Thinking Out Loud

July 21, 2020

Remembering J. I. Packer

I can’t imagine readers here not also being tuned in to Religion News Service or Christianity Today or even Facebook or Twitter; so when I learned on the weekend of the passing of J. I. Packer, I didn’t feel the urgency to add anything to what was being said.

Days later, I’ve decided silence is not appropriate either. Here is an amended version of something I wrote on Saturday for another blog.

Remembering J. I. Packer

Christians around the world are remembering the man Wikipedia describes as an “English-born Canadian theologian;” J. I. Packer. His books — numbering over 50 — have been staples in Christian bookstores for decades. But his name probably appears elsewhere on your bookshelves, as John Stackhouse noted a few years ago, “Perhaps no one in history has written more endorsements and prefaces to the books of others than Packer did.”

Packer died on Friday at age 93, just days short of turning 94. Though I never met him or heard him in person, he was always nearby. While we were at Regent College last year we frequently drove by what some called “J. I. Packer’s church, “a church on the campus that he could easily walk to.” And back in the day, as an employee for IVP Canada, I remember packing and shipping many copies of Knowing God.

Though he surprised many with his decision to move from an important role with the Church of England to settle in Vancouver, his influence continued to span the entire world.

A year ago, The Gospel Coalition ran this list of declarations he said everyone should tell themselves daily:

  1. I am a child of God.
  2. God is my Father.
  3. Heaven is my home.
  4. Every day is one day nearer.
  5. My Savior is my brother.
  6. Every Christian is my brother too.

Though he was equally comfortable with Evangelicals as with Anglicans, he did appear in Time Magazine’s list of the 25 Most Influential Evangelicals.

…Just over two years ago, we featured this lighthearted moment here:

At age 91, J. I. Packer isn’t too old to cruise the J. I. Packer section in the Regent College Bookstore, making sure his bestsellers are properly displayed! [June, 2018]

Much more information is available at this tribute at Christianity Today.

If you have a Christian library in your home or your church, you might want to peruse this list of his titles at Wikipedia.

Memorial gifts may be made to the J. I. Packer Scholarship at Regent College.

 

July 7, 2020

The Illustrated Sermon on the Mount

Review: What if Jesus Was Serious: A Visual Guide to the Teachings of Jesus We Love to Ignore – by Skye Jethani (Moody Publishers, 2020)

I first became aware of Skye Jethani through his old blog Skyebox and the Phil Vischer Podcast. I was immediately impressed by his demeanor which I can only describe as forthright. He spoke with authority and wasn’t afraid to speak to problems in what he called, ‘The Evangelical Industrial Complex.’ To learn that we shared the same denomination, The Christian & Missionary Alliance, was just an added bonus.

Over the years I’ve reviewed a number of his books here. Skye isn’t a household name in the Chuck Swindoll sense, and his writing requires firing up dormant brain cells to appreciate his message. For example, in The Divine Commodity he uses the life and work of Vincent Van Gogh as a motif to discuss what it means to be a Christian in a consumer culture. In With, a book I called ‘the preposition proposition,’ he looks at what it means to try to live life over God, life under God, life from God and life for God when in fact it’s supposed to be — no spoilers here — another preposition entirely.

With Futureville he uses the New York World’s Fair of 1939 as a motif to discuss the effect of negative visions of the church. In Immeasurable he offered a series of 24 short essays on various aspects of church and ministry leadership; a topic which is his long-suit when it comes to public speaking appearances. I’m pleased to own a copy of all four books and have done my best to review them here.

But it’s the book With that’s significant today, because in it, we saw a foreshadowing of what we get in his newest book, What if Jesus Was Serious? which is a series of restaurant-napkin sketches, or if you prefer doodles.

I’ve written several times in several places about the trend toward visual media. An increasing number of people are visual learners and several books have emerged over the last few years which infographics to communicate material that would have heretofore been relegated to the Biblical reference genre. Also, let’s face it, we’ve seen a drop in the attention span of many readers, and a picture can be worth anywhere between 900 and 1100 words, right?

This time, it’s The Sermon on the Mount that Skye Jethani has in his sights. It’s radical teaching from Jesus, so one can be forgiven for asking Jesus the question, ‘Are you being serious?’ Or maybe more simply, ‘Really?’

He breaks Matthew chapters 5, 6 and 7 into 72 bite-size pieces and each receives a two-page spread with an appropriate doodle. If you’ve ever sketched something on the back of some scrap paper to get a point across you’ll appreciate the approach. There’s also quotations from a diverse group of writers across the Christian spectrum.

Who is the audience for this?

A few weeks ago I recommended the book to a woman to give to a very mature 11-year old who is checking out Christianity. I don’t know that he is the intended audience. I also referred to it as a possible graduation gift. That gets a bit closer, but still not the target reader.

Rather, Skye brings with him to this project many of his views on church and Christian institutional leadership. If you know him at all, you see that reflected clearly. I can see giving this book to a pastor — who possibly has a whole shelf of Sermon on the Mount-related titles by now — as an alternative way of looking at Jesus’ most famous sermon. Equally, I can see giving it to a recent convert who wants to better understand the teachings of Jesus. The book is layered if you know what I mean.

In addition to binge-reading it, it can also be read devotionally. Skye writes a daily subscription devotional called With God Daily, which was no doubt the genesis of this project.

But in the spirit of visual learning, here’s a sample. This link takes you to nine of the project’s 72 chapters and may represent an earlier version and not the final text. You’ll appreciate both the simplicity of the presentation and the bite or edge that’s contained in his writing. You can also learn more at the publisher’s website.


Thanks to Martin at Parasource Canada (Moody’s Canadian distributor) for an opportunity to add Skye’s latest to my bookshelf. This one’s a keeper.

June 22, 2020

The ‘Gospel Truth’ The Enemy Wants You to Believe

Review: The Gospel According to Satan: Eight Lies About God That Sound Like the Truth by Jared Wilson (Nelson Books)

Although this title released in January, I’m just getting to it now. I wasn’t sure if I would do a review — I normally don’t unless I’ve read every page, which I’ve done here — but after completing two of its eight chapters I decided I was all in.

First, I need to address the giraffe in the room. Regular readers here will know that this review is highly uncharacteristic of me, because you’ll also know that Jared Wilson is associated with The Gospel Coalition, which represents a doctrinal position on some issues which is light years the opposite of my own. I decided there was enough about the book to interest me, and certainly enough to commend for giving as a gift to someone you know whose idea of Christianity consists of motivational platitudes which are often not contained in Scripture.

So I won’t belabor that point, except in a mention of the penultimate chapter. (See below). So let’s dive in!

The book is centered around eight statements which each of us at some time have heard voiced by people with a loose connection to Christianity or still tracking at a very elementary level. Perhaps you’ve even caught yourself echoing one of these yourself, hopefully at an earlier stage of your Christian pilgrimage vis-a-vis where you are today. Let’s list them:

  • “God just wants you to be happy”
  • “You only live once”
  • “You need to live your truth”
  • “Your feelings are reality”
  • “Your life is what you make it”
  • “Let go and let God”
  • “The cross is not about wrath”
  • “God helps those who help themselves.”

These are general enough and timeless enough that the book doesn’t address current social issues, although some thing are alluded to. I think that timelessness is one of its enduring qualities.

The chapter on living your truth echoes the whole postmodern question of subjective truth; an apologetic issue that is still very much with us.

The section on feelings/reality is actually a good lesson in hope; that having Christ we “defy what is visible.” I included a short excerpt from that chapter on the weekend at C201; click here to read.

The discussion based on “God helps those who helps themselves” notes that since the fall, we’ve been “wired for works.”

I want to share with you all the various instances where I underlined sentences and circled key words, but space does not permit. (It’s never a good idea to write a review longer than the book.) In most cases, the discussion was advanced to the point where someone would need to be a little further down the road to understand everything, and yet naive enough in terms of their having perhaps adopted some of these non-Biblical maxims.

There are three more ‘lies’ I think could well have been included here:

  • “everything happens for a reason” – often based in a misreading of Romans 8:28
  • anything that riffs on a misreading of Jeremiah 29:11
  • “all roads lead to God” – as Universalism continues to creep into Evangelical thought

and perhaps you can think of others. Maybe there will be a book two! (The author suggested “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship.”)

So…about that second to last chapter.

This chapter is all about penal substitutionary atonement. It’s a major linchpin in the core doctrines of people in the Reformed/Calvinist world. The chapter’s premise is based on a look at the book Lies We Believe About God written by The Shack author Wm. Paul Young. I’ve seen some of the positive fruit of The Shack and for the right person, I would still recommend it. But there were things in the Lies… book that concerned me and I intend to have a second look at it.

Jared Wilson directly addressed one of my concerns with his view on substitutionary atonement, namely his own objection to the idea that God poured out his wrath on sin, which is where I land the plane. He said that throughout scripture, God’s wrath is always poured out on people and brought many references. In and of itself, that wasn’t enough to change my mind, since my view — in fact my perspective on much of what the modern Reformed movement propagates — is based on a different picture of God, though I admit, not necessarily Paul Young’s view.

No, my objection to the inclusion of this chapter is that it was out of place with the other seven. It addressed a statement one doesn’t hear in the marketplace as they might hear the others. It went in a heavy theological direction where the other chapters didn’t. I almost felt that Wilson wrote this out of an obligation to his tribe, the same way the reigning Popes have to be sure to include a statement about Mother Mary in each major address they give and each book they write.

That said, I stand by my assertion that this would be a suitable book to give to someone who is doing Christianity-lite and might be harboring the beliefs in the other seven statements. Especially if you’re walking with them to continue the discussion. It’s a good title for giveaway, or even as the basis for an entry-level Bible study for seekers or post-seekers, though I’d lead it as a seven-week study.


For a very short excerpt from the book check out this one at Christianity 201. A longer excerpt from the chapter on the wrath of God appears at The Gospel Coalition. For the publisher overview of the book, click this link.

Today’s review title was provided by Mark at HarperCollins Christian Publishing Canada.

 

June 11, 2020

Cookie-Cutter Book Recommendations

Two days ago I watched a YouTube video with a title something like, “Top Ten Books Every Christian Should Read” that had been posted two or three years back by a popular Christian blogger. It came up in the YouTube/Google algorithm as something recommended for me, but I also considered the possibility that Google is being paid for search engine optimization.

As I scrolled through the list, my reaction, to use the words of a well-known climate activist was, “How dare you!”

As someone who has been blessed by Christian books since my pre-teen years — which is a long time ago — I have books that I’ve enjoyed on a personal level. They’re part of my story, and if people ask, I share what some of them were, but not to the degree of recommending that they need to read them.

And as someone who has spend a lifetime working in Christian publishing at both the wholesale and retail level (and on the fringes of the acquisitions and author development level) I don’t think I have ever recommended any of these books to the people with whom I’ve been in contact.

Mind you, seasoned Christians, veteran Christ followers, whatever you call them, usually know what they’re looking for. The people looking for advice are often wanting to get started at going deeper and for that I have suggestions. (As I’ve stated recently, keeping up with those means there were times my own reading wasn’t as deep as it could have been. If starting over, my library would be more InterVarsity Press and less Thomas Nelson/Zondervan, but what do you do if the former isn’t cooperating and the latter actually knows how to market books?)

My wife suggested I simply publish my own list.

I also know that any ‘Top Ten’ lists are considered clickbait, and when you are a very successful blogger the pressure to publish is immense. I say that as a once moderately successful blogger who felt compelled to produce new content every day for more than ten years.

I guess that, although I’ve poked at this topic repeatedly, what was printed was simply a list of ’10 Books Every Reformed Christian Should Read.’ That would describe it, right?

Wrong.

It wasn’t even that. It was a list of ’10 Books Which One Reformer Thinks Every Other Reformed Christian Ought to Read.’

1. Knowing God by J.I. Packer
2. The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul
3. Ashamed of the Gospel by John MacArthur
4. The Disciplines of Grace by Jerry Bridges
5. Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen
6. Spurgeon by Arnold Dallimore
7. Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald Whitney
8. Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey
9. The Pleasures of God by John Piper
10. The Cross of Christ by John Stott

Yes, there’s a woman on the list, but honestly, until two days ago, after the aforementioned lifetime in Christian publishing, I had never heard of her or the book, or had an inquiry about it. Perhaps she paid for search engine optimization, too.

Lists like this need to be subjective. It reminds me of an instructional article that shaped me years ago as to how to respond when someone asks what is the best Bible translation. “Best for whom?” we were taught to say.

Not knowing where this list is going to land, I would not begin to recommend these books, nor assume that the recipient fits into the “Every Christian” mold that is presumed. People are unique. Their journey with Christ is personal.

“How dare you!”

 

May 28, 2020

Michael Card’s Biblical Imagination: A Must for your Bookshelf

Filed under: books, Christianity — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 10:10 am

In September of 2014, I treated myself to two volumes in veteran Christian musician and songwriter Michael Card’s Biblical Imagination series, Luke: The Gospel of Amazement and Mark: The Gospel of Passion. You can read my original take on the series at this link.

After six years of hoping that this blog might gain the grace of InterVarsity Press (IVP) I gave up and purchased the two remaining titles, Matthew: The Gospel of Identity and John: The Gospel of Wisdom. (Each paperback also has a corresponding music CD which may be purchased separately; although I believe we do own one of them.) I’ve just finished reading John.

Recently I heard a pastor say that he struggles with devotional reading, but gains great benefit from reading Bible reference material and commentaries because it draws him into a focus on Jesus while at the same time satisfying his intellectual appetite. I think he put words to my own craving to be spending more time in contemplation of the Bible while at the same time meeting my self-perceived information deficit.

In my original review, I explained that the format is somewhat reminiscent of the Daily Study Bible series by William Barclay. The text is included in full; he used the HCSB as a base text. In the case of John, there are twenty-one chapters and most have at least three subsections, but reading a chapter at a time is most fulfilling. 

Card’s primary goal in approaching John’s gospel is to address the various misunderstandings that surround Jesus’ words. He bookends the book with deeper delve into the theme, wisdom, and alludes to the wisdom literature of the Bible, though not the book of Proverbs itself, which none of the gospel writers quote.

He uncovers what he terms “miracles in absentia” where Jesus pronounces a healing without being physically present. When Jesus questions the people’s motive for following him — the free lunch — he subtitles that part of the chapter “The Bread King” and suggests that the word manna can be literally translated as “? !” Card doesn’t spend time on traditionally taught themes in John, such as the “I Am…” statements, and has a different take on Peter’s restoration at the end of the story.

These are commentaries, but the series title ‘Biblical Imagination’ is to be remembered. While some of the remarks about key passages finds their roots in the writing of other commentaries, the series invites the readers to be drawn into the picture; to see themselves in the middle of the crowd listening to Jesus teach, interact with his close disciples, or performing miracles and also to learn “the backgrounds that make the stories come to life.” (p13)  

It’s the type of creative commentary you would expect a musician to write!

 


Sample: Here’s an excerpt from Mark: The Gospel of Passion which I posted in 2014 at C201.

 

 

May 7, 2020

An Evangelical Look at Christian Relics and the History They Teach

Filed under: books, Christianity, reviews — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 11:18 am

Blogger Tim Challies has produced a book which truly does go where no man has gone before. Epic: An Around-the-World Journey Through Christian History (Zondervan) is equal parts travelog and overview of church history. Although the approach of this book is radically different than his two previous works for Zondervan (A Visual Guide to the Bible and Visual Theology) the size and shape of the book, as well as the dependence on visual imagery does, for now at least, complete the hat trick of books for visual learners.  (As a Canadian, Challies should appreciate the hockey reference.)

The goal was to look at objects rather than birthplaces, or memorial statues or plaques. As the intended reader is probably more Evangelical than not, this includes artifacts which are as much important to modern Evangelicals as relics are to Roman Catholics. It’s an approach not usually considered. When an ossuary dating back to the early Church was featured at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, I was not in line. It’s not something we do. Especially those of us who had a rather cursory high school education in history.

Instead, plotting an awkward course geographically, but a rather logical course chronologically, Tim Challies brought these bones to life.

Okay, there were no bones. But there was a jug, a hexagonal reading desk, a pulpit or two, several books and Bibles, and a small hydro-electric dam high in the Andes mountain range. Often the items featured were found in a collection of other related items, and the ones becoming the focus of the author’s close examination were not the most popular or most viewed by tourists, but ones which he allowed to speak to him. Considering his Reformed background, I was rather impressed by this revelation of his process.

The book was made possible by a group of patrons Tim Challies had never met, nor was he seeking sponsorship of this project, an idea he says only crystallized one day prior. Over a span of three years, he traveled by planes, trains and automobiles to 24 countries on six continents, and estimates the overall journey to be 180,000 miles. As with many tourists, he encountered sites that were closed — usually finding a way in — and curators that were late for appointments. With a knowledge of keyboard, he might have been able to play Charles Wesley’s organ. (For me that would have been the grand prize!) However any setbacks were made up for by serendipitous discoveries which weren’t part of the original script. This was indeed, an epic project.

Accompanying him on the journey was film director Stephen McCaskell who has created a companion documentary available on DVD. The book definitely whetted my appetite to experience the backstory to finding and visiting the various sites featured. Unlike the book, the film is divided geographically and contains ten episodes running 21-26 minutes each.

Tim Challies’ Calvinist leanings are present, even though he has tried to produce something of interest to all Evangelicals. I could have lived without Spurgeon’s cheap shot at an Arminian Bible commentary or the rather protracted explanation of how Pentecostalism is a latecomer to the Church history party. And there was the obligatory quote from John Piper. Sigh! 

The book is definitely personal and by incorporating details of the steps involved in reaching each destination, I was reminded of my all-time favorite author, Philip Yancey, whose writing is always partly subjective. I expect the DVD would yield more of this aspect of the journey.

There were also three areas where the book overlapped on one we very recently reviewed here, Eric Mataxas’ Seven More Men; those being George Whitefield, Martin Luther and Billy Graham. I didn’t mind the duplication, except that it served to alert me to the omission of anything related to The Salvation Army. Surely a mourner’s bench or a tambourine could have been dusted off for the occasion.

One feature I really appreciated was the flow between chapters. The concluding paragraph of each section — and none are more than five pages — is really a teaser for the chapter to follow. The book is about 170 pages including notes, and because of the presence of visual images, I did speed through it quickly and regretted reaching the end so soon.

This isn’t an exhaustive coverage of Christian history, but for those relatively new to the Church, it would be a great place to start. If you’re a reader of Christian literature, Epic is like nothing else in your library.


Again, thanks to Mark Hildebrand at HarperCollins Christian Publishing Canada for this unique reading opportunity. Read more about the book and the DVD at Zondervan’s website.

 

May 4, 2020

Ravi Zacharias and Abdu Murray Team Up to Look at Jesus

Review: Seeing Jesus from The East: A Fresh Look at History’s Most Influential Person by Ravi Zacharias and Abdu Murray (Zondervan, 2020)

One of the challenges when multiple authors combine to cover a particular topic — especially when the individual chapters were not written collaboratively — is that that there is often nothing which unifies the book as a whole. When I started reading Seeing Jesus From the East, I resigned myself to reading it as a collection of nine essays.

Two things have convinced me that this project was so much more.

First, the unifying factor is the man not named on the cover, Nabeel Qureshi. It was his dream to write this book with Ravi Zacharias, but after his untimely death, that was not realized. With Nabeel’s wife’s blessing on Abdu Murray’s involvement, that original intention, in many respects, holds the book together in terms of having two men, each born into very different religious traditions — one being Muslim — examine the life of Christ.

The second unifying factor is that these men are indeed colleagues. Murray is the Senior Vice President of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) and has spoken at many RZIM events. The book is not disjointed in any respect; rather, they refer to each others’ chapters, something you don’t see in an essay collection. (For the record, Ravi wrote five chapters and Abdu wrote four.)

The Jesus story — not to mention the story arc of the Bible as a whole — is deeply rooted in the East. As Murray points out, it’s a story flavored more with “curry and cumin” than the “ketchup and mayo” version propagated by the Christian church in the West. Elsewhere he refers to the “olive skinned” Jesus.

And although we sometimes present the gospel as a story of guilt and innocence it unfolds in a place where the key markers are honor and shame.

The style of the two authors is notably compatible. I’ve never heard Ravi Zacharias speak that he doesn’t quote the writing of a piece of classic poetry or a famous hymn. But Abdu Murray also provides these similar points of connection for the reader. Both draw on personal anecdotes and interactions with the widest variety of people at in-person events. The flow between chapters washes away all my concerns that the book might appear as though various puzzle pieces were simply forced together.

Seeing Jesus from the East doesn’t cover every moment in the 3+ years Christ’s life. It’s possible your favorite parable or miracle isn’t included. What you do explore is pivotal scenes from the wedding at Cana to the wilderness temptations to the transfiguration. Although I have a lifelong familiarity with these narratives, I found it provoked fresh discussions with my wife after I had finished reading.

So who is the target reader for this book?

Statistically speaking, this will probably sell more copies to Christians, especially those with exposure to RZIM. But it really works both ways. Regardless of faith family of origin (be it Muslim, atheist, or anything else) if someone is already at the point of considering Christianity, this would be an excellent window into that process from two authors who can fully empathize.

This is not apologetics in the traditional forms (evidential, moral, logical, philosophical) but a more winsome apologetic based on the authors’ personal stories and the stories of the many whom they have encountered. If your sphere of influence includes those coming from an Eastern worldview, this one is a must.


Thanks to Mark at HarperCollins Christian Publishing Canada for a much-appreciated opportunity to read an advance copy which is now well-marked and underlined. The book released April 28th in North America and will release on June 14th in the UK.

 

 

April 24, 2020

Eric Metaxas Continues the “7” Series

Filed under: books, Christianity, Religion, reviews — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 1:29 pm

I have to give him credit. Eric Metaxas knows how to take biographical data and make it interesting and relevant to the greatest number of people. In a 2007 interview he said that his books, “don’t touch upon anything at all where Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians differ. They express just the basics of the faith, from a basic, ecumenical Christian viewpoint. They only talk about the Christian faith that they have agreement on.” 1

Back in 2013 I reviewed 7 Men and the Secrets of their Greatness, and in 2015 I also covered 7 Women and the Secrets of their Greatness. (You may read those here and here.) Those two titles are also now available in a single volume. This time he’s back with the hardcover release of 7 More Men and the Secrets of their Greatness (Zondervan; this time co-authored with Anne Morse.)

As with the other two, it’s not necessary to read the chapters in the sequence they appear, but I started with the first, Martin Luther, but then found the chapter of George Whitefield (pronounced whit-field) even more engaging. The man was a bit of a superstar in “The Colonies” and on his home turf in England. While I was aware of him, I had never taken the time to learn about his life or ministry.

And that’s the problem. There are people, including those in vocational ministry, who never are confronted with some of these figures in church history. That George Whitefield was mentored by John and Charles Wesley made him all the more interesting to me, but I was saddened to learn that towards the end they differed over “predestination and election.” It’s the same old song today, isn’t it?

Whitefield’s passion and appreciation for preaching in the streets was shared by William Booth the Salvation Army’s founder, and so I skipped ahead to chapter four. While this was shorter than other accounts I’ve read of William and his wife Catherine, I never tire of them. There are certain “must read” books that are recommended to young Christians, but not to discount those, I would suggest that a biography of William Booth should be near the top of that list. This chapter would only whet your appetite for more about William and Catherine.

Then it was back to chapter three for George Washington Carver. I knew next to nothing about this man, a certifiable genius who literally rocked the agricultural world with discoveries that affect us to this day. Sadly, he grew up amid the segregation in the U.S. South, but that only made him more determined to better the lives of both his own people, and all of us. Appearing before Congress, he was asked where he learned all of his various food applications. He told them he got them from a book. When asked what book that was, he said, “The Bible.”

Next, I was off to chapter six, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I must confess that this was also an author I only knew superficially and reading this account of his life is almost exhausting as the man is moved from prison to prison for his crime of daring to critique the Soviet regime. I wasn’t sure about his faith. Was he a Christian or simply a deist? That became more clear toward the very end of the story, and his roots in the Orthodox church would certainly resonate with Metaxas. Later in life he turned his attention toward the United States with messages that were prophetic in nature.

Chapter five is about Alvin York, among the most decorated soldiers of World War I, and chapter seven is about Billy Graham, and consists mostly of material culled from Graham’s autobiography, Just as I Am.  Sections on Graham’s interactions with U.S. Presidents and world leaders was where I hoped Eric Metaxas would find his own voice, especially with his background working for Chuck Colson, but these are succinct biographies and Metaxas stuck closely to the script. Billy Graham is still very much with us, so there were fewer things here I had not already seen, but I didn’t remember reading that Graham himself had been encouraged to run for President. His wife, Ruth, told him that if he did she would divorce him!

Overall, I enjoyed this volume every bit as much as the two previous “7” books in this series. Maybe even more. But what was the secret of their greatness? I think the question is a bit of teaser, with readers left to figure that out for themselves for each of the men profiled.

This is a great gift to give to a man, not for the obvious reason in the title, but because the pacing of the writing and the concise nature of the shorter chapters lends itself to even those who consider themselves non-readers. It’s available now wherever you shop for great reading.


1Greek News: Eric Metaxas and the God Question

 

 

 

April 20, 2020

Author’s ‘All Inclusive’ Church Actually Favors One Approach Above the Others

For the past twelve years, most of the books I’ve reviewed here have either been popular titles or books which went on to become bestsellers. I generally don’t consider anything that isn’t going to end up on my personal bookshelf, which is currently quite crowded.

About a year ago I realized that I needed to go a little deeper in my personal reading and kept eyeing titles which all had one thing in common: InterVarsity Press (IVP). Book reviewers get their copies for free and no amount of pestering people at IVP would produce results, so just before the lockdown, I decided to bite the bullet and for the first time pay for copies of books to read and review and chose four titles.

This in turn freed me up from the restriction of having to focus on recently-published titles, so I reached back to 2017 for Evangelical, Sacramental & Pentecostal: Why the Church Should Be All Three by Gordon T. Smith (IVP Academic). I tend to select books I know ahead of time I am going to review positively and this one had three things going for it:

  1. The writer is Canadian. Gotta support the home team, right?
  2. It was published by IVP, where I was once a warehouse manager for their Canadian operation.
  3. The writer is from my denomination: The Christian and Missionary Alliance.

In other words, this can’t miss. Or so I thought.

However, as I progressed through the book’s scant 133 pages of actual text (at a $18.00 US list, or a whopping $23.99 Canadian) I found the premise of the book wearing increasingly thin.

On a personal level I’ve admired churches which can not only blend worship with ancient and modern, but can blend the somewhat relaxed form of contemporary Evangelicalism with some more deliberate acknowledgements of liturgical forms such as more than one scripture reading, or call and response readings, etc. That my wife does this each week in an otherwise Evangelical church just confirms my bias.

Right there I had a problem. I was reading the title of the book as though it said, ‘Evangelical, Liturgical, Pentecostal…’ whereas the author is contending for a hardcore sacramental inclusion even though Evangelicals and Charismatics no more teach a sacramental approach than they confer sainthood on pillars of the church. (Tangentially: I think there’s a case to be made for Evangelicals having a sacrament of preaching, but that’s outside the scope of this article.) As I got deeper and deeper, it appeared that Gordon Smith not only sees a local church being influenced by all three ecclesiastic streams, but importing bulk-sized elements of each into their worship routine. (To fully do this justice, I believe you’re looking at a 2-hour worship service.)

I am confident there are churches out there who have successfully followed this model though the book offered absolutely nothing in the way of case studies or positive anecdotal accounts. However, the Apostle Paul’s words notwithstanding, I think that in trying to be “all things to all people” a church might miss out on their unique calling, especially in an urban situation which already offers a broad selection of churches.

The book is arranged in six, easy-to-follow chapters. In the first three shorter chapters, Smith looks at the themes of abiding in Christ, the grace of God, and the significance of the ascension; as they are found in John’s Gospel, the Luke-Acts narratives, and the writings of two key figures, Calvin and Wesley.

Chapters four through six are the meat of the book, looking at the principles of Evangelicalism, Sacramental liturgy, and Pentecostal/Charismatic movement.

In examining what it means to be Evangelical, there is already an emphasis on the importance of Baptism and the Eucharist (Communion). In the Sacramental section, I saw this bias more clearly and when he declared that The Lord’s Supper is something that can only be practiced under the “authority” and “administration” of the church — and remember I’m reading this during the Covid-19 lockdown where we’ve all had to exercise all manner of grace on this matter — I wrote in the margin, “He just lost me.” (p 80)

Not at all fearing that Communion could run the risk of being a postscript to a worship service, Smith insists that it must occur after the sermon and feeling he needs to state this despite widespread agreement, that the words of institution must be read each time. (Personal Rant: Pastors, please do the more seasoned believers in your church a favor and at least vary the Bible translations used in the I Cor. 11 reading.) He also appears somewhat opposed to including any type of teaching on the meaning of the sacrament with the terse dismissal, “We certainly do not need a second sermon and we do not need an extended explanation of the meaning of these symbols.” (p 91) As in, never? He also seems to confuse the liturgical approach of more liberal churches with those who are truly Christ-focused, suggesting, but not overtly stating, that the passages in the Lectionary are simply pretext for the pastor to express a personal opinion. It’s a rather sweeping generalization.

The final chapter on the Pentecostal principle is where Smith shows himself to be least comfortable. At least nine times he begins a paragraph or a sentence with “And yet…” his personal equivalent to ‘On the other hand…’ not unlike a politician writhing on the stage in an attempt to satisfy all his constituents.

He suggests there might be Pentecostal churches where no preaching or communion are present. (p 105) and while I concede such events occasionally occur, they are clearly the exception, not the rule. He believes in an experience of the Spirit that is felt and acknowledges the possibility of God’s Spirit moving in our services spontaneously, and in the prayer for healing of the sick — this is consistent with Christian and Missionary Alliance history and doctrine — but is clearly unwilling to give this section of the book the wholehearted endorsement he gives to Evangelical and Sacramental emphasis, even going so far as to state, “We are not truly pentecostal, in other words, unless we are sacramental.” (p 116)

In a short concluding chapter the book loses all academic pretense and moves to the ranting of a grumpy old uncle.

Even the lectern has been replaced by the bistro table and bar stool, while the equivalent of the sermon has become a more casual chat, downplaying the authority of the Scriptures in an attempt to make the Word more accessible. As often as not, the communion table which for my upbringing was always viewed an important item of furniture even when not being used, has been removed. And now what is front and center — with the pulpit and the communion table gone — is, I say this without any exaggeration, the drum set. (p 127-128)

In the margin of my copy, I have written, “Yikes!” …

…So perhaps I misspoke earlier. There is an example in the book of a church doing all three — being Evangelical, Liturgical and Charismatic — and it exists in the author’s mind. He pictures it vividly complete with a “baptismal pool” at the back of the church and not the front, and banners hanging from the walls. This is the author’s personal Walden and it might have been better served if the title reflected this — or more truthfully using must instead of should in the existing subtitle — instead of suggesting something being more widely and gently advocated.

 

 

 

 

April 9, 2020

Author Digs Deep Into Genesis 1-11

Filed under: bible, books, Christianity, reviews — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:57 am

After reviewing Darrell W. Johnson’s book The Beatitudes in August, Regent College Publishing was gracious enough to send me another, The Story of All Stories: Genesis 1-11 by the same author, and once again I was not disappointed.

Johnson is among scholars who argue that these eleven chapters constitute “the first half of the Bible” and that everything remaining is the second half. At first I was rather dismissive of this approach, but after re-reading a few chapters for the second time, he won me over.

I would also put it this way, that in terms of both the literary forms and the themes of grace of redemption, Genesis 1-11 is a microcosm of the Bible as a whole. Just as the Bible is one unified story consisting of many smaller parts, each with its own genre requiring its own approach; so also are these early chapters — stories concerning Adam, Cain, Noah, Babel — significant dramas each requiring their own unique type of study.

I know that some might be intimidated by a book sold under the imprint of an academic institution, but proficiency in Hebrew or Greek is not required, and just as I did with Johnson’s book on the parables, I found this material remarkably accessible. There are insights here that I’ve missed previously or hadn’t heard mentioned in preaching, even though the texts are familiar. (Tangentially, I was always soft on the idea of the Genesis flood being a global event; convicted that was manifested mostly in the known world; but the author provided a convincing reason I had not considered.)

The highest praise I can give a print resource is to say that upon completion, my first act was to turn back to chapter one and begin anew. That was definitely the case here. The learn more, click this link.


Thanks to Josh at Regent College Publishing for an opportunity to discover this book.

174 pages paperback | $19.99 US | 9781573835695

 

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