A Gracious Reading of Rob Bell

The Journey So Far

The controversy rages on over Rob Bell's upcoming new book. No matter what happens now, this controversy has effectively guaranteed that 'everyone who is anyone' will need to read this book. Either to find out what is wrong and bash it, or because someone we generally disagree with also disagrees with the book so it has to be good stuff! Then, because 'everyone' is reading it, people like me will 'have to' read it to. After all, I am a pastor, and if many of my people are reading and being influenced by a book, don't I need to know what is going on as well? 

Or so the reasoning will go... and perhaps I will read it, who knows. In the meantime, none of this will stop me from continuing to join this fray which I probably ought to have stayed out of in the first place. Onwards, Christian... :)

The Latest Salvo

The latest salvo has been fired by DeYoung claiming that not only do we not need to talk with Bell but, more importantly, it is the three minute teaser video which is being critiqued, not the book (since the video is out and the book isn't). Further, the video is already so heretical as to put Bell way beyond the pale.  The video has been uploaded to youtube numerous times.  Try this one for your tantalizing taste of forbidden fruit.  

DeYoung's major point seems to be that Bell is already teaching heresy. Bell, in fact, only asks questions, but DeYoung argues that questions teach. I agree. Questions get us to think, they are said with tone and worded in such a way as to have implications, and they are often leading (even when we don't realize it). However, what questions do not do is answer themselves, especially not with any sort of clarity. Nor do questions delineate a firm position on any given issue, though they may imply certain sympathies, doubts, or leanings in varying degrees of strength. That said, DeYoung and the rest of the critical crowd seem to think that no 'Christian' or 'Orthodox' reading of Rob Bell's video is possible. 

My Thesis - Proviso's Attached

I will now prove them wrong by offering such a reading. But first, some clarifications. Rob Bell's first question, which I will use as foil for this list of provisos, involves Ghandi. If you watched the video already, you know this. At an art show in Bell's church someone put up a moving exhibit about Ghandi (or something like that) but then someone put up a note: "Reality check; he is in hell."  So Bell asks: "Ghandi's in hell? He is? And someone knows this for sure? and felt the need to let the rest of us know?" 

1. I am not going to posit the universalist answers to Bell's questions. This is what DeYoung and others are already assuming, so it would be pointless. (e.g. Of course Ghandi is not in hell, no one is). 
2. I am not going to posit the moralist answers to Bell's questions. This too seems to be what some are assuming, and would also be pointless. (e.g. Of course Ghandi is not in hell, he was a good man). 
3. I am not positing answers to Bell's questions which are acceptable to all Christian theologians; no such answers exist. 
4. More to the point, I am not positing strictly reformed, calvinist, answers to these questions.
5. I am only positing answers that fit within the common evangelical historical idea of orthodoxy. (e.g. We don't know if Ghandi is in hell, since we are not God and cannot know his ultimate judgments. Jesus implies many times that some people be surprised by God's judgment. And furthermore, there is no need to push our opinions on this subject since none of us know). 
6. I am not positing my answers to these questions. I am playing devil's advocate and imagining, to the best of my theological ability, how these questions could be answered, or the discussion played out, in an orthodox way manner. 
7. I am not answering in the way Rob Bell will. At least, I don't know if I am or not.  

Source Material
So, here is a transcript of the rest of Bell's talk:

"Will only a few select people make it to heaven? And will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell? And if that’s the case, how do you become one of the few? Is it what you believe or what you say or what you do or who you know or something that happens in your heart? Or do you need to be initiated or take a class or converted or being born again? How does one become one of these few?
Then there is the question behind the questions. The real question [is], “What is God like?”, because millions and millions of people were taught that the primary message, the center of the gospel of Jesus, is that God is going to send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus. And so what gets subtly sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But would kind of God is that, that we would need to be rescued from this God? How could that God ever be good? How could that God ever be trusted? And how could that ever be good news?
This is why lots of people want nothing to do with the Christian faith. They see it as an endless list of absurdities and inconsistencies and they say, why would I ever want to be a part of that? See what we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about who God is and what God is like. What you discover in the Bible is so surprising, unexpected, beautiful, that whatever we have been told and been taught, the good news is actually better than that, better than we could ever imagine.
The good news is that love wins."

A Gracious Reading
Obviously I cannot take these literally one question at a time, as some questions only make sense as a cluster. Instead I will take them in the way I see them fitting together. 
1. "Will only a few select people make it to heaven? And will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell?"

- The problem here is that Christians act as if the answer to both of these is a resounding YES. That only a select few make it, as if the rest of us wanted to but weren't chosen. That billions of people burn forever, as if cast there by a vengeful God who has no use for them.  This picture is inaccurate.
- As a side note, I often use this technique in teaching. I ask questions which have a common answer in an uncommon way in order to get students thinking. Not because I fall into the extreme opposite camp, but because it is a good way to shake things up.

2.And if that’s the case, how do you become one of the few? Is it what you believe or what you say or what you do or who you know or something that happens in your heart? Or do you need to be initiated or take a class or converted or being born again? How does one become one of these few?

- This is where we really begin to have problems. It is hard to know when enough is enough, when you have crossed that line into acceptance. Jesus tells us to believe, to repent, to ask for forgiveness. Jesus also tells us that on that day there will be many who say 'Lord, Lord' but will get only the reply 'Away from me, I never knew you.' Have we been looking at it the wrong way? Asking how to get in, when what we really need to know is what is keeping us out? What if God wants us all to be part of the select few, and died to make it happen, but we still try to earn our way in? What if grace is more radical than we know? Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one can come to the father except through Him. And he is open to all. 

“What is God like?”, because millions and millions of people were taught that the primary message, the center of the gospel of Jesus, is that God is going to send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus. And so what gets subtly sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But would kind of God is that, that we would need to be rescued from this God? How could that God ever be good? How could that God ever be trusted? And how could that ever be good news?

- Clearly God is not like that. God is not who we need to be rescued from, He is our rescuer. He is good, He can be trusted, and the gospel is good news, because what Jesus has done is to rescue us from sin and death. What Jesus has done is paid the price for our sin, not against the Father's will, but directly in line with it. Of course our Sin put us into trouble, and of course God needed to purify us before we could return, but it is God Himself who has made these things possible! God who died so we could be cleansed in his Blood! God, our loving Father, who would not accept His children back in their broken condition, but who instead healed us by His own stripes and wounds. 

What you discover in the Bible is so surprising, unexpected, beautiful, that whatever we have been told and been taught, the good news is actually better than that, better than we could ever imagine.The good news is that love wins.

- Yes indeed. What you discover in the bible is a God of grace, love, and mercy. A God of compassion. A Father who has created us and loved us all along. A Father who was not content to leave us slaves, bound for destruction, wallowing in our own filth, and caught in a pit of despair. Instead, what we discover in the bible is the amazing story of Love Himself coming down for us. Becoming man for us, living and dying for us. Paying the price for our transgressions, offering His own life in our place. Rising from the dead in power, defeating all of our enemies, and making a way for us to return home. What you find in the bible is that Love has already won, and you can join in that victory.
- What you discover is that, in the words of C.S. Lewis, the door to hell is locked from the inside.
- Let Love Win

I know that this is not a reading all would agree with, but it certainly seems to me to be evangelically orthodox. What do you think?  

Heaven and Hell

Edit: I haven't written much about heaven and hell myself; this post is merely pictures and questions. If and when I do so, I will link to it. In the meantime, you might check out these two good books on the subjects:

Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N.T. Wright

The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis

Edit 2: And here is my first, brief, thoughts on heaven: "Daddy, be a monster..."

Apparently the news of Rob Bell's upcoming book is causing even more of a stir than I realized.  Scott McKnight has some comments about it over at CT and lots of others are blogging and commenting. 

I think that part of what is going on here is simply that Bell has hit upon an important and controversial topic which people are interested in talking about: Heaven and Hell. You can certainly find some cool pictures of heaven and hell if you google that phrase :)

Heaven Or Hell Request

I liked those two. 

So, just to throw this out there, do you wonder about heaven and hell? What kind of questions do you ask? What do you think about them? What good books would you recommend on them? 

Evangelical Controversialists

I consider myself an evangelical. I am a pastor in the Christian and Missionary Alliance, so this ought to come as no surprise.  However, there are several things about evangelical culture which bother me. One of them, which has flared up recently, is controversialism. I don't even know if that is a word.  

It seems that some members of the evangelical community just... well, either they are out looking to stir up controversy and get a reaction or they are firmly in the 'leap before you look' camp of reacting strongly to vague news without any real basis. I think it is both. 

Why has this come up? Two recent events are the source of this week's vexation. 

First of all was this post, forwarded to me by an equally irate friend, who had it forwarded to him as a tweet by Piper claiming that this article was more reliable than C.S. Lewis.  The author attempts to take C.S. Lewis to task for his misty atonement theory teachings in "Mere Christianity." In my opinion the author of this article has not only misunderstood Lewis' argument but, more importantly, he has misunderstood the nature of evangelicalism and Christianity.  I actually completely agree with Lewis, that the important thing about the cross is to believe that Jesus died for my sins (and everyone else's) and that theories of how exactly this works out are secondary (though admittedly very interesting and fruitful theological grounds of inquiry). That Lewis is not quite as high up on the penal substitutionary horse (or not on it at all) as the author of said post would like him to be is of no account.   

Propaganda: 1.  Substance: 0

Secondly, and more recently, is the reaction to Rob Bell's upcoming book. This book has not been released yet, no one has been able to quote from it (though some are claiming to have read pieces of it), and yet some are already saying goodbye to Rob Bell (Piper again, tweeting away his reactionary controversialist responses to everything under the sun). Meanwhile, another article on the gospel coalition website has come out asking what Rob Bell is thinking (though it has now been severely edited due to the response it is generating). I am not saying Bell is right; I certainly don't agree with him all the time. But could we at least wait until someone has read the book? 

Propaganda: 2. Substance 0. 

I list these as victories for propaganda over substance because that is exactly what they are.  Neither of these collections of articles/responses/tweets actually explores the issues involved, nor do they interact with the authors of said heretical (or nearly heretical) positions. Instead, they are blanket assertions of a preformed position which is, apparently, feeling the slightest bit threatened by these others and has, accordingly, lashed out.  

This bothers me. It bothers me because we seem to have made so little progress since Mark Knoll's scathing diagnosis in "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind." It bothers me because there is an extreme lack of grace and patience evidenced in these proceedings. It bothers me because these trends continue to fold to the populist method rather than striving after the difficult path of wisdom. It bothers me because I see these trends lived out in church congregations and individual Christians who are much quicker to judge and react than the evidence warrants, who would rather protect their supposed orthodoxy (while ignoring, for as long as possible, that we are all inevitably heretics and mistaken in many areas of our thoughts and beliefs) than their grace and love, and who would likely find themselves standing against the woman caught in adultery, stone in hand, as Jesus said to them "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." 

Propaganda: 3  Substance: 1 (Or so I hope :) 


Blog Tour: "Washed and Waiting" by Wesley Hill

Wesley Hill, Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality, Zondervan, 2010. 160 Pages. 

Thanks to http://engagingchurchblog.com/ for this book and for putting on this blog tour. 

Homosexuality is an important topic in the church and, as such, there is no shortage of books on the subject.  However, buried within the mountains of theological treatises, biblical exegesis, and stories of healing, it can be difficult to find an accessible, well written, and honest presentation from someone who is still in the midst of this trial, and may be their entire life. This is such a book. Part biblical theology, part personal memoir, and entirely honest and challenging, Wesley Hill graciously opens his heart and his mind for us to learn as he records his struggle to remain faithful to Christ in the face of his homosexuality. Divided into three parts, Hill seeks to explore and question (more than answer) issues of what the gospel demands of him, loneliness, and guilt and pleasing God. 

This is a great book. Rare is the book which not only accomplishes its purpose but transcends it. In other words, this book is a necessary read for those struggling with, or ministering to those struggling with, homosexuality.  But, on top of that, Hill has included much material which is helpful to any Christians.  In one  section he asks why it makes sense to persevere through trials in order to be faithful to Christ, and his answers alone are worth the price of admission, so to speak. But he offers more.  His explorations of loneliness (a common human struggle to be certain), living with unmet desires (Hill argues that this is the normal state of affairs for us, despite our cultures messages to the contrary), and what it means to please God (drawing heavily from The Weight of Glory by Lewis; how could one go wrong with that as source material? :) are all excellent. 

Conclusion: 4.5 Stars. Recommended. Excellent book. You will get something good from reading this. 


"Tithing: Test Me In This" by Douglas Leblanc

Douglas Leblanc, Tithing: Test Me in This (The Ancient Practices Series). Thomas Nelson, 2010, 176 pages. 

Thanks to BookSneeze® for providing a free copy of this book for me to review. 

Yet another book in "The Ancient Practices Series." If I could review the entire series and follow with a set review I would.  Sadly, this may be the last one available in E-Book format and with the usual mailing times for hard copies I will be lucky to get one more, let alone the four that I have yet to read. Anyway, on to this book. 

What we do not have in this book is a defense, explanation, or teaching on tithing. There is nothing here on how to fast nor why, at least not explicitly and if you tried to draw implicit lessons you would be left wondering which ones to take. In these pages Leblanc has collected the stories of eleven individuals or couples who have made tithing a regular practice in their life. Resisting what may have been a strong urge to draw lessons from these stories, Leblanc allows them to speak for themselves. Within these pages you will find names you will probably recognize (like Randy Alcorn, Gregory and Frederica-Matthews Green, or Ron and Arbutus Sider, among others) and many you may not. Leblanc has drawn people from a wide range of backgrounds into his collection. And, momentarily, you will be allowed a small window into their walk with God. 

This was quite an enjoyable book.  The tales within are presented in decent literary fashion, nothing spectacular, but neither was there anything to take the mind's eye away from the tale itself. This is, perhaps, as it should be. Nonetheless, it is a particularly vexing choice, in a series exploring the ancient Christian disciplines, to neglect any aspect of teaching or biblical instruction on this particular practice. The stories were interesting, to be sure, but I Leblanc ought to have given this book a second, or a first, half in which he does some of the legwork and foundation building for these stories to stand on. After all, is anyone picking up the books in this series so they can merely be regaled with the tales of Godly men and women in their experience of tithing? I doubt it.  I certainly wasn't. Sadly, the fine art of story-telling with a purpose, parables and the like, seems to be lost and this book does nothing to save it. 

Conclusion: 2.5 stars. Conditionally recommended.  It was a good read, but not what I expected. Don't come here looking for instruction. The best you can hope for are some interesting thoughts along the way. 


"Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy" by Eric Metaxas

Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Thomas Nelson, 2010. 608 pages. 

Bonhoeffer is a book that has, apparently, met with stunning laudations.  I didn't read the article myself, but have it on good authority that First Things recommended in a review that people go out and buy six copies and give them to friends.  Trusted friends also gave this book high accolades.  With this acclaim ringing in the background, how could I fail to purchase and read it?  That's right, I couldn't. And, having read the book, I understand what all the buzz is about... mostly. 

As you may have guessed, Bonhoeffer is a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  To summarize much more than that seems unnecessary.  Metaxas presents Bonhoeffer's life, from his childhood and family to his death in a Nazi prison.  

As promised, Metaxas is a stupendous story-teller and a superb writer.  I learned a lot reading this biography; details of Bonhoeffer's life, the thoughts and feelings of his friends and family, his acts in the confessing church, and much more.  I really want to stress that I enjoyed this book immensely. Metaxas style carried me along as if I were reading a novel rather than a biography. Thus, it was incredibly disconcerting to be rudely awakened by glaringly awkward and often nearly, or seemingly, inconsequential errors.  

I read with disbelief that Bonn is in Switzerland and that Hitler was democratically elected, as well as numerous erroneous presentations of the state of affairs at various times in Nazi Germany.  As far as the narrative goes these errors hardly matter.  However, what they did accomplish was to begin to destroy my sense of trust in Metaxas as narrator.  Once that step was taken, I noticed several other problems. Metaxas writes as an omnipresent narrator.  Stylistically this works very well, but source wise he is prone to embellishment. Metaxas 'knows' what everyone was thinking but often I could not see, or find out, how this was possible. Just over a quarter way through the book I had a conversation with a friend and realized that Metaxas had yet to mention that Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran. How, exactly, can you write a biography of a man and fail to mention his denominational affiliation? Sadly, there was one more blow to fall. 

Before continuing, let me take a step back and tell you about my own first encounter with Bonhoeffer. My first year of university was rough. I grew up evangelical but entered university running from God and pulled up short of disaster by Christmas, mostly thanks to the influence of some key friends.  One of them, very soon thereafter, lent me The Cost of Discipleship (yes, the uncritical and improperly titled version). I had never heard of this book or this author before, but I was told it was a good book so I sat down and began to read it the next Saturday morning. Later that day I arose, stunned, having skipped lunch and read the entire book in one sitting. I didn't understand all of it, but God spoke to me through what I did. Here was something so new, so different, so challenging. I had to know more. 

That first encounter with Bonhoeffer did several things in my life. It came at a crucial time of re-commitment to faith in God and bolstered said decision. It opened my eyes to how I had taken grace for granted. It also showed me, for perhaps the first time, how limited my reading and thinking had been in only focusing on contemporary evangelicalism (without even knowing that is what I had been doing).  In a real way, Bonhoeffer kicked off a year of reading outside of my tradition. Afterwards, I had my first encounters with the church fathers, quite a few mystics (St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Thomas A. Kempis, and many more), and the luminaries of other denominations both old and new.  

This is right where the last blow fell in my reading of Bonhoeffer.  By the time I reached the end of the Metaxas' book I had thoroughly enjoyed a fast paced, events oriented, summary of the life of a great man.  Not only that, but I had been subtly assured that here was man before his time, a man of piety and devotion, of action and integrity, and, perhaps, underneath all of this, an evangelical just like me (except much 'better :). It's the evangelical part that bites (I think the rest is true). That same friend who I mentioned having a conversation with several paragraphs ago alerted me that others had made this criticism of Metaxas: that he portrayed Bonhoeffer as too evangelical. I agreed readily upon continuing my reading. This impression given by Metaxas (and it is but an impression) runs so against the grain of my initial encounter with Bonhoeffer's own writings that it almost ruined the book for me. Suddenly, failing to mention Bonhoeffer's Lutheranism didn't seem so accidental (and, having it on kindle, I could quickly search out all references to Luther, Lutheran, and Lutheranism just to make sure I didn't miss it... it really isn't there). More importantly, I want to keep my Bonhoeffer, thank you very much.  

Still, learning more about an individual inevitably means losing some of our fantasies. I am willing to concede that I envisioned Bonhoeffer as farther from my own tradition than he probably was in reality. However, Metaxas makes the opposite mistake and is no better off for it.  

What, then, can I say in conclusion? Here is a dilemma similar to the one I faced in my last book review but in the midst of an entirely different subject matter. I think that I will say this: 3.5 stars, conditionally recommended.  Great read, awesome story, but be careful. If you know nothing of Bonhoeffer and aren't much for biographies then there is no better place to begin than this book. Bonhoeffer is worth learning of and reading and, despite all his errors, Metaxas provides an excellent introduction. I only add that once you are finished this book you darn well better pick up one of Bonhoeffer's own and get to the real work of getting to know this Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, and Spy.  

Reviewing 'Other' Books

When I started writing in this blog again, earlier in 2010, I did so with the aspiration of reviewing every book I read. I quickly gave up on said ambition when I realized how much more I like reading than reviewing, as well as how much I read.  

Since then I have, with a few exceptions, really only reviewing books that I get for free in exchange for reviews. This has led to reading and reviewing some good books but, alas, many bad ones.  

A couple of friends have pointed this out recently and told me I should review some 'good' books. I think they might be right.  So, I am going to give it a try. 

Some reviews you can look forward to, at least to start (in no particular order):
Some of Eugene Peterson's five part 'conversation' series:

And, of course, any other books I get for free to review.  



"The Sacred Meal" by Nora Gallagher

Nora Gallagher, The Sacred Meal.  Thomas Nelson, 2009.  176 pages. 

Thanks to BookSneeze® for providing a free copy of this book for me to review. 

Here we have the fifth book in "The Ancient Practices Series" Thomas Nelson has published.  In it Gallagher explores some aspects of Communion or 'The Sacred Meal.' She does not, however, set out to explain it fully, dissect it theologically, nor place it denominationally.  Each of these activities has a minor role to play, but the major role is played by story telling.  In exploring the meal that Jesus gave us, Gallagher puts front and center her own experience of said meal and what it has meant to her. 

Stylistically this book was a treat.  Gallagher is an excellent story teller.  She chooses her tales well, illustrates her points effectively, poignantly draws out some of the nuances of partaking in communion, and in general keeps the reader very interested.  She had many great things to say about community, experiencing God, and openness to the life Jesus has called us to live.  Sadly, the theology of this book was lacking.  Her own experience of communion takes up entirely too much space leaving, quite literally, no room for the cross.  How one can write a whole book about communion while barely mentioning Jesus death, that which we are too remember in this meal, is beyond me... but Gallagher has done it.  

Conclusion: 2 Stars.  Not Recommended.  If this book had been written about a less serious subject matter, I would have recommended it on the strength of the writing alone.  It really is very well written.  However, as it is about the Lord's Supper, I cannot be swept away by rhetoric.  


If Paul had been a Celebrity

My post several days ago, on Christian Celebrities, was terrible.  If I had to review it, I would be harsh; maybe even this harsh.  Good idea, but made of fail.  Really, I had nothing to say but felt obligated to post since I said I would.  I should have just said that. 

Anyway, something interesting may yet come of it, thanks entirely to Roger and his comment/question.  He asked if Paul was/is a celebrity.  I said no; you can read my brief answer in the comments.  But it gave me an idea.  

What if he had been?  I think things would have been different, so here are some of my thoughts on this 'what if'. 

1. Who is the Jerusalem Kid? - News coming out of the middle east reports a new pair of rising stars: Paul and Barnabas.  Paul is taking most of the limelight as the pair travel around preaching a message of hope and good news and establishing something they call 'churches' which appear to be new kinds of temples they use as bases for their show.  

2. Barnabas Did What? - Yes folks, you heard it here first.  Barnabas has officially made the unwise career move of separating with Paul.  I mean sure, celebrities are not easy to get along with, but how could Barnabas expect anything but to completely drop from the scene?  Yet another would be star washed up because he wanted to 'move along' and 'try new things.' He had such promise.  Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Kid, increasingly known as 'The Apostle' marches onward in fame.  

3. Jerusalem Kid Expanding - Despite losing half his act, the star of Paul continues to rise.  He now has shows, or 'churches,' going on in Galatia and several in the area of Macedonia.  He is reportedly heading to Corinth next.  What can't this man do?

4. Corinth: Paul's Biggest Fans - When Paul finally got around to visiting Corinth he fit right in.  Corinth has always been into the next big thing and those 'super apostles' have got nothing on that most spectacular Apostle of all.  Indeed, the honor and pride of Corinth swelled this week as Paul helped them out in the midst of their famine, answered all their most pressing questions, and encouraged them to support him in his ministry.  Nothing like becoming patrons to the next big star!

5. Who will be Paul's publisher? - Paul's meteoric rise as a celebrity has been hard to follow.  Paul recently received an offer to include some of his letters in a new publication which will be called "The New Testament."  It looks to be a prestigious offer, put together by God Himself, but many think it would be best for him to publish independently.  Personally, we are holding our breath to see which way he goes. 

6. Acts of Paul - What kind of celebrity shares a biography? No, the 'Acts of the Apostles' which so many enjoyed was merely a prologue for 'The Acts of Paul'.  This two volume work features extended explanations of the life of that most famous of all apostles, Saul who became Paul.  New features include interviews with those who knew him, excerpts from his childhood diaries, and full copies of his speeches. 

7. Get a Platform Paul! - Paul's popularity has catapulted his teachings onto the world stage where they are, inevitably, being examined by some of the best.  In this setting Paul has become the target of some severe criticism for not having a clear enough platform.  Some have pointed out that he seems to be all over the place in his letters and much more concerned with local problems than his public image. We know you stand for the gospel Paul, but we need more!

8. World Rocked by the Apostle's Hidden Sin - No, we don't know what he did. No one does. In some of his correspondence, which reporters recently uncovered, Paul has mentioned a thorn that the Lord has not allowed him to overcome. What could it be? We can only speculate, but it must be something pretty awful for Paul to refuse to comment further. 

9. Paul on Drugs? - Paul's recent talk of visions and voices has some people wondering if he has been sniffing the fumes in some foreign temples... the increasing number of questions regarding the Apostle's integrity have some wondering how long we have to wait until he falls irreparably and becomes the next in a long list of failed celebrities.  

10. The Letter from the Romans - Word has it Paul was preparing a letter to Rome, but now he will never have to finish it.  They have sent for him! Romans is a letter to Paul from the Romans inviting this 'hot new star' to come and 'perform in the big city.' 

11.  The End of a Stunning Career - Ups and downs around the world, we have been following the rise of Paul for some time.  Sadly, this story has come to an end at the hands of the Roman authorities.  Rome has always been a hard act, and Paul is hardly the first one to end just a head short of victory.  Paul's fans around the middle east and asia minor join in mourning this day.  

12. The Complete Works of Paul - Ever wondered about those missing letters?  Wanted to read the rest of the Corinthian correspondence? See Paul's own words about the hidden sin that shook his world? Well, now you can!  Paul may have passed on, but thanks to dedicated fans of the amazing apostle, people who collected everything he ever touched, we now have not only everything he ever wrote but most of what he said on record! 

13. Paul: A Man of the Ages - Yes, you too can own your very own complete set of the statues of Paul.  Modeled at all the ages of his life, this set of six statues contain incredible detail.  It has always been surprising that Paul overcame his physical appearance to become so popular, but by the end of his life it was one of his distinguishing marks.  


"Fasting" By Scott McKnight

Scott McKnight, Fasting. Thomas Nelson, 2009.  176 pages. 

Thanks to BookSneeze® for providing a free copy of this book for me to review. 

In this, the fourth book in "The Ancient Practices Series", McKnight explores and explains the discipline of fasting.  According to him "fasting is the natural, inevitable response of a person to a grievous sacred moment in life." Within this definition McKnight seeks to avoid the instrumentalism which plagues many individuals practices of spiritual disciplines in modern times and instead affirm that fasting is about responding to God and any results we get from it are secondary.  With this in mind, McKnight explores nine different facets of, or reasons for, fasting: Body Talk (an expression of us as whole beings), Body Turning (repentance over sin), Body Plea (a cry out to God), Body Grief (response to loss), Body Discipline (part of spiritual growth), Body Calendar (keeping the rhythm of our lives in tune with God), Body Poverty (a striving for justice and God's vision), Body Contact (connecting to God), and Body Hope (longing for the world to be made right). 

Overall, I enjoyed this book.  McKnight is exploring an oft neglected aspect of fasting and in so doing connects it, biblically, with much that we ignore.  In this vein, I found the first 4 of McKnight's main chapters (Body Talk to Body Grief) to be excellent.  However, by the time he got to Body Discipline he appeared to be attempting to force all forms of fasting to fit into his initial paradigm of response to a grievous sacred moment.  So, he turns seeking guidance into a response to the 'sacred moment' of not knowing what to do and the 'sacred moment' of realizing the superficiality of our relationship with God.  While I agree that we need to fight against an instrumental approach to fasting, as if our actions could manipulate God, we do not need to go so far as to deny that we fast out of desire for God and yearning for a result.  I think McKnight could have benefited from a little systems analysis here.  What drives us to fast in those cases is the realization of the gap between our experience of God and our desired experience of God (so partly in response to realizing where we are, but also in response to what we need).  

Conclusion: 4 Stars.  Conditionally recommended.  McKnight has hit on some very important aspects of fasting here, and this book is worth reading.  Just know that his is not the only perspective on the discipline and it needs to be balanced by other voices.   


Christian Celebrity

Yes, the promised second post.  

The other questions that came up were about Christian Celebrities.  For some people, a really popular Christian makes them uneasy.  Perhaps this is the right response, at least initially.  There are many dangers in celebrity, some which endanger the celebrity and some which endanger the fans. 

For the celebrity, I imagine there is a struggle with pride, with people not calling you to account because they are awed by you, pressure which can (and often does) lead to hidden sin, and probably much more.  I have never been a celebrity (I hope I never am) so I am sure I am missing lots. That's OK though, I am more concerned with the dangers to the fans. 

For those of us who consume the products known as Christian Celebrities (as well as all the attendant merchandise) there are also dangers.  We may hold that individual, who is still fallen and sinful, too highly for our own good.  We may idolize them.  We may lack discernment when it comes to their 'product.' We may be focusing on them, or their message, or their guidance, rather than God.  We may adopt their opinions rather than form our own. 

I don't think I am saying anything new or unusual here.  All I am saying is be discerning and while your out looking for people to get excited about, make sure Jesus is at the top of the list by a large margin.  


Parsing Contemporary Christian Music

Yesterday's post, Twice Excited, which referenced Jaeson Ma started a couple of discussions.  Some indirectly, in that I brought up the song 'Glory' in conversation, and some more directly via email and facebook messages.  From these conversations, two topics emerged: questioning the lyrical and theological content of contemporary Christian Music (CCM) and experiencing hesitancy in embracing Christian celebrities.  I will leave that second topic for another post. 

What, then, about CCM?

I need to begin by saying that I am overly sensitive to the lyrics of Christian music.  I find that many of the worship songs we sing, as well as more popular CCM, are devoid of any kind of theological grounding and can contain lyrics which are flat our wrong/bad. Let me give you some examples.

"Turn your eyes upon Jesus" - (not such a contemporary song, I know.  I wanted to begin by reminding us that this is not a new problem, we just hear more new songs and so can find problems in them more easily.) As we see Jesus, do the things of this earth really grow dim? Or is this a hidden dualism?
"Trading my Sorrows" by David Evans - (Kristina can testify that this song has actually bothered me in the midst of worshiping) The focus is all on me and what I am doing. The joy of the Lord is not what we get instead of sickness and sorrow, but in the midst of those things.  And how many of us who sing this song really have any right to quote 2 Corinthians 4 as if it were our experience?
"Indescribable" by Chris Tomlin - we have a big problem if the answer to the question "who has told every lightning bolt where it should go" is God.
"Days of Elijah" by Hillsong - Do they even know what the days of Ezekiel were like? Do we? Have you read Ezekiel? And it was Solomon who built the temple, not David.  

I could go on, but I won't.  I will add, however, that I do not let these issues prevent me from worshiping our Lord.  

A second set of issues comes in when you begin to realize that much non-worship CCM is just specific enough to be Christian by implication or assumption but still vague enough to make it on non-Christian radio.  Artists like Switchfoot, TFK, and Jaeson Ma come to mind, among many others.  

I lament this trend in CCM.  I understand the motivation, but wonder what we are giving up to be on the radio.  Still, I try to give artists in such contexts the benefit of the doubt.

Thus, when it comes to a song like Glory, which I linked to yesterday, I make some assumptions:

- I assume that when his description of 'Glory' in the first verse matches the actions of Jesus Christ who is, according to John 1:14, the revelation of God's glory, that Ma has this in mind.
- I assume that when he claims his prayer is "show me the glory" that he is referring to God and self-consciously echoing the prayer of Moses.

And so on.  That Ma never explicitly makes the link between his song and God, nor Jesus, within the song itself (though he does so elsewhere) seems to be part of the way things are right now. 

Not being a musician myself I don't know what else I can say.  I enjoy good music, Christian or otherwise. I wish there was better and am open to suggestions from any of my readers!


"Couples Who Pray" By Squire Rushnell and Louise DuArt

Squire Rushnell, Louise DuArt.  Couples who Pray: The Most Intimate Act Between a Man and a Woman. Thomas Nelson, 2011.  224 pages. 

Thanks to BookSneeze® for providing a free copy of this book for me to review. 

This is a book which aims to improve your marriage.  It argues that couples who pray together stay together (that almost hurt to write).  In terms of outline, the book begins by touting the benefits of prayer, moves on to the "40 Day Prayer Challenge" and then explores some of the obstacles and outcomes of praying together as a couple. In terms of content, the majority of this book is the stories of people, mostly celebrities, who have taken this challenge. 

I have to begin by saying that as an idea, or advice, the main point of this book is great.  Getting couples to pray together will help their marriage and it is a good thing.  Further, the idea of a 40 day challenge is a great start.  However, as a book, Couples Who Pray is made of fail.  The vast majority of this book is celebrity stories, liberally supported by questionable statistics, with very little in the way of scripture, theology, or teaching.  It is filled with a few good points elaborated very poorly and at length.  When I got to chapter 9 I almost choked.  "Six Steps to a Happy Marriage"?  Really?  And elaborated with the acronym L.A.U.G.H.S.?  ...  Positive content wise, this book should have been 1 page, not 224.  That 1 page, pure gold.  The other 223? Waste of space.  

Conclusion: 1 Star.  Not Recommended.  Look, you should pray with your spouse.  I suppose if you need some celebrity stories and interesting stats to get going, then this book is made for you.  For the rest of us, just start praying and talk to your Pastor.  

Twice Excited

I have spent a large part of this afternoon planning our high school youth trip to History Maker Conference.  Looking up dates and locations, prices and promo videos, finding us a place to stay and doing logistics for transportation, and so on and so forth.

As I did so, I found myself getting excited.  If you read my posts last year on the subject, one fairly dark reflection given mid-conference and a slightly more positive post after the conference, then you may be surprised to hear that.  But despite speed bumps along the way it was a great weekend last year.

This year they have some good speakers and artists. You can check out their website to find out: historymaker.ca.  It looks like a good line up.  

What actually started me getting excited was Jaeson Ma's 'Glory' Video (which they had playing on one of their webpages). I have seen 'Love' before; our young adults used it at an outreach.  Glory is even better.  I think I have watched/listened to it about six times now.  I kind of wish I was going to get to see him live.  

Yes, I kind of wish.  But, you wonder, won't you, at HM 2011?  And what's with the 'kind of'?

Let me explain.  I will not be attending HM2011 with ICON.  I will be with my wife in a time share condo, graciously and generously given to us by my parents, for a week, starting on that Friday, celebrating our 7th wedding anniversary.  Not only that, but my parents are taking care of Ethan and Hannah. 

So, I do wish I was going to be with our youth, to see Jaeson Ma, to have a good weekend, and so on.  But I would rather be with my Kristina.  

Hence, I have decided that I am twice excited. I am excited for our youth, who will get to go to HM, see some good speakers and good artist's.  I am also super excited for a week with my best friend.  

Being twice excited rocks.  Time to play "Glory" again!.  


"Defiant Joy" by Kevin Belmonte

Kevin Belmonte, Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton. Thomas Nelson, 2011.  336 pages. 

Thanks to BookSneeze® for providing a free copy of this book for me to review. 

One could not do better in at the start of a bibliography than to echo Chesterton's own aims as a biographer: "to introduce a life and legacy that should be better known," as Belmonte paraphrases on the first page of this book. Such is the content of this book: an introduction to the life and legacy of G.K. Chesterton.  Belmonte weaves chapters which amount to book reviews with perspectives from many others who knew or knew of Chesterton and Chesterton's own words into a marvelous image of G.K.C.

Defiant Joy is an excellent book.  I have always been a G.K.C. fan, but Belmonte succeeded in renewing my interest and excitement for this man and his writing.  Through a perfect mix of narrative of narrative and quotes Belmonte has successfully displayed a small piece of Chesterton's spirit and passion in this book. He introduces the reader to Chesterton's main ideas in a style that is reminiscent of the man himself.  Though some of the chapters of this book really are nothing more than book reviews, one should hardly expect less in a biography of a man as prolific as G.K.C. I am not exaggerating in the least to say that I put down Defiant Joy and picked up both Greybeard's at Play and The Wild Knight and Other Stories to read immediately.  

Conclusion: 4.5 of 5 Stars.  Recommended.  If you are already a Chesterton fan, then this book will fan the flames of your interest.  If you are not a Chesterton fan then hurry up and read this book, followed by some of Chesterton's own, so that you can become one!


January Reflections

Another month come and gone like the whirlwind it was.  

Top 3 Visited Posts:

I only posted 9 times in January; averaging barely 2 a week.  It was not a busy preaching month, but I have been giving the whole writing thing a go (as per my Determinations for the Neoteric Heliacal Circumvolution). I have to say, it has been much harder than I expected, and it is the only one of my resolutions I have not fully kept.  I have flossed every day since Jan. 1st (and my gums stopped bleeding weeks ago!).  I have cut down on dessert (enough that Kristina has made comments several times).  I do love my family more than I did last month.  And I have spent at least 5 minutes on my knees listening to God most mornings, as well as incorporating more listening into my other prayer times.  But I think I write 1-3 times a week, not 6... 

Other than those updates, I will say that several times I have wanted to write things for this blog and just put it off until I forget.  I suck at organization, so what I need to do is write stuff down sooner even if I don't get back to it until later.  I know, I should have figured stuff like that out way back in high school (or sooner).  The fact is, I did figure it out back then, but I keep putting it off until I forget.  Figures :)