Thinking Out Loud

December 29, 2021

The Philip Yancey I Never Knew

This was not the book I was expecting. It was also the book I almost set aside without finishing. Where the Light Fell: A Memoir (Convergent Books, 2021) is the sometimes gut-wrenching story of the early life of one of today’s most popular Christian authors. It is not a pretty story.

Raised in an ultra-conservative Bible Belt family by a single mother, it’s a story of hardship on every level. Having read nearly half of Yancey’s two dozen books, I thought I knew some of the backstory, but nothing prepared for me for these revelations.

After reading the first forty pages just before turning out the lights for the evening, I set the book down and that night, sleep just didn’t come. It would be a week before I would pick up my copy and continue, and with some of the worst of the timeline behind me, I more eagerly continued to the end.

But the end was not what I expected. I knew of Yancey’s work with Campus Life magazine and co-editing The Student Bible, and co-authoring three books with leprosy doctor Paul Brand. But only two of those three surface for a fleeting mention toward the end. The focus here is on earlier times; younger days.

I’m sure he would agree with me that the memoir is a story of family dynamics, and from the outset it appears that the mother-son relationship will dominate. However, in later chapters — and this isn’t really a spoiler — it becomes more about the relationship with his brother Marshall Yancey, and the contrast between two boys who share so many things in common at the beginning, and then arriving at entirely opposite places. In a different world, it might be Marshall’s autobiography people were reading.

Over the years I’ve introduced dozens of people to the writing of Philip Yancey. If pressed, I often say that the draw for me is that as journalist and not a pastor, I am struck by the way he wrestles with scripture and theology.

Now I understand why. I understand why it’s necessary, why it’s imperative for him to fully work out anything he’s going espouse in print. He places a high value on raw honesty and transparency. He’s not always interested in providing the right answers as he is in the process it takes to arrive there. Only then will the answers suffice.

Living one country removed from the U.S., there’s so much of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s America that never touched my own experience. Still, our family’s yearly car trips to Florida meant driving through the southern states, and particularly in the years before the interstate highway system was completed, there were snapshots in the book — especially those portraying extreme poverty — that brought flashbacks to things I’d seen from the backseat of my parents’ car.

The guest speakers at Yancey’s summer camp were not entirely unfamiliar names, and the names of the Christian magazines his mother subscribed to also resonated. But my contact was fleeting whereas he was immersed in that milieu, and it had repercussions on every choice with which he was confronted and how he and his brother saw the world.

For those for whom this is a foreign experience, the book is a necessary tool for processing Evangelical history in the post-war, mid-20th century. No wonder that on book tours, he had said, “I truly believe this is the one book I was put on earth to write.”

It was on such a book tour years ago that I got to meet my favorite writer. I shook his hand and thanked him for all that his books have meant. He had just released What Good Is God? and the publicist had handed me a complimentary copy and I waited until all the purchasers of the book had left and then asked him if he would autograph mine. Being last in line, if I had known things about him that I now know, I might have extended our conversation by a few extra minutes discussing the Christian world which I got to see from a bit of a distance, and that he lived in every waking moment.

I also find now, I’m longing for a part two. How that upbringing shaped those experiences working for a mainstream Evangelical magazine like Campus Life or a publisher like Zondervan, with whom his books were released. Perhaps part two consists of re-reading some of those classics — What’s So Amazing About Grace, or The Jesus I Never Knew or even Soul Survivor — through the lens of what’s been revealed here in Where the Light Fell.

For those familiar with Philip Yancey’s previous works, this is a must-read. For those who have completed other recent books which deal with the history of Evangelical Protestantism in the United States in the past century, again a must-read.

Just be prepared to recognize this as the story not just of one person, but of a mother and two sons, because that’s the essence of what you’ll find.


Thanks to Martin Smith of Parasource, Canadian distributor for Convergent for providing a chance to read this when I’d given up hope of getting a review copy!

December 8, 2021

Jesus Taught 12 Students for 3 Years: What Was the Curriculum?

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:24 am

This drawing first appeared at my devotional blog, C201, a year-and-a-half ago. I find it amusing looking back that the related article I wrote specifically mentions Matthias and Justus, the two nominees to replace Judas after the betrayal, but in the drawing it’s Matthias and “?.” (There’s a pun here somewhere about how sometimes there’s just no Justus.)

The two were mentioned toward the end of the article as an example of people who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. (Acts 1: 21b – 22a) in order to show that while “the twelve” were the “official” disciples, there were others such as the siblings Mary, Martha and Lazarus; Mary the mother of Jesus, two other Marys (a popular name; they must have been Catholic) and people like Nicodemus who appears at both the beginning and end of John’s Gospel, and John Mark, who might have been too young to be counted at the outset but is definitely part of the inner circle in the Garden of Gethsemane.

When I say, “official” disciples, I realize some are confused by the use of the term “the twelve apostles” and then there is the matter that we are all, today, disciples. And if we want to throw out numbers, let’s not forget the 72 (or as some prefer, 70) who Jesus sent out two-by-two. Casual adherents and visitors wouldn’t have been allowed on that missions trip.

The point of all this is to bring us to this verse:

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. – John 21:25 NIV

Want an example?

In Luke 24:13-35, we have the story of Jesus appearing to Clopas and the other unnamed person on the road to Emmaus. The crucifixion has left them shattered, and they describe their sadness to Jesus and then Jesus responds.

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. – v27

Of all the “other things” that John was referring to, most people I know would give their eye teeth to have a transcription of that small group discussion. The entire, big-picture story-arc of the Bible as taught by Jesus himself. Nobody knew it was happening, but for a brief span of time, it was the hottest ticket in town.

So how does this connect with “the twelve?”

The thing that separates those young men from the additional disciples is a rabbinical relationship between teacher and student. He was their rabbi, and for three years they followed him (literally, as he was itinerant, always on the move) as he did whatever might be expected of a rabbi, plus a few extras that probably weren’t.

So what was on the curriculum? What was in the syllabus?

I haven’t seen much written about this, but I would expect there would be teaching on ethics, on philosophy, on Israel’s history, and perhaps even a lecture or two about dealing with pesky parishioners or doing fundraising to support their ministry. Things that rabbis taught their pupils, necessary for advancement on the day they themselves became teachers, plus some of whatever elements would distinguish one rabbi’s teaching from another.

The point is, we don’t know.

Most of what we see and hear of his teaching happened in a public setting, leaving us with enough in terms of the “red letter” quotable quotes to advance the kingdom and change the world; but also leave us hungering for more, such as Clopas and the other person got to hear while walking from Emmaus.

At the site BibleRef.com, the point is made that because of the writing style in John, this observation about the volume of unrecorded actions and teachings of Jesus, is the only time the writer uses the pronoun, “I.”

Throughout the gospel of John, there have been overtly anonymous references to a particular disciple (John 1:37; 13:23; 18:15–16; 19:26; 21:23). The prior verse seems to confirm this person is John, the author of the entire work (John 21:24). John may have used a secretary to write down his words as he spoke, partly explaining why this writing ends with a specific claim to authorship. There appears to be an additional stamp of approval, possibly from a local church, attached to that statement as well.

Here, the “signature” concludes with the gospel of John’s only explicit use of a first-person perspective. It’s not entirely clear if this is still John speaking, or if this continues the note of approval which began with the phrase “and we know…” from the prior verse. Either way, it makes the point that Jesus’ earthly ministry could not be fully detailed in a single book. Further, to explain or understand those words would require immense effort. The existence of Bible commentaries—such as this very ministry—which are many times longer than the text itself is further proof of this.

Apparently John himself (or if you prefer, the writer of the Gospel of John*) is most emphatic on this; grammatically, it’s the crescendo in what has been, after all, a first-person account.

As Knowing-Jesus.com states,

John only related a fraction of the inexhaustible fullness of all Christ did during His 33 years on earth, which was spent going about doing good. He humbled Himself and only did those things He heard from His Father in heaven and He worked the works of God, through the mighty power of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

…John’s gospel only touches on the fringe of inexhaustible fullness of all that Jesus did – for words are insufficient to capture the infinite riches of His unparalled life.

The site Heartlight.org sums up the passage well:

Jesus did many great deeds when he was here. He also is continuing to do those great deeds through his people and for the people of the world. But even though the world could not contain a book that recorded all the good things that Jesus did, Jesus did walk on our planet, look up at our stars, and face our mortal frailties so we could see God. Why? Three reasons are especially important to John:

  1. Jesus loves us, as does his Father.
  2. We need Jesus’ love, mercy, grace, example, message, and truth.
  3. The Father wanted Jesus to come and reveal himself to us.

We don’t know every single word that was spoken by Jesus on this earth, but we’re given enough that, if we can process and assimilate that, we can indeed transform our world.


Some of the teaching of Jesus that we do have recorded were indeed asides to the twelve. The public, including seekers, scribes and spiritual leaders were not present. But most of what we read is part of what is termed his “public ministry.”

If you want to delve further into Christ’s teaching, The Gospel of Matthew is your best bet, containing five (count ’em, five) of Christ’s discourses. Much attention is given to the first one, which we call The Sermon on the Mount, but if you want to read what we covered at C201 a year ago about the others, here are the links:

The Teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: Mission

The Teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: Parables

The Teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: The Church

The Teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: End Times


* I included this phrase as a concession to those who believe and teach that the Gospels weren’t necessarily authored by the person whose name they bear. I’m all for advances in research and textual criticism, but the phrase, “the writer of the Gospel of John” is just an awkward sentence construction.


Warning: Speculation as to what all is contained in the things that Jesus may have said or done which are not recorded is a dangerous pursuit. To say it differently, this is how cults get started. We have enough solid content from the common canon of scripture without having to elaborate or focus on things which are pure conjecture.

December 4, 2021

Rachel Held Evans’ Wholehearted Faith

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 1:55 pm

There might have been moments as you’ve read this pages when you’ve felt frustration and even despair, because it has seemed as if I am asking you to do more, try something different, think in a way you’ve never thought before… (pp 173-4)

Fifty years from now, all things being equal, I can envision a world where the words of Rachel Held Evans are being studied, long after the works of many of today’s popular authors are no longer considered. In the face of criticism for her approach to Christian belief, she was always gracious, and to those for whom her writing fully resonated, it was as though she sparked an entire movement.

Wholehearted Faith (HarperOne, 2021, no subtitle) is in part the next book Rachel Held Evans was working on before her untimely death in 2019, and excerpts from her blog posts. That being said, I was expecting a rather disjointed collection of chapters, but honestly I have to confess I didn’t know where the book manuscript ended and the other material began. Her writing is just … so her.

Some of that continuity is owing to longtime friend Jeff Chu, also pictured, who assembled the final manuscript.

Sometimes in reviewing a book, unless you make notes, your final impressions are tied to later chapters, not unlike the situation where your most vivid memories of a loved one are those final days of old age and not the vitality of their youth. That’s how I was impacted when, toward the end of the book (pp 163-6) there is a detailed description of Rachel taking the hate mail she received electronically, printing out the worst of it, and then folding those printed pages into origami “swans and then sailboats, flowers and then foxes.”

You have to either laugh or cry as you read that.

Earlier in the chapter (p 159) she remembers her own words posted to Twitter on hearing of the death of Osama bin Laden; “Trying to keep in mind that how I respond to the death of my enemies says as much about me as it does about my enemies.” Forget the adage about lemons and lemonade; when the world seems full of hate, you make paper “birds and ships, flowers and kites.”

But why would anyone send Rachel hate mail?

I suppose there is simply something unsettling about someone who challenges our conventional lenses for looking at spiritual life; who states truths without falling back on the familiar words and phrases that have become clichés.

Or if they openly wrestle with doubts and misgivings.

…Most people live with some uncertainty in life, even with — especially with — complex religious and moral questions. Indeed, as I began writing about my experiences on my blog and in my books, a whole community of kindred spirits emerged. Many of them felt as lonely in their questioning as I at times have. They expressed through their letters, emails, and social media posts the affirmation that every spiritual wanderer and religious misfit deeply craves — that I was not alone in this. (p 37)

Later she writes that

…certainty isn’t faith. And faith is marked by the humility to let yourself question — which is not a shortcoming but an acknowledgement of one’s humanity. (p 56)

And that simply, is where some of the hate mail possibly originated. Many people in our churches simply crave a doctrinal system of belief that dots every ‘i’ and crosses every ‘t’ and ties a bow together on top. A faith that leaves no room for mystery; that doesn’t allow that, as Paul said in his famous ‘love chapter,’ presently “we see in part.”

But Rachel knew that need for theological tidiness all too well from personal experience.

This system was comforting in the way that math can be comforting, or the perfect creases, or a row of books neatly arranged. The quintessence of Enlightenment rationalism, the system had its own tidy, self-reinforcing, seemingly airtight and therefore undoubtedly divinely inspired logic. (p 70)

This up-ending of the theological apple cart will definitely produce some unfriendly mail, but the consideration of other possibilities is also what drew a greater number of people to Rachel’s writing and later conferences she helped organize.

She then modeled for her readers a more grace-filled approach to responding to the people who are theologically different.

After Christ’s departure, the first apostles allowed themselves to be changed by the goodness they encountered in the world. When law-abiding, kosher-eating, Roman -hating Peter encountered a centurion who feared God and gave to the poor, Peter, to his own astonishment, said, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” Then Peter even went so far as to share a meal, as Jesus might have, with his new friend. “You are well aware that it is against are law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile,” he said to Cornelius. “But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.” (p 115)

As Jesus might have. Indeed.

If Peter had been closed to such God-shaped possibilities, we wouldn’t have Acts chapter 10. Early on in the book she allows for the possibility of cultivating a faith which occasionally, like the GPS on your car when you’ve turned two blocks too soon simply says, “Recalculating.” Those are my words, but I think Rachel would concur. Her description is,

…But like so many things, faith is best held with an open hand, nurtured by both boundaries and improvisation, tradition and innovation. What a gift my parents gave my sister and me in their blessing of holy exploration. (p 38)

concluding that

…as she [Anne Lamott] had chronicled the meanderings of the heart as well as anyone, and as she famously puts it, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.”

When I read that I found it reassuring. If uncertainty is a marker of faith, then I must be pretty darn faithful… (p 40)

She adds,

I believe not in spite of all my questions but because of them. I believe not in spite of all the theological points that I undoubtedly have gotten wrong — and the ones I’ve gotten right — but because of them. I believe not in spite of my sins but because of them, just as I am — and just as all those saints and sinners who came before me. (p 47)

This is a long review, and I’ve excerpted far more quotations than reviewers are usually permitted, but I wanted you to get of taste of why Rachel’s words are so enduring and so transformational for so many. She’s all-in. Wholeheartedly.


Thanks again to Mark at HarperCollins Christian Publications Canada (HCCP) for the opportunity to read and own a copy of Wholehearted Faith.

 

November 23, 2021

The Gideons in Canada Charts Its Own Course

Organization is now officially ShareWord Global

For ten years now, the ministry organization formerly known as The Gideons has been on a path to carve out its own identity; one separate from its U.S. counterpart. Recently, they completed that process with the official change to a new brand identity: ShareWord Global.

Recently, the Guelph, Ontario (about 45 minutes west of Toronto) based ministry celebrated the changes with a publication bearing a timeline of the changes which make it unrecognizable from its shape and form a decade ago. It’s an amazing tribute to innovative thinking, and how a Christian organization can reinvent itself to meet current needs and the challenges of a new century.

There were too many high points in that timeline to list them all, and I considered simply listing some in bullet point form to avoid a TL:DR situation, but I really wanted to embellish some, and therefore offer the list which follows. This is my own take, and it’s subjective, but the changes are all good, and having a positive story like this to share is something we need right now.

International Missions – In 2011, while the ministry was celebrating its 100th anniversary, the Canadian branch adopted changes further distinguishing it from the U.S. parent, under the name The Gideons International in Canada. At the same time it was busy forming ministry partnerships and that year sent its first international team to Peru.

New Living Translation (NLT) – Gideon print runs of the Bible were using the New American Standard Bible (NASB) when the decision was made to switch over to the NLT as the default scripture text.

Full Participation of Women – Up to 2012, in a situation analogous to the Roman Catholic Church where only a man can be priest, only a man could be a Gideon. The women served as part of an “auxiliary.” That changed.

Biblezines – While publisher Thomas Nelson had pioneered the format previously with a dozen different publications which were half magazine, half Bible; The Gideons in Canada updated the concept in 2012 with the release of Hope and the next year Redemption. With scripture portions paired with beautiful photography, and a full text copy of John’s gospel in the back, these had broad appeal, but were especially targeted for use in hospitals, prisons. In 2014, Light would follow.

Digital Bible – Ultimately, 2012 would prove to be a pivotal year, as it was also this year that saw the launch of the NewLife Bible smart phone Bible app, made available for free download. (In the picture at the top, from 2014, the app is represented by the pocket cards for giveaway to introduce the app to friends.)

ShareWord – In 2015, what would become the organization’s sole brand name was introduced, with both identities being used simultaneously. (The situation was similar at Wycliffe Bible Translators, with the addition of the OneBook brand; one division denoting the various translation projects; the other the support of the missionaries doing the actual work.)

Outreach to Children – In 2017, Spark, another smaller-format Biblezine was introduced. By this point, Spark included, the Biblezines were translated or being translated into multiple languages.

Expansion of Worldwide Ministry – Although we began our list with International Partnerships, it’s worth saying twice; by 2019 publications were being placed in Ukraine, China, Zambia, India, Kenya and countries in the Middle East. More recent inroads have been made in Cuba and Chile. (Pictured below are Spanish resources.)

Name Change – In the Fall of 2021, The Gideons International in Canada (TGiC) ceased as an operating name, and the ministry was fully branded as ShareWord Global.

At the outset, I stated that this is a positive story. If the organization was locked in to its original paradigm — such as handing out New Testaments to Grade 5 students, or placing Bibles in motel nightstands — it could have walked away defeated as it found itself shut out of schools or sharing (or pushed out of) hotel drawers by The Qur’an or The Book of Mormon.

Instead, some rather forward-thinking leaders decided to take the original goals and apply them the way the original founders, over a century ago, would apply them in our day.

At times like this I’m reminded of a sidebar in Acts 13 which references King David, “after David had done the will of God in his own generation…” (36a NLT) or “David had served God’s purpose in his own generation…” (NIV). While the Great Commission has never changed, the means by which is carried out will be chronologically and contextually specific to those times.

This is a great example of an organization understanding that and applying it.

This article was written independently of ShareWord Global and without their input. All these glowing reviews are entirely my own! Canadian readers: With year-end giving in view for tax purposes, consider a one time or (as we do) a monthly gift to ShareWord Global.

November 20, 2021

Building a Personal Christian Library

This material was written for another audience, but although it may seem rather basic, deserves sharing here as well…

A Library for Christian Growth

The internet is great … for some things. But have you ever wished you could pick up an actual book and see the information you want displayed in a different form?

Lots of people do. Print books — both in general and in the Christian marketplace in particular — have had a strong year. Print is making a serious comeback. But if you wanted to have a shelf containing the best of the best, where would you start?  Here are some ideas:

The Bible – Everyone reading this should have a text copy of the Bible in their home.

A Study Bible – While no single study edition will tell you everything you want to know about every Bible passage, one good one will at least get you started in the right direction and demonstrate the depth of what’s available to learn when you’re prepared to dig a little deeper.

Concordance – People still ask for these, but honestly, this is one area where I think Christian publishers and booksellers are prepared to concede a point to computers. They’re fast and they’re geared to whichever translation is your favourite. Furthermore, stores no longer sell Bible software as much, as the online equivalents — such as BibleGateway.com are free!

Bible Handbook – This is a book which has one chapter for each of the 66 core Biblical books, presented in the same order. It’s an overview of all the major people, places and activities in the Bible’s big-picture narrative.

Reader’s Version – This is a more recent product genre which can eliminate the need for a Bible handbook (though not entirely.) It presents the Bible as one continuous story without books, chapters and verses. The best-known is The Story which uses either NIV or NKJV text.

One Volume Commentary – This is like a Bible handbook on steroids. It gets you into verse-by-verse explanations and connects you with other related passages. Always hardcover, and about the size of the New York City Telephone Directory, circa 1980.

Individual Commentary – Got a particular book of the Bible you’d like to explore in great depth? For lay-people (non-academics or people not in vocational ministry) there are a number of series worth checking out including the Tyndale Commentary series (IVP), The Bible Speaks Today series (IVP), The Life Application series (Tyndale) and the Daily Study Bible series (William Barclay, John Knox Press). (For pastors and scholars we also keep two books on the shelf describing the best academic titles in detail.)

Bible Atlas – I can remember as a kid not having much interest in those maps of Paul’s missionary journeys or the location of the ten tribes of Israel, but now I see the need for these to a greater degree.

Bible Dictionary – Usually a larger hardcover book, Bible dictionaries let you look up words that are in the Bible and tells you what they mean. Obvious, maybe, but remember you won’t find the word trinity inside because it’s not a Biblical word.

Theological Dictionary – For those who want to have an entry for trinity and don’t mind missing out on the entries in a Bible dictionary. Not as popular. If you want to keep going down this road, there are also Philosophical Dictionaries and Dictionaries of Religion.

Devotional – At a certain point a lot of the study books listed here become all about information whereas the spiritual formation process should be all about transformation. Dictionaries and study Bibles provide all the head knowledge you need, but the message of Jesus is also meant to touch hearts.

Book of Customs in Biblical Times – I’ve added this toward the bottom because I see it is used in the chart (below) I wanted to include. However, these now take many different forms as people grow increasingly interested in the overall situation (politically, culturally, and in the understanding of key words and phrases) during the life and ministry of Jesus, in a category called “Hebraic Roots.”

Biographies – Every Christian should at some point read about the life of William and Catherine Booth, founders of The Salvation Army. Then there are 20th Century people like Corrie Ten Boom (The Hiding Place), Nicky Cruz and David Wilkerson (The Cross and the Switchblade), Don Richardson (Peace Child); but also older stories of people like Johann Sebastian Bach, John Wesley, Dorothy Sayers, or William Wilberforce.

Christian Living – Finally, here at the bottom of the list, is the catch-all category that Christian publishers use to describe the general books by today’s top authors as well as some classic writers. This list is already longer than I intended, but in the future we’ll recommend some key authors and books which should be part of your library.

Footnote: In the article, I made a very general statement about Study Bibles. Please note that in the case of the Life Application Study Bible (available in five different translations) the approach is quite different. Application notes are more devotional, and whereas a typical study Bible takes us into Bible times to understand context and meaning, the Life Application approach brings the Bible into our times and helps us apply it to our modern context and challenges.

The image at the top is from NavPress, a Christian publisher. I believe the lower image was created by Thomas Nelson, another Christian publisher.

November 3, 2021

Jesus as History’s Ultimate Person of Interest

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:41 am

Book Review: Person of Interest by J. Warner Wallace.

This is the fourth time it’s been my privilege to review one of J. Warner Wallace’s books, and while each one makes a compelling case for Christianity, I would propose that the set of four, taken together, provides an almost irrefutable, undeniable case for Jesus being all he claimed to be.

As in his previous titles, the skills of Wallace’s work as a cold case detective provide a motif for the spiritual issues under discussion. This time around it’s a single case: the disappearance and probable murder of a woman named Tammy. In this situation, a body was never located, which makes it the most difficult type of cold case to investigate.

This time around however, on the other side of the analogy is the author’s own faith journey, from atheist to believer. The very personal aspect of this makes it very similar to Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ.

In Person of Interest: Why Jesus Still Matters in a World That Rejects the Bible (Zondervan, 2021) Wallace explains that there are two critical sets of factors at play in a potential murder investigation, and in a critical look at the life of Christ.

He sorts these things using the imagery of a bomb exploding. The first type of these factors includes noteworthy things leading up to the “event,” which he calls the fuse. Then, everything that happens after, he terms the fallout. A longer fuse and  greater fallout lead more clearly to the establishing of a person of interest.

What therefore sets this book apart from other apologetic resources is the emphasis on the particular time and place in history that Jesus occupied, and the spinoff effects including influences in diverse things like art, architecture, literature, sculpture, etc.

Included on the fallout side is the thorny issue of the capital-C Church’s relationship with science, and the influence Christianity has had on other religions, including religions which were founded before the birth of Jesus. It’s a courageous, outside-the-box perspective, and while one might argue that the reverberations from Christ’s life aren’t any more significant than the cultural echoes from, for example, The Beatles, added together, his documentation of such effects make Person of Interest a unique resource.

The book is also peppered with the usual illustrations provided by the author himself which are a hallmark of all of his titles. It does make for faster reading, especially if you process things visually. Some of these however are a bit repetitive, and most require a visit to the website to view more clearly, as the reproduction in the book is rather fuzzy. Several of the footnotes — 54 pages of them in a 312 page paperback — direct the reader to examine these images in detail online, along with selected case notes.

Wallace paints with broad strokes and a few times, I thought the finished work could have been tightened up a little. In the section on architecture he stated that the early followers of Jesus “lacked financial patronage,” (p131) but in fact, this was exactly Theophilus’ role in underwriting the research for the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts.

In a section concerned with the early church’s role in fostering education, he mentioned The Didache and referred to it having a “question and answer” format (p160) when in fact it does not follow that catechism method. These are things I’m willing to overlook, however.

I’m not sure that I would use Person of Interest as an initial reading suggestion for someone interested in Christian believe — though a week from now I might do that with one particular person I am meeting — but as a supplement to Wallace’s first book, Cold Case Christianity, it would prove to be a good complementary resource.

A free preview excerpt of Person of Interest, consisting of the introduction and first chapter is available at this link.

If you appreciate the study of Christian apologetics and already own a handful of resources, consider this. I guarantee you don’t have anything like it in your library.

August 16, 2021

8 Things Calvinists Stole from Evangelicals

A few of our favorite things seem to be in the process of becoming private property. This is a look at eight of them.

First of all, the title is deliberately provocative. When I say “stole” I mean something closer to “co-opted.” For example, I would argue that Jehovah’s Witnesses and Latter Day Saints co-opted the idea of doing door-to-door visitation in pairs. When Suburban Sam is getting ready to cut the grass on Saturday morning, and two people carrying literature walk toward his door, he doesn’t think. ‘Oh, look! It’s the Baptists’ annual visitation drive;’ even though that might possibly be true. He thinks, ‘Oh, it’s either JWs or Mormons.’

However, also true is that when I say ‘stole’ there is a sense in which I mean, ‘and we would like to have these things back.’ In most cases, anyway.

Finally, I need to say that this is reflective of the modern, internet-driven, modern Neo-Reformed or YRR (Young Restless & Reformed) movement of the past 20 years. This does not apply to members of more classical Reformed denominations such as the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) or Reformed Church of America (RCA), etc.

The Word “Gospel”

This one is a no-brainer. Think “The Gospel Coalition” or the “Together for the Gospel (T4G)” conferences. It is also increasingly used as an adjective. If you are part of the movement it is de rigueur that the term occur at least once per paragraph in your blog posts and if you get a book deal, it needs to be somewhere in the subtitle.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon

It only stands to reason that people in the movement are going to latch on to the compatible writing of some classic authors who are no longer with us. But the situation with Spurgeon is somewhat unique in that, like the word “gospel,” familiarity with Spurgeon’s writing is necessary for the modern Reformed equivalent of cocktail party conversation. If you’re doing a podcast with video, the 5-volume set of Spurgeon’s Sermons should be visible on your bookshelf, or better yet, a hand-bronzed seven-inch (18 cm) bust of the man available from the website missionware.com.

The ESV

When the ESV was released in 2001, most of us knew Crossway Publishing of Wheaton, Illinois as the foremost producer of evangelistic tracts, sold in packs of 25; or as the go-to source for Max Lucado’s children’s book about wemmicks, the popular You Are Special. But they had strong Reformed roots, publishing works by Martin Lloyd Jones and the ever-prolific John MacArthur. When the ESV emerged, with endorsements from John Piper, Wayne Grudem, R. C. Sproul and Kevin DeYoung, it was clear that this tribe had their Bible, and if you were quoting a scripture passage in your blog, or getting a book deal, this was the version to use. Of course, the signature product is the ESV Study Bible and in the notes, you do see the doctrinal bias. I noticed it especially in the Olivet Discourse in John, and I’m willing to concede that the ESV was never ours to begin with, and was always intended as a denominational translation for the modern Reformed movement.

The SBC

Many articles have appeared over the past decade either celebrating or lamenting the fact that in many churches in the Southern Baptist Convention, the modern Reformed doctrine has become the default doctrine. With some churches, this is nothing new, and we have a number of Baptist groups (going back to the 17th Century) who felt the need to designate themselves as Free Will Baptists, in contrast to the idea of divine election or predestination. If a person is going to conflate SBC churches with modern Reformed doctrine and also conflate SBC churches with the current conservative political movement, then one might jump to conclusions which, even in an article like this one, might be a bit over-the-top. I’ll leave that one to Barna Research.

The Word “Grace”

In a meeting of The Inklings, C. S. Lewis is said to have arrived late, and asked what was being discussed. Told it was, “what separates Christianity from other religions,” he supposedly answered, without taking a breath, “Oh that’s easy, it’s grace.” Grace was already a popular name for some CRC churches, and it is a central Christian concept, but like the word “gospel” it’s been highly subscribed to by the modern Reformers and the phrase “doctrines of grace” is used in reference to 5-point Calvinism, as outlined in the acronym TULIP. Asking someone if a church teaches “the doctrines of grace,” is the equivalent to the Pentecostal question as to whether a church is a “full gospel church.” (If people in this movement could register both “gospel’ and ‘grace’ as trademarks, I’m sure they would.)

“In Christ Alone”

Most of us who grew up in the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) movement were, if we had a knowledge of what was going on in the UK, aware of Stuart Townend who, like Graham Kendrick, was a major force there in what became modern worship, and particular what we now call “the modern hymns movement.” Stuart teamed up with Keith and Kristyn Getty to write what is undoubted the signature song in the genre, “In Christ Alone.” Most churches embraced the song on its initial release, with some quickly skating past the line, “the wrath of God was satisified;” even as in 2013 the PCUSA requested a lyric change (to “the love of God was magnified”) for its hymnal. The request was denied and the song doesn’t appear. Eventually, the Getty’s position in the movement was clarified by other writing and speaking and elsewhere the song is now bypassed in creating set lists for weekend services.

John Calvin

If you separate out the five doctrines of TULIP, and type ‘Did John Calvin believe in ______’ into a search engine, you get articles which clarify that the beliefs held by the 16th Century French theologian were quite different that the Neo-Reformed movement we find in 2021. Not only are the nuances of each unique, but he faced great criticism on other matters, such as his attitude toward the Jews. Some have been bold to suggest that Calvin would not identify with the modern movement which bears his name. Still, in the aforementioned hypothetical podcast, you’d also want a copy of his Institutes of the Christian Religion visible on the shelf. Which brings us to…

The Word “Reformed”

In the introduction, I mentioned groups such as the CRC or RCA, and where I live, the CRC congregation has a female pastor, whereas one need only spend a few minutes looking at the writing of John Piper to know that people in this movement are fiercely complementarian. I am confident in saying that I expect people in classical reformed denominations cringe when they hear the word used in reference to doctrines which simply don’t apply to them. (This does not eliminate the possibility that some people within the modern Reformed movement cringe when they read Piper’s writing or social media output.) While I’m thankful for the Protestant Reformation and Luther’s courage, there is no doubt that today, the word ‘reformed’ has taken on entirely new meaning which limits its broader use. 

That’s my list. If you think of anything else I should have included, let me know, or better yet, if you have stories of trying to connect with someone who has already been influenced by the movement’s particular use of certain forms or terminology, feel free to share.

 

May 20, 2021

The SBC’s Old Guard | The GOP’s Old Guard

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 12:14 pm

Forgive the generalizations today.

Living one country removed from all the action means you form certain opinions and stereotypes without physically interacting with the people concerned. It also means that news and current events are distilled to their basic essence. True, we can tap into the legacy U.S. networks just by turning on the television, and we can find hours and hours of recent broadcasts by the U.S. cable networks just by doing a quick search on YouTube, but I think that if Americans really want to know what their country is up to, they should see how they’re covered by the BBC (U.K), CBC (Canada) or ABC (Australia).

These days, when I hear about Republicans, I immediately think of Mitch McConnell. If I found myself seated next to him on an airplane, I would not ask to change seats; I would ask to change planes. To view him on my screen casually, matter-of-factly proclaiming that black is white is usually more than either my brain or my spirit can tolerate.

Or the guy who said that the January 6th ransacking of the U.S. Capitol building was just some families out for a walk in the park. Okay, Andrew Cylde didn’t say those exact words, but it’s not much different:

“Watching the TV footage of those who entered the Capitol and walked through Statuary Hall, showed people in an orderly fashion staying between the stanchions and ropes taking videos and pictures. If you didn’t know the TV footage was a video from Jan. 6, you would actually think it was a normal tourist visit,”

But later a picture surfaced showing him and others frantically trying to barricade the doors so rioters couldn’t enter. That’s the trouble with a lie, sooner or later you get caught.

I also get my U.S. religious news one country removed. Sure, the blog you’re reading right now has a 75% American readership and with American spellings and the use of words like freeway instead of the more common Canadian highway, I’ve blended in to the point many readers assume I’m writing from Dayton, or Sacramento, or Springfield (not that one, the other one); I still have stereotypes and caricatures of what the Evangelical landscape looks like when having those after-service conversations in the lobby (again lobby not foyer) and lunch at Cracker Barrel.

And in those terms, my mental image of Republican leaders ends up eerily similar to my mental drawing of Southern Baptist (SBC) leaders. I’m not saying that they would stand up and tell you that January 6th was just a walk in the park but rather … okay … that’s exactly what I’m telling you.

Their unwavering support for a recent leader of the free world, in spite of overwhelming evidence of a character that would disqualify the man from ever being hired by one of their churches, shows their willingness to disregard both facts and logic for the sake of … tell me again … what was it they chose to gain by backing him? Oh, right: Power.

[For those of you who disagree reading this by email, the unsubscribe prompt is at the bottom. I don’t mind at all.]

There have been and are still some exemplary SBC leaders. Billy Graham was a member of the party, er, denomination and so is Charles Stanley. But it’s others who make headlines and give Christianity a bad name, and wannabees of their ilk who pick all manner of fights on social media and constrain their subjects, er, parishioners with all manner of legalistic limitations.

And that’s the thing: I don’t understand how one actually does this. How do you look into the camera or stand up on the floor of the Senate Chamber or the House of Representatives and say things which your six-year-old grandchild would recognize as patently untrue?

I’m not saying that all Southern Baptists are Republicans or that all Republicans are Southern Baptists. From this perspective it simply appears that there are immense similarities — again in terms of the distilled images of America we see — that I would think a Jesus follower would want to distance themselves from; that a Christ follower would want to work tirelessly to compensate with extra doses of agape and hesed and shalom and charis and tov.

April 5, 2021

Mark Clark’s Follow-Up Book Equally Packed with Content

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 11:09 am

I think the greatest challenge I had with reviewing Mark Clark’s The Problem of God three years ago is that the book was simply so wide-ranging in its coverage of the apologetic waterfront. There is so much entailed in the advice to “always be ready to give an account,” and I so much want to own the material to be able to present it and properly articulate the content when asked that the prospect can be overwhelming.

And then there’s the sense in that book, along with the sequel, The Problem of Jesus that this is Mark’s own story and so he’s able to present responses to the “problems” because he’s worked them through in his own life, as opposed to those of us “older brothers” who grew up in the church and took everything as it was handed to us before we reached an age of potential internal skepticism.

I explained this in my first review,

Until his later teens, Clark was camped on the other side of the border of faith. Partying. Drugs. Disbelief. So he has those still there clearly in view as he writes this; these are the type of people who made up the nucleus of Village Church when it was founded in 2010.

The autobiographical elements are far from distracting, rather they serve an essential purpose, an underlying personal narrative connecting the philosophical threads.

There is a certain aspect to which the subjects in the two books overlap, like to proverbial Venn diagram. I would offer that he may not have had the second book in view when he penned the first, and wanted to cover a sufficient number of bases. Perhaps I’m wrong on this, but there’s a lot about Jesus in the first book, and a number of things about God in the second.

You don’t need to have read the first to start the sequel, and I’m quite happy to own both, which have a combined total of over 600 pages packed with content. To that end, there are 328 endnotes — I lead a dull life and so I counted them — reflecting a host of sources. (Remind me to look up Herman Bavinck, whose contributions were always insightful.) One reviewer offered that Clark “intertwines personal story, heavy scholarship, and winsome argument together.” I would add that the book is definitely accessible to the average reader of Christian non-fiction.

The Problem of Jesus: Answering a Skeptic’s Challenges to the Scandal of Jesus (Zondervan) covers nine different subject areas, but this time around a double chapter is given to each: The historical Jesus; the Gospels; discipleship; God’s loving nature; miracles; the stories Jesus told; the divinity of Jesus; his death; and his resurrection.

I love books like this, and so it gets my wholehearted recommendation. Take it for a test drive: We included an excerpt at Christianity 201 on the weekend, which you can read at this link.


 

Thanks as usual to Mark H. at HarperCollins Christian Publishing Canada for an opportunity to check out The Problem of Jesus.

February 25, 2021

Fantasy New Testament Lineup

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 10:46 am

People have fantasy football teams, so I thought I might be allowed to dream when it comes to the order of the books in the Second Testament of the Bible. And dream is a good word, since I started thinking about this a few nights ago when I couldn’t sleep.

At first it was just about the order of the gospel accounts. (What we have is called the Augustinian order.) I thought that opening with John would be good because of the symmetry of the “In the beginning…” language with Genesis. But then I started thinking of not running the gospels consecutively at all, but pairing them with other books that were related.

Then it got more complicated. Because Matthew was written to a Jewish audience, I thought that pairing Hebrews with it would be most appropriate; but I also considered that a new believer, reading in the order I first imagined, might find Hebrews a little complex.

Also pairing Luke and Acts seemed so obvious. At first. Then I thought about how I wanted to construct the lower part of the list, and reconsidered that.

So this is all subject to revision, but here’s an example of how it might look:

  1. John
  2. I John
  3. Philippians
  4. Mark
  5. Romans
  6. James
  7. Matthew
  8. Hebrews
  9. Galatians
  10. Jude
  11. Titus
  12. Luke
  13. I Peter
  14. Colossians
  15. Ephesians
  16. II John
  17. I Thessalonians
  18. II Peter
  19. III John
  20. Acts
  21. I Timothy
  22. II Thessalonians
  23. I Corinthians
  24. II Timothy
  25. II Corinthians
  26. Philemon
  27. Revelation

What do you think? What changes might you suggest?


Supplementary Reading:

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