Thinking Out Loud

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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

August 7, 2017

The Making of the Presidential Victory

The last two years of U.S. politics are summed up so succinctly in the book’s introduction that from the outset, you have a good idea where Stephen Mansfield stands. It’s no small thing that the author of The Faith of George W. Bush and The Faith of Barack Obama doesn’t call this book The Faith of Donald Trump. For him, the jury is still out on the subject, and whatever faith exists is, to say the least, enigmatic.

When Choosing Donald Trump: God, Anger, Hope, and Why Christian Conservatives Supported Him releases in less than 60 days, I have no doubt that this book will be of interest not just in the U.S., but to a global audience fascinated with all things Trump.  Kudos to Evangelical publisher Baker Books for courage in publishing a book which somewhat questions the wisdom of Evangelical American voters.

This is the theme of the book. The vast majority of Stephen Mansfield’s  titles are biographical in nature, but this title is more about the juxtaposition of the Presidential candidate to the constituency which seemed to embrace him wholeheartedly, a mystery which horrifies Christians in the rest of the world. Richard Rohr recently tweeted, “The evangelical support of Trump will be an indictment against its validity as a Christian movement for generations to come.”

As to the faith of the President, did the author have anything to work with? Surprisingly so. Trump’s religious awareness was shaped by the life and ministry of Norman Vincent Peale, with whom the family had a strong connection. But his personal values were shaped by the drive and competitive spirit with which news-watchers are all too familiar. If anything, before coming into political prominence, his life was areligious — I made that word up — and if it was Peale who shaped his parents’ life, it would be Paula White that would spark some type of spiritual awakening in his own.

Any student of voting patterns knows that each period in political history is a reaction to the period which preceded it, so a chapter each is given to President Obama, as well as to Hillary Clinton. But as Mansfield notes, the book isn’t a biography or analysis of the electoral statistics as much as an examination of the religious or spiritual factors that were in play as the November, 2016 election dawned…

…It was never my intention to read this book, let alone read parts of it twice. Living on the other side of the U.S. border, I tend to be dismissive of Christian books that seem to be American-centric. The merging of doctrinal or Biblical studies with U.S. politics especially grates. But like the rest of the world, those in my country are captivated by the unfolding saga that is the 45th Presidency, in the same way one slows down when passing a roadside accident.

Writing and publishing a book like this in the middle of an ongoing narrative must have been and continue to be a challenge, but I believe that by its October 3rd release date, this will be the right book for the right time. Included in the 208 page hardcover is a section, “Donald Trump in His Own Words,” featuring a couple of speech transcripts; as well as extensive endnotes and bibliography.


An advance copy of Choosing Donald Trump was provided courtesy of Graf-Martin Communications, Inc.

August 3, 2017

Mistaken Views of God

When listing what might be called ‘modern classics’ the book Your God Is Too Small: A Guide for Believers and Skeptics Alike by J. B. Phillips is often mentioned This 124-page pocket book is usually remembered for its first 59 pages which focus on a number of “wrong pictures” we have of God, and while I know that Thinking Out Loud readers would never fall into one of these errant views, I believe that we often partially fall into looking at God in one of these stereotyped forms. Here’s a quick paraphrase of the types Phillips lists:

Do you ever find yourself falling into any of these mistaken views of God?

  • Policeman — an image usually formed out of a ‘guilt-based’ response to God
  • Parental hangover — the Father image of God evokes images of an earthly father which is often more negative than positive
  • Grand Old Man — the head of the seniors group perhaps, or president of the country club; but the danger is the ‘old’ part if it implies irrelevance
  • Meek and Mild — an example, Phillips would argue, of a Sunday School chorus influencing theology which we might want to keep in mind when choosing modern worship pieces for weekend services
  • Absolute Perfection — which leads to us trying to be absolutely perfect even though we don’t often grasp what it means; or thinking God isn’t interested in us when we’re not perfect
  • Heavenly Bosom — a variation perhaps on burying our head in the sand; we bury ourselves in God as a kind of escapism
  • God in a Box — what I think Phillips is using describe people whose image of God has been shaped by subjective experience in local churches or denominations; or conversely, is defined by the beliefs of his or her denomination
  • Managing Director — with an emphasis on God as “controller,” this image evokes another metaphor: puppet string God
  • Second-Hand God — a longer section; it might be summarized as variations on the God-picture we would get from having seen a single movie or read a single book about God and built everything else up from there; somebody else’s vision
  • Perennial Grievance — whatever the God-view the person holds, this one is ever mindful of the time that God let them down them; disappointed them; etc.
  • Pale Galilean — an image Phillips uses to describe people whose faith is lacking vitality and courage; or whose loyalty is fragile
  • Projected Image — which we would describe today as “creating God in our image.”

While the terminology might not be readily used today; the book is fairly thorough about describing the full range of false views about God that can exist. I felt led to share this here, but then needed to come up with some resolve to this. Phillips views the first half of his book as deconstructive and follows it with a constructive second half. What I want to do here instead, is end with a quotation I’ve used before, but which I believe everyone should commit to memory:

When we say we begin with God, we begin with our idea of God, and our idea of God is not God. Instead, we ought to begin with God’s idea of God, and God’s idea of God is Christ.

~E. Stanley Jones

Further reading: If you find reading older material less engaging, see if you can get your hands on this out-of-print book, Jarrett Stevens’ The Deity Formerly Known as God (Zondervan, 2009) which is an updated version of Phillips’ classic. It still exists as an eBook and audio download; another example of where promised print-on-demand books simply failed to materialize. If not, the original by Phillips isn’t all that difficult.

June 13, 2017

Quote Cards Trend: Another Blow to Literacy

Filed under: books, Christianity — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:02 am

I work in and around the publishing business and I’m always looking for ready-made graphics which can be used to show off the latest books. Following publisher Twitter accounts over the past few years has proved to be a never-ending source of professionally produced graphic images that I would never be able to create myself. Until recently.

The latest trend however is that publishers, instead of producing Facebook-ready and Twitter-ready graphics with a cover of the book and a link to the author website have migrated toward quote cards. Haven’t heard of them? They’re basically quotations — a sentence or sentence fragment — set against a photographic or textured image that are totally made with Instagram as the key application. 

Think about that for a moment.

You can add images to Twitter.

You can add images to Facebook.

But Instagram exists solely for pictures.

It’s nice that at least they’re quotations from books — publishing houses are still in the business of reading, last time I checked — but Instagram, like spellcheck, auto-correct, Tumblr, 140-character limits, and the erosion of attention spans known as YouTube is simply another contributor to the whole loss of language we’re experiencing right now.

We’re moving from literacy to orality.

So many bloggers have just given up using their ten fingers on a keyboard and are simply making podcasts. Less work. Less attention to editing. Less quality, if you don’t mind me saying so, except for a few of the best.

We’re also moving from words to pictures.

And the pictures are not worth 1,000 words, either.

Reading separates us from the animals. It’s what makes us distinct. And we’re losing it…

…Back to my original theme. You can’t judge a book by its cover, but you also can’t envision it with nothing but a quote card. This is not a good move. You can’t judge a book by a single quotation, either. The social media/IT/communications/publicity people have got Instagram on the brain and they’ve forgotten their true purpose: To show people books coming to market. 

So what about those of you who don’t work doing the type of thing I do? Have you seen this devolution of language in other forms? Is a single quote enough to interest you in an entire book?


After this had been posted for an hour, I thought some of you might wonder how social media content which is promoting publishing products is a step backward for literacy. The problem is that people get inoculated with a shot of the book (the quotation) and are now immune to the book itself.  Of course, you know that I’m a big advocate of chapter excerpts so you could ask how this is different. I think chapter excerpts are a launch into actually reading the book. If the excerpt runs 10-20 pages, you’re already in, you’re already reading the book.  With the quotes, I anticipate more of a been-there-done-that type of response; a simple quote is insufficient to present a precis of the book or introduce the author’s thesis. And people know quotations can be totally out of context.

June 5, 2017

Empathy: The Helper’s Most Powerful Asset

Filed under: books, Christianity, reviews — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:17 am

Some of you will remember that years ago I posited the idea that the reader who focuses only on the latest books would do better to alternate between current releases and classics. When opportunity presents itself, I like to get my hands on books which have been proven bestsellers.

Book Review: The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen

I can’t tell you how many copies of this book I’ve handled but had never actually flipped the pages until this weekend. Realizing that it was only 100 pages made the prospect of reading this a relatively simple task and I actually competed it in a single sitting.

The book’s title is a bit of a spoiler, not to mention that the book is often mentioned in sermons and lectures. Still, the idea of the “wounded healer” really doesn’t really come into focus until the last of the four chapters.

A Wikipedia search reveals that Nouwen — pronounced NOW-in — “was a Dutch Catholic priest, professor, writer and theologian. His interests were rooted primarily in psychology, pastoral ministry, spirituality, social justice and community. Over the course of his life, Nouwen was heavily influenced by the work of Anton Boisen, Thomas Merton, Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh and Jean Vanier. After nearly two decades of teaching at academic institutions including the University of Notre Dame, Yale Divinity School and Harvard Divinity School, Nouwen went on to work with mentally and physically handicapped people at the L’Arche Daybreak community in Richmond Hill, Ontario.”

Six years ago, we ran a collection of Nouwen quotations at Christianity 201.

At first I thought the book might be simply a collection of four disconnected essays. I was unsure where he was going with his first chapter, a description of ‘beat generation’ youth. (I created that term from the subsequent chapter where Nouwen quotes “an English beat group.” His actual term for the composite person in the case study is “Nuclear Man.”) Though the book was written in 1979, I thought one observation in that chapter was particularly applicable to us today, namely the idea that the young care more about what their peers think than what their parents might think. He sees such a person as having three major life options.

Once I got into the second chapter I began to see where the cohesiveness of the book was beginning to take hold. Again, though written nearly 40 years ago, it was interesting to note the parallels between the three characteristics of what he might term ‘next generation’ youth, and what is written today about Millennials.  

The third chapter was for me the most poignant. A young theology student visits a middle-aged man in hospital awaiting surgery the next day. His exchange with the man, although pleasant, doesn’t really offer much in the way of connection or hope. He returns to his chaplaincy supervisor and replays the visit word-for-word, and it as that point he — and we observers — are struck by the enormity of the failure in giving the man the desire to continue into tomorrow and beyond.  

The final chapter is in some represents the book’s title song; where the idea of the compassion and empathy needed is really driven home. It’s at this point I realized how this book has become a bestseller for so long. 

Some readers, especially Evangelicals, will wish the book was more Jesus-centric. There’s a line early in the book where a minister is told, “If, instead of reading your Bible, you had visited this young man just once and looked into his eyes, you would have known.” I can see how that, especially here out of context, could really grate on some people. However, Nouwen’s popularity today seems to be relatively the same between Catholic and non-Catholic readers. While book excerpts and quotations abound online, a good place to begin would be to check out The Henri Nouwen Society.

 

June 1, 2017

God Would Like You to Get to Know Him

Filed under: books, Christianity, God, reviews — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:00 am

“The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness…”

Book Review: God Has a Name  by John Mark Comer (Zondervan, 2017)

This book arrived with an assortment of titles on Monday afternoon, and by Wednesday afternoon I had turned the last page and could have kept going. I became aware of the author and the book following his recent appearance on The Phil Vischer Podcast, though I had a passing awareness of his previous title Loveology. Then I listened to a series of sermons from Bridgetown Church in Portland on prayer.

John Mark Comer is Pastor of Vision & Teaching at Bridgetown, a church which, while it does have a morning service, focuses more intensely on two evening services at 5:00 and 7:00 on Sundays. Spiritual formation is encouraged through a series of practices, some of which are assigned as a type of homework to be pursued by members of the congregation throughout the week.

God Has a Name is a phrase-by-phrase exposition of Exodus 34:4-7, the verse Comer says is the most quoted verse in the Bible by the Bible.

NIV Ex.34:4 So Moses chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones and went up Mount Sinai early in the morning, as the Lord had commanded him; and he carried the two stone tablets in his hands. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”

In addition to the exegesis, the book’s secondary mandate is to provide us with the various instances where direct quotations or allusions to the passage appear in both Testaments. These are introduced where they appropriate to the phrase under consideration.

This book really impacted me personally in many ways.

First, the very title of the book stands in contrast to what we have done in the last several centuries, referring to God as the LORD, in all capital letters.  It’s respectful, but robs us of the relational aspect. We speak of accepting Christ as “our personal savior,” but the relationship isn’t always that personal. God’s name is Yahweh.

Then there’s prayer. Comer teaches that there is a certain elasticity with God. Our prayers can cause him to change his mind in a most literal sense. This view stands in contrast to a doctrinal position where God has ordained certain details absolutely and finally before the foundation of the world. This has impact on how much we see as predestined, though Comer doesn’t overemphasize that particular aspect. (You could say not everything is chiseled in stone; ironic in a passage that talks of something being chiseled in stone.)

There’s also a section dealing with this God, Yahweh, held in contrast to other gods. The point is made that the other gods have potency — both then and now — in ways we might overlook. He’s discussing spiritual warfare here, but avoids that term and goes several pages without actually using words like demons or Satan, but makes a clear case from scripture that these forces are real and powerful. I found in this section something that’s been missing in the teaching I’ve heard lately.

That phrase about punishing the children? Awkward, right? But again, we’re offered a fresh picture of the consequences of sin that are more in line with God’s overarching compassion than a cursory reading of the verse would suggest.

I’m not sure if the author reads some of the Old Testament stories with the degree of literalness some would like. He refers to the story of Jonah as “God’s comic book,” but makes clear that the teaching principles surrounding this and other narratives mentioned can clearly be extracted from the text regardless of how you’re reading it. Of course Jesus seems to affirm the Jonah story. Or is he just referring to it? (This should be the subject of a future book; I’d love to hear how he lands the plane on various passages.)

The book ends with a challenge to us to bear the name of God in our time and place today.

John Mark Comer offers a unique voice and a distinctive writing style. After finishing the book, I found myself re-reading sections of it last night. I intend to keep following his sermon podcasts at Bridgetown and I encourage you to check them out as well as the book. 

Postscript: This falls into that “first book to give a non-churched friend” category. It would answer some questions they may have or respond to things they may have wondered, or simply help them get to know God personally.


Thanks to Mark at HarperCollins Christian Publishing Canada for an opportunity to review this.

 

May 29, 2017

An Interactive Devotional Experience

Imagine for a moment that I’ve had a particularly frustrating and upsetting week. A praying close friend, aware of all this takes a moment to send me an email with the curious subject line, “A message through me from God to you.” With a sigh, I click and read:

My child, I know the past few days have been trying. Please be assured of my continued you love for you and know that in these times I have been as close, if not closer, to you than ever.

Not at all thinking it through, I hit ‘reply’ and type:

Really, God? It would have been nice to have a sign of that love. A change in circumstances. A good night’s sleep, even.

I no sooner hit ‘send’ and then it hits me. What have I done? My friend will be upset. Will I damage our friendship by not appreciating their effort in reaching out? Has my response betrayed a total lack of faith? Am I just going to get God mad at me?

Not 60 seconds later a message comes back:

A sign? Okay. How about an encouragement note from a close friend?

I sigh, but this time it’s a different sigh, one of resignation.

Sorry, God.

Book Review • The Listening Day: Meditations on the Way – Volume 1  by Paul J. Pastor (Zeal Books, 2017)

Have you ever wanted to talk back to your devotional book? I imagine myself saying, ‘That’s easy for you to write; you don’t know my situation.’ Perhaps I’ve already done that a few times.

The Listening Day is a collection of 91 page-per-day readings by Oregon’s Paul J. Pastor (yes, real name) who is also the author of The Face of The Deep, which we reviewed here. At first look, the book appears to follow the format of several popular titles in the same genre, where the words on the page appear as a direct message to the reader from God. Consider Francis Roberts’ Come Away My Beloved, Larry Crabb’s 66 Love Letters, Sheri Rose Shepherd’s His Princess series, and Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling and Jesus Always.

I am often wary of this format. I would not presume to say, ‘Thus says the Lord’ unless I were certain that I had heard from God in the first place, and so I have what I consider a righteous skepticism toward books which run with this format. I’ve read the criticisms, most of which were directed at a highly successful title by an author who was and still is generally unknown. For many, the format is reminiscent of God Calling by A.J. Russell which is often used in conjunction with the AA program and has been criticized for the process by which it in particular was written, something called ‘automatic writing.’ 

Those situations don’t apply here. The author is well known to readers of Christianity Today, his first book was published by David C. Cook, and I’ve listened to him teach at his home church in Portland, where he is a deacon responsible for spiritual formation.

The book is different. For two reasons.

First, although each page begins with two well-paired key scripture verses for the day, there are many scripture passages alluded to and embedded in most of the daily writings. The book is thoroughly anchored in Biblical texts. I didn’t encounter anything where I thought, ‘God would not have said that.’ Rather, with my discernment radar set to its maximum setting, I felt the plausibility of God saying such things — especially to me personally — was quite high.

Second, there was the interactive factor. This was, in one sense, a dramatic encounter with God. The interjections on the part of the reader — typed out on behalf of you and me — were the things I would say. This book got very personal very quickly. With further honesty, sometimes the interruptions were followed by apparent silence on God’s part. Been there, too.

The introduction came with an admonishment not to try to binge-read the entire book, but rather to take one reading per day. Good advice, but impossible for a reviewer who has to read every word of every page before composing a review. Slowing down to 15 entries per day over 6 days, I asked myself, ‘What if this were the only thing I had time for in the morning as I started my day?’ I think it would be a most appropriate beginning because the dialogue format is a reminder of God’s presence from the moment I awake, and this is critical in a world where many Christians are spiritually defeated between the bed and the breakfast table. 

A note about the “Volume One” in the title: Without giving away too much at this point, I’m assured that there is more to come. Stay tuned.

Climb the tree of life–
the branches are wide and strong enough for all.
Reach from beauty,
stretching to understanding,
pulling up on wisdom
until you come into sight of the place where I hang,
beyond words, above the healing leaves, high above the kingdom.
There you will know me, just as you are known,
at the crown and light of the listening day.


We ran an excerpt of one of the readings a few days ago at Christianity 201.

Zeal Books is a new company from the former owner and President of Multnomah Publishing and includes among it current roster a book by Bruce Wilkinson.

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