Thinking Out Loud

November 6, 2014

Philip Yancey on the Twilight of Grace

Changing societyIn my single digit years, I collected a box filled with low-tech, low-cost “magic” tricks, one of which consisted of two large die-cut pieces of cardboard in the shape of the letter ‘C.” One was red and one was blue, and as you held them side-by-side, if the red one was on the right it always appeared to be larger; but when you switched them, the blue one then appeared to be larger. The cutout pieces are identical in size, but the mind views the second one as larger when contrasted to the inside curve of the one before.

I always have this picture in my mind whenever I read something that purports to state that society is categorically getting worse. Haven’t people said that in past centuries also? Is the trajectory of society really in what pilots call a “graveyard spiral” or is redemption possible? Or perhaps do things simply go in cycles?

Philip Yancey’s book Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News? (Zondervan) is in many ways a state-of-the-union address on the moral, ethical and spiritual condition of our world in general and the Church of Jesus Christ in particular. Ever the journalist, Yancey tracks down every lead while at the same time maintaining a subjectivity common to most of his other writings. So it’s our world and his pilgrimage; one man’s effort to document where the human race is heading and how it impacts on one writer in the Colorado mountains.

Vanishing GraceYou could easily read Vanishing Grace and conclude that these are the rantings of a writer who has finally reached his curmudgeon years. ‘Back in my day…’ you expect to hear him say; but Yancey is on to you and instead each section is scented with the slight aroma of the hope that no matter how dark, there are still lights and there is still The Light.

The subjectivity means that the book is rooted in an American perspective, but Yancey’s travels have made him very much a citizen of the world, and so the book is one part personal reflection, one part ripped from the pages of the newspaper and its online equivalent, and one part history lesson, borrowing from the best of both actual events and what has been expressed by poets, playwrights and novelists.

Some will find the book a little disjointed. In the introduction he states that he set out to write a book, but really wrote four books. In the afterword, he acknowledges that parts of the book previously appeared in print and online in a variety of forums. This is not a problem, as Vanishing Grace is intended for the thinking Christian who ought to be able to navigate the manner in which the material has been arranged.

Yancey writes,

The church works best as a separate force, a conscience to society that keeps itself at arms length from the state. The closer it gets, the less effectively it can challenge the surrounding culture and the more perilously it risks losing its central message. Jesus left his followers the command to make disciples from all nations. We have no charge to “Christianize” the United States or any other country — an impossible goal in any case.  (p. 253)

Just a few pages later he adds,

Several years ago a Muslim man said to me, “I have read the entire Koran and find in it no guidance on how Muslims should live as a minority in society. I have read the entire New Testament and can find in it no guidance on how Christians should live as a majority.” He pointed out that Islam seeks to unify religion and law, culture and politics. The courts enforce religious (sharia) law, and in a nation like Iran the mullahs, not the politicians, hold the real power. (p. 258)

Both the first and second halves of that excerpt are packed with food for thought, typical of what one finds in the pages of this book.

Is Vanishing Grace truly a sequel to What’s So Amazing About Grace? written nearly two decades earlier? The new book certainly brings a maturity to the subject, but I would contend that the earlier title is well-suited to new believers and house study groups, while this 2014 is more profitable for pastors, leaders, mature Christ-followers or anyone interested in how one Christian views the state of our changing world. One thing that both share however — and this is common to much of Yancey’s writing — is their acceptability to giving to someone outside your faith circle.

An advance copy of the book was provided by the Canadian marketing department of HarperCollins Christian Publishing.


Here’s a longer book excerpt that ran at Christianity 201 a few days ago:

Jesus “came from the Father, full of grace and truth,” wrote John in the preface to his gospel.  The church has worked tirelessly on the truth part of that formula:  witness the church councils, creeds, volumes of theology, and denominational splits over minor points of doctrine.  I yearn for the church to compete just as hard in conveying what Paul calls the “incomparable riches” of God’s grace.  Often, it seems, we’re perceived more as guilt-dispensers than as grace-dispensers.

John records one close-up encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman.  Knowing well the antipathy between the two groups, she marveled that a Jewish rabbi would even speak to her.  At one point she brought up one of the disputed points of doctrine:  Who had the proper place of worship, the Jews or the Samaritans?  Jesus deftly sidestepped the question and bore in on a far more important issue:  her unquenched thirst.  He offered her not judgment but a lasting solution to her guilt over an unsettled life.  To her and her alone he openly identified himself as Messiah and chose her as a grace-dispenser.  Her transformation captured the attention of the whole town, and Jesus stayed for two days among the “heretics,” attracting many converts.

That scene of Jesus and the Samaritan woman came up during a day I spent with the author Henri Nouwen at his home in Toronto.  He had just returned from San Francisco, where he spent a week in an AIDS clinic visiting patients who, in the days before antiretroviral drugs, faced a certain and agonizing death.  “I’m a priest, and as part of my job I listen to people’s stories,”  he told me.  “So I went up and down the ward asking the patients, most of them young men, if they wanted to talk.”

Nouwen went on to say that his prayers changed after that week.  As he listened to accounts of promiscuity and addiction and self-destructive behavior, he heard hints of a thirst for love that had never been quenched.  From then on he prayed, “God, help me to see others not as my enemies or as ungodly but rather as thirsty people.  And give me the courage and compassion to offer your Living Water, which alone quenches deep thirst.”

That day with the gentle priest has stayed with me.  Now, whenever I encounter strident skeptics who mock my beliefs or people whose behavior I find offensive, I remind myself of Henri Nouwen’s prayer.  I ask God to keep me from rushing to judgment or bristling with self-defense.  Let me see them as thirsty people, I pray,  and teach me how best to present the Living Water.

(pp 27-29)


For an interview with the author, check out all six pages at this link to Leadership Journal

May 4, 2014

Books Worth Reading…

Whenever we roll into a new month, I always look back on things published one year prior, to see if any of them deserve a re-look. This time around, I was struck by some books we were reviewing a year ago…


I don’t want to toss out cheap superlatives like, ‘Best book I ever read,’ but 24 hours after finishing Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale by Ian Morgan Cron, I definitely feel that this is one of best written books I’ve ever read. With equal parts contemporary ecclesiology, church history, and Italy travelog, You can practically taste the Italian food. Chasing Francis is an excellent work of fiction that’s more about facts than fiction.

Chasing FrancisSome explanation is necessary. For me, this book fits in with the type of fiction that I’ve been attracted to over the past few years; what I call Socratic dialog. Think Paul Young in The Shack and Crossroads, Andy Andrews in The Noticer and other titles, David Gregory in the Perfect Stranger trilogy; books that use story as a motif for teaching.

But the publisher, Zondervan, didn’t see it that way, identifying the advance copy I received in the Christian Living category and avoiding the category thing entirely on their website….

[continue reading here]


Much as I hate to admit it, while I’ve been aware of him for many years, this week was the first time I finally got around to reading one of the more than fifty books by R. T. Kendall. The American born author and pastor is best known for being the pastor of London’s Westminster Chapel where he succeeded the likes of Glyn Owen, G. Campbell Morgan and Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

R. T. Kendall - These are the Days of ElijahThe book I asked to review is These Are The Days of Elijah: How God Uses Ordinary People to Do Extraordinary Things (2013, Chosen Books) which was compiled from a series of Sunday evening sermons given at Westminster in 2000-2001; and if those Sunday night sermons were this good, I can only imagine what his preaching was like on Sunday mornings.

The book is an exposition of the story of the prophet Elijah. That said, you would expect the book to rest firmly in a Old Testament setting, but it’s as though Dr. Kendall can’t complete a paragraph without reference to a New Testament character or narrative… 

[continue reading here]


Cold Case ChristianityEvery decade or so a great work of apologetics appears which breaks the boundaries of the discipline and reaches a wider audience. Josh McDowell did it years ago with Evidence That Demands a Verdict; Frank Morrison with Who Moved the Stone? and more recently Lee Strobel brought a large audience to the discussion with The Case for Christ series.

Enter former Los Angeles County homicide investigator J. Warner Wallace and his book Cold Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. (2013, David C. Cook). Like Strobel, Wallace was a skeptic turned believer, and like McDowell, Wallace leaves no stone unturned in his study of the reliability of scripture, from obscure passages to those central to core doctrine.

The book is divided into two parts, the nature of cold case investigation — and this case is 2,000 + years old, and the particular evidence that the Bible offers…

[continue reading here]

March 6, 2014

John Ortberg’s Congregation Votes to Exit US Presbyterian Denom

John OrtbergZondervan author and former Willow Creek teaching pastor John Ortberg is about to lead his congregation, Menlo Park Presbyterian, out of the Presbyterian Church USA, but the church will have to buy its way out of the affiliation. Religion News Service reports,

Members of one of the largest congregations in the Presbyterian Church (USA) have voted to leave the denomination, despite facing an $8.89 million cost for leaving…

…The motion to leave the PCUSA was approved by 93 percent of the church’s members who voted, with 2,024 ballots in favor of the motion and 158 ballots opposed, according to a letter posted by Ortberg. Menlo Park determined that to keep its property and leave the denomination would cost $8.89 million, based on a summary for dismissal agreement.

[…continue reading at Religion News Service…]

But the Presbyterian name will stay with the congregation as it affiliates with ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, making it the second 4,000-member sized church to do so.  A five page Rationale for Change gives reasons for both exiting the PCUSA and joining the ECO. The document does not directly address issues of sexuality and thereby makes clear that this is not the central issue. Menlo Park also operates satellite campuses using a video feed, a rarity in PCUSA churches. (A Canadian two-campus church, Connexus, is a former Presbyterian church now part of the North Point ministry family.) 

Prior to the vote, Ortberg led his congregation through a message titled “Immeasurably More” based on Ephesians 3: 20-21

Eph 3:20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Ortberg’s bio on Wikipedia notes:

Ortberg has published many books including the 2008 ECPA Christian Book Award winner When the Game is Over, It All Goes Back in the Box, and the 2002 Christianity Today Book Award winner If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat. Another of his publications, The Life You’ve Always Wanted, has sold more than 500,000 copies as of 2008…

…Ortberg earned his undergraduate degree from Wheaton College, and his M.Div. and Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Fuller Theological Seminary.

His latest book Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You releases April 22nd with Zondervan.

Menlo Park Presbyterian

Update: Christianity Today reported on this one day later with some helpful background links.

February 26, 2014

Wednesday Link List

Chocolate Pope - NBC News Photo

The link list knows no borders, so you won’t find any gloating about Canada’s Olympic hockey wins here. Click anything below and you’ll be redirected to PARSE, the blog of Leadership Journal, a ministry of Christianity Today; then click each link there.

If you’re not busy this week snapping up Son of God movie tickets, you can check out Paul Wilkinson’s other writing at Thinking Out Loud.

"Jonah Leaving the Whale" by Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1600

“Jonah Leaving the Whale” by Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1600

February 25, 2014

Mark Hall: We Were Made to Thrive – Book Review

Constitution Oak, a live oak at the junction between the Pea River and the Choctawhatchee River  in Geneva, Alabama. It is believed to be among the largest and oldest live oaks in the state. [Photo: Wikipedia Commons]

Constitution Oak, a live oak at the junction between the Pea River and the Choctawhatchee River in Geneva, Alabama. It is believed to be among the largest and oldest live oaks in the state. [Photo: Wikipedia Commons]


Like the book The Well by Mark Hall which we reviewed here in August, 2011, Thrive is both the title of a book and a compact disc. I’ve been privileged to hear the CD several times and read several sections of the book twice. While some authors may appear to write from a theoretical standpoint, Mark Hall is in the trenches, doing youth ministry first and foremost, and then what he views as a second role, as a musician with the band Casting Crowns.

Thrive - Mark HallThe book’s full title is Thrive: Digging Deep, Reaching Out and the subtitle and the cover telegraph the book’s outline and content. Using examples from his years in student ministry, as well as a few road stories from Casting Crowns, Mark delivers something fresh in each of the book’s 30 chapters. I’m struck by how he is both forthright and yet transparent and vulnerable at the same time.

The primary audience for Thrive will be people who are familiar with the band’s music, but really, this is a contemporary Christian living title that earns a place next to popular writers such as Kyle Idleman, Pete Wilson, or even Max Lucado. Almost every chapter brings new life to familiar scriptures.

I remember once hearing, “Part one of the gospel is ‘taste and see,’ part two of the gospel is ‘go and tell.’” That’s really the focus of this book. It is suitable for both new believers and those who are spiritual veterans. It is equal parts teaching, anecdotal and autobiographical.

I read parts of Thrive out loud this past week at our family devotions. I can only say that this was the right book for us and it arrived at just the right time.

Thrive is published by Zondervan in paperback at $15.99 US. Thanks to Laura at HarperCollins Christian Publishing in Toronto for a review copy. With both Zondervan and Thomas Nelson titles, you guys have the best books!

February 17, 2014

A New Standard Theology Textbook?

While I keep a number of Biblical and theological reference books on my shelves, I recognize that the average reader here does not. Still, there are people who want to go deeper in their understanding of Christian theology as well as people who have taken, are taking, or plan to take some formal courses from a Bible College or seminary. For them, Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology has always been the standard text. You can read more about it at this page.

But this morning, a little hyperbole on Twitter got my attention. Filling out past the 140-character limit, someone wrote:

The world would be a better place if Grudem’s work was composted and replaced with Evangelical Theology by Michael F. Bird.

Composted? That’s a bit harsh. I decided to investigate the title. You can read more about it at this page, or continue below:

Evangelical TheologyEvangelical Theology is a systematic theology written from the perspective of a biblical scholar. Michael F. Bird contends that the center, unity, and boundary of the evangelical faith is the evangel (= gospel), as opposed to things like justification by faith or inerrancy. The evangel is the unifying thread in evangelical theology and the theological hermeneutic through which the various loci of theology need to be understood.

Using the gospel as a theological leitmotif — an approach to Christian doctrine that begins with the gospel and sees each loci through the lens of the gospel — this text presents an authentically evangelical theology, as opposed to an ordinary systematic theology written by an evangelical theologian. According to the author, theology is the drama of gospelizing — performing and living out the gospel in the theatre of Christian life. The text features tables, sidebars, and questions for discussion. The end of every part includes a “What to Take Home” section that gives students a run-down on what they need to know. And since reading theology can often be dry and cerebral, the author applies his unique sense of humor in occasional “Comic Belief” sections so that students may enjoy their learning experience through some theological humor added for good measure.

Ironically, both are published by Zondervan, and both at $49.99 US. The Michael Bird work was published in November of last year and runs 912 pages. (Grudem’s released in 1995 and is 1,296.)

Traditionally, the first purchase anyone was encouraged to make when building a Bible reference library was a concordance, but Bible software has rendered them somewhat obsolete. A Bible handbook (overview) is still helpful to have as is a single-volume Bible commentary. Bible dictionaries have lost some market share to their online counterparts, but some people still like to have a Bible atlas, which is probably still the toughest content for your computer to present fully, hence the need for print. 

The next step, to show you’re really committed, would be to purchase a theology textbook of the type described here; one that deals with the individual doctrines, and shows how they all, like puzzle pieces, fit together to form a functional and logically consistent theology.

I looked up “leitmotif” for you and added to the publisher blurb, but you’re on your own with “gospelizing.” 

With files from Ingram Book Company

February 12, 2014

Wednesday Link List

Snake Handling Church Disclaimer

Here’s this week’s collection, with the hope that you’ll be my Valinktine.  Click anything below and you’ll find yourself at PARSE, the link list’s exclusive official owners and operators! (Or just click now, it’s easier to read there.)

After winning the silver medal in linking at the 2008 Bloglympics, Paul Wilkinson settled into a quiet life of writing at Thinking Out Loud.

Burning Church

If you watch all four parts of the documentary about Burning Man linked above, you discover that all photographs taken at the event become part of a commons that photographers agree to share. It’s part of an overall philosophy that guides the event and why there’s no photo credit here.

January 31, 2014

Thomas Nelson Accused of Spiritual Deception

WND Faith

A conservative writer at WND (World Net Daily) held nothing back yesterday in an full-blown attack levied at Thomas Nelson, an imprint now part of HarperCollins Christian Publishing. In an article titled Beware the Bookseller Pretending To Be Christian — more about that headline later — Jim Fletcher writes:

Back in the day, with its marketing angle that touted the company’s roots (the company began in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1798), one got the feeling that its books were trustworthy.

Guess not.

He continues,

Thomas Nelson has seemingly not cared about being too rigidly biblical in its offerings for some time, and the current list of authors/books is disturbing to anyone who would identify as a conservative Christian…

He then systematically works his way through attacks — some detailed and others off-the-cuff — at Shane Claiborne, Tony Campolo, Rachel Held Evans, Brad Lomenick, Richard Stearns, Ron Sider, Donald Miller, Judah Smith, Leonard Sweet, and Bob Roberts, Jr. It’s hard to imagine that there was anyone left on the author roster that Fletcher hadn’t lined up in his sights.

As the article builds to a crescendo he concludes:

…They remind me of those thoroughbred running backs in college and the NFL, the ones who feint this way and that, stopping defensive backs in their tracks.

But feinting can also mean one who intentionally deceives.

Deception.

Read the full article here.

It should be noted that whether you agree or disagree with the doctrinal state of Christian publishers in general, or Thomas Nelson in particular, WND editors committed a major blunder in creating the article’s headline. (Generally, writers do not choose their header.) The article is about the actions of a publisher, but the headline implies that booksellers — brick and mortar, or online — are complicit in spiritual deception, when perhaps they have simply trusted the Nelson brand over the years. Yes, local retailers try to practice discernment, but even in these scaled-back publishing times, they can’t be expected to read every book by every author.  

So what does an article like this accomplish, exactly? It’s certainly meant to be insightful and helpful, but it comes off like a rant. I don’t agree with every word that Rachel Held Evans or Donald Miller writes, but I do find sections of their books redemptive. To a younger generation, they represent a trend where key voices in the Christian blogosphere have graduated to print. And just as there are at least three major streams in the creation/origins debate, the fact remains that Christians hold different views on Israel/Palestine.

Instead, the rant reminds me so much of, “We’ll get Mikey to try it, he hates everything.” 

Or in this case, Jim.

The article’s tag line describes Fletcher as a book industry insider. With more than thirty years in the same business, I’d like to suggest that booksellers do indeed practice discernment. If you don’t like Thomas Nelson’s offerings, shop elsewhere, perhaps focusing on classic authors from past centuries. But I’ll bet the rent that there were books back then that were considered sketchy, a few of which are still around, but also bet that there are books today that just possibly could endure as long, and I think we’d all be surprised to see what’s still being read 50 or 100 years from now.

January 17, 2014

Philip Yancey Returns to the Question that Never Goes Away

Philip Yancey - The Question That Never Goes AwayOn Wednesday night we were part of the audience for Philip Yancey’s book tour for The Question That Never Goes Away. The event in Toronto was sponsored by HarperCollins Christian Publishing and considering the smaller size of the Canadian market, it was great that the tour happened here so close to the book’s release date. 

This isn’t a review of the book — I’ll get to that next week — but I was thrilled to be able to meet Philip and shake his hand and hear him speak. He is my favorite living Christian author and I now would have one thing to scratch off the bucket list, if I had a bucket list. 

Philip spoke about three specific places he has traveled to in recent months, Japan in the wake of the tsunami, Sarajevo in the wake of genocide, and Newtown, CT in the wake of the school shooting. Speaking eloquently and without much reference to notes, it was clear why he is one of Christian publishing’s finest authors.

Some of the material I have now heard four times inasmuch as I heard a radio interview he did on Saturday, read a preview chapter of the book on the website of an Australian bookstore chain on Monday, attended the presentation on Wednesday, and am now on page 44 of the book on Friday. The stories don’t get old, because they’re about situations people face which don’t go away. 

I also am learning to appreciate how Yancey doesn’t overstep his authority. He doesn’t present himself as a theologian or pastor; he is upfront about the fact that his life as a journalist and writer has taken him to some key places which have led to asking some key questions. But this role that some might see as more limited doesn’t reduce his appeal, rather it gives him a unique voice. He is one of the more significant writers in the Christian market, he invokes many scriptural themes and references, and thereby his words have touched people on all continents.

Philip Yancey Books

For more on the book visit Zondervan: http://zondervan.com/9780310339823

December 9, 2013

Currently Reading

I currently have four books on the go at once; one is already released, three are releasing in January.  I like to do full reviews only when I’ve completely finished each and only closer to the actual street date in stores. But I wanted to share some brief thoughts on each today.

Currently Reading 1

Futureville by Skye Jethani — Just as his first book, The Divine Conspiracy used the art of Vincent Van Gogh as a motif, this time around the Leadership Today editor looks at the anticipation for the future which American’s experienced at the outset of the 1939 World’s Fair, and shows that whatever we believe about the future is rooted in and shaped by the present. I’ll admit to some bias, but I believe Skye Jethani is one of the most important voices in the church today; a writer with a prophetic gift for telling it like it is. I’ve already read part of this book twice.

The Noticer Returns by Andy Andrews — This author has a gift for propelling the reader from chapter to chapter. The character known as Jones returns from the first book in the series, and Andy Andrews portrays himself in the story. So is this fiction or non-fiction? You decide. Either way, you’ll wish you had a ‘noticer’ speaking into your life. This title released in October.

How to Be Rich by Andy Stanley — This book summarizes material from different sermons the North Point Community Church pastor has used in introducing the church’s annual “Be Rich” campaign, which this year gave away over $4M U.S. to area service organizations. Unfortunately, the title is going to confuse some — it already has in my family — and lead to the impression this is a book on prosperity doctrine, when it fact it is all about being generous with the riches you’ve already been given.

Clout by Jennie Catron — The executive pastor of Cross Point Community Church was on the fast track to success in the Nashville music business until a merger and downsizing ended her dream. The book deals with seven things that can destroy ambition and dreams, and four things that can strengthen you as you reach toward personal objectives. Jennie Catron is a key writer on leadership issues for both women and men; there’s much similarity between her writing and that of Michael Hyatt. The book is published under the Nelson (business books) imprint.

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