Thinking Out Loud

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.

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 25, 2017

The Quest for the Holy Grail of Worship Community

Filed under: Christianity, Church, reviews — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:21 am

Book Review: Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans

Searching for Sunday is the story of Rachel Held Evans and her husband Dan and their meanderings in being sometimes drawn towards and sometimes repelled from a place of weekend worship. Far from the usual oft-seen rant on this subjective, the book is very redemptive in tone and is in part a cautionary tale and in part of celebration of the great things the capital-C Church can do through the ministry of the small-c local church.

This book was actually published in 2015. A copy landed accidentally from the publisher; in other words I was under no requirement to read the book at all, much less write about it. My intention was to read a few chapters and then possibly give the copy away. Instead, I worked my way through eventually missing nothing from the copyright page to footnote #93. And also, it appears, wrote a review.

Rachel Held Evans is often seen as a poster girl for the progressive Evangelical movement. Her name is — and this is to be taken quite literally — used as a swear word on a popular Reformed podcast. Her roots are conservative and she describes her relationship to those days as analogous to someone who has broken up with their boyfriend, but continues to check their Facebook page every few days. She walks a tension between  traditional Evangelicalism and its more modern expressions.

My first exposure to her was on her blog, RachelHeldEvans.com, where she no longer posts as frequently, but back in the day, it was the springboard to my second exposure to her, the book Evolving in Monkey Town, the story of growing up in Dayton, the epicenter of the Scopes Monkey Trial. Searching for Sunday is relatively similar in the weight of its autobiographical content, but is also as informative as Evolving, if not more so. There is a commonality to the personal sections however. The book contains an ever-present tension between her story and my story; or yours.

The book is organized in seven groups of chapters (3-6 per group) each of which could be viable as a stand-alone essay. The groups themselves represent seven sacraments: Baptism, Confession, Holy Orders, Communion, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, and Marriage. The perspective of the author varies. Sometimes she is a congregant; a parishioner just like many of us. At other times, she finds herself on the platform; the result of speaking engagements brought about through the popularity of her blog, and later her books. So there is another tension here, between disciple, earnestly seeking after God, and church leader, the one at the front of the room holding the microphone.

Finally, her journey represents a constant vacillation — in a good way, mind you — between historical, liturgical denominations and upstart, informal church communities. Personal familiarity with both is helpful here, but not required. Let me rephrase that: Personal familiarity with both is probably recommended here; the book exposes the value of both types of Christian community. 

One last thing: Rachel is an awesome writer, no surprise given she was a literature major. Even if you don’t agree with her take on everything, I think you can still enjoy the reading of it, and come away informed and enriched.


Learn more at ThomasNelson.com

Follow her @rachelheldevans

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 25, 2017

The Modern Church Dilemma: People Belonging Before They Believe

Filed under: Faith, family, media, reviews — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:55 am

Movie Review: The Resurrection of Gavin Stone

It’s become a recurring theme: Someone wants to help out at church but their spiritual status is not-yet-arrived, ambiguous, or hard to authenticate. Parking lot duty? Not a big issue; but many seeking an avenue of service are looking at the platform; so many of these requests involve music ministry or something related.

That’s what’s at the heart of the movie The Resurrection of Gavin Stone which after a brief theatrical run is now releasing on DVD. In this case, the protagonist is looking to be involved with the church’s annual drama production. His theology is sketchy, to put it kindly. But in addition to being very good at acting, he’s also a former child star still possessing considerable name recognition.

The director isn’t really torn. She sees this as not conforming to the requirement that platform participants share a testimony of life change through Jesus Christ. But the senior pastor, who also happens to be her father, is more open to the possibility that God is offering the church a rare opportunity to do something which will both bless the actor and bless the church.

So for the first premise-introducing one-third of the film it’s a simple matter of laying out the plot. During the next third, my attitude was, “This isn’t that bad.” But by the final third of the movie they had won me over. Even my wife who is usually a tough critic when it comes to Christian cinema was very positive toward the film.

It wasn’t the authenticity of the portrayal of the various characters, though that was extremely good. It wasn’t the realism of the sets and location shots, though they were well done. Rather, it was the genuine nature of the problem; namely that churches we know are wrestling with this issue all the time now and someone has finally fleshed this out in a screenplay.

Fans of The Middle on ABC-TV will recognize Neil Flynn who plays Gavin Stone’s father. Tangential perhaps, but interesting that Middle co-star Patricia Heaton has been a force behind Affirm Films. Not so tangential was my wife’s comparison between The Resurrection of Gavin Stone and Heaton’s Moms Night Out. Worldwide rights for this picture however were purchased by WWE Studios, and wrestler Shawn Michaels has a significant role in this picture as well.

In the first few minutes, we recognized a hallway from Harvest Bible Chapel’s Elgin, Illinois campus where much of the filming took place. Again, it’s entirely plausible that a church like Harvest would face a dilemma such as what to do with Gavin Stone.

At the end of the day, this is a romantic comedy. While ecclesiastic nerds like myself might get lost in the doctrinal quandaries of qualifications for service, you don’t have to be a regular church attender or even a Christian at all to get the tension in the plot.

Which is, come to think of it, exactly what the movie is all about.

 

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. 

 

 

 

 

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