Thinking Out Loud

September 19, 2022

When Celebrity Comes to Church

Review: Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits Are Hurting the Church by Katelyn Beaty (Brazos Press, 2022)

Katelyn Beaty is one of a number of writers who has been part of the Christianity Today (CT) orbit, as I was briefly, and generally speaking, I find that people who come out of that environment have a healthy and balanced perspective on issues facing the church, and are often granted access to information which provides for additional insights.

Celebrities for Jesus is very much (almost) equal parts

  • history lesson
  • analysis
  • memoir

As a (recent) history lesson, because of my involvement over the years with this blog and its attendant attention to Christian news stories, there was a sense in which Katelyn and I had much of the same information. As soon as she stated something, my brain would signal ‘Yes, but you really need to mention ___________,’ only to find her doing so in the very next sentence.

My wife reminded me that not everyone has the same knowledge. While it’s true that some of the stories she covers in this book were part of Jesus and John Wayne by Kristen Kobes Du Mez and A Church Called TOV by Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer (which we reviewed here and here respectively) there was coverage of situations and people that were beyond the scope of both books, and at least one name that caught me off guard given the context.

Generally speaking, the context was American, which left me wondering as to the preponderance of superstar pastors in other places. (We do hear occasional stories from South America and Africa; but these were not mentioned.) Is the case of Christian celebrity somewhat unique to the United States?

This brings us to the next part, analysis. This is where I felt the book shines the brightest, especially when the author compared the present state of Christianity to its Biblical ideals.

We do fall short in various ways. Our willingness to confer celebrity shows a flaw in our character, long before the man or woman in question has a misstep. Our stories are looking for heroes.

In each chapter, I never questioned Beaty’s qualifications to offer us some of her perspective. My only wish is that she had explored some of these things further and deeper, which would have resulted in a welcomed longer book.

Finally, there was memoir. On page 158, speaking about the high rates of deconstruction and “faith detox” among her peers, “I sometimes wonder why I am still a Christian.”

That could be said about so many that work or have worked at CT or similar environments such as Religion News Service or Relevant, and get to see the spectacular crashes of individuals and ministry organizations close-up.

And yet, she celebrates that something “about that early faith… that could blossom into an orientation that could withstand doubt, the loss of dreams and cultural pressures.” Absent the more progressive identification of an author such as the late Rachel Held Evans, she still shares that honest vulnerability as she’s wrestled with all she has seen and heard.

Celebrities for Jesus covers its topic well. I even wonder if this needs to be required reading for those younger leaders whose desire to do something great might materialize more about building their kingdom instead of God’s kingdom?

It might have helped a few people not trip up.


Celebrities for Jesus is published by Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, for which its author is also employed. A review copy was made available through publisher representative Graf-Martin Communications who provide publicity, marketing and brand development for clients from their base in Elmira, Ontario, Canada.

August 18, 2022

Skye Jethani Adds 3rd Title to “Serious” Series

Book Review: What if Jesus Was Serious About the Church?: A Visual Guide to Becoming the Community Jesus Intended (Moody Publishers, 2022)

Two years ago I was able to review the first book in what we now know has become a series, What if Jesus Was Serious? At the time, I mentioned that the use of “napkin doodles” therein was foreshadowed in one of Skye Jethani’s older books, With. I was unable to get a review copy of the follow-up, What if Jesus Was Serious About Prayer? but when the subject-at-hand for the third book was the modern church, I knew I wanted in, and despite the publisher’s great reluctance to grant review copies, was able to request one.

The reason I wanted to own this one in my personal collection is because this is a theme on which Skye is most outspoken when talking to Phil Vischer or interviewing guests weekly on The Holy Post Podcast. As a former pastor himself, and a former writer for over a decade with Christianity Today, Skye is able to articulate the challenges faced by the capital “C” Church worldwide, the small “c” church locally, and those whose vocational employment is church-related.

The podcast for which he is quite well known fails (in my view) in one respect, in that it is far too American-oriented. If you’re reading this review in the UK, or Australia, or Canada, and you’ve sensed that as well, you’ll be happy to know that the book casts a wider perspective beyond the U.S. I promise you’ll only roll your eyes once or twice.

So for those who need to play catch-up, as with the first two books, this one consists of short — never more than four page — chapters, each of which commences with a little drawing which might be a chart, or a diagram, or a cartoon, or a meme. It’s hard to describe them. Hence the reference to “napkin doodles.” The thing you would draw on a napkin (or blank paper place-mat) in a coffee shop when trying to explain an idea. (Again, the book With is must-reading to see how the concept evolved.)

This one has 51 such chapters, grouped in five sections; The Family Reunion, The Family Meal, The Family Gathering, The Family Business, and The Family Servants.

I immediately shared the second part with my wife. I find that I can never read enough about the Eucharist, Last Supper, or Communion Service, and our need to keep its centrality in the modern worship service. It and the third part, about the manner in which we worship are the longest two groupings in the book and include subjects that are important to the author.

Skye Jethani is so forthright and authoritative on these subjects, and I feel he is a voice that everyone in Evangelicalism needs to be hearing.

Because I tend to gush about the books I review — I choose them and don’t get books sent automatically — I do have a couple of criticisms. One is that for those who obsess over page counts, the 232 pages in this one include about 45 which are essentially blank. That’s a product of the way the book is formatted, and in balance, one needs to also consider this digest-sized paperback uses color process throughout.

The other thing was the ending. For me, there wasn’t one. The 51st article ended abruptly, which I expected given the concision that Skye employs throughout. But then I turned the page looking for a conclusion; something that would tie everything altogether, and there wasn’t one. No closing statement. Perhaps, as with the podcast for which he is known, there is a bonus chapter only available to Patreon supporters.

Those complaints aside, I encourage you to consider this. It’s fairly quick reading, and if you or someone in your family is employed in ministry, it contains a number of great conversation starters. If you simply care about where modern Evangelicalism is headed, it contains even more topics to provoke discussion.

June 22, 2022

Understanding Our Diminishing Attention Span

A mini-review of Stolen Focus by Johann Hari

It wasn’t even my copy of the book. And my intention was to just read the first few chapters. But I was hooked. In a world where people have trouble concentrating, the author certainly had my attention.

For regular readers here, this isn’t my usual type of review, which normally concerns books in national release by Christian publishers. Nobody received a review copy, and I don’t have to write this at all. But I feel compelled to recommend this title to anyone who interacts with technology to any degree — hint: you’re reading this on my blog — or anyone who has children, or anyone who simply breathes the air on planet Earth.

Why can’t we pay attention? Why does our mind seem to wander more than it once did? Why does the world suddenly seem filled with a million distractions? I haven’t done a whole lot of reading this on this topic, but my suspicion is that Stolen Focus has got to be one of the more comprehensive books on the subject.

Not content to do phone interviews, Johann Hari spends as much as half the year traveling the world doing research, spending time with the top experts in various branches of education, psychology, the environment, and many other disciplines. (Audio of those interviews is available on a related website.)

There are so many things we could do to re-order our lifestyle to mitigate against where technology has taken us, but ultimately, at the end of the book, he names three. (Sorry, no spoilers.) And no, the problem isn’t Facebook; at least the problem isn’t just Facebook; but when it comes to putting your money where your mouth is, the author does just that, shutting himself off entirely from the internet for three months. The experience changes him dramatically.

That ‘field trip’ also makes the book so much more engaging, as it’s as much about the author’s personal journey with this subject as it is a thoroughly-researched piece of journalism.

Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention and How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari is available in North America in 344-page hardcover from Crown Publishing.

For regular readers here, I suspect there might be some overlap between this book and a Christian title I really wanted to review but simply couldn’t arrange: The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer. Other recommended Christian books along these lines include The Truth About Us by Brant Hansen, and Your Future Self Will Thank You by Drew Dyck.

June 1, 2022

Guys: The Book We Need

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:36 am

A Review of The Men We Need by Brant Hansen

Only once or twice a year do I receive books unsolicited, and this is one I specifically asked for and wanted to share with my sons and have as part of my personal library. This is also the fourth time (see below) I’ve reviewed one of Brant Hansen’s four books. Am I a little biased toward this writer? Absolutely. A little greedy to ask for a fourth review copy by the same author? No doubt.

By writing The Men We Need: God’s Purpose for the Manly Man, the Avid Indoorsman, or Any Man Willing to Show Up (Baker Books, 2022), one could argue that Brant has limited his potential audience by 50%, but he states early on that this is a book that women might find beneficial as well. (I’m reminded that the first time I picked up a copy of The Five Love Languages, I thought it was a book about the expectations of my spouse, only to find it’s more about my own expectations. Sometimes books work in reverse!)

One woman noted in her review, “As a woman, this book has caused me to more fully notice and appreciate when the men in my life are living this out.” Furthermore, to state the obvious, many women are raising sons. If Dobson can write Bringing Up Boys, you could read this as ‘Bringing up Men.’

The book is arranged around six ‘decisions’ or what I would say are ‘determinations’ men need to make. In each section there are four to six very short chapters — this was written for guys after all, and guys usually lose their focus after three to five pages — which relate to the broader topic. Honestly, though; I didn’t see the organization of the book that way. I simply enjoyed each short chapter as a stand-alone, and thought that some offered prescriptions that were every bit as weighty as the six key statements which were singled out.

Part of the appeal of this book is its inclusivity of people who aren’t the typical, macho men. The type of person who fears a paper cut if they read one of John Eldredge’s titles. But just because Hansen describes himself as a flute player who was the head of his state’s high school library association doesn’t mean this is a book for wimps.

That myth is shattered somewhat in his descriptions of projects he has carried out overseas as part of his work with CURE, a medical mission; or taking church youth groups to build houses in Mexico. The guy who was scouted by the NFL in high school and never drives anything other than his Ford F150 (always black, always wearing a baseball cap) is not going think the book has nothing to speak to his life and situation.

Brant goes out of his way to include single guys. The whole tone of the book is similar to the book of Proverbs; something you might want to give as a graduation present for either high school or college. But there are great insights for married men here, not to mention married with children. While we’re making gift suggestions, this would be a great Father’s Day gift.

Like his others, this book is conversational in style, and points toward a God who is equally relatable; a God who has given us the keys to the garden and told us, ‘Take good care of the place.’ Whatever your personal garden you’ll find points of resonance here.

 


January, 2017 — Review of Unoffendable
November, 2017 – Review of Blessed are the Misfits
April, 2020 – Review of The Truth About Us

Link to BrantHansen.com

Link to book’s page at Baker Books

Thanks to Graf-Martin, a Canadian publicity agency who handle, among other things, promotion and publicity for Baker Books in Canada, for a review copy of this great resource.

April 7, 2022

Lessons (Hopefully) Learned from Willow Creek and Harvest Bible Chapel

Living in what the people of Chicagoland call “the northwest suburbs” theologian Scot McKnight and his daughter, teacher Laura Barringer had a front row seat when things began unraveling at Harvest Bible Chapel and Willow Creek Community Church, and furthermore were acquainted with many of the people who became a part of our daily Twitter and blog feeds about both stories.

For this writer, the allegations about James MacDonald were hardly surprising, but I was more deeply invested in Bill Hybels, so there I found the greatest shock and disappointment. That the actions of these leaders were both shielded from the parishioners and the general public, and/or softened for public consumption meant that other leaders were culpable as the accusations intensified.

As I pointed out in this article, by the end of 2020, the damage done to the lives and legacies of various church leaders — not just pastors — was devastating and in no way limited to Harvest and Willow. So in writing A Church Called TOV: Forming a Goodness Culture that Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing (Tyndale House, 2020) McKnight and Barringer were not afraid to name names.

This serves as an example of the truth and transparency that they see as just one of the seven marks of what they call “the circle of TOV,” which ought to be a mantra for every church wishing to have a healthy internal governance culture. Before getting there however, the first 80-or-so pages define the problem, and only then do they embark on what I consider the redemptive properties of the book, though they do not, by any means leave the naming of names behind, but continue to address situations that are relevant to each of the seven healthy characteristics they are defining.

It is at that point that some more positive anecdotal content is presented, including some very moving accounts from the late Calvin Miller. And the scriptures. In some chapters, especially the scriptures. (I ran a very brief excerpt from the book at Christianity 201 a few days ago as an example.)

If you get a copy, you need to copy and print an enlargement of their “circle of TOV” and hang it in whatever room your church board/elders meets. It should guide every aspect of the decision-making processes.

So why review a 2020 book now? In publishing marketing and publicity, this isn’t done, but reading Jesus and John Wayne (reviewed here) and The Making of Biblical Womanhood (briefly reviewed here), I simply had to include this one in my personal reading, especially knowing how much it has impacted many church leaders since its release.

(Unfortunately, Tyndale House doesn’t have representation in Canada, so I had to use a borrowed copy, but by mentioning the book here and now for my U.S. readers, I am trying to practice in this situation my own culture of grace and goodness.)

The book also begs the question, ‘Should megachurches even exist?’ Or to say it differently, ‘Was the modern megachurch ever part of God’s plan?” If you’re reading this, and in the middle of a search for a church home (a new church, or you’re looking for the first time) I would strongly suggest looking at churches with 200-500 in attendance (or 100-300 in Canada) as your best options.

With the passage of time since the book’s release, our emphasis now, rather than focusing on what went wrong, should be to look to the future with a vision of local church communities which promote the good, just as God, when he saw all that he had made, said that it was very good.

 

March 31, 2022

Patriarchy’s Historical Roots

I originally thought that The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr was a book that needed to be read either in tandem or serially with Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes DuMez. I’m now of the opinion that at least the first third of A Church Called Tov by Scott McKnight and Laura Barringer should be thrown into the mix.

So I hope you don’t mind if I discuss the book in comparative terms with the other which I reviewed here about a month ago.

It took me a long time to finish this — I read J&JW in the middle of the process — and also due to various interruptions, and complicated by the fact that due to certain deficiencies in my high school education, I have problems processing things related to history. (It’s a long story.) Beth Allison Barr is a historian, and she takes a historical approach, not a theological approach. Her concern with today’s popular patriarchy, which is best expressed by organizations such as the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), is understanding how we got to this place, something that she contends did not happen overnight, though its meteoric rise to a default doctrine in Evangelicalism is relatively recent.

I’m continuously drawn back to a quotation I can no longer source where it was said that the purveyors and propagators of today’s patriarchal culture, and the pastors and authors which helped promote it, these people never dreamed they would be the object of historical or sociological study, they never imagined that they would be the focus of academic or scholarly research. They never expected their motivation and actions to be dissected and analyzed. They didn’t foresee books like TMBW and J&JW becoming part of the conversation.

Barr’s book goes back much further than DuMez’ however, back into medieval Times, to show both that some of this thinking did not emerge yesterday, and yet at the same time to show that historically women have occupied a much larger and more active place in the history of Christianity. In the most general sense, the current situation does not have strong historical precedent, even if there are glimpses of that attitude.

Beth Allison Barr also makes this story personal, inserting places where studying the historical timeline has intersected her own story. It genuinely puts a face on what might otherwise be a dry academic research paper. It matters. It matters to her. It matters to the women who have been completely marginalized by patriarchy in the church, and more than a few men who have suffered trying to defend them.

Because I’m late getting to this review, I’ll keep it short, except to reiterate that I really think it and J&JW really do need to be read together, perhaps along with others that are yet to be written, as those of us with a different understanding of scripture try to compassionately and gracefully put an end to misogyny within the church, including conditions with which many of us were raised.


The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth by Beth Allison Barr (Brazos Press, 2020, paperback 2021); page at Baker Publishing Group.

February 28, 2022

You Say You Want a Revolution

Review: The Jesus Revolution: How God Transformed an Unlikely Generation and How He Can Do It Again Today by Greg Laurie and Ellen Vaughn (Baker Books, 2018)

You know you’re getting older when the people, places and events which were part of your spiritual formation become the object of historical retrospectives. Having watched The Jesus Music movie before Christmas, and then recently completed Jesus and John Wayne, it seemed fitting that the next book in my stack was The Jesus Revolution which actually isn’t a new book, but was released four years ago before inspiring a curriculum study exactly one year ago. I guess it completed a trilogy of reminiscence.

I spent a few blocks of time in southern California between 1979 and 1988 and was privileged to have access to some of the major creators of what, by that time, was becoming less known as Jesus Music and more known as Contemporary Christian Music or CCM. (I was once interviewed for the job of Assistant Editor for the magazine of the same name. When you’re from Canada in the early 1980s, you should never agree to a lunch interview in a Mexican restaurant.)

This book is really three things. First it’s the story of what was going on the world, especially the United States, in the 1960s and ’70s. There is much detail provided, and at times I wondered how much was truly necessary to the two other elements of the book named below, but for those who didn’t live it, it does provide a broad picture of the cultural and political climate that shaped teens and twenty-somethings growing up in those years.

Second, and more importantly, it’s the story of The Jesus People, albeit the American, Southern California version as similar cultural forces were transpiring in the UK as well as other parts of the U.S. Orange County, California was indeed the epicenter; ground zero of a movement that the author places in a line of revivals in American church history going back to the 1800s,

Finally, it is the story of Greg Laurie, the evangelist and founder of Harvest Church in Riverside, California, which begat the Harvest Crusades. With two authors carrying this story, I wondered if it would work, but the two voices speaking this story seem to weave in and out seamlessly. If the book’s subtitle implies that God used “an unlikely generation,” then certainly he used “an unlikely candidate” to reach a literally untold number of people with a straight forward evangelistic challenge.

The story is set in the past, but with the perspective of today’s developments and hindsight. The current spiritual and cultural climate break in to the story at odd times to wake the reader to the impact today of what happened then. To that end, the book is somewhat didactic when appropriate such as in this instance toward the end of the book,

God grants revival. He grants it to those who are humble enough to know they need it, those who have a certain desperate hunger for Him. Only out of self-despair — a helpless understanding of the reality of sin and one’s absolute inability to cure it — does anyone ever turn wholeheartedly to God. That desperation is sometimes hard to come by in American, because it is the opposite of self-sufficiency. In the U.S., many of live under the illusion that our needs are already met, that maybe God is an add-on to our already comfortable existence… People don’t seek God when they are comfortable. (pp 232-3)

I love that analysis and the observation that those long-haired hippies were desperate for God. This is key to the book’s short epilogue, which questions as to whether we will see a youth movement like the Jesus Revolution again.

One can surely hope.


Harvest Church continues to this day and is in no way related to Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago.

 

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 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.

 

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.

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