Thinking Out Loud

May 15, 2017

A Golden Age of Christian Blogging

Blogging introduces you to a worldwide collective of people you will probably never meet in this life.   Nonetheless, the online connection means that you can be a source of encouragement to many, many people. The right words, fitly spoken at the right time, can really make a difference in a person’s life.  That’s why I like this picture. The words are coming off the page to bring comfort. Everybody needs a bit of that now and then. The best things that are happening in the blogsphere aren’t always happening on the blogs themselves, but in the meta. When you get to follow-up with someone who has a particular interest. Or try to offer some direct, offline advice to someone who might appreciate a bit of a challenge.  Or know of a third-party resource that could be of great help. Or just to say, “I really don’t have a clue about your whole situation, but I want you to know someone is reading your blog who really cares.” Or offer to pray for them. To actually pray for them.

Words communicate. People are listening. You can have a part in what they hear.

~ Thinking Out Loud, September 2008

Recently I was thinking about the writers who inspired me to start doing this…many of who are no longer writing online, or are doing something completely different. After leaving comments on other blogs, I decided to start one of my own. We started on a platform called e4God, but fortunately were able to migrate the content to WordPress.

Honestly, I think this was a golden age for Christian blogging. Twitter wasn’t a force and podcasts were rare. Today, many bloggers simply post videos or podcast links or have abandoned their platform altogether in favor of the 140-character alternative. 

Travel back in time with me; except where noted these are in no particular order.

  • 22 Words — Not the blog you now know, but in those days, Abraham Piper actually confined each post to exactly 22 words.
  • Sacramentis — Sally Morganthaler’s website was a hub for people who wanted to discuss worship ideas. The church was going through a period of accelerated change, and people like Sally, Nancy Beach and Robert Weber were all speaking into that change.
  • Stuff Christians Like — The mind of Jon Acuff knew no boundaries. Think Babylon Bee for a previous decade. I think of Jon every time I’m in church and need to give someone a side hug. The blog spun off a book deal with Zondervan.
  • Stuff White Christians Like — …well, let’s be honest; there were a number of spin-offs from Jon’s blog, Stephy’s was one of them.
  • Lark News — The original Babylon Bee.
  • The Very Worst Missionary — Jamie Wright provided a missionary’s perspective on short term mission trips which many of us will never forget.
  • Fred McKinnon — What avid worship leader didn’t visit late Sunday night or midday Monday to find out what other worship leaders had posted to The Sunday Set List?
  • Puragtorio — Can someone help me remember this one? Seriously.
  • ASBO Jesus — From across the pond, Jon Birch’s website was delightfully cynical. The initials stand for Anti Social Behavior Order.
  • Flowerdust — The writer formerly known as Anne Jackson gained a huge following early on and was a reminder to us all that it was okay to be broken or wounded or both.
  • Evotional — The original blog of Mark Batterson, bestselling author and pastor of National Community Church in DC.  (When he called his first book, In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day, I thought, “That’s a real dumb title. So much for his writing career.”)
  • Letters from Camp Krusty — My first initiation into the wonderful strange world of Brant Hansen.
  • Greg Boyd — This guy had a huge influence on us. We spent endless road trips throughout the U.S. popping discs in the CD player of downloaded sermons from Woodland Hills Church on the Gospel of Luke. Great memories. “Now go out and build the kingdom!”
  • Skyebox — Skye Jethani would later play a pivotal role in my own life for which I am most grateful. Today, he’s a regular on The Phil Vischer Podcast and an important analyst and commentator on the state of Evangelicalism in North America.
  • Out of Ur — The blog of Leadership Journal at Christianity Today and for 22 months, the home of the Wednesday Link List. (See previous entry.)
  • Tall Skinny Kiwi — As I write this, Andrew Jones and the girls are heading back to Europe mid-June. His unique, ongoing story continues and he has my utmost respect and admiration for carrying on despite the loss of Debbie to complications from malaria and typhoid.
  • Donald Miller — I don’t think it was called StoryLine back then, but I can’t remember. He’s been at this a long time!
  • Bene Diction Blogs On — Investigative blogging in an era before Warren Throckmorton. But who was Bene Diction? I have a friend who claims to know and says I knew her. Wait, what? Her?
  • Naked Pastor — David Hayward migrated his blog to Patheos but then moved back to his own domain. I love his writing, but I’m sure he’s best known for the pictures: Original artwork which you can purchase.
  • Without Wax — Pete Wilson is still blogging. Back then, they were like family; I can still name all three of Pete’s boys.
  • Trevin Wax — (no relation to the above) Trevin is now more aligned with a tribe I no longer follow, but I tracked with his writing for many years.
  • Challies — Tim Challies must have been in the right place at the right time, because today his blog regularly ranks in the Top Ten Christian blog lists in the U.S. though, like myself, he is Canadian. Must reading for the neo-Calvinist set. (Tim lives just about 90 minutes from me. Sometimes in the early morning we drive by his house and root through his recycling bin.)
  • Take Your Vitamin Z — Zach Nielson’s blog had a cool title. Three years ago this month, like many others, he switched his primary focus from blogging to Twitter. 
  • Desiring God — The Pipester was a force to be reckoned with! You never actually had to read it though, because for a time, the Calvinist world faithfully re-blogged every word J.P. wrote.
  • Reformissionary — The original name for Steve McCoy’s blog. Many nights at supper we prayed for Molly.
  • DashHouse — Another Canadian, Darryl Dash now writes primarily for fellow pastors and church leaders. He left a comfortable church in the Toronto suburbs a few years back to church plant in the urban core, albeit a more upscale neighborhood.
  • Team Pyro — Note that we clustered all the Calvinist bloggers together here. These guys helped convince me that there was a type of Christ follower I wanted to be, and that tribe wasn’t it. (At this writing, the blog has been inactive for about six weeks. Don’t people need their weekly dose of Spurgeon?)
  • CenturiOn — Frank Turk from Team Pyro. (Not to be confused with apologist Frank Turek.) I have to give them credit for the excellent illustrations and images.
  • Vintage Blog— Another one from that era who is still writing; Dan Kimball aka “the guy with the pompadour haircut.” If you’re ever in Santa Cruz, look up Vintage Church.
  • Eugene Cho — Another writer who’s been at this for a long time. Korean-born Cho is an author, lead pastor of Quest Church in Seattle and founder of the charity One Day’s Wages.
  • Jesus Creed — Scot McKnight is another writer who has been faithfully at his computer producing a large number of columns each week since the world was flat. (With enough book sales, perhaps one day he’ll be able to afford the second ‘t’ in his first name.) 
  • John Shore — I tend to think of John today in terms of one particular issue, but in the early days his blog was home for all those who had gotten burned out in their church experience.
  • Michael Hyatt — Better known today for his writing on leadership issues, on building platform and on writing itself, it was his pieces on the publishing industry I enjoyed most back in the day.
  • Blog In My Own Eye — Keith Brenton was another writer who snagged a great blog title. It’s been four years now since Angi, the love of his life was taken from us; yet each day at 3:00 PM, Keith goes on Twitter to offer to pray for anyone with a need or a request.
  • Fire in my Bones — From the then-editor of Charisma Magazine, Lee Grady who still has a blog at the magazine. Right now I can’t think of a more balanced Pentecostal/Charismatic writer. (Maybe Jack Hayford, but he never blogged, did he?)
  • Monday Morning Insights — Over the years, the Wednesday Link List borrowed a number of story leads from Todd Rhoades’ blog.
  • The Idea Club — You never heard of it, right? Actually it was the original name for Cathy Lynn Grossman’s religion blog at USAToday. (Thinking Out Loud actually began as a USAToday blog as well.) An excellent religion reporter. You probably remember better from Faith and Reason. Watch for her byline where quality journalism is sold.
  • Internet Monk — Still updated daily, but sadly without its founder, the late Michael Spencer. This one resonated with a lot of people at a transitional time for the church at large.
  • Boar’s Head Tavern — Another blog Michael Spencer started. 
  • Shlog — The original name for musician Sean Groves’ blog.  
  • One Hand Clapping — Julie Clawson was an important voice in those early days. I wonder who reading this knows how the blog got its name?
  • …Help! I can’t stop…

…This ended up longer than I planned. Those were great days. Through these and other writers I got to read some great books and think about things related to God, Jesus, The Bible, Church, Evangelism, Doctrine, etc., that I otherwise might never have considered.

My life is richer because of all of you…

…So…who did I miss from that era who was big impact on you?


And now, a Best-of… moment from those early days:

March 12, 2017

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

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

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

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

by Michael Spencer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a story of a journey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

February 9, 2017

Books Which Influenced Me

Filed under: books, Christianity — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:24 am

bookshelf-backgroundIn more spiritually formative years — and spiritual formation should be ongoing — there were several books I was encouraged to read which had a lasting effect. Many of these are now out of print, but I’ve included here things published in the last 40-50 years only. I have read some classics as well, especially Andrew Murray and A. W. Tozer. Glancing at my bookshelf, here’s what I came up with:

Less recently published

The Mind Changers – Emory Griffin  – Compared the evangelism process to candle-making with three stages: Melt, mold, make hard. Was recommended at a conference.

Contemporary Christian Communication – James Engle – Central to this was a chart showing the spiritual formation process from pre-conversion to decision to post-decision.

The Translation Debate – Clark Glassman – From the perspective of a Bible translator this looks at the challenges faced on the mission field. Wish IVP could find a way to revise and update this.

Shout it From the Housetops – Pat Robertson – Not exactly a popular name with some people today, but this early bio challenged me as Pat and his wife Dede sacrificed a posh lifestyle to buy a rundown TV station.

Destined for the Throne – Paul Billheimer – This was the first doctrinal book I was encouraged to purchase in the two years I was attending a charismatic congregation. It was recently repackaged.

Flirting with the World – John White – Showed that it’s the inner life that matters, not the externals by which people might be judged.

The Pursuit of Holiness – Jerry Bridges – A wonderful companion read to the above title, this proved to be Bridges’ signature work.

Your God Is To Small – J. B. Phillips – Especially the first half, dealing with the false ideas people have about God. Should be required reading.

The Liberator and The Word on the StreetRob Lacey – Written for street youth in Manchester, England this was the most extreme paraphrase I’d ever encountered.

The Jesus I Never Knew – Philip Yancey – Based on some well-made and badly-made films on the life of Christ, a look at shaping an accurate picture of Jesus.

Theology for Non-Theologians – James Cantelon – One of the first of many I would read in the theodicy genre.

More recently published

Radical – David Platt – A challenge to be aware of and consider giving time to the cause of third world missions.

Irresistible Revolution – Shane Claiborne – What happens when a young man takes the teaching in an Eastern College course seriously.

Mark and Luke – Michael Card – There are actually four gospels in the series, I read these two and on each page Card brings the narratives to life in a fresh way.

Jim and Caspar Go to Church – Jim Henderson – Our modern church scene through the eyes of an atheist.

The Shack – Wm. Paul Young – Love it or hate it you have to admit this started a ton of conversations about the nature of God and the place of Christian fiction.

Days of Elijah – R. T. Kendall – For an Old Testament study, Kendall brought a lot of Christ to the table in this look at key Bible figure.

Not a Fan – Kyle Idleman – A great “first book” for a new Christian; it is a good representation of the Christian Living genre previously typified by Lucado and Swindoll.

If You Want to Walk on Water You’ve Got to Get out of the Boat – John Ortberg – Maybe it was because I read this concurrent with the video series; a great faith-builder. 

There’s also the writers who brought significant elements to the discussion table; alternative thinkers like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren; church planters like Michael Frost and intellectuals like Greg Boyd.

I’m sure I could have listed this many again and I’ve left out somethings I would have wanted to include. The reviews on the blog are also books I recommend.

I’ll be away the day this publishes, so if you leave a comment and it gets caught in moderation, I’ll catch up to it eventually.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

January 14, 2017

As Metaphorical as a Simile

analogy comparison metaphor simile

Maybe it’s because of the pending release of a certain movie which will go unmentioned which is based on a certain book which was so very controversial in 2007 when it released; but I keep thinking that some of us Christians are very narrow when it comes to embracing different art or literary forms…

Just because you heard the phrase, “Life is like a box of chocolates…” in the movie Forrest Gump, you shouldn’t extrapolate the individual comparison in a single scene in the film to be a general guiding principle for life. In most respects, life is not at all like a box of chocolates. Nor, as Google might lead you to believe, is like an arrow, a bicycle, a camera, a deck of cards, an elevator, a football, a grapefruit, a hurricane, or… I’ll let you work your way through the rest of alphabet. In my wife’s opinion, life is more like a sushi bar, or the bag containing the Scrabble letters, or herding cats, but I’m willing to bet this month’s rent that those don’t work for you either.

Comparing things can be helpful to our understanding however. In Jesus’ teaching ministry, he took examples from the world as his hearers knew it — mostly agricultural comparisons — and either made direct connections or taught the principles as parables because they were parallel to things his audience could relate to. In my world, I often will use computer jargon and terminology to create an analogy which teaches a Biblical principle.

Our language generally offers us two options: Metaphor and simile. (You’d have to be as dumb as an ox not to know the difference. Just kidding! That’s an example of simile. And sarcasm.) A popular technique in the broad category of metaphor would be allegory, with the most recognizable examples in Christian literature being Pilgrim’s Progress, or the Chronicles of Narnia books; along with a number of contemporary writers in the Christian fantasy fiction genre.

But there is another writing technique I would like to offer here as simply springboard. Skye Jethani does this in The Divine Commodity where he uses the art of Vincent van Gogh to get the discussion rolling, or in Futureville where the springboard is the vision of the future as offered by the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Mark Batterson does this with The Circle Maker, beginning with the legend of Honi.

You could also argue that almost all Christian fiction — while some of it allegorical — is mostly springboard for further discussion; consisting either of internal deliberation, or discourse with friends in your book group, church library or at the Christian bookstore.

This technique does not sit well with all readers. The purists who prefer expository preaching to topical preaching would, with horror, rate the springboard type of writing even further down the spectrum. It’s just all too easy to criticize; to get lost in the metaphor or allegory and miss the point. Some recent popular preachers shun illustrations entirely to the point where, several years in, their advisors corner them to say, “We don’t really know anything about you.”

So here are some reminders:

  1. Most metaphors are limited to single aspects of the thing being compared. Any similarity life has to a box of chocolates is overshadowed by other aspects of the box, the wrapper, the plastic inset, etc., and life generally does not come with a complete guide printed on the lid. This is because…
  2. …All metaphors eventually break down at some point. There are a few ‘perfect’ metaphors, but more imperfect ones. This can lead to a situation where…
  3. …Metaphors and allegories are easily misunderstood. Not everybody grasps the comparison first time around, especially if the chosen metaphor is something somewhat foreign.
  4. Borrowing a theme or idea from another world — whether it’s a legend from another religion or a principle of motorcycle repair — does not necessarily imply endorsement.
  5. The placement of a metaphor or discussion springboard in mainstream Christian literature may result in it being seized upon by people on the fringes of mainstream Christianity who want to use the metaphor to say things the author never intended.

However — and this is so important — the use of parables and similar teaching forms by Jesus should be an encouragement to us to find similar redemptive analogies in our modern world. If you’re a writer, avoid the pressure to be boringly precise and instead, introduce edge into your writing by finding the connection everyone else has missed heretofore.

Communication is only achieved when the hearer fully gets it, and that will involve drawing parallels between ‘A’ and ‘B’ rather than repeating the words of a definition over and over to someone who is missing the point.

August 27, 2013

Everybody Wants “Daily Bread” But Nobody Wants to Bake the Loaf

When a Bible's well usedThe Devil's not amused.

When a Bible’s well used
The Devil’s not amused.

This is a recurring theme with me, so apologies to those of you who’ve read this theme here before…

Finding material for the Christianity 201 blog is a daily challenge. In all the great din of Christian voices on internet websites, chat rooms, forums and blogs, a lot of what is being written is completely devoid of any quotation, reference or allusion to Bible text. That’s fine. I know there are people whose faith shapes their politics, their ethics, their environmental views, their economic principles… and by virtue of that whatever they write still constitutes writing from a Christian perspective.

The thing is, I keep thinking there ought to me of more of this kind of writing online:

  • The other day some friends and I were sitting around the coffee shop discussing the various ways of interpreting the scripture that says…
  • I was reading my Bible last week and I was drawn to the part where Jesus says…
  • Yesterday, I realized that there are actually a number of different shades of meaning to the verse that talks about…
  • On Sunday, our pastor shared a message which showed the link between an Old Testament passage and this one from the New Testament…

You get the idea.

The other thing is that a lot of what’s available right now that does begin in scripture is very shallow, very superficial or very short. The popular (in North America, at least) Our Daily Bread readings usually begin with a verse, followed by a contemporary story which takes up about half the printed space. A great illustration is not a bad thing — Jesus used them — but as an adolescent, I remember tuning in for the stories during dinner time readings of ODB, and then tuning out the concluding paragraph. (I would have been voted least likely to ever be doing what I’m doing now.)

Or then there’s the current, rather inexplicable popularity of the Jesus Calling devotional. Since the blog Rumblings is now over the 100-comment mark on this little book, I’ll simply refer you there; suffice it to say that you might get more devotional content in a fortune cookie.

To avoid the hypocrisy of not including a verse here, and to present something more positive as an ending to this, I offer Acts 17:11

  • NLT And the people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth.
  • The Voice The Jewish people here were more receptive than they had been in Thessalonica. They warmly and enthusiastically welcomed the message and then, day by day, would check for themselves to see if what they heard from Paul and Silas was truly in harmony with the Hebrew Scriptures.
  • The Message  They were treated a lot better there than in Thessalonica. The Jews received Paul’s message with enthusiasm and met with him daily, examining the Scriptures to see if they supported what he said.

People who don’t understand the changes that have taken place at Willow Creek in Chicago over the past few years often chastise the church for offering ‘Christianity lite.’ These days, the seeker-sensitivity has been modified after surveys reveals that seekers wanted to listen to teaching with their Bibles open on their laps; the scriptures fully engaged.

If a visual image of the Christian involves ‘the towel and the basin,’ I nominate for runner-up a person with their nose buried in the Bible they hold in one hand, and a notebook and pen in the other.

link to Christianity 201

Disclaimer: Our Daily Bread, published by Radio Bible Class is a great way to begin or end your day. The problem comes if it’s your only source of Bible input for that day, or if you never do the full suggested reading, or if you’ve been a Christian for many years and have never graduated to other types of Christian reading that offer more depth.  Ditto The Upper Room devotional, published by the United Methodist Publishing House.

Background note: I mentioned North America. In the UK, for years, very similar-looking booklets existed that were actually quite different. Every Day With Jesus written by the late Selwyn Hughes and published by Crusade for World Revival (CWR), offered a 60-day intensive study of a single theme. (Many people in North America can’t tell you most days what their daily reading was about.) Furthermore, instead of free distribution, readers were expected to pay, which means they were financially invested. EDWJ collections are still available offering a year’s worth of readings, or six two-month studies.

September 18, 2012

A River Runs Through It: The River by Michael Neale

In many ways this is going to be the most difficult book review I’ve written, not because I didn’t appreciate The River, but because of the direction I want to take the review. So let me say at the beginning that I certainly did enjoy the book, it is very well written with great character development and painstaking detail especially on the subject of white water rafting; and while I don’t want to minimize some of the early chapters, The River by Michael Neale is like a great symphony piece that builds in intensity with each new section.

The River is a Bildungsroman — there’s your new literary genre word for today — meaning  a coming of age story; which in this case traces the story of Gabriel Clarke from younger years to adulthood, largely in terms of his relationship to the river in the part of Colorado where he grew up, and his separation from the river during his formative years in Kansas.  Thematically, the book’s primary concern is the parts of our past that follow us through life that we cannot shake.

The river itself might be seen as a metaphor for something else, but I would be very cautious in ascribing a particular interpretation on this point. There are hints of possible meanings, but it was hard for this reader to see the river as little more than …. a river.

And that was where, as I neared the conclusion, I started to think in terms of where this book fits in to the Christian fiction I usually read. There are some things in the plot that can be considered divine providence, and one reviewer I found certainly read this into the story, but for the most part that attribution is neither direct nor implied.

All of which brings me back to discussions I had with people in the early ’80s when the Christian music industry was going through a period of rapid expansion: What constitutes a Christian song? What constitutes a Christian album? Or in this case, what makes a work of fiction a Christian fiction title?

Ignoring the obvious — I’ll save you making the comment — that Christian is not an adjective; we tended in those days to say that if the artist was a Christian then the work was “in.” Others said if the LP or cassette or CD was released on a Christian label, then it must be Christian music. But the topic consumed many hours of heated debate. How does that apply here?

Michael Neale is a Dove-award winning songwriter for the song Your Great Name. So, no faulting him there. The publisher imprint, Thomas Nelson, makes things a little more challenging, since Nelson does do a few business books and general interest gift books, but is primarily known in the broader industry as a religious book publisher. But which religion?

The point I would make here is that The River would be quite at home among a collection of books relating to North American aboriginal belief, pantheism, folk religion or even new age literature. In a typical Christian novel, the characters’ thoughts, words and actions are informed by their belief in and desire to follow Jesus Christ. In the previous fiction title I reviewed, The Reason, (also Thomas Nelson) much of the book takes place in a church and there are long sections where the characters wrestle with matters of faith. Not every faith-based novel needs to be quite so obvious, but this one is as far at the other end of that spectrum as can be. I recall a scene where a family prayed before a meal, but that stood out as an exception.

So honestly, I’m not sure where this title fits into the sometimes judgmental Christian book market. DVDs which are family-friendly but not faith-based make the cut at Mardel, Parable and Family Christian, so on that basis there’s no problem here. But often readers hold authors, publishers and book vendors to a higher standard.

Great story. Well done. Five stars.

Just not sure where it fits in with other books I’ve reviewed here.

A copy of The River was provided to Thinking Out Loud by Thomas Nelson and Graf-Martin; available at your local bookstore from Thomas Nelson.

June 5, 2012

“I Don’t Like It, But I Need a Theological Reason”

The comments section was fairly quiet yesterday, but off the blog it was a different story…

…anyway, I decided as promised to reprint the further foray into yesterday’s topic that actually appeared in the comments section…

It began with this comment, which I did not approve:

I’ve read more informative commentary on the place mats at Burger King.

I wasn’t trying to restate the story of Tim Challies blog review of Ann Voskamp’s book because I thought the article at her.meneutics spelled out everything so clearly. Did you click through? Out of hundreds of page views early yesterday, only a handful of people actually clicked through to read the story.

I wasn’t originally trying to provide a lot of commentary , I just wanted to share the story; I think Ann’s response was very Christ-like and very consistent with what I saw of her on the interviews at 100 Huntley Street. (Linked in my ‘overview’ of the book which is linked here.)

But since you asked so nicely…

Mark 9:38-41 — Common English Bible (CEB)

Recognize your allies

38 John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone throwing demons out in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.”

39 Jesus replied, “Don’t stop him. No one who does powerful acts in my name can quickly turn around and curse me. 40 Whoever isn’t against us is for us. 41 I assure you that whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will certainly be rewarded.

I think the type of person who is going to have great issues with this book is probably the same type of person who has issues with The Shack. I can be more objective here because while I was — once the smoke cleared and I’d settled my own position —  very supportive of Paul Young’s book; I saw Ann’s as more of a women’s book and I’m sure the sales figures bear that out to the point where I think only a woman can provide a really thorough review of it.

But we tend to shy away from anything that’s not produced from within “our group.” (See Mark 9, above.) My own research has shown that in any particular community, no matter how much media and marketing is given to a particular book title; it will sell so much a better if a local pastor endorses the book from the pulpit; more so if it quotes a particular translation or appears under the imprint of a particular publisher.

The church has long resisted change and innovation, and Ann Voskamp’s book, her blog, her style of public speaking is very unique; very much who she is.

I find that frequently the church is awakened by the sound of a different voice; I also find that even those whose message may have some rough meters and uneven cadences causes us to think more than those with a skillfully crafted prose that is the same as every other speaker and writer. (Though I am not at all saying that Ann Voskamp’s writing is not beautifully structured; but it is unlike everything else currently on offer.)

Tim Challies writes,

She either quotes or is influenced by authors like Henri Nouwen, Brennan Manning, Teresa of Avila, Brother Lawrence, Annie Dillard, and Dallas Willard. This brings to the book a deep-rooted mysticism that at times seems even to border on the view that the divine exists within and extends to all parts of nature (a teaching known as panentheism). At heart, mysticism promotes the view that God can be experienced, and perhaps even best experienced, outside of Scripture.

Tim Challies cited as problematic Ann’s having been influenced by ‘mystics’ like Henri Nouwen and Dallas Willard. Again, I’m not a fan of Willard; we did one of his curriculum DVD series on Sunday nights and it just didn’t connect with me. But I have to allow some respect for the pastor who thought this would be good for our people, and the publishing company that vetted his material. I am simply not automatically predisposed to dismiss certain writers out of hand if other people I know draw great value from their perspective.

And is the revelation we have of God absolutely limited to the revelation in scripture? Do we know things (that are truth) about God extra-Biblically? That’s been debated for centuries. I would argue that all things taught must line up with scripture, but beyond that I am cautiously open.

So I have no built-in bias toward Ann, the book, or the writers who have influenced her; and that said, I still defend her right to have a place at the conversation table for Christian women; and I also place a certain degree of confidence in her publisher, Zondervan, who are ironically the publisher of one of Tim Challies’ books.

…A couple of weeks ago, Jack, a guy in our community passed away. Jack attended a “King James Only” church his whole life, but he seemed a little too “open” and too intelligent to buy into the so-called doctrinal reasons for clinging to that translation. So I asked him. He just smiled and looked me straight in the eye and said, “It’s just preferences. That’s all it is; preferences.”

And that’s really all it is in this case.

Referring to a chapter where Ann compares intimacy with God to sexual ecstasy, Challies says,

Sometimes it is best to allow God to define the parameters of our metaphors rather than taking them to a much greater extent. Voskamp would have done well to limit herself here.

If this is true, what do we do with the “not safe but good” Aslan in Narnia? That was a stretch, to say the least.

He goes on,

Why should she have to travel to a Roman Catholic cathedral in a foreign land in order to truly experience the Lord?

If travel is an issue, what are to do with summer camp ministries, where we remove children from familiar influences in order for them to see themselves and see God in a different environment? What are we to do with the testimonies of those who have truly “found” God in the middle of a brothel, or a casino, or even in the midst of a truly false cult? The Psalmist said, “If I make my bed in hell, you are there.” Is the problem that it was a Catholic cathedral? In fact, are not our greatest experiences of worship and understanding often while we’re away from our routines and comfortable surroundings?

He concluded,

I fear that some will see that Voskamp subtly promotes a higher order of holiness, a higher order of relationship with God, and be dissatisfied that they do not have this for themselves.

Is that not true on some level of each and every Christian book we read? Every church service we attend? Every sermon podcast we listen to? Yes, there is always that “Monday morning letdown;” that return to reality that happens after the spiritual high from Sunday’s service. But 167 hours later, we go back; we go on retreat weekends; we buy another Christian book, because we want to be inspired.

One Thousand Gifts is probably not my kind of book. But as my friend Jack would say, “That’s just preferences;” and if you’re going to let your personal preferences get in the way, then don’t consider yourself in any way an objective book reviewer of Henri Nouwen or Brennan Manning or The Shack. or One Thousand Gifts.

The principle of noblesse oblige also applies to people who have been given a huge platform, either in their books, their pastorate or their blog. You must conduct yourself and know that your words will be judged by a higher standard. The very first response, the default response to those outside “our group” must be a gracious one; especially when we propose to judge the entire tenor of someone else’s ministry.

Placing too much in one particular blogger’s approval or disapproval of something, “in its own subtle way I believe that it can and will prove dangerous, at least to some.”

Or as the scriptures say, “Not many of you should presume to write book reviews.” It’s there. Just check your concordance.

June 4, 2012

The Christian Blogosphere: East is East and West is West…

Ann Voskamp, Tim Challies: Sometimes we just have to agree to disagree

For those out of the loop, you might want to begin need to start with the excellent summary (and links) from Micha Boyette at Her.meneutics. For those who are familiar with this story, I get into much greater detail in the comments section.

While on the one hand I rather hate to draw attention to last week’s tension between Canadian blogger and Zondervan author Tim Challies and Canadian blogger and Zondervan author Ann Voskamp, it really highlights the spectrum of opinion that we find in the world of Christian blogging.

Though they live a very short distance apart, they are probably light years apart theologically.  For some inexplicable reason, Tim took to reviewing the book a year and a half after publication.  Presumably some among his tribe were concerned and John Piper was not available to deliver a ruling on it.  (Having typed that tongue-in-cheek statement, it is an interesting situation considering Ann is a fan of Piper.)

Tim could not condone the book, to the point of calling it “dangerous.” For some of the more cynical, this might constitute the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. But when über-blogger Challies can’t endorse you’re writing, the weaker among us would be tempted to pack up the team and head home before the first inning.

Not Ann Voskamp.  She took the high road.  She invited him to come for dinner.

Seriously.

You remember that verse, “When your enemy curses and reviles you, invite them to your farm for a delicious feast.”  Yes.  That verse is there.  Just check your concordance.

I mentioned Ann’s book here shortly after it started to take off.  Although I hadn’t read it, I provided an overview focusing on the poetic language she uses, a rarity in Christian publishing.  The book, to some, has been a breath of fresh air, a cup of refreshing water.

But dinner at Ann’s farm would be an awesome experience. I would gladly have trashed the book in this space if I knew it would earn such a prestigious invitation.

So, if you’re reading this, Ann, I just live an hour on the other side of Toronto.

Here’s the link again to the story at CT’s women’s blog, her.meneutics.  Be sure to click all the links, so you can see all of Ann’s pictures.

Read Ann’s blog: A Holy Experience, and Tim’s Challies.com

Learn more about 1,000 Gifts at Zondevan.com (also available in November as a DVD study)

March 7, 2011

Introducing the Ministry of Ann Voskamp

While much energy in the Christian blogosphere is currently devoted to that other book that’s causing so much discussion, another book is making waves in a quieter, more gentle way.  One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp has been doing so well at retail, that I’m taking the rare step of featuring the book before actually receiving my own review copy.  The reason is that you can win one of three copies just for leaving a comment today. (See today’s other blog post for details.)

First, you might want to get to know Ann’s website, A Holy Experience. Make sure your speakers are turned on, as music plays underneath. Or maybe not. I read one reviewer who valued Ann’s words so much, readers were advised to make sure their speakers were turned off! I guess we each process things differently.

Second, read Ann’s story. Some of you have blogs of your own and you’ve had that experience of creating an “about” page where you try to sum up your life journey in a few words for people who you’ve never met. If not, open a word processing program or open a blank e-mail and take about fifteen minutes to craft your own personal “about” page. (If you like the result, that can be the comment you post here!)

Finally, watch and listen to an excerpt from the book in this video.

I realize not all of you are into poetry, but consider the following:

  1. The Bible devotes five books to wisdom literature, much of which is poetic in form.
  2. In many places that we don’t think of as poetry, the simple repetition of words (i.e. “Holy, Holy, Holy”) is following Hebrew poetic forms familiar to the audience. There is a beauty to the language of scripture that our language, English, causes us to overlook.
  3. The Bible is filled with Psalms in places other than the book that bears that name. In the book of Luke, Mary greets the angel’s news that she is the one chosen to bear the Messiah with the song we know as The Magnificat. While it is largely a reiteration of various scripture; combined it becomes poetic. The passage in Philippians about Christ’s humility (“Let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus…”) is indented in most modern Bibles because it’s recognized as an early Church hymn.

So watch, listen and enjoy…

 

Leave your comment here to be eligible to win one of three copies of One Thousand Gifts; see the other blog post today for contest details.

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