Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’
Me and a friend have been working our way through some pretty good books. I'm just a little more ahead of him, but he is plowing his way through slowly and making some amazing discoveries in the works of Scott McKnight and NT Wright among others. We have both had our theological worlds shredded–and for the better!–but we always kept coming back to the same question: how does this 'reign of Jesus'/'kingdom of God'/'Jesus is King' stuff play out in every day church/christian life?
That is really the question any theology needs to answer, in my opinion. I think NT Wright is brilliant theologically and Scott McKnight is spot on when it comes to the Kingdom of God and the Gospel. But I think even they would admit that if their theology has no practical legs, it's not worth all that much when it comes to the church. This is why, in my opinion, their work is so refreshing: it has legs, and arms, and hands, and so much more. It's not just for the head or even the heart. It's for those who work. This is the problem I have found with my own tradition's theology for so long. It limits itself to a mere 'join the club' type of rhetoric. It appeals to the head, sometimes the heart, but rarely to the appendages. Too much it focuses on getting 'saved' without really understanding or knowing what that means.
This is where Michael Frost's book Surprise the World has picked up what was lacking in my own understanding and in a few short pages provided a shell to enhance the framework and platform built by McKnight and others. I am not saying McKnight or Wright are devoid of practicality, so don't misunderstand my point. Nor am I saying that Frost is devoid of the framework or platform. I simply haven't read enough of Frost to know at this point. In short: I like this book. A lot.
I like this book because Frost, who has heretofore been unknown to me, bridges the small gap that I think exists between a robust Kingdom theology and a robust 'here's how Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places' practicality. This is not to say that these other two are devoid of practicality. Not at all. It's just that in this book by Frost one is able to see the platform and the framework upon which he is constructing his ideas. His near constant use of the phrase 'God's reign and rule' to under gird these 5 habits is what captured and held my attention. Here is a christianity that is finally getting out of itself. This is no mere book about habits to make you a better you. This is a book about getting out of you and into Jesus–it's about bringing his rule and reign to bear on this world in meaningful, Kingdom driven, Christlike ways. It's about having a solid reason to be a missionary every day instead of the mere 'hey, it's time to get saved and join the club' kind of rhetoric that we typically hear from our pulpits.
He is focusing primarily on 'mission' in the book and the way we go about bringing God's reign and rule to bear on this earth. He writes, "Mission is not primarily concerned with church growth. It is primarily concerned with the reign and rule of the Triune God." (21) It is this idea that permeates the book and supports his ideas. I love it! "Mission is both the announcement and the demonstration of the reign of God through Christ" (21). He couldn't be more correct and in this I begin to make the connection between the 'drowning' and the 'breathing.' I will spare you my thoughts on missionary work, but suffice it to say that perhaps a new model is needed in some parts of the world.
The only part of the book that kind of bothers me is the habit of 'listening.' It's not that I think listening to the Holy Spirit is a bad idea. Far from it. But this idea of 'centering prayer'…I'm just not sure about because, frankly, it sounds weird. Prayer is prayer. I get that he clears up any confusion that it might be confused with Eastern meditation. That's good. But for all the emphasis he places on being in tune with Scripture and Jesus I found this chapter/habit to be lacking. Prayer is prayer. Silence is silence. I think it's quite OK to be quiet during prayer and let the Holy Spirit pray for us. 'Centering prayer', frankly, bothers me precisely because of the imagery that it brings to mind. I'm sure the Bible even talks about meditating day and night on the Scripture, but again I think this is something different from what Frost is suggesting. I'm willing to be wrong on this point, but right now I remain unconvinced. Maybe I'm bothered by calling it 'centering prayer.' Maybe not. I simply do not see, in the Scripture, and overwhelming call for Christians to engage in this sort of prayer life. That's my opinion.
The other habits, though, are spot on in my judgment: blessing, eating, learning, and being sent. I especially love the part of learning about Jesus. We simply do not do enough of this because we are too concerned about getting people to say a 'sinner's prayer' or getting them baptized or whatever. Let's slow down and learn from and of the Master.
I have minor quibbles with the way he interprets some Scripture. For example, is take on 1 Corinthians 11:23-28, is a bit strange, but it doesn't necessarily impede what he is saying. Sometimes his language is a bit awkward. For example, I don't know what it means to 'craft a blessing' (38) but I'm not willing to build a mountain of protest against it. I simply think that blessings are often more random and spontaneous than planned or 'crafted.' Other times, I found his writing to be quite breathtaking. For example, when talking about reconciliation between God and humans being at the heart of Christ's work on the cross, he draws the obvious conclusion that such reconciliation between warring people should be a core expression of God's reign and rule (87). To this I offer a hardy Amen. I suppose more Christians need to hear this–especially some who call themselves 'conservative' and yet go out of their way to wish death upon anyone who wants to see peace with those who practice Islam and upon those who practice Islam.
It is such 'conservative' Christians who have turned me off completely to the conservative movement in the church. We should pray for peace, pray for our enemies, and feed those who wish to bring us harm–as evidence that Jesus rules and reigns in our own lives too. We have a long way to go in our understanding of Jesus and the church if there is a single person among us who wishes death to another human being simply because they wish death upon us. Jesus did not call us to hate those who hate us, but to bless them. We do not promote the reign and rule of God through force or violence or aggression or through inflamed rhetoric, but only through a loving embrace, a hardy meal, and through the imitation of Jesus.
Jesus healed the blind, the lame, the lepers, and the deaf–and even raised the dead–as evidence of God's kingdom coming in glory. Therefore, it should be reasonable to suggest that wholeness, the healing of broken people, is primary evidence of that reign today. (92)
This is a short and yet remarkable book. I am always glad when the Lord brings to me a book like this and I am even happier when I can write a positive review to share with my friends. I highly recommend this book. To be sure, Frost is recommending that we make these five habits (BELLS) more than mere habits. "I want you to make a habit of them. I want you to inculcate these habits as a central rhythm of your life…Missional effectiveness grows exponentially the longer we embrace these habits and the deeper we go with them" (99). It's hard to disagree.
I want to say exercise caution, but I also want to say to live under His rule and reign with reckless abandon. The simplest acts of blessing and grace can be missionary work. This book helps the reader see that even in the seemingly small acts of blessing God works mightily. You do not need to be trained in preaching or missions to be a missionary. You need to be willing to be a blessing to all, feed anyone and everyone, pray with all kinds of prayers, learn about our Master, and get sent into the world.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase Surprise the World (Amazon, $4.99, paperback); (Tyndale, $4.99, paperback)
- Author: Michael Frost
- On the Web:
- On Twitter: Michael Frost
- Academic Webpage: Michael Frost
- Publisher: NavPress
- Pages: 125
- Year: 2015
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this book via the Tyndale Blog Network in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.
“If I smelled like Vapo Rub; if I talked like Elmer Fudd; if you found reptiles in my tub; Would you love? Would you love me? Would you love me anyway? (Elliott Parks)
Let mercy leadLet love be the strength in your legsAnd in every footprint that you leaveThere'll be a drop of graceIf we can reach Beyond the wisdom of this ageInto the foolishness of GodThat foolishness will saveThose who believeAlthough their foolish hearts may breakThey will find peaceAnd I'll meet you in that placeWhere mercy leads
I love when a book just sort of 'shows up' and it has immediate relevance to my life or ministry. Such was the case with Thriving in Babylon. I was searching through the David C Cook offerings on NetGalley and this book just appeared…I'm fairly certain I heard the sound of 'ahhh' sung by angels as a halo of gold surround the book. Needless to say I was happy to see the book, a book, any book focused on the Book of Daniel.
I have been engaged in serious study of the book of Daniel since sometime in 2014 as I prepared myself to teach an undergraduate level course on the book at a small Bible College located near my home in the Fall of 2015. I mean it must be providence because this is the fourth book on Daniel I have managed to get for review from publishers in the last year (and in fact, I just received a fifth one in the mail today from another publisher). All of the books have had unique perspectives on the Book of Daniel and have lent their insight to me as I sought to understand Daniel.
It does make me wonder though why there is currently so much popular and scholarly level interest in the Book of Daniel–so much interest that one noted author even published a lifestyle book based on something he read in Daniel. It's curious how it seems that perhaps people are slowly beginning to realize that all our American dreams are not quite the stuff that being a disciple of Jesus is made of. Or maybe what people are seeing is that the time is ripe, the axe is at the root, the signs are converging and coalescing, and maybe we imagine we hear just the faintest hint of a trumpet blast being carried by the wind.
This book started out strong with a heavy focus on the Book of Daniel and I was rolling along with Osborne nicely. He is correct: Daniel is neither an adventure story nor a prophecy manual. Where he kind of lost me is when he stated what he does think the main point of Daniel's book is: "When it comes to the book of Daniel, his incredible example of how to live and thrive in the most godless of environments is the main lesson we don't want to miss. It's a template that's particularly relevant today" (Location 128). Unfortunately, this kind of made me yawn a bit because I started sensing where the book was going–a mere manual for living, something the church does not need. Fact is, if we read the Book of Daniel as a book of mere examples for living, however incredible, encouraging, and faithful they may be, then we may as well read it as an adventure story and we probably miss the bigger story he is telling us about ultimate redemption of the world, of His saints, of his Son, and of a victory that even death cannot prevent.
A deeper look at Daniel reveals a deeply theological story, one that is entirely focused on the sovereignty of God over the nations and of how, despite the terribly negative outward appearance of things in this world, God will rescue and redeem his exiles from Babylon, establish his Messianic Kingdom by uprooting, supplanting, subverting, and at times destroying the kingdoms of earth, and establish his Son and People as the rightful heirs and rulers of the kingdoms of earth.
Somewhere in this, yes, we are called to live and thrive. Clearly the prophet Jeremiah, one of the books Daniel read, told the exiles that they should settle down, build houses, raise families, live, and seek the welfare of the city where they were confined, but I doubt Jeremiah did so without first giving those people a picture of the great God who led them there in the first place. I doubt that living and thriving are the main focus of the book–or of any book of the Bible for that matter. I'm not saying they are absent; I am saying they are the trees we see when we take our eyes off the forest.
I absolutely agree that we live in a world of chaos. I agree that for all intents and purposes our times are no different than those of Daniel and that Christians are, by and large, living in the shadow and confines of Babylon. I disagree that we are going to change this world simply by displaying hope, humility, and wisdom–the three ideas explored in the book. To me, however, this sounds like a convenient outline–kind of preacherly (if that's a word). Needless to say, however well he may find these ideas in the Book of Daniel, I was fairly disappointed that this was the route he chose to go. It's not that anything he says in the book is wrong or that it cannot be found in the book of Daniel. It's just that this is not the point of Daniel's book and, therefore, I think Thriving in Babylon was wanting for something more.
So let me wrap up by noting a couple of things that did resonate with me and ultimately were good constructs–even if I think the foundation upon which they were built was a bit beyond the blueprint. First, I agree that '[F]rom the first page to the last, Daniel clearly saw God's hand in everything that happened' (Location 203). I agree. This is laid out for the readers in Daniel chapter 1 and it carries all through the book. He goes on to note that 'God is in control of who is in control' (Location 222). Here I think Osborne nails it and, to this point, he is correct: upon this understanding of God we can indeed thrive in Babylon. I only wish he had explored his point a little more with respect to how Christians respond to the the kings of this world. Daniel is a decidedly political book and I think it needed to be explored, and could have been even at this popular level.
Second, he brings out some import and valid points about suffering in this world and our response to it. Key among his points is this: 'Those who walk away from God in anger and disillusionment in the midst of their suffering never do so because their test was too hard. They do so because their faith was not genuine' (Location 541). Whatever else I may have written, I want to be clear that Osborne has written a good book with much worth lauding. His points about our suffering as Christians in the midst of the Babylonian shadow are important and timely. We do well to listen. Yet we also do well to remember that there is no resurrection needed for those who remain alive. The saints of God will suffer at the hands of kings. Perhaps this timely message needed to be explored a little more.
My main disappointment with this book is that I don't think Osborne handled the Book of Daniel very well. Frankly, it was a huge disappointment. At times, it was like he utterly forgot he was even taking us through the book at all. Besides this, as noted above, I think he failed to get to the heart of what Daniel is teaching us. I get that the book is not designed to be a thorough exposition of Daniel and in this Osborne succeeds. The book of Daniel is a complex book and the character of Daniel–one of only two characters who 'survive' the entire book from start to finished–is a complex character. He has good days and bad days. He spends a lot of time sick due to the visions he has. He has to make difficult choices at times and seems at times to be all about his own self-preservation. Sometimes he doesn't tell the whole truth when interpreting visions and dreams. At times he us utterly brilliant and at other times he seems confounded. Sometimes he appears to compromise a bit and other times he is utterly bold and forthright. It is, therefore, difficult to make Daniel the sort of hero I think Osborne wants him to be.
Daniel is complex and I wish that complexity had been explored with a little more nuance than Osborne did. Again, it's not that anything Osborne said was wrong or out of place. It's just that Daniel is not so black and white as he leads us to believe.
It's a good read for the most part and I didn't disagree with all that much. He says a lot of important and timely things. There are some surprisingly fresh anecdotes and I like that he doesn't fall back on the the so-called standard sermon illustrations–oh thank God for that! I found the book to be honest and readable; accessible and, at times, challenging. It has plenty of Scripture references quoted and/or alluded to (notes are at the end of each chapter.) I also found the book a bit unbalanced. Chapters 1-4 talk about 'Daniel's Story'; Chapters 5-7** discuss 'Prepared for Battle'. He discuss all these things before diving into his thoughts about hope, humility, and wisdom. Chapters 8-13 are 'Hope'; 14-16, 'Humility'; 17-20', 'Wisdom'. It's slightly unbalanced as you can see, it's a small thing to be sure, but it bothered me.
One last thing. Daniel's book warns us over and over again of putting our hope in the kings who derive their position and authority 'out of the earth' or 'out of the sea' (see Daniel 7). Christians in America are particularly susceptible to this scheme of the devil–the one where he tries to convince us that our hope is found in the next great ministry or the next great up and coming politician. We are continually told about how important it is to vote for a particular political party or a particular political candidate. Sometimes we are even told that Daniel himself is a fine example of why Christians ought to be involved in the political process. At one point Osborne makes an utterly brilliant point when addressing this scheme: "[Satan] is still at it. Today, he's convinced many of us to replace our passionate hope in Jesus with a passionate hope in politics or the latest ministry on steroids. It's taken our eyes off Jesus and put our hope in that which can't deliver" (location 1334). Here I think he nails it because it is here, at this point, that I think the point of the Book of Daniel is clearly in view.
What the church needs is a formidable and robust picture of a great God who will wreck the systems born in this world, born of this world, born from this world, and who will set up his own kingdom which is 'not of this world' (Daniel 2; cf. John 18). Daniel gives us this vision–as a prophet should. I find that looking at mere examples of mere humanity is not enough to strengthen us in our current need. This is why, for example, when John the Revelator was writing to the seven churches in province of Asia who were muddled in persecution and complacency, he began not with a robust picture of an exemplary human being but with a picture of the cosmic Jesus who is the Alpha and the Omega. In short, I think the focus on Daniel as a person is misplaced.
So I'm a little disappointed with this book, but not entirely. There are times when Osborne gets Daniel brilliantly and other times when he falls down. It's a preacher thing to narrow down a book to a set of memorable ideas. In this case, hope, humility, and wisdom are the memorable ideas he wants us to remember. I think we would have been better served if he had asked us to remember that it is God's faithfulness to his people, to his own plans for this world, not his people's mere example, that is why and how and for what we thrive and survive and ultimately own this world and how he ultimately conquers Babylon.
**I would make one correction to the book. In chapter 7, he begins with an illustration of living near Camp Pendleton, a US Marine Corps recruit depot in San Diego, California. In paragraph 2, he refers to those who train recruits as 'drill sergeants.' This would be fine if he were talking about Army recruits, but those who train Marines are called Drill Instructors. Trust me when I say this is a big deal to Marines. It should be addressed in future editions of the book.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase Thriving in Babylon (Amazon: Kindle $9.28 ) Christian Book Distributors (Paperback $9.99) David C Cook (Trade-Paperback $15.99)
- Author: Larry Osborne
- Larry Osborn on Twitter
- Academic Webpage:
- Publisher: David C Cook
- Pages: 224
- Year: 2015
- Audience: Mostly Christians, but others too (maybe)
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided an advance reader's copy courtesy of David C Cook via NetGalley.
**All page locations are relative at this point because I'm using an uncorrected proof. Pages should be checked against the final publication for accuracy.
Back in the day when I was still invited to stand in the pulpit each week and preach, I once had a crazy idea after reading a book by Eugene Peterson. Actually, Peterson's book began sparking little fires in me that I simply could not control. He eventually wrote five volumes in a series of spiritual theologies, but it was that first book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places that wrecked me. The crazy idea was that I should start sharing with my congregation this newly found discovery that Christianity was not about 'me.' I still remember the sermon series because it came out of me around the time The Purpose Driven Life was all the rage. My series was called The Crucifixion Driven Life.
Then I took a seminary class called Doctrine of Grace at Cincinnati Christian University (hosted by a preacher named Jack Cottrell) which served as another fire that eventually, completely undid me. Along the way I met a preacher/author named Tom Wright, another named Tim Keller, and still another named Brennan Manning. David Crowder*Band released A Collision and redefined (at least for me) Christian music. Then I read a book by a now deceased blogger named Michael Spencer (Mere Churchianity) and heard a sermon by an obscure preacher named Max Lucado who called his sermon It's not about Me, It's not about Now. (Of everything I have heard and read by Max Lucado that sermon remains the most powerful and convicting I ever participated in. It was truly a watershed moment in my faith. He also wrote a book with a similar title, which I read. But even the book paled in comparison to the sermon he preached.) I don't even have the space to tell you about what happened when I was introduced to a turn of last century theologian named Peter Taylor Forsyth.
So many books…so many steps….so many sermons…
It took several years of reading and listening to these sermons and allowing these radical ideas to flood my own sermons for me to get fired from the church where I was preaching at the time. OK. I'll be fair. I 'resigned.' And it's been six long years that I have been in the wilderness learning about what Kyle Idleman crammed into 224 pages. And what is worse, I'm not sure God is done ending me just yet. Truth is, we probably don't 'end ourselves' as much as when we submit ourselves to Jesus he undoes us for us. Sometimes the submitting isn't done so willingly either. We may not ask for it. I'm certain it will be (or is) unpleasant (for the most part). And I'm certain it will not be a finished task until after Jesus has returned to claim his own and to set things to rights. Idleman wrote:
Even though most of us can point to a significant event like the ones above, getting to the end of me is not just one moment in life. Reaching the end of me is a daily journey I must make because it's where Jesus shows up and my real life in him begins. (location 49**)
I'm not sure how Idleman crammed so much into 224 pages. I mean, it's taken me more than six years to get where I am and I know that I could fill more than 224 pages, but I like writing and I probably wouldn't work well with an editor. Nevertheless, here I am. Once again I heard the voice of God whispering the truth to my heart and it hurts my ears and demolishes my pride and almost drives me to hopeful despair. Jesus is not easy. Following him is less so. So if John the baptizer 'must become less', how much more must we?
I have not heard these things taught in any of the churches that I have been to in the last six years or so since I stopped preaching and became a special education teacher in a public school. Well, maybe I heard some of it in the Anglican church we attended for a while, but the truth is that when I started thinking deeply about what real faith was like and started to express those thoughts in the pulpit, the people in the pew became increasingly uncomfortable. It was palpable. Truth is, it's just not popular, frankly, to tell the truth about what it means to truly follow Jesus. I mean we all utter things like 'Jesus said to take up our cross, deny ourselves, and follow him.' Yes, we do. But in America that scarcely has the subversiveness that Jesus attached to it. In America we bear crosses of cranky neighbors, Facebook debates with 'liberals' who deny young earth creationism, or long slogs to boring jobs. Idleman brings this back to his readers: "I want to warn you now–so much of Jesus' teachings seem oppositional to what we have come to accept. And the life He invites us to is not just countercultural, it's counterintuitive. More often than not it flies in the face of what feels right" (location 64).
I seriously do not understand how the preacher at a so-called megachurch can say things like this and still have a pulpit to climb into every week. But he said it. And I think he is right. It all seems so backwards to me at times and yet there's this nagging in my brain and heart that tells me he is correct. "Embrace the paradox," he writes, "Brokenness is the way to wholeness." When I read things like this I hear the echoes of those I have read before: Manning, David Wells, Michael Spencer, Eugene Peterson, Lucado, Crowder, Keller, Mullins, Tolkien, Lewis, Carson, Wright, Willimon, Hauerwas, Buchanan, Rowling, and so many, many more. There are so many voices screaming this in their books and pulpits and records and blogs–and yet…here we are…running over the same old ground…retracing our steps to the same old fears and misconceptions about Jesus and what it means to be his disciple. Here in America.
That phrase, 'brokenness is the way to wholeness,' is alone worth the price of the book. I know it's only a retread of something Jesus said, but I don't care. Say it again. Print 224 pages with nothing but that on each page and I'll buy the book because I have lived it–as have many others who will also testify to it's veracity. I cannot explain it or even wrap my head around it. But I see how God in his righteousness has been breaking this chain that bound me–bound me to a pulpit, bound me to an idea, bound me to a people and how he has taken that brokenness and retro-fit me with something better than pulpits, projects, and people. Grace. That's all. Just grace. It means coming to the end of me and realizing that God through Jesus loves me more than I imagined he ever could or would. It means truly living the Resurrection Driven Life (another series of sermons I preached back in the day.)
Even more importantly though is that in coming to the end of me I come to the beginning of others. I've been teaching special education students for 4.5 years now and every day I have to get out of the way and see them. When I was all up in my own business, there was no room for others–even though I served in a hundred different ways. I can honestly question my motives. My students force me each day to end myself. "This is the death we must die. Not a one-time death. Not a partial death. It's a daily dying. And every time I come to the end of me I discover what I deeply wanted all along–real and abundant life in Christ." (Location 2037). In my church of six members, located in a self-contained special education classroom in a public school, I work with emotionally and behaviorally disabled children. Every day they remind me to close the book on myself, to lose myself, to die to myself. They remind me of what it truly means to be the least and the last; the overlooked and forgotten, tucked away safely from the general population where we won't be a problem. Every day these six show me Jesus.
Well, I could go on quoting from the book and preaching this sermon, but I think at this point it's enough to say that I love this book. I like that Idleman, given where he is and what he does, has stayed humble. In many books I read like this, the authors come across somewhat pretentious and condescending. Not so with Idleman. It's a testimony to the leadership in his church, his upbringing, and his training that he has remained in touch with earth. This is what impresses me about this book. I get not a single hint of arrogance or condescension. This book reads like it was written by a fella who has walked with Jesus. His stories are self-deprecating when he tells them, but in truth he doesn't tell a lot of stories about himself–which I appreciate–and instead he tells stories about Jesus. I like this a lot. Too many authors write autobiographies and call them books about Jesus. This book is truly a book about Jesus.
My point is that Idleman seems to think there is something more important for his readers to read than stories about his own faith-prowess or preaching super-skills. He seems to have this idea that it is Jesus who saves and loves and who models for us what being a disciple looks like. So in wonderful fashion, he wrote a book about the end of himself by telling us about Jesus. And I'm sure Kyle Idleman would tell us that a story about Jesus is far more interesting than a story about himself.
This is a book you should buy and read. And then read again. And then buy for someone so they can read it.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase or pre-order (on sale October 1, 2015) The End of Me (Amazon: Kindle) Christian Book Distributors (Paperback) David C Cook (Paperback)
- Author: Kyle Idleman
- Kyle Idleman on Twitter
- Academic Webpage:
- Publisher: David C Cook
- Pages: 224
- Year: 2015
- Audience: Mostly Christians, but others too (maybe)
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided an advance reader's copy courtesy of David C Cook via NetGalley.
**All page locations are relative at this point because I'm using an uncorrected proof. Pages should be checked against the final publication for accuracy.
Can you imagine if Karl Barth sat down to write Church Dogmatics and began with an exceptional account of how wrecked his life has been by sin, how disturbed his family is/was, and other unsavory and sordid details of his confusion, pain, and suffering and then told us the story of how God redeemed it, made it whole, and eventually used that life to change the lives of countless other equally shattered and broken people?
Neither can I. But maybe if he had, Church Dogmatics, as much fun as they are to read, would be even more fun. (I confess I have not read through the entire Dogmatics, so maybe he did I and I don't know it.)
To be sure, God for the Rest of Us is not Church Dogmatics. Most will probably be thankful for this. But it is another book among a collection of books that continue to be published by Christian publishing houses who are convinced that the every day readers in the church want to read stories about how terrible the lives of their favorite preachers have been. Preachers used to be paragons of untouchable virtue and holiness. Not so much anymore. It's kind of a newer trend where we get insights into practical Christianity via the growth process of (insert favorite preacher's name here). We get to read about their struggles, their families, their suffering, their pain, their doubt, their heroics, their rise from the squalor of outcast kid who doubts his way through Bible college on to having some sort of an epiphany and their subsequent rise to become super-hero pastors of super-mega-giant churches that are doing everything right that most other churches do wrong.
I hate to be this way, but this is the trend. I don't see it slowing down anytime soon because evidently there is a market for it. Evidently, people are buying this stuff. When I think about my own 'rise to stardom' in the world of churchianity, I usually end up sitting around wondering why it is that some people suffer so much and end up writing books and others of us suffer so much and end up reviewing those books. Sometimes, I suppose we come off as bitter.
This is partly what you get though when you read God for the Rest of Us. I'm not, necessarily, suggesting this is a bad thing. Those who read this book will figure that out on their own. To be sure, I think people should read this book because despite my conviction that the preacher should not be the focus of his sermon or an illustration (I learned this in elementary homiletics classes) in this case what we learn is that Antonucci is not some stuck up snobbish preacher unwilling to get close to people or to have people close to him. I like that this is a man who has been through the mud a time or two and yet somehow or other found Jesus. Or maybe Jesus found him. Or maybe Jesus dogged his footsteps until he turned around and asked where the Master where he was staying or the Master informed him he was coming over for dinner. Maybe its a little bit of all of it. Maybe Jesus follows us long before we ever follow him. I don't know. My point is that while I have grown somewhat weary of reading stories about the preachers who have struggled and suffered so much prior to Jesus (and sometimes after Jesus too) and share it in their books, churches, and t-shirts, church curricula, and DVDs, there is something to be said about what these preachers have learned from these experiences.
I think this book is, partly, the evidence of what Antonucci learned through his experiences.
While some Christians seem to go out of their way to protect God from the unseemly and untidy and unwashed heathens in this world, Antonucci goes out of his way to demonstrate that it is precisely 'these types' of people in whom God is most interested. Jesus did say 'it's the sick who need a doctor, not the well.' OK. So Antonucci has a vision one day, or a calling, and he packs up the family and moves to Vegas where he, following the lead of Jesus, starts to befriend and minister to all the wrong people–you know, people who would never fit in in our comfortable, white-washed, stained glass, middle-class suburban campus style churches. And a church starts to grow–and the Lord 'added to their number daily those who were being saved'–right in the middle of Las Vegas.
And if this story is true, and why shouldn't it be and how can it not be, it is utterly remarkable and unnerving the people that Jesus loves into his church through his people.
I heard a young preacher say something once that was utterly brilliant. He said, we cannot build relationships if we don't start them first. Oh, he had me hooked after that because I know that I am a somewhat strange person when it comes to relationships. Antonucci agrees: "The way to change a life is not by judging people but by embracing them. Not by pointing out their sins but by pointing the way to hope" (19). I mean, how simple can one get? He goes further (and I've read variations of this before, so it's nothing new, but I think it sets the tone for what the book is about): "What's so disturbing is that what Jesus was known for–amazing grace–is the exact opposite of what Christians are known for today. We're known for judgment and condemnation. We're known not for what we're for–loving God and loving people–but for what we're against" (19). It's really hard to argue with this.
When I was still a preacher, here I go breaking my own rule, I was one time ripped a new one in a board meeting because I helped a friend with his taxi service. The reason I was ripped? Well, you see, I picked up drunks from bars, I drove people to a local gambling facility, and every now and again I picked up and drove 'exotic dancers' home. You'd never believe some of the conversations I had with people in that car. But it was too much for the uptight members of the board–after all, I was a preacher and I shouldn't be seen in such places or with such people. (It's a true story. It wasn't too long after that that I left the church.) I think God was teaching me to love people. I should have stayed at the church because I ended up not being very loving towards those board members who seem to want to stifle and criticize me.
Love even the judgmental. God is for church boards.
I don't know what is so difficult about loving people right where they are and then allowing God to do the hard work of changing them. But let's take it a step further and suggest that it is our goal to change people, "If our goal is to change people's behavior, to get them to repent, is fear really the best way to do that?" (156) Spend enough time trolling the blogs and you will see that there are a lot of Christians who believe just that. Spend enough time with Jesus and you will see that it will never work because even those who are won over by fear will not last long. Maybe the voices of those who spend more time with Jesus ought to be the voices heard the most by those who think of God as someone who could never love them. Our lives are shaped and we thrive by love. Fear motivates me to nothing, but love? "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). What else need be said?
God is for us, and if he is, who can be against us? Yes, this is spoken in particular to Christians, but isn't there also a sense in which we can say that God is for all people? God is patient and not willing any one should perish. God wants all people to come to a knowledge of the truth. All. That is a huge, huge word that is too often left out of our Christianese dictionary. We need to embrace it. We need to embrace all people. And seriously who cares if we embrace people and they take advantage of us or persist in their sin? Will God find fault with us for loving all people?
Ask yourself: Will God judge the church more harshly for loving all people with great love even though they might take advantage of us or for only loving some people who treat us kindly? I think it would be better to ere on the side of love than discernment. God can do the judging, we are called to do the loving.
So, yes, there are parts of the book that made me uncomfortable. For example, I don't know about his list of apologies on 112ff, but I suppose if my apology will lead someone to Jesus, then I'll offer it. What do I care? What matters most: my squeamishness at offering apologies for things I never did? Or someone else seeing the Love of Jesus? I like that he takes the time to open up lengthy passages of Scripture for us and walk through them. In particular, the story Jonah, the story of the woman accused of adultery in John 8, and the story of the Prodigal from Luke 15 were well told. I like that he made reference to The Count of Monte Cristo; I dislike that it was the movie version. I like the stories of redeemed lives and how God took broken people and made them whole again. I like how he is honest about who he is and where he's from because even though I get a little tired of the personal 'how I rose from nothing to start a church and write books' stories, I think in this case it grounds the reader: Antonucci understands well the depths of God's love for all people–not just the few we think ought to be saved. God is for everyone. You name the category, the sub-category, or whatever: God loves people. That's the point. God loves people. So should we.
I am glad for that because this also means he was and is for me. That says a lot.
He ends the book with a worthy challenge for those who read it: Whom Do You Least Want to Love? That's all I'll say because I want you to read the book (so does Antonucci) and I want you to answer the question. I have to answer the question too because I suspect there are a lot of people I find it difficult to love. And yet God loves me. I must change.
Notes are appended at the end and there's a nice appendix titled 'My ABC Book of People God Loves." It just may shock you to see the people God is for, but it may also affirm that you are on the right path in your own choices of who you love. Good reading here. I recommend this book for all Christians who struggle to love people who are different. I recommend this book for all Christian who think it is their job to change people or to judge people. I recommend this book for Christians who are more in love with discernment than they are with Jesus. I recommend this book for Christians who truly believe that God does not want anyone to perish.
Get this book. Read it. Think on it. Then go love someone–maybe someone you never thought you could love.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase God for the Rest of Us Tyndale House Publishers (Trade Paperback $15.99) Amazon (Kindle $9.99 Pre-order) CBD (Paperback $12.99)
- God for the Rest of Us on the internet
- Author: Vince Antonucci On Twitter
- Where Vince hangs out with People Jesus Loves: Verve
- Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
- Pages: 255
- Year: August 2015
- Audience:Pastors, preachers, Christians, missionaries, elders, deacons, young people, old people, people whose lives are a trainwreck, seekers, the saved, the lost, the helpless and hopeless, the loveless, the judgmental
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free advance reading copy courtesy of Tyndale Blog Network.
- Page numbers in this review are based on an ARC. Numbering may be different in final publication.
Every time I get ready to write a book review, I start to feel like I'm about to do something huge–like lead worship with feeble guitar skills, or send out the starting line-up for a little league game, or get in the ring with a prize fighter. It's always nerve wracking and it's always a bit daunting–especially when the author of the book is someone who is fairly well known and fairly well respected.
With that being said, I have to ask an honest question: Why does anyone want to read a book by Barnabas Piper? And an extension of this question goes something like this: Can I read/review this book without making even that passing reference to his, arguably, more famous father? One shouldn't have anything to do with the other, right?
Yet this is exactly where my first question comes in: what has Barnabas Piper done in his life that is justification for reading his book about matters of faith, Jesus, Church, being a disciple of Jesus, and so on and so forth? Is it his struggles, his doubts, his family name, or something else? There is nothing novel or unique about what he says in this book. There is nothing extraordinary in this book that I haven't read before. There is nothing about this book that makes a little light bulb hover above my head.
I'm not saying it's a terrible book. I am saying that it's nothing new and so I wonder who it was written for, what the market is, and why I would want to buy this book. Can the book stand on it's own?
Piper states his purpose in writing: "My goal is to help you see that belief isn't blind faith and that questions, if asked well, are building blocks for strong faith rather than stepping stones away from it." (Kindle, Location 87). OK. This is good. But why should I trust that this particular author has the answers to these questions? And does the author, ultimately, accomplish his purpose? The first question, I am unsure how to answer. Some people will trust his answers, but I'm not sure they know why they trust his answers. This gets back to that second question I asked above which had something to do with whether or not I can read this book apart from the knowledge of who he is related to. I think other people will find his answers shallow or cliched. This is not a deep book, it's not a book that takes you on a whirlwind, big city adventure through the Bible. It's full of lots of nice quotes from famous people and anecdotes about his own personal journey.
The second question (does he accomplish his purposes) is a yes/no for me. Let me give you an example of the problem as I see it.
Piper asks some difficult questions in the book, but what if his particular theological disposition that underlies his answers is flawed? How do we understand his answers? So: "If He chooses who will be saved, then why are unchosen people held responsible for their actions and His choice?" (Kindle location 447; he does mention human free will at location 577, but I'm not sure how he means it given everything else he has written in the book). This is a question he asks that has a presupposition underneath it: God intentionally saves some and intentionally condemns the rest. I simply cannot agree with his proposition and it was difficult for me to separate what I suspect/know of his theological tendencies and the answers he gives to some of the questions in the book.
I just read this morning, 2 Peter 3:9: "The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient towards you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance." (ESV) Or what about Paul in 1 Timothy 2:3-4: "This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior who desires all people to come to the knowledge of the truth." (ESV) I think this is the main problem I have with the book. It is beholden to a theological proposition that simply cannot be maintained logically if one reads the entire Bible, observes human nature, and thinks logically. There is no way we can say that God wants all to be saved and then turn around and say that God only saves a few and that the unchosen are, well, lost. There is no way to say that God chooses some for salvation and not others unless you are willing to attribute evil to God.
This is the No side of my answer.
On the Yes side of my answer I had to wait until I got all the way to the appendix 1: Reading the Bible to Meet God. This was the most satisfying part of the book for me: "We must learn to read the whole story of Scripture from beginning to end." (Location 1449). I think in this part of the book he offers us the solutions that I had been waiting for through the entire book because it is here that he finally engages Scripture–to an extent–or should I say encourages us to engage the Scripture. It was most disappointing that this section only made it to an appendix–as if we will find more answers to our doubts and struggles by reading anecdotes about Piper's doubts and life instead of reading stories from the Scripture.
Nevertheless, the points he makes in Appendix 1 are quite good–I only wish he had explored them more in the main text because frankly they would have made better chapters: Read the whole Bible; look for Jesus; get to know Jesus; don't shy away from the hard stuff; start small (I'm iffy on this section); don't read the Bible as a set of rules; pray for the Spirit's help. These are actually the answers we needed when it comes to living in the tension between doubt and faith because the chapters he gives us are really only his beliefs and theological dispositions–many of which, as I noted above, are simply incompatible with the whole Bible he encourages us to read (such as his acceptance of the five solas; I still struggle with how there can be five 'onlys'. Kindle, chapter 2).
One final note of importance. I agree with the author that it is OK for the church or individual Christians to say things like 'I don't know.' I have had to learn this as a human who always wants to have an answer to the questions people ask me. I think we are afraid if we say 'I don't know' people will think we are stupid so we end up giving answers that absolutely confirm our stupidity. So it's OK for the church, or for Christians, to have no answers to all the suffering and violence that goes on around us. It's OK to ask questions: "Questions are an indication of trust." And here I think Piper answers his own questions well: "By revealing what He did in Scripture, God created a massive mystery. He gave us an enigma, a puzzle, a riddle with so many dimensions and plotlines and layers and themes that even just those sixty-six books have generated libraries of volumes of thought, argument, and questions" (Kindle location 225). Yes. Even in our doubts, in some mysterious way, we point to Jesus for answers even if our mouths happen to stay closed.
In short, we do not have to have all the answers to all the questions or perhaps better, we do not have all the answers to all the questions. It's OK to sit in silence for a while and pray. As the time worn conclusion goes, "It's better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open the mouth and remove all doubt." I think this is something that the Church in general should learn and I think Piper is right to emphasize this point. I think it's OK to live in the tension between grace and doubt and to let grace be sufficient. (See chapter 8, So What and What Now?, Kindle location 1381ff).
Overall, the book is not terrible. It's not the best I've read, but not the worst either. I think for some people it will be wholly unsatisfying and for others it will be a good introduction. He has some good and important things to say and he has some other insufficient things to say–especially as it relates to his theological under girding. I didn't come away from the book wholly satisfied, but I didn't come away wholly unchallenged either. I think if a person can weave through some of the theological underpinnings and get to the core of his discussion (which I confess was difficult for me) then there may be some fruit to be realized. At least Piper is humble enough understand that the church is bigger than his opinions and ideas and thoughts and for this I respect him (see the Afterward) and my disagreements with him theologically are not to be interpreted as personal attacks.
At the end of the day, his best advice was found near the end: "In God's infinite wisdom the best way to bring more people to belief is to show them a massively varied story pointed in one direction–to Himself" (Kindle location 1355). I think he is correct on this point and that he does well to point it out. Maybe soon the church will become the place where all such things are discussed in detail precisely because we are all looking for Jesus to arrive…because I'm inclined to think that Jesus will arrive long before any of us do. And this keeps us hungry. And humble. And searching. All things Piper suggests we need to do and be.
Doubt, in a way, keeps us safe because it keeps us moving forward in search of Jesus. Someday he will surprise us and be found. I know that I personally long for a church where I am free to live in the tension and find satisfaction in Jesus alone.
So, to answer my earlier question: Yes. I think this is a book that can stand on its own. I'm not buying all he is selling, but neither am I dismissing it. There's much to think about and much to enjoy.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase Help My Unbelief David C Cook (Trade Paperback, $14.99) Amazon (Kindle, $9.99) Christian Book Distributors (Paperback, $10.99)
- Author: Barnabas Piper
- Publisher: David C Cook
- Pages: 176
- Year: 2015
- Audience:Pastors, preachers, Christians, missionaries, elders, deacons, young people, old people
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free advance reading copy courtesy of David C Cook via NetGalley
- Interview with Barnabas Piper @Christianity Today
- Page numbers in this review are based on a Kindle version ARC. Numbering may be different in final publication.
Many, may years ago when I was still young, I felt I was being led to be the preacher of a certain church. I began going through all the motions–sending a resume, sample sermon, meeting families and members of the church, preaching trial sermon(s), and finally submitting to a vote of the congregation. During the course of this process I met with a particular gentleman who also happened to be an elder in the church. He was an older man, from a different generation, and was necessarily conservative in his theology. I distinctly recall our meeting one day before I was hired. We were sitting in a quiet room off of the main sanctuary talking with the door closed. I distinctly remember his question to me: What do you think about 'the gays'? Not, "What do you think about Jesus?" But, "What do you think about 'the gays'?"
This is all prefatory to my review of this book called Messy Grace. I received this in the mail on July 21 and on July 22 made it my ambition to read it. I did. It took me about 3 hours (because I underline and make a lot of notes.) I will just say, straight up, I love this book. That's right. I love it. Now don't mistake my loving of the book for agreement with all things written in the book, but I think it is safe to say that by and large there is nothing in this book that I find theologically repugnant.
For this review, I'm staying wholly positive. Except for a couple of minor quibbles (his use of the word 'gender' as a synonym for 'sex', and a couple of generalizations, for example), I have no complaints at all about this book. This is an important book that needs to be read because it strikes a beautiful balance between grace and truth and helps us apply both wisely in our relationships and witness to people who are different from us. So while I understand that he is writing to Christians about the manner in which we relate to homosexuals, as you will see in my conclusion, it's really about how we relate to anyone who is different from us.
So, a few points to highlight.
This past Sunday our preacher made a statement that was utterly profound in its simplicity. He said (and I'm paraphrasing): "We cannot build relationships with people unless we start them." I couldn't agree with him more. The author of Messy Grace makes similar statements throughout the book. One that I found helpful begins on page 31: "It's imperative that we have grace for people while they are still thinking, speaking, and acting in ways we might not agree with. And we need to overcome our own inner resistance to getting involved in a relationship with them. A real mark of spiritual maturity is how we treat someone who is different from us" (31-32, his emphasis.) Isn't this how all of us want to be treated? Do any of us want to be outcasts from the church until we get all of our life together?
The church would be empty.
Kaltenbach consistently calls us to evaluate this question of how we treat other people. He is absolutely on mark when he calls the church to think differently about the way we treat those who are different from us–those who happen to be on a journey that moves at a different speed than the one we are on. I think it is fair for Christians to ask why someone would say, "Christians don't like anyone who's not like them" (39). Could it be that in some ways those who are different from us are in fact more understanding and loving and compassionate than those of us who are called to be defined by those very things: loving, kind, compassionate, and understanding? Shouldn't this change? Shouldn't the church be a place where people can be vulnerable and weak and loved?
"Part of the pursuit is being honest with people, but doing so in a loving way." (45) This theme is developed over and over again in the book. He's asking us to evaluate who we are because of Jesus. Has Jesus changed us? Has he made us new or not? If we are still stuck in days gone by ways of thinking and judging then might we not ask if we have really met Jesus at all?
Second, I want to add that by and large the author handles Scripture very well and does not shy away from the so-called hard passages that talk about homosexuality. He affirms over and over again the testimony of Jesus, Paul, and others. So for example, he notes that "nowhere in the New Testament, however, does God define acceptable sexuality as being other than between one man and one woman. In fact, the New Testament specifically reaffirms the Old Testament's position that same-gender sexual activity is not acceptable" (86). He says later, "Another way to say this is that Jesus had to chance to define an intimate relationship as being other than male-female, but he did not" (90).
This book, so far as I can tell, is wholly orthodox which is a way of saying that he is not blurring lines in Scripture in order to spare people the truth. In contrast to other books on this subject, he is not performing exegetical somersaults to make his point one way or another. He is reading Scripture and talking about its plain meaning. He lays it out for us and allows us to think on matters. He candidly admits we might disagree with him and that he is still searching some things. He is telling us what the Bible says. But he is saying we need to be gracious…much in the same way 'God demonstrated his own love for us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.' We do well, as Christians, to bear this in mind continually in our dealings with people.
Finally, there is one more thing that stood out to me as important and something that I think served to minister to the author and in some ways served as the catalyst for the writing of the book. He tells in the book the story of his own conversion experience and he tells how his family reacted to his conversion to Jesus. I wrote in the margin on page 118 that Caleb is saying we should respond to homosexuals about their sexuality exactly not how his parents responded to him about his faith. Then a couple of pages later I read that 'the irony of this situation was that my parents thought I would disown them, when in actuality I felt as if they were disowning me" (123). The point is that he did not like at all the way he felt when he was rejected for his faith in Jesus. I'm glad he remembered that feeling. I'm even gladder he shared it with us.
Something tells me that this feeling stayed with him as he grew older and was trying to work through all the things he writes of in the book–in particular, how is he going to treat others because of his faith in Jesus? There is a significant lesson here for all of us who claim Jesus. In America we experience very little rejection because of our faith, but maybe that's not the best thing at all. We grow in our experience. Caleb's experience of rejection taught him how it feels to be rejected and thus how someone else might feel if they are rejected. I see God's brilliance here and I see a brilliant man who understood well the lesson that Jesus was teaching him. Would that more of us learned this lesson. It might make us more compassionate believers and more easily accessible to those who face it daily.
I love that he is open and honest about the relationships he has formed in life with those God has brought to him. I love that this guy didn't write a book crying and moaning and complaining about his 'terrible life' being raised by divorced, gay parents. I love that this guy wrote a book that at its core is telling us to get over ourselves and get to loving people–like Jesus did.
I love that he is open and honest. I love that he weeps and laughs and gets angry and is confused and is (still) searching–I love that when this guy lost someone close to him, he had a group of people to weep with him. I mean this when I say that this book touched me precisely because it is honest and unflinching and yet vulnerable and emotive. He helps us understand that no matter what we believe, there are no easy answers and that there will be pain along the way. But he also lets us see that we belong to a God of hope and mercy and grace and truth and love and Jesus.
Let me tell you how much I love this book!
Here's the truth that I have figured out after a long time in and out of ministry: this book isn't just about Christians and LGBT people even if that is the overwhelming paradigm being established in it. It's about Christians and all people. It's about the way Christians treat one another: abysmally. It's about the way we treat old people: horribly. It's about the way we treat young people: dismally. It's about the way we treat poor people: dishonorably. It's about the way we treat liberals: ugly. It's about the way we treat conservatives: angrily. It's about the way we treat foreigners: condescendingly. Frankly, it's about the way we treat one another–all the time, in every way, in every circumstance. We are not nice people when it comes too most people who are different from us. I could tell you how I have been treated by the church when I was a preacher. It's not pretty.
I teach special education. I have since I was removed from ministry against my will about 6 years ago. You know what I have learned since I started working with students who have autism, Down Syndrome, emotional and behavioral disabilities, ADHD, and more? They all, all to a very large extent although not literally all, come from extremely dysfunctional, broken, and wrecked families. Yep. Almost without fail there is divorce, separation, jail, death, poverty, substance abuse, abuse (in one form or another) and more. And these are the people that God has called me to minister to–not just the students, but the parents. And you know what I have to do? I have to be nice. To all of them. All the time. Every day. I can't tell the parents what I really think. I can't make them all rich or fix all of their marriages. But I say this honestly: I have learned–as an educator in public schools–how not to be judgmental. That's right: how to love people, all people, any people is my daily objective. Anyone who walks through my classroom door. Anyone with whom I come in contact with: I am an agent of God's grace in an often ugly environment.
But it's not just about being nice while something else is swirling in my head. It's about changing and actually becoming a different person (CS Lewis describes this change brilliantly in Mere Christianity, chapter 10, "Nice people or new men?") It's about being a nice person and not just about being nice to people. Anyone can be nice, but not all of us are truly, genuinely lovers of people. God takes these barriers of soft bigotry and hard prejudice and breaks them down–like he did the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles. I truly believe this book, Messy Grace, will go a long way towards helping people not just be nice (which is a nice way of saying 'being hypocrites') but also to transform them into the sort of people who actually, truly, genuinely love people for Jesus' sake, love people for their own sake. This is what he has called us to do. To love people, other humans–our brothers and sisters in flesh. To minister to them. To bring the healing of Jesus into their lives when they are ready for it. And to let God do his work on them when he is ready to do his work.
"Christians need to stop trying to convert people's sexuality. It isn't our job to change someone's sexual orientation. You and I are not called by God to make gay people straight. It is our job to lead anyone and everyone to Christ. I believe God is big enough to deal with a person's sexuality" (185).
Well said. Very well said.
It will never be easy for Christians in this culture of 'I want to see results now.' But we can if we are patient, if we pray, and if we pay attention to the often subtle movements of the Holy Spirit of Jesus. My prayer is that our Father will use this book to change the hearts and minds and attitudes of the church of Christ into such as we see in Jesus who welcomed all who came and never drove any away, who called all to repentance, who loved all right where they were but wasn't content to leave them there, who didn't condemn but commanded us to change.
And this is the message to the church. First. First Jesus speaks to the church. And we must listen.
You will do well to pre-order this book and read it prayerfully in one sitting. You will be rewarded for doing so.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase Messy Grace Amazon (Paperback, pre-order for $11.24; October 20, 2015) CBD (Paper back, $10.99; pre-order 10/20/2015); WaterBrook Multnomah (Trade paperback, $14.99; pre-order).
- Author: Caleb Kaltenbach on Twitter | Messy Grace
- Publisher: WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group
- Pages: 212 (ARC, page count may be different in final publication)
- Year: October 20, 2015
- Audience:Pastors, preachers, Christians, missionaries, elders, deacons, young people, old people
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free advance reading copy courtesy of WaterBrook Press via the Blogging for Books Blogger program
- Page numbers in this review are based on the ARC. Numbering may be different in final publication.
I have a friend who pretty much believes that even when Brant Hansen breathes it is funny. Well, that might be an exaggeration, but in truth, Brant is funny and I am grateful to my friend who 'introduced' me to Hansen several years ago. (To be sure, Brant doesn't know me, didn't ask me to review his book, and I've never even listened to his radio program. Just so everyone knows there is no bias here.)
I find that I have the most difficulty with being offended in two places. The first place is Facebook. Facebook can be a cesspool of personal ignorance, political hubris, and religious stereotype. Needless to say, I get very little enjoyment out of Facebook and I am typically, generally, always offended at something or someone. The other place I get offended easily and quickly is in the car. I hate driving because there is no one on the planet who drives as well I as I do, who follows the rules as closely as do, and who never tailgates the driver in front of me. I have had to scale back my driving and let my wife do most of the work because my blood pressure elevates to such levels of offendability that I am afraid I might have a stroke while driving to church on Sundays.
But I digress. This blog post isn't about me, it's about this book called Unoffendable. And in my opinion, Unoffendable is a spectacular book worthy of the time spent reading it (and you should read it slowly) and beneficial for those who will invest the time to do so. The main question Hansen seeks to answer in this book is simple: "Isn't being offended part of being a Christian?" (2, his emphasis). Well, isn't it? I have spent a lot of time around the world of blogs over the past many years and there are times when I wish I had not. I would probably be a better person if I hadn't learned that there are so many offended Christians surfing the web and trolling blogs. It is no wonder at all, to me, that so many people dislike Christians. We are some of the most unbelievable offended people on the planet. And why? We have every reason imaginable not to be offended but instead filled with joy and love and compassion and laughter. And yet here we are more easily offended than loving, quicker to anger and slower to love, and happier to frown than smile.
I think this is why I like Hansen, even though we've never really met: he laughs. And he makes people laugh. He doesn't take himself too seriously and I think he is trying to show the rest of us that, perhaps, we shouldn't take ourselves too seriously either. But the fact is we find all sorts of ways to justify our anger and our offendability and our curmudgeonly attitudes towards life and love and sin and joy and peace. I get it: Jesus said that our righteousness must exceed that of the pharisees. So we also took this to mean that our self-sufficiency, our condescending-ness, and our frowns and our offendability must surpass theirs also. But the Scripture, Hansen makes clear, says that we are to get rid of all anger and that there is no justification for it. Ever.
All along Jesus is telling us to relax–let the world be the world. But you, disciple, follow me. Perhaps the reason we are so easily offended is because we don't really trust Jesus after all? Perhaps we think that we are somehow enhancing his image by being offended when people do all sorts of stupid things? Perhaps we think if we sneer a little harder, furrow the brows a little deeper, and groan a little louder that the offensive things we do won't be so noticeable to others. It's a distraction. Or something like that. Hansen seems to be making the case that being offended does absolutely nothing to advance our cause or to expand the Kingdom of which we are citizens.
"We should forfeit our right to be offended. This means forfeiting our right to hold on to anger. When we do this, we'll be making a sacrifice that's very pleasing to God." (3) Yep. He is right–even if it offends my sense of right and wrong to do so. Forfeiting our anger is a large part of what it means to daily take up our cross and follow Jesus–the master of un-offendability. Jesus saw all sorts of unrighteousness and unsavory people and yet I don't recall a single instance of Jesus being offended–except perhaps he was offended one time when death dared to knock on the door and take the life of his friend Lazarus. But even as the grave was opened, Jesus wasn't offended. He simply called on his friend to come out and join them. And Jesus turned and occasion of offense into an occasion of joy. Maybe we should practice something like that, you know, take situations where offense might be warranted and redeem it, make it an occasion for laughter and joy instead of an occasion for arguing and yelling and gnashing of teeth.
Hansen invites us to think about the Kingdom of God and what it looks like and how its citizens behave: "I'm already a believer, but the kingdom of God is so shockingly opposite the way the rest of the world works that I need constant reminding of what it looks like and how good it is" (89). Being a member of this kingdom means that for us things are different. The way of the cross means we no longer have a right to hold on to our anger or resentment or bitterness or offendedness. "Humility means there's so much less at stake, so much less to protect" (191).
This book is not an easy read. If you read this book honestly and constantly evaluate yourself as you do so you will likely get offended a lot. Hansen has written a book that forces us to think deeply about what it really means to be a Jesus-follower, a kingdom citizen, a cross-driven disciple. He invites us to look deeply at ourselves and evaluate the things that offend us and get our shorts in a wad and then to lay those things down, to sacrifice them to Jesus, and to get on with living in Him. Perhaps the reason Hansen can write so freely and deeply about this subject is that he has a lot of experience. I don't know because I don't know what's in his heart. All I know is what's in my own heart and and my own experience. I was confronted a lot. I have a lot of sacrifices to make; a lot of anger to let go of.
The good thing about this book review is that I can write whatever I want about the book and, perhaps, about Hansen, and know that he is not going to be offended by what I say. In fact, he might even invite me over for dinner. That's the kind of fella he seems to be and that alone makes this book worth reading: it was written without a shred of pretense or condescension. Hansen says: Here I am. There you are. I love you. I think that's kind of what Jesus was getting at. It's hard to believe that I can't offend Jesus and yet I am persuaded that Jesus thinks I am worth having dinner with or going to a party with or dying for.
Perhaps the best thing I can say about the book is this: I want to be just like the guy who wrote it because I suspect he really knows Jesus.
Highly recommended for it's honesty, transparency, and because, unlike many books written for the masses, Hansen doesn't use Scripture as a mere prop.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase Unoffendable: Amazon (Kindle, $9.99) Thomas Nelson (Paperback, $15.99) CBD ($11.99) B&N (Paperback, $11.62) (Prices current as of June 10, 2015)
- Author: Brant Hansen's Blog Facebook Twitter
- Publisher: Thomas Nelson
- Pages: 209
- Year: 2015
- Audience: Christians, others, pastors, preachers, housewives, baby-mammas, baby-daddies, high school students, humanity
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free reader's copy via Thomas Nelson's BookLook Blogger program.
Author: Randy Frazee
Additional links: Believe the Story
[Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this book by Zondervan Publishers in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.]
The problem with this book is that there is nothing necessarily wrong with it. I think. I mean, you can read through it and not be offended, or unsettled, or argumentative. There's nothing in it that's going to make the person write the author and rip him a new one. There's nothing in it that will start a theological dialogue spanning the next year or two or start a publishing war. It's a fairly standard, straightforward, new Christian handbook.
Then again, there is everything wrong with it. This is the kind of book a person reads if they are interested in being comfortable in their faith, self-centered in their faith, and really understanding very little about what it means to 'think, act, and be' like the Jesus of the Bible. It's like he's saying that all Jesus was about was making people who think, act, and do certain things, in certain ways so that they fit into the club.
Yes. That's what I'm going for with this review: there is nothing about this book that actually inspires me to think, act, and be like Jesus. Instead a person comes away thinking, acting, and being like your every day, standard, run of the mill join the club, go to church, and be good kind of Christian. There's nothing exciting about this book. There's nothing revolutionary about this book. There is nothing revelationary about this book. In a word, it's boring.
To get through this book, the reader has to wade through countless tired illustrations and stories that have been regurgitated in other books (like, say, the story of Steve Saint p. 178-179; great story, but I'm sick of hearing it), wrestle with some troubling statements (like, say, 'If we want to have a relationship with God and have eternal life, then, Jesus says, we need to do good works' (his emphasis); even in context this statement makes little sense, p 41), listen as verse after verse of out of context Scripture is 'applied' to a systematic theology of 'life after baptism' (for example, the out of context thought that Jesus talked about money all the time, p 146), and plod through a nearly 300 page book of randomly generated, arbitrary 'practices' and 'beliefs' that are supposed to make us wholly Christian (for example, in his list of worship 'convictions' on page 97-87, there is a conviction about God, a personal God, salvation, The Bible, Identity in Christ, Church, humanity, compassion, stewardship, and eternity but nothing, specifically, about Jesus, Kingdom, hope, grace, the Holy Spirit, etc.)
There were times, yes, when I thought the author handled Scripture fairly well and was able to draw out significant and meaningful applications and thoughts. For example, on pages 100-102, he does a little exegesis of the story of David dancing before the ark of the Lord. He does a great job of contrasting David's actions with those of Michal, Saul's daughter. In this place, I thought he was dead-on and did a good job. Then there were times when I thought he was off target. For example, when he talks about Matthew 25 and the king who separates the sheep from the goats. He could have given us more context and showed us that Jesus wasn't talking about the poor and imprisoned in general but those who are 'the least of these, his brothers and sisters' (See pages 166-167).
I also thought he did a good job in the beginning (pages 18-20) talking about eternity and what it will be like. Here, he and I are in nearly full agreement. His discussion of what eternity is like, what 'heaven' is all about, and what will happen in the consummation of the ages is, in my opinion, probably the best part of the book. '
But there is so much more he could have talked about and written about in the book. He had nearly 300 pages and I feel like I didn't really read anything. For a seasoned Christian, this is a one sitting book because there will be a lot of skimming and skipping.
It should be noted that there is not really, necessarily, anything wrong with the book. He gives us ten things we probably should believe even if I would formulate those things differently, eliminate some of them, add others, and develop their theology from a more contextual format as opposed to his style of plucking Scripture from its context. He gives us ten things we ought to 'do' and who among us will argue that any of those ten things are 'bad' or 'wrong'? Of course we should worship, pray, study the Bible, and more. Sure; I have no argument there. And finally, I'm not saying there's anything wrong with 'being' like Jesus when it comes to love, peace, self-control and more. The church might be a happier place if more of us practiced such things. So, yes, Amen to all of those things. (Except that in the introduction to Part 3: Be Like Jesus, he didn't bother to tell us that the ten things he will write about are actually the fruit of the Spirit. I get about being connected to the Vine, but that's not the context of Galatians 5 where his chapter headings come from.)
I just think these things have been said by others and better. These things are on the shallow end of what is meant to be a deep faith and all of these things need to be spoken of in the greater context of who Jesus is and what Jesus did. The title of the book carries the name of Jesus and I simply didn't find enough Jesus in the book. Maybe he should have taken ten stories about Jesus and simply expounded upon them–that would be compelling reading. Here's the thing, the church simply does not need another program for spiritual development (whatever that means). They are all over the market place and the church is over-saturated with these sort of books. I realize it's too late since the book is already published, but I wonder if there is no end to these sort of books? There is so much more to the Jesus story than mere spiritual disciplines and can the fundamentals of Christian faith really be narrowed down to a mere ten different (arbitrary) beliefs?
At the end of the book, this is the spiritual formation of one man for his church, but I'm not of the opinion that this is the best program of formation of life in Jesus for a larger body of Christ. I get that it is for a new believer (I think it is anyhow) and that depth isn't necessarily the point (although it should be!) Nevertheless, some depth would be nice. I don't understand why the only place to get depth from authors is to go to the academic side of publishing houses. I hate to be that way, but self-centered spiritual disciplines and belief in tiny fragments of things Scripture says in a larger meta-narrative are simply not going to produce the sort of Jesus people that will stand up when life really starts to suck for us who are comfortable here in American churches.
We need our preachers who write books to do more, to say more, to help end the drought. We need our publishing houses to give us more depth–less books, more depth. I hate to say it, but this book is simply not all that helpful.
Publisher: Baker Academic
Kindle Price: $14.57
[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.
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.
Another of my theme verses during this Lenten season is Romans 12:1-2.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and please to God–this is true worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is–his good, pleasing, and perfect will.
Like the passage I noted from Hebrews 12 here, this verse begins with the word 'therefore' which indicates that what came before it must have led to the conclusions that are about to follow. In this case, at minimum, from chapter 8 on (where we also see a section led with the word 'therefore') we must consider that the present verse (12:1) serves as a conclusion or 'so here's what you ought to do with your life' kind of verse. "If everything I said previously is true, then, therefore…" And so it goes.
And chapters 1-8 are heavy, heavy teaching.
Therefore….offer yourselves to God. In view of God's mercy–'For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all' (11:32)–offer yourselves back to God. Give yourselves over to him. Make a sacrifice back to God–of yourselves. Offer yourselves to God…your bodies. This is the first step. I don't think it means that we are literally to die; I don't think it means we are not literally to die.
I wake up each day and I wonder about what life means and how I am going to manage yet another day…especially after yesterday. The thing is, living sacrifices have a tendency to crawl off the altar. I think the thing here is this: we have to be continually offering ourselves to God. Even after we crawl off the altar. We have to get right back up on top and bring the knife down again. I think anyone reading this, anyone reading who takes Jesus seriously, will agree that dying to the self is very, very difficult. We continue to struggle.
One of the hardest things for me to recognize and confess is this: I will always be a sinner. This will never change as long as I am encased in this corrupt flesh. What can I do? I'm starting to really understand this constant struggle….this wanting to be near Jesus every minute…and knowing every same minute that I am a sinner and that I will continually fall, fail, and forget that I want to be near Jesus every minute. We are walking paradoxes. It probably doesn't bother us enough that we are to worship God in this way–you know, asked to offer ourselves as living sacrifices who are prone to crawl off the altar.
Living. This is key, isn't it? We are to die each day we are living. I take this to mean that every second after we fail is another second we have to offer ourselves back to God. So long as we are alive…living…we are to offer ourselves to him; holy and pleasing.
So Paul goes on to write this, "Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is–his good, pleasing, and perfect will."
There are a lot of ideas floating around the world just now–as there always has been. It is very easy to just go with the current and conform to the thought patterns and processes in this world. It is very easy to succumb to the valueless values of this world. It is very easy to give up and become another drone forgetting to whom we belong. And every single minute of every single day our minds are bombarded with the latest philosophy or idea that is making the rounds. I am finding that, frankly, all of this clouds my mind and makes understanding God's will profoundly difficult. So much media, day in, day out is stifling me. If I may be honest, it is killing me slowly because the brain is flexible and susceptible to conform to whatever we allow into it.
This is the problem…the same problem I think when it comes to prayer (I mentioned this in another post). If we are not allowing our minds to be filled with truth, then our minds will become full of lies and the only language we will know how to speak is lies. If we never fill our minds with the Word of God then our prayers will be little more than 'thank you God for the day and thank you for keeping us safe and bless the gift and giver' kind of prayers (these are good thoughts, yes, but there is a lot more we can pray about, don't you agree?). I know what my problem is: my mind knows a lot of Scripture, but my mind is not saturated with it. My mind is filled with a lot of words of God, but I'm not thinking about it deeply enough day in and day out.
I understand all too well how easily how the day in day out business of living crowds out all thoughts of holiness and righteousness. Dare I say that we have to make the effort, we have to create space, it is imperative that we make time each day to renew our minds with the Word of God. We conform to the world when all we take in all day long is the world, but when we allow something contrary to the world, something diametrically opposed to 'the world,' to break in from the outside our minds then start to become renewed. Frankly I don't think we can survive very long if all we are doing is taking in the world. "Did God really say?" I recall it was Jesus who won the battle we constantly lose precisely because his mind was saturated with the Word of God.
We might have to put something else away if we find ourselves losing more often than we are winning. We might have to stop with all the input from the world and dedicate more and more time to the Word of the Lord. We might need to carry a Bible with us and read it at work. Or add the app to our phones so we can read it.
Why do you think the Psalmist wrote, "Blessed are those…who delight in the law of the Lord and meditate on it day and night" (Psalm 1:1-2). It's this person who meditates day and night who prospers–and by prospers I think he means what Paul wrote in Romans 12: this person is able to test and approve God's will. This is also what Moses told the people of Israel in his great sermon Deuteronomy:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:5-9; see also Deuteronomy 11:16-21)
I'm reading this book called God in the Whirlwind by David F Wells. Part of the early pages of the book were dedicated to exploring something similar to what I'm talking about here in this blog. "It is Scripture alone," he writes, "that is God-breathed and, therefore, it is the source of our knowledge of God. Is it not entirely sufficient, then, for all we need to know about God and his character?" (17) He then goes on to answer his question this way:
The answer, of course, is that Scripture is indeed sufficient. However, there is a proviso here. Scripture will prove sufficient if we are able to receive from it all that God has put into it. That, though, is not as simple as it sounds. The reason lies in what Paul says elsewhere. We are to 'be transformed by the renewal' of our minds–which is surely what happens when we take hold of the truth God has given us in his Word–but also, he says, we are not to be 'conformed to the world.' The shaping of our live is to come from Scripture and not from culture. We are to be those in whom truth is the internal drive and worldly horizons and habits are not. It is always sola Scriptura and it should never be sola cultura…Being transformed also means being unconformed. (17)
All of our ideas and thoughts are to be formed and shaped and daily renewed by our intimate contact, study, memorization, and meditation upon the Word of God. I confess my own failure. There is a huge difference between knowing the Word of God and depending upon it second by second. I think to dig deeper into these thoughts, but I suppose for now it is enough to know these things, to stop writing, and open my Bible.
Maybe you should too.
The other day I made an announcement on my Facebook page about some exciting things happening in my professional and personal life. The announcement involves the church and a Bible College where I will be doing some teaching next year. A friend of mine later commented that my willingness to 'trust in spiritual institutions gives me hope.'
That statement gave me hope.
I'm not sure why I haven't given up entirely on the church. I spent the better part of the first half of my life drowning in church culture. I was an active prodigal as a teenager. As a younger man I spent time as an altar boy in a small Methodist church. I was baptized. Sanctified. Left home at barely 21 for Bible College. Graduated four years later, ordained, and began preaching at my first church at the ripe age of 25. From there it was all down hill.
My first church ministry, in West Virginia, lasted a little more than a year. I could not come close to managing local Appalachian church politics at that age. I made some critical relationship mistakes and they turned on me faster than vultures on a carcass. I moved back home with my wife and son and took a job in a Burger King as a manager and later as a laborer in a shop my dad managed. It was dirty, filthy, and back-breaking work, but I did it with a gusto unmatched by anyone else in the shop. All the while I attended my home church and became involved to the extent that I could in the ministry there–teaching, preaching occasionally, and singing in the choir.
Then came an opportunity to preach again–in West Virginia. I jumped at the opportunity and the church seemed like a perfect fit: I was close to my family and my wife's family, there was strong leadership, the congregation was fairly good sized, and they had little debt. I could be involved with other preachers in the area who shared my theological background. Once again I made some critical errors in judgment–thinking that the things that mattered most mattered most and misunderstanding the delicate balance between personal relationships and leadership. After about two and half years I was out again. It was a difficult choice, but since I was leaving one church and entering directly into another ministry the time gap wasn't as painful as the first ministry had been–that is, that sense of despair that comes from not knowing where or when or if I would preach again.
Still, there were a lot of hurt feelings on the way out of the church. Some of those relationships have not, to this day, been healed. I have wept over that fact, but this side of the new heavens and new earth, I suspect they will remain broken.
So I went to my third church (technically, my fifth, but I'm not reckoning the two youth ministry positions I held while in Bible College) in the fall of 1999 and there I would remain for nearly 10 years. I had finally found my place to belong and be and become. Immediately upon moving to the area we found a church poised for growth. I met a childhood friend who, along with her husband and sons, lived in the area and didn't have a church. The church had a good base of young people who were eager for change and ready to support the work. The building was paid for. I was ready. Surely this was the providence of God finally leading me to the place he wanted me to be, a place I could be used, a place where I could raise my family.
That was in 1999. Things rolled on from bad to worse as the true colors of the church began to bleed through the veneer. Within the first year, two of our young families had decided to leave and enter the ministry. Within two years, I had no elders. Within three years, due to a large township sewer project, the church was $70,000 in debt. But we pressed on as best we could and God was faithful. He provided an abundance of offerings and we saw some growth in our membership–even though quite a few had come and gone for a variety of reasons. Still, our honeymoon lasted barely a year.
In 2008 my wife and I decided it was time to buy our first house. We wanted to put down roots in the community. Our children were by now getting older and we wanted to think about them being near friends and we also were thinking that our long term plans did not involve living in a 100 year old parsonage for the rest of our lives. We took the plunge. The church supported our decision and adjusted my salary accordingly and voted 100% to approve the budget for the next year.
In 2009, less than a year after we bought our 'dream' house, and nearly 10 years into the ministry, I was informed on a late July Saturday morning that I was being given two choices. The first choice was to resign immediately and receive six week's salary. This was a salary that had been reduced by 20% earlier in the spring. The other option was to refuse to resign, be fired immediately, and receive one week's worth of vacation pay. I was assured by one of the trustees who was used during this time that 'It was nothing personal.'
Here it is 5 years later. I'm no longer in ministry, at least not in the paid, professional sense. I'm no hero, but despite all of this (and there is much more besides), I still belong to the church. I still worship with the church. Soon I will be serving in the church again and soon after that I will be working in a parachurch organization. I gave my friend hope, and yet I'm not sure I even understand why I haven't given up on the church. Still I think I have a hint at why.
It's very simply that of all the horrible experiences I have had in churches, and of all the different ways I have managed to embarrass the church, my home church has never once given up on me. They have invited me back to preach. They have let me teach. They have let me sing. They have supported my family when we were unbelievably in a bad way. And anytime that I have gone into the church building since 1983 people have known me, spoken to me, and loved me. And here I am, five years after the latest debacle, and my home church has welcomed us back yet again.
I realize that the church in general has done a lot of things to screw up the world. I also realize that the church is made up of really horrible people at times–I have lived it. I realize that some Christians have a way of driving people away from the church with their judgmental attitudes, terrible theological ideas, and despicable social commentary, but I also know my own experience is this: the Church has loved me, welcomed me, and done everything they could to support me. I've made a lot of poor choices and I've done my share of embarrassing things, but there is at least one church in the world where I will always be able to show my face and know that someone will love me.
I suppose what is amazing is not so much that I haven't given up on the church as much as that the church hasn't given up on me. And I think by extension this means that neither has Jesus.
Title: Killing Lions
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
[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.
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 am a Christian. I am a preacher–I just don't actually have a pulpit right now or a church or a Word from the Lord. It's not always easy–being a Christian, that is. I'm not always honest–which means that sometimes I am a hypocrite. I am not a strong-always-faithful-kind of guy. I am a weak-my-grace-is-sufficient-for-you-kind of Christian. I have to be because otherwise I would have nothing. I've learned that I cannot trust myself no matter how much effort I exert. I am far too easily amused and far too easily distracted.
It's been about five and a half years since I was removed from the pulpit of the church I served nearly 10 years.
There's a large part of me that is glad Mark Driscoll quit Mars Hill. It's about as large as the part of me that was glad when Rob Bell quit the other Mars Hill. Here's why. Aside from a small blip every now and again, I don't have to hear about Mars Hill, Rob Bell, and some of the silly things he used to say in his efforts to be relevant or controversial or emergent or whatever his shtick of the week was. I'm hoping the same results occur now that Mark Driscoll has quit Mars Hill, Seattle. Frankly, I am hopeful he will just go away and live off the fat of the money he made during his time in Seattle for a little while, learn some humility, repent of his sins, and return someday to be used by the Lord.
This is what I genuinely hope for him. I hope he will start again. Maybe I hope that because I hope maybe someday also to start again. The desert can be an arid place.
I should be clearer about why I'm writing this because someone might misunderstand me and think that this is about a personal animosity or personal dislike or that I'm just another blogger looking for google-love or whatever. I'm not. Really, I don't care. My real issue is that what the church really needs is for the celebrity preacher to just go away. Seriously. Just. Go. Away. Stop trying to go nationwide. Stop trying to make the nation your parish. Stop trying to dominate the airwaves with your sermons. Stop trying to take over the world of publishing with your books. Be content with your small parish or congregation and work in the field the Lord gives you. Make disciples. Preach the Word in season and out of season. Do the work of an evangelist. Don't be afraid to be small and unnoticed outside your community.
Stop trying to be a celebrity.
This is the inevitable result of one preacher trying to take faith nationwide–a task I'm not even sure Jesus tried to do. "I was sent to the lost sheep of Israel" I recall him saying and while his eventual goal and result is 'all authority in heaven and earth' belonging to himself, I think it is safe to say that Jesus stayed with his mission to work in the fields God had called him to and he then entrusted others to carry on his work. He had other sheep, but he trusted that others would be faithful and bring them in to the fold.
An example from Driscoll himself is a book I have sitting on a shelf right next to me where I'm typing. I have owned this book since it was published in 2010. It's the only Mark Driscoll book I own or will ever own. And here's the kicker, I've never even read it. I haven't even inscribed my name on the inside of the cover, near the spine, as I do with all my books. I'm not even sure why it is this close to where I am studying. I have no use for it precisely because on the cover it says, "What Christians Should Believe." I have no use for the word should. (I think this book was a book club choice once and it came before I responded to the card. I'm not sure why I own it.) But the point is this: who is Mark Driscoll to tell anyone what they should believe? Who am I to tell anyone what they should believe? Who is any Christian to make such nationwide, worldwide claims about faith in Jesus? (My point here is that I'm not defending Driscoll or excusing him personally. That is, I'm not necessarily a fan, but he's a brother in Christ and a companion in preaching.)
It's my opinion that Driscoll simply got too big for his britches. But he's only one example of many who could be pointed to. Many, many of these celebrity preachers end up all the same so I don't think Driscoll is any worse or any better than any other celebrity preacher who starts off with good intentions, is blessed by the Lord, allows it to go to his head, creates a scandal, resigns in humiliation, and goes away. I am hopeful, frankly, that Driscoll stays away. I hope he learns something from his sins. I hope the Lord restores him someday and he finds a way to start preaching the Gospel again.
I am happy that another celebrity preacher has quit. I'm not happy about the way it happened and I think there are a lot of bloggers and celebrity christian writers who will have to answer some day for the things they said about Mark. I'm glad Mark is no longer at Mars Hill because I happen to think he has more to offer and I do not believe for a minute that Jesus is finished with him; I hope he's not. I hope Mark comes back full of humility, full of grace, full of mercy, full of love, and full of gratitude for what God gave him for so many years.
I hope that because I hope that for myself too.
I can feel this way because I am a preacher too and I understand what it means to lose a pulpit, to lose God's trust, to have your faith shaken. To be sure, I was no celebrity preacher. I was not famous and never will be, but there is a part of me that understands what happens when a preacher forgets to depend upon the Lord and starts depending upon his own ability or prowess or popularity or skill. It is easy to forget the Lord in the pulpit even though the words are as holy and gospel infused as the Scriptures themselves. Sometimes preachers forget who they are and what they are called to do because the task at hand is so vital and eventually it ends up going to their heads that maybe, just maybe, the Lord is using them somehow in his scheme.
And maybe it's the Lord's intention to give them time to remember. Mark Driscoll might never remember. I pray he does.
Many are rejoicing over Driscoll's resignation. I'm not one of them. I understand all too well this pain and shame; the loneliness he may well have to endure for a while. Perhaps now that he is gone those angry bloggers and writers and critics careers too will come to a screeching halt–maybe now they won't have so much cannon fodder, maybe now the Lord can rebuke them too. Maybe they too can give up their dream of being nationwide and just go away. Maybe now that their whipping boy is gone, they can shut up and stop bringing an even worse shame to the body of Christ with their hyper-critical and hateful spirits.
We all have to learn. We all have to remember. Sadly some of us have to do these things are a far bigger stage than others which is exactly why we need less celebrity preachers. Leave the grand stage to Jesus. Exalt him; not yourself.
And come back faithful.