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 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. 

 

 

 

 

January 5, 2017

A Call for More Heterogeneity in the Local Church

Filed under: Christianity, Church, reviews — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:22 am

There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.
-Galatians 3:28 nlt

In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us.
-Colossians 3:11 nlt

scot-mcknight-a-fellowship-of-differentsAbout ten weeks ago I looked at King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight and mentioned that we would come back to A Fellowship of Differents; both titles having recently been issued for the first time in paperback. Because of a number of circumstances which derailed much of my reading at the end of last year, I found myself forced to read this title more devotionally the first time, which was well suited to its 22 chapters; but later started at the beginning and re-read it in broader sweeps.

As the two scripture verses I chose to open this review clearly telegraph, this is a book about diversity in the (capital C) Church, but on a more practical level, in the local assembly you and I attend and the congregation which makes up that body. For McKnight, this is a factor central to the teaching of Jesus and (especially) the apostle Paul.

So what does this look like and how do we assure its reality? McKnight reveals his game-plan on page 24 where he notes his intention to track six aspects of Bible teaching:

  1. Grace
  2. Love
  3. Table
  4. Holiness
  5. Newness
  6. Flourishing

The chapters on Table — perhaps more of a shared meal and less of the once-per-month-service-postscript — could easily be a book in itself (and has been with many authors.) While love, grace and holiness are often taught, this one aspect of local church life is so terribly central to the fellowship McKnight envisions, and left me thinking perhaps many of us are missing something.

In the section on Holiness, there is a chapter devoted to one of the clearest descriptions I’ve seen of the decadence which surrounded the early Christians to whom Paul wrote his various letters. While the occasional reader might find this chapter too explicit, it provides us a necessary contrast between how certain terminology applied in Paul’s day to how we might (mis)understand those same words and phrases today.

A Fellowship of Differents is as much about Paul the apostle as it is about the church. In one section, McKnight asks, “Have you ever wondered what the apostle Paul looked like?” Quoting one source, “…a man small in size, bald-headed, bandy-legged of noble [manner] with eyebrows meeting, rather hook-nosed, full of grace.” He then adds his own description, “Paul was a sick man, a poor man, and a foolish man… By the time he died that body of his must have been scarred all over. There is something morbidly fascinating about this beaten, bruised, broken-boned and bloody man…”

In many ways this discussion is a bonus; a wandering perhaps from the intention of earlier chapters, but a clear picture of the type of inclusion needed in a true heterogeneous church.

This isn’t a quick-fix guide to improving your church culture. I found the reward here to be far more personal; after all change begins with me, right? To repeat, you can read this in a few sittings, or choose, as I did initially, to take a month to read the 22 chapters as part of your personal devotional time.


A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together was released in paperback by Zondervan in 2016. More information is available at this publisher link. Long after the normal review parameters, a copy of the original hardcover was graciously provided by Mark at HarperCollins Christian Publishing Canada.

 

December 12, 2016

Hillsong United Live at The Forum: A Review of Let Hope Rise

let-hope-rise-dvdIf there’s a single takeaway from the 1-hour, 43-minute documentary Let Hope Rise, it’s that the members of Hillsong United are totally amazed and humbled at the band’s worldwide influence and popularity.

The film played in theaters in North America just a few months ago, and is releasing on DVD and Blu-Ray December 20th, just in time for Christmas. A concert at The Forum in Los Angeles provides the storyline, with scenes in the dressing room just before they go onstage book-ending the movie.

This is very much a documentary, not a concert film. There are a couple of songs which play in their entirety. Others are edited somewhat, or transition between the songwriting collaborative process and the finished product onstage. The focus here is to provide a behind-the scenes look.

Again, this is a film about Hillsong United, not the Hillsong worship program in general. There is a far too short, ten minute nod to the history and scope of the parent church in Sydney, but its worship teams aren’t in view here; neither is the younger band Hillsong Y&F (Young and Free) mentioned.

The members of the band obviously know each other well and trust each other. When they are about to go on at The Forum, the songs are basically so very fresh that one of the guys says of another something to the effect, ‘He’s about to walk on the stage and sing words he’s never sung into a microphone before.’

It was interesting that on the one hand, the band talks about the fact they work for the church and are not particularly well paid, but on the other hand are able to enjoy an oceanfront house in California to write songs. Back home in Australia, the members of the band appear to live quite modestly. Some have very young families, with their wives staying home to take care of the kids.

We had planned to watch this with a full stereo sound system but a last minute glitch caused us to relocate. At first I was disappointed, but the music both is and isn’t the focus; it is more about providing the inside look at the band using material filmed for the movie and archival footage the band owned.

Hillsong’s influence on worship music around the world is immeasurable and Hillsong United’s influence on youth culture and youth ministry is equally significant. Anyone who is a fan of United will probably want to watch this several times. Onscreen lyrics are provided on a few songs for those who even want to sing along.


Movie has been provided courtesy of Pure Flix Entertainment and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc

November 17, 2016

When Certainty is Sinful

One of the university courses I took was a bit of a tossed salad consisting of music history, the philosophy of music aesthetics, and music appreciation. I learned that in both art and music  every period is somewhat of a reaction to the period that it immediately followed.

The post-war Evangelical era (in North America at least) was marked by the dogmatic fervor of its practitioners; a dogma which is still seen in many fundamentalist quarters. In that world, all is black and white. There is no gray. As my keyboarding teacher made us type, “We must know and know that we know.” Any deviation from the script smacked of liberalism, and the dominant teaching was that liberals were all going to hell.

But then the Evangelical world changed, and moved toward a progressive Evangelicalism for which many were not prepared. Blame was placed on the missional churches (which has Christian, incarnational values as traditional as you can imagine) or the emergent churches (which were simply adopting a mix of traditional and modern forms) when in fact the revolution was more theological. Suddenly it was okay to say we’re not sure about things, and needless to say, this attitude can be upsetting in a world of dogma.

So a few years ago, we had Greg Boyd releasing Benefit of the Doubt which wasn’t surprising (for it to be him that authored it) given that Boyd is a proponent of Open Theology which suggests even God isn’t 100% sure if you’re going to propose to the girl or end the relationship with tonight’s dinner date at Denny’s (but he has every possible sequence in his mind no matter what you do). We had authors suggesting you can still hold on to your faith and believe in evolution. We encountered writers on line who possessed a deep Christian faith in terms of both doctrine and service, but were comfortable identifying as gay or lesbian.

The Christian world was now full of gray.

sin-of-certainty-peter-ennsIt’s into that environment that Peter Enns steps with the release of The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires our Trust More Than our Correct Beliefs (HarperOne). With great irony, the book released a few months ago just as Andy Stanley upset some critics with his The Bible Tells Me So sermon, which is also the title of one of Enns’ other books. While others have defended Stanley online (and I for one feel that if anyone has been paying attention Stanley needs no defence) he pointed out clearly that the skeptic or new believer doesn’t need to sign on to everything in order to believe something; and that by starting with trust in the resurrection of Jesus we can then allow for exposure to a variety of doctrinal positions (or scientific revelations) without the whole of Christianity needing to collapse like a house of cards.

So a book like The Sin of Certainty is very timely. Peter Enns basically catalogs some of the various less-certain elements one might find in the sphere of Christianity, and rather than resolve all of these necessarily, creates a climate where the reader can say, ‘Oh yeah! That’s me! At last someone who gets it.’ Some of the book draws from his personal experiences of dealing with the doubt/certainty continuum, either internally or in his family or academic life.

All this to say the book will resonate with many readers. There were sections I found myself going back and re-reading just to absorb the manner in which the various subjects were presented.

Organizationally however, the book presented four distinct challenges. First, there was the fact that each subsection of each chapter was given a fresh page, which confused me at first as to where the chapters themselves began and ended. I was three chapters in (of nine chapters) before I caught on to the book’s layout and design and gratuitous use of partially blank pages.

Second, the constant references to his 2014 title The Bible Tells Me So made me wish I was reading that book instead, or at least first. The Sin of Certainty is obviously intended as a sequel; the former’s subtitle being, Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It.

Third, as I discovered too late, there was a wealth of ideas to consider in the end-notes. An explanation is provided as to why (to keep the flow of the book) these were not page footnotes, but as someone perfectly capable of rabbit-trail distraction, I would like to have considered some of those thoughts in context, rather than catching up later.

Finally, some readers will want to find the page and paragraph where Enns explains why certainty is a sin (or how to obtain forgiveness.) In some ways, this is to miss to whole point of faith-based trust; the book’s title must be seen as hyperbole in some measure. The certainty of the dogmatists must bring them some comfort, but it’s not reality for the average Christian.

That is echoed in the title of Peter Enns’ blog, The Bible for Normal People. As a longtime reader of his online writing, this was the first time I’d enjoyed him in print and I am richer for having read this.


Hardcover; 230 pages. Thanks to Mark at HarperCollins Christian Publishing (Canada) for an opportunity to read the book. More information at HarperOne, also home to writers such has Henri Nouwen, Shane Claiborne, Dallas Willard, Rob Bell, N.T. Wright, and other authors the dogmatists are not particularly fond of. Publisher webpage for this book.

 

 

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