigate? What if there is a world even smaller than the quantum world? What if there is a world larger than the universe? Truth is, we won't know unless we continue to explore–an arduous task that boggles the mind. As I read through this book I often wondered 'how on earth can they do that?' I mean, seriously, the levels of smallness that are being dealt with in this book are quite extraordinary.
I remain unconvinced by their arguments put forth in chapter 7 where the authors dealt with 'quantum genes.' They throw large numbers at the readers like, "The rate of copying errors in DNA replication, what we call mutation, is usually less than one in a billion." (202) But they want us to believe that over the course of 'generations' enough of these mutations collect in an organism to produce something useful in the organism. What I can never figure out is how the organisms survive long enough without the useful something to arrive at the place where the useful something is, well, useful. What I mean is something like this. If all of the sudden the climate on earth changed so dramatically that I needed to grow a horn on my head to survive, but replication errors only occur 1/1,000,000,000, and I need billions of years to complete this replication error in order to survive, then how did I survive long enough without the horn on my head in order for the horn to grow on my head in order for me to survive?
Or, if a robin didn't originally have a 'sense that detects the earth's magnetic field' that helped it 'navigate'–that is, if it needed millions of years to evolve this skill (173), what did it do for all those millions of years when it didn't have this sense? How did it determine it needed this sense? And how did it navigate before it evolved this sense? I confess that these questions perplex me.
Now, if you tell me that organisms change because of their environment then we can have a conversation. But it makes no sense to me for anyone to suggest that there are so few replication errors and yet there are enough that produce what we see. I admire the authors of the book very much for their steadfast hold to something that makes no logical sense whatsoever. I enjoyed the book very much right up to the point where they started flopping around like fish out of water to explain Darwinism in light of quantum mechanics. Maybe sometimes the phenomena we see do not require us to work backwards to a point of origin or necessity. Maybe what we see requires us only to stand slack-jawed in amazement at what is or can be.
At times the authors fall into the error of tautology. For example, in the same chapter 7 on Quantum Genes, the authors are discussing Hugo de Vries and his observations concerning the evening primrose and how one version of this plant was 'taller' and had 'oval-shaped petals rather than the familiar heart-shaped petals.' To this earth shattering observation, the authors write, "He recognized this flower as a 'mutant'; and, more important, he showed that the mutant traits were passed on to the plant's progeny, so they were inherited." (212). Well, of course the 'mutant' plant passed on 'mutated genes'; what else could it pass on to its progeny? And let's be honest, this really doesn't demonstrate anything other than that it was a mutated plant and that it passed on mutated genes. There's no explanation of why it was mutated, what factors led to the mutation, what purpose the mutation might have served, and so on. Maybe a bee just got it wrong when it was pollinating the plant.
This is an exciting book except where it dips into the absurd world of Darwinian evolution–which was inevitable. I find the book to be somewhat whimsical and joyful. They weren't cracking back on people who happen to have philosophical, theological, or logical disagreements with their conclusions. They admit that much of what they are suggesting is speculation and that a lot more research is necessary to prove their ideas. The authors seemed to genuinely amazed by what they were writing about and that made the book a lot of fun to read–that is, I often marked in the margins that something they wrote or discovered was simply 'magnificent.' Like when they talk about robins or clown fish or just life: "Life is remarkable" (25). Yes. It is.
The book is filled with wonderful illustrations and a few pictures. The style of writing is engaging. I really enjoyed this book a lot and I am hopeful that more books concerning quantum biology will be written in the future–books for people like me who enjoy reading and learning about the discoveries scientists and everyday people make about this great planet where we live.
Finally, the book was well researched. Part of what I enjoyed most was how each chapter slowly uncovered a discovery by tracing its history from this scientist to that scientist and all the way to our current day. This was excellent and a lot of the names mentioned are familiar even if a few of them are somewhat obscure. Notes are appended at the end and there is a helpful, lengthy index for readers who wish to do follow-up on the author's sources.
This is an excellent book. I recommend it for those interested in quantum mechanics/biology and for those who simply enjoy delighting in the wonders of this earth. In some ways, this book will cause the reader never to look at life the same way again. Maybe this is a good thing.
May your wonder never cease.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase Life on the Edge (Amazon: Hardcover, $17.94)
- Authors Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili
- On Twitter: Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili
- Academic Webpage:
- Publisher:Crown Publishers
- Pages: 353
- Year: 2015
- Audience: Science buffs, Scientists, Science Enthusiasts, Wonderers
- Reading Level: Advanced High School, College
- Disclaimer: I was provided an advance reader's copy courtesy of Blogging for Books blog program in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.
Back in the day when I was still invited to stand in the pulpit each week and preach, I once had a crazy idea after reading a book by Eugene Peterson. Actually, Peterson's book began sparking little fires in me that I simply could not control. He eventually wrote five volumes in a series of spiritual theologies, but it was that first book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places that wrecked me. The crazy idea was that I should start sharing with my congregation this newly found discovery that Christianity was not about 'me.' I still remember the sermon series because it came out of me around the time The Purpose Driven Life was all the rage. My series was called The Crucifixion Driven Life.
Then I took a seminary class called Doctrine of Grace at Cincinnati Christian University (hosted by a preacher named Jack Cottrell) which served as another fire that eventually, completely undid me. Along the way I met a preacher/author named Tom Wright, another named Tim Keller, and still another named Brennan Manning. David Crowder*Band released A Collision and redefined (at least for me) Christian music. Then I read a book by a now deceased blogger named Michael Spencer (Mere Churchianity) and heard a sermon by an obscure preacher named Max Lucado who called his sermon It's not about Me, It's not about Now. (Of everything I have heard and read by Max Lucado that sermon remains the most powerful and convicting I ever participated in. It was truly a watershed moment in my faith. He also wrote a book with a similar title, which I read. But even the book paled in comparison to the sermon he preached.) I don't even have the space to tell you about what happened when I was introduced to a turn of last century theologian named Peter Taylor Forsyth.
So many books…so many steps….so many sermons…
It took several years of reading and listening to these sermons and allowing these radical ideas to flood my own sermons for me to get fired from the church where I was preaching at the time. OK. I'll be fair. I 'resigned.' And it's been six long years that I have been in the wilderness learning about what Kyle Idleman crammed into 224 pages. And what is worse, I'm not sure God is done ending me just yet. Truth is, we probably don't 'end ourselves' as much as when we submit ourselves to Jesus he undoes us for us. Sometimes the submitting isn't done so willingly either. We may not ask for it. I'm certain it will be (or is) unpleasant (for the most part). And I'm certain it will not be a finished task until after Jesus has returned to claim his own and to set things to rights. Idleman wrote:
Even though most of us can point to a significant event like the ones above, getting to the end of me is not just one moment in life. Reaching the end of me is a daily journey I must make because it's where Jesus shows up and my real life in him begins. (location 49**)
I'm not sure how Idleman crammed so much into 224 pages. I mean, it's taken me more than six years to get where I am and I know that I could fill more than 224 pages, but I like writing and I probably wouldn't work well with an editor. Nevertheless, here I am. Once again I heard the voice of God whispering the truth to my heart and it hurts my ears and demolishes my pride and almost drives me to hopeful despair. Jesus is not easy. Following him is less so. So if John the baptizer 'must become less', how much more must we?
I have not heard these things taught in any of the churches that I have been to in the last six years or so since I stopped preaching and became a special education teacher in a public school. Well, maybe I heard some of it in the Anglican church we attended for a while, but the truth is that when I started thinking deeply about what real faith was like and started to express those thoughts in the pulpit, the people in the pew became increasingly uncomfortable. It was palpable. Truth is, it's just not popular, frankly, to tell the truth about what it means to truly follow Jesus. I mean we all utter things like 'Jesus said to take up our cross, deny ourselves, and follow him.' Yes, we do. But in America that scarcely has the subversiveness that Jesus attached to it. In America we bear crosses of cranky neighbors, Facebook debates with 'liberals' who deny young earth creationism, or long slogs to boring jobs. Idleman brings this back to his readers: "I want to warn you now–so much of Jesus' teachings seem oppositional to what we have come to accept. And the life He invites us to is not just countercultural, it's counterintuitive. More often than not it flies in the face of what feels right" (location 64).
I seriously do not understand how the preacher at a so-called megachurch can say things like this and still have a pulpit to climb into every week. But he said it. And I think he is right. It all seems so backwards to me at times and yet there's this nagging in my brain and heart that tells me he is correct. "Embrace the paradox," he writes, "Brokenness is the way to wholeness." When I read things like this I hear the echoes of those I have read before: Manning, David Wells, Michael Spencer, Eugene Peterson, Lucado, Crowder, Keller, Mullins, Tolkien, Lewis, Carson, Wright, Willimon, Hauerwas, Buchanan, Rowling, and so many, many more. There are so many voices screaming this in their books and pulpits and records and blogs–and yet…here we are…running over the same old ground…retracing our steps to the same old fears and misconceptions about Jesus and what it means to be his disciple. Here in America.
That phrase, 'brokenness is the way to wholeness,' is alone worth the price of the book. I know it's only a retread of something Jesus said, but I don't care. Say it again. Print 224 pages with nothing but that on each page and I'll buy the book because I have lived it–as have many others who will also testify to it's veracity. I cannot explain it or even wrap my head around it. But I see how God in his righteousness has been breaking this chain that bound me–bound me to a pulpit, bound me to an idea, bound me to a people and how he has taken that brokenness and retro-fit me with something better than pulpits, projects, and people. Grace. That's all. Just grace. It means coming to the end of me and realizing that God through Jesus loves me more than I imagined he ever could or would. It means truly living the Resurrection Driven Life (another series of sermons I preached back in the day.)
Even more importantly though is that in coming to the end of me I come to the beginning of others. I've been teaching special education students for 4.5 years now and every day I have to get out of the way and see them. When I was all up in my own business, there was no room for others–even though I served in a hundred different ways. I can honestly question my motives. My students force me each day to end myself. "This is the death we must die. Not a one-time death. Not a partial death. It's a daily dying. And every time I come to the end of me I discover what I deeply wanted all along–real and abundant life in Christ." (Location 2037). In my church of six members, located in a self-contained special education classroom in a public school, I work with emotionally and behaviorally disabled children. Every day they remind me to close the book on myself, to lose myself, to die to myself. They remind me of what it truly means to be the least and the last; the overlooked and forgotten, tucked away safely from the general population where we won't be a problem. Every day these six show me Jesus.
Well, I could go on quoting from the book and preaching this sermon, but I think at this point it's enough to say that I love this book. I like that Idleman, given where he is and what he does, has stayed humble. In many books I read like this, the authors come across somewhat pretentious and condescending. Not so with Idleman. It's a testimony to the leadership in his church, his upbringing, and his training that he has remained in touch with earth. This is what impresses me about this book. I get not a single hint of arrogance or condescension. This book reads like it was written by a fella who has walked with Jesus. His stories are self-deprecating when he tells them, but in truth he doesn't tell a lot of stories about himself–which I appreciate–and instead he tells stories about Jesus. I like this a lot. Too many authors write autobiographies and call them books about Jesus. This book is truly a book about Jesus.
My point is that Idleman seems to think there is something more important for his readers to read than stories about his own faith-prowess or preaching super-skills. He seems to have this idea that it is Jesus who saves and loves and who models for us what being a disciple looks like. So in wonderful fashion, he wrote a book about the end of himself by telling us about Jesus. And I'm sure Kyle Idleman would tell us that a story about Jesus is far more interesting than a story about himself.
This is a book you should buy and read. And then read again. And then buy for someone so they can read it.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase or pre-order (on sale October 1, 2015) The End of Me (Amazon: Kindle) Christian Book Distributors (Paperback) David C Cook (Paperback)
- Author: Kyle Idleman
- Kyle Idleman on Twitter
- Academic Webpage:
- Publisher: David C Cook
- Pages: 224
- Year: 2015
- Audience: Mostly Christians, but others too (maybe)
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided an advance reader's copy courtesy of David C Cook via NetGalley.
**All page locations are relative at this point because I'm using an uncorrected proof. Pages should be checked against the final publication for accuracy.
I remember when I was younger, a mere twenty-something going off to Bible college in the 'big city'–full of small town conservative enthusiasm. I was from a small-town, a little right of right conservative church of Christ/Christian Church. We, of course, do not 'permit' women to have positions of 'authority' or to 'teach men' or to be 'elders' or, for the most part, 'deaconesses.' Imagine my surprise when I went off to college, in the denomination, and in one of my first classes, on Genesis, I was asked to read a commentary by Joyce Baldwin. I still remember, to my shame, speaking of her in a rather condescending way. (Ironically, I'm now teaching part-time at a small Bible college and using Baldwin's commentary on Daniel for the students' textbook. Good times.) I had much to learn about who God uses to teach ignorant people like myself. It's funny, now that I think about it, how much I have had to learn.
Well, here I am many years removed from Bible college. I have moved back to my hometown after 25 some years away and still not much has changed–except me. I have spent considerable time–even this summer–reading a number of books written by female authors and I have been, to a large degree, disappointed. There always seems to be an agenda of some sort or other instead of a simple commentary on what is written. (Oftentimes I find that commentators, whether male or female, tend to read issues back into the commentary so that even though the Biblical author had absolutely no idea such and such was a problem, low and behold, our modern commentator has corrected the biblical author or simply pointed out how, through some exegetical gymnastics, he actually was talking about such and such.) I don't bring this up for no reason. On the contrary, I have learned to appreciate good scholarship regardless of whether its a man or woman writing and in the case of this particular commentary, I am simply happy to have read it because it is just an outstanding, excellently written commentary on the letters of John.
I don't want to hide the fact that I love that Karen Jobes wrote this book. I believe that the church needs to have more female academics writing commentaries and engaging in the difficult work of exegesis. It is my hope that authors/scholars like Karen Jobes will be role models for young girls who are considering Biblical scholarship for a career. I realize it's hard to say that without coming across as a complete and utter chauvinist but here's my point: what I look for in a commentary is a serious scholarship–working with the text, digging deep into the Greek, engaging the tough issues that the text highlights and often what I get is something that is less than serious. I look for an author who wrestles mightily with the text and stays humble before it. I found such an author in this commentary. Maybe I've been out of the loop for too long, but I am glad that the typically male dominated world of New Testament scholarship has authors and scholars like Karen Jobes writing books and explaining the Scripture to us. My life is enriched after having read this book. I recently read and reviewed a book full of sermons. One of the editors was a woman, but sadly there was not one contribution in the entire book by a female preacher. It was a glaring and significant failure of the book.
There's no pretense to this commentary. Jobes alerts the ready in the preface what her positions are with respect to her hermeneutical lens. Basic to this lens is the a priori devotion to the assumption of authorship: whoever wrote the letters we call 'John' also wrote the Gospel we call 'John' (or was at least a 'close associate.') With this said, she goes on to assert that "while the letters must be allowed their own voice, they cannot be properly understood without reference to John's Gospel as the interpretive framework for the metaphors, images, and theology common to both" (15). What follows, then, is a commentary that helps us see and make these connections, at a number of different levels and ways, and it is thus extremely helpful to have the Gospel open at the same time as the commentary. This, in my opinion, is one of the stronger aspects of this commentary because I think too many are willing to divorce the letters from the Gospel.
The commentary is arranged in a convenient manner following what seems to be a fairly standard format. The introduction, which covers all three letters, discusses briefly the significance of the letters, authorship and provenance, historical situation and the so-called 'polemical view' of the letters. In this regard, Jobes makes an important point, that I happen to agree with which is to focus the discussion of these letters based on the author's own statements of why he wrote. Again, this goes to my earlier point that too many times authors bring to the text their own ideas and try to force them to make sense. Jobes' point is this: "His concern was to shepherd those in his spiritual care to remain within the bounds of orthodoxy rather than to directly address the heresy(-ies) that disrupted the church(es); that makes it difficult to reconstruct with specificity the problems being addressed" (25). She notes how this 'frees the interpreter' to focus on John's definition of 'orthodoxy' which necessarily and implicitly 'argues against' many different heresies from then and now. It seems so much easier to do things this way.
I mean this with no hint of sarcasm at all, but imagine that! A commentary that is interested in reading and commenting on what is in the text instead of trying to reconstruct all sorts of things that are not there or that we have imagined are there. This is brilliant and I applaud Jobes for taking such a revolutionary and radical step in exegetical sanity.
There is a lengthy section on the relationship between the letters and John's Gospel and a nice chart showing verbal parallels. Other aspects of the introduction include the date and relationship between the three letters, the place of the letters in the chronology of New Testament history, and canonicity. There is a lengthy bibliography after the introduction just before Jobes engages in a separate introduction for 1 John. (Each letter receives its own introduction.)
The individual introductions will provide more specific details such as genre, purpose, structure, and and outline. There are a couple of different outlines including an exegetical outline. There's also a fresh translation of the text–all of this before we finally arrive at the explanation of the text.
Up to this point in the book, the text has been a one column affair. For some reason I am unable to discern, the book turns to a two column approach when we get to the explanation of the text part and then reverts back to a one column format when we get to the Theological reflections at the end of each section of verses being discussed. I suppose maybe it had something to do with space concerns, but I'm not sure. It's not a terrible thing, but I didn't particularly care for it. The explanation is based wholly on the Greek text and it is particular. Nothing escapes Jobes and she is willing to make as many literary and verbal connections as the author gives us ("The Johannine corpus is well known for its abundant wordplays and double entendres.." (47)). It should come as no surprise to anyone reading this commentary that the first four verses of 1 John are particularly infused with meaning and depth and that Jobes takes us as far as the text can take us.
The book is heavily footnoted–which is greatly appreciated–and Jobes is well acquainted with all the important literature, developments, and authors on the subject of John's letters in particular and literature in general. She doesn't skirt controversial issues or try to explain them away, but engages them and makes her case for each point of view she supports. In other words, this is a thorough work–as one might expect from the title.
There are also blocked out sections where the author goes 'in depth' and discusses a 'side-issue' such as whether or not we should use the word 'Messiah' or 'Christ' when talking about Jesus or 'truth' in John's letters. Finally, each section includes a 'theology in application' section where she talks about the aforementioned 'explanation of the text' in practical terms.
I love the section where Jobes translates the Greek text for the reader. It's in a text box and is analytical in nature or, maybe the old fashioned way is to say that the sentences are somewhat diagrammed so that each aspect of translation is also somewhat interpreted. So, for example, 1 John 2:1-6, verse 1 is: 1a (address: my little children) b (assertion: these things I write to you) c (purpose: so that you will not sin). This is a most helpful analysis because it opens up our understanding of the text insofar as we can 'see' it before us–even if there may be some subjectivity involved. I think this will be especially helpful for the reader who is new to Greek or maybe someone who just wants to visualize it without doing the work for themselves. It is a bit interpretive, so as with all things, one really should do their own analysis.
At the end of the book, there is a section called: The Theology of John's Letters. Here the author explores the significant contribution these letters make to our understanding of New Testament Christianity: "The preeminent theological point of John's letters is consistent with the overarching message of the NT in general: that Jesus Christ, God's Son, has come from God the Father to die as the atoning sacrifice for sin, and on the basis of his self-sacrifice, to create for God a new covenant people who will both know him and enjoy eternal life with him" (340). I might quibble a bit with that wording because it sounds way too neo-Reformed for my taste, but Jobes does make her case in this work for her perspective and point of view. At best, she is keeping the meta-narrative in mind as she writes; at worst, she snaps it off just a bit too soon (I think there's more to it than Jesus merely being the 'atoning sacrifice for sin'; that's a big part of it, but there's certainly more. Jobes may or may not agree and it may or may not be a part of 1 John.)
There's a substantial Scripture index, Apocrypha index, subject index, and author index at the very end–substantial enough that whoever wrote it might have been awarded co-authorship of the book! But it is worth the effort to put these appendices together and I am, personally grateful for their inclusion.
I think the same thing can be said of most commentaries: there are things you will agree with the author upon and things you will not. When it's all said and done, I don't think any commentary is written by an author with the expectation that there will be a unanimous voice raised in agreement. Authors write these books to address issues and raise questions that are close to their own hearts, to help us think more deeply about the biblical text, and to engage our minds in significantly deep, Spirit led, thought. Sometimes I think they write them so they can themselves can think through a particular subject. Ultimately, I think what we hope to find is nuggets of exegetical wisdom and splendor–stuff we can use. In this accessible, well written commentary, the author gives us a variety of ways to approach the text of John's Letters:through theological reflection, Greek translation, explanation of the text, outlines, excursions, and introductions. Everyone will find at least one of these approaches useful in their own search for understanding of John's literature.
This commentary is thorough, enthusiastically written, and a welcome addition to the pantheon of literature available on Johannine literature. The reader will be greatly rewarded for journeying through this book and enjoying the thoughtful and timely insights Jobes has to offer. I am supremely happy to have read this book and I am glad I now know of Karen Jobes. I will look forward to reading more of her work and mixing her work with the authors and scholars whose work I have already enjoyed, and keeping it close at hand when I study John's literature again.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: 1, 2, 3 John Amazon ($27.93, Kindle $22.99) Zondervan Academic ($34.99) CBD ($24.99)
- Author: Karen Jobes
- Academic Webpage: Karen Jobes
- Editor: Clinton E. Arnold
- Publisher: Zondervan Academic
- Pages: 369
- Year: 2014
- Audience: Preachers, college professors, students of New Testament
- Reading Level: College Level
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free reader's copy courtesy of Zondervan Academic via NetGalley.
Can you imagine if Karl Barth sat down to write Church Dogmatics and began with an exceptional account of how wrecked his life has been by sin, how disturbed his family is/was, and other unsavory and sordid details of his confusion, pain, and suffering and then told us the story of how God redeemed it, made it whole, and eventually used that life to change the lives of countless other equally shattered and broken people?
Neither can I. But maybe if he had, Church Dogmatics, as much fun as they are to read, would be even more fun. (I confess I have not read through the entire Dogmatics, so maybe he did I and I don't know it.)
To be sure, God for the Rest of Us is not Church Dogmatics. Most will probably be thankful for this. But it is another book among a collection of books that continue to be published by Christian publishing houses who are convinced that the every day readers in the church want to read stories about how terrible the lives of their favorite preachers have been. Preachers used to be paragons of untouchable virtue and holiness. Not so much anymore. It's kind of a newer trend where we get insights into practical Christianity via the growth process of (insert favorite preacher's name here). We get to read about their struggles, their families, their suffering, their pain, their doubt, their heroics, their rise from the squalor of outcast kid who doubts his way through Bible college on to having some sort of an epiphany and their subsequent rise to become super-hero pastors of super-mega-giant churches that are doing everything right that most other churches do wrong.
I hate to be this way, but this is the trend. I don't see it slowing down anytime soon because evidently there is a market for it. Evidently, people are buying this stuff. When I think about my own 'rise to stardom' in the world of churchianity, I usually end up sitting around wondering why it is that some people suffer so much and end up writing books and others of us suffer so much and end up reviewing those books. Sometimes, I suppose we come off as bitter.
This is partly what you get though when you read God for the Rest of Us. I'm not, necessarily, suggesting this is a bad thing. Those who read this book will figure that out on their own. To be sure, I think people should read this book because despite my conviction that the preacher should not be the focus of his sermon or an illustration (I learned this in elementary homiletics classes) in this case what we learn is that Antonucci is not some stuck up snobbish preacher unwilling to get close to people or to have people close to him. I like that this is a man who has been through the mud a time or two and yet somehow or other found Jesus. Or maybe Jesus found him. Or maybe Jesus dogged his footsteps until he turned around and asked where the Master where he was staying or the Master informed him he was coming over for dinner. Maybe its a little bit of all of it. Maybe Jesus follows us long before we ever follow him. I don't know. My point is that while I have grown somewhat weary of reading stories about the preachers who have struggled and suffered so much prior to Jesus (and sometimes after Jesus too) and share it in their books, churches, and t-shirts, church curricula, and DVDs, there is something to be said about what these preachers have learned from these experiences.
I think this book is, partly, the evidence of what Antonucci learned through his experiences.
While some Christians seem to go out of their way to protect God from the unseemly and untidy and unwashed heathens in this world, Antonucci goes out of his way to demonstrate that it is precisely 'these types' of people in whom God is most interested. Jesus did say 'it's the sick who need a doctor, not the well.' OK. So Antonucci has a vision one day, or a calling, and he packs up the family and moves to Vegas where he, following the lead of Jesus, starts to befriend and minister to all the wrong people–you know, people who would never fit in in our comfortable, white-washed, stained glass, middle-class suburban campus style churches. And a church starts to grow–and the Lord 'added to their number daily those who were being saved'–right in the middle of Las Vegas.
And if this story is true, and why shouldn't it be and how can it not be, it is utterly remarkable and unnerving the people that Jesus loves into his church through his people.
I heard a young preacher say something once that was utterly brilliant. He said, we cannot build relationships if we don't start them first. Oh, he had me hooked after that because I know that I am a somewhat strange person when it comes to relationships. Antonucci agrees: "The way to change a life is not by judging people but by embracing them. Not by pointing out their sins but by pointing the way to hope" (19). I mean, how simple can one get? He goes further (and I've read variations of this before, so it's nothing new, but I think it sets the tone for what the book is about): "What's so disturbing is that what Jesus was known for–amazing grace–is the exact opposite of what Christians are known for today. We're known for judgment and condemnation. We're known not for what we're for–loving God and loving people–but for what we're against" (19). It's really hard to argue with this.
When I was still a preacher, here I go breaking my own rule, I was one time ripped a new one in a board meeting because I helped a friend with his taxi service. The reason I was ripped? Well, you see, I picked up drunks from bars, I drove people to a local gambling facility, and every now and again I picked up and drove 'exotic dancers' home. You'd never believe some of the conversations I had with people in that car. But it was too much for the uptight members of the board–after all, I was a preacher and I shouldn't be seen in such places or with such people. (It's a true story. It wasn't too long after that that I left the church.) I think God was teaching me to love people. I should have stayed at the church because I ended up not being very loving towards those board members who seem to want to stifle and criticize me.
Love even the judgmental. God is for church boards.
I don't know what is so difficult about loving people right where they are and then allowing God to do the hard work of changing them. But let's take it a step further and suggest that it is our goal to change people, "If our goal is to change people's behavior, to get them to repent, is fear really the best way to do that?" (156) Spend enough time trolling the blogs and you will see that there are a lot of Christians who believe just that. Spend enough time with Jesus and you will see that it will never work because even those who are won over by fear will not last long. Maybe the voices of those who spend more time with Jesus ought to be the voices heard the most by those who think of God as someone who could never love them. Our lives are shaped and we thrive by love. Fear motivates me to nothing, but love? "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). What else need be said?
God is for us, and if he is, who can be against us? Yes, this is spoken in particular to Christians, but isn't there also a sense in which we can say that God is for all people? God is patient and not willing any one should perish. God wants all people to come to a knowledge of the truth. All. That is a huge, huge word that is too often left out of our Christianese dictionary. We need to embrace it. We need to embrace all people. And seriously who cares if we embrace people and they take advantage of us or persist in their sin? Will God find fault with us for loving all people?
Ask yourself: Will God judge the church more harshly for loving all people with great love even though they might take advantage of us or for only loving some people who treat us kindly? I think it would be better to ere on the side of love than discernment. God can do the judging, we are called to do the loving.
So, yes, there are parts of the book that made me uncomfortable. For example, I don't know about his list of apologies on 112ff, but I suppose if my apology will lead someone to Jesus, then I'll offer it. What do I care? What matters most: my squeamishness at offering apologies for things I never did? Or someone else seeing the Love of Jesus? I like that he takes the time to open up lengthy passages of Scripture for us and walk through them. In particular, the story Jonah, the story of the woman accused of adultery in John 8, and the story of the Prodigal from Luke 15 were well told. I like that he made reference to The Count of Monte Cristo; I dislike that it was the movie version. I like the stories of redeemed lives and how God took broken people and made them whole again. I like how he is honest about who he is and where he's from because even though I get a little tired of the personal 'how I rose from nothing to start a church and write books' stories, I think in this case it grounds the reader: Antonucci understands well the depths of God's love for all people–not just the few we think ought to be saved. God is for everyone. You name the category, the sub-category, or whatever: God loves people. That's the point. God loves people. So should we.
I am glad for that because this also means he was and is for me. That says a lot.
He ends the book with a worthy challenge for those who read it: Whom Do You Least Want to Love? That's all I'll say because I want you to read the book (so does Antonucci) and I want you to answer the question. I have to answer the question too because I suspect there are a lot of people I find it difficult to love. And yet God loves me. I must change.
Notes are appended at the end and there's a nice appendix titled 'My ABC Book of People God Loves." It just may shock you to see the people God is for, but it may also affirm that you are on the right path in your own choices of who you love. Good reading here. I recommend this book for all Christians who struggle to love people who are different. I recommend this book for all Christian who think it is their job to change people or to judge people. I recommend this book for Christians who are more in love with discernment than they are with Jesus. I recommend this book for Christians who truly believe that God does not want anyone to perish.
Get this book. Read it. Think on it. Then go love someone–maybe someone you never thought you could love.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase God for the Rest of Us Tyndale House Publishers (Trade Paperback $15.99) Amazon (Kindle $9.99 Pre-order) CBD (Paperback $12.99)
- God for the Rest of Us on the internet
- Author: Vince Antonucci On Twitter
- Where Vince hangs out with People Jesus Loves: Verve
- Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
- Pages: 255
- Year: August 2015
- Audience:Pastors, preachers, Christians, missionaries, elders, deacons, young people, old people, people whose lives are a trainwreck, seekers, the saved, the lost, the helpless and hopeless, the loveless, the judgmental
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free advance reading copy courtesy of Tyndale Blog Network.
- Page numbers in this review are based on an ARC. Numbering may be different in final publication.
Every time I get ready to write a book review, I start to feel like I'm about to do something huge–like lead worship with feeble guitar skills, or send out the starting line-up for a little league game, or get in the ring with a prize fighter. It's always nerve wracking and it's always a bit daunting–especially when the author of the book is someone who is fairly well known and fairly well respected.
With that being said, I have to ask an honest question: Why does anyone want to read a book by Barnabas Piper? And an extension of this question goes something like this: Can I read/review this book without making even that passing reference to his, arguably, more famous father? One shouldn't have anything to do with the other, right?
Yet this is exactly where my first question comes in: what has Barnabas Piper done in his life that is justification for reading his book about matters of faith, Jesus, Church, being a disciple of Jesus, and so on and so forth? Is it his struggles, his doubts, his family name, or something else? There is nothing novel or unique about what he says in this book. There is nothing extraordinary in this book that I haven't read before. There is nothing about this book that makes a little light bulb hover above my head.
I'm not saying it's a terrible book. I am saying that it's nothing new and so I wonder who it was written for, what the market is, and why I would want to buy this book. Can the book stand on it's own?
Piper states his purpose in writing: "My goal is to help you see that belief isn't blind faith and that questions, if asked well, are building blocks for strong faith rather than stepping stones away from it." (Kindle, Location 87). OK. This is good. But why should I trust that this particular author has the answers to these questions? And does the author, ultimately, accomplish his purpose? The first question, I am unsure how to answer. Some people will trust his answers, but I'm not sure they know why they trust his answers. This gets back to that second question I asked above which had something to do with whether or not I can read this book apart from the knowledge of who he is related to. I think other people will find his answers shallow or cliched. This is not a deep book, it's not a book that takes you on a whirlwind, big city adventure through the Bible. It's full of lots of nice quotes from famous people and anecdotes about his own personal journey.
The second question (does he accomplish his purposes) is a yes/no for me. Let me give you an example of the problem as I see it.
Piper asks some difficult questions in the book, but what if his particular theological disposition that underlies his answers is flawed? How do we understand his answers? So: "If He chooses who will be saved, then why are unchosen people held responsible for their actions and His choice?" (Kindle location 447; he does mention human free will at location 577, but I'm not sure how he means it given everything else he has written in the book). This is a question he asks that has a presupposition underneath it: God intentionally saves some and intentionally condemns the rest. I simply cannot agree with his proposition and it was difficult for me to separate what I suspect/know of his theological tendencies and the answers he gives to some of the questions in the book.
I just read this morning, 2 Peter 3:9: "The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient towards you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance." (ESV) Or what about Paul in 1 Timothy 2:3-4: "This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior who desires all people to come to the knowledge of the truth." (ESV) I think this is the main problem I have with the book. It is beholden to a theological proposition that simply cannot be maintained logically if one reads the entire Bible, observes human nature, and thinks logically. There is no way we can say that God wants all to be saved and then turn around and say that God only saves a few and that the unchosen are, well, lost. There is no way to say that God chooses some for salvation and not others unless you are willing to attribute evil to God.
This is the No side of my answer.
On the Yes side of my answer I had to wait until I got all the way to the appendix 1: Reading the Bible to Meet God. This was the most satisfying part of the book for me: "We must learn to read the whole story of Scripture from beginning to end." (Location 1449). I think in this part of the book he offers us the solutions that I had been waiting for through the entire book because it is here that he finally engages Scripture–to an extent–or should I say encourages us to engage the Scripture. It was most disappointing that this section only made it to an appendix–as if we will find more answers to our doubts and struggles by reading anecdotes about Piper's doubts and life instead of reading stories from the Scripture.
Nevertheless, the points he makes in Appendix 1 are quite good–I only wish he had explored them more in the main text because frankly they would have made better chapters: Read the whole Bible; look for Jesus; get to know Jesus; don't shy away from the hard stuff; start small (I'm iffy on this section); don't read the Bible as a set of rules; pray for the Spirit's help. These are actually the answers we needed when it comes to living in the tension between doubt and faith because the chapters he gives us are really only his beliefs and theological dispositions–many of which, as I noted above, are simply incompatible with the whole Bible he encourages us to read (such as his acceptance of the five solas; I still struggle with how there can be five 'onlys'. Kindle, chapter 2).
One final note of importance. I agree with the author that it is OK for the church or individual Christians to say things like 'I don't know.' I have had to learn this as a human who always wants to have an answer to the questions people ask me. I think we are afraid if we say 'I don't know' people will think we are stupid so we end up giving answers that absolutely confirm our stupidity. So it's OK for the church, or for Christians, to have no answers to all the suffering and violence that goes on around us. It's OK to ask questions: "Questions are an indication of trust." And here I think Piper answers his own questions well: "By revealing what He did in Scripture, God created a massive mystery. He gave us an enigma, a puzzle, a riddle with so many dimensions and plotlines and layers and themes that even just those sixty-six books have generated libraries of volumes of thought, argument, and questions" (Kindle location 225). Yes. Even in our doubts, in some mysterious way, we point to Jesus for answers even if our mouths happen to stay closed.
In short, we do not have to have all the answers to all the questions or perhaps better, we do not have all the answers to all the questions. It's OK to sit in silence for a while and pray. As the time worn conclusion goes, "It's better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open the mouth and remove all doubt." I think this is something that the Church in general should learn and I think Piper is right to emphasize this point. I think it's OK to live in the tension between grace and doubt and to let grace be sufficient. (See chapter 8, So What and What Now?, Kindle location 1381ff).
Overall, the book is not terrible. It's not the best I've read, but not the worst either. I think for some people it will be wholly unsatisfying and for others it will be a good introduction. He has some good and important things to say and he has some other insufficient things to say–especially as it relates to his theological under girding. I didn't come away from the book wholly satisfied, but I didn't come away wholly unchallenged either. I think if a person can weave through some of the theological underpinnings and get to the core of his discussion (which I confess was difficult for me) then there may be some fruit to be realized. At least Piper is humble enough understand that the church is bigger than his opinions and ideas and thoughts and for this I respect him (see the Afterward) and my disagreements with him theologically are not to be interpreted as personal attacks.
At the end of the day, his best advice was found near the end: "In God's infinite wisdom the best way to bring more people to belief is to show them a massively varied story pointed in one direction–to Himself" (Kindle location 1355). I think he is correct on this point and that he does well to point it out. Maybe soon the church will become the place where all such things are discussed in detail precisely because we are all looking for Jesus to arrive…because I'm inclined to think that Jesus will arrive long before any of us do. And this keeps us hungry. And humble. And searching. All things Piper suggests we need to do and be.
Doubt, in a way, keeps us safe because it keeps us moving forward in search of Jesus. Someday he will surprise us and be found. I know that I personally long for a church where I am free to live in the tension and find satisfaction in Jesus alone.
So, to answer my earlier question: Yes. I think this is a book that can stand on its own. I'm not buying all he is selling, but neither am I dismissing it. There's much to think about and much to enjoy.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase Help My Unbelief David C Cook (Trade Paperback, $14.99) Amazon (Kindle, $9.99) Christian Book Distributors (Paperback, $10.99)
- Author: Barnabas Piper
- Publisher: David C Cook
- Pages: 176
- Year: 2015
- Audience:Pastors, preachers, Christians, missionaries, elders, deacons, young people, old people
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free advance reading copy courtesy of David C Cook via NetGalley
- Interview with Barnabas Piper @Christianity Today
- Page numbers in this review are based on a Kindle version ARC. Numbering may be different in final publication.
God's Love Compels Us is a collection of sermons based on the text of 2 Corinthians 4-5 (4 sermons), Psalm 22 (1 sermon), and two other topical sermons written by well educated men who are preachers or scholars or missionaries. The first three sermons are by D.A. Carson (who also edited the book), David Platt, and John Piper. The rest of the sermons were written by gentlemen I've never heard of before, but hearing their stories and ideas was refreshing and was welcome. I especially enjoyed the contributions written by Michael Oh and Mack Stiles.
The first four sermons (each sermon makes up a chapter for a total of 7 chapters) are wholly exegetical sermons and follow the text being expounded closely. Two of the last three sermons are topical. Michael Oh's contribution is an exposition of Psalm 22. I would expect nothing else from a Don Carson book. The book is dense and packed with deep theological thoughts and ideas which flow from a deeply held Reformed theology. There is not a lot of nuance to the sermons. They are fairly straightforward propositional and exegetical sermons.
The work focuses primarily on the issue of missions work and why we do it and perhaps to a lesser extent how we do it. There's a lot of emphasis on where we do missions work also.
I have but a couple of thoughts.
There are a lot of stories about missionaries from days gone by who did the hard work of taking the Gospel to strange and exotic locations–like CT Studd who went to China or Hudson Taylor who did the same. And even though I've heard these stories hundreds of times in books and sermons it is still good to hear them afresh, maybe from a different angle. There are a lot of statistics about how many people live in the world and how many are unsaved ("If Jesus did rise from the dead, then it is the height of arrogance to sit quietly by while 597 million Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Sikhs in North India go to hell.", 26*, sermon by David Platt. I'm not sure who among us is sitting around arrogantly while this happens, but I suppose a little rhetorical hyperbole is the way preachers work.) You will also find in this book a lot of the standard Reformed doctrines of salvation. This is not a bad thing in and of itself (even if I don't happen to buy all of the propositions), but it seems to me there is so much more worth exploring that perhaps the preachers should have given some thought to varying the messages. In other words, there is a tremendous amount of repetition in the book. And as good as salvation is, I am inclined to think that the apostle Paul, who wrote the letter a number of these sermons are based upon, had a little more in mind when he was writing than mere formulations of theological salvation propositions.
For example, what about the kingdom of God? I was able to find all of four references to the Kingdom of God in the entire book. This was disappointing if it is true that we 'represent the foreign power of the kingdom of God' (Stiles, chapter 4). I wish this idea had been explored a little more within the context of God's love compelling us to missionary work.
We also hear a lot about the exotic locations around the world where there is a serious deficiency of Gospel proclamation and belief. Yes. It is true there are a lot of Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus without the Gospel in the Middle East, India, and Asia. What we don't hear a lot about in this book is the deficits here in America. If we are looking for depth of faith as opposed to width of belief then maybe those who are Christians in the Middle East or India or Asia or Africa ought to be sending missionaries to the United States instead of the other way around. It's just a thought, but it seems to me that, to a certain extent, this book is too well educated to stir up the common American Christian to do much. Indeed, it is based on a pre-conference conference on world mission 'designed especially, though not exclusively, for students' in 'April 2013' (from the preface).
Is this a book that will stir up the church in general? Is the audience preachers who will read it? Students who will study it for a cross-cultural evangelism class in undergraduate school? This is a book that needs to be in the hands of the church in general so I wonder if the authors are, to a sad extent, preaching to the choir?
Carson writes in the preface that world mission is no longer "'from the West to the rest,' but more like 'from everywhere to everywhere..'" And this is my point. Still, the book doesn't lay much emphasis on this 'everywhereness' to include the USA. I well understand the book's intention, but this seems to me a deficiency. If it is true that, as Carson writes, there are 'thousands of unreached people groups' and 'larger populations where knowledge of Scripture is desperately thin' and places where 'nominalism or syncretism reigns supreme' and 'the gospel is poorly understood and widely disbelieved' then it seems to me someone ought to have addressed this concern directly here in the USA where all of this is true too. This is my opinion. I didn't edit or write the book. I just think that what he is describing is, in fact, America. Look around! The famine is here in America too.
Another important aspect of the book is something that Stiles said in chapter four, something I have not heard any other preacher say in the days since our world in America changed: "We were convinced that the response of the church to the events of 9/11 must not be military, but missionary. So we moved when the home sold" (p 53). This is absolutely overwhelming! And what Stiles did was move to the Middle East. I don't think I have read a single line like this in all the books I have read since 9/11/01, by any author, from any denomination. I don't think I've heard a single preacher say this. Why? This quote alone should be preached and is worth the price of the book.
I wish this had been said more by preachers. I'm convinced that it is the only way anything is going to happen even now so many years removed from that event. I think what's happening, though, is that the church is ceding more and more of this prerogative to our government. It's not just in matters of international diplomacy either. It's all around us as churches lose ground in our cities and states and small towns and governments, big and little, local, state, and federal gain ground. It's sad, really, that this Kingdom to which we belong and which we are gives so much ground. The gates of hell shall not prevail, said Jesus. Hmm.
A book on missions is, thus, important and necessary for here in America too.
Finally, a disappointment. There is not a single contribution by a woman in the book. Yes, it is edited by Kathleen Nielson and she gets some props in the preface written by Carson. But she doesn't even get a line on a dedication page. I'm terribly disappointed that we get to hear from zero of the outstanding female voices in the evangelical church–voices that would certainly add depth and perspective to the idea of world missions. I wish the editors and publisher would have given this more thought and tried to include at least one female voice.
When it's all said and done, I think this is a helpful book. I'm not enamored with the all of the writing (mostly because I've read enough of Carson's work that he is predictable at this point and I'm not really a fan of Piper). Hearing from some fresh voices was a good thing for this book (Oh, Stiles, and Um were especially welcome voices) and I hope to hear some more from these preachers in the future.
The book has a helpful page at the end where we learn more of the biographical information about the authors–their education, family life, and educational background. There is a very helpful index and another Scripture index that I found especially useful. On my ePub version everything is hyperlinked which I love! I was also able to highlight and add notes which again I love. Notes are at the end of each chapter which is better than at the end of the book.
I will leave this review with a quote from the book that I found to be especially fruitful and which, in my opinion, needs to be offered more and more by preachers in America. To this end, it is my hope that preachers who read this book will be challenged to preach the Gospel–in season and out of season, to their congregations–in order that this Kingdom to which we belong, that this God who loves us so, will be plainly evident to the world and so that once again the church will start pushing back the gates of hell:
Consider Luke 14:13-14…Note that, in context, Jesus is primarily concerned not with giving guidelines for how to throw a party, but with challenging the give-to-get economy under which the Pharisees are operating. They throw parties and invite honorable guests in order to be invited to parties thrown by honorable guests. Jesus is suggesting that they radically flip this on its head. He is making the point that, if you know the unrepayable, nonmercenary nature of God's grace, it is borne out in your actions: you engage in one-way giving, being radically generous with your time, money, and relational capital. In other words, those who have received a gift that they can never repay are those who have the resources to give away gifts that can never be repaid. (101)
Yep. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase God's Love Compels Us Amazon (Kindle, $9.59) CBD ($11.49) Crossway ($14.99)
- Author: D.A. Carson & Kathleen Nielson
- Publisher: Crossway
- Pages: 126
- Year: 2015
- Audience:Pastors, preachers, Christians, missionaries, students
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free reader's copy courtesy of Crossway via the Beyond the Book Blogger program
- *My page numbers are based on the ePub version I downloaded for my NOOK reader. Page numbers may or may not correspond to print versions or Kindle locations.
Many, may years ago when I was still young, I felt I was being led to be the preacher of a certain church. I began going through all the motions–sending a resume, sample sermon, meeting families and members of the church, preaching trial sermon(s), and finally submitting to a vote of the congregation. During the course of this process I met with a particular gentleman who also happened to be an elder in the church. He was an older man, from a different generation, and was necessarily conservative in his theology. I distinctly recall our meeting one day before I was hired. We were sitting in a quiet room off of the main sanctuary talking with the door closed. I distinctly remember his question to me: What do you think about 'the gays'? Not, "What do you think about Jesus?" But, "What do you think about 'the gays'?"
This is all prefatory to my review of this book called Messy Grace. I received this in the mail on July 21 and on July 22 made it my ambition to read it. I did. It took me about 3 hours (because I underline and make a lot of notes.) I will just say, straight up, I love this book. That's right. I love it. Now don't mistake my loving of the book for agreement with all things written in the book, but I think it is safe to say that by and large there is nothing in this book that I find theologically repugnant.
For this review, I'm staying wholly positive. Except for a couple of minor quibbles (his use of the word 'gender' as a synonym for 'sex', and a couple of generalizations, for example), I have no complaints at all about this book. This is an important book that needs to be read because it strikes a beautiful balance between grace and truth and helps us apply both wisely in our relationships and witness to people who are different from us. So while I understand that he is writing to Christians about the manner in which we relate to homosexuals, as you will see in my conclusion, it's really about how we relate to anyone who is different from us.
So, a few points to highlight.
This past Sunday our preacher made a statement that was utterly profound in its simplicity. He said (and I'm paraphrasing): "We cannot build relationships with people unless we start them." I couldn't agree with him more. The author of Messy Grace makes similar statements throughout the book. One that I found helpful begins on page 31: "It's imperative that we have grace for people while they are still thinking, speaking, and acting in ways we might not agree with. And we need to overcome our own inner resistance to getting involved in a relationship with them. A real mark of spiritual maturity is how we treat someone who is different from us" (31-32, his emphasis.) Isn't this how all of us want to be treated? Do any of us want to be outcasts from the church until we get all of our life together?
The church would be empty.
Kaltenbach consistently calls us to evaluate this question of how we treat other people. He is absolutely on mark when he calls the church to think differently about the way we treat those who are different from us–those who happen to be on a journey that moves at a different speed than the one we are on. I think it is fair for Christians to ask why someone would say, "Christians don't like anyone who's not like them" (39). Could it be that in some ways those who are different from us are in fact more understanding and loving and compassionate than those of us who are called to be defined by those very things: loving, kind, compassionate, and understanding? Shouldn't this change? Shouldn't the church be a place where people can be vulnerable and weak and loved?
"Part of the pursuit is being honest with people, but doing so in a loving way." (45) This theme is developed over and over again in the book. He's asking us to evaluate who we are because of Jesus. Has Jesus changed us? Has he made us new or not? If we are still stuck in days gone by ways of thinking and judging then might we not ask if we have really met Jesus at all?
Second, I want to add that by and large the author handles Scripture very well and does not shy away from the so-called hard passages that talk about homosexuality. He affirms over and over again the testimony of Jesus, Paul, and others. So for example, he notes that "nowhere in the New Testament, however, does God define acceptable sexuality as being other than between one man and one woman. In fact, the New Testament specifically reaffirms the Old Testament's position that same-gender sexual activity is not acceptable" (86). He says later, "Another way to say this is that Jesus had to chance to define an intimate relationship as being other than male-female, but he did not" (90).
This book, so far as I can tell, is wholly orthodox which is a way of saying that he is not blurring lines in Scripture in order to spare people the truth. In contrast to other books on this subject, he is not performing exegetical somersaults to make his point one way or another. He is reading Scripture and talking about its plain meaning. He lays it out for us and allows us to think on matters. He candidly admits we might disagree with him and that he is still searching some things. He is telling us what the Bible says. But he is saying we need to be gracious…much in the same way 'God demonstrated his own love for us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.' We do well, as Christians, to bear this in mind continually in our dealings with people.
Finally, there is one more thing that stood out to me as important and something that I think served to minister to the author and in some ways served as the catalyst for the writing of the book. He tells in the book the story of his own conversion experience and he tells how his family reacted to his conversion to Jesus. I wrote in the margin on page 118 that Caleb is saying we should respond to homosexuals about their sexuality exactly not how his parents responded to him about his faith. Then a couple of pages later I read that 'the irony of this situation was that my parents thought I would disown them, when in actuality I felt as if they were disowning me" (123). The point is that he did not like at all the way he felt when he was rejected for his faith in Jesus. I'm glad he remembered that feeling. I'm even gladder he shared it with us.
Something tells me that this feeling stayed with him as he grew older and was trying to work through all the things he writes of in the book–in particular, how is he going to treat others because of his faith in Jesus? There is a significant lesson here for all of us who claim Jesus. In America we experience very little rejection because of our faith, but maybe that's not the best thing at all. We grow in our experience. Caleb's experience of rejection taught him how it feels to be rejected and thus how someone else might feel if they are rejected. I see God's brilliance here and I see a brilliant man who understood well the lesson that Jesus was teaching him. Would that more of us learned this lesson. It might make us more compassionate believers and more easily accessible to those who face it daily.
I love that he is open and honest about the relationships he has formed in life with those God has brought to him. I love that this guy didn't write a book crying and moaning and complaining about his 'terrible life' being raised by divorced, gay parents. I love that this guy wrote a book that at its core is telling us to get over ourselves and get to loving people–like Jesus did.
I love that he is open and honest. I love that he weeps and laughs and gets angry and is confused and is (still) searching–I love that when this guy lost someone close to him, he had a group of people to weep with him. I mean this when I say that this book touched me precisely because it is honest and unflinching and yet vulnerable and emotive. He helps us understand that no matter what we believe, there are no easy answers and that there will be pain along the way. But he also lets us see that we belong to a God of hope and mercy and grace and truth and love and Jesus.
Let me tell you how much I love this book!
Here's the truth that I have figured out after a long time in and out of ministry: this book isn't just about Christians and LGBT people even if that is the overwhelming paradigm being established in it. It's about Christians and all people. It's about the way Christians treat one another: abysmally. It's about the way we treat old people: horribly. It's about the way we treat young people: dismally. It's about the way we treat poor people: dishonorably. It's about the way we treat liberals: ugly. It's about the way we treat conservatives: angrily. It's about the way we treat foreigners: condescendingly. Frankly, it's about the way we treat one another–all the time, in every way, in every circumstance. We are not nice people when it comes too most people who are different from us. I could tell you how I have been treated by the church when I was a preacher. It's not pretty.
I teach special education. I have since I was removed from ministry against my will about 6 years ago. You know what I have learned since I started working with students who have autism, Down Syndrome, emotional and behavioral disabilities, ADHD, and more? They all, all to a very large extent although not literally all, come from extremely dysfunctional, broken, and wrecked families. Yep. Almost without fail there is divorce, separation, jail, death, poverty, substance abuse, abuse (in one form or another) and more. And these are the people that God has called me to minister to–not just the students, but the parents. And you know what I have to do? I have to be nice. To all of them. All the time. Every day. I can't tell the parents what I really think. I can't make them all rich or fix all of their marriages. But I say this honestly: I have learned–as an educator in public schools–how not to be judgmental. That's right: how to love people, all people, any people is my daily objective. Anyone who walks through my classroom door. Anyone with whom I come in contact with: I am an agent of God's grace in an often ugly environment.
But it's not just about being nice while something else is swirling in my head. It's about changing and actually becoming a different person (CS Lewis describes this change brilliantly in Mere Christianity, chapter 10, "Nice people or new men?") It's about being a nice person and not just about being nice to people. Anyone can be nice, but not all of us are truly, genuinely lovers of people. God takes these barriers of soft bigotry and hard prejudice and breaks them down–like he did the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles. I truly believe this book, Messy Grace, will go a long way towards helping people not just be nice (which is a nice way of saying 'being hypocrites') but also to transform them into the sort of people who actually, truly, genuinely love people for Jesus' sake, love people for their own sake. This is what he has called us to do. To love people, other humans–our brothers and sisters in flesh. To minister to them. To bring the healing of Jesus into their lives when they are ready for it. And to let God do his work on them when he is ready to do his work.
"Christians need to stop trying to convert people's sexuality. It isn't our job to change someone's sexual orientation. You and I are not called by God to make gay people straight. It is our job to lead anyone and everyone to Christ. I believe God is big enough to deal with a person's sexuality" (185).
Well said. Very well said.
It will never be easy for Christians in this culture of 'I want to see results now.' But we can if we are patient, if we pray, and if we pay attention to the often subtle movements of the Holy Spirit of Jesus. My prayer is that our Father will use this book to change the hearts and minds and attitudes of the church of Christ into such as we see in Jesus who welcomed all who came and never drove any away, who called all to repentance, who loved all right where they were but wasn't content to leave them there, who didn't condemn but commanded us to change.
And this is the message to the church. First. First Jesus speaks to the church. And we must listen.
You will do well to pre-order this book and read it prayerfully in one sitting. You will be rewarded for doing so.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase Messy Grace Amazon (Paperback, pre-order for $11.24; October 20, 2015) CBD (Paper back, $10.99; pre-order 10/20/2015); WaterBrook Multnomah (Trade paperback, $14.99; pre-order).
- Author: Caleb Kaltenbach on Twitter | Messy Grace
- Publisher: WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group
- Pages: 212 (ARC, page count may be different in final publication)
- Year: October 20, 2015
- Audience:Pastors, preachers, Christians, missionaries, elders, deacons, young people, old people
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free advance reading copy courtesy of WaterBrook Press via the Blogging for Books Blogger program
- Page numbers in this review are based on the ARC. Numbering may be different in final publication.
This is the sixth book in the Stanley series written by children's author Linda Bailey and illustrated by Bill Slavin. It was my first introduction to the Stanley series and the experience was a good one.
One of the best things about being an elementary school teacher is that I am exposed to children's books all day, every day. In graduate school, I had to take two or three classes just on children's literature alone in order to be fully qualified to teach. I love picture books and I find that, as I've noted elsewhere, it's kind of difficult to write a bad children's book. I mean, you really have to work hard to mess it up. Bailey and Slavin did not mess this book up at all. It was well written and a fancy story about some dogs and a dog name Stanley.
Part of the problem I had with reading this book is that it is the latest in the series of Stanley books. I had no context for how to interpret these characters. Early on I had to get to know the characters in the book (viz., Stanley's friends) and get a feel for who they are and what they are about. Some of that is revealed in their names. They have funny names like Nutsy and Gassy Jack, not terribly original, but fun. I imagine the boys in my classroom would have a proverbial field day with those sorts of names. Of course it's difficult to come up with such a creative name for his female friend, Alice, so Alice is just Alice. And Stanley is just Stanley. Back to my problem: now I have to go to the library and collect the other five because I want to know more about Stanley.
This is probably a good thing.
Humans play a minimal role in the book and the animals move all the action forward in a quick pace–there's a lot to do in 32 short pages. The first human words we hear are 'Bad dogs' from an unhappy custodian wielding a menacing broom. A chase ensues and more and more messes are made as the dogs run from place to place and eventually end up sitting in the principal's office where we hear from another human, "There now, my sweeties." The only voices we hear are those of the dogs and of two adults. There are no children's voices heard in the book at all, although we do see them in action at times. This may or may not be a bad thing; I don't know. Sometimes when reading children's books it is important to hear children's voices. In this case, maybe this is part of the author's purpose in writing. The kids are only shown in school, or going to school, or running around inside the school. The children are always smiling and happy in the story (with one exception). It is interesting that the dogs desired so greatly to be in this place called school where they encounter happy children doing fun things like recess, playing ball, and laughing with the dogs.
Teaching children lessons by anthropomorphizing animals is a time honored tradition. As an elementary school teacher, I see this a lot and, furthermore, I see a lot of dog books. This is another fine 'dog book' to add to my collection and to share with my students who often come into the classroom rather unhappy about being in school and all that being in school entails. Perhaps in reading this book to them, they will see that school isn't such a drag and that even dogs are anxious to get in and get around the building. I like that the dogs are enthusiastic about their plans for the day. Hopefully this will transfer to the students who read this book too. I also like that the principal in the book is kind to the dogs even after the dogs make a wreck her school building. There's probably an important lesson in this for adults.
The artwork is fluid and well done. When I saw fluid I mean to say that the edges are soft and rounded and have a comforting feel. Buildings are somewhat distorted. The dogs have different shapes even if they all seem to have the same feet. And we are always looking at the story from an outsiders point of view. We see the action and the dogs, but we are not the dogs. An opening scene features the dogs looking up at the door to the school. The distortion makes the building appear even bigger than it might be. I imagine this is how a young student might feel when seeing the building for the first time. The artwork gives us the opportunity to have a laugh at the chaos and mayhem and messes created by the dogs. The artwork definitely enhances the story and moves it forward.
I enjoyed this book immensely and I will most certainly be going to my local library to obtain more of the Stanley series. I will also be sharing these stories with my students.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase Stanley at School Amazon (Hardcover, $17.95) or Kids Can Press (Hardcover, $17.95) (Available August 1, 2015)
- Author: Linda Bailey
- Author at Kids Can Press: Linda Bailey
- Illustrator: Bill Slavin
- Publisher: Kids Can Press
- Resources from Kids Can Press: Stanley at School
- More Stanley books from KCP: Stanley
- Pages: 32 (picture book)
- Year: 2015
- Audience:Children (primarily), anyone who can read would enjoy it
- Reading Level: K-2
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free reader's copy courtesy of Kids Can Press via NetGalley.