Thinking Out Loud

July 8, 2014

On My Bookshelf

bookcase - roseland greene blog

One of the blessings of this blog is that your faithful readership has led to increased generosity on the part of several Christian publishers.  Unfortunately, not every book gets reviewed, but I wanted to mention several to you.

Before we begin, you’ll notice many books for men in this list. Okay, there’s only four, but that’s significant. Men’s books don’t sell well in the Christian marketplace, so this emphasis is a bit of a surprise. Plus, all four are from HarperCollins Christian Publishing group. Hopefully the market can sustain all this activity happening at the same time.

The Hope Quotient – Ray Johnston (Thomas Nelson) — More than just a motivational or self-help book, this California pastor has packed this book with charts and graphics as well as supporting scripture references and comes at a time when many people feel hope is lacking. The HQ test allows readers to test their own Hope Quotient.

Rare Bird – Anna Whitson-Donaldson (Convergent) – The real life memoir of a mother whose 12-year old son was washed away in a nearby creek following a freak rainstorm. This book releases in September from Convergent. To get a taste of this, check out this post on her blog, The Bridge: One Terrible Night. Releases in September.

Small – Craig Gross (Nelson Books) – The founder of writes celebrating the ordinary and the insignificant. While the book is general in nature, Gross incorporates story from his rather unique ministry. This book is releasing in August, and unlike the others listed here, I’m already one-third of the way in, so we may end up doing a full review on this one. (Trivia: This is a must-gift book for anyone who serves their local church as a greeter!)

7 Ways to Be Her Hero – Doug Fields (W Publishing) – The author of the classic Purpose Driven Youth Ministry and teaching pastor for the last 22 years at Saddleback is back with seven steps men can take to improve their ability to be a husband. He’s already got my attention with Step #1: Don’t Say Everything You Think.  Oh, oh!

The Dude’s Guide to Manhood – Darrin Patrick (Nelson Books) – The chaplain of the St. Louis Cardinals names twelve different characteristics that can be developed in any man of various stages in life.

Be The Dad She Needs You To Be – Kevin Leman (Thomas Nelson) – One of the foremost experts on family dynamics, prolific author and speaker Leman really needs no introduction as he delves into the relationships between fathers and daughters. There is much practical advice here; fathers of girls might want to keep this book handy.

The Good Dad – Jim Daly (Zondervan) – The President of Focus on the Family comes into many of your homes via radio each and every day, though often while the Dad in the family is at work. (I’m betting at least 70% of Focus listeners are female). The book is somewhat autobiographical as Daly didn’t have the benefit of great role modeling.

Love Well – Jamie George (David C. Cook) – The subtitle is Living Life Unrehearsed and Unstuck and encourages the reader to move beyond the paralyzing effects of fear shame and hopelessness.  This book releases in August.

Losing Your Faith, Finding Your Soul – David Robert Anderson (Convergent) – This book is releasing through the “edgy” imprint of Waterbrook/Multnomah, so it is no surprise that it deals with going through that period of life when lifelong faith assumptions start to unravel and beliefs about God, faith and church are in flux. The Connecticut Episcopal pastor deals with times we experience a “shift in our spiritual foundation.”

Nobody Knows: The Harry T. Burleigh Story – Craig von Buseck (Baker) – That this book is in hardcover adds to the mystery here. The book is subtitled, The Forgotten Story of One of the Most Influential Figures in American Music. In this case, we’re talking about the original American music form, Negro Spirituals.

Crash the Chatterbox – Steven Furtick (Waterbrook) — After getting downright giddy about Furtick’s first two books on this blog, you would think I would have done anything to get my hands on an advance reader copy of his third book. But alas, I’ve allowed myself to become jaded by all the online attention being given to Furtick’s $1.75 million (U.S.) home. I may get to this book yet, or read it privately without doing a review. I guess I’m just too disappointed in how this author’s journey is playing out, and it’s unfortunate because I had high hopes.

July 29, 2013

Where are the Book Reviews? Where are the Books?

The scene a year ago as Borders bookstore locations closed.

The scene a year ago as Borders bookstore locations closed

Sunday night, and I’m looking around for a new book to start. Normally there is a stack from publishers and authors. Not so anymore.

I’m also realizing that around this time last year I wrapped up a two-year flirtation with Christian fiction. My reading of doctrinal and Christian living books still had a four-to-one lead, but I got quite taken with the writing of James Rubart, Andy Andrews, David Gregory, Paul Young and one-time authors William Sirls and Michael Neale. My bookshelf actually needed some space devoted to fiction.

But while the second book in the James Rubart series is due out any day now, I haven’t signed up to review it. I think you get on a roll with certain types of books or certain subjects and then when you fall out of where that current had been taking you, it’s hard to jump back into the stream.

However, that doesn’t explain the lack of non-fiction reviews here over the past few weeks. I’ve finally reached the point where the blog has enough clout that I can bypass those blogger sign-up things where they offer you free books simply because you have a blog, even if you only have a handful of readers. Plus I have publishing connections.  “Ask me if there’s anything you want to review;” I was told last week. I said what I really, really wanted was the full text of The Voice Bible. Maybe that wasn’t what they had in mind.

There is a shortage of books.

On June 19th, Evan Hughes wrote an article for Salon titled Here’s How Amazon Self Destructs.  Yeah, they had me with that headline. You can read the whole article here.

Basically, Hughes is noting that while Amazon is category killing its way to a 60% market share of books sold, it only accounts for 6% of the “discovery process;” the way we find out about books and choose to want to acquire them. In fact, online “discovery” generally is only 17%. Hughes writes:

…The brick and mortar outlets that Amazon is imperiling play a huge role in driving book sales and fostering literary culture. Although beaten by the Internet in unit sales, physical stores outpace virtual ones by 3-to-1 in introducing books to buyers. Bookshelves sell books. In a trend that is driving the owner of your neighborhood independent to drink, customers are engaging in “showrooming,” browsing in shops and then buying from Amazon to get a discount. This phenomenon is gradually suffocating stores to death. If you like having a bookseller nearby, think carefully before doing this. Never mind the ethics of showrooming — it’s self-defeating. You’re killing off a local business you like…

The occasion of his article is growing concern about the long-term stability of Barnes and Noble. Yes, you read that right. First Borders, now Barnes and Noble? There have been layoffs, and store closings. Hughes notes:

By defeating its competitors, Amazon is choking off some of its own air supply. Barnes & Noble and independents are in one sense competitors for Amazon, but in another sense they are functioning as unwilling showrooms and sales agents for the online giant. As David Carr has suggested, Amazon should want them to survive, if only out of self-interest.

Amazon has made attempts in recent years to get better at “discoverability” — with  the “Look Inside” virtual browsing feature and with recommendation algorithms (“New for You”), and through highlighting bestseller lists and editors’ picks. In a bold step in March, Amazon acquired Goodreads, the leading “social reading” website, where readers recommend and review books for one another. Many observers saw this move as a grab for more customer data. The stronger motivation may have been the desire to secure a discovery engine that would funnel customers to, thus protecting against the loss of stores. But so far Amazon has not cracked the discovery problem. Sometimes the site makes a recommendation that no sentient human being would make, which is telling. Even if Amazon gets better at this, it may run up against a wall: Some people want to literally get a feel for the book before they buy.

Barnes and Noble dates back to 1886. Their retail stores are visible, but they operate almost as many textbook stores on college and university campuses. [see Wikipedia article for a complete history]  Hughes writes:

Already in a distant second place [to Amazon], Barnes & Noble has recently seen its woes deepen significantly. The company has been closing stores and announced in June that it would close still more and stop making Nook color tablets. It reported net losses of more than $1 million per day.

But is Hughes being sensationalistic?  In the current issue of New Yorker magazine, James Surowiecki writes:

But the hastily written obituaries left out some important facts. To begin with, B. & N.’s retail business still makes good money, and, though its sales fell last year, its profits actually rose. Its operations, thanks to better inventory management, are more efficient: it can make more money while selling fewer books. The Nook is the only part of the business that’s losing money. Being a book retailer isn’t easy—thanks, above all, to Amazon—but Borders’ bankruptcy, in 2011, left B. & N. without a major national competitor. “In this market, you could actually pick up market share simply because you’re the only major bookseller left,” John Tinker, a media analyst at the Maxim Group, told me. And B. & N. has generally avoided the expensive, long leases that can drain a retailer’s cash flow; many of its leases are short—which gives it flexibility in terms of moving or downsizing—and, since its stores generate foot traffic (which is good for surrounding stores), it has considerable leverage with landlords…

So maybe the sky isn’t falling. Not yet. Surowiecki continues:

For many people, as a number of studies show, reading is a genuinely tactile experience—how a book feels and looks has a material impact on how we feel about reading. This isn’t necessarily Luddism or nostalgia. The truth is that the book is an exceptionally good piece of technology—easy to read, portable, durable, and inexpensive. Unlike the phase-change move toward digital that we saw in music, the transition to e-books is going to be slow; coexistence is more likely than conquest. The book isn’t obsolete. Barnes & Noble just needs to make sure it isn’t, either.

So we see that while some people have speculated how the Amazon empire could possibly implode, others are dismissive of the idea. A few months ago I wrote here about how the values of Amazon’s founder might be quite opposite those of many people who read blogs like this one, and yet despite this, many conservative Evangelical churches are happy to cede all their book purchasing to Amazon because of better pricing. In the average church office, when values are in collision, stewardship trumps principles.

The publishing industry has been hit hard by various factors, and while the long-term good might be better served if everyone didn’t have all their eggs in one basket, a collapse of Amazon isn’t necessarily good news. If the company did go down, some publishers’ entire fortunes are hitched to the Amazon star, and there would no doubt be ripple bankruptcies across the publishing spectrum.

But if Amazon is choking off its air supply, it explains partly why it seems to me there are so few books to review right now. Maybe I need to be more aggressive about asking music companies to service social media with review copies to fill the gap.

February 18, 2013

Rob Bell Returns With A Spring Book Release

Rob Bell - What We Talk About When We Talk About GodHe’s back. But among readers here — who I feel are representative of the larger Christian community — what will be the interest in What We Talk about When We Talk about God?  The book releases March 12th from HarperCollins.

At his blog, Denny Burk doesn’t mince words:

I’m personally of the opinion that Rob Bell is no longer relevant to the larger evangelical theological conversation. Yes, his book will probably sell a lot of copies. No, evangelicals by and large won’t mistake him for one of their own like they used to.

The Christian Post reports that the book is one “in which the Christian author and minister does for God ‘what he did for heaven and hell in Love Wins,’ according to the publisher.”  Yes, I know; I just heard a couple of you shudder. Love Wins was not without its detractors. The Post article adds,

..[T]he controversy surrounding Bell’s book resulted in 3,000 members leaving Mars Hill Bible Church. The tension eventually forced Bell and his wife to split from the congregation. The couple moved to California last year, where the former church leader has since been holding seminars, working on producing a “faith-inflected talk show” and searching “for a more forgiving faith…”

Frank Viola hails Bell as a “marketing genius” and you already figured out that the new book will include a book tour.

Here’s the publisher’s (HarperOne) marketing blurb:

How God is described today strikes many as mean, primitive, backward, illogical, tribal, and at odds with the frontiers of science. At the same time, many intuitively feel a sense of reverence and awe in the world. Can we find a new way to talk about God?

Pastor and New York Times bestselling author Rob Bell does here for God what he did for heaven and hell in Love Wins he shows how traditional ideas have grown stale and dysfunctional and reveals a new path for how to return vitality and vibrancy to how we understand God. Bell reveals how we got stuck, why culture resists certain ways of talking about God, and how we can reconnect with the God who is with us, for us, and ahead of us, pulling us forward into a better future–and ready to help us live life to the fullest.

Rob’s Bell’s writing process comes through in this made-at-home video trailer, which involves 3X5 cards inscribed with words like boombox, snail, volume, further, closer. Is it just me or do they sound like potential NOOMA titles?

February 17, 2013

Jay Bakker Bares Past and Present Faith Doubts

Filed under: books — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:15 am

PTL Club - Bakker FamilyIt’s hard to believe it’s been a dozen years since Jay Bakker –  once the little boy running around the set of Jim and Tammy-Faye Bakker’s PTL Club — emerged as Jay Bakker the author of Son of a Preacher Man, and co-founder of Revolution Church, in New York City where he still preaches.

His second book, Fall to Grace, was issued by FaithWords, but has been rolled over into the edgier Jericho Books imprint, where it was joined last week by the new Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed: Walking with the Unknown God.

Publisher’s Weekly wrote:

The pastor of a church that meets in a bar, Bakker has a special place in his heart for the GLBTQ community and offers a spirited biblical defense for the acceptance of sexual difference. He expresses a faith that encourages questions and emphasizes relationships rather than rules. Bakker writes in a simple, down-to-earth style as he counters the focus on exceptionalism, exclusion, sin, and guilt that dominate some forms of evangelical Christianity. Like fellow evangelical Rob Bell, Bakker doesn’t believe in a God who would consign people to hell for all eternity. Love trumps justice; participating in community trumps official church membership; compassion trumps dogma.

Faith and Doubt - Jay BakkerThe publisher’s own blurb states:

Innovative pastor Jay Bakker thought he knew God: the God who rigorously patrolled every aspect of his life, the God who chose sides, the God who was always disappointed in him. But through the transformative power of grace, he discovered the God who loved and accepted unconditionally, freeing him to ask the hard questions and delve into one of Christianity’s greatest taboos: doubt.

In Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed, Jay voices the questions that Christians are thinking but won’t ask as he chronicles his doubt about God, the Bible, heaven and hell, church, society, relationships, grace, and love. In the process he encourages all of us to welcome “the other,” to read the Bible differently but better, to draw together in community, and to seek an unknown God of limitless grace.

In an interview with The Christian Post, Jay Bakker says,

I’m trying to get people to really grasp the idea of allowing themselves to doubt in faith. I’m trying to get to deconstruct faith and say faith isn’t about having it figured out. Faith isn’t belief. Doubt is built-in with faith. Faith is not a fact. Faith has more in common with hope than it would [with] fact. There’s always an unknowing when it comes to faith.

In the same interview, he adds,

 Yes, I am definitely questioning the atonement and trying to discover how we can see it in a different way. We’ve got this image of God who needs some sort of flesh, some sort of blood, that needs some sort of vengeance to pay for sin. My experience of a loving God who’s asked me to love my enemies – this isn’t a God that demands something before you are accepted. I think Jesus died because Jesus was inclusive. God is inclusive. I think that the idea of God somehow being separated from us was more man’s idea.

I talk about in the book how when Jesus died and the curtain ripped and there was nothing behind the curtain of the Holy of Holies. I think that our ideas of separation are our own. I think we’re always coming up with other ideas of how we are separate from God, or for some reason why we have to be separate from God. I think that imagery of the temple curtain ripping and nothing being behind there is kind of the [same thing] as [God] saying “I’ve always been with you.”

For a few readers here, that may be enough to spark interest in reading Faith and Doubt, while for others it probably raises doubts about Bakker’s faith.

May 13, 2012

The Bible: Still Both the All-Time and Current Bestseller

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:49 am

This is from Jared Fanning; found at Blogging Theologically and originally sourced at Justin Taylor whose version allows you to zoom in on the stats.

April 19, 2012

Book About Chasing Fulfillment is Most Fulfilling

I am biased.

I have read every book Pete Wilson has ever written — both of them — but I came to the first already a huge fan after years of reading Pete’s blog. When Plan B released, I raved, “I believe that with this single book, Pete Wilson moves outside the circle of American pastors and bloggers and into the arena of people we consider major Christian voices for this generation.” But it wasn’t just hype.

But with Empty Promises: The Truth About You, Your Desires, and the Lies You’re Believing, I wasn’t sure if the second book could live up to the superlatives I had heaped on the first.

Not to worry. This book is a class act. I want to explain why in a moment, but first, I need to say that Empty Promises is about our various attempts to pursue happiness and satisfaction in life by chasing after and striving for the material things or marks of status that we think will help us attain that personal fulfillment. Of course — spoiler alert! — the end result is that the peace, joy, contentment and completeness we are looking for can only be found in knowing Jesus Christ.

But most of you who read this blog also read Pete’s blog, and you know him and wife Brandi and the three boys with the hip names, so I know you’re going to buy the book in some form or other; so let’s move on to why I think the book works so well.

First, there is the transparency of the author. There were times I cringed as I was reading, thinking, ‘Pete! What are you doing? Don’t you know some of the people who attend your church are going to be reading this?’  Especially when Pete shares about ending a recent phone call with church board members and then raking his hand across the desk sending everything flying. You’re not supposed to share those kind of stories. It spoils the pretense that keeps our Evangelical system working so well. Pastors can’t experience moments of brokenness, can they? That would make them… well… human.

Second, there is the obvious amount of work that goes into crafting any book. I remarked here awhile ago that I would love to see the large pieces of chart paper that a certain fiction writer must have tacked to his walls to detail the plot line of an obviously complicated book. It’s the same with non-fiction, though. There are quotations and footnotes to be sure, but each chapter, and each paragraph has to have a specific purpose. Put too much into one chapter and people miss the individual points. Put too little in, and the book is shallow. The forethought that goes into a book dictates a certain pacing will result and this book reminded me of that so well.

Third, there is the high value that is placed on scripture throughout each section. It’s like I’m conversing Pete — and listening to the weekly internet service from Cross Point means I am actually hearing his voice as I read — and at each juncture he’s saying, “You know that reminds of that time in the Bible where…” followed by a related text. There is a lot of scripture in Empty Promises. Which reminds me, if anyone tells you that the only way to teach the Bible is verse-by-verse exegesis, then hand them this book, okay?

Fourth, the DNA of the entire book can be found in each chapter, and on each page. Seriously. Rip a page out of the book and give it to someone and you’ve given them the essence of the whole. Except the page with the desk-raking story. Then again, maybe that page, too. I can’t say this about every book, or even most books that I’ve read, but it’s really evident that the essence of the book is written into every page.

Some will feel I’ve more dissected the book than anything, but I really feel that this is a writer who truly resonates with the average Joe or Joanne. Whether that’s because of his transparency, the conversational yet rich text, the identification with the various Bible stories used as examples, or the consistency of the message throughout; it’s hard not to see the book as though one is holding up a mirror to their own life.

Pete calls the book a “diagnostic” and that’s really what we need; because, as a culture, we in The West are chasing after all the entirely wrong things.

Read an excerpt from Empty Promises at Christianity 201
A copy of the book was provided for review by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Catch Cross Point Live at 6:00 PM Central Time, Sundays with live Q & A
or catch the Empty Promises series anytime at

January 3, 2012

Why I Wouldn’t Quit The Episcopal Church Over Gay Marriage

In the past several years, there has been much division in the Episcopal Church in the U.S., the Anglican Church of Canada, and the Worldwide Anglican Communion over the issues of ordination of gay clergy and marriage of gay couples. 

I can honestly say that if were a member of such a church, I don’t honestly believe that either of these two issues would surface as a deal-breaker for me, for one simple reason:

I would have been gone long before that.

For me, the “gender issues” and “sexual orientation issues” are really secondary.  They are symptoms, but there is a deeper cause, and that cause is the rejection of the ultimate authority of scripture.  And that in turn stems from a stronger desire to nitpick over Biblical text and engage in the academic sophistication of  “higher criticism” than a desire to respond to God’s offer of genuine relationship and thereby to understand the ways of the Lord.

At least with a title like "Jesus Never Existed" by Kenneth Humphreys, you know where you stand. With other authors, the theological implications can be more insidious.

So a church which reveres Bishop Shelby Spong — or his sometime partner in crime, Marcus Borg — is of much deeper concern to me than a church which is wrestling with the gay issue, which I believe that all churches are wrestling with to different degrees.

Here’s a sample of Spong’s latest proclamation on the CNNBelief page:

…Jesus of Nazareth, according to our best research, lived between the years 4 B.C. and A.D. 30. Yet all of the gospels were written between the years 70 to 100 A.D., or 40 to 70 years after his crucifixion, and they were written in Greek, a language that neither Jesus nor any of his disciples spoke or were able to write.

Are the gospels then capable of being effective guides to history? If we line up the gospels in the time sequence in which they were written – that is, with Mark first, followed by Matthew, then by Luke and ending with John – we can see exactly how the story expanded between the years 70 and 100.

For example, miracles do not get attached to the memory of Jesus story until the eighth decade. The miraculous birth of Jesus is a ninth-decade addition; the story of Jesus ascending into heaven is a 10th-decade narrative.

In the first gospel, Mark, the risen Christ appears physically to no one, but by the time we come to the last gospel, John, Thomas is invited to feel the nail prints in Christ’s hands and feet and the spear wound in his side.

Perhaps the most telling witness against the claim of accurate history for the Bible comes when we read the earliest narrative of the crucifixion found in Mark’s gospel and discover that it is not based on eyewitness testimony at all…

This is Spong’s opinion, and he is entitled to it, and should count himself blessed to live in a country where people can write this sort of drivel and not be burned at the stake as a heretic.  Living elsewhere, or in other times, might not have proved as beneficial.

Mark’s gospel is not based on eyewitness testimony?  That should come as a surprise to those who have looked closely at Mark 14:51-52 and concluded that this sentence is completely superfluous — and even unnecessarily comic — unless Mark’s clear intent is to position himself directly in the middle of the story.

Spong’s obsession with undermining the Biblical text — a rather odd preoccupation for a clergyman, don’t you think? — also makes a liar out of Luke where he attests in Luke 1: 3-4 to the veracity of the Christ story as it has been told to his correspondent Theophilis.

And the concept of the miracles of Jesus being “attached” to the story in the eighth century is simply baffling.  There were many rabbis, many itinerant teachers, and we only have the names of a handful around the time of the gospels.  True, Jesus taught in ways that no one had before; his following went from a dozen young men to crowds in the thousands; but absent the supernatural miracles, there might be no particular reason why he would be remembered.  In fact, scholars tell us that the Pharisees — perhaps Spong denies they existed as well — were looking for very particular and unique miracles as signs of the Messiah:

  1. The casting out of a spirit from someone who was mute.  The customary approach was that the spirits would first name themselves before being cast out.
  2. The healing of an individual who was born blind. 
  3. The healing of leprosy.
  4. The raising from the dead someone who had been dead more than three days.  (Other such resurrections were to be discounted because of a belief that the spirit ‘lingered’ around the body for three days afterward.)

The Pharisees had an interest in knowing if Jesus was indeed the Messiah that goes beyond the adversarial relationship we normally associate them with.  These miracles proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that Jesus met all their criteria, though they remained blinded to the possibility of crossing the line of faith themselves. 

Suddenly, in the late 20th Century, the Jesus Seminar experts decide that every phrase and sentence in the gospels is suddenly open to debate.  Spong takes the ball and runs with it, and expresses his twelve main thesis as outlined below; I’ve highlighted certain words from the Wikipedia article:

  1. Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.
  2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.
  3. The Biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.
  4. The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ’s divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.
  5. The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.
  6. The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.
  7. Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.
  8. The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.
  9. There is no external, objective, revealed standard written in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.
  10. Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.
  11. The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.
  12. All human beings bear God’s image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one’s being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.

Actually, as I said at the outset, the twelfth item is really the least of my concerns with Spong in particular or Anglicans in general.  But the other eleven points represent a complete undermining of the Christian message as the early Church fathers understood it.

So what do we do with all this?

Marcus Borg and Sheldon Spong occupy an inexplicable amount of space in the “religion” section of general bookstores.  Pastors, priests and rectors of liberal denominations encourage the reading their books. For many such parishioners, authors of this ilk represent the only “Christian” books they will purchase in a given year.

I don’t.  Despite a sweetheart relationship with publisher HarperCollins, I have never ordered a book by either author for a customer, in fact, I have been rather outspoken that I do not wish to make it easy or convenient for someone to access their materials.

While I have strong feelings about the gay clergy and gay marriage issues that are found elsewhere on this blog, for me, the major issue is the authority of the Bible. Sola scriptura is not a hardline absolute for me, but as a guideline to understanding the major doctrines and ethics that form Christianity, it is reliable in 99% of all test cases and issues that arise.

The buck has to stop somewhere and for me it stops with the canon of scripture, not with a radical theologian from North Carolina who makes a living undermining the history and centuries-old practices of the faith that today, ironically, pays his salary.

January 24, 2011

My Jesus Year: An Evangelical Embed With An Alternative Agenda

Ever since Jim Henderson took Casper the Friendly Atheist to church, I’ve had a fascination with books where  a “fish out of water” give us a fresh take on what the Christian world looks like to an outsider. This weekend, I completed yet another such tome.

In Jim and Casper Go To Church, the “fish” was a foreigner to all things religious.  In My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith, the writer, Benyamin Cohen is all to familiar with what is, potentially at least, going on inside a house of worship.

As I type this, I am aware that I’ve lost track of the number of this type of book I’ve read recently, though certainly the Jim Henderson & Matt Casper title was the one that got this genre going for me.  Then there was Kevin Roose’s semester at Liberty University, chronicled in Unlikely Disciple.  And of course, Daniel Radosh’s investigation of Christianity in Rapture Ready.

Radosh like Cohen is Jewish, but there the similarity ends. Radosh is doing investigative journalism, albeit some of it with tongue firmly in cheek. Benyamin Cohen is on a personal quest; on a personal mission. He is seeking to connect with his own faith by immersing himself in the Christian culture he has always lusted after from afar.

But unlike the other writers embedded for the ride, Cohen continues to attend synagogue as well. It makes for some very tiring weekends. To make matters worse, this Rabbi’s son is married to the daughter of a Methodist minister who was on a road to conversion to Judaism before they met. She is able to provide him with briefing and de-briefing information, but is not along for the ride at all. Oh, and just to make it all that much more colorful, the Rabbi who has given his ‘blessing’ to the one-year project insists that Cohen wear his press credentials and his yarmulke wherever he goes.

Bottom line; this is a book that is really more about Judaism than it is about Christianity. It’s about faith, the quest for faith, finding faith; and purports to show that there are more similarities than differences.

On that point, I am not so sure. Cohen was reared in Orthodox Judaism, that branch of the faith requiring the highest level of devotion to its various laws and interpretation of the laws.

Still, there were a couple of serendipitous parallels between Cohen’s faith journey and my own that were tucked away in sentences almost hidden in the narrative. One was a reference to Benyamin and Elizabeth’s simultaneous membership in two different synagogues. As I mention that, I do so knowing that my wife and I are currently listed in the directory of two different church families. The other was a reference to their decision to ditch the main services taking place over the Jewish high holidays in order to worship with about twenty other people at an “alternative” service in a smaller classroom. That is so something my wife and I would choose to do.

Like Casper and Radosh and Roose, Cohen does not convert at the end, just in case you’re wondering. (Hardly a spoiler!) Though in a way, he does; describing his journey as a later-in-life finding of his own faith.

Cohen is embedded in more than just evangelical culture — this review’s title flawed with an irresistible alliteration — and his journey also takes him into a Catholic confessional booth, and inside the home of a woman being proselytized by Mormon Missionaries. But the book is really a primer for Christians on Orthodox Jewish faith and practice, and simply uses the alleged similarities between the two faith systems as a means to explain his own.

My Jesus Year was published in hardcover by HarperOne in 2008 and in paperback in 2009. It is well-written, engaging, evocative and a must-read for Christians who want to get to know their Jewish neighbors.

January 21, 2011

On March 29th, 2011, It All Gets A Little Crazy

Christians who talk the most about going to heaven while everybody else goes to hell don’t throw very good parties. ~ Rob Bell, Love Wins

On March 29th; just a few weeks from now, you can count on various forms of social media to be all about Rob Bell’s newest book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

‘In the first chapter alone,’  the Tweets, Facebook updates, and blog posts will read, ‘Bell clearly and finally defines his departure from Christian orthodoxy.’

Well, at least orthodoxy as we knew it; so detailed and convincing as some of his lines of thought are drawn.  Whether you agree or not at the end, you will definitely find yourself saying, “I never thought of it quite like that.”

I’m just a few pages from the end of an advance copy, and, well, this wouldn’t be a teaser if I said more right now would it?  You’ll have to wait a few more weeks for the book that Bell’s former publisher Zondervan no doubt figured was too hot to handle.

As the voice-over announcer said, “Coming Tuesday, March 29th to a bookstore near you from HarperCollins.”

…With more teasers to follow here at Thinking Out Loud.  Let the speculation begin!

November 15, 2008

One Evangelical Family’s Visit to the Catholic Bookstore

Filed under: Christianity, Church, Faith, theology — Tags: , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:57 pm

catholic-bookstore-1Today we did what every good Evangelical family does on a Saturday while visiting Toronto; we checked out the Catholic bookstore.   If religious bookstores of any kind are places where you can purchase the essentials for worship and spiritual development, then I would say that Evangelicals and Catholics have very little in common if anything at all.  I’m not saying that’s the case.  I’m just saying if you had to judge by what’s in the bookstore, that’s what you’d conclude.   This store, and the Christian bookstores I am accustomed to visiting probably have an “overlap” factor of about three percent.   If that.   My 3% figure is being charitable.   And most of that was in the children’s department.   But a lot of Catholics shop at the broader type of Christian bookstores (or the Christian department at Walden, Barnes & Noble or Books a Million) so you can’t judge every Catholic from the vibe you get from these pictures.

catholic-bookstore-2Needless to say, for Mrs. W. and myself, there were a few questions from our two teens, who have never been in a Catholic environment like this.   I tried to explain that just as there are oodles of Christian Denominations (capital “D”) there are also dozens of different denominations (small “d”) of Roman Catholics.   They all worship together on Sunday morning, but if you were to do exit interviews with them after mass, you’d find a large gradient of belief on both major items of doctrine (i.e. the veneration of Mary, the matter of church authority, etc.) and less essential items (i.e. spiritual gifts, the role of icons, etc.)   In fact, I believe the Roman Catholic ‘spectrum of belief’ on some things to be much wider than anything you’d find in Protestant circles, be they Evangelical, Charismatic, Emergent, etc.

There’s also the issue of blurring lines.   For example, some postmodern Evangelicals have no problems with using some kind of tactile device that is held in the palm of one’s hand as a focus device during prayer.   This is not a rosary.   Or is it?   The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that, holding the rosary, as one repeats various prayers (i.e. the “Hail Mary” prayer and the “Our Father”) working their way through the decades (beads), one is to think about the various “mysteries,” which consist of four sets of five (see appendix below)  that one uses depending on the day of the week, which remind us of various events in the life of Christ, except for the final two which focus on “the assumption of Mary,” and “the coronation of the blessed virgin.”   Mary always gets the last word.   It’s those last two parts of the last mysteries which prevent Evangelicals, Charismatics and other Protestants from even remotely considering praying the rosary.  (Well, that and the “Hail Mary” prayers.)   Yet, we find some postmodern Christians using somewhat similar devices.   Guilty by association?    BTW, in our own store, rosary beads are part of that 3% overlap.  We always keep a few on hand because it just ticks Catholics off when we don’t have them, and we don’t want to prevent them from coming back for something else.   We want them to feel at home.  We stock six or seven rosaries with mixed feelings.   But we don’t carry candles.   I wouldn’t know where to begin.   Or statues.

catholic-bookstore-3Anyway, that’s how we spent a half-hour this morning.

As a guy who spends some time each week blogging at USAToday, I realize that anytime you publish anything online with a Catholic theme, you do tend to attract people drawn to debate much like bulls are drawn to the colour red.    So for the first time on this blog, much as we would like to get a volume of comments that better matches our page view stats, we are running this one with “Comments Off.”  Sorry not here, okay? Just enjoy the pictures.

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Appendix to this article from Wikipedia article on the rosary:  (with their fourth group of mysteries moved into the second position to conform to other websites on this subject.)

Joyful Mysteries

  1. The Annunciation. Fruit of the Mystery: Humility
  2. The Visitation. Fruit of the Mystery: Love of Neighbor
  3. The Nativity. Fruit of the Mystery: Poverty (poor in spirit), Detachment from the things of the world, Contempt of Riches, Love of the Poor
  4. The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple. Fruit of the Mystery: Purity
  5. The Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple. Fruit of the Mystery: True Wisdom and True Conversion.

Luminous Mysteries

  1. The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. Fruit of the Mystery: Openness to the Holy Spirit
  2. The Wedding at Cana. Fruit of the Mystery: To Jesus through Mary
  3. Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God. Fruit of the Mystery: Repentance and Trust in God
  4. The Transfiguration. Fruit of the Mystery: Desire for Holiness
  5. The Institution of the Eucharist. Fruit of the Mystery: Adoration

Sorrowful Mysteries

  1. The Agony in the Garden. Fruit of the Mystery: Sorrow for Sin, Uniformity with the will of God
  2. The Scourging at the Pillar. Fruit of the Mystery: Mortification
  3. The Crowning of Thorns. Fruit of the Mystery: Contempt of the world
  4. The Carrying of the Cross. Fruit of the Mystery: Patience
  5. The Crucifixion. Fruit of the Mystery: Salvation

Glorious Mysteries

  1. The Resurrection. Fruit of the Mystery: Faith
  2. The Ascension. Fruit of the Mystery: Hope and desire for Heaven
  3. The Descent of the Holy Spirit. Fruit of the Mystery: Holy Wisdom to know the truth and share with everyone
  4. The Assumption of Mary. Fruit of the Mystery: Grace of a Happy Death and True Devotion towards Mary
  5. The Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Fruit of the Mystery: Perseverance and Crown of Glory

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