Thinking Out Loud

November 10, 2017

Feel Like a Misfit at Church? You’re Not the Only One.

At the start of the year, I reviewed Brant Hansen’s first book with Thomas Nelson, Unoffendable, which deals with the subject of anger, and is ideally suited to anyone who has ever ‘lost it’ over a particular person or circumstance. You can read that review at this link.

Brant Hansen‘s second book with Nelson is important enough that I’m eventually going to devote another column to it here, but wanted to make you aware of it prior to the November 28th release in case you’re making a Christmas list. The title is Blessed Are the Misfits: Great News for Believers who are Introverts, Spiritual Strugglers, or Just Feel Like They’re Missing Something.

This book is for people

  • who are introverts
  • who deal with social anxiety; mental health issues
  • who are diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (or something similar)
  • who feel they are just different; they don’t see the world like everyone else does

and the people who love them because they’re a family member, close friend, co-worker, fellow-student, etc. It’s one of those books where the target readership is somewhat select — not to mention that it also deals with how such people can function in the body of Christ — so mention on blogs and social media and word-of-mouth will do much to help this book find its audience.

I’m about 65% in at this point — thoroughly enjoying it — and will post a full review here when it’s closer to the release date as well as reasons why this book is important to our family.

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November 3, 2017

Was the Reformation a Mistake?

This recently-released book from Zondervan deserves an award for “Provocative Title of the Year” and I felt that while Reformation Day is still fresh in our minds, I would mention it here. Plus, this is, to the best of my knowledge anyway, a rather unique Christian publication.

The full title is: Was the Reformation a Mistake? Why Catholic Doctrine is not Unbiblical. The author is Matthew Levering, a theology professor at Mundelein Seminary, University of Saint Mary of the Lake. In the interest of equal time, there is a Protestant response from theologian Kevin J. Vanhoozer who does research and teaches at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

The book’s 9 chapters look at:

  • Scripture and its interpretation
  • Devotion to Mary
  • The Mass / Eucharist / Lord’s Supper
  • Origin of The Seven Sacraments
  • Monasticism and the Gospel
  • Merit and Justification; God’s mercy
  • Purgatory / Prayers for the dead / Penance
  • The conferring of Sainthood
  • The papacy

Each section begins with a simple one paragraph introduction which sets out the issue and also refers readers with less familiarity with what the Roman Catholic Church teaches to some primary documents. Following this is a summary of what the author views as Luther’s primary concern. The balance of each chapter is headed “Biblical Reflections” which aims to set out Biblical origins for the teachings which concerned Luther and concern many non-Catholics today.

Of the book’s 241 pages (in the pre-publication version) Levering’s main text comprises 166 pages and Vanhoozer is given 41 pages for rebuttal. The latter sees the conflict existing not between Protestants and Catholics but between “catholicism and one particular tradition (Romanism)” which he seems to view as a theological pattern in which carefully vetted scripture passages are chosen because they lend credence to a pre-determined, Vatican issued theology. But the tone of his rebuttal is cordial.

Full disclosure: I did not read every word. (Up to a certain point in writing his response, neither had Vanhoozer.) Some of this was above my pay grade, though it was published by Zondervan, not Zondervan Academic. I do not purport that this was written in my normal book review modus operandi. Rather, I intend to keep this on the shelf and refer to specific items in the list of nine as needed in discussions I have with Roman Catholics.

I understand why the publisher issued the book under this particular title in this particular year, but I still found the title needlessly provocative. The book itself, I find fascinating.


For publisher marketing info at Zondervan, Click this link.

Thanks to Mark at HarperCollins Christian Publishing in Canada for an opportunity to examine this interesting book.

 

October 17, 2017

Charts: All-Time Christian Bestsellers

Current lists like this one from August 2017 posted by the Christian Bookseller’s Association are simply a snapshot in a much longer timeline.

I grew up in a world of charts. Music charts at first, but later book and movie charts also. As as subset of the larger entertainment industry, the Christian products industry tracks its bestselling books and music using a ranking system, and Christian authors have been known to bend the rules of ethics to secure a spot on one of the New York Times bestseller lists.

Christian publishing once had more trade magazines than it does at present, and one feature I remember — it might have been the large-format version of Christian Retailing or perhaps it was Christian Bookseller — was a column which would announce each time another Christian title was going “back to press” for a run of another 10,000 or 20,000 or whatever was needed.  A few times they ran lists of the all-time bestsellers.

I was trying to find such a list, but didn’t see anything that had the details or the methodology of what I remember reading. However at the blog of the Steve Laube agency — must reading for every current and prospective author — I discovered a list posted in June, 2016 by Dan Balow.

You need the click the title below for the full introduction and complete list, but for your information, after taking into account The Bible, here’s how some perennial favorites rank.

The Best Selling Christian Books of all Time

  • The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis (1418) – Sales Unknown, but widely regarded as the best-selling Christian title after the Bible.
  • Book of Common Prayer (various editions starting in mid 16th Century) – 300 million (estimated)
  • Pilgrims Progress by John Bunyan (1678) – 250 million
  • Foxe’s Book of Martyrs by John Foxe (1563) – 150 million
  • Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien (1954) – 150 million
  • The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien (1937) – 142 million
  • The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950) – 85 million
  • Steps to Christ by Ellen White (1892) – 60 million (estimated)
  • Ben Hur by Lew Wallace (1880) – 50 million
  • The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey (1970) – 35 million
  • In His Steps by Charles Sheldon (1896) – 30 million
  • The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren (2002) – 30 million
  • The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale (1952) – 20 million
  • The Shack by William Paul Young (2007) – 20 million
  • The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1320) – 12 million (in last 150+ years)
  • The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman (1995) – 10 million+
  • Jesus Calling by Sarah Young (2004) – 10 million+
  • Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo (2010) – 10 million+
  • More Than A Carpenter by Josh McDowell (1977) – 10 million+
  • The Prayer of Jabez by Bruce Wilkinson (2000) – 10 million+

In this series:

Charts: The Ten Largest Churches in America.

October 13, 2017

Pigs in the Parlor

Filed under: books, Christianity, ministry — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:59 am

It’s no secret to people who work in Christian publishing that over the past 40+ years, the number one bestselling Charismatic book title has been Pigs in the Parlor by Frank & Ida Mae Hammond. Published in 1973 by Impact Books, the book may be a few million short of making this list but is well-known among Pentecostals and Charismatics, but little known outside that circle.

With the full title, Pigs in the Parlor: A Practical Guide to Deliverance, there are in fact only two small piglets on the cover, though the title always catches peoples’ attention. Through a series of circumstances, I attended a ‘deliverance’ church for two years in my early 20s and though I then moved on, I don’t in any way minimize that there are times when this type of ministry — along with seasoned practitioners of it — is what is called for.

The Hammonds credit Derek Prince for his influence on this subject. The first chapter opens with two sentences that some would challenge theologically: “Demon spirits and invade and indwell human bodies. It is their objective to do so.” The title premise is explained,

Twenty-five times in the New Testament demons are called “unclean spirits.” The word “unclean is the same word used to designate certain creatures which the Israelites were not to eat. (Acts 10: 11-14) The pig was one of these…

In the 22 successive chapters, various aspects of deliverance are explained. The publisher website highlights some of these:

Frank Hammond presents information on such topics as:
• How demons enter
• When deliverance is needed
• Seven steps in receiving & ministering deliverance
• Seven steps in maintaining deliverance
• Self deliverance
• Demon manifestations
• Binding and loosing
• Practical advice for the deliverance minister
• Answers to commonly asked questions, and more.

The Hammonds also present a categorized list of 53 Demonic Groupings, including various behavior patterns and addictions.

Testimonies of deliverance are presented throughout the book including Pride, Witchcraft, Nervousness, Stubborness, Defiance, Mental Illness and more.

Although I’d seen the book, I’d never taken the time to look closely at a copy until this summer. I didn’t read it all but did check out a few chapters in depth:

6. Seven Ways to Determine the Need for Deliverance
11. Deliverance: Individual and Group; Public and Private
12. Self Deliverance
14. Ministry to Children
15. Binding and Loosing
16. Pros and Cons of Various Techniques and Methods

Most readers here would quickly affirm that this simply isn’t their type of book, but I would challenge dismissing this genre too soon. I think it’s something most non-Charismatic and non-Pentecostal Christians need to at least be aware of; something more of us should have some basic familiarity with.

On a more personal level, it was interesting a few years ago while working at a summer camp how the leadership, when faced with a situation of demonic possession, wasted no time in contacting a Pentecostal pastor who was known for this type of ministry. While it’s entirely possible that in the days leading up to the event some might have stated they don’t believe in the danger of the demonic realm, it was a whole different story when they were confronted with it directly. 

It’s also interesting to note here that manifestations of demonic activity are somewhat foreign to the experience of Christians in North America, but such is not the case in other parts of the world.

Here’s how The Voice Bible colorfully renders Ephesians 6:12

We’re not waging war against enemies of flesh and blood alone. No, this fight is against tyrants, against authorities, against supernatural powers and demon princes that slither in the darkness of this world, and against wicked spiritual armies that lurk about in heavenly places.

Pigs in the Parlor is a book with a funny title, but spiritual warfare is no laughing matter.

October 6, 2017

Teenage Rebellion is not Mandatory

It didn’t happen to our kids — now 23 and 26 — and it need not happen to yours, but many parents take the perspective that teen rebellion is simply to be expected. It also didn’t happen to Rebecca Gregoire Lindenbach, author of the book Why I Dind’t Rebel: A Twenty-Two-Year-Old Explains Why She Stayed on the Straight and Narrow and How Your Kids Can Too (Nelson Books) which released in paperback just a few days ago.

First, the story of how the book came to be. You need to know that Rebecca is the daughter of Sheila Wray Gregoire, a Canadian author whose work includes 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage, The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex and To Love Honor and Vacuum; the last title also being the name of her popular blog.

In the winter of 2014, Sheila asked daughter Rebecca to write a blog post for her on why she didn’t rebel. At first Rebecca said no — yes, I supppose you could call that small scale rebellion — but later changed her mind. Rebecca dashed it off in 20 minutes, and within the week it had been seen a quarter of a million times on the blog and over a million times on Facebook. You can read that article at this link.  Her mom then suggested she turn it into a book proposal.

Next, I need to explain why I wanted to read this book. Although we’ve never met, Sheila is a neighbor, inasmuch as last time I checked, we live in the same part of South Central Ontario. Or maybe we’re Eastern Ontario. It’s a big place and I’m never sure. I haven’t heard her speak but I’ve been aware of her traveling with Girls Night Out, a relief-and-development awareness program for women which tours Canadian cities. So there was a local-interest factor here, but honestly, I figured I’d read a chapter or two and then leave it there. As often happens, I ended up reading the entire book.

Like your first year Psychology textbook, this book relies highly on anecdotes from two dozen Millennials reflecting on their childhood years, with a very generous helping of Rebecca’s own family memories. Today she’s married and is considered a “self help blogger” at her website, LifeAsADare.com. So while everyone contributing to the book has the perspective of a few year’s distance from adolescent events, the voices in the book are all young.

This brings me to where I’ll probably depart from other reviews and publisher marketing on this title. For example this one: “Why I Didn’t Rebel provides an eye-opening way of raising kids who follow God rather than the world.  It should not be expected that teens are going to rebel, especially if you start to teach them the right way young.  The big key is to teach them right from wrong and consequences from a young age.”

I agree wholeheartedly, but I think there’s more potential here. I think that other Millennials might want to read this, and dare I say it, I think some teens could benefit from this; especially those whose home situation is not exactly perfect. I believe some — not all — adolescents might benefit from seeing some ideal family dynamics, and might also identify with the stories of those who persevered and survived amid family chaos.

Was Rebecca’s home situation the exception to the rule? She’s quick to point out that it wasn’t perfect, but it obviously provided her the security or stability which ruled out going through teen rebellion. In ten chapters she deals with the contributing factors and because of her age provides a refreshing perspective against a backdrop of more mature ‘experts’ writing parenting books.

I’m glad I chose to read all the way through; it’s a book I would recommend.


Read a sample chapter at proud Mom Sheila’s blog.

 

September 29, 2017

Getting in Touch with my Biblical Feminine Side

Every once in awhile I do a feature titled “Currently Reading.” These are books for which I haven’t been given any review mandate and may or may not finish, but feel are worth mentioning. Sometimes they are books which aren’t new releases, and occasionally are completely out-of-print.

A better title might be, “Currently on the Bedside Table.” This describes the time of day I’m looking at them, though it’s actually a lie since the lamp base takes up most of the room. More like on the floor next to the bed, along with several unfinished crossword puzzles, which are a great way to unwind before sleep.

Have I put enough distance between myself and this book? I just don’t want people thinking I regularly choose my books in the women’s section of the bookstore. That’s because I’m currently late-night reading A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans (Thomas Nelson, 2012) the very same writer described by one site as “A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing;” and one whose haters have their own Facebook group; and I’m thoroughly enjoying the book. (I chose not to include the links.)

The book is part homage and part spoof  (depending on how you read it) of A. J. Jacobs’ classic My Year of Living Biblically. It’s also a response to the CBMW (the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which could also be represented by COBMAW) the same people behind the infamous “Nashville Statement” earlier this season. Evans searches the scripture to gain a picture of the role of women in both Old Testament times, and also at the time of Christ, and what implications both have for Christian women in today’s world.

But you know what? There’s nothing beyond that synopsis that I can write that would satisfy those whose faith compels them to simply denounce and write people off. I’m the other way around. I may not applaud the rhetorical style of Nadia Bolz-Weber, the artistic license of Wm. Paul Young or the non-directive responses of Rob Bell, but I love all three of them. There are certain people who instead prefer to draw a circle and everyone who is not in that circle is simply out. If that’s you, do the rest of us a favor and stop reading here, because…

…because I want to say a few things I really like about the book, so far.

  1. Evans is a gifted writer. She’s basically writing some type of autobiographical Bible-study memoir thing — a genre, called “lifestyle experiments” which apart from the aforementioned A. J. Jacobs and a few others doesn’t exist — which is difficult to classify, let alone critique. She pulls that off with all the requisite color and humor and other words which have a u in them if you’re British. I have no commitment to this book or its issues, yet I keep turning the page. And I feel like I already know Dan, her husband. (Poor Dan!)
  2. She did her research. Actually a lot of research. In the Bible and elsewhere. She didn’t just write the thing off the top of her head. If anyone would simply take the time to take the book seriously, it’s an excellent treatise on the role of Christian women even if you land the plane on a different runway.
  3. She is in many respects theologically conservative. Okay, don’t tell anyone that, because it would spoil her entire shtick, but she comes from an ultra conservative background, in many respects moved on past that, and yet she hasn’t tossed the baby out with the bathwater (a faith image that always works better around Christmas.) I can identify with her background.
  4. Her book resonated with many, many women who find themselves constantly trying to meet impossible expectations. Six years later, the book is still selling.
  5. She has the pictures to prove it. The subtitle is How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on the Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband Master. My favorite is her “praising her husband at the city gates” which shows her under a “Welcome to Dayton” sign holding up one of her own stating, “Dan is awesome.” She took her project seriously. (My wife keeps reminding me that’s not exactly what Proverbs 31 is saying.)

This is a book about someone’s life and something they decided to do for 12 months as an expression of their faith journey. Being honest, blunt and transparent is at the very least the antithesis of the hypocrisy Jesus condemned, though it may get you banned at LifeWay stores.

Some people may not like it, but as the pictures make clear, it actually happened, and Rachel was the perfect person to make it happen and make it meaningful.


From the archives: The original cover.

September 12, 2017

When the Color of the Carpet Actually Matters

While touring a church on a recent vacation day, I was taken to this church library where I simply had to take a picture. I love books and am a product of the power of Christian resources.

“The acquisition of Christian books is necessary for those who can use them. The mere sight of these books renders us less inclined to sin and incites us to believe more firmly in righteousness.” – Epiphanius, 4th Century

In Evangelical parlance, the phrase “the color of the carpet” is used as a euphemism for other superficial issues which can serve as a distraction to true worship and fellowship. It functions in the place of a myriad of other topics which can be divisive in the life of a Christian congregation.

I’ve always sworn I would never be a “color of the carpet” type of person. Some things are worth making a fuss over, and others should be consigned to the periphery of church concerns.

And then it happened.

At some point over the course of the summer they removed the church library and gave the contents to a local thrift store.

And I find myself seething.

So in order to justify myself, I have to be convinced that this is more than superficial; this is not about the color of the carpeting. Here’s why I am so strongly persuaded.

This was someone’s ministry in the church. This was a ministry that someone had poured their heart into for the better part of a decade, receiving an annual budgetary commitment, but little else in the way of enthusiasm. The person was away for six weeks visiting family in another part of the country. They did receive an email warning of what was to come, but little could be done at a distance of thousands of miles. This person deserved some opportunity for closure even if it was one last opportunity to view the boxed-up collection. I list this factor first because as a family, we experienced grieving the loss of a ministry, more than once, at the hands of this same church, and so we identify strongly with this particular aspect of the closure.

The library showed the value the capital-C Church has placed on writings throughout history. Though many weeks less than a dozen resources went out, its presence in the church was iconic in the truest sense of that word. It contained resources for parents, books on basic doctrine and Christian theology, chronicles of the history of the denomination. There were Bibles, videos, CDs, and a host of teaching materials instructive for children.

Donations kept the collection fresh. The people, myself included, who donated resources for this were invested in this particular type of ministry. Some books had been given just weeks before the whole thing was eradicated.

Stewardship was squandered. Because of my vocational role in the community at the local bookstore, I know that several hundred dollars worth of books had been purchased only this year. (But only a few hundred dollars. I have no significant conflict of interest here. My reaction is that of a bibliophile.)

The resources belonged to the congregation. People should have been told about the closure weeks ahead, and had the opportunity to take books of interest and make them part of their home library. They belonged to the people of the church, not the church staff.

They could have helped another church that wanted to have this ministry in their church building. This is a denomination that keeps talking about ‘church planting’ and ‘daughter churches’ and being a ‘network of churches,’ but I doubt any were offered the contents of this already-carefully curated collection. Some would be saddened to know what they missed out on.

They could have sent the resources overseas. Again, as a missionary-minded denomination the idea that the collection wasn’t considered to send to pastors and workers who were unable to take their libraries with them to Third World countries is equally perplexing. On a personal level, as an area volunteer for Christian Salvage Mission, I know the organization would have  embraced this acquisition with open arms and heartfelt gratitude on behalf of North American pastors and English-speaking indigenous workers in Africa and Asia. Instead, I wasn’t given the slightest inkling that this was in the works.

They kept two racks of fiction. This was the most disturbing thing of all; what was kept. These shelves are now located in the church’s new café and someone noted that some were books with exceptionally loud colors on the spines. If you were going to keep fiction, these were some of the worst choices. In other words, these books are props. They are being used solely for decorative purposes, to create atmosphere.

They may be deluded that electronic media has replaced books. This church recently signed a contract with Right Now Media, giving church people free access to a large grouping of video content. This is fraught with issues. Video teaching is not the same as learning off the printed page, nor is long-term absorption of the material as great. Older people in the church won’t bother to sign up for Right Now or figure out how it works. The mix of authors and teachers with online content is totally different than those who work solely in print. The library would have complemented the other service. Now they’ll never know if that would have happened.

The space will not see a higher purpose. Looking at that empty room, I wanted to be optimistic; I wanted to say, “Prove to me that what you’re about to do in this space is better than what you had.” It absolutely won’t happen.

The church bylaws are flawed. Major expenditures require approval in a congregational meeting, but the jettison of a major church asset requires no such approval. Given the number of now out-of-print titles that were displayed alongside more recent titles, I’d put the value of what was effectively trashed at at least $20,000 — books aren’t cheap — and that’s an informed opinion of someone working in the publishing industry. So you need to call a vote to acquire larger things, but you’re free to simply give away previously-acquired larger things? No. Not a good idea. For churches or families. Churches operate on the basis of consensus.

The library was doomed for at least a year. I kept forwarding PowerPoint slides along the lines of “Be sure to visit the church library…” to be used in the on-screen announcement crawl before the service, but never saw them used. Now I know why…

…I’m not sure where I’m going to church this Sunday. I have real issues with this. I’ve become what the church staff may say is a “color of the carpet” curmudgeon.

I don’t care. It was plain wrong. The stakeholders weren’t consulted. A horrible decision.

Now there’s no turning back.

 

September 9, 2017

Charts: The Real Bestselling Christian Books

This is from the list from the Christian Bookseller’s Association’s July bestsellers list, the last one posted online; it’s what you get when you eliminate:

  • all the iterations of Jesus Calling (highest individual rank #5)
  • all the iterations of The Standard Lesson Commentary
  • all the various adult coloring books (Update: turns out there were none in the top 40 this time around)
  • various children’s titles
  • two fiction titles
  • a package of tracts

Titles showing in the image above are unrelated.

Their ranking is placed after each entry in brackets.

  1. Goliath Must Fall – Louie Giglio (1)
  2. Without Rival – Lisa Bevere (2)
  3. Driven by Eternity – John Bevere (4)
  4. Jesus Always – Sarah Young (8)
  5. The Comeback – Louie Giglio (10)
  6. Boundaries – Henry Cloud (14)
  7. Uninvited – Lisa TerKeurst (15)
  8. The Circle Maker – Mark Batterson (17)
  9. Swipe Right – Levi Lusko (20)
  10. No More Faking Fine – Ester Fleece (23)
  11. Steve McQueen – Greg Laurie (24)
  12. The 5 Love Languages – Gary Chapman (25)
  13. When God Doesn’t Fix It – Laura Story (26)
  14. The Mystery – Lacey Sturm (27)
  15. Good or God – John Bevere (28)
  16. The Little Things – Andy Andrews (29)
  17. Simple Pursuit – Passion (31)
  18. Purpose Driven Life – Rick Warren (33)
  19. Magnolia Story – Chip and Joanne Gaines (34)
  20. How’s Your Soul – Judah Smith (36)

The Steve McQueen book is a bit of a curiosity which we mentioned here previously on the link list. Louis Giglio has three titles (two written by him, plus he wrote the intro to the Passion book) and two of the titles (13 and 14) are by Christian musicians. The dominance of John and Lisa Bevere in the list shows charismatic titles are still a driving force in Christian sales. Boundaries, Purpose Driven Life and 5 Love Languages show the enduring strength of those titles after many years. It’s also good to see new writer Levi Lusko doing so sell; I went to his church’s website and listened to a sermon two weeks ago.

 

 

August 21, 2017

Shopping for Church Curriculum on Amazon or Google Involves Risk

The IVP art director who designed N.T. Wright’s Bible study series had a thing for boats.

Today’s topic deals with an internet reality that is filled with complexities on a number of levels for churches and people organizing independent fellowship groups and Bible studies.

Before delving into the meat of today’s subject, I want to address two potential situations which can exist in a majority of churches, at least in North America.

  1. In some churches, individual leaders are charged with sourcing and ordering materials for different ministries within the church, and expenses are reimbursed either through charging participants, or from the general fund account.
  2. In other churches, study material is a ‘top-down’ decision, with paid clerical (or administrative) staff choosing what each group will study and ordering it themselves on the group’s behalf.

The problems we’re discussing today generally apply to the former situation, though can also take place in a surprising number of cases involving the latter situation.

So…the group leader, capitulating to an internet shopping world goes online and discovers a particular resource for their small group that seems to fit the bill.

  1. It’s on the book of Philippians, which is exactly what they want.
  2. It’s a fill-in-the-blanks format, which is exactly what they want.
  3. It runs ten weeks, which is exactly what they want.
  4. It’s under $10 US per book, which is exactly what they want.

What could possibly go wrong? (go wrong? go wrong? go wrong?)

I’ve seen these things happen firsthand:

  • The website is out-of-date and the particular resource is out of print and now it’s become a ‘Holy Grail’ type of quest to find the item in question. (Some groups will locate a single copy and do photocopying which in my opinion places them in a gray ethical area in terms of both the practice and the appearance.)
  • The expectations of the group aren’t the same as the person doing the purchasing. (You’re looking for a study book and they want to do a book study.)
  • A Baptist group accidentally orders a resource by a Pentecostal/Charismatic author. (Though in one case, they actually decided to go around one more time with the same series.)
  • A Charismatic/Pentecostal group orders a resource by a cessationist author. (Discovered when they like it enough to check out their other writings, only to find their doctrine being slammed.)
  • A small group discovers they’ve accidentally ordered something belonging to what would be considered a fringe Christian group with doctrinal distinctives that were not readily apparent (eg. Seventh Day Adventist)
  • The search process lands someone on a website not realizing it belongs to an even further-removed group such as LDS/Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness and is impressed enough to delve further into their writings, never returning to their place of origin.

There are several ways this can happen:

  1. The product they followed up on when they typed their criteria into a search engine belonged to a commercial publisher or distributor who was paying for search engine optimization (SEO) or even a paid ad itself.
  2. The internet isn’t very discerning; it follows an algorithm to obtain results depending on what you type. But too many search terms can also send it off the rails.
  3. The person searching isn’t very discerning; they are not trained in terms of knowledge of who it is behind the website or the publisher.

At risk of leaving somebody out, here, in no particular order, are some publishers of Evangelical Bible study material I believe everyone in that target group can trust:

  • InterVarsity Press (IVP)
  • Zondervan
  • Baker Books
  • NavPress (publishing arm of The Navigators)
  • David C. Cook
  • Thomas Nelson
  • AMG Publishing
  • Tyndale Publishing House
  • Moody Publishers
  • City on a Hill Productions
  • Bethany House
  • Harvest House
  • Concordia Publishing
  • Abingdon Press
  • Waterbrook Press

(Some omissions were intentional; others I will correct depending on comments or emails received.)

Some of you who know me know that I continue to advocate on behalf of remaining Christian bookstores. This is the best way to source material because it has been vetted both by the above publishers and the individual store owner, who is a professional in this field.

Additionally, some authors who have books issued by the above publishing houses, have chosen to do some of their small group material in-house in order to capitalize on the smaller profits necessitated by smaller print runs. It’s hit and miss on whether local stores can get these, and the situation is greatly complicated for people living outside the US, where the shipping and handling costs are prohibitive, unless they’ve arranged for a representative in that country to stockpile copies for buyers there.

It reminds me of the story we carried last week on our trade blog, where a woman was looking for fall Bible study material in a thrift store.

She had found an old book — and I’m not saying it wasn’t a worthy resource to use — and now wanted to order ten of them.

You know what comes next, right? Long out of print. To be expected…

…I shudder to think people don’t realize that hoping to find your church’s adult elective curriculum in a second-hand store is rather foolhardy.

If you find something which meets the established criteria (as in the above example) and is included on the publisher list above, there are still things that can go wrong. Someone trained in the field can quickly spot potential for product mismatches like,

  • “Do you know that study guide needs to be used with a DVD?”
  • “That guide is actually a companion to the book, produced for people who are using both.”
  • “That only covers the last six chapters of Romans; it’s a part two which only makes sense if your group has done part one.”
  • “This series is intended for new Christians; your group might find the material a little oversimplified or even condescending.”
  • “They call that a study guide but it’s really meant for people who have some background in Biblical Greek (or Hebrew).”
  • “That resource is actually divided into 52 readings, meant to be done weekly over the course of a year.”
  • “It’s really just a few pages long; the price you’re seeing is for a package of ten.”
  • “The text quotes in that one are entirely from the KJV; your youth group might find that a bit awkward.”

Ultimately, you can’t get this type of service from Amazon and you’ll never get this type of product discernment using a search engine such as Bing, or Google. Admittedly, I am biased, but this simply isn’t the way to shop for materials for your study group.

 

August 10, 2017

Rob Bell Responds to All Your Questions

The pastor and I had talked for more than an hour. The topics had shifted quickly and covered a wide swath of theology, ecclesiology, culture, ethics and church history. Several times I had to ask what the connection was between something he had said, and what had been said just a sentence earlier. But it was all stimulating, even invigorating.

So when the time ended, I got up to leave and said, “That was awesome. I really enjoyed our time together. That was deadly serious and a lot of fun at the same time.”

And then, before I turned to go out the door, I added, “But you know…you never actually answered my initial question.”


Answers are what people want. Especially if the person being asked is somewhat controversial. But perhaps we North Americans and Western Europeans are simply too destination oriented. Maybe we need to enjoy the process or the journey more than fret the arrival.

Rob Bell’s newest book What is the Bible: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel about Everything (HarperOne) is based on a series of Tumblr posts he has been doing over the last two years. Most of the articles were removed with the arrival of the book — something his publisher probably insisted on — but as I remember it, many were driven by reader questions.

Those readers got responses. I don’t know if they got the answers they desired, but speaking for myself, I’ll take some of these replies over a direct answer any day. And many times, Bell is really clear we’re asking the wrong questions in the first place.

For example, take the chapter titled, Is the Bible inerrant? For Bell this is like asking,

Did Mozart’s symphonies win?
In your estimation, has Mozart prevailed?
Do Mozart’s songs take the cake?
Are his concertos true?   (p.279)

and if you’re willing to concede any ground to him at all, he does make his point well, even if it’s not the direct answer you were hoping for. He says it’s the wrong question.

He encourages readers to read the Bible literately instead of literally — I would argue for the use of literaturely — knowing what genre they were seeing and then examining it appropriately on that basis.  (p.80)

Bible narratives come to life as never before. How did that woman in John 8 get caught in the act of adultery in the first place? Bell sees the clue in John 7; this is a festival not unlike our Creation Festival here or Greenbelt in the UK; it’s a religious camping event; there is much wine; someone ends up in the wrong tent. (pp 26-28) I can personally attest there isn’t much privacy at such things when the tents are sandwiched in close, though there was no alcohol factor at Creation.

Melchizedek? Bell writes that Abraham has been promised that God is going to do a new thing through him. He begins a covenant with Abraham. Something that has not existed prior. But then along comes “a priest of God Most High.” So there’s already a thing. An ongoing thing. A thing that’s been taking place long enough for there to be a priesthood. And even though we’re only 14 chapters in, the writer of Genesis assumes we get what that means. Long before the birth of Levi, there is already the notion of an ecclesiastic structure; within it a group that is set apart — by the designation priest — to serve in some capacity related to the sacrificial system which, in chapter 14, is just beginning. As Bell puts it,

If this is a story about the new thing God is doing, how come a character shows up who is already in on the new thing God is doing? (p.146)

For Bell there is a connectivity between portions of scripture we’ve perhaps never linked before. He starts out in the gospels and the whisks us to I Kings and just when we’ve caught our breath we’re in Psalms. All in the space of two pages. For Bell, genealogies are a ride at the amusement park, and the people with the weird names are the stuff of great theater. You end up thinking, ‘I really should read the Bible more often.’

And there are the personal moments. We’ve all heard the story of Bell’s first speaking engagement at a Christian camp, but the story of his first practice sermon in school was new to me. He knows he wants to reinvent the wheel so to speak, and so launches into a prototype of the prophetic Rob Bell style with which we’ve become familiar. The other students’ and the professor’s reactions coincide with a page turn, as you turn over the leaf, you’re expecting a certain type of response.

So as to the question at hand, what is the Bible?

Bell’s answer is not entirely radical. I’m not sure that I’d put this in the “first book for a new Christian to read” but you could do much worse. Better a response filled with life and dimension than something clinical. Twice Bell reminds us, as he has stated elsewhere previously, that the ancients regarded the scriptures as a fine gem which, when turned in different directions, reflects and refracts the light in a multitude of patterns and hues. It’s no accident that Bell’s book’s cover mimics this, appearing differently depending on how it’s being held…

…Preparing this review, I found myself diving back into familiar chapters. There’s no time to start from scratch right now, but I will probably use this a reference when reexamining key Bible passages. For the legion of Bell critics: Consider the potential audience. Through HarperOne, this book was available in airport gift shops and general market booksellers worldwide. It’s not an academic treatise on the meaning of the entire Bible, but an introduction for people who might want a fresh take on a belief system from which they may have once walked away.


A copy of What is the Bible was provided long after the standard review window had closed by Mark at HarperCollins Christian Publishing Canada.

 

 

 

 

 

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