31.3.11

Better Children's Book Endings

You don't have to be on this blog long to know that I have two children: Hannah (2) and Ethan (9 months). Cue excuse for cute photos... 


You also don't have to be here long to see that I enjoy reading. If you were to put two and two together you might assume, and rightly so, that I read to my children. In so doing I have been exposed to more children's books in the last year than I can remember from my entire life before that time (Despite being a an ESL Kindergarten teacher for two years!).  For the most part, this is great fun. But, if I could, there is one thing I would change: endings. 

I find the end of many children's books to be unrealistic. They are toned down in the same way that Disney offers toned down versions of Grimm Brothers fairy tales. So, without further ado, let me present a few children's books as I would end them (and I am only half joking :) 


"The Little Engine that Could"

This story is famous. 'I think I can, I think I can...' and all that.

If I were to end this story, you would turn the page after 'I think I can...' to find
a stalled out little engine that didn't quite make it. The text would read as follows:
"Sadly, the little engine couldn't make it up the hill. He tried, but in the end 'I think I can' is just not enough."


"Where is the Green Sheep?"

In this story the reader is lead through a rhyming series of strange and wonderful sheep (circus sheep, surfing sheep, red sheep, blue sheep, etc.), but after each four sheep the question is asked: "But where is the green sheep?" Finally, on the last page, we find the green sheep "fast asleep" behind a bush.

In my book you would turn the last page and find a big ! symbol and the word "Caution" in red. The text would read as follows:
"If this were real life you would have found an advertisement here trying to sell you the perfect product to make/find a 'green sheep.' Beware people who take you on wonderful journeys seeking items which do not exist; they are probably trying to take advantage of you.



Children's Bible Stories (Girls Edition)

I couldn't find a picture of this one, but it is a collection of bible stories with pictures, designed to be read to children (complete with actions and such). Some of them are quite ridiculous (the conclusion to Joseph and his New Jacket is 'God created your parents to give you things'). However, what really bothered me was when you get to the end of the Jesus stories. We start with birth, baptism, some other stories, and then we get the resurrection.

If I were writing it, the story would definitely include the cross, if nothing else! Seriously, how can you tell the Christian story without the cross? How can you have "JESUS IS ALIVE!" as your conclusion when you never said anything about Him dying? In the words of Walter Wangerin "And even for the faithful the cross must always be first, because the resurrection is only as real (both in history and in our hearts) as the death is real." (Reliving the Passion, pg. 82). 



Yes, I will be reading proper fairy tales to our children. No, I will not be toning down biblical stories for them.



30.3.11

"If Darwin Prayed" By Bruce Sanguin



Bruce Sanguin. If Darwin Prayed: Prayers for Evolutionary Mystics. Evans and Sanguin Publishing, 2010. 250 pgs. 

This is a prayer book. It follows the Christian calendar, including prayers for each season (i.e. Christmas, Lent, Easter, etc.) and for special occasions (i.e. baptisms, funerals, etc.). Each section begins with a brief introduction and continues with one or more prayers on the subject. However, this is no ordinary prayer book, as the title ought to let you know. It is a prayer book based on what Sanguin calls "evolutionary Christian spirituality." According to the promotional copy these prayers "awaken in us a sacred impulse to evolve in and toward the heart of the divine."  According to Sanguin, in his introduction, he is attempting to "incorporate the evolutionary nature of reality into our theology and liturgy."

To integrate science into our spirituality would be a daunting task all on its own. To do so with a specific scientific model in mind even more so and fraught with dangers as well. It has been the conflation of theology and liturgy with science in mistaken and unhelpful ways which has led to the position many within the Christian faith find themselves today; namely, feeling as if science and faith are incompatible (which they are not). As a Christian I believe that all truth is God's truth and all we do should be done to glorify God. However, I also believe that wisdom dictates some aspects of our lives are more difficult to bring together and some lines of thought much harder to walk between. So, to enter this minefield claiming that not only are these two things not incompatible but they can also be conjoined in our spirituality is brave and, perhaps, foolhardy.

Sadly, Sanguin cannot even focus on this task at hand and manages, along the way, to incorporate into his theology a good deal else besides any science of evolution. The hint of this comes in his introduction when he speaks of the 'evolutionary nature of reality.' This is already a great leap forward from just talking about evolution in its scientific form. What this step actually does is allow Sanguin to label any change, transformation, or transfiguration as just another aspect of evolution. When it comes to the biblical revelation, or any other source of 'wisdom' (ranging from Krishna, to Buddha, and more), Sanguin can now claim that these early spiritualists 'intuited' the 'evolutionary nature' of existence and we can see it in this or that aspect of their teaching.  That word, 'intuited', became a signal for me by about halfway throughout the book. What it said was: Sanguin is now going to radically reinterpret yet another religious tradition/teaching/event. By the time I finished this book I found myself in the midst of pluralism, relativism, (please note: the following part of my blog, which has been blacked out, is something I have apologized for here. If you wish to view my wrong, you can highlight the text) mystic mumbo-jumbo (I hate to say it like that, but many of these prayers really do cross a broad and fuzzy line between praying and just plain wierdness. And they cross that line by far enough that I can definitively say they are in the land of mumbo-jumbo), and lots of bad theology. 

Does Sanguin succeed in his goal? No. Are these prayers I would pray? No. (This last question and answer are something Bruce and I are discussing; it is under review. Again see hereAre they Christian? No. 

Conclusion: 1 of 5 stars. Not Recommended. I don't know why you would consider reading this, but whatever reason you thought you had, just forget about it. 


This has been a Speak Easy review.  Thanks to them for providing this book. #SpeakEasyDarwinPrayer

25.3.11

"An Unsettling God" by Walter Brueggemann



Walter Brueggemann, An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible. Fortress Press, 2009. 192 Pages. 

Here, then, is the third book I mentioned when I reviewed Eric Siebert's book last week. 

"It is an exciting time to be studying the Old Testament... In some ways the Old Testament strikes us as ancient, odd, and remote from us. But in other ways it is clear that the Old Testament offers categories of interpretation and guidelines for life that are rich and contemporary in their force. The present volume is an attempt to articulate some of the categories of interpretation and guidelines for life that could make a difference in our present social context."

Thus begins An Unsettling God. This book is largely drawn from Brueggemann's previous volume, Theology of the Old Testament (available here, among other places). The focus of this book is on the relational, or dialogical, nature of God. This is the subject of the first chapter. From there, we see YHWH in conjunction with four partners: Israel, the human person, the nations, and creation. The final section sums up the drama revealed in this portrait of God. 

This book is both well written and provoking. In each instance, Brueggemann demonstrates how the character of these entities is best understood within the context of partnership with YHWH. For Israel, the most characteristic and distinctive part of their life and vocation is "the remarkable equation of love of God with love of neighbor, which is enacted through the exercise of distributive justice of social goods, social power, and social access to those without leverage; those without social leverage are entitled to such treatment simply by the fact of their membership in the community." (29)

Meanwhile, to be fully human, Brueggemann argues, "is to have a profound, unshakable, elemental trust in YHWH as reliable, present, strong, concerned, engaged for; and... to live and act on the basis of that confidence, even when YHWH is not visible and circumstance attests to the contrary." (74)

Such observations are typical of this volume, and a large part of what makes it worth reading. The book is not even 200 pages and so Brueggemann is incomplete in his presentation of all that we might learn from the OT while focusing on the relational nature of YHWH and what that reveals about Israel, Humanity, the nations, and creation. One such stunning example of absence is any discussion of sacrifice and atonement. However, Brueggemann has succeeded admirably in presenting a model of reading the OT, and an exciting picture of who God is within this text. 

Conclusion: 4.5 of 5 Stars. Recommended. This book will open your eyes to the OT in unexpected ways. It is well worth reading.  

A Child's Prayer


As I have shared before, we are a family that prays together. While we do pray randomly with our children, we also pray regularly: every meal time, every nap time, and every bed time. 

The other day, while I was putting Hannah to bed, she followed my prayer with a prayer of her own (blah blah represents nonsense sounds she was making; other than that, what follows is a fairly word for word transcript of Hannah's prayer):

Dear Jesus,
Blah blah, Daddy, blah blah Hannah, blah blah Mommy, blah blah blah blah, Baby, blah, Uncle, Auntie, blah blah, 
Jesus, Amen. 

First, I recognized the form. I thought to myself, my daughter is so observant. She has picked up on all the parts of our praying that are common to most of our prayers. We always start out with "Dear Jesus" or "Dear Lord", pray for Hannah and the rest of our family, and end by saying "In the name of Jesus, Amen." (which Hannah has, naturally, shortened).  

Then, I noticed that she had made the connection about praying and talking about people. Though we do pray for our relatives, it is not nearly as 'regular' as the other names listed. Hannah added those herself. 

And as I sat there, a proud father, reflecting upon her prayer, it struck me that whatever part of the form of praying Hannah had picked up on she had also, perhaps unbeknownst to herself, very accurately picked up on the most important substance of our prayers as well. 

Out of all we do in intercessory prayer, the most important pieces are that we speak with Jesus, bring those we love into his presence in our prayers, and pray in His name. Of course everything else is important, and has a place, but the central parts are all there in Hannah's prayer.  

Well done my precious little girl :) 



24.3.11

When Being Calm and Analytical About (false?) Doctrine is Right

Always. 

This has been a response to more bad rhetoric from the coalition. This chart might be helpful.




(Just in case anyone asks, of course we need passion. However, we also need to answer with gentleness and respect. Given the recent goings on, how is it we really think we need to encourage passion more than respect, love, and gentleness? And, even if a doctrine is false, and trampling on the cross or.. human hearts... whatever that means... how does it help to respond with more trampling and hurt feelings?)


22.3.11

Regent Summer School


I got an email today from Regent College, the school from which I graduated. They are asking all alumni bloggers to 'lend them their blogs' and advertise Regent Summer School.

Many of you may know my general opinions about advertising, especially from classic posts such as "I Strongly Dislike Advertising". However, in this case I will definitely make an exception. Regent Summer school was great when I attended. Some of the most interesting courses, and Profs, come out for the summer. So, I am happy to pass on the word here.  

You can check out the summer school offerings on their website, here.  I just did and I have to say that it has made me really want to take several of the courses being offered this summer... 

Did you know that, as well as all the regular faculty who are quite good, Christopher Wright is coming out? He is here for the first week of Spring Classes, teaching a course entitled "God's Word, God's World, and God's Mission: Reading the Whole Bible for Mission". He is not the only name that caught my attention. Allister McGrath, Mark Noll, Christopher Hall, and Paul Helm will all be there too. When, or where, else do you have a chance to interact with scholars such as these? Never, that's when. Never. 

Therefore, I am confident in saying that if you have the chance to go to any of these, the courses I have mentioned or others, you should. Really. 

If you want to send me, that would be great too :)


21.3.11

"Is God a Moral Monster?" By Paul Copan



Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Baker Books, 2011. 252 Pgs. 

As I said in my last review of a book on this topic, wading through certain Old Testament passages can be quite troubling and difficult. For Seibert, this seems to have been made especially so by the struggles of his students (or so one gathers from the stories he shares in his introduction). Copan, on the other hand, is mainly responding to the accusations of the 'New Atheists.' People such as Dawkins, Dennet, and Hitchens who delight in caricaturing God as He is presented in the Old Testament so that He more easily falls to their ridicule and condescension. 

In response to these arguments, Copan offers a careful and detailed reading of several parts of the Old Testament, paying particular attention to cultural context and genre, as well as the language and details of scripture itself. His book is divided into four sections. Section one introduces the issues and those who are presenting them (the New Atheists). Section two examines the troubling aspects of divine character presented in the Old Testament, namely: God's pride and humility in His appetite for praise and sacrifice, God's anger and jealousy, and God as child abuser and bully. Section three then explores the many oddities and disturbing passages which we can find in the laws of ancient Israel. These include the strange food and clothing laws, treatment of women, slavery, the genocidal commands regarding the Canaanites, and more. Finally, in section four, Copan takes a step back from detailed arguments to ask what morality we have without God, what morality we have in Jesus, and how that relates to what is presented in the Old Testament. 

Copan has many good arguments and points in this book. They all arise from the same initial premise: If we read these texts with their cultural context in mind and pay attention to the details of the writings themselves then we consistently find that strange and troublesome passages make more sense than we initially thought. We also need to add to this that the law given in the Old Testament was meant to be a temporary measure, not representing the fullness of God nor the fullness of where he was taking his people. As Copan comes to the end of his last chapter on the killing of the Canaanites, he offers a conclusion which very much fits the entire book: "For anyone who takes the bible seriously, these Yahweh-war texts will certainly prove troubling... we shouldn't glibly dismiss or ignore such questions. On the other hand, we hope that critics won't do a surface reading of these Old Testament texts. If our scenario doesn't cover all the bases, it still goes a long way in providing perspective on what happened and didn't happen in Canaan." In other words, Copan knows these are still serious questions, and he knows that the answers he offers are incomplete. His hope is to give the text a fair reading and to alleviate the problems by presenting plausible, if not provable, explanations. In my opinion this book admirably succeeds in these goals. 

I found Copan to be exponentially more helpful than Seibert on this subject. Seibert has approached the issue assuming that the only way through is to find a way to discredit and ignore difficult texts, and thus his readings of the OT are slanted from the beginning. Copan, in contrast, has assumed that we need to more fully understand what the OT actually says so that we can better understand the problems we have. Maybe this will solve our problems, and in some cases Copan argues it does, but maybe it won't, and Copan acknowledges when this is the case. Copan does not shy away from the fact that some texts cannot be read literally, but he is incredibly careful in showing, from the text, the history, and the context why and when this is the case. Rather than seeking a hermeneutical rubric which he can plug each text into, Copan takes each text on its own. Overall, Copan exhibits a fundamental respect for and trust in the OT, allowing this to guide his argument and discussion. Like Seibert, Copan finds resolution for these issues in the person of Jesus Christ. However, unlike Seibert, he does not do so by altering or denying the OT. Instead, he sees Jesus as the fulfillment, the next step, the new covenant, all of which are affirmed in the bible itself. 

Conclusion: 4 of 5 stars. Recommended. Is God a Moral Monster? is well written, well argued, and well worth reading. These issues are important and worth your time to explore. Read this book. 


18.3.11

On Good Questions and Good Books


Despite not blogging all the links to everything flying around the web about Rob Bell (though I suppose I have done enough) I have been reading plenty of reviews and comments, and watching videos and interviews. 

Over and over again, I read the reviews and thoughts of people I respect who are being very positive about Rob Bell. People like Eugene Peterson. Over and over again there is a common thread behind the positivity: Rob Bell is asking good questions and discussing important issues. 

I completely agree, Rob Bell is asking good questions and discussing important issues (I say as much in my own review). However, I also stand behind my 1.5 rating of Love Wins. 

There is a simple reason for this. I believe there is a difference between asking good questions and asking good questions well, never mind there being a difference between asking good questions and writing a good book!

Let me give you some examples of differences in questions:

Good Question, asked badly: Do you believe in evolution or creation?
Same question, asked well: What is your opinion on the scientific theory of evolution, and how does that affect or interact with your belief in a creator God? 

Yes, the second question is longer and more qualified, but it also doesn't assume an inherent opposition in the options. The first question is kind of like asking someone if they have stopped stealing yet. You could ask the second one in a simpler form, such as this: What do you think about evolution and how does it affect your faith?


Here is another set of examples. 

Good questions, asked badly: "So does God get what God wants? How Great is God?" (Rob Bell, Love Wins)
Good questions, asked well: How does God's power and desire interact with human free will? Does God's power and greatness ultimately mean that God gets what he wants, or are there other possibilities? How do we define God's greatness and what does it have to do with our eternal destiny? 


When taken in this form, Rob Bell does not even ask good questions well. If to this subtle distinction we were add to the whole host of other qualifications which go into making a good book, Bell has an even bigger problem. 

Books need to be judged according to genre, obviously. It would be pointless for me to critique a science fiction because it had bad theology, or Love Wins for its lack of plot. However, within the confines of each genre there are some easily recognizable standards that one ought to live up to. In a book like Love Wins, a pastoral text written for a general Christian (and non-Christian) readership, these standards include, but are not limited to clarity and consistency, neither of which Bell exhibits. Of course, a book should offer much more than that. It would be nice to find good biblical exegesis, proper logical thinking, substance instead of innuendo, etc. 

I don't know how to take it that we have somehow reached a point in the evangelical community where the questions asked in a book like Love Wins are enough for people to symbolically excommunicate the questioner. Where someone can clearly be confused and concerned about an important issue, leaning in a direction we don't like, and thus worthy of getting his head metaphorically chopped off. I am unsurprised, but I am sad. 

Why don't we have grace? Why isn't Love Wins being met with the outreach of helping hands from the theological community? Why aren't we demanding of our leaders that they offer more than stringent judgment and harsh response? Why are we satisfied with so little, and why do I suspect that these lines being drawn are only the beginning? 

I know, I hope for too much, but I still hope. And I hope for even more.


I don't know how to take it that we have somehow reached a point in the evangelical community where a book like Love Wins is worthy of praise for asking important questions (and doing nothing else) and is singularly sufficient to cause such a ruckus. I am unsurprised, but I am sad. 

Why don't we have good questions in all of our churches? Why isn't Love Wins being met with a yawn because we have better discussions each Sunday morning? Why aren't we demanding of our pastors that they offer us more than thought-provoking sets of implications to satiate us until next week? Why are we satisfied with so little, and why do I suspect that most of the interest in this whole issue is more about politics than theological substance? That within 2 weeks everyone will have gone back to life as usual with nary an opinion changed?

I know, I hope for too much, but I still hope.  I can't help myself. 

17.3.11

"Disturbing Divine Behavior" by Eric A. Seibert



Eric A. Seibert, Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God. Fortress Press, 2009. 260 Pages. 


(Thanks to a good friend for requesting this review, and even offering to buy me the book!)


The bible has long proved both boon and bane alike for its readers, Christians especially. How do we reconcile contradictions in the gospel accounts? What about scientific errors? And who can trust a God as harsh as that which we find in the Old Testament? In the words of Robert Carroll, "if reading the bible does not raise profound problems for you as a modern reader, then check with your doctor and inquire about the symptoms of brain-death." 

Responses to these problems have varied, with some more extreme examples coming from Marcion and Bultmann (to choose a modern and ancient example). Marcion is (in)famous for excising the entire Old Testament from the Christian canon, as he did not believe the God represented therein was in any way compatible with the God revealed in Jesus.  Meanwhile, Bultmann is equally (in)famous for declaring that "we cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness,  avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament. And if we suppose that we can do so ourselves, we must be clear that we can represent this as the attitude of Christian faith only by making the Christian proclamation unitelligible and impossible for our contemporaries."

There are many more, less extreme, responses to these questions, and in this book Seibert claims to represent one such response to a specific set of these questions. The set should be obvious from the title; troubling portrayals of God in the Old Testament. Seibert has a moral objection to some of God's behavior as it is presented by the Israelites. To solve this problem Seibert suggests that such accounts do not represent God. For example, when we read the conquest narrative in Joshua 6-11, we should know that not only did events not take place as recorded here, but neither did God actually give genocidal commands. These are false representations of God, words put in His mouth by later authors. 

This begs a question. How can we know when a text truly represents God and when it merely represents Israelite history, propaganda, or wishful thinking? It is insufficient to simply expunge what we find morally objectionable. To do so would make our own morality the determining line for biblical truth. Seibert knows this is a problem, and thus proposes a Christological hermeneutic. Jesus is the fullest and most assured revelation of God and therefore whatever is in line with what Jesus has revealed is acceptable. Everything else must go.  

To this line of argument Seibert completes his book with personal stories from students, Hebrew exegesis, some examples, and finally some practical suggestions in dealing with troubling texts.

Unfortunately, Seibert's 'completed' book is severely lacking. Exegetically and historically, this book is full of holes. This is especially true as Seibert attempts to develop a Christological hermeneutic. In order to come up with a standard he can accept he does to the gospels what he has done to the rest of the bible: remove what he doesn't like. In the case of the gospels this is done without justification or due caution. He quotes a few scholars, notes that no New Testament scholar agrees with his own assessment of Jesus as completely non-violent (a standard he insists God live by throughout his entire book) and then pushes ahead anyway. The end result is that Seibert has indeed used his own morality as the final judgement of scripture, all the while denying it. 

In his arguments Seibert is incredibly sloppy. He asserts his conclusions as if they were arguments, merely begging the question instead of proving his answer. This is evident as he argues against ancient methods of exegesis as well as voluntaristic approaches to power and goodness (both arguments in which I agree with Seibert). He sets up straw men which no theologian would accept, such as in his arguments against progressive revelation, and then assumes his point is made when he knocks them down. while speaking briefly about attending to historical and cultural contexts he fails to acknowledge how these might interact with the problem texts he is studying. 

I sympathize with the aim of this text. There are indeed many troubling texts in scripture, particularly in the Old Testament. I even sympathize with the conclusions; it would certainly be easier to cross out what we don't like. But a bad argument is a bad argument, and a bad book is a bad book. This is both. 

Conclusion: 2 of 5 Stars. Not Recommended. If these questions are of interest to you, I have reviewed one excellent book which briefly deals with them: The God I Don't Understand. I will also be reviewing two other books I have been reading with similar subject matter sometime in the near future; one by Walter Bruggemann and one by Paul Copan. Both are worth reading. This book is not. 

16.3.11

"Keep Your Greek" By Constantine R. Campbell



Constantine R. Campbell, Keep Your Greek: Strategies for Busy People. Zondervan, 2010, 96 pages. 

Thanks to Koinonia for providing this book on the blog tour.
This handy little volume is a book full of tips on how to keep up your skills in the Greek language after you leave college/seminary for a busy life of (insert any job/life description here). It includes 10 short chapters, 9 of which contain tips (or a set of tips) on how to maintain you abilities in Greek (or any other language that you only care about reading and not speaking). These tips range from the simple ("Read Every Day") to the unique ("Burn your Interlinear") to the interesting ("Use Your Sense"). The motive behind this book is the belief that being able to read and understand the Greek of the New Testament will aid you in understanding, teaching, and preaching it. 

Short book, short review. This was a great little book. Well written, to the point, funny, and practical. Speaking as someone who has been slowly losing his Greek since leaving seminary 2 years ago, I found it both useful and encouraging. I also heartily agree with the premise. 

Conclusion: 4 of 5 stars. Conditionally recommended. Given the subject matter, this book is quite good. Still, this book is obviously not for everyone. It will give you no help at all if you don't know any languages that you need to maintain, for example. 

15.3.11

"Love Wins" by Rob Bell





Love Wins is, shockingly, a book about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived. Imagine a "Nooma" video, but longer. Much, much longer. You now have a good picture of the style of this book. Typical Bell. 

In terms of content, the book is divided into 8 chapters. If I were to re-title them so that the title clearly conveyed the content/issue of the chapter, the table of contents would look like this:
Introduction: Millions of people will want to read this book, and enjoy it, because it will fix all the negative images you have of Jesus and Christianity. 
1. How are we saved?
2. What/when/where is heaven?
3. What/when/where is hell?
4. Does God get what God wants? or Does Love win? 
5. What happened on the cross and in the resurrection?
6. Jesus lives and works outside of the church too and you can meet him there even if you don't realize it. 
7. Who do we think God is and how does the rest of this book add up?
8. A personal touch from Rob Bell

The argument of this book is that we have conceived of God and the gospel wrongly, making good news into bad, by focusing on punishment and hell instead of the persuasive love of God that wins out in the end. We have built up tradition to the point where death has become a moment of great import because after death we are out of chances, but this tradition is wrong. God is not like that and neither is death. 

More specifically, Bell argues that hell is heaven experienced by those who would rather be elsewhere, both heaven and hell begin now, we are all forgiven but we do not all live because we can choose death, salvation is much broader than believing in Christ, and Christ is present in  many more places than the church.

Now, let me shift gears. Those last two paragraphs are the best I can do to make sense of Bell's arguments. I think that is what Bell is saying, but I could be wrong. Here are some things I know for sure about Bell in this book:

1. Bell is not a universalist - No, he is just confused. Really confused. Kind of like this book. He contradicts himself multiple times in this regard (claiming that 'eventually' God will win every heart, but also claiming that not everyone will choose God)
2. Bell is not a theologian - No, he is a just trying to ask and answer a few important questions. Such tactics work very well in a 10 minute video.  In a book... the end result is a sloppy mess. At times I wondered if he knew what he was saying. 
3. Bell is not a biblical scholar - No, he is a bible reader at best. His use of scripture in this book was sad and saddening. 
4. Bell is not a historian - No, he is a contemporary Christian with a slightly higher than average grasp of church history. Not much though. 

To be perfectly honest, if you really want to know what Bell is on about, you get about as much information by watching the teaser video and his presentation from last night.  Then, if you want to see how confused Bell turns out to be, watch this interview of Bell on MSNBC.  Done all that? There, you just read the book. 

More seriously, there are several major problems in Love Wins. He begins by noting that he has written this book for people who have heard of Jesus, a version of the story, which caused them to turn away. Interesting... and somewhat appropriate, as long as we remember that plenty of people reacted to Jesus in the flesh in this same way, and Jesus accepted that fact. 

Then he moves on, in chapter 1, to talk about salvation. He points to stories in Luke 4, 7, 18, 19, 20, 23, John 3, Matthew 6, 7, Mark 2, 1 Corinthians 7, Acts 22, and Romans 11, all of which have to do with salvation, and in which salvation seems to come about differently. He uses these as impetus to show that things are not as simple as Christians have thought as we try to say "believe in Jesus and you will be saved." But half way through the list, I wanted to yell at Bell: "DON'T YOU SEE? DON'T YOU SEE THAT THIS LIST YOU ARE COMPILING ACTUALLY ANSWERS YOUR QUESTIONS?" Apparently he doesn't. By the time we are in chapter 2 and Bell is again bringing up Matthew 19 and the story of the rich young ruler, Bell leaves out Jesus final command to this man: "... Then come, follow me." That is what it is about. That is the common thread in all the stories Bell brings up. How do you respond to Jesus? Here comes the servant of the Roman Centurion to ask for healing. You don't think the centurion had heard of Jesus? Had heard dissenting opinions of him? Was ridiculed by some to be hoping in a snake-charmer, another fraud from Galilee? And yet he had faith anyway, and this faith was rewarded. He responded to Jesus in faith. This is what Jesus asks of all who meet him, this is the thread of salvation, and it is writ clear as day, most notably in the stories Bell brings up, and yet Bell misses it. The problem, which Bell never actually gets to, is how we conceive faith in our modern world. 

So, we are now through chapter 1... In chapter 2, what you have is a watered down and poorly presented version of Surprised by Hope (by N.T. Wright). Bell takes a beautiful thing, Wright's book, and makes it confusing (this despite the fact that he recommends Surprised by Hope at the end of his book.) Just read Wright. 

Chapter 3 is a discussion on Hell, and once again Bell doesn't know how to read the bible. If you want to read some good books on hell, start with Bell's own recommendation: The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. There are lots of other good books on hell. 

Chapter 4 is where Bell gets really confused/confusing. Does love win? Does God get what God wants? These are the wrong questions and, taken seriously, lead straight to the traditional formulation of the problem of evil (God is all powerful, all loving, and evil exists = problem.... does God get what he wants? and if Bell is so hot on talking about eternity now, how does he handle this? I think Martin Bashir, in that TV interview, picks up on this and several other problems which Bell cannot answer). Furthermore, Bell firmly forgets, with so many it seems, that God is Love and God is Light (and in Him there is no darkness at all). 

I am going to stop there... the rest of the book is more of the same. Interesting questions, shifty answers (if any at all), misuse of scripture, lack of understanding of history, and confusing theology. 

A lot of people have been saying that Bell asks good questions. In parts of this book that is certainly true. Asking us to consider Christ's presence in the world, who we believe God to be, and what we think of eternal issues are all important questions. Conversations about heaven, hell, and the fate of everyone who has ever lived are important to have and the church has not always done well in having them. Bell has certainly succeeded in getting people talking. However, for the most part, Bell is asking leading and misleading questions based on biblical, theological, and philosophical errors. I found this disheartening, as I do think Bell is on to something in exploring these issues. 

Conclusion: 1.5 of 5 stars. Not Recommended. If you want to read some good books on the subject start with the two I recommended already. Your time and attention will be rewarded. If you want to hear some 'good questions' go talk to a precocious 13-14 year old who has grown up in church. 

14.3.11

Controversy Rages On

At the end of February Christian social networks exploded. Rob Bell a heretic? Could it be? 

I posted several times myself; talking about evangelical controversialists and disagreeing with Kevin DeYoung that Rob Bell had already outed himself as a heretic. 

The book isn't out yet, but the posts continue. In a comment, Roger alerted me to the fact that the issue hit mainline news shortly after it all got started. Now it is there again: in USA Today's article: Pastor/author's 'Love Wins' bedevils traditionalists (concluding with a very insightful comment by Richard Mouw)

Further, several bloggers have received advanced copies of the book, and so reviews are starting to come out as well. Some are more positive; like this one. Others, such as that from Kevin DeYoung, less so.

Here's my question. Should I buy, read, and review "Love Wins" by Rob Bell? Do you care, and would you find it helpful/interesting? 

13.3.11

Do You Want To Go Away As Well?


After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.
 So Jesus said tothe Twelve, "Do you want to go away as well?

- John 6:66-67

Today I asked a classroom of high school students this same question, though phrased differently. 

How do I follow Jesus? Is that still a question you want an answer to? Is it still a journey you want to take?

I am hardly capable of giving answer myself, let alone expecting an answer of them, but I try. 

 Of course I want to follow Jesus! Of course this is a question I want an answer to! Of course this is a journey I want to take!

And Peter replied "Even if all fall away, I never will... Even if I have to die with you I will never disown you." 

Yes!

All that insistence did not help Peter in Gethsemane. 

Are such answers, such confidences, out of reach? Can I not say with my whole heart that I WILL FOLLOW!?!?

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?

Surely the story does not end there? 

You know it does not. Peter had fallen many times before, as have you, but never so far and never so hard. Yet, with a question thrice repeated the Lord raised him up. 

"Do you Love me?"

And with a yes, Peter arose. Though he had faltered, he kept his word and died for his Lord... Do you love Jesus?

I do. 

That is more important than your commitment or your desire. 

My hope is not in my own faith...

Never in yourself, and never for a thing, but always in God alone, and in his faithfulness. 

As the Psalmist says: But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you.

Yes. Do you hope in Jesus? Do you know he is faithful?

I do. 

That is more important than any hope in your own faith, for it will falter and it will fail. 

And when times of trouble come?

Remember these things. Remember that even Peter rose again. 

11.3.11

"The Nature of Love" by Thomas Oord



Thomas Jay Oord, The Nature of Love: A Theology. Chalice Press, 2010. 208 pages. 

#SpeakEasyLove Book Review


Summary

Whenever you pick up a systematic theology textbook you will find that the author has been forced to make a decision about what he considers central, and what he considers peripheral, in talking about God. There is not space nor intellect enough in this world to say everything, so where do you begin? And, just as important, where do you end? 

According to Oord there is only one answer to these questions: Love. Love ought to be at the center of our conception of God, our theology, our reading of the bible, and more. Of course, this begs another question: What is love? It certainly doesn't do any good to say 'God is love.' A more circular argument would be hard to find. Instead, Oord works out his own definition of love which, he claims, is consistent with the biblical witness though not found in this precise form therein. That definition? "To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to God and others, to promote overall well-being." 

In this book, section 1 defends the centrality of love, defines love, and defends that definition. Oord then devotes three sections to exploring different theologians works on love: Anders Nygren (agape theology), Augustine (Augustinian love; desire, philosophy, eros, and more), and Clark Pinnock (open theism). In each case he offers a summary of their position followed by a criticism and a brief explanation of what good we can draw from there accounts. Section 5 then outlines Oord's own love theology: Essential Kenosis. 

Essential Kenosis is the idea that God is, in His very essence, loving in such a way that He always gives agency and freedom to creation. He is ever self-emptying, ever creating, ever loving (of course). Along the way, Oord proposes several other key moves: a new theology of Creation (out of eternal creating, rather than ex nihilo), the necessary love of God for creation, the inability of God to stop evil (since it is in His nature to grant freedom and God is therefore incapable of total coercion), and an explanation as to why miracles occur when and as they do (they are only possible through the willingness, or faith, of creatures, otherwise they would represent instances of total coercion). 


Response

At several points I found myself saying 'yes' very strongly with Oord. Putting love at the center of our theology makes sense to me. The problems Oord outlines with traditional answers to the problem of evil, with predestination, and within the three love theologies, echoed well in my mind. 


However, I was disappointed with this book.It felt like I was reading about half of God. God is love, as the famous verse goes, but we must never forget the twin verse in 1 John that tells us that God is also light. Neither one of those can eclipse the other. Often I wanted to say to Oord, "but, what about....".  But what about Jesus as judge of all things? God as defender of His people? And 'miracles' which clearly are not asked for by the participants? 

A perfect example comes in Oord's doctrine of creation. Oord denies that God creates out of nothing because this would represent a moment of complete coercion and God is, according to Oord, not capable of this. However, in so doing, Oord has set up a world in which God is co-eternal with creation (at least some form of creation). Either there was a moment when God created (and thus was coercive) or there was not (and thus something has eternally co-existed with God). Noting that Genesis does not teach creation ex nihilo does not resolve this philosophical quandary. 

Oord starts well, but he does not finish in good condition. 


Conclusion

2 Stars. Not Recommended. The theology is poor, the writing is average at best, it is just not worth it. There are definitely valuable nuggets within this book though, if you really want to dig for them. 

Death and Lent


Last month I performed my first wedding. Afterwards, I included that fact in the post "Many Joys", along with other things I have been blessed with. 

Last week I performed my first funeral.

Being inexperienced, I spent several hours over several days reading Psalms and scripture passages which are common at funerals, reading minister's manuals which include the sermons, thoughts, and prayers that have been used throughout the ages at funerals, and trying to pull together my own thoughts and put them down on paper. Weddings are much easier.

Then comes this week, which really began with Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Once again I am faced with death, for Lent is, after all, a season to remember the death we deserve. From dust to dust.

Psalm 39 seems an appropriate place to begin this Lenten season. 

 "Show me, O LORD, my life's end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man's life is but a breath. "Selah" Man is a mere phantomas he goes to and fro: He bustles about, but only in vain; he heaps up wealth, not knowing who will get it. "But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you.
- Psalm 39:4-7  


Numbering our days helps us to be wise, but it also reminds us of the great gift we have in Christ. This is the real reason behind remembering our death during lent, to ever more appreciate the death of Jesus for us. Because of Him, everything has changed. I found an excellent story that reflects this during my preparation for my first funeral:

A minister lost his wife at a young age, and was left behind with a daughter of six. He found his own grief hard enough to deal with, but the hardest part was comforting and explaining the death to his daughter. One day they were standing on the corner of a busy intersection. While they waited for the light to change a very large truck sped by, briefly blocking the sun and frightening the little girl.  Her father picked her up and suddenly he found a way to explain to his daughter: "When you saw the truck pass it scared you, but let me ask you, would you rather be struck by the truck or the shadow of the truck?" She replied, "The shadow, of course." He went on to say that "when your mother died, she was only hit by the shadow of death because Jesus was hit by the truck."
- source unknown

So, Lent begins, and death stalks the dark valley we walk through but the light of Christ shines ever brighter. 



9.3.11

Peterson on Church

I am in the middle of Practicing Resurrection by Peterson, and I came across this passage which I couldn't resist typing out in full and posting for your enjoyment:

      "I soon found that the imagery I had grown up with to form by turns either a romantic or a crusader church had changed. Sermons from the Song of Songs or Ephesians were no longer preached to eroticize or militarize the church. Bible texts were no longer sufficient for these things. new and fresh imagery was now provided by American business. While I was growing up in my out-of-the-way small town, a new generation of pastors had re imagined the church. Tirzah and terrible-as-an-army-with-banners had been scrapped and replaced with the imagery of an ecclesiastical business with a mission to market spirituality to consumers to make them happy. Simultaneously, campaigns targeted outsiders to get them to buy whatever it was that was making us happy.
     For me, these were new terms for bringing the church's mandate into focus. The church was no longer conceived as something in need of repair but as a business opportunity that would cater to the consumer tastes of spiritually minded sinners both within and without the congregation. It didn't take long for American pastors to find that this worked a lot better as a strategy for whipping the church into shape than the terrible-as-an-army-with-banners and the without-spot-or-wrinkle sermons. Here were tried-and-true methods developed in the American business world that had an impressive track record of success. Pastors, I learned, no longer preached fantasy sermons on what the church should be. We could actually do something about the shabby image we had of ourselves. We could use advertising techniques to create an image of church as a place where we and our friends could mix with successful and glamorous people. We could use media manipulation to get people to do something they were already pretty good at doing: being consumers. All we had to do was remove pictures of the God of Gomorrah and Moriah and Golgotha from the walls of our churches and shift things around ab it to make our meeting places more consumer friendly. With God depersonalized and then repackaged as a principle or formula, people could shop at their convenience for whatever sounded or looked as if it would make their lives more interesting and satisfying on their own terms. Marketing research quickly developed to show us just what people wanted in terms of God and religion. As soon as we knew what it was, we gave it to them."

... As soon as we knew what it was, we gave it to them. That phrase rings on in my head as indictment, warning, and reminder. It didn't work very well Aaron, as much as the people wanted that golden calf. 

4.3.11

"To Change the World" James Davison Hunter


James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Oxford University Press, 2010. 368 pgs. 


Get ready for a long summary. 


Summary

To Change the World is organized into three 'essays' consisting of multiple chapters. Hunter calls them essays because in them he is painting with broad brushstrokes and exploring big ideas while not exhaustively perusing and sourcing the literature behind all of his issues. While some may find issue with this, I think Hunter has found an appropriate balance given the issues he is exploring. What issues, you ask? Let me tell you. 

The first essay is an extended critique of the assumed definition of culture and method of changing it which is predominant in Christian circles. The problem, says Hunter, is that Christian projects for 'transforming culture' and 'changing the world' assume an 'idealistic' worldview. In other words, they assume that ideas are the foundation of culture, and individuals the foundation of ideas, and therefore to change the world we must merely change the hearts and minds of individuals. This association of culture with ideas/beliefs/values transforms missions of cultural impact into missions of cognitive impact and, thus, entirely miss their mark. Culture, says Hunter, is much more like an infrastructure or an environment and it is highly dependent on centers of power. Ideas do have consequences, but only under certain conditions do those consequences matter much, and most Christian efforts to change the world ignore these conditions. 

So, those trying to change the world are working with naive models of 'the world' and how to change it. But, they are also ignoring the power centers and movements of power which inhabit all human interactions, most powerfully in institutions. Hunter's second essay takes on issues of power in the midst of withering critiques of three common views/movements for cultural change: Conservative Christian right, Christian left (both liberal and emergent), and the ana-baptist movements (a la Hauerwas). Hunter urges Christians to depoliticize their actions (because we have become subservient to the political in its modern all-encompassing incarnation), decoupling public and politic (because they are not the same), get over our ideas of avoiding power (because we can do no such thing; power of ever present in human interaction) and avoiding elitism (centers of power are what they are, and important), and follow Jesus as an exemplar of the right use of power (in a fashion which he explores in greater depth in essay three). 

This all sets Hunter up very nicely for his third essay, in which he lays out and tears down three common models of cultural engagement, and offers his own as a replacement. The three common models are: Defensive Against, Relevance To, and Purity From. Bonus points if you can 'guess' which party each of those is associated with. Each of this is riddled with problems, most notably that they have given in to ideas of will to power and therefore hold within themselves destructive seeds of nihilism, and are therefore highly ineffective. Over against these options, Hunter offers a fourth model: "Faithful Presence Within." 

In contrast to the first three models, which focus on secularization, exploitation, and violence as the most important problems Christians face, Hunter argues that the real core problems are 'difference' and 'dissolution' (seen best, but not exclusively, in pluralism and the fragmentation of modern life). In contrast to the will to power embedded in all of the first three models, in which all that matters is winning, Hunter urges us to carry out our creation mandate of creating culture in ways which line up with God's desires for creation. The means for this are, says Hunter, modeled in God's actions as he 1. pursues us (though we are completely other and undeserving) 2. identifies with us (though it involves giving much up in the incarnation) 3. offering us life (as only He can) 4. through sacrificial love. The obligations and goals are to faith, hope, and love. 

In his own words: “A theology of faithful presence obligates us to do what we are able, under the sovereignty of God, to shape the patterns of life and work and relationship—that is, the institutions in which our lives are constituted—toward a shalom that seeks the welfare not only of those of the household of God but of all.” (254) "The practice of faithful presence, then, generates relationships and institutions that are fundamentally covenantal in character, the ends of which are the fostering of meaning, purpose, truth, beauty, belonging, and fairness - not just for Chrsitians but for everyone." (263)

How, then, do we change the world? Wrong question. Hunter argues that we need to abandon language such as: "'redeeming the culture,' 'advancing the kingdom,' 'building the kingdom,' 'transforming the world,' 'reclaiming the culture,' 'reforming the culture,' and 'changing the world.'" (280). The question, of changing the world, is wrong because it assumes that the world and history can be controlled and managed. It is wrong because it makes our primary mission (loving God and our neighbor; being faithfully present) subservient to something secondary (the effect our faithful presence may or may not have). 

Instead, we engage the world by being faithful presences within it, as per the model laid out in Jeremiah 29:4-7: "Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare."


Thoughts

Ok, take a deep breathe now. The summary is over. That is what the book is about. Now, what do I think?

The classic and 'must-read' text on church and culture has long been Niebuhr's Christ and Culture (which I have now read). Hunter's book ought to replace Niebuhr; maybe it won't, but it should. Niebuhr's book suffers from many of the problems Hunter diagnosis, and tries to come up with categories of engagement which are simplistic and inseparable. Meanwhile, Hunter's suggestion of faithful presence encompasses Niebuhr and more.  One can see Christ standing against the culture in 'faithful presence within' by the example of a better way and the implicit, or explicit, critique of the failings of the larger culture. One can see the Christ of culture in several places, especially in Hunter's discussion of Christians at work. Christ above culture is the foundation of Hunter's suggestion, since it is Christ who is our model of how to create culture rightly. Christ and culture in a paradox can be found as Hunter explores the many tensions which Christians must live in if they are to be faithfully present in the world. Finally, Christ transforming culture is put in it's rightful place as a secondary goal embedded in hope. Instead of five separate (though perhaps complimentary) viewpoints on Christ and Culture, Hunter offers one synthesis which contains them and opens up to much more. 

In other words, this book is crucially important and a must read. Hunter masterfully and carefully expresses the problems which presently reign in the N. American church, and his suggestions for a way forward are nothing short of breathtaking. 

Hunter's accounts and arguments could have used more nuance. In particular, his interactions with ana-baptist thinkers seem shallow. In a book of this length and breadth however, such oversights are remarkably minor. A second critique is that Hunter is perhaps too negative with regards to para-church institutions and the possibilities for reform within the current positions. Again, fairly minor in the scheme of things. 


Conclusion

5 Stars. Recommended. This book is no short, easy read. But it is worth it. Personally, I will be re-reading within the year. You will not find, at least currently, a better book on the subject of church and culture nor, for that matter, a better critique of the quagmire the N. American church has recently gotten itself into.