Posts Tagged ‘Scripture’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5/5 Stars

Important Book & Author Things

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

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

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

Author: Jennifer Grace Bird

Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press

Year: 2015

Pages: 176

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

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

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

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

Pause for a moment and consider what that means.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too bad.

1/2*/5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read. Write. Trust.

Sounds like a perfect recipe to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the point.

Along with other reading I am doing in the Bible, for example, just today I finished reading the book we call Isaiah, I am reading the Psalms and the Proverbs. I'm not sure I remember exactly where I picked up on the idea, but when I read the Psalms and the Proverbs I do so like this: five Psalms per day, 1 chapter of Proverbs per day. This enables me to read both books entirely in 30 days. This is a good practice for anyone, at any time, but it's an especially helpful practice during Lent given that we have 40 days to work with. So even if one gets behind a day or two, the books can still be completed in a relatively good amount of time.

Personally, I think the book of Psalms is likely the book that persuades me of the veracity of the Christian claim. Perhaps that sounds strange given that New Testament books speak directly to and announce rather loudly those claims; perhaps even speak primarily those claims. It's true. I don't deny that. At another level, however, there is the working mind and all of us, regardless of who we are, have a mind that functions in different ways. For example, as a man my mind is, according to some theories, supposed to connect with and be moved by a sort of raw masculinity, a blood and guts kind of appreciation for dirt and adventure. To an extent, I suppose I am. I love watching Rambo and Terminator movies for example. But if I told you I watched them for reasons other than the violence and blood you'd probably call me a liar.

But I do.

I watch Rambo, at least First Blood, because it is a redemption story and it moves me. Emotionally. I watch Terminator movies because they evoke in me a sense of hopelessness that only finds solace in someone outside the film. I do not watch any film for the sake of mere bloodsport or violence–which is why traditional horror films do nothing for me at all: there is simply no emotion. Jason Vorhees killed to kill and we never saw any emotion. Same with Michael Myers. At least Freddy Krueger had the scars to prove his emotion. Funny how the killers in these horror films always have to have their faces rearranged, isn't it?

I watch movies for the story they tell and because in movies I am permitted to experience the full sway of my emotions without repercussion from anyone. Truth? I still cry at the end of Return of the Jedi when Luke throws away his light saber and chooses certain death over unlimited power and during the last scene of Return of the King when the king bows before the hobbits of the Shire and at the end of The  Shawshank Redemption when Andy and Red share a hug on a beach. Hope. And don't get me started on The Sound of Music. That film wipes me out with each note they sing.

There are many other movies that do the same thing to me. It's not sentimentalism and since I don't watch cheap romance films, I am scarcely moved by simple boy-gets-girl or girl-gets-boy stories. I am moved by love–raw, uncontrollable, undeniable, sometimes angry and proven love in movies. I get that from heroes who die for those they love. I get that from characters who make hard choices in the face of evil or have to take matters of justice into their own hands and wrestle with that decision frequently. I get that from justice being done and the world being set to rights. I get that when dragons are slain and color returns the gray void. It's like seeing Dorothy open her door for the first time in Oz and seeing color–which is a scene, perhaps more than any other in The Wizard of Oz, that moves me.

I connect with those people and the story they tell. I connect with the emotions they share–and some actors are far better at it than others which is why I gravitate towards their films rather frequently. I have even seen Tom Cruise emote in a way that moves me.

So, the Psalms. The Psalms are like little films to me. Each one tells a story and yet each one is part of a fabric woven together to form part of a greater quilt. And the Psalms are nothing if not raw expressions of emotion and love. As a man, I'm not supposed to be in tune with my emotions, but I promise you there are times when the Psalms have made me weep. Each Psalm is a script in a movie and there are heroes and goats; there are gods and men; there are women and men; there are props and animals; there is a soundtrack; there is a back story. Not all of them feature each element yet some have all of these elements.

I love the Psalms because the Psalms are raw emotion. There is virtually no emotion the Psalms avoid. There is no scenario the Psalms haven't explored. There is drama in the Psalms–in every one of them. And for some reason, I like it.

I like that these men who wrote the Psalms were not afraid to let that emotion pour out in a very public way to God. Whoever put the book of Psalms together was a pure genius because they understood that YHWH invented emotions. And the writers of the Psalms–whether they knew they were writing Scripture or not is beside the point–understood that God was not afraid of their anger, their fear, their sadness, their joy, their anxiety, their boredom, their bloodthirsty-ness, their hunger, their tears, their uncertainty, their loneliness, their exhaustion, their guilt, their sin, their shame, their love, their hate, their hurt, their shame, their exaltation, their indifference, and much more besides. And for this reason, I connect deeply with the Psalms. Jesus did too given that he quoted from them even as he hung on the cross. In these drama filled, emotion laden scripts Jesus found a voice for his own emotion: "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" (Psalm 22)

The Psalms are a roller coaster of emotional outpouring. We can relate to the Psalms because these are all the things we feel and experience everyday of our lives and the Psalms tell us that we can pour out all these things on God, that he hears, that he (eventually) answers, and that at the very heart of things: God cares about his covenant people; deeply. Deeply enough that there is scarcely a word we can utter that offends him. The message of the Psalms: Pour it out and if you don't have your own words, pilfer from these 150 poems.

And for this same reason, in my mind, the Psalms more than anything else persuade me of the truth claims of Scripture: because of their raw honesty and their childlike expression of this honesty. The Psalms are not out to 'prove' anything even if the Psalms happen to demonstrate many things. The Psalms' only objective, and of course I recognize that the Psalms are doing more than this, is to lay out this deep yearning and longing that finds no resolution here on earth or among people. They take us to the very heights of the world to the very depths of hell, they leave us with unanswered prayers, they leave us weeping on couches and suffering bouts of insomnia.

What I like about the Psalms is that for all their perfection and beauty they teach us that the world we live in is not perfect, is not always beautiful, that life is not always predictable, and that YHWH is not a cosmic vending machine who is at our beck and call. Sometimes he waits….off in the distance…maybe just to see if we have the nerve to cry out to him and trust him while we wait. He cares; yes, deeply. Yet ultimately even the Psalms tell us a story with a greater plot–a story in which we are characters who play a vital role. In his short book A Case for the Psalms, NT Wright wrote:

In the same way, the story the Psalms tell is the story Jesus came to complete. It is the story of the creator God taking his power and reigning, ruling on earth as in heaven, delighting the whole creation by sorting out its messes and muddles, its injuries and injustices, once and for all. It is also the story of malevolent enemies prowling around, of people whispering lies and setting traps, and of sleepless nights and bottles full of tears. (31)

I like the Psalms because they allow me to drink deeply of the emotions of others and to pour out my emotions. They are a place where my masculinity is not called into question when my emotions are on full sleeve display. I know of a congregation or two where the preacher was not allowed to be so emotional. I distinctly recall him being told to 'fake it' because it's not 'professional' to be emotive. It's not professional to weep openly or to express deep grief and sorrow and hurt. I think congregations like this bore God. Most preachers are accused of being liars; this one was accused of being honest. I think these are also congregations where preachers are constantly on edge because the congregation constantly wants him to subdue his emotions–imagine telling Jeremiah, the weeping prophet to stifle his emotions.

I also think these congregations are the ones who pour salt into the wounds of the preachers or twist the knife in his back a little harder and deeper. These are the congregations who have no clue how to come alongside one who is suffering and just sit and mourn or laugh or sing. These are congregations who are very unfamiliar with the man who 'took up our sorrows', the man acquainted with suffering and grief, the man who cried out to God in desperation, and wept openly at a funeral.

I suspect that congregations like this should spend more time reading the Psalms. Or the Bible in general. They should become acquainted with the people who poured out such emotion before God. They should become acquainted with Jesus who affirmed them.

 

Related articles

Learning to Talk, Lenten Reflections #3
Fixed Eye Faith, Lenten Reflections #2
Renewing the Mind, Lenten Reflections #4

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.

Related articles

Reflections on a World Afire, Lenten Reflections #1
Fixed Eye Faith, Lenten Reflections #2
Learning to Talk, Lenten Reflections #3

In a little book I have called Answering God, author Eugene Peterson writes,

"But the first requirement of language is not to make us nice but accurate. Prayer is not particularly 'nice.' There is a recognition in prayer of the fiercer aspects of God…Psalm language is not careful about offending our sensibilities; its genius is its complete disclosure of the human spirit as it makes response to the revealing God. Given the mess that things are in, it will not be surprising that some unpleasant matters have to be spoken, and spoken in the language of our sin-conditioned humanity, for the language of prayer is, most emphatically, human language. It is not angel talk." (41-42)

Sometimes we simply do not have the words though. Sometimes talking to God is difficult because perhaps we think what we have to say might be offensive or too caustic for God's ears. When I read through the Psalms–or the Bible in general–I am quickly disabused of that idea. Those who pray use real words and often rather salty language. It seems that God's ears are quite accustomed to our complaints and our verbal atrocities. He's been around a while; he can handle it.

But that's not how we pray. It really isn't. I have been involved in the church since I was born. I cannot remember a day when I haven't been involved with the church in some way. And I am one of those people who actually listens to everything that is said in church. I pay close attention because I want to hear the Scripture read and preached, I want to hear the prayers prayed and offered, and I want to hear the Spirit move among God's people. On the other hand, I'm also like Stanley Hauerwas who wrote,

"I do not trust prayer to spontaneity. Most 'spontaneous prayers' turn out, upon analysis, to be anything but spontaneous. Too often they conform to formulaic patterns that include ugly phrases such as, 'Lord, we just ask you…" Such phrases are gestures of false humility, suggesting that God should give us what we want because what we want is not all that much. I prayer that God will save us from 'just.' (Hannah's Child, 255)

Hauerwas goes on to note that because of his fear he took to writing out his prayers. I'm OK with that. Some folks need to do just such a thing. When I was younger I objected to such things, but the older I get and the more cut & paste prayers I hear from people leading worship or in small groups, the more I am fine with the practice. Nevertheless, I think there might also be another solution though and that solution has to do with the Scripture.

Part of the reason I think corporate prayers are so anemic is because our minds have not drank deeply enough of the Scripture to let it saturate the part of our brains that generates language. Or we are simply content with formulating our own nonsense. But if we trust that the Bible is the Word of God then why shouldn't we pray back his words to him? Why shouldn't we remind him of what he said? Why shouldn't we pray the very words he gave us and hurl back to him the words he hurled at us?

I'm not sure why we think our words are better than his words. But to my point: the prayers we offer in public worship, the prayers offered by our leaders (preachers, elders, deacons), those prayers are weak and speak nothing: "Thank you God for this day. We just pray for this or that. Bless the gift and the giver so that your message will go out in this community and around the world. Be with us."

There's nothing wrong with these words at all, but when these words are the meat and substance of our prayers, and when these are the same words repeated time and time again from pulpits and by leaders, it makes me stop and wonder if we are even in tune with what the Bible has to say about the work God has planned for us, through Jesus, in this world? Jesus said that the very gates of hell cannot count an offensive to stop the church or mount a defensive position that the church cannot conquer. Yet our prayers are prayers thanking God for the day. Again, nothing wrong with thanking God for the day, but don't you think our prayers could have a little more urgency? Don't you think our leaders should pray with a bit more expectancy? Don't you think our prayers should have a little more prophecy infused? 

I mean seriously: Why are all those prayers we read in the Bible there in the first place? Are we just supposed to read them? Are they there for decorative purposes? Are they there so we can marvel at how wonderful the saints of old prayed? Or are they there to guide and direct our own prayer life, to give us words to pray, directions for our journey, and/or language to fatten up our prayers? Think about Jesus on the cross and the prayers he prayed. Luke 23:46: "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" is from Psalm 31:5. Mark 15:34: "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" is a quote from Psalm 22:1. Or think about Stephen in Acts 7 who was stoned to death because of Jesus. He prayed twice during his execution: "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit," and "Lord do not hold this sin against them." Well, it seems to me that these are both allusions to the words that Jesus prayed on the cross, words that Jesus quoted from Scripture.

Or think about Revelation 6:10: "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" This was prayed by the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. But here again is my point: How many times in the Older Testament, especially the Psalms, do we see these words or words similar to them? Look at Psalm 13:1, for example. Or Psalm 6:3. Or Habakkuk 1:2 for that matter. The point, of course, is that even these dead saints in Revelation are still praying the Scripture.

This post could go on for a while because I haven't really even laid out all of my reasons for believing these things or the reasons why I think we should pray the Scripture. And by 'pray the Scripture' I do not only mean using the language of Scripture but I mean literally praying through it. That is, opening up a book of the Bible and literally praying it's words back to the Father–kind of like we do when we recite the Lord's prayer. Like I said, this post could go on for a while and I want to end it for now. Suffice it to say, in conclusion, that I think perhaps it would do us well to dig deeper into the Scripture as congregations. Our lives as members of the church should be centered around the Scripture. Scripture should be read frequently from the pulpit. Scripture should be sung. Scripture should be read as part of the worship. Scripture should be prayed. Scripture should be preached. Scripture should be read privately and publicly.

I hear the words of Amos the prophet:

"The days are coming," declares the Lord, "When I will send a famine through the land–not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord. People will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the Lord, but they will not find it" (8:11-12).

I get this. I think it's going on right now and is evidenced in the prayers we pray.

One of the last acts I performed as a member of Facebook was to follow a link to a blog post and read the blog post. It had something to do with Daniel 11 so I thought this would be a good thing–given that I am currently neck deep in a study of Daniel in preparation for weekly Bible school lessons and, further down the road, teaching it at a small undergraduate college nearby.

Then I got there.

I'm sure the blogger's intentions were good. Maybe not. Personally I think that if a person has to go to that much trouble to understand what Scripture is saying then the person probably has no idea what Scripture is saying. That's my opinion, but I'm pretty sure that the Bible can be understood on its own terms without the help of charts and graphs and overlays and all other such 'helpful' things. Take Daniel 11 for example which should be read closely on the heels of chapter 10 of Daniel.

Chapter 10 is a conversation between Daniel and one who 'looked like a man.' This one strengthens Daniel. Speaks to Daniel. And reveals things to Daniel. Chapter 10 is a prelude to what he says in chapter 11. It may well be helpful when reading Daniel 11 to think in big pictures instead of small pictures…that is, see the forest through the trees. There are trees and if we like it may prove a fun exercise to wander through the woods and attempt to identify all the different species of trees that we see, but there is a bigger picture in chapter 11 that the identity of one small tree cannot overshadow.

The cycle in chapter 11 goes something like this:

  • A king will rise up somewhere in the world.
  • This king will do as he pleases. He or she will do whatever necessary to gain and consolidate power for themselves.
  • This king will wreck the holy people of God.
  • This king will come to an end.

It is there. Over and over again it is there. 11:4. 11:6. 11:17-19. 11:20. 11:24. 11:26-27. 11:45. Everyone of these verses speaks to the downfall of some king who thought he was the cat's meow. Every single verse. Every king who has ever lived, every kingdom ever established on earth–all of them from the greatest to the least–comes to ruin.

It seems to me that this ought to give us pause for more than a moment. It seems to me that our reaction ought to be more in line with that of Daniel who 'trembled', who 'was overcome with anguish because of the vision,' and who 'mourned for three weeks, ate no choice food, drank no wine, and used no lotions.' I'm not sure this is our christian response when we see the world afire. Ours is typically not a response of repentance, but one of indifference. It starts with me.

I repent.

It seems to me it ought to give us pause to think about our own situation here in the United States because many Christians seem to think that somehow or other our kingdom is different. I think this is why we are fond of seeing the trees instead of the forest when we read Daniel. That is, if we can learn the true identity of the 'king of the North,' or the 'king of deception,' or the 'king of the South' as people who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago then, well, think about it: if that is the only thing true about Daniel's prophecy then it must not apply to our kingdom here in the USA, right? I'm sure it's important to know about Antiochus and Alexander and Ptolemy and the rest. That's the trees.

But don't you think it's also important to know who these people are in our world? That's the forest. And it seems to me that it is far more important to see the forest just now than it is to see the trees since, of course, we are living now and not then. Don't you think it is important, right now, today, to understand the fate of every single kingdom that has ever arisen on this earth? Doesn't this help us understand why now, even now, the world is afire with death, destruction, and hatred?

I'm thinking about my allegiance to Jesus. I'm thinking about how being a citizen of the USA affects my counter-cultural identity as a citizen of heaven–a much better country (Hebrews 11:16). I'm thinking that during this Lenten season, I need to reorient my eyes, my mind, and my heart so I will be guided by three passages of Scripture.

First, Hebrews 12:2: "…let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." My vision needs to be clarified. My focus needs to be fixed. If the world is afire, I need to have a steady gaze. There is a greater joy than the shame of suffering. Jesus is at the right hand of the throne of God. All the kings of the world will come and go, but Jesus remains. (Which is a key to understand the entire book of Daniel.)

Second, Romans 12:1-2: "Therefore I urge you brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to daily  offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing 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." My mind needs to be clear and sober. My body needs to be holy and pleasing. If the world is afire, I must be ready to endure. Giving my body and mind to Jesus every day is the best way to be ready.

Third, Mark 8:34-35: "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and the gospel will save it." I think we have to make up our minds whether or not we want to be Jesus' disciple. If we want to then Jesus tells us what being a disciple entails. Give up your life. Deny what the world tries to tell us our body needs. Take up your cross–which does not mean to simply endure the burdens and drudgery of life, although it means that as well–taking up your cross means head to Calvary with Jesus. Daily. Make the sacrifice. Daily. Give your life for something more than yourself. Lose your life for Jesus as he gave his life for you.

If the world is afire, I had better make up my mind right now whether or not I want to be Jesus' disciple. And if I want to, then here's what I had best be prepared to do and how I best plan to live. Like Rick said in Sunday evening's episode of The Walking Dead, "we are the walking dead." We are.

So this Lenten season there is a lot of turmoil in the world. There's a lot of death. There's a lot of hatred. Kings are coming; kings are going. Empires are rising; empires are falling. Look at the forest…what looms on the horizon of our own nation? What preparations are you making should this great empire we live in here in the USA be the next kingdom to collapse under the weight of its own hubris?

Fix your eyes.

Offer yourselves.

Die with Jesus.

Daily.

God bless you on your Lenten journey. Come back often for more updates and reflections on this life with Jesus.

Prayer scripturesTitle: Pray the Scriptures When Life Hurts

Author: Kevin Johnson

Publisher: Bethany House Publishers

Year: 2014

Pages: 128

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In that regard, this book fell short for me.

3.5/5 stars

Surprised byTitle: Surprised by Scripture

Author: NT Wright

Publisher: HarperOne

Year: 2014

Pages: 223

Anyone who has read any of my book reviews knows that NT Wright typically gets rave reviews from me–both as a lover of literature and as a Christian who loves Wright's theological perspective. Fact is, I can scarcely ever find anything in his books with which I disagree.

With this book, that changed just a little because I found much of what he wrote to be provocative and challenging to some long held theological ideas I have held. Letting go of long-held ideas isn't easy; being challenged at an intellectual level is sometimes discouraging. If we are not careful, we can label those who challenge us as abrasive or mean. He doesn't hold back, challenging all those sacred-cows current Christians have championed as 'thou shalt not violate orthodoxy in these matters' kind of doctrines. Sad truth is that entire ministries have been built around some of these sacred-cows in recent years–trumpeting theological perspectives that are important, yes, but often exist to the exclusion of a more comprehensive narrative, or to the exclusion of the Person to whom they point. It's kind of like the way a lot of books are put together in today's Evangelical publishing houses: authors find a single verse that supports an idea and then scratch around other tangential passages to find more support and then, voila!, a book is born. And all the while these authors pay very little, if any, attention to the meta-narrative of Scripture.

Yet this is precisely what NT Wright refuses to do in his writing. Taking a sort of 'damn the torpedoes' approach to the sacred-cows and theological pillars of current incarnation of the church, he plows through each subject by constantly reminding of us what Scripture says, and not just what a verse says. What I mean to say is that the meta-narrative is always in his view when he writes. It matters not the subject matter: Wright always has 66 books in his vision when he is writing about even the smallest word, sentence, paragraph, or book of the Bible. And so it is with Surprised by Scripture. There's not a subject he touches that isn't somehow connected to the larger context of the Bible, of the story of God coming down to rescue broken and sinful humanity in Jesus and the project begun at Jesus' resurrection to rebuild this earth and it's people.

This is what I simultaneously love and hate about NT Wright's books. On the one hand, he always has the meta-narrative in mind so I know that he is not trying to hoodwink me or convince me of some specious theology that is born out of a reaction to some perceived threat or otherwise. Many authors/preachers are good at this and it is reflected in the lack of depth in their work. On the other hand, he always has the meta-narrative in mind so he is constantly challenging my presuppositions about Scripture and God and what God is doing, or has done, in Jesus. That is terrifically threatening and makes me constantly uncomfortable. It ought to be so with all authors who dare speak on matters of faith. It ought to be so with all preachers: comforting the afflicted; afflicting the comfortable.

Surprised by Scripture made me clench my teeth more than any other of Wright's books precisely at this point. Yet I think this is exactly what happens when you take the bulk of Wright's heavy theologies and filter them down to the every day church. And if we do, and if we are honest, we simply must admit that we have gotten a lot of it just plain wrong. We might also go along with admitting that many of the ministries that are build around some of these wrongs are also, sadly, beside the point. Taking the example of the creation stories, for example, we might say something like: It's important that God made the universe; it's not so much important how he did it. But we might go further and say: It's important that God made the universe, and it's tremendously important that all throughout the Scripture the authors affirm that God is going to remake & recreate the universe. We can go even further: It's important that God made the universe, sustains the universe; that the authors reaffirm this frequently; that the authors reaffirm frequently that God will renew, recreate, remake the universe; that God has already begun to do this in Jesus and will bring it to fruition at some point. One way of saying this ignores the big picture; one way affirms it.

Well, we cannot prove creation in any ex nihilo sense of creation. We can surmise. We can guess. We might ask: Is it a mountain upon which I am willing to die? But what we can do is point to the Resurrection of Jesus (chapter 3) as a point in history where God's breaking in and stirring up the pot of recreative materials that can actually be demonstrated. The point, of course, is that we Christians get all frustrated because we have tied ourselves to the posts of things that are not quite as important as some other things–or because we feel compelled to prove something about Jesus that doesn't need proving because we think that if we don't the whole world of faithism will die. But we are to be found in Jesus, loving Jesus, loving people. Seems to me that everything else is so much frosting.

If we are more willing to die for a doctrine than we are for a person then we have utterly missed the point. I suspect at times this is Wright's point. 

The only real gripe I have with this book is Wright's points about politics–especially American politics. He seems very sensitive to the way American politicians do things–especially as it relates to events surrounding September 11, 2001 and the ongoing drama of how 'we' deal with terrorist organizations. He says he's no pacifist; I believe him. But he seems to forget that the 'war on terror' although led mainly by the USA was, in fact, a coalition of nations who decided enough was enough. I disagree with his subtle criticisms of then president Bush (although he never mentions him by name) and the manner of response to the actions of evil people. I think this is even more pertinent now as we see our current president simply doing nothing against terrorist threats, beheadings of women and children, and the systematic destruction of churches and christians in the Middle East.

The problem with Wright's critique of American political processes is that he gives us no viable alternatives. He thinks American democracy is worse than his British Socialism. He thinks that we should be voices in the wilderness hammering out our prophecies against politicians and governments, and perhaps we should, but he doesn't tell us with what or with whom we are to replace them. Should we go back to Medieval Feudalism? Should we revert to the monarchy we escaped from? Should we adopt Sharia? Perhaps we should let Anarchy rule and go back to the time of Judges when 'everyone did as he saw fit in his own eyes'? My point is, it's fine to criticize the way we do things in America if in fact you have a superior alternative. I simply do not see in any of Wright's books a superior alternative to the representative republic in which I happen to live. And if I may add one last point, for as much as I love Wright, for as much as I think he is dead on in keeping the narrative vision alive and in front, I think he is dead wrong when it comes to his critique of the United States. Dr Wright has indeed benefited greatly from the freedoms we enjoy here in America–not least of which is freedom to say what he wants, write what he wants, and criticize who he wants and then return back to the safety of Great Britain. I think it is disingenuous to say on page 112 that 'Western politicians knew perfectly well that al Qaeda was a danger…' and then criticize the reaction to September 11, 2001 as a 'knee-jerk, unthinking, immature lashing out.'

This is a case where the president at the time was damned for doing and would have been damned for not doing (when in fact nearly everyone in government at the time supported the idea of taking action). Frankly, I think Wright's critique beginning on page 112 and ending somewhere on page 114 is wrong (as I think much of his criticism of the American political system is wrong). Perhaps if the British government, who had suffered worse before the USA on September 11, had done something we wouldn't have had to act in the way we did or at all. Fact is, however, no one was doing anything about rampant terrorism until our president took action–and if that's true, then who is to say his actions were merely 'knee-jerk, unthinking, and immature'? It's easy to shift blame which is what Wright does here. His government did nothing about it so when ours did it was, somehow, wrong. And this is all beside the point that our president was acting as the president of a sovereign nation–humanists, atheists, christians, Jews, Gentiles, etc. All of us. He was not acting on behalf of a church or a synagogue or a mosque or professor's chair; he was acting on behalf of the people he swore to protect.

All that being said, I enjoyed the challenge the book afforded. I especially found the last chapter to be one of the best chapters I have read in a long time on the subject of hope. It also goes without saying that Wright is his typical exegetical genius. He brings fresh insights to the Scripture and challenges our presuppositions in a host of ways. I think he would be the first to tell you he doesn't have all the answers to all the problems we face, but in my opinion, he has laser vision on where we should start looking.

4/5 Stars.

917s43W2pyL._SL1500_Title: A Godward Heart

Author: John Piper

Publisher: Multnomah Books

Year: 2014

Pages: 226

Additional Resources: Desiring God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1/5 stars

Plainfaith-3dcover-transparentTitle: Plain Faith

Author(s): Irene & Ora Jay Eash with Tricia Goyer

Publisher: Zondervan

Year: 2014

Pages: 208

Cripple Creek Horse Ranch

Tricia Goyer

[Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of Plain Faith by Zondervan in exchange for my faith and unbiased review. I hope that helps clear up any confusion.]

I'm going to go out on a limb and break my book review tradition by stating upfront how I feel about this book: I loved it!! This is a book that I will definitely read again and will share with others too. In fact, I cannot wait for my wife to read it and my landlord.

I live in a rural community in the southernish part of Ohio. We are surrounded on all sides by Amish folks and their families. In fact, two out of my three years teaching I have had a young Amish girl as a student. The community where we live is largely populated by Mennonites and there is a fairly large Mennonite congregation about 500 yards from our rented house. Living in this community has given us a new perspective on simplicity and quietude. After reading this book, maybe some of my opinions will change.

There is a verse in the Bible that reads thus: "As the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields see for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth; it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish the purpose for which I sent it" (Isaiah 55:10-11). I intend someday that this verse will be inscribed on my headstone because it is the very foundation upon which I constructed my ministry when I used to be a preacher. The problem I believe we have in our world today is that most preachers simply do not believe it. So concerned are they with growth, so concerned are they with ideas, so concerned are they with themselves they fail to have the simplest of faith in the unadulterated, unfiltered word of God. Does that sound too simple? Does it make no sense that if a preacher stood up on Sunday morning and simply read from Scripture that the congregation would go home filled and satisfied? Is that too naive?

"Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near" (Revelation 1:3). It seems to me that the Scripture is powerful to effect such results that we can scarcely imagine. Yet we think we have to be so innovative and imaginative in order to 'get results'–I'm not sure yet what the word 'results' means just yet–but that's what I constantly see from leadership gurus: get results! results matter!

Well this is all so much of a rant to say that this book proves exactly the opposite is true. It tells the story of a man and a woman, Amish, who were thrust into a wilderness none of us would every wish upon anyone: the death of two of their children. This event in their lives began to reveal the emptiness of their Amish way of life, their Amish way of Christianity, and their Amish way of thinking about the God they claimed to worship. In other words, it thrust them into a wilderness not of their own making and the Enemy, taking every advantage to keep them enveloped in pain and sorrow, kept pressing the issue of their faith. But the enemy is shortsighted and did not foresee what his pressure and chaos would give birth to in their lives.

What may seem at first glance as arbitrary, as pointless, as utterly devoid of anything remotely resembling fairness ended up being the very thing that opened their hearts to a greater and more fuller expression of faith and trust in the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ. And to think that all of this, happened simply because at some point during their journey they opened up a Bible and started reading for themselves what it said: "As God's Word grew clearer, we found more freedom" (105). They go on:

Even as our eyes were opened, change came slowly over time. Our Amish traditions were deeply ingrained, including the belief that it was by our works that we are saved. But as we read, we saw a little spark of grace. The Word of God came alive, almost as if God was tapping us on the shoulder and saying, 'Take a look at this.' (104)

Isn't that just like God though? They tell the story about getting in trouble for reading the Bible on their own. "Bible reading was for preachers," they were told, and "to read too much was to make one 'wise in their own eyes'" (99). And prayer was "taking pride in your own words" (99). They conclude by writing, "Yet that taste of reading God's Word wasn't something we could shake" (99). Wow. I mean it is amazing that as the book went along they kept seeking and hoping and eventually, naturally, they became who they became. There didn't seem to be anything acting on them save for the Word of God and God's Holy Spirit.

For me this book is far less about their conversion from an Amish way of life–which brought them great struggles as a family–or the tragedy that in its own way served as a catalyst for their exodus and far more about how the Word of God continued to provoke them, prod them, and pursue them down every alley, every struggle, and every step. I was in awe at their development and growth in Scripture and how they continued pleading for their family to see the grace that God was leading them in and to.

This is a remarkable book. I love the alternating style of hearing from both Irene and Ora Jay. I enjoyed reading the letters they sent to family members and the circle group (for greiving families). I enjoyed very much learning about the Amish culture. The main point for me though was simply reading about how the Word of God did exactly what it was sent forth to do: it went back to the Lord with results.

The reader will enjoy this book too. It is a quick read, but not shallow. This is a book to be shared with people who are going through their own struggles with faith. This is a book to be shared with someone who is struggling with the legalism of a church. This is a book for someone who needs encouragement to simply and daily read the Bible. It is packed with raw emotion that is not easily shaken off. In other words, it's a difficult book to put down or to forget. Read this book and marvel at God's mysterious ways, and his amazing Grace.

5/5 stars

Four-Views-on-the-Historical-AdamTitle: Four Views on the Historical Adam

Authors:

Publisher: Zondervan

Year: 2013

Pages: 289 (e-book)

Additional Information:

Counterpoints: Bible & Theology Logos Software

General Editors: Ardel B. Caneday | Matthew Barrett

[I was provided with a free e-copy of this book in exchange for my unbiased and fair review. On another note, the government spends too much time worrying about what books I read and get for free. Thank you.]

I have provided plenty of links for you, the reader, to do your own research into this book because I have a particular point of view on this sort of work that may or may not be particularly helpful. To be sure, I read an 'uncorrected proof for review purposes' which is a bit frustrating because page numbers in references appear as (ooo) which is kind of annoying.

The book is laid out in a fairly manageable format. There is a lengthy introduction by the series editors (Barrett and Caneday) which explains the format and lays out some preliminary observations such as historical background, history of debates, and the various points of view that the authors will subsequently take up in the bulk of the text. Next comes the presentation of the four authors' points of view. Each author presents his view which is followed by responses from the other three authors and, finally, a rejoinder from the original author. I'm not sure if there was a reason for the order in which the various views are presented but they seem to follow from the most 'liberal' (Lamoureux) to the most 'conservative' (Barrick) with the two 'fence straddlers' (Walton & Collins; it's probably unfair to call them 'straddlers'; their positions are as robust as the others) resting in the middle of the sandwich. Finally, pastoral reflections are offered (Boyd & Ryken) representing a broad spectrum of opinion of how these various points of view might affect the church. Surprisingly, this is a debate left entire to the male point of view–that is, no women have left their mark on these pages. Not surprisingly, Boyd takes the more 'liberal' post and Ryken the more 'conservative.'

I should start off right away by noting that Lamoureux's point of view holds no sway with me whatsoever. When an author has to continually defend himself against the charge, imagined or otherwise, that he is saying 'God lied' or that 'Scripture cannot be trusted' then there is a serious problem. On the other hand, Lamoureux, out of all the authors, probably holds to the most literal reading of the book of Genesis even though he doesn't believe a word of Genesis 1-11 to represent anything close to a historical record. This is strange. I never cease to be amazed at those who hold to evolution as a means antithetical to pure ex nihilo creation. They always remind us that they find the evidence 'for evolution is overwhelming' (40). What is amazing is that so many equally trained theologians and scientists find the evidence underwhelming. Frankly, I decided a while ago that I will no longer live in fear of evolution or those who teach it. In my opinion God is a big God and doesn't need me to get all worked up about defending him or what he has done. I'm fairly certain Lamoureux is the only author who felt the need to talk about his academic credentials and, to be sure, much of his article is autobiographical–another defense mechanism.

I think the problem, for me, is that Lamoureux believes that Genesis 1-11 is merely indicative of the way God talks to humans. His evidence is that this is how Jesus talked to his disciples: "The Lord himself accommodated in His teaching ministry by using parables" (54). Honestly I think this is a rather poor understanding of why Jesus spoke using parables; furthermore, the parables were not merely "earthly stories [meant] to deliver inerrant heavenly messages" (54). This is a shallow and rather naive way of understanding parables and, to be sure, has nothing to do with the way God talked to people through Genesis. What I find amazing is the utter lack of faith Lamoureux has in Scripture. This is evident in that he really doesn't seem to get that the Holy Spirit had quite a lot to do with the actual final composition of the original autographs and, I would venture to assume, their translation and transmission to future generations. I'm not sure he gets this or if he does if he just rejects it as more unreliable biblical rhetoric. It is hard to tell at times.

 At the end of each author's presentation there is a hefty response from the other writers of the book. It's all fairly typical, as one might expect, with this type of book. Of course every author has a point of view, of course he defends it, of course others tear apart his arguments, and of course there's all sorts of moving 'what-a-great-guy-he-is' kind of comments. There is much mutual respect, in other words, except that there is some obvious tension between Lamoureux and Barrick. This is how it goes page after page. Honestly, the four points of view are not terribly difficult to understand and the responses are largely predictable. And even though the book is about four views of the historical Adam when it's all said and done there's really only two: you either believe he was a real, historical figure; or you don't. The book really revolves around the points of view concerning creation mechanisms (and various theories about the 'days' in Genesis) and how these points of view impact readings of later Scripture.

I enjoyed reading the responses from the pastors at the end of the book the most and I enjoyed Greg Boyd's best of the two if for nothing else because I think it captured the spirit of his assignment ('pastoral reflections') the best. Ryken wrote a fine reflection, but I thought he focused less on the pastoral implications and more on the theological implications of whatever view one chooses to adopt. 

Every author has something to contribute to the discussion (even though Lamoureux's view, in my opinion, lacks teeth). No one has it perfectly right and no one is absolutely wrong–which is evident by the responses. Frankly, there is a lot of agreement among the authors and this is healthy. It shows that the debate isn't as scary as one might think. It demonstrates that there can be a variety of orthodoxy amongst Christians and that satisfying and healthy debates are indeed possible. It seems to me that any of these men would stand up for one of the others if the debate were to include a die-hard, dyed in the wool atheistic evolutionist. Of this I have no doubt.

The evolution/creation debate is interesting and, sadly, ongoing. There will never be resolution to this discussion this side of the new heavens and new earth. The main question of this book is: does there need to be a real historical Adam in order for the Bible (Lamoureux believes 'real' biblical history starts in Genesis 12) to be true with respect to redemptive history? According to the book, yes and no. Whatever side of the debate the reader happens to side with, this much is true: all of the authors point us to Jesus. We may not necessarily agree with the path they take through Scripture to arrive at Jesus, but they all get there. For this I am glad. At times, however, I do wonder if perhaps we have carried on this debate long enough. It could be that it is time to move on to weightier matters and perhaps see how it is that we can take care of the earth we have been given whether by a Creator or through evolution. That is a different paper altogether.

This is a helpful volume. I don't think it adds anything new to the debate (as far as evidence, one way or the other, is concerned) and those who are well versed in the history and literature of the creation/evolution debate will find the book rather redundant and tired at points. Newcomers to the debate will find this a worthy volume that will help them sort through some of their early questions (about the debate) and develop some clear thinking on certain issues (such as the theological implications of there not being a historical person named Adam). They might even be persuaded to change their minds at certain points. Seasoned readers probably won't find much challenging and will probably only find their a priori arguments bolstered by fresh looks at Scripture (esp. Genesis; I think all four authors contributed some stunning ideas about Genesis even if, again, I didn't happen to agree with all the conclusions they arrived at from the evidence) and repetition of old arguments.

I give this book 3.5/5 Stars and recommend it for readers who are newer to the conversation.

*My page numbers may not align exactly. I read an draft version (.pdf) on my Nook and sometimes the pages and numbering are adjusted later.

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516zXo8UHjLTitle: Scripture and the Authority of God

Author: N.T. Wright

Publisher: HarperCollins

Year: 2011

Pages: 210

N.T. Wright other works: N.T. Wright Page

[Disclaimer: I paid for this book with a gift card I received at Christmas 2013. It was a very happy time in my life when I could freely spend at amazon.com. It also prevented me from having to humbly admit that I got the book free in exchange for a fair review. I can be as nasty as I wanna be in this review. 🙂 ]

No one will ever accuse N.T. Wright of cutting corners when it comes to Scripture. What he does in Scripture and the Authority of God is take his readers on a whirlwind tour of the complex cultural cancers that have affected and distorted the way we read the Scripture. And if I have read this book correctly, Wright is saying that it is far less about the external forces and far more about internal pressures that have, in a sense, ruined the Scripture. To wit: "This strongly suggests that for the Bible to have the effect it seems to be designed to have it will be necessary for the church to hear it as it is, not to chop it up in an effort to make it into something else" (25). To repeat myself, this is akin to saying: it is less the cultured despisers we have to worry about when it comes to Scripture and far much more the prophets, priests, and preachers in the church. And isn't this, if we are honest, the truth?

Throughout the book Wright maintains a singular thought, which he repeats in earnest as often as he can: "…the phrase 'authority of Scripture' can make Christian sense only if it is a shorthand for 'the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through scripture" (20). The main problem we have in the church is that we tend to ignore context when it comes to Scripture. Preachers are so bent on a particular theological or political system that the entire corpus of Scripture gets forgotten, the story from beginning to end is either ignored or forgotten. In my opinion, N.T.Wright is absolutely prophetic in this regard because he always, I mean always, keeps this overarching metanarrative in mind when spelling out some of the more microcosmic ideas found in Scripture. And no one is safe from his pen: conservative, liberal, right, left, high-church or country-bumpkin. His solution? There is a profound need for 'fresh, Kingdom-oriented, historically rooted exegesis' (112). I have read many of Dr. Wright's books and if anything can be said of his work, perhaps the best thing that can be said is that he is undeniable consistent: the metanarrative never leaves his focus regardless of the topic he is discussing.

This is like telling people who have been doing the same thing for 100 years that they are doing it wrong and need to change to which they would respond, "We have always done it this way." I hear such sentiments in churches, in schools, in business. And again it is hard to argue when the current methods have resulted in the modern phenomenon of the mega-rich, mega-churches. It's a lot easier to use Scripture to make some politically expedient point or some culturally relevant pop-psychological jabberwocky than it is to do the hard work of actually reading Scripture from front to back, and back to front, seeing what it says and then thinking about what it means. I remember sitting in my office one Sunday morning and listening to the women's Sunday school class on the other side of the wall. We had just started a Bible reading campaign designed to take the entire church the entire Bible in 90 days. I distinctly remember hearing one of the women say, "I don't know why we have to do this."

Wright takes his time explaining to his readers the insidious nature of the various cultural developments and church reactions that have so distorted and warped our reading of Scripture. He covers sixteen centuries of warped exegesis in about 20 pages before he moves on to discuss the enlightenment period in a little more than 20 pages. He then demonstrates for us how those on the 'left' and 'right' have used the flawed methods of those previous generations to distort the Scripture for their own purposes. Then, finally, he moves on give us thoughts on how to get back on track. (Yes, there was much more at the beginning of the book, and I'm not overlooking it. It's there and lays an important foundation.) It is here that I find most agreement with Wright based on my own experience as a local church preacher and a well read Christian. This newer version of the book I read also features two 'test cases' at the end of the book–one on the Sabbath and the other on monogamy.

One wonders what the world would look like if preaching was not always a reaction to the goings on in the world or a mere 'how to feel better about life' medicinal word? I'm sure there is a place to address such things, but the best way to do so is found by consistently preaching how God has brought about his grace in the fullness of time in Jesus–his Kingdom where broken people find hope, peace, and love. We cannot ignore the world and what is happening–indeed, it is the world we are to redeem through our witness to Jesus and the preaching of the Gospel! When we keep the metanarrative in mind, not merely as a backdrop, or for illustrative material, or as I saw in a book I recently read, a place for good quotes, but as the sure historical foundation through which God was bringing about his redemptive purposes and preparing the world for Jesus, we can see how God's word is authoritative in the midst of our own cultural upheaval and turmoil and political intrigue. This is precisely the reason Paul writes that God gave us preachers, teachers, apostles–to equip us…then we will no longer be tossed about by the waves of this world (Ephesians 4:1-16).

Whatever else we take away from this book, it is imperative that we read chapter 8 carefully and thoughtfully. This might mean, gasp, that we are going to be confronted individually or collectively with ideas that challenge us, change us, or choke us: "We who call ourselves Christians must be totally committed to telling the story of Jesus both as the climax of Israel's story and as the foundation of our own" (126). It is especially when he talks about five strategies for honoring the authority of Scripture that we ought to pay attention. I say yes to all of them! Contextual reading? Yes! Liturgically grounded reading of Scripture? Yes! I pause here because my own tradition has a nagging history of neglecting the liturgical, contextual, public reading of Scripture. That is, we prefer a bit before communion or a bit before the sermon or a bit before the plate is passed but we have failed greatly when it comes to the type of reading that reminds us of who we are, of the greater story being told, and our place within that narrative. This will not do. I weep for my tradition precisely at this point because we who have prided ourselves for so long as being a 'people of the book' have utterly neglected our historical roots and the reading Scripture in a liturgical fashion: "It also means that in our public worship, in whatever tradition, we need to make sure the reading of Scripture takes a central place" (131). Amen.

I highly recommend Scripture and the Authority of God and it is my hope that when people read this they will begin to hold their leaders accountable. So I have some suggestions myself of how churches can hold leaders accountable.

First, change your worship. That is, drop a song or two or three in order to create space for the unfiltered reading of the Scripture. This is what Ezra did (Nehemiah 8); this is what Jesus did (Luke 4); and this is what Paul told Timothy he was to do (1 Timothy 4:13). There is just as much worship in hearing the Scripture simply read as there is in singing and dancing (Revelation 1:3).

Second, insist that your preacher have ample time and resources to study the Scripture. Demand less of him in areas where others can serve competently (Acts 6:1-7) so that his/her time in the Scripture is undiluted and undisturbed (2 Timothy 2:14-15). You want the church to grow? Count on the one thing in Scripture that God said would provide growth: Isaiah 55:10-12.

Third, engage your congregation in consistent reading of the entire Bible. Interesting that one of the commands the king was to obey was that he was to write for himself a copy of the law (Deuteronomy 17:18-19) and have it with him all the days of his life. The congregation should do the same, always reading and studying and learning because when we are in Scripture we are bound to see Jesus (Luke 24:25-27, 44). Keep this metanarrative in mind at all times when reading, studying, and preaching.

Surely there are things I could add to this list, but for now it will do. If churches could get motivated again to take the Scripture seriously, as Wright is ultimately suggesting, we might see the sort of revival take place in our churches. I say this especially to those among my own tradition who have, for far too long, neglected Scripture in favor of methodology. 

PFETitle: Psalms for Everyone, pt 2, Psalms 73-150

Author: John Goldingay

Publisher:Westminster John Knox Press

Year: 2014

Pages: 228

[I am required by the FCC to inform you that Westminster John Knox Press provided me with a free e-book preview copy of this book for review purposes. Truth is, I'm afraid not to tell you because, well, one never really knows about the long arm of the FCC. Anyhow, there you go; it was free and so are my opinions of the book.]

I have read other books by John Goldingay (in particular, his WBC commentary on Daniel) and have enjoyed his keen sense of seeing the finer details of the   biblical text and his understanding of and attention to the grand narrative that stretches from one end of the canon to the other (context). Some writers get too caught up in one; some too much so in the other. Goldingay balances both nicely in his writing.

I have also listened to lectures Goldingay has delivered at Fuller Theological (they are accessible through iTunes) and I have appreciated his sense of humor and the depths he is willing to probe in order to understand what Scripture is and what Scripture is not. The Bible would be better understood if people took time to unhook themselves from whatever preconceptions they have and listen to the text from front to back and, for that matter, if they would stop viewing it merely as a collection of sayings and start view it as a library, full of books, each with its own literary purpose. An example is his understanding that even the Penteteuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy) is best and properly understood as one book with some rather artificial divisions imposed on the text.

This is all so much backdrop to my review of The Psalms for Everyone, pt 2 which I think is necessary because if a person just jumps into this book without ever having read or listened to Goldingay they might get frustrated early on and simply walk away from the book. This is not a book that is necessarily easy to read or easily understood. It is definitely not a book to sit and read cover to cover (as one must do when writing book reviews). This is a book that is meant to be read slowly, deliberately, and with brain fully engaged and in concert with the Holy Spirit of God.

I say this as a sincere compliment to the author because one thing I have grown weary of is the rather shallow writings on Scripture that get published by publishers in today's world–worse the amount of people who buy and read them and then wonder why life makes no sense. They (publishers) seem to think that the average everyday Christian cannot handle digging deeply into the Scripture or understanding the Scripture as a complete, unified body of work designed to teach us something less about ourselves and something more about God. For example, "the division of the Psalter into five books thus draws our attention to the reason that the book of Psalms exists. It's to teach us how to praise God and how to pray to God" (3). It also, thus, neatly parallels with the Penteteuch too. But I suspect that Christians are not so much interested in depth, nor the prophets who sound those depths, in this strange apocalyptic driven wasteland of shallow Christianity we live in today. We are not so many Bereans. People want the big, the noise, the amazing and glittery Christianity. Goldingay's thoughts on the Psalms invite us to plod along each day, slowly, whatever may come, and live God's thoughts to us and offer our thoughts to Him.

A perfect example of this plodding is found in Goldingay's translations of the Psalms. I belong to a generation of Christians who have been raised on the New International Version of the Bible. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that except that the NIV translations of the books of the Bible are thin and, almost, too easy to read. The first thing the reader will notice about Goldingay's translations is that they are thick, heavy, and deep. They are complex and startling–I'm still debating how I feel about 'God Almighty' being translated 'YHWH Armies'–and sometimes downright frustrating, but, like Shakespeare, as a professor used to tell me, they are worth the effort.

I have a practice of reading through the Psalms monthly (5 Psalms per day) and I can usually get my reading done in about 15 minutes or so. This would not be the case with Goldingay's Psalms. They force the reader to slow down, to think, to sort of chew their way through the molasses like language he uses. This is a good thing. It means that I have to make space each day to read the Psalms (or any Scripture for that matter) and not merely do it as a matter of habit or add-on to each day. One must have strong chops to read these Psalms; one must have strong will to press on when the language gets thick, hits too close to home, or confounds us. Sometimes I simply read the Psalms (Goldingay's translations) aloud in order to better appreciate the language and the content and, frankly, in order to understand them. I'm not ashamed to admit that I often had to re-read his translations in order to understand them. Again, this is a good thing because it is good to be challenged and startled out of complaceny–which I suspect is a large problem when it comes to a people where there are so many thin translations available.

Another important aspect of this book is the personal anecdotes and the connections he made between life or movies or news and the Psalms–the way he made them as relevant to a today Christian as they were to a yesterday Israelite. I do not know how long it took Goldingay to write this book, but I can imagine him sitting down to morning breakfast each day, reading a Psalm, reading the daily paper, then heading off to the study to see how the two relate to one another. Or maybe he sits down at the end of each day and thinks about all that his life experienced throughout the day, read a Psalm or two, and then reflected on his life again to see how God has instructed him through this or that occasion.

This is exactly the way it has worked for me. Again, reading through the Psalms each day makes me think carefully about what I have experienced in that day and provides a better clarity to the life I have experienced. On the other hand, if I read them in the morning, it gives me opportunity for a perspective on the day that I may not otherwise have. Either way, we are invited to look on life with a God point of view: "The psalm makes that assertion by faith against the evidence of present experience" (48) he writes commenting on Psalm 85. I love that Goldingay keeps the focus squarely on the way YHWH speaks to us in and through the Psalms and invites us to new reflection on life or better perspective on living. Continually he draws us back into the text, the ancient song-book of Israel, and invites us to repent and return to YHWH: "We are in perpetual need of such reframing, one way or another, so that we stop thinking in a way that leaves out God's involvement with us and resume thinking in a way that puts God's involvement with us at the center" (11). It is, to be sure, a beautiful way of thinking about God. It makes God personal and our response is worship.

I judge a book based on whether I will read it again and this is a book I will reread (but this time much more slowly and deliberately). I will return to it precisely because of its depth and precisely because it forces me to slow down and savor the Psalms, to have courage to speak to God with a certain chutzpah (his word, p 14), and to love the community of believers from whence these Psalms sprung and were read (see Psalm 78 comments). Goldingay has given me an entirely new language to use when I pray (because his translations are deep, wordy, and thick). I appreciate this book and I believe that if someone wants depth and wants to savor and enjoy the Psalms as desperate cries of a broken people to a faithful God, then this book is a good place to start or to return.

5/5 stars

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