Thinking Out Loud

May 26, 2017

42: The Right Guy in the Right Place at the Right Time

I’m not a sports guy. If you read this blog, you’ll know that it’s usually a full year goes by before something sports related appears in the Wednesday Link List.

But in 2013, reading Seven Men and the Secrets of their Greatness by Eric Metaxas, I found myself captivated by the chapter on Jackie Robinson; to the point that it was the only chapter in the book I read twice.  For any other non-sports readers here, Wikipedia explains that Robinson was,

an American professional baseball second baseman who became the first African American to play in Major League Baseball (MLB) in the modern era. Robinson broke the baseball color line when the Brooklyn Dodgers started him at first base on April 15, 1947. The Dodgers, by signing Robinson, heralded the end of racial segregation in professional baseball that had relegated black players to the Negro leagues since the 1880s.  Robinson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.

This was a gamble that simply had to work. Before even completing the review of Metaxas’ book, I wrote this brief synopsis of that chapter:

The essence of Metaxas’ take on Robinson is that without his strong faith in Jesus Christ, and the shared faith of the manager who signed him — first to a farm team, and then as the first African-American in Major League Baseball — the story would not have happened as swiftly as it did. Both parties knew that if they failed, there might not be another opportunity for another few years or even a decade. Why the faith element was so important is something I’ll save for the review, if I don’t decide it’s a spoiler. Suffice it say that whoever was going to break the professional baseball color barrier needed to be a special person. 

My friend Jeff Snow however is a rabid baseball aficionado. He’s also a pastor and youth and young adults worker whose writing you’ve seen here before in the series we ran twice on the impact of divorce on teens. So when Thomas Nelson released 42 Faith: The Rest of the Jackie Robinson Story by Ed Henry a few weeks ago, Jeff was at the front of the line to buy a copy. I asked him if he could share his impressions.

I finished 42 Faith last week. I really enjoyed it. First, some minor quibbles: It tries a little too hard to find faith where there isn’t really strong evidence from the situation, and the book meanders a bit. Also, the author interjects himself into the story; a chapter may start with him describing how he met a 90 year old former teammate of Robinson over breakfast to discuss Robinson.

The interesting thing for me as someone who has read widely about Robinson is that he uses sources that up to this point have not been touched on much, including correspondence filed in the Library of Congress and an unpublished manuscript Robinson wrote in the sixties that was supposed to be part of a series of book for young people where he talked about the importance of faith in detail.

Another positive part is that most of the evidence the author uses to back up his contentions are first person quotes from either Robinson or Branch Rickey, the other main character in the story.

The author’s contention is that, along with other considerations, that faith in God played a large role in motivating first Rickey in wanting to sign Robinson as the first African-American player in the major leagues, and in motivating Robinson to see this opportunity as divinely guided and as an opportunity to do what God put him on earth to do.

It’s hard to say how someone who has no clue about this story would enjoy the book. The meandering might throw them off. But I think anyone who has an interest in baseball, in the civil rights movement and social justice, or who enjoys inspiring true stories, would enjoy it.

 

May 12, 2017

Apologetics: The Case for Making the Case

Probably the most disturbing thing about the newest title from J. Warner Wallace, Forensic Faith: A Homicide Detective Makes the Case for a More Reasonable, Evidential Christian Faith (David C. Cook) came in the preface where he noted that this is “the final installment in a trilogy.” Say it isn’t so!

Since arriving on the scene in 2013 with Cold Case Christianity and then 2015’s God’s Crime Scene, Wallace has rocked the world of evidential apologetics by applying his background as a cold case crime-solver to the issues of the death and resurrection of Christ and intelligent design respectively. (I recently combined both of my reviews into one at this link.)

Some might say that this book is guilty of repeating much material from the previous two volumes. Instead, I would argue that this is more like the director’s cut providing background information for hardcore followers. That said, I would suggest that you want to read Cold Case Christianity first to get maximum benefit from the new title.

The book is organized into four main chapters, each containing five sub-points. I found the first and fourth sections especially helpful. The first tracks a history of those who contended for the faith — a history of apologetics — starting with Christ himself, then The Commissioned, then the group he calls The Canonical, next The Continuing and last The Contemporary. (see illustration below)

The fourth section compares the way in which we communicate our message to the prosecutor in a trial. Opening statements, presentation of evidence and closing statements are important, but so is the selection of our audience — jurors in the analogy — and this is an area where we often expend much energy trying to convert those who are simply not prepared to hear what we have to offer.

But the best insights from the book are encountered along the reading journey, and these will probably be different for each reader. Example: Ever heard someone suggest that the Jesus narrative is a copy of earlier mythology? I have. But Wallace points out that the similarities between Jesus and Mithras, an ancient Persian mythological figure were “actually due to the borrowing on the part of Mithraic followers after they were exposed to Christianity.” (p. 90) (see video below)

He again in this books speaks of cumulative evidence, but later in the book suggests something different, “incremental decision making” on the part of the not-yet converted. He compares this to baseball; the idea is that we don’t necessarily know which base (1st, 2nd, 3rd) the person is standing on. We don’t have to hit a home run; if the person is standing on 3rd, we can hit a single and that might be enough to bring the person to home plate. (p. 197)

The groundwork for this book, and the thing I believe distinguishes it from the other two titles, is laid early on when he suggests that many are what he calls “California Christians.” We’re in the right place, but “accidentally” so. “Now, more than ever, Christians must shift from accidental belief to evidential trust. It’s time to know why you believe what you believe. Christians must embrace a forensic faith.” (p. 23)

The real high point for me however was a smaller section in the third chapter. Wallace quotes from ancient authors who were actually antagonistic toward Christians and Christianity. But in each of these there are little kernels of historical information about Jesus himself. After several pages of this, he finally combines all of these into a single summary paragraph that tells the Jesus story using the words of writers hostile to Christianity noting that it’s “a lot of information from ancient non-Christian sources, and it happens to agree with what the Bible says about Jesus.” (pp 136-7)

I could go on. There is much here, both in the text, the boxed sidebars and the two appendices. Also, in case you are wondering, Wallace also comes through with his signature diagrams.

As with the first two books, this is one that needs to be kept close by to refer to often.

Note: This time around there is also an 8-week, DVD-driven curriculum kit available with participant guides. 

For more information on J. Warner Wallace visit ColdCaseChristianity.com


A review copy of Forensic Faith was provided to Thinking Out Loud by David C. Cook Publishing. All three books are in paperback at $18.99 US retail each.

May 5, 2017

The Book Which Launched J. Warner Wallace

Four years ago, most of us did not know the name J. Warner Wallace. Today his two bestselling books have made him a leading voice in Christian apologetics. I’ve received a copy of Foresnic Faith the newest from him and hope to review it here in the near future.

We never repeat book reviews here. I’ll re-purpose other content, but generally the book reviews are limited to a specific time period when the book is fresh. Today an exception…

The book that started it all

Every 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. But first one other book comparison, and you won’t see it coming. Years ago Philip Keller wrote A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. People loved that book because there were particular insights that only one who tended sheep could offer toward interpretation of the text that begins “The Lord is my shepherd.” In many respects, Cold Case Christianity offers the same type of intimacy with the subject matter that only an insider who has worked in this vocation can contribute. So if you feel you’ve read enough apologetics titles to last a lifetime, allow me to offer you one more! 

It’s important to note that Wallace approached this originally from the perspective of an atheist. While the evidence in this case is compelling, I found the first part of the book (which is more than half of the total) most interesting. Possible recipients of this book would include men (Father’s Day is coming) and anyone who reads mysteries or watches mystery or suspense or programs related to the justice system on video or TV.

In a sense, in Cold Case Christianity you, or someone you know who is sitting on the fence in terms of belief, are the jury. So the other possible recipients of this book would be anyone who is investigating Christianity; including people who might not read other books in the apologetics genre.

The second part of the book is the evidence itself. Here, Wallace brings in much from non-Biblical sources, satisfying the oft-voice complaint that some apologists are simply using the Bible to prove the Bible.

This is a handbook I intend to keep within reach and will no doubt refer back to many times.

The sophomore release

Two years later, Wallace returned with a similarly structured book looking at a slightly different subject. Again, with Forensic Faith just coming to market, I decided to make this a two-for-one.

In God’s Crime Scene: A Cold-Case Detective Examines the Evidence for a Divinely Created Universe (David C. Cook) J. Warner Wallace applies his unique skills to the idea of God being behind what we might call creation. But we need to watch using the word creation in describing this book, since creation science is concerned with origins and answering the “How did we get here?” type of questions. Rather, this is more about intelligent design and bypassing the How? and When? questions to look more at What?; or more specifically the complexity that exists in the world pointing to a master designer; a designer who exists outside the realms we can observe or quantify.

The last distinction is important to Wallace’s argument; he compares it to cases where detectives would have to determine if the killer was in the room or came from outside the room. The analogy is very fitting, but the proof isn’t contained in one chapter or another, but in the aggregate of a case built on a foundation consisting of an amalgam of evidence and syllogistic logic.

The evidence “inside the room” points to a very specific “suspect.” He’s not a malicious intruder. Although I’ve titled this book God’s Crime Scene (in an effort to illustrate an evidential approach to the investigation of the universe), God hasn’t committed any crime here. In addition, God is not an unconcerned intruder; He isn’t dispassionate about His creation. (p. 201)

God’s Crime Scene is intended therefore to make the argument for the existence of God accessible to the average reader through the comparisons to anecdotal cold-case detective work, and the use of cartoon-like illustrations. But make no mistake, this is not light reading.

This time around, I found myself gladly absorbing the chapters that were more philosophical and epistemological in nature, but totally over my depth in the sections that relied more on biology and physics. I could only marvel that the author was able to present such a wide swath of material which was so multi-disciplinary.

Still there were elements of the argument that were not lost on me. Even a child could see the resemblance of a machine-like mechanism in the human body and a man-made machine that forms a similar function, the latter being something we know was intelligently designed. Or the logic that if we agree that the brain is distinct from the mind, then it’s not a huge leap to the idea that a soul exists.

This is a textbook-quality product that will appeal to a variety of readers with an assortment of interests in this topic and offers the additional payoff of further insights into detectives’ investigative processes. You don’t have to understand every nuance of every issue to both appreciate and learn from Wallace’s writing; and it is in the cumulative assembly of all the various subjects raised here that Wallace is able to mark the case closed…

…You can learn more about the books and ministry of this author at ColdCaseChristianity.com .

April 28, 2017

Misconstruing Biblical Passages

Book Review: The Most Misused Stories in the Bible
by Eric. J. Bargerhuff

I get very passionate about books which have application both to veterans — those well seasoned Christians who grew up in the church — and to newcomers and seekers alike. The Most Misused Stories in the Bible: Surprising Ways Popular Bible Stories are Misunderstood is one such title. Randomly remove just one of the fourteen chapters here and you’ve got the basis for an excellent Sunday adult elective for one quarter. Or a mid-week small group. Convene that group within a reasonable driving distance of my house, and I’d want you to call me; these are discussions in which I would love to participate.

I would argue however that the book is title-challenged. Actually it’s a sequel to The Most Misused Verses in the Bible which I have neither seen or read and I do recognize the value of a brand. Still, I think misapplied or misunderstood would be good here, and by stories I found that sometimes a particular Bible narrative served as a springboard for what was really a discussion of a Bible concept or imagery. Also the title implies a tension that appears in various degrees of intensity between the chapters.

Everyone has their tribe, and Dr. Bargerhuff, who teaches at Trinity College of Florida leans in a Reformed direction. So that means sources cited include Carson, MacArthur, Grudem, Challies, the Gospel Coalition website and quotations from the ESV. So in a chapter on Judas, we find a full apologetic for eternal security, though the next chapter, on the baptism of the Holy Spirit, starts out slightly more charitable toward those who teach or experience a post-conversion filling or blessing. (I especially like the title of that one, “The Samaritan Pentecost” as opposed to the Acts 2 Pentecost.)

For those who have experienced much Bible teaching, there are sections of this you will have heard before. In fact, two chapters in I found myself being dismissive of the book as perhaps a bit simplistic. However, pressing in again, I realized I had misjudged. The book does have a sermon-like homiletic quality — Bargerhuff was in pastoral ministry for 20 years — and preachers out there who find they must ‘borrow’ their sermons would  find fourteen high quality manuscripts therein.

But I also struck gold when I discovered the notes. I’m not an academic, but I like to go deeper and really wish these had been footnotes instead of endnotes, however I understand that a cleaner page is more user-friendly to the aforementioned newcomers and seekers; many of whom have been dealing with some of the misconceptions of scripture even if they weren’t part of the church.

Example of many pauses for thought: I never considered it before, but when Jesus first said, “This is my body…” he said it in a room of people who could see quite clearly before him that his physical body and the pieces of bread he was holding were distinct. A key to seeing the bread being symbolic and not literally the body of Christ. (While I tend to think that spiritual authority and the veneration of Mary are the big Roman Catholic distinctives, a local priest recently told my son he gets the most push-back on transubstantiation.)

Having recently read Gary Burge’s alternative reading on Zacchaeus in his Encounters with Jesus, I read that chapter as the third one, and was delighted to see it confronted in this book. And I loved the idea that when Mark tells us that Jesus could not do miracles in his hometown it was not because their unbelief was “some kind of cosmic kryptonite that weakened Jesus’ abilities to perform miracles as the Messiah.” But with respect to Jonah — the longest and best chapter — some of you will be disappointed to learn that with modern maritime knowledge it probably was a whale after all.

There was also more gold to be found in the epilogue on how to avoid mistakes in reading the Bible. I want you to get the book so rather than quote these, I’ll provide a concise, edited and paraphrased version of some:

  • Context matters
  • Don’t miss the main point
  • Avoid modern-day biases
  • Avoid modern cultural influences
  • Don’t miss important cross-references
  • Don’t redefine terms
  • God, not man should be central
  • Watch for poetic imagery
  • Don’t let tradition trump the text
  • …and a couple more.

I hope this helps you get past the title and get a better insight into what the book is about. As I type this, I’ve already read some chapters twice. From me, that’s a high recommendation. So when does that small group start up?

Bethany House, paperback, 171 pages, $12.99 US


There are some similarities here to what’s going on in The Bible Story Handbook, a large (and pricey) 350-page paperback by John Walton and Kim Walton (2010, Crossway) that also looks at the way Bible narratives are often misapplied. That work is broader in the sense that it covers 175 different passages, though obviously not in the same detail.


A copy of The Most Misused Stories was provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc.

 

April 24, 2017

Reunion: The Relationship God Wants Us to Have

Book Review: (re)Union: The Good News of Jesus for Seekers, Saints, and Sinners by Bruxy Cavey

You’ve got a friend who you’d like to see cross the line of faith. You want to sit down and be able to answer all their questions in a casual, non-threatening manner. Problem is, there’s aspects of your Christian pilgrimage that have left you less than articulate on various core doctrines. If only you had another friend who could join you at the coffee shop to make Christianity make sense. 

Enter Bruxy Cavey [KAY-vee] teaching pastor at The Meeting House, an alternative, multi-site congregation in the greater Toronto area described as both “church for people who aren’t into church,” and also as “Canada’s fastest growing church network.” It’s been a decade since his 2007 title with NavPress, The End of Religion: Encountering the Subversive Spirituality of Jesus.  Since then he’s become more strongly alligned with his tribe, the Brethren in Christ and more identified with pacifist denominations which clearly are a minority in the United States.

Ten years later, that irreligious message of Jesus turns up in Bruxy’s “The Gospel in 30 Words” which forms the core of the book. 

Thinking of the parable of the landowner he writes

…But notice why people are thrown off.  It’s not because God is a miser or a tyrant, and not because he is too demanding or judgemental.  People get upset because he is too kind!  Jesus seems to be saying that God is so loving, so gracious, so generous that if you put him into a human context, he would appear crazy with kindness.

If you are a very religious person who has worked long and hard to achieve some sort of spiritual reward, you could be scandalized by this irrational grace.  If you are a religious leader stewarding a system that teaches people to work for their heavenly reward, this teaching might seem threatening, because it undermines your current system of salvation.  This is exactly what happened with Jesus: the religious leaders of his day became so threatened by his message of grace that they eventually plotted to have him executed. (pp 175-176) 

What happens when your friend in the coffee shop hears this irreligious message? I think it’s disarming; it breaks down their defenses. Ideally, it leads to a turning to Christ. 

Since we don’t have that other friend to articulate all this for us, there’s this book. But reading it and studying the language used can make the rest of us better able to share not only our testimony, but an understanding of the doctrinal puzzle pieces which fit together to form the larger theological picture; by which I mean, the pieces which matter; this is a book which refuses to be distracted. 

If you prefer more established methodology, the book includes a summary of The Four Spiritual Laws, The Bridge to Life, Steps to Peace with God and The Roman Road, but Bruxy would argue that “each of these outlines shares a common flaw: they are woefully fragmentary, reductionist and incomplete.” Most “focus primarily on salvation from sin as the central message of the gospel. This is certainly an important aspect… But if you’re going to be a student of the good news, then you need to know and will want to share the whole message.”

The book is equal parts basic Christian doctrine and apologetics, the latter in the sense of being able to explain the plan and purpose of God to the secularist. There’s something like a “sinner’s prayer” at the end, but there’s also a “seeker’s prayer” for those close, but not ready to cross the line of faith. The book releases in a few days fittingly from Herald Press, a Mennonite publishing company. 

 

 

 

 

April 17, 2017

Willow Creek Continues to Rewrite the Playbook for Weekend Services

Two weeks ago Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago’s Northwest suburbs had an “Authors Weekend.” Teaching pastor Steve Carter interviewed Anne Lamott and then went into an another exchange with Lee Strobel, the latter having been a former Willow staff member. (Later in the week Josh McDowell visited on Wednesday night.) You can watch those interviews at this link.

Doing an interview in a church service can be a hit or miss proposition. Especially if it is replacing a traditional teaching segment aka sermon. Furthermore, the reaction to any particular guest is going to be subjective. Just a week or two earlier, Willow hosted Olympic gymnast Gabrielle Douglas. That one didn’t resonate with me so much.

But watching Carter talk with Lamott and later Strobel, I realized what they are doing has some broader implications.

First, I have for a long time questioned how much time sermon has left.  With all due respect to those of you currently honing your homiletic craft at either the undergraduate or graduate level, I really think that this particular form is destined to go the way of the CD or the land line phone. I’m not saying there aren’t some great preachers out there; I spend my evening hours listening to sermon after sermon online. But that’s me. For others there are a host of reasons why sermon doesn’t work. ADD or ADHD comes to mind. Some sermons are simply too long. Some say it’s just not how they learn. Some claim that high profile Christian pastors have simply set the bar too high and average pastors can’t achieve the quality that is now widely available online. Others would argue that we’ve become accustomed to media bursts, sound bites, and increased concision.

Second, I have for a long time advocated teaching modules rather than a single focus half hour. A few of us are old enough to remember when NBC introduced the show Real People. Hailed as the first magazine format program — though I’m not sure it predated 60 Minutes — this variety-meets-information type of programming is now widely used. I always thought that the ideal solution in church would be to break up the 30 minutes into three 10 minute segments, separated by music, announcements, or scripture readings. One module might be topical. One might be exegetical. Or if you prefer, one might be light while one might go deeper. One might deal with family life. One might delve into an obscure Old Testament character. (If that last one sounds boring, remember, we’re talking ten minutes here. You don’t have time to lose people!)

What Willow and Carter did that Sunday met these objectives in the ways that follow, but I also want to add one extra point.

The interview was a nice alternative to a sermon. Key here was the fact that the two authors really had something to say. The aforementioned sports star was a good testimony, and she’s probably a role model for a lot of young girls — and they did have a sermon that week as well — but Strobel and Lamott brought a lot of substance to the table. There was also spontaneity, including an opportunity to text in questions. (I wasn’t there in person, but watching the Saturday night service live, I could have easily participated in this.)

The interviews would appeal to different people. Strobel’s was also a testimony, but also tied into an upcoming movie. A number key points in Christian apologetics were covered. Another aspect to this story is what happens in a marriage when one partner has crossed the line of faith and the other is hostile toward Christianity. I hadn’t read anything by Lamott but her personal, unaffected demeanor probably connected with people early in their Christian journey, with seniors, and also with women. In other words, a wide swath demographically.

The interviewer had done his homework. This was the thing that really impressed me. Steve Carter wasn’t just ‘winging it.’ He had spent some time studying both the literature and the biographies of his two guests. Willow had a point to all this, they were doing it for well considered reasons; otherwise they wouldn’t have done it at all. But if they were going to do it, they were going to do it well. (Their commitment to excellence shone through their Good Friday and Easter services this past weekend, also available online.)

Finally, a confession.

I’m a sermon guy. Yes, I just said it’s a dying art form, but I enjoy them. So it would be quite easy for me to feel disappointed I wasn’t going to get one from Willow that week. Truth is, I tuned in especially to see what Strobel would say, and because his connection as a former Willow Creek staffer made it especially interesting. Plus I’ve seen Carter and Bill Hybels do this sort of thing many times before and they aren’t exactly novices.

Can your church snag top name guests? You probably don’t have the budget, nor do they have a lot of availability. But there are probably some stories that Christian people in your community can tell better on a two-chair set than can be related from behind a podium. There are probably topics that can be presented with two members of the pastoral staff taking a tag team approach. There is probably preaching content that can be modified to suit a Q & A format, even if it’s not as spontaneous as you would like it to be. Finally, there’s possibly someone in your church who might, on a one-off Sunday, have something vital to share but would need the help of a more seasoned speaker to rein them in when they go off topic or off focus, or to simply keep the message moving.

I’m not advocating this for everyone; I’m just saying it deserves consideration.


 

 

April 4, 2017

Zondervan’s “Secular” Ownership is a Blessing, Not a Curse

This fictitious logo was created when Zondervan and Thomas Nelson became one under HarperCollins Christian Publishing.

It was a Christian bookstore that was a million miles off most people’s radar and we found it somewhat by chance. Subsequent searching failed to turn it up in a directory of such establishment, or even the Yellow Pages for that matter. Stocking a mixture of English and foreign language products, it had a ‘Mom and Pop’ type of vibe, though a rather large stockroom suggested it was a mix of wholesale and retail.

I got talking to the manager as I browsed, told him of my industry connection, and noted that he didn’t seem to have any Zondervan books or Bibles in his English section.

“We don’t carry them;” he said; “They’re owned by HarperCollins and HarperCollins prints The Satanic Bible.”

End of discussion.

Well, not quite; he didn’t realize what he was taking on here.

It’s true that under its Avon imprint, the company does carry the Anton Le Vey version of that title — there are many books that use the same moniker — but the sole paperback edition at 9.99US/12.50CDN hardly seems worth considering when compared to the over 6,000 titles Zondervan has, not to mention another 900+ under Zonderkidz and let’s not forget at least another 6,500 published under the Thomas Nelson banner. Add in some smaller labels and the ratio is about 14,000:1.

Still, if he were raising the question today, he could have added that HarperOne currently has a chart-topping title in the Self Improvement category by Mark Manson, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life. And let’s not forget Charles Silverstein’s The Joy of Gay Sex (Third Edition).

It’s all dowhill from there; this information is generally used as a basis for attacking the NIV Bible, because those attacks are generally a house of cards theologically, and need some other external reason to exist. The discussion at an Amazon forum on this is always amusing:

C. Goff: I applaud Hapercollins for respecting free speech and publishing books that offer a variety of perspectives.  Perhaps Evangelicals should pool their money and buy an island somewhere, so they can live together in their own theocratic fantasy land. Then they won’t be corrupted by so many sinners who like to think for themselves.

Be Still: Ummm….we did “buy” an island. It was call America, but not look at whats happened because so many people were left to their own “thinking”. Rest assured, corruption commeth from both inside and outside the church. God is the only one good. Not any human.

It goes on and on — there and elsewhere — but I think Joshua really sums up one side of the argument:

Zonderman [sic] is owned by HarperCollins (Satanic Bible, 90% of witchcraft published in world, NIV) which is owned by the devil and Knight of Malta Rupert Murdoch and a Knight of Malta is the first protector of the Antichrist the Pope of the Roman Catholic whore of Babylon church. Jimmy Savile the UK mass child murderer (and mentor of the wife murderer Prince Charles – his other mentor Mountbatten was also a child rapist and a sodomite) is also a Knight of Malta and buried in a Roman Catholic Church in Leeds – he was given a full freemason funeral service. At the 33 degree freemasons receive an Iron cross with a medallion under it and around the medallion is written in Latin: ‘the holy see’ – the Freemason head is the Antichrist – why? – because Freemasonry is also known as the CRAFT and God said in his true and only gospel the King James 1611 bible: Dan 8:25 And through his policy also HE SHALL CAUSE CRAFT TO PROSPER IN HIS HAND; and he shall magnify himself in his heart, and by peace shall destroy many: he shall also stand up against the Prince of princes; but he shall be broken without hand.

Yikes!

But as the chart below shows, there are a very large number of Christian publishing imprints which have secular ownership.

You don’t want to know about Christian record labels, either. This chart of Christian music market share is from 2014, but not much has changed:

So this is a bad situation, right? That depends on your preconceived biases going into the discussion.

  • Many of the people making the argument are KJV-only, looking for a reason to attack the NIV which, of all the other translations, has always had a target painted on its back.
  • Most of the people making the argument would find a way to reject the ministry of all of the company’s top authors including Rick Warren, Anne Graham Lotz, Lee Strobel, Charles Stanley, Philip Yancey, Henry Cloud, etc. (I will concur, Yancey’s hair could disqualify him from being a Christian.)

But allowing some of these people their fifteen minutes of fame, if Harper’s parent company NewsCorp is basically evil, why would they want to own an imprint like Zondervan?

They bought the company because it looked to them to be a profitable business. They’re in the book business. They wanted to expand. In publishing there are sports books, and cookbooks and science fiction and host of genres of which religious publishing is but one. Furthermore, with a unique arrangement between the company and their printer, mega corporation R.R. Donnelley, they can bring an efficiency to Zondervan’s publishing that can only improve that bottom line.

But what’s in it for Zondervan? They get access not only to HarperCollins’ expertise, but also a distribution channel that brings access to a host of markets they might not otherwise tap: Gift stores, airport boutiques, and foreign market sales just to name a few.

How best to keep your “Christian division” profitable? Leave them alone! Let their acquisitions and marketing people operate with autonomy. Let them do what they do best in a business that they know and understand best.

Back to my discussion with the store manager. What would I say to him differently if we were having the discussion today in 2017.

I’d probably tell him to look no further than the rollout of the new Christian Standard Bible. Happening right now we have a Bible being brought to market by Holman, a division of B&H Publishing, which is a division of LifeWay which was founded back in 1891, and yet they are bringing the new Bible to market a few editions at a time because they don’t have the resources to do it any other way.

However, Zondervan, when they rolled out the 2011 update to the NIV was able to bring hundreds of editions and formats on the same day because they had a parent company who was able to bankroll the whole thing. Furthermore instead of “running out” the older editions, most were remaindered within weeks of the conversion.

Projects like this would simply be a dream if were not for the resources of a major corporation backing them. It also means that these Bible editions are able to reach people in ways that simply wouldn’t happen if the company were still independent.

When you look at the big picture, you have to see this relationship as a blessing, not a curse. In terms of propagating the message of Jesus Christ and building the Kingdom of God, the partnership is a win-win-win.

 

March 21, 2017

C. S. Lewis’s Greatest Hits

C. S. Lewis certainly belongs in any list of the Top 10 Christian writers of the 20th Century, but for many his thoughts are more easily digested in sound bites rather than the reading of complete works. I was a little surprised when, with 2017’s season of Lent well underway I was offered an opportunity to review Preparing For Easter: Fifty Devotional Readings from C. S. Lewis, but I wasn’t about to turn down a chance to reconsider Lewis’ brilliance in a different format.

Really, the seasonal title of the book is unfortunate, a better one might be C. S. Lewis’s Greatest Hits, though the book is not limited to his apologetics but introduction makes clear that, “being a leading Christian defender of the faith would not be the only reason to explain Lewis’s posthumous popularity… [He] was also a pioneering explainer of the Christian life itself… Lewis’s apologetics are so powerful precisely because many find his vision of the Christian life so compelling and inspiring. It is this later role of Lewis’s, as a visionary prophet for how to follow Christ today, that this collection is concerned with.”

It’s also helpful to take the more more familiar passages; the Lewis-isms which have become soundbites, such as,

  • Aim at Heaven you will get earth ‘thrown in’: am at earth and you will get neither
  • If I find in my self a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.
  • The dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship…There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.
  • I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

and read these, at least partially, in their fuller original context.

But there is also the more obscure, the sections in the various Letters… collections which I have never perused. I would have liked more of these, such as his take on pacifism — a view he describes as “recent and local” — as well as his picture of heaven:

The symbols under which heaven is presented to us are (a) a dinner party, (b) a wedding, (c) a city, and (d) a concert.

Equally helpful to me were the sections in books I had read previously but had somehow simply missed, which in these shorter, daily readings — most run four pages in a digest-sized volume — are brought into clearer focus, such as the excerpt I ran on Friday.

Not every word that Lewis wrote is gospel. Some of his ideas were his own opinions and perhaps a few were somewhat fanciful. But such is the nature of his writing. I don’t always get Song of Solomon, either, but it’s in the same volume that offers me the gospel of Luke or the epistle to the Romans.  Many passages are highly personal to Lewis, or perhaps the reader.

Some people feel guilty about their anxieties and regard them as a defect of faith. I don’t agree at all. They afflictions, not sins. Like all afflictions, they are, if we can so take them, our share in the Passion of Christ. (194)

Included with each of the 50 readings are references to selected scripture passages which enhance the devotional experience. The volume ends with a reading for Easter Sunday. Again, to repeat what I said earlier, this really ought to be a non-seasonal product. In the meantime however, it will well serve people charged with preparing material for the central season of the Christian year, or latecomers like myself who were able to binge-read it in several sittings.


HarperOne; 2017 hardcover; 214 pages; 17.99 US; 9780062641649. Material is suitable and helpful for all Christian traditions. Compiled by Zachry Kincaid. Thanks to Nadea Mina for a review copy.

More info at CSLewis.com

 

March 12, 2017

“…The arts should be evaluated artistically, not just theologically.”

Filed under: books, Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:13 am

On Friday, Internet Monk ran two articles back-to-back by the site’s founder, the late Michael Spencer. The subject was The Shack, both the movie and the book, though Spencer did not live to see the movie. I have reproduced the second of the two articles here because it deals with some general principles, but for added context, I encourage you to read both, which you may do so at this link: Fridays with Michael Spencer…On “The Shack” but for those who choose not to click, here is the second part.

Difficult Concept Workshop: Repeat After Me…”The Shack Is A Story”

by Michael Spencer

I just finished doing another interview about my writing on The Shack. My posts on The Shack have attracted a lot of readers, which is good, because if nothing else, The Shack is a phenomenon that needs to be discussed and better understood.

It seems that a willingness to denounce The Shack has become the latest indicator of orthodoxy among those evangelicals who are keeping an eye on the rest of us. It’s a lot less trouble than checking out someone’s views on limited atonement, that’s for sure.

Hear me loud and clear: it’s every pastor and Christian’s duty to speak up if they feel The Shack is spiritually harmful. I’d only add one point: it’s equally the right of those who find The Shack helpful to say so.

Obviously, The Shack isn’t for everyone. Like a lot of Christian fiction, it has a certain amount of gawky awkwardness. No one will ever call William Young a skilled wordsmith. I wouldn’t teach The Shack in a theology class, even though I find Young’s willingness to explore the Trinity commendable and personally helpful.

(Oh… I probably would use The Shack to discuss whether the Trinity is a hierarchy, a belief that critics of The Shack seem to hold as essential.)

It’s the presentation of God in The Shack that creates the controversy with the critics and the buzz with the fans, but the longer I’ve talked about this story with other Christians, I have to wonder if all the focus on Young’s “Trinity” isn’t missing the larger point of the book- a point that many theological watchblogs don’t seem to see at all.

The Shack is a pilgrimage. It’s an allegorical account of one person’s history with God; a history deeply affected by the theme of “The Great Sadness.” It’s a journey, and overlooking what’s going on in Mack’s journey is a certain prescription of seeing The Shack as a failed critique of Knowing God.

I’ve come to believe that the most significant reason for The Shack’s early success- certainly the reason I picked it up- is the endorsement from Eugene Peterson on the cover, an endorsement where Peterson refers to Young’s book as another “Pilgrim’s Progress.” That’s not a random compliment.

The Knights of Reformed Orthodoxy like to talk about Pilgrim’s Progress as if it is Calvin’s Institutes made into a movie. In reality, Bunyan’s Book is a personal pilgrimage, one that illustrated his version of Christian experience and retold his own experiences.

Even Spurgeon realized that Bunyan’s theology wasn’t completely dependable. The loss of the “burden” comes after a long search for relief, a storyline that reflected Bunyan’s own struggles with assurance and obsessive subjectivity. Few pastors today would endorse a version of the Gospel that left people wandering in advanced states of conviction, unable to find any way to receive forgiveness. Bunyan’s particular personality has too much influence on his presentation of belief and assurance.

But what Bunyan does illustrate is valuable in a manner much different than a theological outline. He tells the story of a journey from guilt to forgiveness, the confrontation with worldly powers, spiritual conflict, imperfect fellow believers and the inertia and resistance within ourselves. We can measure Bunyan’s book by measurements of correct theology, but I believe most of us know that this isn’t the proper measurement for Pilgrim’s Progress. We should measure it as a presentation of one Christian’s life.

It’s a story of a journey.

The same could be said of many other books. Take C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. It’s the journey of grieving the death of a spouse. Along the way, God’s appearances are all over the map because the “pilgrim” is moving in his journey through “the Great Sadness.”

Be clear: I agree with Ben Witherington III that Young’s book could use a theological revision, but I believe his adventurous exploration of God’s character is set against “the Great Sadness,” not “the Great Theological Examination.” When someone analyzes The Shack and finds 13 major heresies, I’d suggest you look very closely at the list. Some are legitimate concerns. Some are brutal victims of context and some are not heresies at all, but the critic’s discomfort with the medium.

Young is talking about a God who draws you out of your hiding place. If I understand Young’s own journey, this is the primary image in the book: A God who invites you and meets in the the very place where “the Great Sadness” entered your experience in a way that you understand the love that comes to you from the Trinity.

This journey is what should capture the reader. In one sense, The Shack is a bit of Rorschach test, and if you put it in front of someone and what they see is “emerging church heresy!” and “God is a black woman,” then you’ve learned what that person was most looking for in the book: a familiar and historically orthodox affirmation of God and a similar affirmation of who are the good guys.

But what about those who look at the book and see Mack’s journey? The Great Sadness? The God who draws you out and meets you in the place of your greatest loss? What if that reader sees the theological awkwardness and occasional imprecision, but sees those problems in balance alongside Mack’s journey to self-forgiveness, resolution and renewed intimacy with God? Maybe that’s why so many people who know good theology STILL like The Shack?

There is enough in The Shack to give all of us plenty to blog about, so don’t expect posts to end anytime soon. But I’m wondering if anyone is understanding that The Shack isn’t selling because there’s such a hunger for theological junk food. No, there’s a hunger for someone to compellingly narrate the central mystery of God, the Trinity. There’s a hunger for a God who is reconciling toward those who have believed and then turned away because they can no longer understand a God who allowed “The Great Sadness.” There is a hunger for a God who comes into our life story and walks with us to the places that are the most hurtful.

In other words, the theological fact checkers are probably missing what is so appealing to readers of The Shack, even as they see some crimes in progress. It is a contemporary Pilgrim’s Progress, but the pilgrim is a not a 17th century puritan, but a 21st century evangelical. The burden isn’t sin, but the hurtful events of the past. The journey is not the way to heaven, but the way back to believing in a God of goodness, kindness and love.

If Paul Young writes a book of theology, it should be better than The Shack. But if he writes his story, it is The Shack. I don’t buy it all, and most people I’ve talked to don’t either. But that’s not the point. It’s Young’s journey that he’s recounting and we’re reading, and that’s how we’re reading it: a story.

Note to writers: When it comes to fiction, don’t listen to the critics who want to take you down for your theology. Tell the story that’s in you, whether it passes the orthodoxy test or not. This isn’t Puritan Massachusetts yet. WRITE THE STORY. The people who read stories as theology lectures are NEVER going to approve.  -M.S.


Something we rarely do here is close comments; but if you have one, it is better posted at the original source.

The post title here is a quote from the first part of what ran Friday. I would have like to have run both, but it’s a best practice to send them the internet traffic.

February 26, 2017

Requiem for Christian Bookstores Not Needed

fc-logoOn Friday we reported the impending closure of 240 Family Christian bookstores. If you missed that, you can read it here. I started my Saturday morning at Internet Monk, and was a little surprised by both the negative comments concerning this type of establishment, but also the great number of people bashing the stores compared to those saying they were sorry they were closing and that the store would be missed. Such as:

  • So Family JesusJunk Stores are closing. I feel for the employees, but I can’t say I’m disappointed otherwise. Those places were an abomination.

I’m not sure what you are expecting. Here: Take $100,000 and spend it on products that will be of interest to: Mainliners, Evangelicals and Charismatics; kids, teens, twenty-somethings, middle-agers and seniors; seekers, new believers and veterans; scholars, students, and blue-collar workers; people needing help with their marriage, parenting, addictions, finances, interpersonal relationships, prayer life, devotional life and bad habits; those wanting to learn more about missions, church history, denominational distinctions, and church leadership. To all this add some products which enhance Christian life for those who want to: fill their home with Christian music including hymns, chants, country, adult contemporary, modern worship, rock, rap, etc.; have a few inspirational quotes on their walls and tables including plaques, paintings and picture frames; offer their family a wholesome substitute for the movies they would otherwise watch; have some little gift or novelty that they can give to a child to remind them that God loves them.

Oh yes… and Bibles!

And this is an abomination? That’s rather strong language.

  • I already have more than enough Bibles, and I can’t think of a single other book they’d carry that I would want to read.

Seriously? There’s nothing there for you at all? Not one author who represents your brand of Christianity? Nothing you need for personal enrichment? You’ve got it all.

  • I am sorry for the employees losing their jobs in depressed places – but the closing of Family Values Propaganda Market is a good thing, IMO. Good riddance.

To the above we now add propaganda? By definition, this is material that a group writes about itself. There isn’t one book on the shelves is about Jesus? Maybe you simply (think you) know too much. You’ve been totally jaded and can’t see the good that is still be accomplished through those books.

Or…maybe you’ve never been in a country where nationals would give their eye teeth to get their hands on a commentary or Christian living title or even a praise CD.

  • Yeah, I am not sorry to see the Family Christian book stores close. So much “Jesus junk” made in China; candles with Bible verses, straws in the shape of the Jesus fish, sox that have some religious symbolism, and a few cheesy books but very little that is truly theological.

You focused on the non-book products, and when you did look at the books you wrote them all off with the term cheesy. Perhaps you don’t realize that the high-brow academic tomes you seek are sold in places like that by special order.

Oh, and by the way, if something is anti-theological, bookstore chains and independents vet their product very carefully, something you can’t say for the “Christian” section of Barnes and Noble.

  • The last couple of Bibles I bought for gifts, I got online just to avoid the bookstore.

The bookstore was more than a store. It was a meeting place for Christians and performed a large number of non-retail functions, including referrals to local churches and Christian counselors; as well as staff trained to help new believers connect with that first Bible and parents get the appropriate Bible for their kids, rather than buying one online and then finding it’s too young or too old for them. In 240 places, that will not happen anymore. Your disdain led to the demise of something which you judged as not necessary.

Sorry. That attitude does not emanate from someone who possesses the Spirit of God. A Christian wants to be with and encourage fellow Christians. A Christian wants to come alongside the people, places and ministries which God is using.

And God used those bookstores. You just don’t hear those stories as loudly as you hear from those who seem to be almost rejoicing at Family Christian’s demise; a behavior I would more expect — forgive me for this — from demons.

  • I haven’t set foot in a Christian bookstore in twenty years. I won’t miss them when they go.

Again, a personal choice perhaps, but being flaunted like a badge of honor. I haven’t given to the Salvation Army in twenty years. I won’t miss them when they go. Or, I haven’t been to a Christian conference in twenty years. I won’t miss them when they go. Or, I haven’t listened to Christian radio stations in twenty years. I won’t miss them when they go.

It’s just too easy to fill in that blank, but to what end? It’s not particularly righteous sounding is it? But it has enough of an air of spiritual arrogance and self-righteousness that someone might be impressed by it. For at least 60 seconds. And then it kind of hangs there and the speaker’s heart is laid bare.

So…want to know the real reasons Family Christian stores closed? It wasn’t the stores’ fault.

  1. The U.S. publishing establishment is caught in a “hardcover first edition” mentality which diminishes sales potential through high prices. When a “trade paperback conversion” happens a year later, the sales momentum is completely lost. As more and more Christian authors migrated from the traditional Christian publishers (Baker, Cook, Tyndale, etc.) to the big publishing houses (Hachette, Harper, S&S, etc.) where this mentality is more entrenched, average retail prices for new releases by the bestselling authors actually skyrocketed.
  2. The industry is founded on a “stack ’em high and watch ’em fly” mentality instead of a common sense, “just in time” distribution and delivery system. They send out “floor dumps” and “planograms” with an “if you build it they will come” confidence while failing to see to the organic nurture and cultivating of an author over time.
  3. The parent company never embraced the “order online; pick up instore” concept, even as record numbers of parcels were being stolen off front porches. Or the idea of “shop online, refine your purchase instore.”
  4. Christian publishers were too content to produce products for Christians, when in fact Christians were looking for things to give their non-Christian friends, neighbors, relatives and co-workers.
  5. Individual FCS stores were caught in national marketing programs that necessitated purchasing of products nobody wanted or needed at the expense of things for which there was demonstrated local interest.
  6. There was no equivalent to the woman at the big box store handing out samples. First chapter excerpts of the latest Christian titles were simply too hard to come by online. Give people a taste of the author, let them understand his or her heart and intention, and perhaps they might have made the purchase.
  7. Chain stores and publishers have no consumer product panels and no working customer feedback mechanisms. There’s no suggestion box, no place for people to offer their opinions except for the angry rants when a chain shuts down. (As an insider, I can tell you that some of the major players in Christian publishing have nobody to whom store owners and managers can send an email suggestion. They know it all. They have all the answers. They create the products, the stores just sell them; a condescending relationship.)
  8. The industry lost credibility when authors and artists admitted moral failure and yet they continued to market and distribute their products.
  9. Ten years ago, publishers offered print on demand as kind of second life for slow-moving backlist titles and series, but then got seduced by the quicker, lower-cost solution they found in eBooks.
  10. Some pastors got too big for their britches. Once they started to see national success on a grand scale they stepped down from their churches and lost a big part of their platform overnight. I challenge you to show me a “former Pastor of …” who is better known now then they were then. (Okay, maybe the guy who teamed up briefly with Oprah.)

This is a crisis for American Christianity generally. Don’t blame the people at Family Christian. Yes, management mistakes were made; but many were doing the best they could with the materials they were given.

If the industry doesn’t shake itself awake, LifeWay and Parable are next. Hopefully, the requiem for the entire retail genre is still not needed.

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