30.6.11

Read!



I would just like to take a moment to encourage you to read. I love reading, but I also know that it is good to do. I hope to inculcate the value of reading in all of my children and in as many other people as I can. 

Reading is important. It is part of growing as an individual and a Christian. The central source of our beliefs is a book. Think about that, and remember again why reading is important. 

Yes, I know, you have a reason. Something is stopping you from reading "as much as you want to."  Maybe you don't read, but wish you did. Maybe you just wish you spent more time reading. But, I am willing to bet that most of you would not tell me you have no desire to read more. I don't know why, but that seems to be the common response I get.  Then come the reasons. 

I'm too busy. 

Reading is difficult. 

I get distracted by (insert electronic device here). 

And so on. 

Fellow Christian, do not let these things stop you! Do not be robbed of this source of great blessing in your life by such things! You know how when you were growing up and you didn't want to finish your meal, your mom would say "children in Africa are starving" ? Remember that? Well, I can't resist. So let me say this: there are people all throughout history, and around the world, who wish they had the opportunity to read that you do. 

What I really want to say is that if you know how to read (and since you are reading this, you obviously do) you have been given a great gift. Do not take it for granted. 

Take the steps necessary to read more. In starting out, there is a good chance it will be more 'work' than you are used to during your free time. It is worth it. The idea that our free time is supposed to be about 'vegging out' is an insidious lie of television culture. Yes, we all need down time, but we also need to spend some of our time cultivating spiritual and intellectual growth in our lives. 

Let me give you some advice. Don't accept your own excuses; they are not good enough for you. Set aside regular time to read (of course, it has to fit your schedule to some degree, but if you have to shift your schedule then so be it). Start with easier books (easier is relative, you know what you need). Start with topics in books, or types of books, you enjoy (yes, that auto magazine counts if you actually read the articles). Then challenge yourself (you didn't think I was going to let you stay with just a magazine did you? Of course not!). Challenge yourself by reading more, and/or by reading something more difficult. You do not have to read quickly. You do not have to read a lot of books. You do not need a large library. You do not need to make sure you are reading the 'best books.' You just need to read. And as you go, make it your goal to read widely, read deeply, and read well. 

You can start a lifetime of learning and growing and maturing today. You should. 


29.6.11

"The Book That Made Your World" by Vishal Mangalwadi




Though many people seek wisdom, in recent times the bible has become one of the last places search. Vishal Mangalwadi seeks to reverse that trend by examining how the bible has impacted western civilization. The Book That Made Your World is a breathtaking tour of history looked at through the thesis that it was the bible which turned the west into the unique civilization it is: technical and tolerant, scientific and free, just and prosperous. Mangalwadi pursues this thesis through a dazzling, and perhaps overwhelming, array of topics; from rationality to heroism, technology to morality, and much else besides.

Though this is a long book of history, I found it quite interesting coming from the perspective of an Indian philosopher who mixed in stories of his home with the history of western civilization. The perspective offered in this book is very much worth thinking through, as is Mangalwadi's comparisons of the effect of the bible in some places with the lack of such effect in others. One must know, however, that there is some inevitable generalization and over-simplification in a book like this. One cannot look at such huge swathes of history and not run into those problems, at least not in a single volume of this length. Still, I was disappointed by two things: the lack of footnotes and support for some of Mangalwadi's points and the complete failure to examine any contrary points of view. He could have done a much better job of sourcing his material and he definitely could have spent a chapter or two examining other theories on some of his more controversial points. 

Conclusion: 4 Stars. Conditionally Recommended. For many people this book will be a hard and dry read, but it is worth it. Just be careful that you do not accept everything said here uncritically; there is more to say about these matters than Mangalwadi has fit into this book. 

Note: This book was provided by the publisher for review. 

27.6.11

"On The Verge" By Alan Hirsch and Dave Ferguson



Alan Hirsch and Dave Ferguson, On the Verge: A Journey Into the Apostolic Future of the Church (Exponential Series) Zondervan, 2011. 352 pgs. 

The church is 'on the verge' of massive changes. It must be, or so these authors argue. The old ways of 'being church' in the west are failing and so we must strive for something new. Hirsch and Ferguson call this new thing a 'verge church'. That is, the church as 'apostolic movement', reproducible and missional, focused on the 'mDNA' of 'apostolic genius' (a concept from another one of Hirsch's books). In this book Hirsch and Ferguson bring forth a host of best practices, ideas, programs, and so on (one could insert descriptive words in here for quite some time) with the goal of helping church leaders become part of this new apostolic movement. 

In terms of structure, On The Verge is divided into four parts: Imagine (which explores the vision of the apostolic movement), Shift (which explores the programs of the apostolic movement, including things like Ethos and core values), Innovate (which argues for the need to do new things and for methods to help this along), and Move (which is part about missional thinking and part about just getting going). Hirsch is the author of the first two sections and Ferguson of the second two but each chapter also contains a response, which is really a cheer, from the other author. 

There were several high points in On The Verge. While Hirsch and Ferguson are analyzing some of the problems the church faces today they are very helpful and clear. Later, they make sure to emphasize the need to have Jesus at the center of any church movement. Further into the book, there are plenty of good insights on how change works, or doesn't work, in most churches.  

Still, two things, seemingly minor, very quickly began to bother me. First, I found the style and language of this book, awash in neologism and MBA lingo (chillax, movementum, and mDNA, to name a few small examples), to be incredibly irritating. It is, of course, my own prejudice which finds this kind of thing irritating, but I am prejudiced against it because I find it to be unhelpful and obfuscating to continually make up new terms as a substitute for clearly explaining an idea in the first place. Either a practice is new or ancient, it cannot be both, and simply calling what you are advocating by a new name does not ease the contradiction. Second, there was a general lack of historical knowledge in this book. The authors attribute the classroom model to the greeks, genuinely misunderstand the differences between Greek and Hebraic thinking, and very much misrepresent historic Christian movements in order to fit them into their own paradigms.  Neither of these problems are at the heart of the book, but they served to put me on guard.

Much more importantly were a few nagging questions: How can I read an entire book claiming to be apostolic church and find so few biblical parallels? Yes, I know, they are avoiding biblical language, but that is not what I found missing. What about the theology? Where was it? 

Quite a few books these days, On the Verge included, complain about how the old ways aren't working. This is naturally followed by some 'new way' being encouraged. But despite the seemingly large amounts of 'the new' which can be found in this book there was one disturbing commonality between the model Hirsch and Ferguson are pushing and the models they so loudly criticize: they are all based on taking best practices from the business world and applying them to the church. What has changed in the interim, and the 'new thing' which Hirsch and Ferguson represent, is simply the most recent attempt at doing the same old thing. The business world has moved on and, if Hirsch and Ferguson have their way, the church will be close behind. I am not convinced that this is the path we ought to pursue.I know some who read this will see no problem here, but I disagree. In The Pastor: A Memoir Eugene Peterson complains of the vocation of a pastor being replaced with "religious entrepreneurs with business plans" and the lack of connection with history. In On The Verge we see the same thing applied to what little ecclesiology the evangelical church has ever had. 

Conclusion: 2.5 Stars. Not Recommended. Hirsch and Ferguson have done a decent job of merging the most recent best practices with a vision for church. If that is what you are looking for then I think you are looking for the wrong thing, but there may be no better place to find it than here. 


#SpeakEasyOnTheVerge

24.6.11

To Bruce Sanguin: An Apology

Dear Bruce Sanguin,

Back in March I posted a book review of your book "If Darwin Prayed." Just recently, you contacted me about this review and brought to my attention two objections. 

Your first objection was my characterization of your prayers as "mumbo-jumbo." You rightly pointed out that this goes beyond critical review into derogatory remark. And so, I apologize. As you know, I have already done so personally, but because my review was, and is, public I also need publicly apologize. I crossed the line, and I am sorry. 

Your second objection was to my calling your book "not Christian." Again, as you know, we are currently in discussion about this point, and it is entirely possible that I will be offering another apology at a later date. For now, I will say that I do not make that statement lightly nor often. Nor do I intend it to apply to you, Bruce. It is more than possible that I overreacted to the differences in our theologies and so, for now,  I will simply mark it as under review. 

I would like to add, mostly for the benefit of other readers, that I make many mistakes and do many wrong things. Not only that, but I often fail to see them. I actually greatly appreciate it when these are brought to my attention. So thank you Bruce, for being patient and gracious to me. 

God Bless You,
Andrew

15.6.11

"The Faith of Leap" by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch



Michael Frost and Alan HirschFaith of Leap, The: Embracing a Theology of Risk, Adventure & Courage (Shapevine). Baker Books, 2011. 224 pgs. 

In The Faith of Leap Frost and Hirsch encourage the reader to leave the idols of security and safety behind and live out our adventure with God. They remind us that faith always involves risk, that God calls us to make a leap for him and, in that leap, to have the "faith of leap". In order to develop these themes, Frost and Hirsch explore the difference between community and communitas, as well as liminality and how these things affect our churches and are lived out in our mission. Their final chapter then points us to our own communities as the places in which we live out this adventure through the "risk of neighborliness." 

There is much to be praised in this book.  Chapter five is clearly the highlight, as Hirsch and Frost directly assault our idol of security in an argument and encouragement to get over our risk-averse tendencies. Indeed, far too many churches and Christians are more concerned with safe-guarding their own existence rather than with being actively involved in the mission of God, no matter the cost. However, what these churches have lost is emphatically not their sense of adventure. What they have lost is their sense of calling. Thus begins my disappointment with this book. 

In the preface Hirsch bemoans the fact that out of tens of millions of books exploring theology they were unable to find a single study on the nature of adventure itself. Assuming Hirsch was correct as he wrote this preface, he is still correct as I read this book, and perhaps with good reason. What you do not have here is a serious study of the nature of adventure - "its role in shaping our thinking about God, our experience of life, or our participation in mission, church, or discipleship." (13) Instead, you have a recasting of Christian mission in the language and framework of adventure and risk. In doing this, Frost and Hirsch draw on excellent sources, and yet they seem to fail to learn many of the lessons therein. 

One of my favorite quotes on this subject, which appears in the introduction, comes from The Lord of the Rings. I am sure you know it. Frodo and Samwise are approaching Mordor, discouraged, hungry, tired, and ready to finish their quest and die. Samwise then says to Frodo:

"The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo, adventures as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of stories went out and looked for because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that's not the way of it with the tales that really mattered or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually - their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn't. And if they had, we shouldn't know, because they'd be forgotten. We hear about those as just went on - and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same - like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren't always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we've fallen into?"
We can learn many true things about adventure from this quote. Adventure is not something you seek but something that happens while you faithfully answer a call you did not look for... strike one. Adventure is not something that those in it often find enjoyable or desirable, but what you must do in being faithful.... strike two. Adventure is not, primarily, about deeds of daring-do but about trudging on, faithfully, through difficulties.... strike three. 

Perhaps there is a reason for there not being any sustained and serious theological examination of the idea of adventure. Perhaps it is because Tolkien got these three truths exactly right. If adventure is not something you seek but, instead, something that happens to you, then whence this book? If adventure is not enjoyable or desirable, when rightly understood, then why are we trying to dress it up otherwise? Further, why would we encourage more of it? And if adventure is about faithfulness in the face of difficulties then why would we try to embed adventure in our churches instead of embedding faithfulness and perseverance?

The answer, I think, also lies in the same quote from Tolkien. People who hear adventures, instead of living them, think of adventures in ways which are unrealistic and wrong. This is further compounded by Hollywood. We watch adventure movies in which hours, months, or years of training are compressed into a montage of flowing images put to catchy music (you can't beat classic Rocky for this) so that we can quickly move on to the 'adventure' part of the story. Of course, the same is true even in biblical stories. Joseph spends years toiling away in obscurity, remaining faithful and persevering, before any 'adventure' occurs. This is the way of real life. 

A serious theological study of adventure would have to include a study of our cultural distortions of adventure, our misplaced desires for impossible levels of excitement, and our inability to maintain the years of faithfulness necessary in preparation for whatever 'adventure' God may have for us. It would also involve many of the things Frost and Hirsch included in their book, such as an attack on the idol of security, a calling out of Church's lack of mission, and an examination of how 'adventure' is part of community formation.  I suppose that what I am saying is that this book contains only half of the story. In so doing, this book can, unintentionally I am sure, be setting people up for disappointment and disillusionment. If we come to Jesus for adventure and find, instead, that we are called to years of faithfulness in which we, ourselves, may or may not see any of the fruit of our labor then our expectations, false though they were, will have been dashed on the hard rocks of discipleship and we may, in some ways rightly, feel ripped off and move on believing God did not deliver on his end of the bargain. Of course, grace will lead many through this problem despite the damage we will have done, but that is no excuse. When we falsely represent the call of Christ, and what to expect in answering it, we are playing an incredibly dangerous game.

Does the church need to stop being so risk-averse? Absolutely. Do we need a missional understanding of both church and God? Most assuredly. It is while encouraging these that this book shines. However, in order to overcome these problems what the church does not need is a renewed 'sense of adventure' or a desire to be heroes. What we need is a renewed call to faithfulness, a renewed understanding of our Lord, and a renewed willingness to carry our cross for Christ. While these were touched upon throughout The Faith of Leap they fell well behind the focus on adventure. 

Conclusion: 2.5 Stars. Not Recommended. In terms of missional churches, understanding God, or theology there is nothing new here. It is simply re-framed material and, in my opinion, re-framed in an unhelpful and dangerous manner.


"Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. 
Available at your favourite bookseller from Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group."  

14.6.11

Finding Good Books, Finding Free Books

I often get asked how I know what books are worth reading. I also often get asked how I get all the free books I receive and review. Sadly, doing these two things is often at odds. Many free books are not that good. But, let me give you some tips for each of these categories anyway. 


4 Way To Find Good Books

1. The Recommendation of a Friend/Person whose opinion you trust - literally nothing beats the recommendation of someone who knows you and whom you trust. This includes friends, authorities on the subject, and people who work at good book stores (like the Regent Book Store... ahh, the shameless plug :) A word of caution: not all your good friends are people like this. I have regularly failed at filtering "good" from "entertaining" in the past and thus passed on several bad book recommendations. 

2. Trace it back - This is the category for research. I put several things here. Reading books by authors you know you enjoy (duh), reading books that authors you enjoy themselves note that they enjoy and/or found good/useful, using bibliographies and footnotes, etc.  I "found" G.K. Chesterton because I followed up on C.S. Lewis mentioning "The Everlasting Man" as a great book. Chesterton is still one of my favorite authors.

3. The Recommendation of "The Cloud" - By this I mean things like 'people who liked this book also liked' or looking for similar authors and so on. Google it, amazon it, whatever.

4. Trial and Error - Yes, the hard truth is that many times you just have to read it and see. That is why getting free books is so nice; you only wasted your time when the book is terrible.


Steps to Finding Free Books:


1. Borrow them from those same people you thought of when you read number 1 on the last list.

2. Use the library...

3. If you still want more free books, like free books for review from the publishers, then here is what you need.
   
     a. Have a "platform" with an "audience" for your "reviews."  Look, the truth is that publishers are not really out to give you a free book. They are out to get you to give them free publicity. If giving you a free book means your mom, dad, cousin Bob, and great uncle Melvin will find out about it, but no one else will, then your not getting that free book. Start a blog, join library thing, get a facebook page, tweet about it, and so on. You need an active platform with a real audience. You don't have to be huge (as you all know, I am not!) but you have to have something.

     b. Look at publishers. Some, such as Thomas Nelson, have a dedicated website for bloggers to sign up for free books on (http://booksneeze.com/).  Others, such as Zondervan, utilize their own blogs to promote "blog tours" (http://engagingchurchblog.com/).  Still others don't have much that is promoted, but will happily send a free book your way once and a while if you ask about it specifically.

     c. Follow other blogs that offer blog tours.  Basically you just have to keep your eyes open for this one. It can be pretty random who does a blog tour and when. If you follow lots of bigger blogs on topics you are interested in, then you will find them once and a while.

     d. Find "blog review" type websites with material you are interested in and sign up. (like this one: http://theooze.com/topics/viralblogger/)



I hope that helps you in your quest for more books!

2.6.11

"Spiritual But Not Religious..."

(Last month I wrote a post entitled "It Sounds Good But..." in which I spoke, briefly, on the need to exercise appropriate judgment in the face of bad ideas that sound good. If that topic had become a series then this post would belong in it.)

I am sure that you, like me, have heard the phrase "spiritual but not religious." It appears on book covers, in magazine articles, and on the lips of people near and far. It embodies the pernicious idea of a divide between the 'religious,' epitomized in dead institutions with their rites, rituals, dogmas, and creeds, and the 'spiritual', visible and vibrant in our personal lives through heartfelt, passionate, subjective and real experiences. It has become a trend, a near automatically assumed position, to be 'spiritual' but not 'religious'. After all, who wants to wade through the legalism, hypocrisy, politics, and conflicts of an 'institution'? 

What you may not know (and really, why would you?) is that this idea has deep roots. In 1902 William James published The Varieties of Religious Experience which explored precisely this divide. He defined religion as either personal or institutional and completely denigrated the latter. (Side-Note: I had to read this book because I took a degree in Religious Studies) Now, over 100 years later, we are still operating with the divide James set up; we have merely renamed it.

I am sympathetic to this desire. After all, the church is no easy place to stay. Institutions have many problems, the church as much as any: loss of mission and vision as the institution becomes an end in itself, with preservation the highest goal; the stifling of creativity in the name of tradition and continuity; abuse of power, or other kinds of abuse; and this is just to name a few (on top of those listed earlier). Disillusionment is inevitable if we come to the church without a proper understanding of grace. Sin is also inevitable, and therein lies the rub. For it is precisely sin on an institutional level which expresses itself in the problems I have listed, and the hard fact is that no matter where you go you cannot avoid sin. Further, it is precisely (and only) grace which can see us through this difficulty. This is merely one of the reasons that being spiritual but not religious is not only an impossible idea, but a nonsensical statement. 

100 years after William James published Varieties Charles Taylor, a brilliant Canadian Roman Catholic philosopher, published Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited in which he responds to James saying, as I have just done, that it is simply absurd to make this division. 

The problem, philosophically speaking, is that all experience requires vocabulary and this vocabulary is inevitably given to us by a community. There is no individual religious experience, no matter how physically alone we are in the moment. You must have both theological formulation and communal experience to have a religious transformation. The very idea of a personal religion, or spirituality, is only possible in a society which champions individualism to the point of all but denying the interconnectedness in which we actually live. 

For Christianity specifically, the problems of this divide go much deeper. In making 'true religion' a matter of 'the heart' or of merely personal experience we have created a false dichotomy between religion as personal and private and the rest of our life as public and communal. The most damaging fallout from this idea is consumer Christianity, in which individuals come to church to 'be fed.' In this way many evangelicals, and other Christians, have managed to turn what little communal experience we have left (worshiping together and hearing the word together on a Sunday morning) into yet another individual experience. The constant misunderstandings of, and misuses of, the sacrament of The Lord's Supper in many evangelical settings certainly do not help.

If you want to speak more theologically, the idea of being spiritual but not religious is nonsense because as a Christian you are, and must be, a member of the body of Christ. Though we mean the 'church universal' when we speak of the body of Christ you cannot, as a Christian, avoid the local church as the visible and tangible outgrowth of the universal church. If you do, you have, and will continue to have, serious problems.  As I have said before you simply cannot follow Jesus and reject His body.

Perhaps most distressing, however, is the total and utter lack of understanding as to what it means to be spiritual as a Christian which this whole idea of 'spiritual but not religious' displays. The center of Christianity is grace: the grace of God displayed in the person of Jesus the Christ and that same grace lived in and through the Christian community. Hence James 1:27 "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." I have news for you: you don't do those things best on your own. Hence Jesus words in John 13:35 "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another". Hence Paul's words in Galatians 6:10 "... let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers."

The church is to be a place characterized by grace. This is what makes us attractive and this is how we are to live; grace in that we are forgiven, grace in our love, and grace in how we deal with the inevitable sin that comes up within the church and without. Of course, many churches have not done a good job of being places of grace or displaying that grace towards their brothers and sisters in Christ and in the local church (let alone those outside of the church), but you do not become more 'spiritual' or (more importantly) more truly Christian by leaving said institutions; you do it be learning to be more gracious within them, and helping to make them places of grace.

Being 'spiritual but not religious' is impossible, and doubly so when we are speaking of the faith of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.

(Please understand that this in no way means you should stay in a particular local church; there are numerous valid reasons for leaving a local church. It does mean you cannot abandon church or the institutions therein. It also is not meant to limit the grace of God in that just as anyone can be saved with God, so all things are possible when it comes to individuals making mistakes in this area. I am only asserting that biblically and theologically speaking this divide is foolish and mistaken.)

1.6.11

May Reflections

I got nothing. 

Top 3 Posts:

1. RCPC 2011 Day 1 - Great conference. 
2. April Reflections - This was a surprise; my 'reflections' posts usually fall somewhere on the bottom of each months list of favorite posts. I guess it did include details about the whole hospital visit thing... 
3. Books for Pastors - If you like book recommendations then you have come to the right blog. 

I hope you had a great May; I know I did. The highlight of my month was most definitely spending a week with my lovely wife in Kelowna while my parents took care of our kids.  Thanks Mom and Dad for a wonderful week away, and thank you Kristina for the seven best years of my life! I know we have many more to come :)