31.8.10

"Coffeehouse Theology" by Ed Cyzewski


Ed Cyzewski, Coffeehouse Theology: Reflecting on God in Everyday Life. NavPress, 2008. 233 pgs. 

Disclosure: This book was provided by TheOoze for the purpose of review.  @viralbloggers

Coffeehouse Theology may best be described as an introduction to, and argument for, doing theology. More specifically, for doing 'contextual theology.' In it Ed argues that we need to understand our culture in order to understand, teach, or practice theology.  We are ourselves culturally conditioned and, consequently, need to understand our culture in order to understand our own biases.  The same goes for living it or spreading it.  

In order to take this position Ed spends five chapters exploring our culture; how it has changed, how it affects us, and so on.  He then goes on to place the center of theology in God, and the central practices of theology as prayer and reflection.  Next come three chapters examining theology in light of the bible, church tradition, and the global church, before he concludes by commenting on our mutual love of God as the unifying factor for the diverse theologies encouraged and experienced within postmodernity. 

This book provides a clear and concise treatment of theology; what it is, why we do it, and how.  This is incredibly rare, making this book, in some senses, a gem.  Ed does many things right.  From his focus on God to his frank acknowledgement of our own limitations, from his desire for diversity and exploration to his insistence that we take seriously the heritage we stand upon, Ed consistently demonstrates a balanced viewpoint and encourages the same in the reader.  

On the other hand, this book places too much emphasis on the up-to-date nature of cultural engagement and the affect this has on theology.  Part of the beauty of theology is that through it we can not only learn to engage our culture, but step outside of it.  Not, obviously, to some kind of complete objectivity, but still as a way of seeing ourselves differently.  Ed gives his nod in this direction, but it seems to have not penetrated the message of the book. 

This book is very introductory.  I say that mostly as a compliment; we need readable and well written introductions to theology.  At times, however, it was too much, as Ed spent more time than necessary on several points as well as on repetition.  

Overall, a very good book.  A great place to start if your interested in theology but lacking in background, otherwise you may find it to be simple. 4 out of 5 stars, conditionally recommended. 

"Colors of God" by Peters, Phillips, and Steen


Randall Mark Peters, Dave Phillips, Quentin Steen. Colors of God: Conversations about Being the Church. Biblica Publishing, 2010. 232 pgs. 

Disclosure: This book was provided by TheOoze for the purpose of review.  @viralbloggers

Colors of God is a book by three self-described 'emergent church' pastors which explains a new way of doing church.  It might have been better titled Colors of Church.  The book is written in the style of a conversation, with paragraphs and sections divided by the first names of the authors, making a kind of combination of book with script.  In Part 1 the authors tell their own stories of how they came to be in this place with neXus, which is the church they have founded based on the principals espoused in this book. In Part 2 they go through their four colors: Blue - Gospel Faith. Green - Healthy Living. Red - Inclusive Community. Yellow - Cultural engagement.  

Theologically, they argue for several distinct positions. A moderate universalism, in the sense that we are all forgiven but some choose not to join God's party. An inclusive view of our vertical relationship with God, such that God is always delighted in us, though we can grieve the Holy Spirit we cannot disappoint God. Strong two covenant theology, in which the entire OT is basically God working to bring His people to their collective knees in despair so they will be ready to accept Jesus good news of unconditional acceptance posited only the necessary first step of accepting God's universal love and grace (does anyone else see the massive problems with a theology of this sort? What does this say about God? Why wouldn't he be spreading his universal love and grace from the beginning? and on it goes...). 

I could go on, but I will stop there.  This book was an odd mix for me.  The authors correctly diagnose many of the problems of mainstream evangelicalism, but the solutions they offer are as bad as the disease.  Stylistically, the book failed.  Reading this 'conversation' just felt awkward.  The only times it meshed was when each author took an entire section, otherwise it felt very disingenuous.  This feeling was, in fact, one which never left me throughout this book.  From the staged conversations to the staged Q&A to the descriptions of the authors and their stories. I always felt like more was left out than included.  As for the colors, they were meaningless; a gimmick, nothing more. 

Theologically, this book started on fairly acceptable ground, but quickly swam into incredibly murky waters.  As I have mentioned before, I strongly disagree with harsh two covenant theology on the basis that it makes such a mess of so much of the bible and of our view of God.  The exegesis given as an attempt to back up this theology is terrible, as was most of the exegesis in general.  This made me sad, as one of the authors graduated from the same school I did.  They make assertions like 'even if we are persecuted and recant our faith, we are still good with God'.  Too bad for all those martyrs throughout Christian history who should have just taken the easy way out (note the heavy sarcasm).  Too bad for these authors they seem to have missed Matthew 10:33, or at least 'deconstructed' it. 

Not only that, but the language and emphasis choices made in the name of 'inclusiveness' and 'cultural sensitivity' were terrible.  Health instead of holiness, avoiding 'sin', and replacing obedience with therapy? Like we don't have enough problems from therapeutic views on life (Please Note: I am not anti-therapy in the sense that many people need help from trained counselors.  However, I am against a therapeutic view of life in which happiness is the main goal).  

Overall, this book failed to argue its points well.  It failed to define its terms well.  It failed to exegete the bible well.  In other words, it failed.  I really wish it hadn't, but it did. This book started out with good questions, then it took a long walk off of a short pier. 1.5 out of 5 Stars. Not Recommended.  

30.8.10

"The Skin Map" by Stephen R. Lawhead



Stephen R. Lawhead, The Skin Map: A Bright Empires Novel. Thomas Nelson, 2010. 403pgs.

Disclosure: This book was provided by Thomas Nelson for review purposes.

The Skin Map begins the story of Kit Livingstone's odd travels.  His great-grandfather appears to him and tells him that all throughout Britian are 'ley-lines' which allow individuals to travel through both time and space.  Kit is then invited to join in the quest to find the skin map, a parchment made from the skin of a man who learned much about these ley-lines, mapped them, and tatooed that information onto his body.  Naturally, Kit and his great-grandfather are not the only ones looking for this map, so the race is on.

I have read Lawhead before and enjoyed his work.  This book was no different.  It was suspenseful and engaging, and with Lawhead's typical ability to write characters that are human and easy to relate to.  The idea behind this story is interesting, and I found Lawhead's descriptions of the various ages/places visited to be quite well done.  Lawhead also does very well in writing the confusion and displacement his characters experience in an easy-to-sympathize with manner.  Unfortunately, in this particular book, you should not be surprised if you yourself become somewhat confused or displaced.  His chapters jump erratically in terms of the character focus, place, and time with very few cues to inform the reader of where they are. 

Overall, I enjoyed the book. I will look forward to the next one in the series.  4 of 5 Stars, Conditionally Recommended (do you like historical fiction/fantasy?).

27.8.10

Topic Fail? Help?

So, my last post on getting help with questions for the upcoming theme week has 30 page views, and 1 response... Bad topic? Or unresponsive readers? 


First, I think I will change it to just interesting questions, such as the one D Piekklowski generously offered. So, the questions you suggest can be goofy, personal, abstract, whatever.  


Secondly, I am now asking again for question ideas :) 

26.8.10

HELP! Ideas for Upcoming Theme Week


I've been thinking about what to do for another theme week(s) and I came up with this idea.  I will do a theme on important questions. I realize that seems broad and vague. Partly this is purposeful; what I am thinking of are questions which are large and nearly impossible to answer but which reward thought and discussion.  Partly this is because I haven't come up with a better name yet, and that is because I don't have the list of questions yet.  That is where you come in. Please HELP!

Two questions that I definitely want to include, to give you an idea, are "What if you knew you were going to die tomorrow?" and "What if you knew you were going to live tomorrow?"

What I need from you are more ideas.  What questions would you ask? What questions would you want to discuss? 

Please comment and let me know your ideas about important questions of this sort.  The more the better.  I am not promising to do every question that gets put forward, but I am willing to do more than a week of this if there are enough good ideas.  

Thanks in advance for your help! :) 

25.8.10

Your Church, Your System

I don't know where I heard it first, but this quote still often bounces around in my head:

"Your system is perfectly tuned to produce exactly the results you are getting."

Inevitably, when this quote comes up, another quickly follows: 

Matthew 7:17-18 "Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit."

In other words, as you look around with ever ready critique on the tip of your tongue, remember that the thing you lament is a result of a system in which you are a part.  

What got me thinking about this? A third quote:

"If a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory.  If a revolution destroys a government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves... There's so much talk about the system.  And so little understanding."
- Robert Prisig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I think these are important facts to understand, especially in church.  It never takes a long look around to see things we want to change; the desire is there.  Not only that, but the desire is there at literally every level of the church structure.  From the pastors and elders on down to the youth. More than just the desire, there also seems to be a continual thrust of action which is supposed to bring about the desired changes.  Unfortunately, I think that most of the time we are tearing down one factory so we can build another, upgraded version with newer branding, in its place.  We never realize that the problem is the factory, not the particular brand or the old equipment inside. 

Trite example, programs and people: One group in our church is neglected, older, in new life situations, or ready for something new? Create a program just for them.  Not enough volunteers? Training and recruitment programs. Need more involvement/buy in? Involve people in the programming.  But what if the problem is not these surface level issues? What if the problem is that our focus on programs inevitably neglects people? What if the number of programs, and the inherent demands in the system, guarantee lack of buy in, volunteers, and care?  What if the solution is not to create more isolated groups, but less groups which are more integrated? Of course, we can't leave all programming behind; there is a place for such things.  But how do we change our thinking about the way we do church so that we can come up with a new system which results in proper focus? 

Lost in the Cosmos

I am, as usual, reading. Just now, I happen to be reading a hilariously insightful book entitled Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book by Walker Percy.  Heard of it/him? Neither had I.  The book is witty, well written, and, though 27 years old, highly relevant. I am not done yet, so this is not a review, but I wanted to share his introduction, just to give you a taste:

"Lost in the Cosmos: The last self help book
or
How you can survive in the Cosmos about which you know more and more while knowing less and lessa bout yourself, this despite 10,000 self help books, 100,000 psychotherapists, and 100 million fundamentalist Christians
or
Why it is that of all the billions and billions of strange objects in the Cosmos - novas, quasars, pulsars, black holes - you are beyond doubt the strangest
or
Why it is possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is 6,000 light-years away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you've been stuck with yourself all your life
or
How it is possible for the man who designed Voyager 19, which arrived at Titania, a satellite of Uranus, three-seconds off schedule and a hundred yards off course after a flight of six years, to be on fo the most screw-up creatures in California - or the Cosmos.
plus
A Twenty-Question Quiz which will not help you become rich or more assertive or more creative or make love better but which may - though it probably won't, considering how useless self-help books generally are - help you discover who you are not and even - an outside chance - who you are
plus
A preliminary short quiz which you can take standing in a bookstore and which will allow you to determine whether you need to buy this book and proceed to the Twenty Questions
plus
A short history of the Cosmo, including a semiotic theory of the Self which explains why it is that man is the only alien creature, as far as we know, in the entire Cosmos
plus
A space odyssey which gives an account of what can happen to an earthling astronaut if there is somebody out there and what can happen if there is no one out there." 


Now tell me that doesn't pique your curiosity? It did mine, hence I am reading the book.  

    

23.8.10

A Lament: Theology from Suffering

I just finished reading this amazing post over at "Faith and Theology" blog (which I didn't know about until today). Now, I feel the need to share my lament.  Lamenting is an art that seems to be lost, so let me say this before I begin: Take this in the spirit it is meant.

Lord, you know that I am a theologian and a pastor for some of the reasons described by Ben Myers. I wish I spent so much time learning about the Christian faith because I understood the worth of your gifts and way, or because I loved you that much, or because I was obediently answering your call.  These things have, and do, play their roles. But the deeper and initial reason, if I am honest, is that I have done this because the faith you call us to often makes very little sense to me.  Lord, why? Why do you not make the path clearer? 

I wish I could say that my questing through apologetics was for the purpose of bringing others to you.  Indeed, you have been gracious and used my time in just this way. But, the reality is that I have quested so because I have so many questions, and many still unanswered. Lord, why? Why doesn't your word answer all our questions?

My strongest desire, Lord, is to help others experience your presence.  Lord God, you are good, and have blessed me with glimpses of your presence, your call.  But Lord, you know that my desire for others to taste and feel that you are good is but a reflection of my desire for me, my thirst born of the long desert periods when I wander and wonder at your absence. Lord, why? Why does the promise of your presence require so much faith? 

"We are not theologians because we are particularly religious; we are theologians because in the face of this world we miss God."

I think of Mother Teresa, whose spiritual diaries were publicized after her death.  In them she talked about feeling God's absence.  I think of St. John of the Cross who wrote "The Dark Night of the Soul".  I think of the anonymous author who wrote "The Cloud of Unknowing." I think of so many others. And then, I turn to the modern evangelical church. And then, I turn to my own ministry.  I act, speak, serve, lead, and pretend that your presence is so easy to have.  Maybe, for some, it is easy.  Am I the only one who feels this way? Still, the most common problem I hear about is people not knowing your presence, desiring you more.  

You, Lord God, are awesome beyond our understanding.  From the highest heights to the deepest depths, you are there.  There is no place I can hide from your presence. And yet, your presence can hide anywhere.  

And yet, if I am more honest yet, I know that it is not you that stops me from entering your sanctuary, but I myself do this.  You fill me as much as I can stand.  If my desires were met, surely I would burn and disappear, a dim flicker in an endless night.  So, Lord, prepare me. Change me.  Mold me.  Bring me to the point where each day my eyes see more of you, even in the suffering and darkness of the world.  Bring me to the place where my heart is open to more of you, even in the pain and longings of my inner being.  Bring me to the point where I am ready for you to fill me and for that filling to be life itself.  I want to see your face Lord, but for now I know that I am not even ready to see your trailing glory.  

20.8.10

"The Radical Disciple" by John Stott


John Stott, The Radical Disciple: Some Neglected Aspects of Our Calling. IVP Books, 2010. 142 pgs. 


Introduction

There is nothing like thought provoking, insightful, clear, and concise writing to cleanse the mental palate after having been exposed to such unmentionable rubbish as was the subject of my last book review.  I have already mentioned that this book probably felt better merely because I read it immediately after reading Twilight.  I have no doubt that this is true, but I don't think this review is much affected by that.  

That said, I picked up this book a few months ago because I had heard it was to be John Stott's last book (this is confirmed by Stott in the Postscript, which was both sad and interesting).  I recently noticed it on my "To Be Read" shelf and decided it looked like just what I needed right now.  I was not disappointed. 


Summary

In The Radical Disciple John Stott lays out, and explores, eight core aspects of following Jesus which he believes are commonly neglected.  His thesis is that we are all called to radical discipleship but that we avoid answering this call by being selective in our obedience.  Instead of doing all that we are called to, we settle for what we are comfortable with. As a remedy Stott lays out these eight areas as essential pieces of discipleship which we need to pay attention to. 

His eight areas are as follows: Nonconformity, Christlikeness, Maturity, Creation Care, Simplicity, Balance, Dependence, and Death.  Even a cursory reading of that list ought to make most of us squirm in our seats. After going through these features of discipleship, Stott concludes with the call to obedience, as well as a moving postscript on, of all things, his hope that books will still have a place in our future. 

Review

The Radical Disciple is a powerful book.  It is filled with wise words well delivered.  Stott's eight selections are well chosen. Together they hit on some of the core needs of the church and the culture: Nonconformity in the face of consumerism, and celebrity, driven conformity; Christlikeness in the teeth of a world which tells us to 'be yourself' rather than imitate anyone; Maturity in the midst of a burgeoning population of "emerging adults/extended adolescents", as well as churches filled with spiritual infants; Creation care for a church that still fails to see the centrality of the earth's renewal to the Christian hope; Simplicity instead of greed and abundance; Balance and dependence over against burn out and independence; and Death in a place and time where we do our best to avoid this topic/reality at all costs.  

This is a book I will be reading again. I will read it again because I read it too quickly the first time, because I need more time and more exposure to begin to apply these things, and because Stott has written in such a way that his words are pointers to the life of Christ.  

My only criticisms are these: First, I wish he said more about all of these 8 aspects of discipleship. Secondly, his chapter on simplicity could have, and should have, gotten much more practical than it did.  While I appreciated having the text of the "Evangelical Commitment to Simple Lifestyle" (which is pretty much the entire chapter on Simplicity), that chapter was definitely lacking.  It points out the need for a broadly applied lifestyle of simplicity, but little else.  I suppose I will have to return to, and reread, Richard Foster on this subject (unless anyone can recommend something better).


Conclusion

Recommended, 4.5 of 5 stars.  Well written, theologically sound, spiritually uplifting. If you seek to be a disciple of Christ then this book will aid you in your journey.  You should know, as a final word, that you almost can't go wrong with a book by John Stott.  


18.8.10

John Stott's Last Book?

I don't know if it really will be his last book or not (I would be very happy to find out it will not be!) but I recently purchased, and am now reading, The Radical Disciple: Some Neglected Aspects of Our Calling by John Stott.  

After reading Twilight, this book tastes and feels ridiculously good.  I think it would have anyway.  So, my review is forthcoming (not done the book yet).  In the meantime, some quotes:

"Here then are perhaps five main ways in which we are to be Christlike: we are to be like Christ in his incarnation, in his service, in his love, in his endurance and in his mission."

"Suffering is a huge subject in itself, and there are many ways to understand it.  But one stands out, and that is that suffering is part of God's process of making us like Christ."

From William Temple (quoted by Stott) "It is no good giving me a play like Hamlet or King Lear, and telling me to write a play like that.  Shakespeare could do it; I can't. And it is no good showing me a life like the life of Jesus and telling me to live a life like that.  Jesus could do it; I can't.  But if the genius of Shakespeare could come and live in me, then I could write plays like his.  And if the Spirit of Jesus could come and live in me, then I could live a life like his." Stott goes on from there: "God's purpose is to make us like Christ, and God's way is to fill us with his Holy Spirit."

"Where then shall we find the authentic Jesus? The answer is that he is to be found in the Bible - the book that could be described as the Father's portrait of the Son painted by the Holy Spirit."

"Twilight" An Exercise in Discernment


Stephenie Meyer, Twilight. Little, Brown and Company: 2005. 498 pages.

Introduction

What follows is an extended review.  I read this book as an exercise and as research.  It was an exercise in understanding popular culture and in discernment.  It was research in that this book/movie is a feature of teen culture right now.   

As Christians seeking to be discerning in the face of today's various media, I think it is important for us to explore art, and interact with it, on multiple levels: Aesthetic (the content of my normal fiction book reviews), Moral, Ideological, and Theological.  Not all of these apply to all works of art, but we should bring them up when applicable. 


Book Summary

I think everyone probably knows what this book is about but, just in case, I will summarize. Twilight is the story of Edward, a vampire who is part of a unique family that resist the urge to feed on human blood, and Bella, an apparently normal teenage girl who moves to the town of Forks to live with her father, "falling in love."  The plot is driven by all the complications which such a relationship creates.  


Aesthetic Review

Twilight is a very easy read.  When Meyer is focusing on moving the plot forward she does have a way of writing that draws the reader on.  Some of her descriptions are evocative and, if nothing else, I did want to know what happened next.  Still, through the majority of the book I found myself wincing.  It is filled with bad dialog, shallow characters, poor foreshadowing, and unimaginative plot twists. At the beginning I thought that the overplayed teenage angst alone was almost enough to make me put the book down.  Then I got to the many pages of Edward and Bella spending time alone together. Blech. The book is just badly written. Really badly written. 

I do understand that this book is not exactly fit to my tastes nor am I among its target audience.  I imagine that people who like reading romantically driven novels would have found some of the dialog more enjoyable than I did, even if they may not call it good writing.  I also imagine that for a teenage girl Meyer's descriptions of Bella's internal thinking, as well as the high school intrigue with her friends, would be more fascinating.  I, however, found them to be poorly written pointless filler which serve no purpose in the story.  The book is 500 pages long but I could give you all the pertinent details in 1 or 2 pages tops... So, as a piece of fiction writing: Fail. 

1 star, Not Recommended. Yes, I know its popular; clearly many people enjoy this book (Why?!? Why do books like this become popular? What's wrong with you people?).  If you think you may be one of them, then don't let me hold you back.  If you decide to read this book, you will have already received your just punishment: you will never get that time back :) 


Moral Review

I don't have much to say here.  Many people seem to feel that the subject matter alone places this book into the category of, at best, morally questionable.  Yes, the book deals with vampires.  Yes, they are romanticized a great deal.  Yes, vampires are traditionally considered 'evil.'.  But let's keep in mind that they are completely a work of fiction and folk-tales.  Any given author is free to take these legends and provide a unique twist on them. Simply writing about them is not enough to classify a book as 'evil.'  

On all the other moral scales normally employed by Christians in judging such matters Twilight comes out pretty clean.  No swears, no sex, and little violence.  There is blossoming romance, and intimacy, between Edward and Bella, but certainly nothing which would push this book out of the teen and pre-teen category.  

Personally, I find this to be one of the most subjective and least fruitful areas of exploration in engaging popular culture.  Non-Christian works are not going to conform to Christian morals.  As a book by a Mormon, a religious group which shares many moral standards with Evangelicalism, this book fares better than most. But, is that the most important thing to ask?  No.  

(Aside: Of course, there is a time and place for such moral judgments.  Parents rightly hold their children back from 18A movies, and so on.  However, we all have to grow up and mature in our ability to make our own wise decisions about what we take in.  On that journey, we need to know ourselves well enough to know how such things affect us.  This is part of the subjective aspect of discernment.  Thus, I am very careful about movies and books which contain graphic sex; I know my weaknesses.) 


Ideological/Theological Review

Here is where things get interesting.  Here is where I think we ask the most important questions, such as: what was the message of this book? What was it's view of man/god/relationships/etc.? 

In the case of Twilight there are two clear ideological/theological thrusts (and in this case, the two belong closely together, though this is not always the case).  Yes, the book touches on many more issues.  However, the teenage depression symptoms, the intrigue amongst friends, the family relationships, and so on, barely form part of the backdrop for the main issues and story.  They also act as good marketing in that they likely pull in many readers who enjoy such things.  However, there is not enough in those things, as presented in Twilight, to talk about.  Instead, we have two topics. 

Firstly, Twilight has a clear overt topic: Dealing with temptation and forbidden fruit.  This is the driving tension of the entire novel.  Before you even open the book you are presented with outstretched hands offering an apple; clear Genesis imagery.  Then, on the first page, Meyer has included Genesis 2:17 "But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die."

From then on this point is belabored to the point of exhaustion in the dialog and interactions of Edward and Bella.  Meyer insightfully latches onto the propensity of human beings to long for the very thing which they should not have.  Specifically, the forbidden fruit is the romance of Edward and Bella.  For Edward it is a massive temptation and risk.  What if he drinks her blood and kills her? For Bella it is a dangerous situation to be in, best avoided.  What if he drinks her blood and kills her? But, in the face of their feelings, both of them push onwards.  

A main question of this novel, then, is how do we deal with temptation and forbidden fruit? This is actually a very good question to ask.  The answer offered, however, is tragically inadequate.  Twilight contains a thoroughly modern perspective on both sin and temptation.  The real problem, according to Twilight, is not the forbidden thing itself, nor giving in to temptation.  Both of these are desirable.  The real problem is finding a way to make these things work; to sin, but make it OK.  Thus, the forbidden-ness of the fruit is reasoned away.  It is forbidden because it is dangerous, for both parties.  But, if that danger can be kept at bay, then there is no problem.  The answer then, to dealing with temptation, is to find a way to neutralize the negative aspects of the sources of our temptation.  In this case, the answer is will-power. Let me note that though I completely disagree with this answer, I do think that it can provide opportunities for discussing this theme.  

Unfortunately, the above picture is incomplete.  What I have just laid out is one part of the overt message of this book.  However, as it stands alone it is incoherent.  This is because in analyzing that aspect of Twilight in seclusion I have actually left out the much more central theme/message of this book: Romance rules all. The real motivating factor behind chasing the forbidden fruit is emotion and passion, and the reason it is viewed as acceptable (within the world of the novel) is because romance rules all.  

I realize that this book is supposed to be a 'love story'.  And I realize that culturally we have a close association between 'love' and 'romance.'  I will, however, be using those terms to denote two entirely different things (with the exception of the phrase 'falling in love').  The reason for this is because our cultures understanding of romance is not love at all.  

In the midst of everything else, the center of this book is the romantic relationship between Edward and Bella.  The "love" pictured in this relationship is not love.  Instead it is an emotionally driven contagion which comes upon people with undeniable force and which we have no choice but to give in to.  For Edward, his attraction to Bella is described in visceral terms: She is his type, she smells enticing, she looks perfect, there is mystery in that he cannot read her thoughts, and there is the illogical nature of her actions and responses.  As for Bella, let me quote: "my decision was made, made before I 'd ever consciously chosen...." That basically sums it up. She "loves him" (read: desires to be romantically involved with him) for no reason other than that she feels this way. Oh, there is also the bit about him being incredibly beautiful, powerful, a good-bad boy, and so on.  

(Aside: Maybe its just me, but when summed up don't we have the worst of cliches hidden behind a masquerade of vampires and low self-esteem? Is this perhaps the reason for the popularity of the book? It offers the picture of the perfect boyfriend: strong, handsome, invincible, and yet willing to go against his very nature, to overcome his own dark side, for the sake of a girl.  Not only that, but this girl is a prototypical 'normal yet not-normal' girl.  She is what every girl truly knows herself to be: utterly flawed and utterly unique, beautiful and broken.  Bella, in particular, is clumsy, sad and melancholic, has no really strong talents and yet she is clearly desirable, unique, intelligent, and so on.  Thus, Meyer is able to appeal to teenage girls both on the level of their self-perception and on the level of their fantasies... Just some thoughts)

The picture of intimate relationships offered is that of uncontrollable emotional urges.  If taken seriously, this approach to relationships leads to impossible expectations and inevitable brokenness.  It is "falling in love" taken to the extreme.  What begins with "Oops, I tripped, and I landed in love" will almost inevitably end in "oops, I tripped, and fell out of love" or "and fell in love with someone else." The Christian view of love, and intimate relationships, is completely different than the western romantic view.  Love is primarily an action, a decision, a sacrifice and a commitment rather than an emotion.  It is sacred and precious, fragile and invincible, and not to be taken lightly.  We all know that love is the greatest thing in the world, however what Twilight does is to rely on this innate knowledge while totally distorting the meaning of 'love'.  Love is so much more than emotions. The purpose of intimate cross-gender relationships is not to gratify our desires, or because we have been driven, blind with passion, into them.  Rather, their purpose is to lead to marriage, a committed relationship in which we seek the best of the other first and in which we primarily seek the others holiness, not happiness. Read 1 Cor. 13, you will see.  

The picture of humanity offered here is that of beings at the mercy of themselves in a very uniquely modern way.  Edward has the will-power to overcome his very nature, but not to overcome his feelings.  Not only that, but this is pictured as the RIGHT course of action; we ought to submit to our emotions but not to our natures.  The Christian message is such that apart from Christ we cannot ever hope to overcome our sin-nature.  Further, we ought to be capable of growing in wisdom and character, especially with the help of the Holy Spirit, to the point that we control our emotions and not vice-versa.  What we are called to submit to is the will and vision of God, not our emotions.  The right course of action is to seek God, the peace of Christ, and His joy, even in the midst of persecution.  


Conclusion

This is a terrible book. 

Aesthetically it is painful.  

Ideologically this book is on par with western culture.  The message: Sin is relative and we can overcome it.  Our natures our malleable, and we can change them.  Our emotions are our masters, and we can serve them.  

Theologically, this book promotes idol worship: the worship of romance as the ultimate goal and motivator of life and of emotions as the driving forces of our decisions. 

It is in these last points that the true danger of this books lies.  The problem is not that it is about vampires, nor that it is written by a Mormon.  The problem is that it contains an entirely skewed view of intimacy, relationships, human nature, and the goals of life. 

Sadly, I suspect I would reach similar conclusions about most teen romance novels. 

17.8.10

Quotes of the Day

Shakespeare divided great men into three classes: those born great, those who achieved greatness, those who had greatness thrust upon them. It never occurred to him to mention those who hired public relations experts and press secretaries to make themselves look great...The celebrity is a person who is known for his well-knownness.
- Daniel Boorstin

The coke sign does not simply mean a refreshing drink; it means America got there first.
- Humphrey McQueen 

We are no longer eating food or drinking drinks; we practice ‘body management’ and are buying convenience, escape, energy.
- Marc Gobe,
Emotional Branding


Commercial television is ruthlessly secular.  Its emphasis on the immediate, the here-and-now, the accumulation of goods, and the denial that there is any higher experience than consuming and watching TV… ultimately, conventional religion is heretical to television’s very notion of itself.
- Stephen Stark

Driscoll the Vampire Slayer

Yes, I am reading Twilight.  Yes, I did watch this clip by Mark Driscoll.  I am not sure which one of those two facts is more embarrassing, but I will be talking about both of them.

I should start out by telling you that I am generally not a fan of Mark Driscoll (in case you hadn't picked up on that yet).  The above clip did nothing to change my opinion. To summarize, in this clip Driscoll rants for 10 minutes or so about how Twilight, among other books, is evil.  

He does, however, start out well.  For a moment I had hope.  He begins by saying "I do want you to be discerning when it comes to culture because I believe one of the ways that Satan works in our day, is he will take things out of the category of religion and spirituality, put them into the category of entertainment, and we completely fail to be discerning. We just think, "Oh, that's not demonic. That's a movie." A movie is a sermon with pictures."

So far so good.  We absolutely need to be discerning about entertainment, and we do often fail in this regard. Further, I think that is a great quote about movies; movies often are sermons with pictures.  Unfortunately, through the rest of this clip, Driscoll fails to actually lead people in discernment or teach them how to be discerning.  We would do well to remember a second point: There is an equally great need to be discerning while we listen to sermons.  A pastor standing before you is trying to convince you of something in an even more focused way than most movies. 


Sermon Discernment Point #1: Check The Facts!

Far to often, when we are listening to sermons, we readily accept what a preacher says about statistics, or lists, or top 10's, etc. without any kind of thought or checking.  We have all heard the stat thrown about how Christian marriages end in divorce just as often as Non-Christians.  I myself have tossed that juicy little tidbit around.  It's not true. Or how about something along these lines: "70% of high-school Christians lose their faith in university"? Also not true. 

What about Driscoll?  Long story short, those books he lists as being billed by Amazon as the "best selling big new books for pre-teen and teenage girls" are no such thing. Amazon keeps such lists publicly available, you can look them up yourself. One example: "Hell's Heroes" ranks in at #16570 on Amazon bestseller lists.

So, either Driscoll is exaggerating, or else the list of books he was emailed was of an entirely different sort than he mentioned.  I lean towards the second. Amazon regularly emails recommendations to people who shop there. The list of books Driscoll received were likely recommendations from Amazon based on browsing and buying habits of people on his computer. 

He also adds that these books are all part of a new genre featuring the occult, undead, and so on, which is coming out of the Twilight series.  Now, Driscoll is older than I am, so maybe he just hasn't been paying much attention, but this is anything but a new genre.  I remember, while I was growing up, that people were reading Goosebumps and watching Buffy.  This genre, as well as adolescent fascinations with such things, are anything but new.  I think I remember people making similar claims about Harry Potter and the Occult? 

Clearly, books about vampires, magic, spells, and the like actually are popular right now.  It is a real issue that needs to be addressed with discernment.  But, the impression Driscoll gives is that these are the books everyone is reading and that this is a massive new trend, a demonic attack, and that we must respond. 


Sermon Discernment Point #2: Check the Tone

Something else to pay attention to is how the message is delivered.  This is where I realized I had made a big mistake on my blog, and I talked about it in my last post.  Our tone communicates as much, or more, than our words.  

What is the tone of Driscoll's message? Mocking and berating.  Most of his criticisms amount to bad jokes.  Like "Do you know what a spell is? Your under a spell if you don't know what a spell is..." or "I'll just say that as a general rule, any angel named 'moron'... you should probably not go with that." 

There is simply no instruction here.  I know that his particular style is popular; people like the fact that Driscoll doesn't pull any punches.  Fair enough. But there is a great distance between being antagonistic for its own sake and being harsh because the situation requires it. 


Sermon Discernment Point #3: Check the Message

Sub-point A: What are the arguments? What is the message?

This is a fairly obvious question to ask.  I mean, this is the entire point of the sermon, right?  

If we remove the rhetoric, Driscoll's is making three arguments for why Twilight is bad: 

1. It is by a non-Christian author. 
2. It is about 'demonic' or 'occult' subject matter. 
3. It is popular. 

In my mind laying the arguments out like this already displays the numerous problems with Driscoll's arguments.  But, let me ask say a few words anyway. 

Why should we not read the work of non-Christians? How far should we apply this policy? If we shouldn't read such things, how many other non-Christian products ought we to avoid? 

Personally, I think we can learn a great deal from non-Christian art.  We just need to do so with discernment. But it is not discerning to argue that because a work is non-christian it is bad. 

On to subject matter.  In one of my favorite series, The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn leads an army of undead spirits to victory in a great battle at the port of Pelargir.  In this same series, Gandolf the Gray dies fighting a demon, and is resurrected as Gandalf the White. Not only that, he casts spells all over the place...  So, should we avoid this series as well? 

Finally, the third arguments is ridiculous.  I know, we have to chose our battles, and it make strategic sense to focus on those items which are making a splash, but the popularity of a thing is not an indication of its 'evil-ness.' 


Sub-point B: What can I walk away with? Or, Can I apply these principles/methods/points in my own life? 

Here is another obvious question.  What am I meant to do with this message?  

In Driscoll's case it seems clear to me that what we ought to walk away with is the ability to face entertainment with a stronger ability to discern. However, Driscoll's message accomplishes no such thing.  What he asks his listeners to do is to agree with him and only watch/read/listen to those things of which he approves. He draws a line in the sand, with the three arguments I listed above, and names them as bad. Is everything which meets those criteria bad?  I don't think so.  


Conclusion: True Discernment

The real problem for someone like Driscoll is that true discernment is both complicated and dangerous.  It cannot be taught in 10 minutes in the middle of a sermon.  It requires time, character, practice, outside guidance as we grow in it, and wisdom.  It involves the complex combination of numerous elements some of which are personally, or culturally, subjective.  You have to know yourself and your world, have a growing knowledge of God's character and desires, have some understanding of God's objective laws and the way of Jesus Christ, and be able to think within a Christian worldview.  Developing true discernment is dangerous in that it may lead others to disagree with you or make mistakes.  All parents go through some version of this as their children grow up and do exactly these things: disagree with us, and make their own mistakes. 

It is no surprise that hard and fast lines and rules are appealing.  After all, we all want to minimize danger and be safe.  The problem is that being over-protective always brings with it the risk of stunting growth in maturity and decision making ability.  This is true when we talk about children or Christians.  Naturally, there is a time in the life of a child when the right thing to do is just tell them, flat out, "That is wrong" or "That is bad."  Knowing when to start helping our children move towards their own decision making is, in itself, a journey which demands careful discernment.  And in this journey, Driscoll offers no help at all. 


P.S.

You may wonder, after all that, what I think of Twilight. I am nearly finished the book and plan on posting a review of it tomorrow.  You can find out then :) 

Deserving Rebuke

Not that I think anyone will have noticed, but I deleted the last post I put up about laughing at poor English on international signs. 

First of all, my own language abilities, particularly grammar, are not my strong point. You may or may not notice, but my posts tend to be riddled with errors.  The truth is I do not spend nearly enough time editing but, even if I did, I doubt I would catch all my mistakes. Thus, that post was a bit like a man with a plank in his own eye trying to take the speck out of someone else's eye.  

Secondly, and more importantly, it's not exactly uplifting to put a post on here which is entirely based on mockery.  I know, it's all in good fun, or so we may think, but what good is accomplished by it?   

That said, I did not come to these realizations through my own reflections but through the gentle, and private, rebuke of a friend.  For that I am thankful. I both deserved it and needed it.  So, let me say publicly, I apologize.  

I have done, and will continue to do, stupid things on this blog and elsewhere in my life.  Please call me on them.  I need all the help I can get!

11.8.10

The Most Popular Religion in the North America?

What do you think is the most popular religion in the North America?




Have a choice? 

If you guessed Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, Buddhism, Hinduism, or any other recognized world religion, then your wrong.  That is, your wrong according to Christopher Smith, as he claims in this article (which is the source of all quotations in this post). He argues that the de facto dominant religion is one with no structure or organization, no official name, and with no official adherents: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  

Its tenets are as follows: 
"1. A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life. 
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the bible and most world religions. 
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about yourself. 
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when he is needed to resolve a problem. 
5. Good people go to heaven when they die."

I have to say that I find Smith's insights to be both frightening and accurate...

So, how much does your lived faith resemble this picture? Because this is not Christianity.  This is western cultural religion at its best, the product of 19th century philosophy, romantic-era liberal values, advertising, and consumerism. 



10.8.10

"Sticky Teams" by Larry Osborne





Larry Osborne, Sticky Teams. Zondervan, 2010. 221 pgs. 

Another blog tour is here, thanks to the good people over at http://engagingchurchblog.com/ for allowing me to be a part of this. 

Sticky Teams is a book on pastoral leadership which covers the three key relationship areas all pastors must deal with: staff, elders, and congregation.  Osborne begins by making a strong case for the importance of unity, and then moves through three sections: Removing roadblocks, getting everyone on the same page, and keeping everyone on the same page.  His focus is not on passing on his particular model for doing church, instead he puts his energy into laying out the principles behind his models. 

This book was excellent.  Osborne's insights are practical, focused, clear, and important.  He offers good, usable, advice for pastors in any position, however the book is clearly focused on the senior pastor's position.  I found his sections on guarding the gate (having very clear expectations of, and guidelines for, your leaders so that you catch problems before it is too late), ministry plumb-lines (the basic principles upon which you operate), and preempting conflict (there were two chapters on this, the main point in each was the same: Once a conflict arises, it is too late to set up your response, everyone is already in a position that they will defend.  Instead, before the conflict comes, make sure you are as clear as you can be). 

Conclusion: 4.5 of 5 stars.  Conditionally recommended (the condition being that you are in leadership in a church).  A very good book.  

8.8.10

"Jungle Warfare" by Christopher A. Cunningham


Christopher A. Cunningham, Jungle Warfare: A Basic Field Manual for Christians in Sales. Thomas Nelson, 2010. 207 pgs. 

Jungle Warfare is a 22 day devotional specifically designed for Christians in sales.  Each day Cunningham quotes his Grandfather's "Manual on Jungle Warfare ", some bible verses, and a reflection that connects these things together with being a Christian in sales.  He also adds a prayer and some questions with space for brief journal reflections.  Frequently throughout the 22 days, Cunningham challenges the reader to make commitments and decisions both practical and spiritual.  Finally, at the end of the book, there is a "Jungle Warfare Field Support" section which is Cunningham's answers to several common questions.  

I was greatly impressed by this book.  I have to admit that the title and description made me wary.  A book designed specifically for Christians in sales? With jungle warfare? However, Cunningham skillfully combines pastoral and business insight in order to offer spiritual direction into the lives of Christians in sales, as well as, I think, in business in general.  Cunningham clearly has his priorities straight as he urges salesmen to focus on God in the face of the temptation to focus only on numbers.  He urges the reader to put God first, practice sabbath, rest in God frequently throughout the day, pray, love your enemies (especially your business competitors) and pray for them, and so on.  I am planning on lending this book to, or buying this book for, business people I know.  I am not even in business or sales, and I found this book challenging and applicable, not to mention well written and biblically sound. 

Conclusion: Conditionally recommended, in that it is best for those in business (for this in business: Highly recommended).  4 of 5 stars.  

Disclosure: This book was provided by Thomas Nelson for review. 

2.8.10

Future Trends in Evangelicalism?

Patheos is holding a symposium over the next two weeks on the future of evangelicalism. They have some good authors lined up to share articles, including Mark Noll, Rodney Stark, Richard Foster, and many others.  I am excited.  So, don't be surprised if I blog about some of this stuff; which I am doing right now. 

One of the articles is entitled "Future Trends in Evangelicalism" and is by Ed Stetzer. In it, he argues that there are 4 main issues that need to be discussed/addressed (which I am summarizing in brackets in a way that I think draws them together):
1. Learning to navigate a "post-seeker" context. (know our world)
2. Regain confidence in the gospel (know what we believe)
3. Address the definition of evangelicalism (know who we are)
4. Address our shallow definitions of discipleship (know how to live)

In other words, we have to figure out or firm up the very basics of this movement we call 'evangelicalism.'  Sadly, I don't think he is wrong.  Our declining numbers tell the story well enough for point one.  The conflicts among churches and large debates about the very basic terminology of our faith which have gone on in recent years speaks clearly to point 2 (i.e. Wright vs. Piper on "Justification" or The Emerging Church movement with McLaren and Guests, and so on).  For point 3, evangelical writers have long bemoaned any kind of common definition with which to label this elusive group.  For point 4... well, Stetzer shares the stats himself: 16% of evangelicals read their bible every day.  3 out of 20 people... ouch.  

Here's my question though, what can we do about it?  I am thinking especially of the last point.  I have never been in an evangelical church that did not urge its members to read scripture daily, and yet we see the dismal results of the "exhort from the pulpit" strategy.  How can we convince non-Christians that the bible is the word  of Life when we, obviously, are not convinced ourselves? 

I think I will share ideas on how to answer some of this later... :) 

"Sacrd Unions, Sacred Passions" by Dan Brennan


Dan Brennan, Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Engaging the Mystery of Friendship Between Men and Women. Faith Dance Publishing, 2010. 183 pgs. 

Dan Brennan's book, supposedly, makes one main argument: Men and Women can share in deep, passionate, intimate friendships without sex.  Or, contra Harry ("When Harry met Sally"), men and women can be 'just friends'. Along the way, Brennan makes some excellent points about friendship and intimacy, in general as well as in how they have been warped and distorted by our culture.  Thus, he rightly points out that (especially among conservative Christians, but also in the culture at large) focused all of our intimacy and friendship into romantic cross-gender relationships (whether in marriage or out) and that this focus is damaging both our ability to make non-romantic friendships as well as our ability to flourish in romantic relationships. 

Here's the thing: I would much rather discuss Brennan's side points than his main points.  I feel this way for a couple of reasons.  Intellectually, spiritually, and theologically I think Brennan is right on. But I feel like he missed his mark on the focus when we speak culturally, emotionally, or in terms of effecting positive change in our church. Let me explain.  

What our culture needs right now is a broader and more fleshed out idea of intimacy that does not necessarily involve genitalia.  This is a side point in the book.  What our culture needs right now is to be critiqued for the over-sexualization of intimacy.  This is a side point in the book.  I am glad Brennan includes these side points, they are almost what make the book worth reading.  Still, the main point is that men and women can be just friends, but in our culture even the idea of friendship is slipping away... 

Emotionally, Brennan holds out some tantalizing visons, but fails to engage at all in how individuals, who are damaged by our cultures distorted views of intimacy, can works towards these visions.   

Finally, in terms of the church, Brennan has a lot to say about the problems we have caused.  However, he completely ignores principals of change.  As an aside, I find most books do.  The cynical side of me wants to say that this is because controversy sells. I don't doubt many authors have much purer motives.  However, read any book on helping people change and you will find things like "move slowly" and "speak gently." I am not saying Brennan should not say what he said; but where is the humility and grace?  Where is the principle of the stronger brother submitting to the weaker, which we find so prevalent in the apostle Paul? 

In the end, this is an incredibly well researched book, a fairly well written book, and, perhaps, a poorly aimed book.  3.5 out of 5 stars, conditionally recommended.