Posts Tagged ‘Bible’

FellowshipDifferentsI 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.

Who knows?

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.

5/5 Stars

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase A Fellowship of Differents (Amazon: $15.92)
  • Author: Scott McKnight
  • On Twitter: @scotmckight
  • Academic Webpage:
  • Editor:
  • 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.
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KuhnEvery now and then I come across a book that hooks me with the title. Sometimes after turning the cover and reading the first couple pages I find the old adage to be true that I should not judge a book by its cover or, as in this case, the title. This was not one of those times. I had previously seen this book on Amazon and added it to my wishlist and by chance came across it when I was browsing NetGalley's publishers one day. I was thrilled to find the book. I was even more thrilled to read the book. And, now that I am finished with it, I am absolutely ecstatic about its content. I don't think I am overstating the case when I suggest that this reading of Luke-Acts is one of the most significant and important readings since Robert Tannehill's reading in The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts was published. 

Kuhn's thesis is stated succinctly in the introduction (and repeated periodically for emphasis): "This study aims to introduce reader's to Luke's two-volume work, focusing on its urgent call for Theophilus and others to embrace Jesus and the Kingdom of God" (13*). And introduce us he does. But he does even more than merely introduce us to a theory or an idea about the Gospel according to Luke. Kuhn digs deeply even as he surveys the landscape of the massive two volumes. He reaches into the nooks and crannies and sheds like in the darkened corners of Luke's literary masterpiece. He explores the caves of literary technique and rhetorical devices. He demonstrates how Luke parallels characters and stories in the two books. What I appreciate the most about this book is that Kuhn looks at Luke as a piece of literature that should be, and needs to be, interpreted. In other words, Luke had a purpose in mind when he wrote and it is the readers' job to read his work as a piece of literature and discover that meaning. Kuhn's thesis demonstrates that the purpose behind the book isn't all that difficult to discover if the reader reads well.

It is Kuhn's contention that Luke is writing a piece of Kingdom work designed specifically for Theophilus and generally for anyone who reads it. There are things associated with this Kingdom of which he (Luke) writes that Theophilus needs to thoughtfully consider before, or now that he already has, walks in this Kingdom way, this following of Jesus: "This is meant to challenge Theophilus and others to understand that they cannot truly embrace the Kingdom while still participating in the norms and values of Rome" (232). When I read this statement, I leaped with excitement. 'Yes!' I shouted as I took out my phone and started to Tweet the quote. It is this, I think, that we most often miss as Christians saturated by American values and norms. Somehow or other we have taken to believe the silly notion that being American is equivalent to being a 'Christian.' Kuhn goes to great lengths to demonstrate to Theophilus that he cannot have it both ways. And if Theophilus cannot, how much less can we?

But this is exactly what makes this work by Kuhn so special: everything is kept in context. The books of Luke and Acts are kept in there historical and social contexts so Kuhn's work begins with a fairly detailed exploration of Roman culture. Part 1 thus takes up about the first 70 pages or so of the book. Frankly, this part of the book is kind of boring although essential to Kuhn's theory of Luke-Acts as a whole. I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I did the second part of this contextual reading of Luke-Acts: the literary context. Part 2 thus spans pages 71-202 and is, in my opinion, the best part of the book. Granted, it gets repetitive at times because as he explores one literary aspect there is necessarily some overlap with another. Kuhn spends a significant amount of space writing about Luke 1-2 and 24 and draws such beautiful meaning out of the chapters that I am tempted to say I will never read those chapters the same way again. And, to be sure, some of the most brilliant exegesis is on display in part 2 that I have seen in a long time. Part 3 tells of the book's theological context and spans pages 203-274 and Kuhn reasserts his position that one of Luke's main objectives was to "call Theophilus and other members of the elite to abandon their privileged stations and their allegiance to Rome and to embrace the Kingdom of God and Jesus as Lord" (299).

It may be that Kuhn overstates his case when it comes to Luke's focus on the 'elite' and I'm not sure it will hold up under closer scrutiny. Others will no doubt challenge his idea of this being Luke's focus but I'm not so sure that the idea should be waived off–especially if Theophilus was in fact Luke's patron and Luke himself was a member of the Israelite elite. If Kuhn is correct then perhaps Luke-Acts is even more significant for the American church than previously thought. The problem of course lies with those who will preach these books. If the preaching of Luke-Acts continues to be a mere monologue before an invitation to something we tend to call 'salvation', as is often the case, then the bulk of the books will be nothing more than prolegomena to Jesus' death and Resurrection and Pentecost. But if by some strange chance preachers actually start reading Luke-Acts and discerning his entire message then perhaps the affluent American Church might start to be challenged the way Luke intended the affluent to be challenged: "Instead, as indicated regarding Acts 17, the gospel proclaimed by Luke is one that calls upon humanity to turn their allegiance from Caesar and the kingdom of Rome to another realm and another as Luke. Luke's aim was not accommodation but resistance" (15).

I think this is a message the American church desperately needs to hear.

Which leads into my final point. In college I remember hearing and learning how one of Luke's purposes in writing the books was to demonstrate to certain Roman officials that Christianity was no threat at all to the pax Romana of the time. Christians are peaceful people as is demonstrated by Paul on several ocassions in Acts. So: "Luke's aim was not accommodation but resistance. He considered the reign of God to be not a benign reality but a deeply subversive and disturbing force that was already undermining the foundations of Rome and all earthly claims to power" (15). He writes later, "I find it equally unlikely that Luke-Acts was a narrative designed to convince elite persons used to squashing resistance to their rule that the Christian movement was compatible with Rome's maintenance of elite wealth, status, and control" (307).

Christianity is dangerous and subversive. I think American Christians need to hear this message too and it needs to start being preached more thoughtfully from the pulpits of our churches. The problem is that we have been coddled by American culture and lulled to sleep by this coddling. But Luke will have none of this: the Church is the force, the movement, The Way, that turned the world upside down. It was the world that put Jesus to the cross, how can we then partner with this world? It seems to me that the church nowadays is far more content to set the world right side up again by being satisfied to work hand in hand with the very kingdoms that Jesus came to destroy. Not only do we tell the world, "the Church means you no harm," but we have listened to the world when they tell us, "we mean the Church no harm." This is not the experience of the church or Jesus in Acts and Luke.

This should be more carefully considered by pastors, preachers, and theologians and more prophetically proclaimed in our pulpits. I think we are seeing more and more the results of this hand holding experiment in the church.

I could go on and on but I must stop. I love this book. I'm not ashamed to confess that this is a book I absolutely love and will read again soon. I am glad publishing companies are making more space for books that talk about the real, Biblical meaning of the Kingdom of God and in the case of this present book, Baker Academic has done us a huge favor and I applaud them. More publishing of these kind of books where the literary purposes of the bible's authors are discussed is necessary. I cannot say enough about how important and well done this book is and how, if you are a preacher, you should buy it, read it slowly, and carefully consider how you will challenge your congregation to live up to the high call of God: "…as one who manifests the identity and mission of Yahweh, Jesus the lowly one, not Caesar, is Lord and Savior of all" (267).

The book utilizes end notes and the hyperlinks to and from these notes worked well on my Nook. There is a substantial bibliography which is most helpful and also a large subject index which also had working hyperlinks. The book is of a scholarly flair, but it is accessible to most readers who share an interest in reading such works.

Buy this book. You will not be disappointed and you just may find that your own world is being turned upside down in the process.

5/5 Stars

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase The Kingdom according to Luke and Acts Amazon (Kindle, $15.65)  CBD ($19.99) Baker Academic ($28.99) (Prices current as of July 7, 2015)
  • Author: Karl Allen Kuhn
  • Publisher: Baker Academic
  • Pages: 367 (Nook epub version); 336 (paper)
  • Year: 2015
  • Audience: Christians, pastors, preachers, college professors, students of New Testament
  • Reading Level: College Level
  • Disclaimer: I was provided a free reader's copy courtesy of Baker Academic via NetGalley.

*All page numbers I note are references to the epub version of this book on my Nook reader and may not correspond to the pages in a paperback version or location on a Kindle.

9781601426703Title: Bringing Heaven to Earth

At Amazon: Bringing Heaven to Earth

Authors: Josh Ross & Jonathan Storment

Publisher: Waterbrook Multnomah

Year: 2015

Pages: 215

I like to mark up the books I read with my pen. In this way, I will be able to go back through the book at a later time and note important passages or thoughts that I may wish to use in a lesson or blog or whatever. For this book, I used a nice red ink and on page 2, near the bottom, I wrote, "I'm already on board!" I wrote that after reading this:

We don't believe the primary purpose of following Jesus is to enjoy the gift of heaven. Rather, it is to be united with Christ in His love and mission. The call to conversion in the New Testament isn't a decision for salvation, but a decision for Jesus. It is more than a change in status; it is a shift in allegiance, passion, and calling. (2)

I like that. I like that very, very much. I like it because it resonates with me deeply in that I want something different from the pie in the sky Christianity I was raised on–the kind I have complained about elsewhere. That sort of Christianity gets us in the club and we talk an awful lot about how to get into the club. Then we go through the motions. I was a church preacher for nearly 20 years and I have seen the results of preaching that simply aimed to get people into the club and along for the ride.

Frankly, it's boring. It's meaningless. And it has killed the church. Or it has at least ruined it for some of us. Books like Bringing Heaven to Earth will, hopefully, go a long way towards rectifying one of our most significant problems in the church: definitions. In my opinion, for too long the church has misused some of its language. We have misused words like kingdom, heaven, mission, and judgment. Maybe we have even misused the name of Jesus. N.T. Wright has done the lion's share of the work in helping us re-acquire proper definitions of bible words and others, more recently Scot McKnight in his book Kingdom Conspiracy, and I think Tim Keller to an extent (we might also say Yancey, Hauerwas, Willimon, and others), have taken Wright's heavily historical and theological work and brought it down to the level of the pew. I do not mean this in the sense that McKnight's work or the current book is 'easy' or pedestrian. Wright's work needed a filter for the average pew sitter and these author's have done remarkable work in bringing Wright's message home to the church.

The church has benefited from their work and now I am hopeful that the church will also benefit from the work of Ross and Storment. I come from the same church background as Storment and I can say with utmost confidence that this is a message our churches need desperately to hear. IF there is a denomination in America deeply entrenched in mis-applied definitions it is the church tradition I belong to. Storment's message resonated with me deeply for this reason–especially since I only have a limited voice in that church at this point in my life.

Back to definitions. As one example, take the word 'heaven.' Churches in America have this strange idea that heaven is a place 'we go' after we die. Preachers have done a remarkable job painting pictures of mansions within mansions, ethereal whispiness, clouds, and harps. I confess that when I was younger I used to think to myself that such an existence, no matter how long, would be utterly mind-numbing. And I could never reconcile that vision with Jesus' words about 'heaven being God's throne and the earth being his footstool.' Then along came N.T.Wright who began articulating for me what my heart had only been whispering. I'll never forget the time I preached from the pulpit that when we are resurrected we will have bodies, real flesh and blood bodies and one of the ladies approached me afterward and virtually questioned my sanity. Didn't matter that Jesus was resurrected with a body. But I digress. Ross and Storment bring it home to all of us:

In the Christian worldview, heaven is the realm in which everything is as God wills; it is not just a far off location out past Jupiter. Heaven is less a location and more a reality defined by God's will being done. Yet here on earth, a lot of people are working against heaven by trying to make sure that what they will is what gets done. (33; their emphasis.)

And,

Don't get us wrong, the Gospel is about heaven. But heaven is not the distant, otherworldly place we often imagine it to be. Heaven will come down to earth. We will live on earth in a renewed, restored world. (59; except that the Gospel is not necessarily about heaven; it's about Jesus and how he has brought about heaven's rule here on earth.)

This is good, solid theology for the masses here (except I would eliminate the word 'just' in the first sentence.) The point is clear: so many Christians are caught up thinking about the 'Promised Land' that they haven't given any thought to what God is doing right here, right now, and how what he is doing right here and now will last into eternity. Our lives are about what Jesus continued to do and teach (Acts 1) and what we are doing will be tested in fire. Some will burn up; some will last. Yet there is a reason why Jesus died, was resurrected, and bids us to keep on living here instead of swooping us up as soon as we believe. There is work to be done here, now, and it matters now and then. In one sense it is true that 'this world is not' our home, but there's a better sense in which we do not have much of a choice.

Later on, the author's write:

If we think God's future has nothing to do with our lives and this world, then it won't affect how we live. It's possible to be a Christian and waste your life. It's possible to think that the gospel is all about another time and another place, and totally miss out on what God is doing right in front of you. (190)

What encourages me greatly about this book is that it was written by two preachers. What this tells me is that the message is getting into the hands and hearts of people who live in the world every day of their lives. It tells me that at least in some places in the church words are being defined properly and people are taking in the message and not kicking out the preachers who are doing the defining. What it tells me is that there is leadership in positions of authority who are supporting the message of these preachers. Finally, what it tells me is that the Holy Spirit is indeed moving in our congregations and that the famine might be staved off for a while yet.

This book greatly encourages me not because they have it all correct (although there were more than a couple of times when their insights were deep), but because they are living it, preaching it, and sharing it with others. It's easy to be innovative for the sake of an audience, but I don't sense innovation in this book. I sense a deep personal conviction that this is a message that needs to be heard by the people of the church. It's a strange sense of conviction I get from these two authors/preachers that this is a fire in their bones that cannot be quenched. I'm encouraged because when so many preachers are taking the easy way, they are sticking with the Gospel.

The book reads easily; although, it's easy to get reading and miss the depth. They tell plenty of stories. Quote plenty of Scripture even though I thought perhaps a little too much prominence was given to the story of the Prodigal son. There are several pages of discussion questions at the end and also notes are at the end as well. In my ARC there was no subject index but it may have been added in the final edition.

The only real quibble I have is that I wish they had pushed the metaphor a little more. That is, I wish 'bringing heaven to earth' had been a little more obvious in each chapter because I thought at times it was a bit obscured by other things. It doesn't take away from the book. It just means that a little more work has to be done to find it.

This is an excellent volume and I think it will be a welcome edition to anyone's library–preacher, teacher, church member/parishioner, Protestant or Catholic, or whoever. I applaud the men on their work of bringing this timely message to bear on the church in these days.

5*/5

Disclaimer: I was provided an ARC via the Waterbrook Multnomah Blogging for Books readers' program. I was not compensated or asked to write a favorable review. I was only expected to be honest and that I have been. Enjoy.

 

Jesus OTLTitle: Jesus Outside the Lines

Author: Scott Sauls

Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers

Year: 2015

Pages: 210

Disclaimer: Happily I was provided a free copy of Jesus Outside the Lines via Tyndale Blog Network in exchange for my free and unbiased review of the book. Joyfully, I present to you my review–free of additives, preservatives, and sugary marshmallow shapes. Just my undiluted opinion, free of charge, here at Typepad and around the web at such places as GoodReads, Amazon, and elsewhere. Thanks for reading.

I noticed a couple of times in the book that Saul's quotes people with whom we might have a difference of opinion or two. In the introduction, he quotes as a source of authority Chris Stedman who happens to be a chaplain, at Harvard, and an atheist. There's a part of me that kind of cheers that Sauls finds something in common with Stedman, but there's another part of me that shudders because in quoting Stedman as an authority, early on in the book, he is allowing Stedman to set the agenda for the book. Maybe that's a good thing; I'm not sure. To be sure, he also quotes from Tim Keller and Tim Kreider and Jesus and Dostoyevsky and dozens of others. Slowly he builds his case that we should all be able to talk to one another peacefully even though we may disagree with one another on about every conceivable subject.  So:

Is it possible to profoundly disagree with someone and love that person deeply at the same time? Is it possible to hold deep convictions and simultaneously embrace those who reject your deep convictions? (xxv)

And:

Do you want to be known for the people, places, and things that you are for instead of the people, places, and things you are against? Do you want to overcome the tension of wanting to be true to your beliefs and engage the culture? Are you ready to move away from polarizing conversations and toward Jesus and your neighbor? (xxvii)

This is the thesis of the book and the rest of the book explores this thesis with, surprisingly, some depth. And not surprisingly, he begins by discussing politics. I was prepared to roll my eyes frequently but early on he wrote this, "…when it comes to kings and kingdoms, Jesus sides with himself" (5). I agree. Then he ends with this thought concerning you and me: "Seek first the kingdom of God…, and all these things will be added to you" (19). I have engaged enough political debates on blogs and FB to know where my buttons are and I am able to simply avoid those conversations.

This might be key to all of our understanding of loving people and disagreeing with them. When I see a thought I disagree with, I assume first that it is just that: a thought. In other words, I try to remember that on the other side of the thought there is a person that I love or who may love me. IF I cannot handle the thought, I don't engage it because I prefer to remain in love and in friendship with the person who wrote it. It takes a lot of work, but learning not to be bothered by other people's ideas is a huge step in maturity. Learning how to peacefully disagree is another step in the journey. Learning how to see people instead of mere thoughts is Jesus. Being able to laugh with others, learn from others, listen to others, and love them deeply is probably something close to divinity.

Sauls frequently confronts the reader with the idea that Christians haven't always been the most gracious, kind, and loving people on earth when it comes to our disagreements with those who hold to a different worldview. We have tended to get all worked up, start campaigns, or believe, naively, that the only way to win a conversation is to elect a certain politician who will make our point of view law. That'll show 'em! I think Sauls does a fairly good job of helping us bridge that massive gulf between what we believe and how we treat others because of those beliefs. He tackles some fairly significant topics along the way towards peace–because ultimately, Sauls is playing the role of the peacemaker in this book–such as abortion, money, sexuality, church, poverty, and suffering. At times his thoughts are deep and at other times his thoughts are a little confusing; at times his exegesis is spot on and at other times it is a bit sketchy; and at times his voice is clear and prophetic and other times he really needed a better editor.

With all that being said, the book grew on me. I started out with my typical skepticism and by the time I got to the end I was in a fair amount of agreement with him. The book is subtitled: A way forward for those who are tired of taking sides. No one should get this book and attempt to read it with the expectation that Sauls is going to lay out a step by step set of instructions for this 'way forward.' Instead, he is going to tell us some stories, talk to us about Jesus, point out where our flawed definitions of Bible things have caused us to see things with eyes fixed on the wrong thing. The book is going to cause the reader to stop and listen to Jesus and to 'examine the self.' Maybe all of us would do well to pause each day and examine ourselves or ask God to do a deep search of our souls and see if there be in us any unrighteous thoughts or way. The Spirit searches all things. Maybe we should invite the Spirit in for some housecleaning.

Interestingly, the following quote sort of summed up the book for me: "If Christianity has something to significant to contribute to the question of suffering and evil, it is that Christianity is incredibly realistic about how messed up the world is" (153-154). I have two thoughts, one negative and one positive. First, the negative, 'if' is a big word. I think I understand his point, but I also think that given the nature of our our faith (cruciform), 'if' is a bit too squishy. Here I believe his sentiment should have been a little more concrete and affirming. Second, the positive, if his point is true, and I think it is, then we (christians) are, and should continue to be, incredibly realistic about how messed up the world is. Let's live in hope that God has redeemed this world, but also let us be incredibly real about the hope we have in Jesus precisely because of the suffering he endured.

So this, which I think is Sauls' point: let's be honest. Let's stop acting like the world is so easily divided into 'us and them' or 'we and they' or 'me and you.' All have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God. Problem in the church is that we simply forget this because we come to church on Sundays. We seem to forget that we, too, were 'once like them' (see 1 Corinthians 6:9-12; Ephesians 2:11-22). If there should be any compassion, it should flow from this idea that we were once like those with whom we so often disagree. And if there is compassion and mercy it should not come from arrogance or hypocrisy or condescension, but from compassion, weeping, and grace. I think a large part of the problem with the church is that we have forgotten to remember…many things.

I came away from this book reminded to be sober in my thinking about others–especially those with whom I have philosophical or theological differences. I came away reminded that even though Sauls nicely divides the world in binaries, that the world is not so easily categorized as black and white.

Sauls does a good job balancing the book between self-deprecating stories and faith-hero stories–but he is never the subject of the faith-hero stories. He quotes all the standard folks we would expect to see in an Evangelical publication: Lewis, Chesterton, Volf, Lamott, and more. He quotes plenty of Scripture; although, at times it was mere prooftexting. I prefer larger quotes with more context and a little deeper exegesis, but it doesn't kill the book that he does not do things this way. The notes are all at the end of the book, there is no index, and there are no references. He ends the book by again quoting a lengthy swath of ideas from an atheist. I'm not sure how I feel about that, even the thoughts might be helpful, yet it does fall right in line with the theme of his book.

All in all, this was a helpful book and as I noted above, Sauls words and style grew on me as the pages were turned. There is a lot to think about in this book and he certainly makes us pause for a draft of reality as it relates to our own faith in Jesus and how we go about treating other people in the world. Get to know people. Step away from stereotypes. Listen to their words and engage thoughtfully. But always bear in mind that there is a person speaking to us and we may not  know all there is to know just by reading a FB update or Tweet. Talk to people, not ideas; dislike ideas, not people.

Maybe we should do two things. First, join Jesus outside the lines already drawn and, second, stop drawing new lines.

4.5*/5

 

 

 

51HWnwX+QoL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Title: Permission Granted

Author: Jennifer Grace Bird

Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press

Year: 2015

Pages: 176

"To the Church, then, has been given the charge of proclaiming the Word of God. This revelatory Word is not a concatenation of human opinions and ideas but rather is God's own proclamation, the very means by which he speaks, even into postmodern society."–David Wells, Above All Earthly Pow'rs, 176

If  I had been paying attention, I would have seen the endorsement by Rachel Held Evans on the front cover and I would not have selected this book for review. I should have known better. Here's the bottom line to this book: Jennifer Grace Bird did 'take the Bible into her own hands' and she made an absolute wreck of it and embarrassed herself along the way. There is nothing new whatsoever about what she wrote: she is regurgitating the arguments of folks like, Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels, and John Dominic Crossan (and others) all over again–time worn arguments that question whether the Bible is God's Word and whether or not we should pay attention to it, and whether or not we can believe in the God who is there. I've heard that argument before, "Did God really say…?" And although she says: "My intention is not to leave you in the lurch, with your entire faith system challenged," she writes. "My ultimate intention has been to have you look at where you have placed your faith. Is it on the words in the Bible, or on the God the Bible points to?" (187) this is not what one comes away with after reading this book. (And, to be sure, this is a false dichotomy which I have not the space in this review to address.) (Interview)

There is nothing original about Bird's intellectual pursuit to 'read what the Bible really says.' There is nothing interesting about it. There is nothing compelling about it. It has a niche audience: those who are already on board with her absurd ideas about Scripture and her silly angry-feminist hermeneutic (I invite you to read carefully and slowly her work and notice how many times she makes pejorative remarks about men). What's amazing is that there are hundreds and thousands of women scholars and preachers who read the same Bible Bird reads and come away with a radically different understanding and application of the words written.

I think a large part of the problem is that Ms Bird seems to think that just because it is written in the Bible that this automatically translates into God's approval of it. Take for example polygamy in the Bible. Just because the Bible records many instances of polygamy is not an indication that God approves of polygamy. Remember in the garden, there was one man and one woman, which later Jesus affirmed. This was the ideal. After sin enters the world, then we see a break from the garden ideal and marriage corrupted. Bird seems to think that we should read the Bible at face value without our bifocals: one lens reminding us that we are sinful and live in a sinful world and the other lens reminding us that Jesus has redeemed us. To be sure, there is a lot of stuff in the Bible–stuff like rape, murder, slavery, and war–that God is not in favor of and certainly doesn't approve of, but is God at fault because the authors of the Bible truthfully report these events? Or is God evil because these things happen? Bird spends a lot of time in this book saying things about God that made me shudder.  For all her talk about those who 'read the Bible literally' Bird seems to suffer from a profound sense of inability to distinguish one type of literature from another (she does acknowledge on page 7-8, and 11 that readers of the Bible should be aware 'of genre', but I do not recall that she employs this warning herself and her favorite term to use is actually 'myth'). In other words, she is, frequently, a worse literalist than those she accuses!

Pause for a moment and consider what that means.

I do not know too many preachers or scholars or theologians in general who would argue that there are not 'issues' when it comes to parts of the Bible. That is to say, I do not know of anyone who thinks that Genesis 1 and 2, for example, are telling us the exact same story of creation. On the other hand, I do not know anyone who believes this means they are also contradictory either. So too with the Gospels. Just because we are given four 'versions' of the Jesus story, where each author makes a particular point about Jesus (which I thought Bird handled and explained fairly well), does not mean that we are given contradictory stories about 'how to be saved' or that we have to decide 'which Jesus is the real Jesus.' Bird is rather difficult because she believes that variety means disunity and that differences mean contradiction. She actually had some good thoughts in chapter 9 ("Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?"), but she takes her conclusions from these thoughts in strange and rather unorthodox directions. Hmmm.

And to be sure, one really only needs to read her introduction to the book (xi-xvi) to understand what she is going to do with every single chapter in the book–whether writing about sex or violence or the virgin birth or John 3:16 (she made a big fuss out of John 3:16 only to tell us that we ought to read all of John 3; duh.), it is all too much for her. In her mind, we cannot trust many, many parts of the Bible because it contains things that do not pass her 'litmus test' of 'who God is and is not' (188). So she has created a god, held this god before her face while she read the Bible, and anything that does not comport with this god of her creation is suspect and therefore worthy of being tossed out into the rubbish heap. Think about that for a minute. Does that sound like the sort of author who is not trying to 'leave us in the lurch' or 'poke holes in' our faith? Hmmm.

Every now and again the book has text boxes where Bird engages in a brief excursus on some topic she finds particularly in need of reinterpretation (e.g., heaven and hell, the name 'christians', fun facts, depiction of Jews in the Newer Testament, etc.). There are also a few charts that are somewhat useful and also some charts for the reader to fill in to help better understand a concept she discusses (e.g., creation accounts, dualism in John's Gospel). Unfortunately, there is no index for subjects discussed or for Scripture referenced or discussed (although, to be fair, looking at the table of contents should give the reader a fairly good idea of what scripture can be found and where.) Each chapter ends with a series of discussion questions which may or may not be helpful after reading the chapter they are attached to. Finally, I was frustratingly disappointed that there is not a single page of references. She quotes several scholars in the book and I would have been pleased if there were references where I could check her work or dig deeper for myself.

I'm not going to bother addressing her conjectures about the sexuality of people such as Paul (whom she conjectures, based on the letter to Philemon, might be a homosexual) or David and his relationship with Jonathan. I'm not going to bother addressing her quite apparent disdain for men and the way 'they' have handled Scripture throughout the generations and kept women like her from being 'ordained' (a wholly unbiblical concept in it's own right if she would take time to investigate it). Nor will I address her rather lazy attitude towards sexuality (all of it). And I'm not going to bother dignifying her stupid idea that it was 'actually God who has misled the humans, not the serpent' in Genesis 2-3. Hmmm.

All of this, and much more besides, gives me reason to pause and question what exactly her agenda is in writing this book. Bird assures us that her task is 'not to poke holes in anyone's faith' (19) but rather to go 'for the 'mark of an educated mind,'" (121; she assures us of these things frequently). But I don't think she accomplished either point. Her questions will cause weak minded people to stumble in their faith and intellectual people to question how she got this book published in the first place. What follows, on page after page, is simply lazy exegesis with a lack of enthusiasm towards understanding.

Her 'questions' and controversies have been written by others, have been answered by others, and these questions and controversies have always been full of holes, based on faulty logic, and, frankly, in no way intellectually astute. I tend to mine books when I read them so, yes, there are times when I think she has a rather brilliant insight (e.g., much of her discussion on Job was helpful and, in my opinion, on the mark; and in one of her excursions, the one on 'heaven and hell' (p 182-183), she makes some good points too; and other places). And, yes, she is decidedly correct that we should read all of the Bible and not just the parts that make us all warm and fuzzy. Furthermore, she is also correct that there are difficult things in the Bible for us to accept about God, about ourselves, and about the Christian faith in general; nevertheless, her questions have been answered a thousand times over by scholars, preachers, theologians (men and women alike). The nuggets I was able to mine in this book are too few and too far between to make this worth the time of serious readers in search of an intellectual pursuit or faith strengthening exercise.

There's just nothing new here (literally, she retreads time worn arguments with hip language for a new generation of skeptics and they will eat it up!) and it literally brings me to tears that she is in this place (and that she teachers students in a university). I think this book comes up way, way short on both supporting faith or providing stimulation for the intellect. I would like to meet the people she claims 'confront these issues in the Bible and come out the other side…often even stronger in their faith than when they began!' (187). Seriously.

So again I will note that I think this book has a niche audience and it is those people who already believe like she does. This book will in no way strengthen the faith of anyone and it will not provide intellectual stimulation for anyone either. In fact, you will probably left with the same 'sinking feeling in' your gut when reading it as Bird often expressed she had when writing it. The church right now needs a high view of Scripture and Bird's isn't even off the ground.

Too bad.

1/2*/5

I waited all day. All day it was cloudy, foggy, rainy and just plain miserable. I waited and waited–hoping against hope that the sun would come out and burn away the dreariness of the day. And at last, it happened. The sun came out, the mist faded away, and the day became clear.

It was a glorious thing and after the sun came out the day only seemed to get better. 

Spent the evening at the church. Talked to an old friend who was one my youth sponsors when I was a younger man–he and his wife were a blessing to my family when I was learning how not to be an idiot and again when my wife was sick. Back at home, I was told by my wife that the son of some friends of ours had died. He was 45. I had the privilege of baptizing his parents when I was still a preacher. I am sad for them. Very sad. 

In Bible study, we spent some time talking about God's Word, the 'importance of learning and keeping God's teaching.' It was an interesting study of Proverbs 3:1-7. 

My son, do not forget my teaching,
    but keep my commands in your heart,
for they will prolong your life many years
    and bring you peace and prosperity.

Let love and faithfulness never leave you;
    bind them around your neck,
    write them on the tablet of your heart.
Then you will win favor and a good name
    in the sight of God and man.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
    and he will make your paths straight.

Do not be wise in your own eyes;
    fear the Lord and shun evil.

There's a part of me that thinks Solomon, or whoever wrote this, was reflection on the words found in Deuteronomy–especially that first sentence where he admonishes his son to 'not forget his teaching.' I agree with the teacher tonight that Solomon, or whoever wrote this, was thinking about the Scripture, the Law. In Deuteronomy, it was the king's task to do this very thing: "When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of the law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees" (Deuteronomy 17:18-19).

In an interesting twist, Solomon forgot nearly everything the Lord said the king was not to do, but I suspect he may well have done this thing: I suspect he did make a copy of the Law. I suspect that much of what is written in Proverbs is a reflection on that Law that he read and copied. I could be wrong and I have no proof, but I have a suspicion. These seven verses in Proverbs 3 kind of reek of Deuteronomy 17 and other chapters. 

I like the lesson we had tonight because it spoke to some of the things that I too believe about the church and the Scripture. I think as a church (generally, not specifically) we do not do enough corporate reading of Scripture and I'd like to see that change. Maybe. We were warned by the prophet that a time would come when there would be a famine in the land for the word of God (Amos 8:11-12). 

What I was thinking about, though, was this passage in Proverbs. It could be that it's merely an English phenomenon that the word 'heart' appears in three strategic places in these seven verses, or maybe not. I don't have time right now to dig deeper, so let's assume that the word 'heart' really is there in Hebrew. If it is, then here's the progression of the verses:

3:1: "…keep my commands in your heart…"

3:3: "…let love and faithfulness never leave you, bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart."

3:5: "Trust in the Lord with all of your heart…"

There's a lot I could say here, but I want to just say this much: maybe the path to being able to trust in the Lord with all of our heart and leaning not on our own understanding begins by keeping the word of God close to our hearts, by keeping love and faithfulness close to the heart as well. Maybe we can trust God more when we know God better and that we know God better when we spend more time with him–in his word and by drawing near to him in love and faithfulness. Maybe the key is to replace our own understanding with an understanding that is far superior in every way.

Whatever else might be said, there is a connection here in these three verses between the Word of God, the Love of God, and Trusting God–and not just trusting, but being able to trust. I think the connection is easy to see. When we go through dark times in life, it seems to me that those who know God best are those who are able to walk through the valleys without fear or without losing hope. The people who have spent the most time walking with God through his Word are those who, it seems to me, practice love and faithfulness the most. And isn't it interesting that those who do these things are the very ones who never blink when the valley is dark and the mists of March cloud the day?

I'm not perfect by any stretch of the word. I have failed more than I care to remember–and many of my failures are indelibly etched into my brain. Sometimes these failures cause doubts and fears and even worse days than mere days. There is way through, at least I have found it so, and that is by being in the Word of God and walking with God constantly. There is a way to have those failures erased and that is by allowing the Word of God to cover over them, to rebuild our hearts cell by cell, to scratch out the sorrow and bitterness and once again be clothed with love and faith.

It's a rough thought I have written tonight. I might need to think about it some more, but there's a kernel here for all of us. There's a reason why God gave us the Bible. It's not a riddle book. It's not merely a story book. It's not rules and law and this or that. It is God speaking to us, telling us about himself and who he is, and what he is about, and his hopes and dreams for us. I don't understand it all and I don't try to. But for those who have ears to hear, Jesus said, let them hear. Sometimes the best we can do is just to listen to what God is saying and learn just a little about him that might help us through a dark time that is even less understood than the God we don't understand.

Read. Write. Trust.

Sounds like a perfect recipe to me.

I wish I could do this for a living–blogging or writing or spending all my time thinking about Scripture and helping others discover kernels of delight and morsels of joy. There's so much to take in on every page and it sincerely makes me happy to share it with others.

My Psalm reading is still going strong and I am discovering new things with each turn of the page. I wrote a post called Learning to Talk in my Lenten Reflections series about learning how to pray the Scripture and making the words of Scripture the words of our prayers. I found some more notes I had made on the subject and something I came across struck me as a compelling piece of evidence for my thoughts.

It's a very simple thing concerning Jesus, the Psalms, and his prayers. The book of Hebrews tells us that 'during the days of Jesus' life, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and was heard because of his reverent submission' (Hebrews 5:7). Sadly, we do not have a written record of these prayers. Wouldn't it be kind of neat to know that while he was on earth, 2,000 years ago, he mentioned you or me or our friends by name?

Well, even if he didn't mention us by name back then, we can take comfort in the fact that he is mentioning us by name right now, today, in the Father's presence. Consider Romans 8:34: "Who then can condemn? No one. Christ Jesus who died–more than that, who was raised to life–is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us." Or consider Hebrews 7:25: "Therefore, he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them." I love that when I struggle, He is praying for me. I love that when I sin and condemn myself, He is interceding for me.

I love knowing that Jesus is mentioning me, and you, by name.

But back to my main point which is simply that we have only a very small written record of the actual prayers of Jesus. Of course John 17 comes to mind. John 12:27-28 too. John 11:41-42 also come to mind. Maybe we can also include Matthew 6 and it's parallel in Luke 11–what has been traditionally called 'The Lord's Prayer.' I think also Luke 22:39-46 and it's parallels in Mark 14:32-42 and Matthew 26:36-46.

There may well be others, but my point is that there are not many examples of Jesus' prayer words. Even in Luke 6 where we learn that Jesus 'went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God,' we do not have a recollection of his actual words. I think it's probably safe to assume that he had spent the night praying about the Twelve and perhaps mentioning them by name, but in truth we do not know. Yet, we are not entirely without hope in this area of Jesus' prayer words. There was one other occasion when I specifically recall Jesus praying and what is interesting is the words he used when he prayed. It was on the cross.

Jesus famously spoke seven times on the cross. Here's the catalog:

1. John 19:26-27: Jesus asked one of his disciples to care for his mother.

2. John 19:28: "I am thirsty."

3. John 19:30: "It is finished."

4. Matthew 27:46 (Mark 15:34): "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?"

5. Luke 23:34: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."

6. Luke 23:43: "Truly I tell you today you will be with me in paradise."

7. Luke 23:46: "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit."

It is probably understandable that Jesus wasn't preaching sermons while on the cross and that his words were few and choice. What is amazing to me, however, is that four of the times he spoke, he was praying. What is more amazing, is that three of the four prayers were quotations from Scripture. Numbers 3, 4, and 7 are all from the Scripture.

1. Number 3, when Jesus declares 'it is finished,' I take to be a direct reference to the creation account found in Genesis 1-2: "By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work."

2. Number 4, when Jesus cried out asking why God had forsaken him. This is a direct quotation of Psalm 22:1–a Psalm laden with allusions and imagery of crucifixion. But it's not a mere 'cry of dereliction' as some would have it–not if Jesus quoted the first verse while having the entire Psalm in mind. The entire Psalm ends on a note of triumph: "They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!" It gives me chills reading that. "He has done it!" Wow.

3. Number 7, when Jesus breathes his last. This is a direct quotation of Psalm 31:5: "Into your hands I commit my spirit; redeem me, Lord, my faithful God." It is a Psalm of trust that God will 'preserve those who are true to him' (23). It is a Psalm of confidence, 'But I trust in your, Lord; I say, 'You are my God.' My times are your hands; deliver me from the hands of my enemies, from those who pursue me.' (14-15) It is a Psalm of hopeful expectations. Yet it is also a Psalm that seems to be saying, "I will not exercise my will in these matters. I will trust you Lord to do that for me." Again, all I can say is, "Wow!"

As a side note, number 5 (and perhaps number 7), when Jesus asks the Father not to hold this sin against his enemies, I find a parallel in Acts 7:59-60 when Stephen is being executed. So even early in the church, the Church was praying the Scripture. Stephen was not only praying the Psalms, but he was praying the very words of Jesus as his own!

Amazingly, the church practiced this earlier too in Acts 4:23-31. There the church prays Psalm 2 and claim the words of the Psalmist as their own: "Why do the nations rage and the people's plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed one." So we see the church and individuals in the church using the words of Scripture as their own words of prayer. It is profound to me that so many of the occasions in Scripture when the church is praying they are praying the words of Scripture right back to God, making the Word of God their words to God.

And it makes me wonder why we do not do the same thing in our prayers–especially in our public and corporate prayers. It makes me wonder sometimes why we complain about God not moving in our churches or in our communities–I mean maybe it's because we a) don't know the Scripture well enough, b) trust our own ideas more than God's ideas, or c) think our own words are more powerful than those that the early church prayed.

Let's be honest, the prayers we pray in the church are anemic and empty. I'm not even going to say this is a matter of 'well, church folks are simple folks and we don't need to worry too much about the depth or quality of the prayers they pray; we should be happy that such folks even get up in front of people and pray at all.' I call hogwash on that. The point is that we should know Scripture, we should pray Scripture–Scripture should be infused into our conversations and prayers and thoughts. Those leaders who lead churches should take this very seriously and teach the members of the church the Scripture and teach them how to pray the Scripture and how to make God's words to us our words to God.

If it was good enough for Jesus and the church in the Bible, why isn't it good enough for us? Maybe we are afraid to pray the Scripture? Maybe we are afraid that if we pray something like Psalm 2 that something will happen in the world and we might be the blame? Maybe we feel if we are suffering and praying Psalm 22 people will think us arrogant. But isn't that the very point of those words existing? Are they just for us to read and take note of and perhaps hear a sermon from every now and again?

Or is there something deeper in the Words of God that we should be praying?

Are we as a church truly committed to the Scripture? Do we really believe what God says in Scripture? Do we really believe the Bible is God's Word to the church? Are we really committed to praying these  promises of God back to God? It's not that God needs to be reminded, it's just that when we do this very thing we are saying, in effect, that we are more concerned about what God wants than we are about what we want. It is our way of saying to God, "Father, into your hands we commit our church." It is the church's way of saying we trust more in God's word to us than we do in our words to him.

It's not that God needs to be reminded of his words as much as it is that we need to be reminded of his words. Praying the Scripture grounds us in the reality of God's working in the world, grounds us in the reality of God's plans for the world, and grounds us in the reality of God's purposes for his church in the world. We can set our own agenda or we can pray God's agenda.

This is the point.

9780801039447Title: Engaging the Christian Scriptures

Authors: Andrew E. Arterbury, W.H. Bellinger, Jr., Derek S. Dodson

Publisher: Baker Academic

Year: 2014

Pages: 286

Kindle Price: $14.57

Paperback: $20.33

[Disclaimer: In exchange for my fair and unbiased review, I was provided an ARC by the publisher through NetGalley. The views expressed here are mine alone. I was not required to write a positive review and I was in no way compensated for the review. All images belong to the copyright owner.]

When I went to Bible College between 1991-1995 I was introduced to the brilliant and wonderful world of academia and Biblical scholarship that to this day, 20 years later (although I am no longer in located ministry) I thoroughly enjoy. I read theology now as a sort of hobby, still subscribe to theological journals, and still read commentaries for fun. But sometimes I think that it was my love of the academic side of Christian faith that caused my ultimate downfall in the pulpit–not that I am particularly smart, but that perhaps I didn't learn how to filter well enough the material I studied during the week in preparation for preaching. At the heart of it, I think many Christians sitting in the pew on Sunday morning do not care all that much about what the learned have to say and what those who read the learned think about it.

Thus I was excited to read this volume of introductory articles to the Bible. My own experience in Bible Survey in my undergraduate work left little to be desired and was often a source of frustration given how shallow it was. Well, I get it: it was a freshmen level class, so I shouldn't speak too harshly. So I read. I commend the authors of the book on a job well done. I like it because it has a rare combination of scholarly astuteness and pew sitter awareness. Frankly, I needed this book 24 some years ago when I was sitting in freshman Bible Survey. I needed the balance that this book brings to the difficult issues that surround the Scripture, its composition, its collection, and its interpretation. For example, I regret that when I learned of JEPD I only learned that it was the tool of liberal devils who wanted to uproot the Word of God from its Source and render it unreliable. What I didn't learn was that there are sincere reasons for accepting it as a reliable tool that was used to bring a certain cohesion to the Scripture, that it may have been useful to God, and that those who were the JEPDs were righteous in their intentions.

Maybe it's the years that have softened me or maybe the authors did a fine job of saying something like, "There are sources that critical scholars consider but the fact of these sources does nothing to render this less than the Word of God–useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness." Maybe. Maybe I didn't read them well enough. Frankly, I have gotten to a point in my life where I really don't care how the books came together: whether through various sources and editors or by the hand of one author who was 'carried along by the Holy Spirit.' I think ultimately what matters when reading the Bible is that we read it as a whole. That is, Genesis may well have been 'edited' by 50 different people for all we know or it may have been written by one person, say, Joshua or Moses. But what matters is that right here, right now, we have one book that we call "Genesis." And we interpret Genesis as one book with one overarching theme from front to back and as God's word given to us.

The book was written with a clear audience in mind: "We intend for this volume to serve as an introductory textbook to the Christian Scriptures for students who are engaging in an informed reading of the Bible within an academic setting" (xi). To this end, I think the authors did a fine job. Their goal is not to undermine personal faith or catholic Christianity but rather to set the Scripture in a context where it can be properly understood in light of historical context, literary development, and theological contexts. In other words, they are not telling the student what to believe, but they are helping the student to see that even though the prophets spoke and wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit, these books were not written in a vacuum devoid of context or unaware of the strictures of written language. These are two areas, especially, where I think the Christian church gets it wrong–both in the academy and the pulpit.

We tend to picture Scripture being written in a void as if the Holy Spirit took over a person's mind, set them on a mountain in the lotus position, and dictated word for word what was to be written. He may have at times, but I think one only needs to read the Bible to see that the authors who wrote the books had an agenda and were consummately aware of their surroundings. So when Christians read, we do not need to be afraid that there are scary things happening in the Bible or that some of the things might be culturally obscure to us. To this point, I suspect that even though this is a book written for an academic setting, perhaps that is too limited a market: not everyone goes to Bible college or seminary, but most Christians sit in a pew listening to someone who has and for too long that pulpit has not been challenged on a critical, local level. I'm not saying run the preacher down, but I am asking: Isn't there room within the church to discuss heady and deep issues we find in the Bible or that we find about the Bible?

Isn't there room for intelligence among people of faith? I think there is. I'd like this book to find its way into the local church and not remain merely in the classroom where ignorant freshmen waste away their days and squander opportunities to bring real change to our churches–real change that starts in the pulpit with the person preaching the Scripture. In my opinion, a book like this will go a long way to that end precisely because it is not so heady that the average pew sitter cannot understand it.

"We want the reader not only to know the contents of the Bible but also to gain a critical appreciation and respect for the historical distance between us as modern readers and the ancient contexts of the Bible. We want the reader to consider how these texts were heard or read by their ancient audiences by asking historical, literary, and theological questions of the texts. We hope this study of the Bible initiates a journey of both discovery and intellectual curiosity, and thus deepens engagement with the biblical text." (2)

The only thing I wish they had done is gone one step further and also indicated that they hope the book would strengthen faith and foster trust in the Scripture as God's word. The Bible is not a merely influential document or a tool for debate or a window into the past. It is those things, yes, but not merely and in their introductory comments I wish they had made further comment about the Bible being the Word of God to his covenant people. They ask, "Why study the Bible?" (2) and I agree with their answer that we may "evaluate contemporary interpretations of the Bible that one may encounter in various ways: in church-related and religious literature, in sermons, in politics, through the media, and in informal conversations with family and friends" (2). I give a hardy 'amen!' I think many would agree that the church's knowledge of Scripture is woefully inadequate to the tasks and pressures we are facing in this world today and no amount of television preaching is going to alleviate that inadequacy.

If this book helps people to be more informed, then good. But more: if it helps pew people read and engage their Bible with more consistency and regularity, then better. If it helps bring a certain note of wisdom to young men and women in bible college, then this is best.

I'm not sure I buy the Documentary Hypothesis to be honest. I might; I might not. I'm not sure that it harms the Scripture, but I'm not sure it helps. Again, my point is: we have the text so does it really matter how it came together or whose name is attached to it? Jesus accepted the OT Scripture so shouldn't I? It used to be that those who accepted and taught JEPD were on the outside, sort of fringe scholars one ought to be wary of. Now, I see in this book that the DH is becoming more mainstream, a more accepted thought among scholars and pew people. Make of that what you want.

I like the charts, graphs, maps, and pictures in the book. They are helpful and not intrusive. They help break up lengthy texts and explanations that may bore a young college student (as do the grey call out boxes where the authors give readers extra insight into structure, definitions, and more.) I like how explanations are given to difficult terminology–such as JEPD (Documentary Hypothesis (42). I like the engagement with historical documents, criticism, and manuscripts. I like that the authors take their time and explain difficult concepts to the reader in plain language. I also like that at the end of each chapter or section of Scripture examined the authors take the time to print a short bibliography of source material. Many of the sources are very recent and some of the authors may be a bit obscure to new readers or students. Some of the sources are from recognized evangelical scholars whose names will be immediately recognizable and will thus lend some credibility to the authors' work.

Disclaimer: In exchange for my fair and unbiased review, I was provided an ARC by the publisher through NetGalley. The views expressed here are mine alone. I was not required to write a positive review and I was in no way compensated for the review. All images belong to the copyright owner.] – See more at: http://specialeducationteacher.typepad.com/my-blog/#sthash.L9A7040Y.dpuf
Disclaimer: In exchange for my fair and unbiased review, I was provided an ARC by the publisher through NetGalley. The views expressed here are mine alone. I was not required to write a positive review and I was in no way compensated for the review. All images belong to the copyright owner.] – See more at: http://specialeducationteacher.typepad.com/my-blog/#sthash.L9A7040Y.dpuf
Disclaimer: In exchange for my fair and unbiased review, I was provided an ARC by the publisher through NetGalley. The views expressed here are mine alone. I was not required to write a positive review and I was in no way compensated for the review. All images belong to the copyright owner.] – See more at: http://specialeducationteacher.typepad.com/my-blog/#sthash.L9A7040Y.dpuf

I want to say that I am glad this book is not merely a rehashing of what is already in the Bible. Too many times scholars write Bible surveys or introductions to the Bible and the book ends up being little more than a retelling of what is in the Bible–so much so that the person reading would get more from just sitting down and reading the Bible. I like that the authors seemed to keep the overarching theological strand of God's redemptive plan in Jesus in view from Genesis to Revelation and that their 'retelling' includes outlines of the texts, discussion of significant textual issues, and theological reflection on themes (context), purposes (audience), and literature (genre, author) (their discussion of the Book of Revelation beginning on 252ff is especially helpful and on the mark.)

Indeed, the authors conclude:

"The Christ even represents the beginning of God's end-time action to reconcile all creation to God's self. As it awaits the consummation of this redemption in the coming of Christ, the community of Christ followers gives witness to this divine action in its life together and its proclamation. This overarching story, of course, provides another context in which to interpret the texts of the Bible." (259

Scripture index. Subject index.

A helpful volume for new students and perhaps for students who worship each week in a local church. And given that this fall, September 2015, I will begin teaching at a small local Bible college, this will be a helpful volume for my students.

5/5

Prayer scripturesTitle: Pray the Scriptures When Life Hurts

Author: Kevin Johnson

Publisher: Bethany House Publishers

Year: 2014

Pages: 128

[Disclaimer: I was provided an electronic preview copy of this book through NetGalley. I was not compensated in any way nor am I required to positively review the book. Thanks for reading.]

A few years ago I had a startling revelation while I was preparing a sermon or a Sunday school lesson or reading for devotional purposes that a great deal of the Scripture is actually prayers that were prayed by real people at some point in history. I think of people like Hannah, Mary, Miriam, Moses, David, and Jesus. John 17 is an entire prayer. Look at the words Jesus spoke on the cross and you will see that many of them are prayers lifted directly out of the Old Testament. Or look at the church praying in Acts 2 or 4 and see how they do it: the words of their prayers are lifted directly from the Old Testament.

So when I saw this book offered for review, I was actually very, very excited. I had actually started writing a series of Bible study lessons for my church at the time where we would learn to do just this: pray the Scriptures. By that I mean far more than looking to the Bible for ideas about what to pray and rather directly praying the words we find in the Scripture. Again, look at the prayers found in the Revelation and you will be surprised how many times the author of the Revelation quotes or alludes to Scripture and how often those words are in the form of prayer.

So, to reiterate, I was very excited about this book, so I started reading. Each chapter begins with a verse of Scripture followed by two or three pages of thoughts about the particular verse just quoted. The author also works this verse and his thoughts around a theme for each of the 9 verses explored. So, we learn, Psalm 22 is about agony; 1 Kings 19 is about loneliness; Psalm 73 is about resentment. I think you get the idea. At the end of each chapter there are prompts which the author gives us full leave to 'cross out and respond with [our] own thoughts.' These prompts are based on a more comprehensive quotation of the Scripture. So, on chapter 5 where the author talks about 'resentment' from Psalm 73, he begins by quoting verses 2-3. At the end of the chapter, he quotes the entire Psalm, bit by bit.

I use the same procedure every time I review a book that deals in any way at all with the Scripture: I look carefully to see how the author 'uses' Scripture. The way an author, or preacher for that matter, 'uses' Scripture tells me a lot about what they think of Scripture. Well, as it turns out there isn't anything necessarily wrong with the way Johnson uses Scripture in his book. And there isn't anything wrong, necessarily, with what he wrote. My only real grip with this book is that it is shallow.

Look again at the way the people of the New Testament pray Scripture. Look again at the way the people of the Old Testament wrote their prayers and what they prayed about when they prayed and when those prayers were written down for us. They are much deeper and far more revelatory about Jesus or about God's goings on than Johnson's book would lead us to believe. Now that's just my opinion. I'm not saying this is not a good book and I'm not saying it's not worth the time. I am saying it is shallow and that in my opinion he could have delved much, much deeper into the meaning of the passages than he did because I'm not quite so certain that what he says is what those passages are always about when context is taken into consideration.

Scripture is filled with a singular idea from the first verse to the last: God living in peace with his creation and his creation bearing his image and the work he did to restore that peace after humans made a mess of it. It's just my opinion, but I would like to have seen more of the revelatory power of praying the Scripture than the counselor side. Right now the world does not need counseling and Christians do not need therapy. What both need is revelation.

In that regard, this book fell short for me.

3.5/5 stars

206700Title: Killing Lions

Authors: John Eldredge & Sam Eldredge

Publisher: Thomas Nelson

Year: 2014

Pages: 188

Killing Lions at Ransomed Heart

[Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of this book from Thomas Nelson BookLook Bloggers program in exchange for my fair and unbiased review of this book. I am required only to be honest with my review. I was not compensated or asked to write a favorable review.]

If I recall correctly the history of my reading, this is the third John Eldredge book I have read in my life. I'm not sure what the other two were–maybe The Sacred Romance and Waking the Dead–I really don't remember. All I can say is that neither left a mark on me. I think when it comes to John Eldredge books you either get it or you don't. I fall into the latter category. I'm just not quite able to put a finger on what it is he is writing about or why he's writing it. I don't think that is an indictment of him or his writing as much as it is a nice way of saying I just don't care for his writing.

Now add his son Samuel to a book. That's where I'm at with Killing Lions. And given that this is the third of his books I have read it's not like I haven't tried. I still don't get it. Furthermore, given the wide range of life experiences of young Samuel, I find it hard to believe that many people–many young men–will be able to relate to his peculiar brand of 'woe is me.'

The book is billed as a guide through the trials young men face. Sounds admirable. Sounds interesting. Sounds like a great way for a dad to get his son's writing career off the ground. Half-way through the book I couldn't shake this thought from my head, by the end nothing had changed. I'm not saying there is anything necessarily wrong with that. I wish my dad could do the same thing for me and Lord knows if I could do that for my sons I would. But whatever sympathy I might have had for young Samuel quickly evaporated when I had to read, at least once per chapter, about his world travels and how terribly broke he was while he traveled to Malaysia (56, 95), or completed a Vision Quest at the age of 14 by climbing the Grand Tetons (63), or went sailing, or suffered as RA at the college he went to or how he had to spend a semester abroad because he was rejected by a girl (4 months to be exact. I remember one time I was rejected by a girl. I had to get up the next day and go to work. See pages 40, 115), or how he was certain his writing career was never going to get off the ground (51). This poor kid has done more by the age of 20 than most of us will do in a lifetime.

But he was struggling to find himself. And his career. Until one day his wise friends told him, "God was after how I saw myself" (55). I'm all about finding yourself and wading through the struggles of a young man–learning that alcohol is not helpful, that serial dating is a waste of time, that we often have to find the right career by being fired or quitting a fruitless job–and that's what this book amounts to: one young man's journey. The problem, as I see it is, is that his dad's advice is good for him. It might be helpful for others; it might not be helpful for others. I'm not sure who the audience is for this book because the people who probably should read it won't and the people who will read it will already agree with Eldredge because they have bought into his rather strange philosophy of warriors, masculinity, and romance. You either get it or you don't. There's nothing unique or inspiring about the content of this book.

The book is full of quotes. It is clear that the authors either read a lot or are good at quote mining because there are a lot quotes from all the people one might expect: Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien, Buechner, U2, Frankl, Pascal, Dostoyevsky, and a few other philosophers and authors–some known, some obscure. The things these people have to say are important in certain contexts, but I think in this book they were filler. Use of these quotes always felt kind of forced and convenient-even if the quotes were the good quotes one might expect to see from these authors. I like quotes, but there was nothing surprising about these quotes.

I think when it's all said and done, as I noted above, you are either a reader who gets John Eldredge or you are not. If you are not, you will find a lot of the 'dialogue' tired and boring. Most of us do not live in a world where we discuss or engage in things like the 'Warrior' stage of life, go on Vision Quest's, eat Tiger beer as curry mee in Malaysian food courts with friends (I've read pages 95-96 two or three times and I'm still not sure what Samuel is trying to tell us in this story because I'm not sure what a person falling down and cracking their head in a Malaysian bathroom is reason enough to ask the question, "Why God?"), or 'suffer' from relational paralysis. Most of us don't have time because we are too busy living to take the time to 'find ourselves.' For most of us life and the journey is discovery enough without having to dedicate time to the specific task, and I can assure you that writing one book, traveling through Europe, and getting married will not end your journey to self-discovery. I am now 44 years old and I still learn, and will continue learning, but not so much about myself. At some point we need to grow up and give up the notion that learning about ourselves matters. We will do so when we start seeking first the Kingdom (Matthew) or when we fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews).

I have grown weary of a generation who thinks that life is all about self-discovery. I have grown even more tired of the publishers who think all of these angst ridden tales of spoiled brats need to be published. It seems to me that we all know enough about ourselves. Life is not necessarily a journey to find ourselves. In fact, a better goal would be to lose the self and find Jesus. We truly start living when our ambition each day is to discover Jesus in the faces and lives we see each day, to do everything with love, and to die trying. This is the essence of taking up the cross, denying the self, and following Jesus. And despite the prayers at the end of the book, I don't sense that that is the gist of this book.

It seems that many of the problems young Samuel had to pass through (as are the problems most people face at that age) were self-inflicted problems because he wanted to live the so-called cookie cutter, standard life of a 18-20 something rebel–complete with drinking, smoking, bouncing from girl to girl, and, of course, taking 4 month 'find yourself' journeys in Europe (see page 49-51). I'll be honest when I say that I just don't understand all this angst that Millenials feel they are suffering or this so-called higher sense of awareness they think they have. It all seems so self-centered: "Woe is me. I have to figure out life. I need to travel around the world to find myself and see how God wants me to look at myself. And we will be so aware and sensitive that the world will change. And we are the only people who suffer this way. And blah blah blah…" Really. Get over yourselves already.

And I certainly don't think one needs to travel to Europe and visit Auschwitz in order to know that there is terrible sin in this world and that humans are capable of horrific, ungodly, despicable violence against one another. Look around. Be more aware of what's going on in your own neighborhood. Stop climbing mountains and start stooping down to help someone right next to you.

So Sam and John discuss all sorts of things: girls, relationships, sex, money, careers, church, God, suffering & evil, building cars, travel to exotic locations, video games, and friends. Yes. All 'lions' as they say in due course. Every now and again there were some helpful thoughts, but for the most part the conversation between dad and son sounded edited, written. I'll be honest, it wasn't raw enough. I think this book might have worked in an electronic version where it could have been left raw and unedited and less wooden. Yes. That's word I'm looking for: it's too wooden. 

In conclusion, I will say this. I do agree with John's words on page 119: "Christianity is not a 'blind leap of faith' as many have been led to believe. According to Jesus–and the entire canon of Scripture–faith is trust and confidence in a person whom you have good reason to believe is trustworthy" (his emphasis). I think he is right to put the emphasis of faith on a person who actually lived in history instead of upon some strange idea that theologians have conjured up. What I wish would have happened though is that this would have found its way to the front of the book because then maybe young Samuel might have understood life a lot better. Samuel wrote, "My generation is desperate for meaning" (7). Well? Have you read your father's books? Can you get over yourself for five minutes and figure out that life is not about you and your meaning? That you are not the culmination of history? That you are not the reward?

We have meaning. All of us. We don't need to search for it and I'd tell Viktor Frankl that too. Our meaning has been summed up for us nicely in the person and rule of Jesus.

We have meaning already and sadly I don't think this book is going to contribute much to the journey of discovery that some young people seem to think they must go on. Open your eyes. Taste and see that the Lord is good. (Peter)

I don't think this book is meant for a wide audience. It's meant for a niche group of readers who already get the work of John Eldredge.

2/5 Stars

PS–I disagree thoroughly with his take on Luke Skywalker on page 110. I don't think Luke ever, for a minute, experienced self-doubt. Watch the films again: he wanted off Tattoine to fight; he went into the cave on Dagobah, he left his training to rescue his friends in Bespin, and he left the group on Endor to confront Vader. This is not self-doubt. This was a man who knew what he had to do and did it. He often did it without thinking ahead, but Luke was a man who knew what it meant to be a friend, to be loyal to something pure, and who had a clear vision of right and wrong. There was no doubt in Luke Skywalker and he is not a good model of comparison for this current generation of humans growing up, spoiled, and searching for meaning. Luke knew, in his bones. Frankly, if anyone tried to hold Luke back it was everyone around him.

I went back through my old notes, the ones I managed to save after the church fired me, and found that I have written two separate sets of daily devotionals on the book of Daniel and and entire series of sermons. Now I have a new project where I am doing preliminary work through the book of Daniel. These blog posts are part of the development of this project and as such represent a prolegomena to the larger study which will manifest itself later.

In his short book The Justification of God, theologian P. T. Forsyth wrote, "It must be something historic which enables us to believe in the last reality, deep rule, and final triumph of goodness in spite of history" (98). He also wrote, "If civilisation collapsed, the Divine Kingdom is yet immune from its doom" (82). Forsyth says many such things in the course of his book and I wish I could spill all of them here in this short post. Forsyth seems to have had a keen eye for noting the differences between this world where we live and kingdom God established in the cross. Yet Forsyth also expresses that this necessarily means the church must be missionary in nature. He insists that the earth has a goal and that there is nothing that can prevent us from arriving at that goal and that God will stop at no historic convulsion to get us to that goal. 

When we read Daniel 11 (and perhaps Daniel 10 should be included here too) we see a fourth major interpretive point for understanding Daniel. The other three (there are two kingdoms, the two kingdoms are at war, and those who hold fast to God will live) are briefly developed in another post. To those three I add a fourth: the kingdom that set itself in opposition to God is violent, aggressive, blasphemous, and destructive in nature. All throughout Daniel's book the reader sees this. Consider:

  • Chapter 1: the kingdom of Babylon invades Jerusalem and takes captive people and articles of the temple.
  • Chapter 3: God's people are thrown into fire for not worshiping a statue.
  • Chapter 5: Belshazzar is a blasphemous king with no respect for God as is evidenced by his drinking from the gold goblets
  • Chapter 6: Daniel is thrown to lions for failing to stop praying to God.

It becomes worse when we read chapters 7 – 11, but essentially those chapters all follow a similar pattern: kingdoms rise; kingdoms fall. While they are empowered, they are violent and blasphemous. Yet every single one of them comes to an end at the hands of another kingdom. This was foreshadowed for the reader in chapter 2: "In the times of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever."

In my opinion, this verse is key to understanding the book of Daniel because this is exactly the pattern we see over and over and over again in the book: kingdoms rise; kingdoms fall. And what we know from this verse is that it is the hand of God that is somehow involved in the wrecking of all these kingdoms. This is especially so when we get to chapter 11 of Daniel.

Chapter 11 is a stellar example of being so concerned with looking at trees that we miss the forest. The problem, I think, with so much of the interpretive energy expended on Daniel is that exegetes work too hard at trying to identify the specific people that the author of Daniel is writing about in chapter 11. Maybe he's talking about Alexander. Maybe he's talking about Antiochus. Maybe he's talking about the Seleucids or some others. My question is: who cares? And my point is: those people are all dead and gone and Daniel must speak to you and me, right here, right now.

Now, to be sure, I'm not saying that the identity of those people Daniel wrote about is historically meaningless. Their identity does serve some purpose in establishing the veracity of the book and the credibility of its author, but as far as the overall point that the author is making, their identities are meaningless because the pattern never changes: kingdoms rise; kingdoms fall. And in truth it does not matter if it was 600 years B.C. or 200 years B.C.: if Daniel matters, it matters now and we who read it now do well to pay attention to the forest: kingdoms rise; kingdoms fall. This pattern never changes; the character of the people running the kingdoms never changes; the position of God's people within those uprisings/downfallings never changes; and God preserves his people despite this constant fluctuation.

Even a cursory look at chapter 11 demonstrates this. I won't list the sketch from my journal, but some general points can be made nonetheless.

First, not one kingdom/king written about in chapter 11 of Daniel survives. Every last one of them meets his/her end. There is no alliance they can make that will save them. There is no tax they can impose that will secure them. There is no war they can wage that will sustain them. From first to last, these kings and their kingdoms will perish from the earth. Proof? Look around. Do you see any of them in existence? So, then, do we have any reason to believe that kings/kingdoms of this present world will end any differently than those described in chapter 11 of Daniel? I think the answer is a clear and resounding No.

Second, not one of these kings or commanders achieves anything righteously. Quickly survey how they get things done:

  • Power through wealth (11:2)
  • Alliance through marriage (11:6,7)
  • Through rage (11:11)
  • Levying of taxes (11:20)
  • Through intrigue (11:21)
  • Through deceit (11:23)
  • Through bribery (11:24)
  • Through lying (11:27; they don't even tell each other the truth!)
  • Through violence against God (and God's people; 11:16,30,31; 36-39)
  • Through flattery (11:32)
  • Through self-exaltation (11:36)
  • These kings do whatever they want (11:36)
  • They blaspheme the God of gods (11:36)

And this isn't even to mention that every single one of them does what they do through violence, aggression, and war. Every king mentioned has blood on his hands. They do what they do through war. Yet we exalt these people and continue to lend them our voices in their attempts to secure power for themselves. How else can we justify the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars during political campaigns? The real question is this: do we have any reason to believe that the leaders of this present world are any different than those described in Daniel 11? I think the answer is a clear and resounding No.

The third point I would make about chapter 11 is this: How are the holy things, the holy people of God treated by these kings, rulers, and commanders in Daniel 11? Read it again and note how the holy things of God are treated in Daniel's book. Chapter 1, the temple vessels are put in the pagan temple and the holy people are taken to a pagan city; chapter 3, holy people are thrown to fire; chapter 5, the blasphemous character and actions of Belshazzar speak volumes about the kings of earth; chapter 6, holy people are thrown to lions; chapter 8, the truth is thrown to the ground; chapter 11, the beautiful land becomes a haunt for pagan rulers (v 16, 41), the temple is desecrated (v 31-32), and just read verses 36-45 to see the nature of one of these rulers. They feign righteousness and speak a pretty word about how they have the best interests of their constituents in mind, but I think it is fairly easy to read Daniel's book and see that neither the kings nor the people they serve have the righteous and holy things of God in mind as they rule.

Thus the question becomes: do we have any reason to believe that this side of the cross that the rulers of this earth are any different than the ones Daniel was specifically writing about in his book? I think the answer is a clear and resounding No. We see all the same such hubris and violence and warmongering as Daniel did. We see the same 'want to power' Daniel did. We see the same intrigue, the same flattery, bribery, and self-glorification as Daniel did. Times have not changed. Only the names.

What's ironic about so much of the interpretation of this chapter is that when we see Jesus speaking of it later on in Matthew's Gospel, we find him making the same (or at least similar) points: Kingdoms of earth rise, kingdoms of earth fall; the kings of earth do not have the righteous things of God in mind; and the holy things/people of God will be the ones who will have to endure their wrath. But also the command is the same and what the Man in Linen in Daniel 12 tells Daniel Jesus tells us in Matthew 24-25: Watch out, hold fast, resurrection awaits: "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life" (24:46).

Again, this is all preliminary and I have a lot of studying to do yet. This means I have a lot of clarifying to do of some of my major points of exegesis, but at this point I'm sticking with the forest instead of the trees. I get that without trees we won't see a forest, but taking a longer, wider view of the landscape demonstrates to us that sometimes general principles arise that are significantly more important and relevant than trying to dredge of history and match faces to no-names.

9780764211287Title: The Quick-Start Guide to the Whole Bible

Authors: Dr William H Marty & Dr Boyd Seevers

Publisher: Bethany House (Baker)

Year: 2014

Pages: 304

[Disclaimer: I was provided with an ARC via NetGalley in exchange for my fair and unbiased review of this book. I was given no compensation and I am not required to provide a positive review.]

I'm just gonna go ahead and state at the outset that this book was a disappointment for me. I think the problems started with the the authors' a priori commitment to the standard conservative reading of the Bible. There's nothing necessarily wrong with the 'standard conservative reading' (I most likely subscribe to it myself, although a a little more nuanced), but at times it forces the authors to make statements for which there is considerable debate (e.g., "The original author and his audience probably knew the answers to such questions, but modern readers struggle to find the answers in the text", 14). And this commitment to such a reading colors the authors' understanding of the books and thus troubles their application of the books at the end of each chapter.

That being said, if I can sum up my thoughts in one sentence, it would be something like this: either the authors or the publishers don't think very highly of their readers. I mean, seriously, this book is written by authors who hold Ph.Ds in their respective fields and this book reads like something written for a someone in a very early high school class. This book might have been in mind when the author of Hebrews wrote, "Therefore, let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity…." (6:1).

Both the Old Testament section and the New Testament section follow the same basic format. First, we learn a little about the 'Setting.' In this section we may learn a little about the place where it was written, the events that occasioned the writing, and the person who wrote the book. The authors also speculate about the timing of the writing. Also in this section the authors, almost without fail, tell us how we can 'divide up the book.' I found this dividing up to be a bit forced and unnecessary. I realize full well that this is what we do, but the problem is that it really didn't help us understand the books any better.

Second, there is a 'Summary' section. In my opinion, the summary section is the worst part of the book because it simply provides us with no significant information. It is, to be sure, merely a page and a half paraphrase of the content of the book being explored. Maybe paraphrase is too generous. Maybe it's more like an outline in paragraph form. The truth is, one can probably get more information by just sitting down and reading the Bible.

Third, in typical preacher fashion, the author complete the alliterated trifecta by giving us a 'Significance' section. In some instances, this section a page or so long (on my Nook). In other instances, it is merely a sentence or two. Although the authors try to vary the themes they broach in the significance section, I found that entirely too much of the time they state that the significance of the book is either God's Sovereignty (which is a good thing, except that their subtle or not so subtle commitment to Calvin's version of God's Sovereignty is troubling) or that we are going to suffer and we have to be faithful. I guess for me that's just not enough.

I always go back to Luke 24:27, 44 where Jesus gives us the ultimate in exegetical mastery: "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself." And, "Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms." I'm thinking this is fairly significant and ought to be explored a little more deeply.  Yet even the times when these connections are brought up, they are not brought up to the end that the reader is left thinking about Jesus as the fulfillment of God's righteous action in this world. In short, there is no real commitment to the meta-narrative that stretches from Genesis to Revelation.

I'm not one who happens to think the Bible can be piece-mealed into a mere 66 books easily divided after the first 39. There is a grand story being told and I'm not convinced the authors are as committed to it as they should be or as they claim to be. Even for a terribly elementary book such as this there should be a string stretched from one end to another connecting everything together. The subtitle of the book is, "Understanding the Big Picture Book by Book" and it is exactly at that point the book fails. To understand the big picture, there has to be commitment to the meta-narrative. And I didn't see it even if the author of the Old Testament section did a better job of trying than the author of the New Testament section.

I think that thread is Jesus. Don't get me wrong, He is present in this book but Jesus is not necessarily the focus of the book so much as each book is the focus of the book. I'm not sure if that makes sense, but what I came away from this book thinking is that it is hurried, it is sloppy, and it is terribly shallow and safe.

I'm not sure why this book was written or to whom it was written. There are hundreds of bible survey books available on the market that are infinitely better than this book. I'm sorry to say it, but this book falls short.

2/5 Stars

I've been thinking about my relationship with the church recently–especially as I get ready to move back to an area where I will be able to actually participate more fully in the local church. My relationship with the church has been sour for the past several years given the nature of the way my previous ministry ended. P7082251

I have had to re-evaluate my relationship to the church and my relationship with Jesus in light of the destructive force the church has expended in my life. I can say that now. I don't feel the need to sugarcoat things as if God needs me to defend the church. My relationship with Jesus has actually become fuller now that me and the church have an understanding. So here's a preliminary post on some thoughts I have about things Christians can do better.

First, I think can Christians can read the Bible better. What I have learned is that many of the so-called arguments we postulate are formulated by taking the bible as a collection of verses instead of reading it as a whole book, one long story. It ends in the same place it begins: God creating. And from front to back it is a book about God's relentless pursuit of humans–his love for us. I think one of the worst things to ever happen to the Bible was that it was turned into verses and chapters and collections instead of being allowed to remain one long story. It is a cohesive story. It should be read as such. Everything else in this post flows from this key point.

Second, I think Christians do not do politics well. Mostly this is because we have done Bible reading poorly. I'm not saying Christians ought not have political opinions. I'm not even saying we shouldn't affiliate with a particular political party (although we should be wary of those aspiring to office and those who ultimately assume office.) In fact, I think we should support some candidates and then oppose them with great vigor after they are elected. Ultimately, though my point is that most of the so-called propositions (in regard to politics) we put forth as Christians are based on some sketchy readings of Scripture. (See: Dispensationalism)

Third, I think Christians ought to be more liberal when it comes to love and grace and more conservative when it comes judgment. Do we think God's grace will be less than what demonstrate to people? Seriously. It remains a mystery to me that in this world there are Christians who will support war at any level, for any reason. When it comes to war and conflict Christians ought to be the first group organizing protests and writing angry letters to the masters of war who promulgate such atrocities in the name of Solomon who once wrote that 'there is a time for war.' Just because there is a time for war doesn't mean Christians ought to be lining up and offering unmitigated, unthoughtful support.

0421112033aCan I say this? Can I say that I find the whole notion of war appalling? Can I say that I find the entire idea of hostilities and violence to be utterly without biblical or Messianic support? Can I say that we should in no way support the masters of war, the principalities, the authorities that Jesus exposed on the cross and dismantled through his death? Can I just say that when I think of the death perpetuated in the name of anything my heart breaks and my soul cracks. There should be widespread opposition to war in every single church in America and around the world. Our doors should be places overflowing with love and grace and welcome and signs that say things like, "Come to me all you who are weak and heavy with burden. I will give you rest."

Why are some of the loudest voices of opposition to war coming from those who are mere secularists? Why does it seem that only the 'liberal' theologians oppose violence and oppression? Where are the conservative theological voices being raised in opposition to death and violence and hatred and oppression? Again, I believe that our seemingly unwavering support for any form of violence–war, the death penalty–comes from a deeply ingrained, culturally conditioned, and profoundly wrong reading of the Bible.

The bible is a story–more novel than tract, more narrative than textbook. Sadly, we look at it exactly the wrong way: a textbook to convert or prove instead of a narrative designed to make our hearts swell with compassion and love for God and one another. I like when Peter preached: people were cut to the heart. Would that more preachers preached in such a way that the word cut our hearts instead of merely stroking our minds. Later we read that the Bible divides the joints and marrow and is a sword to pierce us. When I read a story, like The Count of Monte Cristo, I always end up crying because that's what a story does. It cuts deep.

That's how we ought to read the Bible.

There are more things I think Christians can do better. We can be quiet better. We can take care of the earth better. We can follow Jesus better. We can write better music, books, and movies. We can do worship better. We can, and we should, take care of the prophets among us better. We would do well to love better and more often those with whom we happen to disagree. A little love will accomplish more than a lot of hate.

Why is it Christians hold the key to this world's problems and yet so many of us are content to live sequestered, judgmental lives instead of throwing ourselves wholly into loving the desperate and hopeless people of this world? Why are we content for peace to be a possession and proposition instead of a clarion call to those who bearing arms?

Why are we not shouting, "No More!" No more war.

Once upon a midnight dreary, I was enrolled in seminary. I had to write a paper once concerning whether or not Jesus ever said anything political. I don't remember everything I wrote but I do remember being marked down a grade because it was my opinion that Jesus had very little to say about politics.

I suppose by now I might change my mind. He probably said a lot. He probably said more than I really care to think about right now. I think if Jesus did say something about politics it is something that most people really will not want to hear. The liberal thinks Jesus said something that justifies their liberal social agenda. The conservative thinks Jesus said something that justifies their conservative social agenda. If we use Scripture to justify a political point of view then we have missed the point of reading Scripture altogether.

I think Jesus said something about the Kingdom of God and anything he said about politics, and how they are used, must be found somewhere within the matrix of God's Kingdom. I think we must also be careful because Jesus spoke to a particular and peculiar political situation. He did not, to be sure, say anything specifically about American politics, American politicians, or the American political machine. There's a lot of folks who think Jesus had something to say about America, but he didn't. Not specifically anyhow. But if he did say something in general, I think he warned his followers that we ought to tread lightly and not be found holding hands with those in power.

Jesus had lots of things to say about the Kingdom of God though.

So I got to thinking tonight and went on a mini-facebook rant, posting mini-screed after mini-screed to my wall. (Mostly I do things like this to aggravate people, but tonight I was kind of being serious because I'm kind of getting sick of the attitudes of many of my conservative Christian friends. Jesus did say something to them, something about humility or being humble or being last or something.) The point here, then, is to post a few of those mini-screeds.

I think if Christians really, really, really want to see the world changed for the better, kind of a redeeming the time sort of thing, then it would be better if we aligned ourselves with Love instead of a particular political party.

[Comment: Jesus gave us one command: Love. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves. Love God. Love one another. That's pretty much it in a nutshell. What bothers me is that more people seem to get this who aren't christians than who are. I think that should bother people; a lot.]

I think if Christians really, really, really aligned themselves with Jesus, then we would have the same opinion of both sides of the political aisle because in truth, neither conservatives nor liberals have in mind the things of Jesus. I'll go a step further and suggest that they don't have your best interests in mind either. Politics is about one thing and one thing only: power. And the Gospel of Jesus is the power we already possess and the only power we need.

[Comment: In my opinion, way, way, way too many Christians think that our salvation comes from electing socially and fiscally conservative politicians. I disagree. I happen to be a socially and fiscally conservative Jesus follower, but that is not where our hope is found. We are not a people of power and we do not need those in power for protection and/or salvation. We belong to Jesus. He is our King. He is our love. He is our God who came to bring us back to Him. David Crowder wrote those last three lines. All I'm saying is that dialogue is fine. Opinion is fine. Belief is fine. But don't for a minute think that dialogue, opinion, and belief in or with a political party is going to keep you safe. It's dog eat dog in politics and Christians are very tiny dogs.]

Funny thing is that I often find it is those who are politically liberal or religiously agnostic who tolerate my ideas more than my conservative friends.

[Comment: I don't even care anymore. I don't even try. I like a good debate, but I have long since given up the idea that I will lead anyone to Jesus just because I have more arguments against evolution than they have for it. I figure if God wanted it to be so clear, he could have made it clearer himself. These political and scientific arguments are great fun, but really amount to nothing in the grand scheme of things. Let's talk about things that really matter–like life, and love, and happiness (that's from Audio Adrenaline.) Down at the bottom of a person, I want to know they are into Jesus. They can sort out their political and scientific angst in their own time and with God. None of this means we have to agree with one another. Jesus didn't say: A new command I give you: Agree with one another. No. No. No. Jesus said, verbally and demonstratively, Love. That's all. Just Love. ]

The Resurrection of Jesus is God's demonstration of Power and if Christians think we need something more or other then we have not truly understood the Gospel of Jesus yet. The greatest among you will be the least. The first shall be last.

[Comment: At the heart of the matter is that we now live in a church that reflects the US constitution and not the Bible. I'm sorry to say it. The church is stagnant–and mega churches prove nothing otherwise. I know from first hand experience how churches treat people–and they do so because of power. Churches like power just as much as the politicians with whom they align themselves. And our daily commentary on world events is not Jesus or Scripture, but talk radio hosts whose use of Scripture is offensive and appalling. What's worse is that Christians buy into it: lock, stock, and barrel. We think because it's conservative, it's right. We think because it's liberal, it's wrong. Seriously, who cares? Let's talk about something like fixing the world because we love Jesus or because he loves us. Let's talk about what real power is and where real power comes from. Let's talk about love. Let's talk about something like how we as Christians can be Jesus to the thousands of people who are illegally entering this country each day. What can we do to alleviate some or all of their burden? Let's talk about how that Jesus Resurrection Power can make this earth shake.]

So you see I am a little out there tonight. It's not about being contrary. It's about thinking through what the Bible really, really, really says and means. It's about being a Jesus follower first and an American second. America is great. I have no desire to live anywhere else, well, maybe Paris for a year or so, but other than Paris, Venice, and Berlin, I'm all about America the beautiful.

But I'm more about Jesus.

Christians need to give serious thought to where their loyalties lie and to whom they belong. Faith is about trusting that God knows better what's going on than we do and that that's OK. We don't have to be in the know about everything. We don't have to be on the supposed right side of everything. Key to our discipleship is God's grace: no one will be saved because they dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's. We are saved only by grace. No one will be saved because they had the right political opinion or because they hobnobbed with all the right political power mongers. Grace. That's all.

In other words, I don't think Jesus gives a rip what your politics are. I do think he pays attention to your motivations when it comes to politics though–that is, where your faith is, how you use politics, etc. He knows your heart. That's what he is concerned with each moment of each day. Your heart. Many of us would do well to be liberated from the notion that our political persuasion will somehow persuade Jesus.

917s43W2pyL._SL1500_Title: A Godward Heart

Author: John Piper

Publisher: Multnomah Books

Year: 2014

Pages: 226

Additional Resources: Desiring God

[Disclaimer: I was provided with a preview copy of this book in exchange for my fair and unbiased review of this book. I am not required to give a positive review, but an honest one. I promise nothing but honesty in all of my reviews.]

I have read John Piper books in the past. Once I even used a video series he produced and hosted called Don't Waste Your Life. I have listened to sermons and followed his public pastoral career insofar as he is an outspoken proponent of the modern resurgence of Reformed Theology. So with some interest I have followed his debates with NT Wright concerning justification and the apostle Paul. I even follow him on Twitter.

Every time I venture into some of Piper's work, I go in with a positive attitude hoping against hope that he will write or speak with uncharacteristic simplicity. Yet every time I am finished with his work I remain or have grown increasingly frustrated. This book left me with no different feeling. I think if you are a proponent of Reformed Theology, a staunch Calvinist, or a member of Piper's church you will love this book because it falls in line with everything one would expect from Piper: consistent Calvinism, consistent putting down of those who are not Calvinists as a lesser brand (if at all) of Christian, and a strange view of God's sovereignty that makes God the responsible agent for every scourge and plague that has ever haunted humans on this planet. Despite their protestations to the contrary, Calvinists cannot escape the fact that at the end of every page they  do in fact put responsibility for everything directly into the lap of God and in so doing they mitigate human responsibility. They will tell us differently, but any thinking person can see through these two incompatible ideas. This is not mere paradox in the Biblical sense. It is simply nonsense. Either I am the problem with the world and therefore responsible entirely or God is. It cannot be both.

There are two problems with this book. The first is, in my view, a profound misunderstanding of what it means for God to be sovereign. I'm not so certain we can make a case from Scripture that God is the ultimate responsible agent for all the calamity in the world and all the personal suffering we as human endure. The idea that because God knew something would happen he must therefore have ordained it (and yet somehow metaphysically remains excluded from responsibility for it) is preposterous and certainly not the sort of deity any of us can worship let alone respect. We are not puppets, there are no strings, and God's sovereignty is not in any way diminished because I am a free agent who makes choices for which I am responsible. This philosophical (not biblical) idea pervades every single page of this book and, in my opinion, renders it impotent. If I'm a person without Jesus and I read a book that says Jesus is somehow responsible for my suffering, I will not in any way be inclined towards Jesus.

Piper writes, "I'm not saying that foreknowledge is the same as preplanning" (23, e-book). But that is exactly what he's saying. He constantly uses the word 'ordained'. There is a difference between these two. The only problem is that Piper himself blurs the line or simply ignores it. I wish I had found more encouragement and hope in this book, but as someone who cannot subscribe to Piper's view of sovereignty, I was left feeling frustrated and angry. I disagree that sin and wrath were planned in order to bring about the cross; I think the cross was necessary because we brought about sin of our own free choice (23, e-book; I think a fine example of this is found in chapter 13, "Does God Lie?" where Piper contends that God 'ordains that lying happens' [55]. I am simply at a loss as to how a Holy God can ordain sin at any level whatsoever. If God is so sovereign, why didn't he 'ordain' a world where there is no suffering? I fail to see how he would receive less glory in doing so.)

The second major problem is the manner in which Piper 'uses' Scripture in the book which, again, contributes to a profound misunderstanding of God's sovereignty (and much else besides). The problem is that he rarely analyzes or comments upon large swaths of Scripture within the larger framework or context of a book. Now, it's true that Piper quotes a lot of Scripture in the book. But it's also true that there are a lot of ellipses, a lot of one-offs, and a lot quotes that merely serve his Calvinist agenda. I understand full well that the nature of this book is to provide meditations on various things, of which Scripture is, at times, the thing being meditated upon. I do not think, however, that gives us license to ignore context. Truth be told, we can make Scripture say just about anything we want when we are meditating on a single verse at a time. I have never been a fan of proof texting and yet that seems to be key to the substance of this book.

There are times when I was shaken awake by Piper's observations–on the few occasions when he did happen to focus on a larger portion of Scripture. Take for example his thoughts on the Ten Commandments found in Exodus 20: "I suspect that the reason the Ten Commandments began with the commandment 'You shall have no other gods before me'…and ends with the commandment 'You shall not covet' is that they are essentially the same commandment, one focusing on what we should desire (God) and one focusing on what we shouldn't (anything else more than God)" (166). I think there are times in the book when the reader really will be astounded and drawn into a deeper understanding of what God has done in Jesus.

I also found his thoughts on 'The Rebellion of Nudity and the Meaning of Clothing'. I think it would have been nice if he had drawn a little from 1 Corinthians 15 and tied in his thoughts on Genesis with Paul's thoughts on Resurrection, but the chapter is still outstanding even without the tie-in.

So what shall I say about this book? Is there anything necessarily un-biblical about it? Is there anything in it that is going to bring dishonor to the God Piper is seeking to bring honor to? Well, it's a struggle for me personally because I in no way, shape, form or other buy his view of God's sovereignty. I think if a Christian who adheres to a Calvinist theological perspective reads this book they will be happy that John Piper found 12 different ways that enjoying life is actually sinful and can lead to idolatry. I think if someone who buys into a Reformed theological perspective reads this, they will be happy with all his talk about God's sovereignty and the theological hoops one has to jump through to arrive at his views. I think if you are an ultra conservative traditionalist you will be happy with Piper's ideas about marriage, submission, watching television, voting, and raising children.

I think if you are not a Calvinist or Reformed or Traditionalist Christian you will be extremely frustrated with chapters like "If God Wills Disease, Why Should we Try to Eradicate It?" (40) and chapters 1-8 (among others.)

For a non-Reformed, non-Calvinist, non-traditionalist like myself–one who puts his faith in Jesus and has put all of his hope eggs in the grace basket, who recognizes God is somehow Sovereign, and is a sinner who daily repents–this was a terribly frustrating book. It left me at times terribly hopeless and angry that someone who is obviously well educated can say the things about God that he says and maintain a straight face. There is undoubtedly someone for whom Piper's words will resonate deeply, and for that I praise God. There are others, I'm afraid, who will be utterly disgusted by this book and will find it very difficult to honor the very God Piper is hoping will be honored.

It's too bad that, in my opinion, Calvinism is the lens through which Piper has chosen to view God, the Scripture, and humanity. And I disagree that deep inside Piper is the happy, jolly Calvinist he claims to be (see chapter 20). I don't know how anyone could be.

1/5 stars