POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

WALL-E Review

 

Every now again I go out on a date with two ladies instead of one.  Yesterday I had the privilege to have Kayla (almost 7) and Kylene (4.5) with me on each arm for a fun, but expensive, time at the movies.  Apart from the amount of money that movies, drinks and popcorn bleed out of a father's wallet we had a delightful time with a little robot named WALL*E.  To be quite honest we usually enjoy the Pixar fare and this film did not disappoint.  In fact, without being preachy, it explored some very interesting facets of being a human being on planet earth; quite surprising for a computer animated eye feast taking place for the most part in the far reaches of space.

Plot Summary  (Warning - spoiler here)

The film begins with a desolate earth cityscape which for some strange reason reminded me of the abandoned Manhattan of the recent I AM LEGEND flick.  This futuristic world is overrun with garbage with the human beings long gone and apparently did not do a good job with waste management.  What the humans did do before  launching off into space on a luxury cruise liner was leave robots with the acronym WALL*E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class) on the ground to compact and take out the trash.  After 700 years one of the bots was still ticking and pursuing his objective of making small cubes of trash and stacking them in an orderly fashion.  Having such a long time for the job this last little WALL*E has literally made sky-scrapers of the mountains of trash. His best friend is a little cock roach named who I believe is named HAL.  Their friendship was quite funny.

During our last days on earth a large corporation has taken over (with the ironic name "Big and Large") and sought to satisfy every consumer delight we could ever imagine.  The end game of all this consumption was a trashed planet earth and an escape to a luxury cruise ship in space known as the "Axiom" while WALL*Es work to de-trash the wasted planet.  On the Axiom human life is reduced to lounging on floating couches, eating shakes flavored like all sorts of foods and being idiotized by holographic TV screens all day long.  The human beings have been reduced to a vegetative like state where humans loose their bone density and get enormously chunky. 

Every so often the Axiom sends out EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) modules to see if new life can be found on the earth.  Apparently all the EVEs always came back empty as the Axiomites seem to have no hope of earth's rejuvenation.  However, WALL*E has found a little seedling growing in the tarnished terra nova of the trashed earth.  Interestingly, WALL*E falls for EVE and they have a nice little budding friendship when he gives her the plant as a gift.  At this point she grabs it, places it in her belly and goes into sleep mode.  To make a long story short, the probe ship returns, grabs EVE and WALL*E hitches a ride through the cosmos back to the AXIOM.

On the AXIOM the two rouge robots work with the humans to re-grasp hope and purpose in order to head back to earth as stewards to re-populate the earth.  Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth...rule over it and subdue - Part 2 if you will.  This time as stewards of the land rather than rapers thereof. 

I found the story fun and compelling and a bit surprising.  Rather than being a space age sci-fi flick it is a very human and earthy affair dealing with interesting philosophical issues - much like the new Battlestar Gallactica...yet rated G.  In what follows is a few of the things we enjoyed following the little square through the galaxies. 

Bright Points in WALL*E

Critique of Lazy Consumption

In the story human beings sink to quite a low.  Instead of Homo Sapiens (thinking beings) the human beings in WALL*E have been Homo Consumptorus, creatures that take in and produce trash without regard for the planet. Additionally, they love being pampered in five star luxury so much that not a one of them works or thinks or learns.  They are simply lobotomized by service robots doing everything for them and constant blathering media numbing their minds.  Now it is a bit ironic to get this message at "a movie" but it comes through powerfully nonetheless. 

Hard work, moderation, learning and relationships with human beings are put forth as a remedy to laziness, excess, passive minds and individual isolation.  I was refreshed by this and found my kids very teachable - I now have a new illustration to use when I joke around with them about their minds turning to mush from watching too many cartoons.  We are not Luddites in our family, nor do we avoid all media, but we do want to read, think, pray and worship as a family and not become people on floating Axiom lounge chairs.  Kayla and Ky got a kick out of getting that message from a place other than Dad - thank you Pixar.

When things start to change, the captain of the Axiom chooses active learning over lounging around and discovers that the earth and all that is there is quite glorious, full of a wonder and majesty.  He realizes he needs to get back and get to work - to learn and live rather than survive in a robot pampered "paradise."

Creation Stewardship, Not Creation Worship

If you miss the environmental message of this movie you are simple asleep or perhaps have been on the Axiom too long yourself.  WALL*E is mercilessly green in its message but surprising at the same time.  Most green visions are political and preachy and can at times make a god out of mother nature.  Additionally, some green ideas teach that human beings are not special in nature and are just a part of the big biosphere like barnacles and bacteria.  You will not find such fare in WALL*E.  In this vision both humans and creation have their place and the view here is quite biblical. 

In Scripture human beings are called by God to rule and care for the created order; it has been made for them and they are to be good stewards of the earth.  There is a fascinating scene in WALL*E when the captain of the Axiom holds the little seedling and says - you are going to be alright fella, you just needed someone to take care of you.  It is obvious that he means the earth as well as the little green sprig before him.  In this film, Humans are specially called to care for the earth - this view is not consistent in worldviews which do not have man as a special creation of God.

One other facet of WALL*E I found very interesting.  In most stories involving a post apocalyptic earth and humans escaping to the stars the idea is to flee from earth and find a new home among the galaxies.  In this film, earth was and remains the home for human life - our station in space is only temporary - we need the earth to survive.  I thought it was a nice touch to see humans go home rather than leave it.  The credits even show a "new history" unfold after the Axiom returns - quite creative.  

Existential Struggles

So much of secular modern discourse explains all of life in terms of "survival." Why do we do what we do?  So our genes will pass on and we will survive as a species!  We have to evolve, we are just a part of nature, we will do anything to live and mate just to do that over and over and over again.  It is no wonder why human beings find such "truth" to be unlivable.  All manner of thinkers have desired to avoid the conclusion of secular/non theistic thought. 

The atheist attempts to be brave and bold in the embrace of the empty meaninglessness of life.  The new atheists try to be brave, bold and rude - isn't that special. The existentialists looked at nihilism - that life has no ultimate meaning - and said "we will irrationally choose to create our own meaning in the act of choosing" - those wild and crazy guys. 

Yet there is another view of life - that of LIVING and not just surviving.  That of seeing that life has ultimate meaning and value rather than trying to create it on our own.  In WALL*E there is a line, I think it was from the Captain, that lights up the dark night.  The robots want to keep the humans from going back to earth in the name of "survival" and the captain shouts out "I don’t want to survive I want to live."  I think humans will always feel this way.  There is a greater search in life than merely keeping a float the existence and propagation of human DNA. Long ago Blaise Pascal wrestled with the dilemma we faces before an immense universe.

I see the terrifying immensity of the universe which surrounds me, and find myself limited to one corner of this vast expanse, without knowing why I am set down here rather than elsewhere, nor why the brief period appointed for my life is assigned to me at this moment rather than another in all the eternity that has gone before and will come after me. On all sides I behold nothing but infinity, in which I am a mere atom, a mere passing shadow that returns no more. All I know is that Imust soon die, but what I understand least of all is this very death which I cannot escape.As I know not whence I come, so I know not whither I go. I only know that on leaving this world I fall for ever into nothingness or into the hands of a wrathful God, without knowing to which of these two states I shall be everlastingly consigned. Such is my condition, full of weakness and uncertainty. From all this I conclude that I ought to spend every day of my life without seeking to know my fate. I might perhaps be able to find a solution to my doubts; but I cannot be bothered to do so, I will not take one step towards its discovery.

The captain of the Axiom found the search worthwhile and overturned the robots and turned the ship towards earth.  Indeed, the soul itself longs for LIFE and a home...and is restless until it finds it. Two voices from our past come to mind.

Thou movest us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee?  - Augustine's Confessions

I came that they may have life and have it abundantly - Jesus, The Gospel of John chapter 10

Love and Relationship a New Directive

Finally, I enjoyed the humanity of the robots in WALL*E.  These robots were personified yet not turned into humans.  They took on human traits to teach us about being human, they were not in the universe to replace us as is common in other robot fare.  Each robot has a "directive" a purpose for which it was made.  The robot does what it was made to do and nothing else - yet there is an interesting aspect that peeks out in the film.  The directive that ends up over-riding all others was that of love and friendship. 

Some may wonder why yet another film is put forth with a future where God and religion are simply not present.  Many times sci-fi writers present a godless future because this is their hope and expectation - that worship will some day be quenched like a flickering flame.  I get frustrated at how often the futures presented by Hollywood have no mention of spiritual life and reality.  Some may be tempted to see WALL*E as another such film.  I did not see this one that way - just as in the biblical book of Esther, where God is not named, his fingerprints seemed evident to me in this story.  Whether people would acknowledge it or not, I found the worldview of WALL*E to be quite biblical...I don't know that its hopes, its stewardship, its low and high view of humanity could be found anywhere else.

I liked WALL*E and I liked WALL*E the little robot - he is funny, he is cute, he is caring, he is daring, he is hopeful and he loved what is good...I think we all could use a little more of him in each of us - perhaps this was the hope of the minds behind the film.  In reality, all echoes of goodness must find their source and such is not in social contracts, the will of men or our DNA.  There is no one good but God and we are but mere reflections of that image - we are capable of Axiom-like existences or seeing redemption come to us from the working power of God.

Thankfully our redemption comes through the incarnate God, Jesus Christ, not a cute little robot. Yet that little robot reminded me of important truth - we do need a Savior and he has appeared and calls us forward today.  To be good stewards of creation, to love him and our neighbors and to live his mission right here on the earth.  His mission is different than the savior cruise ship - he is the ark that saves us and brings us the hope of a Kingdom without death, disease, dying or being over run by trash.  His future for us begins today and will be consummated in eternity.  He does more than bring us back to earth - he forgives sinners by grace through the work of Jesus on the cross and then brings them to an eternal home with a new heavens and new earth.  Such is a blessed hope beyond what is found at the Movies.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away."
Revelation 21:1-4 ESV
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Walking from East to West - God in the Shadows

 
by Ravi Zacharias, Zondervan, 2006. 

I just finished listening to the unabridged audio of Ravi Zacharias' autobiography Walking from East to West. I have recently enjoyed listening to audio books in the car as well as when running around the neighborhood to stay in somewhat decent shape.  The Zacharias book was a special read for me as his ministry has been so important to my life and faith. There are a few people who have marked me through their writings and teaching - Zacharias is a looming figure in my growth as a man.

I first delved into all things Ravi when on staff with Athletes in Action as I devoured cassette tapes (for those unfamiliar with this ancient technology - see here) of his teaching and lectures which are rightly described as biblical preaching under girded by philosophical apologetics. I felt like I knew Ravi from listening to so much of his preaching.  After reading this autobiography I was very moved by God's work in this man's life over the years.  In this review I want to highlight the strengths of this book, one small drawback and then make a recommendation. 

Strengths 

One thing I enjoyed about this book was that it focused on Ravi's early years in India. He speaks candidly about his family,  his struggles as a teenager and the budding days of his conversion on a bed of suicide.  Additionally, hearing how God used him as a young man in India was a story that reignited some of my own passions to be used in the master's hands. A huge bonus of reading this work (listening?) was the audio book experience.  For one, Ravi did the reading of his own autobiography which adds a bit of emotional contour to the work.  If you have not heard Ravi speak, let me just say he is as good as any voice talent you could hire to read an audio book.  The reading was authentic and real due to this feature.  Finally, Ravi's humility and Christ centered focus rang out from the book - he just seems like the real deal.  Years ago I listened to some of his teaching out of 2 Cor 4 entitled - Three severe tests for authentic ministry.  That message has marked my own ethos as one called to gospel ministry.  From this book I now see that the man has lived this message for some time.

I also enjoyed Ravi telling stories of meeting some of his heroes - particularly the meeting of Malcom Muggeridge.  I could see how much it meant to him to meet those who had stimulated his own thinking.  Though I am very much against the making of Christian celebrities, in some way I felt similar feelings when I met Ravi ever so briefly in Blacksburg, VA this past October.  Additionally hearing him speak of the meeting of his wife, the children raised in their home and the companions he has traveled life with was a human element to the story.  He also shares his struggles of trying to lead an organization when his passion was writing and preaching.  He acknowledges that he should have put more time into the organization in the early days - perhaps turning that portion of the work over to others.  It seems this has been accomplished now but brought much stress and tension to him in prior years.

Finally, the stories told in this book are simply fascinating to hear. Ravi's youth speaking tour as a young man in India, his evangelistic tour in Vietnam during the war, his global jaunt in which he preached over 500 times in one year are amazing and testimonies to a singular passion to preach Christ and him crucified.  Not everyone will have such adventures and global reach.  Indeed, very few people's lives will straddle both eastern and western cultures as Ravi has.  Perhaps this is why he has been such a unique minister of the gospel.  Born in India, immigrated to the West and now calling both cultures to the gospel of Christ.  Unique is the appropriate word which readily comes to mind.

Drawbacks

There is one major drawback to the book which was done intentionally by the publisher.  In order to tell the story of his life, the decision was made to not clutter the book with rigorous philosophical or theological discussion. This made the biography short and sweet without any reader being encumbered by high minded discourse.  Unfortunately, many who have enjoyed Ravi's work, enjoy precisely the thing that was left out of this book. I used to love listening to him and having to get a dictionary afterward and search out a concept for further study. It seems several of Ravi's recent books have been marketed to the main stream church folk culture and thus lacking serious rigor.  I think this is unfortunate and perhaps is a choice publishers are making to sell books.  Much of Ravi's ministry has been spent of late in eastern settings, preaching and teaching in lands far away. I thank God for this.  Yet something was left out of this biography - some of his ministry on campuses in the United State.  It would have been fun to hear more of that.

Conclusion

Overall, the person most honored in this story is the creator God.  It is clear that Ravi told his story in order to tell the story of another.  One who once spoke words of life to a questioner named Thomas...the doubter.  Ravi's life was marked by the same words "because I live, you will live also." It was this call of God to a young man that set a passion and purpose about in his life.  A passion which led him to reach out to the skeptic, the thinker, the societal influencers in places all over our globe.  Ravi has set out to reach out to "happy pagans" - those who feel no need of God.  He has questioned the questioners and preached to such audiences for almost four decades, His story is worthy of your time - and I recommend getting the audio edition for the read. 

More information about Ravi Zacharias and the ministry that bears his name may be found online at www.rzim.org. 

 

Sailing the Wine Dark Sea - Why the Greeks Matter - A Mini Review

Thomas Cahil, Sailing the Wine Dark Sea - Why the Greeks Matter, Audio book narrated by John Lee, Books on Tape 2003. Also available in hardback and paperback.

I just finished another installment of Thomas Cahil's Hinges of History series of books chronicaling the sources and influences of western culture.  As with the Mysterious Middle Ages, I thouroughly enjoyed Cahil's work Sailing the Wine Dark Sea. Any student of the classical sources would find great enjoyment in Cahil's work; though it must be said that these works are not intending to trod new ground.  What I have most enjoyed is that Cahil seems to be achieving his goals with these works.  Rather than simply recount literature and ideas his goal has been to make the people of history speak to us once again; in this volume I heard the echoes of the ancients who ruled the Mediterranean and beyond.

In this review I want to highlight some things I enjoyed from the work and then comment briefly on a few glaring drawbacks to this work.  I want to note that I read Cahil more as one interested in the history of ideas and cultures rather than a critique of his work as a classicist.  I will leave that to others who share that field. On to the some highlights.

Highlights

Any history of ancient times, people and places has the great risk to be profoundly boring and the opportunity to launch a new adventure for the mind of the reader.  Cahil's treatment of the Greeks was certainly the latter. His discussion of the epic stories of the Illiad and the Odessey brought renewed fascination for me of wars in Troy and wanderings with gods and men.  For those unfamiliar with these epic poems Cahil will be a great introduction. Additionally at every phase of the work, whether art, politics, science. medicine or philosophy Cahil traces developments historically.  This adds a great bit of perspective to the work which I highly appreciated.

The book begins with the two great poems of Homer and structures two chapters treating these works.  The Iliad Cahil treats the great warrior culture that emerged from Greece and indeed has populated much of western thought and politics ever sense. Second the romance and longing for home is treated by looking at the plight of Odysseus. As mentioned before, if anything these chapters introduce these poems to a new generation.  Yet they also bring some reflection on the western war machine and the desire for love, peace and home.  Always relevant in a world of depravity where conflict and love both clamor for the soul.

Perhaps the most enjoyable part of work for me was the treatment of philosophy.  Comprised of two Greek words phileo (love) and sophia (wisdom), western philosophical reflection found deep percolation in the minds of the Greeks.  Cahil's treatment is brief but thoroughly traces thought through the pre-Socratics, to the looming figure of Plato's Socrates, the ideas of Plato himself and his greatest student Aristotle who would one day be known in medieval Europe merely as "the philosopher." A friend once said to me "philosophy is flashy, but theology nourishes the soul" - I confess this to be true.  The wrestling of the Greeks with the nature of everything is a contagious pursuit in the West. I too find the art of questioning to be a pleasurable pursuit.  Yet when philosophy does not meet its proper object - reflection can only go awry.  Thinking and meditation with God and after God is fruitful indeed. Speculation and pondering as aimless wandering apes has lead only to postmodern uncertainty and deplorable despair.  Yet anyone who wants to reason well can learn much from our Greek friends.  In fact, I did some small work tonight with my six year old which was first formalized by Aristotle.  Indeed, the Greeks matter. (For those interested we discussed these laws: A is, A=A, A or nonA=True, A and nonA=False)

Finally, the treatment of the politics of Athens, the lure of ancient Democracy is a subject of reflection in Cahil's work.  Again, if you are not familiar with Pericle's funeral speech in which he speaks of his beloved city, the audio reading of this by John Lee was worth the price of this audio book for me. The Athenians worshiped many idols in their ancient city, but none greater than the idea of their city itself.

Lowlights

Cahil's book also had some shocking weaknesses which almost ruined the book for me.  One chapter is subtitled "How to Party" - indeed a lesson we learn from the Greeks but one presented by Cahil in brash and at times lewd form. In treating the proclivities of the Greeks it is expected that wine, sexuality and song should be a part of the story, but how that story is told can bring unfortunate baseness.  Cahil chooses some profane language to interact with the Greeks, dropping the f-bomb on several occasions. In one instance he was perhaps attempting to be true to the translating a poem by using the meaning of the modern f-word, yet at times it appeared almost as if he wanted to shock sensibilities. Certainly the Greek attitude about sex would on its face offend many today.  Yet in whatever the case, the language was offensive and in my opinion highly unnecessary.  Additionally the treatment of pederasty occupied too much space and was presented as a cultural norm without any harsh criticism from Cahil. The discussion of the sexual escapades and drunken debauchery may be too much for some who take up this book. Readers be strongly warned - this was a major drawback for me.

Conclusion 

In reading Sailing the Wine Dark Sea I again was taken deep into the heart of a people which lay in the past of western culture.  I learned much, enjoyed Cahil's historical writing and engaging prose and heard again why I am glad the Christ overcame both Dionysus and Apollo.  I look forward to reading the rest of the series on road trips in the car...perhaps next will be The Gift of the Jews.

 

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The Mysterious Middle Ages - A Mini-Review

 
I just finished reading (rather listening to the audio book) Thomas Cahill's work Mysteries of the Middle Ages - The Rise of Feminism, Science and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe. The work's tag line certainly reflects the actual eclecticism of this volume as it does attempt to trace the roots of Feminism, Science and Art in Western Culture.  Cahill is upfront about the rather disparate themes taken up in this volume - a patchwork he calls it, but one that rightfully reflects the various cultures morphing and shaping during the middle ages.
 
Cahill, unlike many post Enlightenment scholars, is not a despiser of Western culture and therefore his histories read as one who actually appreciates his subject matter.  One gets the sense he is actually intrigued by the cradles of Western identity, giving them all a fair hearing on their own terms.  In his other volumes he has taken up the role of the Irish, the Jews, the Greeks and Jesus himself as he has waded through the many streams of western identity and influence.  This book takes up the developments in Catholic Europe from roughly the 12th through the early 14th century.
 
His subjects for feminism were a combination of nun, queen and virgin.  Hildegarde, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Catholic veneration of the Virgin Mary.  I found the chapter about the mystic nun Hildegarde to be interesting but it could have lost some of its girth.  The history of Eleanor and her husbands and sons was interesting history but the transition material about the lusty sexual escapades of the medieval castles could have been omitted.  It seems however that Cahill wanted to see the sexual liberality in the post enlightenment west as an outflow of the free woman of the castle.  I found it a bit tiresome.  Of course the veneration of the virgin extended a high view to certain virtuous and saintly women in the middle ages but I found its connection to feminism slightly strained. 
 
There were histories of men such as St. Francis that those who love justice today will certainly take delight in - I loved hearing the story of Francis showing up naked in court when his father was suing him over material possessions.  There were also several gems from his writing that I scribbled down in a moleskin while at a stop in the car.  Francis was an important figure on the road to a more gentile Europe breaking with the Rome of its past and helping the same people become the Italians.
 
The segment of the book I enjoyed most was the focus on two thinkers and philosophers of the academic seedbed which was medieval France. Both the accounts of Peter Abelard and Thomas Aquinas were brief but interesting stories into the lives of two very different men who struggled to use reason to understand the world.  Thomas is one of the philosophers my son is named after, mainly for his foundational role in shaping the world in preparation for modern science.  It was good to see Cahill reject the caricatures of the period between Aristotle and Enlightenment as "the dark ages" as indeed there was much light to be found in Christian thinkers such as St. Thomas. No, his theology is not my own, but his example of using reason in service of the gospel is one for which I am grateful.  The developments in England under Bacon were of interest as well but I will let the interested wander into the halls of Oxford if they so choose to read this book.
 
Finally, I was delighted with the histories of art given in this book.  As one who has studied very little in this field I was just captivated by treatment of the painters and poets of Florence.  In particular, this brief biography of Dante and the love the authored showed for his work The Divine Comedy was a pure joy for me as I listened over the distant hum of my lawn mower.  I don't have time to take us this poem - one that I shamefully have not read.  Yet I do hope to take it up at some point - perhaps even as an audio book to take with me on some journey in the car.
 
Overall, Cahill's works reflect the mind of a modern historian looking back at chapters of our history.  He is appreciative of his subjects and does not belittle things such as the Christian contribution in our heritage.  In fact, there are times when he feels very at home in Christianity.  However, his thoughts reflect very modern sensibilities and not a gospel worldview as found in the New Testament.  Yet I am still very thankful for his writing as he takes you on a journey into Western ideas that is not ashamed our Christian past.  He even recommends Bible reading and has a high respect for the Bible. His treatment of the incarnation and its effect on Western intellectualism is quite favorable towards this central Christian teaching. I am not sure that his treatment of Jesus in Desire for the Everlasting Hills will be something I will enjoy, but it may be my next Cahill installment. The final two installments in the series were revealed by Cahill in a Q&A on his web site.
Each volume of the Hinges of History® is intended to be read with pleasure and even surprise; it is not a series of academic obligations. Thus, in the past I have refrained from talking about the books to come, as if I was creating a syllabus. But now that there are just two volumes left to write, I imagine many readers can see where I am headed. So I will come clean: Volume VI will treat the Renaissance and, especially, the Reformation, thus tracing the Protestant contribution; Volume VII, tracing the secular-revolutionary-democratic contribution, will begin with the Enlightenment and go to . . . Well, I think that's enough to say, for now.

I will look forward to his interpretation of the Protestants and some of my theological fore bearers; perhaps he will see how law and liberty actually flowed from those who did Protest with courage enough to stand for freedom of conscience with life and limb on the line.  

For those interested in Cahill's work, I would recommend you begin with the Irish and then meander along as you so choose.  He also has an extensive page of discussion questions which serve as a helpful readers guide for the journey.

In

Renewal as a way of Life

 

On Wednesdays in this interim season between Inversion and moving to New Jersey I am trying to slow down the soul a bit on Wednesdays for some time dedicated to my growth and development as a man.  One of things I am doing is reading slowly through the book Renewal as a Way of Life by Richard Lovelace (I forgot to put this one on the "books I am currently reading" below).  I am about 1/3 of the way through the book and it has been very good, humbling and quotable.  So, I thought I would share some quotes today which encouraged me...and by typing them out hear perhaps provide some light for others.

Here is one on the relation to using God to get stuff...a mixture of Lovelace/Augustine:

On the other hand, evangelical religion as an aid to self-assurance, health or wealth really short-circuits the soul's path toward contact with God, which is the heart's deepest desire.  As Augustine observes, "Many cry to the Lord to avoid losses or to acquire riches, for the safety of their friends or the security of their homes, for temporal felicity or worldly distinction, yes, even for mere physical health which is the sole inheritance of the poor man...Alas, it is easy to want things from God and not to want God himself; as though the gift could ever be preferable to the giver." Or as he says elsewhere, "The soul cannot rest save in that which it loves.  But eternal rest is given only in the love of God, who alone is eternal." Lovelace, 31

The next one was his commentary on the soul's search for a sense of value and identity apart from God - I think many of us, Christian and not, live here often.

They must get a black market substitute for God's love from psychiatrists or other human beings. But this need for love and dignity is so great that self-admiration and the love of others cannot begin to satisfy it.  We can cheer ourselves up only so long by repeating the pitiful fiction "I'm OK - You're OK."  Then we begin to check our own credentials, and our therapist's, for making such judgments.  Lovelace, 36.

In reflecting on the outflow of the love of God through his people he makes a rather dogmatic claim which I found very true.

Spirituality which neglects the love of neighbor, and which fails to seek justice for the neighbor, is simply not biblical. Lovelace, 37.

He has an interesting metaphor for the reality of human enterprise on the earth.  We can be about building the Kingdom or simply go on building Babel.

In the Old Testament, God warns Israel that most human kings will not hallow life, but will turn it into building materials for the Tower of Babel (he includes here the text of 1 Samuel 8:11-18)...Things have not changed since biblical times. Building Babel is still an expensive business. Lovelace, 43.

Indeed, it costs us our very selves as we become cogs in the machine rather than sons and daughters with a purpose in the universe. Finally, in a bit of meddling he comments on the focus of upwardly mobile Protestants in New England after the influence of dying religious formalism (in our day we might as well apply it to upwardly mobile atheological evangelicals). 

The real goals of upwardly mobile Protestantism can be seen in Lisa Birnbach's humorous volume entitled The Official Preppy Handbook, which idealizes the semi-apostate New England family, still glumly going through the motions of "the Puritan ethic" in a sort of twilight zone between Christianity and secularism in order to facilitate its summers on Martha's Vineyard. Lovelace 52-53.

Lovelace's book so far has been a great refresher - a call to God-centeredness and then to living under the rule and reign of Jesus - working, laboring, fighting for...a Kingdom of peace, justice, truth and beauty in this present age as we await the renewal of all things.   

Light for the City - Calvin's Preaching, Source of Life and Liberty

 
OK, I am just finishing a book entitled Light for the City - Calvin's Preaching, Source of Life and Liberty by Lester De Koster. I was thinking of doing a full review of the work but decided to include it here as a "tiny-mini-review" instead. 

The books premise is up front and repeated throughout the book.  Calvin's pulpit ministry founded a free and just society in Geneva fulfilling the ancients longings for the Polis, or the CITY. I would say that it is a quite a fan boy volume in favor of John Calvinism.  I didn't realize the exclamation point could be used so enthusiastically after the word "Calvinism" after reading the book.  The strong points are the focus on the positive social transformation of Geneva and its reputation throughout Europe at the time of Calvin.  So many people live with a caricature of Calvin as an oppressive religious despot who was simply out to get free thinkers like Servetus.  This book gives a very positive view of Calvin which can serve as a corrective to this caricature.  Though its fan-boy tone may show too much bias. The book also shows that Calvin's preaching was after creating a just city in the time between the advents of Jesus - establishing a state through the work of transformational Bible preaching.  It is helpful for those who teach Christian faith is just about "souls getting saved for heaven." 

A huge weakness is the book's very clear rejection of the separation of church and state - something I find scary about some reformed people.  I personally think such a separation should always remain, though some people like this author seem to like the historical link between church and magistrate.  Overall, I liked the book but just not much as the author likes Calvinism!!! I appreciate Calvin's commentaries on Scripture, parts of his theological legacy and his social influence on the move towards European democracies.  In many ways Geneva influenced both France and Great Britain towards liberty and capital based economies, a fact lost on many secular revisionist histories.  I think the book is worth the read for those who desire to see pulpits have the depth and strength to bring real, social, just holistic change in society.  For those who are theocratic nut jobs already...I fear they would find too much fuel for their fire in this book.

In

Book Review - Launch

Nelson Searcy and Kerrick Thomas - Launch - Starting a New Church from Scratch (Ventura: Regal Books, 2006)

Wandering into the world of contemporary church planting (or starting new churches) is a bit of an interesting journey.  First, one quickly finds that there are many, many camps all with their own gurus, books, handbooks, notebooks, conferences and web sites.  Second, even those whose theological vision is similar can be methodologically worlds apart.  Or to say it simply - they all disagree with one another on how the job should be done.  There are missional churches who focus attention on the world "out there."  There are attractional churches (purpose driven and seeker types) that focus on doing church with contemporary excellence so as to get the people in "in here."  There are organic house church types that recommend the church never leave the living room.  There are irresistible churches, creative churches, visioneering churches, simple churches, glocal churches and several types of churches from Mars Hill (different ways to see Acts 17).  As a guy who is moving soon to plant churches, too much reading dizzies the soul.  To be honest I am about to punt all the books in favor of the Bible.  Well, maybe not but I realize that for me Scripture is a starting point.  In my reading I did just finish a book entitled "Launch - Starting a New Church from Scratch" by two guys who are planting in the early 21st century in New York City.  It was a quick and fun read that had me saying amen, scratching my head, and cursing a few times - I repented of that. 

I would say the book is written by guys that are firmly in the purpose driven, excellence/creative, church service centric camp...and probably some of the best in that flavor of church starting.  So I knew I would learn some good things from the read.  I was not disappointed...well, then again I was really disappointed.  Let's just get to the review.

Strengths

The strength of this book is not hard to find.  It is a great book for those wanting a clear strategy for starting a church service.  I say starting a service because the focus of the book is "launching" Sunday services and a large one at that.  The premise is that a church planter should move to a city with one focus - launch quickly and launch large.  If that is one's goal - this book will tell you how to do it.  The back cover even says "No Money? No Members? No Staff? No Problem!" - the book is brimming with confident know how and a can do attitude.  If you are not sure if the launch large paradigm is your focus you might be a bit frustrated because the book is focused on the steps to launch the church service. 

One of the things that I found very helpful in the volume is was the practical advice given along some very specific lines.  It does a good, though brief, job at coaching a church planter in raising funding for the new church.  It does an excellent job in talking about strategy formulation and strategic planning.  If you are a guy who doesn't know what a yearly calendar is, or how to form and articulate what you are doing, or how to get from point A to B without wandering for a few years in the dessert this book will help you.  The missional guys won't like the Sunday service-centrism of this book, but they might benefit from chapters 3 and 4 on funding and strategy even if they have a different model in mind.

The volume also has some good insight for growing churches which need to plan ahead for the future.  If people are meeting Jesus in your church and more of this starts to happen; chapters 9 and 10 helps inspire proactive thinking for getting ready if God should bring increase to the church.  This chapter helps ask good "what if" questions about facilities (again, house church guys squirm now), growing as a leader.  Page 209 actually hints at what these guys actually do to sharpen their own lives and keep growing as believing men.  Their suggestion to read deeply from Theology, Philosophy and Church History was refreshing and had an intriguingly intellectual feel to it - which the book itself seemed to lack. 

There were other things here to like as well.  Their view of servant leadership and calling the church to reach out to others in acts of kindness were refreshing to read.  Their approach to staffing and volunteer issues were also immensely practical. 

Overall the help I found in the book was thinking through practical issues - in fact, I often found myself launching out of the book to think about our own planting efforts.  For this I thank God and made the read more profitable. However, I found some frustration with the book as well, perhaps because I am thinking through mission/planting in a different way.

Weaknesses

I think my main struggles with the book were due to its hyper-pragmatism.  I think things should be pragmatic and practical in life, especially in church planting, but I prefer a bit more theological vision along with my pragmatic steps.  This showed up in many places for me.

First, there are Scriptures at the end of the chapters which reflect the idea being communicated.  However, at least two times, these verses were grossly out of context.  A couple of examples will illustrate.  The chapter on fundraising ends with a quote of Romans 8:17 which reads in the English Standard Version:

And if children, then heirs-heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

But they quoted a portion of it, and from a translation which I have been unable to find (I think it is first of edition of the New Living) which made it read:

Since we are his children, we share his treasures-for everything God gives to his Son, Christ, is ours, too.

So the suffering clause was dropped and a translation that had the word treasures slotted in.  It is odd that this passage is used about fundraising as this is not Paul's message in Romans 8.  Second, the chapter was fine without slapping the Bible verse on it.   Another example was after chapter 7.  The chapter spoke about the importance of a big, successful "Launch" for giving the church a proper foundation.  OK, this is the books premise - fair enough.  Yet in order to illustrate the importance of this a verse was used to talk about "foundations" - Luke 6:48 was selected:

It is like a person who builds a house on a strong foundation laid upon the underlying rock. When the floodwaters rise and break against the house, it stands firm because it is well built.

Is this part of Jesus' teaching about the foundations of launches or even foundations of churches?  I'm not so sure. It seems to be about building one's life upon the hearing and obeying his teaching. Anyway, I didn't see the point of using the Bible in this way and found it troubling. 

Second, there is little ecclesiology to be found in the work but again it is not the books purpose.  There was one sentence where I thought it might come through.  Page 102 reads "There are three things that every new church must have before it is a real church:" - a good statement which had me awaiting the next lines.  What followed the colon was this: 1) a lead pastor, 2) a start date and 3) a worship leader.  I didn't know that this is what made "a real church."  I actually thought of the gospel, the sacraments and church discipline when reading that sentence...not that I am opposed to lead pastors, worship leaders and launch dates.  It also was so focused on "the service" that I felt some other things about the mission of the church could be said. 

Another weakness I felt was that of the triumph of a formula or prescription.  The book seemed to teach that if you just follow this model, you will be a successful, large launching, new church.  It reminded me of the way revivals were prescribed by Charles Finney.  If you preach this way, do music this way, invite people this way - revival will always come.  How tos are very helpful and needed but I felt it was a little too much for me here.  Obviously Searcy and Kerrick are stud leaders and very capable men.  I was a bit concerned that such prescriptions may not fit everyone and could leave some guys disappointed or wondering "did I just not do it right?"  It would be easy to then chase the next book, the next formula, and next prescription.  I would rather see guys seeking wisdom about who they are, what their community is and how the gospel speaks to the situation. 

Finally, the Homogenous Unit Principle was very important to this church planting model.  In order to plant this way, you must design and tweak everything for a certain type of person, in a specfic demographic, etc.  For Searcy and Kerrick, that means their church is focused exclusively on well to do, young Manhattan types.  Though I understand we need to connect and communicate the gospel to certain contexts, I think such thinking can keep racial and economic segration alive in America without challenging the justice of prevailing paradigms.  I would suggest a read of Metzger's Consuming Jesus - Race and Class in a Consumer Church as a balance to the version of the HUP as seen in this work.

One last note - Reformed people just would not like this book and would see it as part of the problem with churches in America today.  Of course many of my reformed brethren could use some strategic and practical nudges from friends. 

Conclusion

Overall, Searcy and Kerricks work contributes to the body of literature on starting new churches.  They give great insights into some practical and important concerns (funding and planning) which I feel can be lacking in some of the more missional and house church circles.  I liked their light hearted writing style, focus and risk taking attitudes throughout and think I would enjoy hanging with and learning from them in person.  That said, I found myself longing for a more theologically driven book which focused in on Scripture.  In other words I wish they had said a bit more of the "why" behind the "what" of church planting.   Recommended but with major reservations.

Book Review - Vintage Jesus

 

 
Sometimes books come along that make you think, make you laugh, make you want to read excerpts out loud to the person in the next room.  I just finished a quick read of Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears new book Vintage Jesus and was not disappointed. I typically enjoy books that are both intellectually stimulating and engaging; I also like to find books I can give to just about anybody.  Yet such works are rare.  I think I found another one to add to that short list.

Summary

Vintage Jesus, is...well, about Jesus.  No surprise here.  The book is a treatment of the person and work of Jesus Christ written very much for a contemporary world which is ever interested in the man reared in Nazareth long ago.  The author of the work is primarily Pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle WA. He is joined in this marvel team up by Dr. Gerry Breshears professor of theology at Western Seminary in Oregon. The book is the first in a partnership between the Resurgence Theological Cooperative and Crossway Books.  The two organizations hope to produce a new line of books entitled "RE:LIT" which will espouse biblical faithful and theologically driven content written for today's world in a relevant way.  Yes, very nice.

The book was taken from a sermons series that Driscoll preached at Mars Hill Church of the same name.  The structure is pretty simple - 12 chapters each with a different focus about the Scriptures teaching about the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Dr. Breshears is a theological partner in the work and does a great job closing each chapter with theological questions and answers regarding some issue taken up by the chapter.  It is both rigorous in treating the subject matter but at the same time remaining highly accessible. 

Strengths

The greatest strengths of the book is its diversity and usefulness to life and ministry.  I will cover the books diversity first and then make a comment on its potential use in ministry. I will then comment on a couple of specific content items which I particularly enjoyed.

It is diverse in that it meets several goals rarely attained in the same volume.  First, it is funny and enjoyable to read.  Now I "get" Driscolls humor and tend to vibe with it so the enjoyability will have something to do with getting Mark's humor and style.  Though it is certain that some may find the language choices curt or pedestrian, I just found it funny.  Second, the book is a serious work in biblical Christology.  The range covered in the short chapters is very wide, though not comprehensive.  It shows a great mastery of Christological controversies in church history as well as a good grasp on the history of Christian thought. In the first few chapters you will see quotes from Pamela Anderson on one page and then discussions of various trinitarian heresies (dynamic and modalistic monarchialism anyone?).  The book will serve as a great introduction to Jesus and sound theology about him.  Third, it is diverse in that it communicates as a work of positive Apologetics.  The real Jesus is the best defense against the posers and the biblical Jesus (or Jesus according to Jesus) is shown off in the book.  Finally, the book is well researched and documented with copious footnotes in every chapter.  Now a large amount of the references are due to the choice to put biblical references in the notes, but their are serious sources cited and consulted in Vintage Jesus.

The glaring strength of this book is that you can likely give it to anyone under 35.  My partners in crime at Inversion have echoed that so many of the books aimed at young adults today are lightweight, many times emergent crap.  Many books we love do not easily connect to the flow of younger folks.  We love John Piper books and thankful for his ministry to the twenty something crowd, but sometimes Desiring God can intimidate the neophyte a bit...and we are big time on reading in our ministry.  In this book we have a work that can be studied in groups, handed to a non Christian friend and one that will actually make some folks laugh along the way.

Last, the book had content which I love as it speaks of the wonderul Savior God and King Jesus Christ.  The opening chapters are very clear about the tension with Jesus being fully God, fully Man in one person.  I love the Chalcedonian theology and it is on display in relevant terms in Vintage Jesus.  I also love the unique perspective of Jesus as the Prophet, Priest and King foreshadowed in the Old Testament.  A theological observation that John Calvin gave the church is very helpful in understanding Jesus' ministry and how Christ is the focus of both Old and New Testaments.  Sexy stuff.  The list of OT prophecy and NT fulfillment will be helpful for the budding evangelists and apologists out there - the coming of Jesus just was not a coincidence of time and place, but rather the very providence of God. The great chapter on the atonement and death of Jesus is timely as every generation reacts to "God died for you" and you can't save yourself.  We much prefer programs of self salvation.  Chapters on the resurrection and on Jesus uniqueness compared to other "saviors" (his quote of Stephen Colbert is revealing of the views in our age) again have great value for conversations with those who have questions.  Finally the book calls people to worship Jesus - which is the whole point of the gospel.  God making rebels worshippers of the triune God through the work of Jesus.

Weaknesses

I did not find too many terrible weaknesses to the work, but two small ones stood out.  The first one I felt reading the book came up right from the beginning.  As I said above I really get Mark's humor and particularly enjoy it.  Yet a few times I felt it was too frequent and a bit too much.  Personally, I am fine with the content of the jokes but they could have been spaced out a bit more at times.  When something feels overused it can distract a bit from the flow of the work.  My counsel to Mark would not be to tone it down, though others certainly would give that counsel.  My thought would be save some for later so that the humor doesn't loose its saltiness.  The use of a bit more subtlety and timing would have been helpful. 

The second weakness did not affect me but may be felt by the casual reader. There are many references to people and ideas which are not explained and may fly over some peoples heads.  Ironically this could take place both on the pop cultural level and the historical/academic level (I love the list of Christological heresies - even listing Eutychianism).  There are some that may just not know who some of the people quoted and referenced are.  I don't think this takes anything away from the book, it is not distracting, but some may wonder who some of these people/ideas are.

Two final comments are needed. One thing is certain about Vintage Jesus - uptight funnymentalists will not like the tone of the book...this has already been observed in the comments on Tim Challies' review.  Many will struggle reading some of the terms used by Driscoll; terms like shagging and knocking boots are so far from many Christians' vernacular. Yet there are people today that would look at the terms “knocking boots” and “shagging” (which is a British term for sex popularized in America by the Austin Powers movies that non Christian people are very familiar with) as so uncontroversial. If you spend significant time with real non Christians you will find that there are other terms used for this activity that are much, much more offensive (and I would say actually profane). But writing like this should provoke discussions about language and why we do or do not use certain words and phrases.  I think the discussion itself is needed as some go too far and some need to loosen up a bit. Finally, Bible discarding emergents and theologically liberal Christians will not like the exalted Christ and biblical focus, but I will only say this is a book about "Vintage" Jesus not "Reinventing" or "Reimagining" Jesus. Selah.

Conclusion 

Dr. Breshears and Mark Driscoll have produced a fun book that also has real meat and substance.  It is no wonder it has drawn endorsements from some of the best evangelical theologians (Grudem, Ware, Packer), an ultimate fighter, a music producer and a Disney executive. It is that diverse. More than anything I left the read loving Jesus more and for this I am personally thankful.  I highly recommend Vintage Jesus to read and give away to friends and neighbors of every belief and persuasion. Highly recommended.

In

Review - Christianity's Dangerous Idea

 

Alistair McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea – The Protestant Revolution from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First (New York, HarperOne, 2007) 552pp.

Introduction

History has the unique capacity to both inform and to transform the present. It is informative in that we learn the stories of our past, enjoying the narratives of peoples, places, events, failures and accomplishments of those who have traveled before us. It is transformative in that we can better understand who we are as people in light of the roads traveled to the ever present now. Additionally, the wise learn from both the mistakes and teachings left for us in the literary trails of our ancestors. Of course, when not well written, history can be a bore. I recently finished a book that was both engagingly written, informative and in some way gave great peace and understanding to my journey as a Christian convert living in the twenty first century. The book that has so helped me is Alistair McGrath’s excellent treatment of the Protestant Reformation, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea. I know this introduction colors this review a bit, but I simply loved the book…so now that I have stated this front and center…on to the review.

Summary

McGrath’s thesis in the book is that the formal principle of the Protestant reformation, that each person has the right and duty to interpret Holy Scripture for himself, was and remains a dangerous idea. It is dangerous in that it placed the Bible in the hands of all people and removed an authoritative interpretation from the magisterial control of the Roman Catholic Church. This of course is dangerous because it has and will continue to provoke all sorts of interpretations of Scripture, all claiming to be “biblical”, which has splintered the church into many small factions and denominations. It is also revolutionary in that it set free the Bible from the control of Rome so that it could speak to all people as the very Word of God.

McGrath and his publishers did a great job with the title and branding of the book. The reformation is called a revolution here and the cover design has a picture of Luther holding the book with a red tint covering the view (see above). The cover almost looks like a communist piece striking the radical nature of revolutions in the hearts of modern readers. To be honest, McGrath does an equally good job in conveying the radical nature of the European Reformations in this 550 page volume.

The book consists of three major parts or subdivisions. Part I, entitled Origination focuses on the history involved with the reformation and the origins of reform on the continent, then later in England and finally on American soils. McGrath’s approach here does have the focus on the great men and leaders but he uniquely focuses on the sociological realities in the local communities where reform movements began. His treatment of the reformation is to view it not as one monolithic movement, but rather as small reform movements which emerged in different contexts with quite differing foci, though still uniting against the common ideological opponent – the halls of Rome. Part II deals with the major realities in which the Protestant faiths express both unity and diversity. In this section, entitled Manifestations, several topic of importance to Protestantism(s) are covered. The Bible, Doctrines, ecclesiastical structures, culture and the arts are all covered in this section. Part III deals with the malleability and transformation of Protestantism(s) in the 20th century focusing heavily on the Pentecostal arrival and the rapid growth and expansion of Protestant movements in the global south.

The work is somewhat lengthy as it, but McGrath managed to keep his treatment concise. He achieved an amazing balance of rigorous treatment without overwhelming the reader with minutia or making it a one thousand page tome. There were many strengths to the book which I will touch below as well as a few obligatory drawbacks I felt while reading. To these we turn.

Strengths

Part I – Origination

In McGrath’s treatment of the continental history of Protestantism he covered the various movements and men of import. As expected, Luther, Calvin, Swingli and the latter Anabaptists are all central figures in the work. I found two particular things interesting about McGrath’s treatment of nascent Protestantism. First, he discusses the sociological settings in which each of these early reform movements emerged and how each touched a certain cultural reality in their application. Second, his focus on the commonality of these movements is expected, but I really liked his emphasis on how each of these local reformations was very different in scope and goals. His point was that there was never one monolithic, big “P” Protestantism, but rather a myriad of reform movements who each desired various degrees of change based upon their particular reading of the Bible. What united them all was a formal principle of deriving theology directly from Scripture and the constant threats from Catholic armies and princes.

The focus on the reformers ability to adapt Scripture to context and local need emerges latter in McGrath’s touching on the Protestant ability to morph, adapt and contextualize to reach out to new generations and completely new cultures. From day one the Protestants walked into dangerous waters in putting the Scriptures in the hands of the people. It produced overreactions and misreading of that book, as in the apocalyptic flavors of the Anabaptist movement, but it also returned the church to its very source of life; the very word of God.

I found this look at the early days of Protestant faith refreshing as it makes sense of the continued fragmentary nature of the movement based on various readings of Scripture. Much of my frustration about Protestantism is I expect a unity which really never existed from the beginning. In fact, any look at church history shows that there has never been 100% lock step agreement on all things. I have found great peace in knowing that there is certainty in the Scripture about certain matters and the church has been clear on these issues. The triune nature of God, the full deity and humanity of Jesus, salvation through the cross of Christ, a call to holiness and new life, the second coming of Jesus and God’s judgment all come to mind. Understanding our history has not made me discouraged to be separated from Rome (or the Eastern communion) but rather confirmed my commitment to the basic principle that Scirpture is the proper source for our theology. It may be abused by some, but the Word of God is clear and must remain central. Even if formal, visible unity is never realized.

One note of caution. There are some who may take hermeneutical difficulties and differences and run with them towards an ideology that there is no one clear meaning in Scripture. To acknowledge our history is one thing, to abandon the view that the Scriptures can be understood is quite another. Yes, we may differ at times in our understanding of the Bible, but our duty is to hear, head and obey…even when others may disagree. We submit to the text, we do not tell it what to say. Unfortunately the latter is far too common for those who desire to stand over the Bible, not under it.

Part II -Manifestations

I found this section to be a great introduction to Protestant thinking on many theological and ecclesiological issues. I wish many evangelicals today would read Part II alone as I fear that many modern church growth evangelicals do not understand the distinct ways of thinking and methods in which Protestants have historically traveled. As I read Protestant views about the Bible, worship, the church and how Christian thinking connects to all of life, I longed for a revival of some aspects of Protestantism. Far too many of us have such a small view of the church and the reformers maintained a view of her centrality in Christian life. The comparisons between magisterial Protestantism which maintained the tight coupling of church/state with that of reform movements who were suspicious of such ties was also quite helpful. For one I am thankful for those who stood for the separation of church and magistrate. The corruption of the church by the pomp and power of the state has been evident since the time of Constantine.

I also found a few minor appreciations in chapter 13 treating the relationship between Protestantism and the arts and sciences. First, the very brief treatment of Sport and faith was a welcome sighting in the book for one who spent much of his life in athletics and sports ministry. Also, I loved the tone of the discussion of science and faith. For those unfamiliar with McGrath, he holds separate doctorates in science and theology. He was very measured in that section and spoke more like an historian than one pursuing a certain view.

Part III – Transformation

The main strength of this part was its concise and insightful history in of twentieth century movements. The fundamentalist controversies of the 1920s, the evangelical reengagement led by Carl F. Henrys seminal work Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, liberal theological movements which were fully realized in the mainline American denominations, the rise of the non denominational movement and ecumenical reengagements by some with Roman Catholicism are all well covered. Whether or not you agree with the church growth, use market principles to expand the church type stuff, McGrath fairly covers the influence of this on recent North American Protestantism.

Overall I found the work both interesting and informative. However it did drag a bit in the center, perhaps an unavoidable weakness of a work with such ambition. To this weakness we now turn.

Weaknesses

The main drawback I find in a book like this is that some of the chapters had huge goals but could not possibly deliver. For instance, chapter 12 had the ambition to try and touch the following topics: Christ and Culture (which took a now standard Nieburian route), social engagement, church and state, economics (which is a good treatment of the history of usury/money lending), the good old Protestant work ethic, education, and women. Looking at that list and realizing that the relationship of Protestants to all these issues was covered in a mere 40 pages makes one realize that the reader will be left wanting to talk about these things more. Thank God for the footnotes and bibliography I suppose. A similar issue could be said about the chapter which dealt with the arts and sciences but it was encouraging to see these as a separate chapter instead of lumping them into the aforementioned chapter 12. Though the page count was not oppressive, it just seemed like too much.

Another weak point in the work for me was the comparison of Protestantism and Islam. The basic premise, found briefly in chapter 17, was that both were logo-centric faiths which are subject to the interpretation of a holy text. In Protestantism this has led to diversity and it is speculated that perhaps Islam might go through a similar transformation and diversification as well. I found it a bit optimistic that this would lead to a more tolerate and free version of Islam. Somehow, the content of these holy books seems to me to matter more than the mere fact that they both have one. But that seems too obvious.

Conclusion

This work helped me greatly know more of whom I am theologically and passionately re-embrace mission to take the gospel to the world. Others have done so before us and we now share the task of applying that book called the Bible to the contexts and issues of our day. With Luther we must keep our consciences chained to the Word of God and stand in the community of church and history to guard against heretical teaching.

I realized in reading this work that I both love and hate some of the realities of Protestantism. There are a bunch of goofy interpretations and spins on the Bible, but yet history teaches us that basing all authority in one sinful man’s ruling is no better path. This is why someone’s belief “ABOUT” the Bible is of great importance. You cannot even debate in council - or on a forum, if someone does not hold to the authority of the text. At least we can wrestle under the text, if the text has authority. If one does not believe in the authority of the text, one will end up saying “it is all hermeneutics, all interpretation” - that there is no definitive meaning to the text. This is why the issue of biblical authority AND hermeneutical outlook are so important for Protestants today. If someone can make up “trajectories” to speak beyond the Bible, they will eventually err far from course. As a Protestant, we have a much higher call and must remain faithful to what the words actually teach.

This struggle to remain faithful within the freedom of protest is our greatest strength and greatest challenge as Christians. McGrath seems to be optimistic about Protestants ability to adapt and flourish. History is indeed on his side and I too remain bullish on the Word of God effecting change in the world until the Lord comes. I’ll close with the concluding paragraph of the book:

Those who are anxious about the future of Protestantism often urge that radical change in its self-understanding is necessary if it is to survive, let alone prosper. Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis (“Times are changing, and we change with them” – Ovid). The historical and theological analysis presented in this book offers a rather different answer. We have seen that Protestantism possesses a unique and innate capacity for innovation, renewal, and reform based on its own internal resources. The future of Protestantism lies precisely in Protestantism being what Protestantism actually is.Christianity’s Dangerous Ideap. 478, empahsis in original..

Semper Fidelus and Semper Reformanda – Always faithful, always reforming - these will remain our call…

In

I am Legend...


Last night I jumped out to catch a film with a friend after we put our kids to bed.  Many times an experience at the movies can be shallow, trivial and a disappointment. You leave feeling - why on earth did I spend time and money on this?  Last night was not one of those occasions.  For those who have not seen the new Will Smith film, I am Legend should cease reading now if you have intentions to do so.   There will be spoilers so hope off now.  To be honest, it was one of the better films I have seen in some time.

Plot Summary

The film is based on Richard Matheson's 1954 science fiction novel of the same name.  This film adaptation takes place in a post apocalyptic Manhattan where a viral 'cure for cancer' has gone horribly wrong. Most of the human population of the world has died, a small amount were immune, another portion turned into vampire like creatures known as dark-seekers.  In this world military virologist Robert Neville (Smith's character) is alone in Manhattan seeking to find a cure for what humanity has wrought upon itself.  What follows is a thick, tense ride of man's fight and hope for survival and redemption for what is a catastrophic situation.  The ending is somewhat optimistic and seems the only portion of the movie which has received some criticism.  The film was almost unbearably tense and dealt with themes much too disturbing for any kid to take in.  In fact, it will be too much for those who are sensitive at the movies. The use of sound (use of silence without much score) and visuals was fantastic and the movie is one tense moment after another for almost the entire 1:40 run time.  Surprisingly the writers and director deal with some themes which only find their sense in a biblical worldview and the religious themes are a bit penetrating.  What follows are some of the themes which I particularly found interesting and insightful.

Hubris/Pride

The film begins with an optimistic interview of a medical researcher who has harnessed the ferocity of the virus to do man's bidding and eradicate cancer.  The clinical trials were 100% effective and the interviewer asks the scientist a point blank question: So you cured cancer? The answer is hollow and clear: Yes.  There is no time for optimism as the director makes a harsh cut directly to 3 years later into an empty Manhattan island where Neville is hunting in the midst of the overgrown and desolate city.  The pride of humanity's attempt to cure one of our most horrendous diseases by using a virus, a self-replicating system prone to unpredictability and mutation comes through loud and clear.  It gives much pause to the possibility of overconfident biotechnological reaches which have unseen outcomes.  Now I don't think we are going to turn people into rabid, zombie like vampires, but there are great risks to human life and the environment in the brave new worlds of bio and nano technology.  Pride comes before a fall...true.

Despair, Guilt and Quixotic Dedication

Smith's character carries a certain guilt and responsibility to remedy the situation as we see from well timed flash backs that he was the military scientist attempting to find a cure for this pandemic.  He was unable to find it in time and the director uses the pre-apocalypse story to build his character's fixation with finishing his work.   After everyone is gone, Neville, who has an immunity to the virus, has only his dog and his work left to keep him sane.  He is frantically trying to both stay alive and find the cure he sought before  everything unraveled.  He unrelentingly says "I have to fix it" - his sense is that he simply has to redeem humanity's mistake.  He echoes that "God didn't do this, we did" and you sense that he feels the burden of a savior though his work looks hopeless.  He has almost a quixotic quest to get the job done.  So much that he sends his family away so that he can stay at ground zero and work.  Additionally, towards the end, he again wants to stay and cure the disease rather than go northward in search of a "survivor colony" he hears about.  The director relieves this tension at the end as his work is allowed to succeed - though without him making it through to that future.  Our own kicking against our mortality is felt strongly and Smith's performance only added to this hope/despair paradox of being human.

Friendship

Being one of the last people alive is a lonely affair so how Neville copes with his isolation is an interesting facet of the film.  In this movie, man's best friend is better than a volleyball.  Neville's dog actually has survived with him and they do everything together.  Eat together, work out together, hunt together, etc.  I never bought into Tom Hank's friendship with a volleyball to keep his sanity in Castaway.  Here we have the family dog as the constant companion. This is quite believable and will certainly grab the hearts of those who love their doggies.  The tragedy of the circumstances is brought home through the dog's character as well.  It was touching and real - dog owners will cry in this movie.  Do not mock them.  There is also so goofy stuff with mannequins which seems to work pretty well especially when the zombies start messing with him.

Providence/Destiny

The film also wrestles a bit with the themes of God's providence and destiny.  Did God have anything to do with this disaster or is man alone and the victim of his sins alone.  Does the hope for the future lie in some form of providence, or is it human ingenuity which must right its own wrongs alone?  The end of the movie almost becomes cheesy when another immune human (a young woman named Anna played by Alice Braga) shows up on the scene and says "God told me to come to you."  At first it was like they were going to make this character out to be a religious wacko of sorts but it quickly moves through that feeling into an intense exchange about God's existence and involvement in their nightmare.  The scene survives the early cheesy moment to the point where it can be seen as genuine.  The movie resolves a little too nicely but at least it is nicely hopeful.  The cynical would probably prefer a different ending, but the current fare--though not great, was not that bad in my opinion.

Theological Angst

There is also much angst surrounding God in Smith's character.  The director does several things throughout the film to bring his humanity and its struggle with God to the foreground. In an early flashback his family prays together as wife and daughter board a helicopter to leave the island.  Later Neville's lines about his disbelief in God, or the fact that God had allowed this to happen come strongly to the center of his personal redemption.  There is a moment where he seems to realize that the hand of providence was indeed involved in the redemption of a broken world and this gives him courage to face the end of of his own life...which though a tad full of bravado, does have a sacrificial element to it.  The man who felt so compelled to "fix it" - eventually does...and gives his life in protecting the new found cure.  Fans of Bob Marley will certainly enjoy the placement of his music and his story in the film.  In fact, towards the end Neville seems to urge action in the world in order to "light up the darkness" - something he grabs from Marley.  There are crosses which hang from a rear view mirror, signs in the city saying "God still loves us" and even a church at the center of the new human colony featured at the end of the film.  The spiritual imagery and wrestle with God is evident throughout but not obnoxious or invasive.

Conclusion 

I personally enjoyed the film and it shook me as intensely as any--especially in the first parts of the movie.  I could not help but think of the realities of the film and how it aligns so much with my own theological vision.

  • Man sins greatly - and feels his immense responsibility
  • Yet providence deems redemption to be a worthy path which ultimately is controlled from a power greater than ourselves. 
  • There is hope of new life and healing in a future yet to appear

In thinking of our quests in hope amidst a world of despair, the old poem The Gate of the Year by Minnie Haskins comes to mind.  The poem was made famous by King George VI's quotation in his 1939 Christmas address.

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year 'Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.'

And he replied, 'Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God...That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way!'

I am Legend reminded me of our constant struggle with sin, survival, hope and despair.  In the hand of God lies redemption - even amidst our greatest sins. It is one of the most thematically spiritual movies I have seen and sets these motifs firmly in the 21st century.  Highly recommended.

Here are a few reviews and links:

An Experiment in Existential Narcissism- A Review of The 4-Hour Work Week...

 

I just finished reading (well, listening to...over 8 hours for the unabridged audio book) Timothy's Ferriss' new best selling book The 4-Hour Workweek - Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich from Crown.  The 320 page book is a New York Times, WSJ bestseller with currently 315 five star reviews on Amazon.com...sales rank 95 overall, #1 or #2 in several amazon subcategories as of Dec 8. It has also garnered more endorsements than you can shake a stick at.

I grabbed the book on iTunes out of curiosity when I heard it mentioned on one of the geek podcasts I listen to from time to time. As I am moving to NJ in a few months I figured he would be a good guy to listen to just to see how some people think up in the land of the movers and shakers...or in more Ferrissesque parlance...the lands of lifestyle designers.

Ferriss is a Princeton graduate whose writing is intelligent, crass, witty, conversational, outrageous, irreverent and at times quite genuine.  To be honest after reading the book I can tell you that I am quite ambivalent with his ideas - some of them I sensed a deep appreciate for, others made me completely sick, others just were ridiculous, some hilarious (the story of how he won a national kick boxing tournament in China comes to mind - I won't spoil that here).  In this review I will cover a few things enjoyed, a few things that annoyed and then leave another substantial issue to another blog post forthcoming here.  So, how to work only four hours and do whatever the hell you want - or what I am calling Tim Ferriss' experiments in existential narcissism.

Summary 

The book is true to its title and fits very much in several book categories: self-help, entrepreneurship, lifestyle come to mind.  Whether or not others will admit it, Ferriss has articulated quite well some of the longings of the younger generation in western culture.  This book for some will be a resonating voice for those continuing on the post industrial cultural trajectories of America and Europe.  In some ways it just another of the long line of those promising that "You can have it all - really" - this is actually stated on the books companion web site.

The books centers around the idea that our society has some pretty goofy rules and ways of doing things and that it is insane to remain in these conventions.  Think about it, we work 60-80 hours a week in order to have some money, no time and a pile of misery.  Only the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of retirement keeps many motivated.  Ferriss, a Princeton man who was surrounded by those who work this way, found himself miserable and questioning it all.  Why do we wait till the end of life in order to try and enjoy life?  Why do we toil away in offices when we could live a more mobile lifestyle, get things done with more focus and efficiency and be freed up to enjoy life now?  So he set about to do it and this book is his story of how he did and now offers to coach you to do the same.  It is an enjoyable read so I will share a few things that brought a smile

Enjoyed

Ferriss is a guy who likes to question things and ask the question why.  I like guys like this.  Now it can be turned into rebellion against rightful authority (which is wicked) and but to be weary of the status quo is the only path to which results in change. Ferriss seemed tired of certain societal conventions which are neither based in truth or law - they are just the way we do stuff.  When you think about it we do often act like the herd animals which Nietzsche accused us of being.  One observation Ferriss makes which I felt was right on is that "Most people will choose unhappiness over uncertainty."  Sad but true.  There just are not too many risk takers out there. To be quite honest, this discontent for the way things are is found in most church planters I have met.  They are a risky bunch who would rather try to start something than to stay stuck in ruts which are based only in cultural custom. 

Ferriss also shows an immense amount of wit and creativity in thinking  through ways to generate income without a huge amount of time.  He offers suggestions for both the entrepreneur and the one who just wants to enable a bit more cash flow while shaping their current job situation.  Now one needs some intelligence and talent to do some of the things mentioned (one of the weaknesses of the book is that he acts like all 6 billion people in the world could do what he does), but they are not impossible for some people to try.

His focus on eliminating superfluous work and becoming more focused was excellent.  His practical tips on e-mail and overcoming the information overload of our days very helpful.  The practical application of the 80/20 rule and the his example of how he fired some of his less profitable, most time consuming rude and annoying customers was quite enjoyable.  Anyone who feels under the pile of e-mail, needs help in prioritizing will enjoy the chapter on elimination.  It is material that can be found in other places, but Ferriss' application of it to the world of information overload was very helpful.  A few helpful quotes:

  • Doing something unimportant well still does not make it important
  • Simply because a task takes a lot of time does not make it important either 

His application of "elimination" and the 80/20 rule to material possessions and simple living was something I wanted my whole family to read.  I am convinced we all have too much stuff in our lives in - I was big time on board with his "getting rid of your stuff" counsel later in the book.  I hope to lighten our load when we move in the coming year...for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions (Luke 12:15). 

I also enjoyed Ferriss as a writer.  Some will see him as a bit cocky and arrogant -- this is perhaps true.  Some will take too offense at his choice of language - this would be warranted.  Yet the fact is he seemed genuine - genuinely full of it, but somewhat authentic nonetheless.  The fact is that - I wanted to hear him. It did not hurt that Ray Porter, the audio book reader, did a fantastic job with Ferriss' prose.  He wrote conversationally with passion which I think many people will enjoy.

One other thing which was interesting was one of the later chapters wrestling with finding a meaningful life.  I will blog more late about his dealing with ultimate questions and meaning, but he did land that service and learning seem to be central to any meaningful existence.  I find many younger people today wrestling with finding meaning.  I do not agree with Ferriss' relativism and create meaning however you want philosophy, but I do commend that he is asking the questions. 

Finally, I learned much from Ferriss about how some people think today.  I found him consistently embracing the contradictions of contemporary thought.  I found him to be thoroughly what I am calling "most western" - an existential narcissist.  Ferriss states openly that he is living life for excitement and self-fulfillment.  His whole life is dedicated to the accrual of experiences which will keep him from self-doubt and boredom.  His goals are freedom of time and movement with finances as a means to these ends.  Gone are the desires to live a life according to virtue, or according to truth, or in order to find peace.  What remains in western culture, among the educated elite - is the end of the post enlightenment narrative.  Freedom to do what you want, when you want and how you want.  It is the last phase of the autonomy project of western culture.  If you get lonely, empty, bored, miserable...don't find a real solution to your problems - just hop a plane to Berlin, or Beunos Aries or Thailand.  There you can rent out big tables at clubs and have experiences.  All while your Indian assistants and two thirds world outsourcers make money for the new western prince.  On to my annoyances.

Annoyed

The first thing I noticed is that Ferriss presents all his counsel as if any person on earth could do it.  Those who have been around a bit longer will realize that all of his counsel requires something of people in order to pull off.  The advice is for the motivated, smart, winsome person who can actually, to use his words, "bend the world to themselves."  I think some people who try his systems are just going to get fired...or pour some money down a hole in creating their muse.  I'm not saying his business advice was not good - I may end of trying something myself some day - but it does require a person with some talent.

Second, Ferriss rebellion against the Jones was a bit strange.  He acts fed up with the elite of America, slaving away at hedge funds, saving for retirement.  The ironic thing is that Ferriss has traded old elitism for a new flavor - he is still running to keep up with the Jones...his path is just more passport stamps, languages and combat sports rather than a house in the Hamptons...the New Rich (NR as he states it) still want to be rich, just in a slightly different way. 

Additionally, the ethical considerations in the book were a bit vacuous.  Ferriss did not seem concerned with doing the right thing - it didn't even seem to be his question.  It seemed his counsel was "do whatever you can to get what you want...but don't break the law."  By this he means the laws of government, not the moral law.  If you have to tell some little lies to your boss to create some good rhetoric in order to convince her to give you a remote work agreement...well, just do what you have to do. Interestingly enough he offered two examples of how to research the market for a potential product - one from a guy selling shirts from France and the other a woman doing DVDs on Yoga for rock climbers.  One business used some market research practices which were legal, but perhaps a bit dishonest.  The other did not use these techniques because they thought it unethical.  Ferriss offers both methods as options without much of a blink.  At times some of the advice seemed so slick that it felt a bit greasy.  Some may also find less than appealing his "outsourcing" of everything from manufacturing, order fulfillment, and personal assistants to people making 4 bucks an hour in the far east.

Though he goes out of his way to tell stories of single mom's and families living the NR lifestyle, it is obvious that he has no kids.  Anyone leading a family of more than three would just chuckle at some of his suggestions.  So the recommendations for mini retirements and living in multiple locations fit a 29 year old single guy, but would be a hard fit for most of the families I know.  Of course Ferriss might just think they were lame and part of the herd.  All that to say that his "this is for families with kids too" schtick falls a bit flat.

Finally, the biggest issue I had with the work was Ferriss' worldview which I described briefly above.  If you look at how post enlightenment western ideals have shifted, the old goals of pursuing truth, virtue and peace of mind are gone and the new goals of hyper autonomy, excitement as the highest virtue are on full display in Ferriss.  There is nothing worse for him than being bored.  At the end of the book I felt some honesty when he counseled other potential lifestyle designers of the new rich in how to deal with self-doubt even after you have made it (having income with little work, 3-16 month min retirements anywhere on earth). Yet when faced with ultimate questions - why are we here, what does my life mean, the nature of reality etc. his only advice was to do something to keep your mind off of such things.  Do something else to distract yourself - I believe sex and sports were recommended.  It seemed that such parables of autonomy will eventually lead to loneliness and a longing for something more.  For we have been made by God for community and relationship with our maker.  Yet when loneliness and doubt come to Ferriss he is likely to just learn another language and how to fight in another style (he is a avid learning of both foreign languages and fighting techniques).  I don't think he would have it any other way.   For he seems to be in flight from God and filling his days with pizazz to keep him from facing his creator.

Conclusion 

I enjoyed the book and found some useful ideas in its pages for breaking out of the ruts of society to attempt different things.  Anyone who desires to live differently will find something to like in the book.  Personally, I liked Tim Ferriss - he sounds like a guy I would greatly enjoy.  Being an ex college wrestler his expertise in many combat sports was of interest for sure.  At the risk of sounding cheesy, I am going to pray for him.  Maybe we'll hang out some day when he is lecturing at Princeton - I'll be just a few miles away.  He is just 29 years old and has many discoveries before him. Perhaps he will bump into Jesus one day who might just tell him "To find your life, you must lose it." 

Book Review - Perspectives on Spirit Baptism: Five Views

 
Brand, Chad Owen. Perspectives on Spirit Baptism: Five Views. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2004. 338 pp. $19.99 

Introduction

Perspectives on Spirit Baptism is a volume in the recent Perspectives series being published by Broadman and Holman.  The series endeavors to present a wide cross section of views on various theological issues from the wider Body of Christ.   This particular edition, edited by Southern Baptist Theologian Chad Brand, deals with the subject of Spirit Baptism.   As the introduction of the book so aptly presents, Spirit Baptism is a doctrine that is important in today's theological landscape for several reasons.  First, the Bible speaks of the baptism of the Holy Spirit and any treatment of the integral work of the Holy Spirit in the believer and Christ's church must consider all the relevant texts.  Second, the historically recent Pentecostal and Charismatic renewals in various theological traditions as well as the spawning of new Pentecostal and Charismatic movements has encouraged the church to address the nature of the working of the Spirit in intentional theological study.   The book's format is to present five essays, each of a differing viewpoint, followed by responses by each of the other authors in turn.   This provides a multifaceted view of the issues from all sides which has become a welcome format in current theological literature.  

Summary 

As necessary with multiple view books, the volume begins with an introduction to orient the reader to the backdrop to the theological discussion.  Although brief, the introduction of the book is well written and sets the stage for the debate which follows placing all relevant issues before the reader.  Dr. Brand's introduction serves well as a tour of the working of the Spirit in the early church as well as the continued interplay of Word and Spirit throughout the centuries of the Christian church.  As in similar perspectives volumes, this book offers the views of five theologians laying out their understanding of "baptism in the Holy Spirit" from within their church tradition.   Walter Kaiser writes in favor of a Reformed perspective; Stanley M. Horton presents the case for classical Pentecostalism; Larry Hart a dimensional Charismatic perspective; H. Ray Dunning a Wesleyan assessment; and Ralph Del Colle a view of Holy Spirit renewal within the Roman Catholic Church.  Each of these will be evaluated in turn in the bulk of this review.  Overall, the book was a very helpful work of historical theology with each author presenting substantial views of the developments of both doctrine and experience in each tradition.  This was a pleasant surprise as it positioned each essay in a proper historical light.  Each author covered their historical bases with such clarity that the theological dialogue, cross pollination, and even spiritual interdependence which has taken place among all of these traditions was quite apparent.   Observing the biblical, theological, cultural, and existential issues which have unfolded over the past several hundred years was very helpful in understanding the issues.  I found this to be one of the foremost strengths of the volume.  Additionally, it was surprising that not one theologian of a thorough cessationist vantage point was included among the essays.  In my mind this was refreshing and encouraging, yet some may have desired to hear such a voice.  In summary, I found this volume to be irenic in its voice, collegial in tone, and rigorous in its treatment of the topic.  What will follow are short critical evaluations of each of the author's essays and then some concluding remarks.

Part 1 - The Baptism of the Holy Spirit as the Promise of the Father - A Reformed Perspective by Walter Kaiser

The first essay of the volume was by Dr. Walter Kaiser of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  Dr. Kaiser writes representing a reformed perspective; a Protestant view which couples the baptism of the Holy Spirit with regeneration, being converted as a believer, or becoming a Christian.  Dr. Kaiser's essay places the baptism of the Holy Spirit within Redemptive history by carefully putting forth the Old Testament prophetic promises of a coming age of the Spirit (Joel 2, Isaiah 44, Ezek 37:14).  This anticipation is directly predicted in the Old Testament and points beyond the old covenant to a new and coming age which unfolds in the overall plan of redemption (19).   This anticipation found fulfillment with the New Testament giving of the Holy Spirit to the people of God.   I found the strength of Kaiser's essay to be in that he handles all the references to Spirit Baptism with care and deference to the Bible's actual usage of the terms.  The case is made that in the didactic literature, one is baptized in/with the Spirit into the body of Christ, all being given the same Spirit to drink.  This emphasis on Paul's teaching in 1 Cor 12:13 - that all are unified because all are believers, all have been baptized in one spirit.  If one does not have the Spirit he does not belong to Christ (Rom 8:9, 14); so in one sense all believers are indwelt by the Spirit, having been baptized by the Spirit into the body of Christ.  Kaiser's discussion from this point is to address whether Paul and Luke/Acts deal with the theology of the Spirit in different manners.  Paul, as noted, was concerned with soteriology, Luke it is said was primarily concerned with the empowered and Charismatic doctrine of the Spirit.  Kaiser delicately stresses that the gift of the Spirit in Luke, though empowering and at times charismatic, is always related to salvation and initiation into the new age of the Spirit.  The included debate about the nature of narrative to provide doctrine and theology was especially helpful as this relevant in many discussions today.[1]  Overall I felt Kaiser did a good job relating to all the texts associated with spirit baptism and he made a compelling case that it refers to the initiatory work of the Spirit placing us in the body of Christ rather than a subsequent experience signified by tongues.  It was refreshing to see openness from the reformed position to subsequent empowering and infillings and perhaps all the charismas.  This is a welcomed trend in some reformed circles (Lloyd-Jones, Piper, Grudem) and one that will not doubt continue to be explored in the time remaining until the Lord comes. 

Part 2 - Spirit Baptism: A Pentecostal Perspective by Stanley M. Horton

Stanley M. Horton, offers the case for a classical Pentecostal view of Spirit Baptism as a subsequent experience to conversion/initiation evidenced initially by speaking in tongues.  The essay was an excellent introduction to the history of the Pentecostal revival for those new to the discussion.   All theology is done by persons in historical contexts and knowing the "story of Pentecostalism" was very helpful.  The essay was robust and thorough yet the approach to the material seemed a bit tendentious.  I found that he supported the use of the Acts narrative to formulate doctrine, but then found him lacking in integrating the teaching of actual references to the terms "spirit baptism" into his doctrine.  His focus on the overall phenomena in Acts is helpful to show the work of the Spirit in the lives of believers as they were empowered in prophetic witness, but I found him unconvincing in presenting the doctrine of subsequence as universally taught in the narrative.  His arguments for the second facet of Pentecostalism, that of tongues as the initial evidence was even less persuasive.  He seemed to used arguments from silence in the case of Simon in Acts 8 and Paul's conversion experience in Acts 9.  He even used terms such as "it should be obvious that" (76) and "he must also have spoken in tongues" (76) and "only one thing it could it be" (75) which seemed to be question begging.   As the Acts narrative is not universal in presenting tongues as the initial evidence of the Spirit's coming upon a person, it is unadvised to extrapolate this to all believers.  I find the doctrine that tongues is THE evidence of the Spirit's work a bit strained in its correspondence to the Bible (1 Cor 12:30), church history, or contemporary experience of the diverse body of Christ.  Dr. Dunning's illustration of a mute man who came to faith in his ministry was very compelling as well.  Could this man who could not speak receive the Pentecostal baptism of the Holy Spirit as evidenced by tongues as defined by Horton?  This point was well taken.  Other parts of the essay that I enjoyed were the stories of people's lives being changed and Dr. Horton's anti-cessationist summary on pages 81-83.  His handling of the cessationist argument from 1 Cor 13 was well done.  I also enjoyed his chronicling of the growth of the church in various parts of the world.  Overall I was encouraged by the missionary efforts of the Pentecostals, the stories of the work of the Spirit in the lives of people in various traditions, and their bold witness for Christ.  However, I was thoroughly unconvinced by the doctrine of subsequence evidenced initially and exclusively by speaking in tongues.

Part 3 Spirit Baptism: A Dimensional Charismatic Perspective by Larry Hart

Dr. Larry Hart, a charismatic of Southern Baptist background, presented the third essay of the book, what he called a dimensional charismatic perspective.  As one interested in philosophy, I appreciated the creative (though probably irrelevant) use of Hegelian synthesis to put for his dimensional view.   The thesis is the traditional view that Spirit Baptism is initiation/conversion.  The antithesis is the Pentecostal View of subsequence evidenced by tongues.   The synthesis spawned would be the dimensional view which he summarizes on page 124: Spirit Baptism in the New Testament refers to conversion-initiation, initial sanctification, and spiritual empowerment as well as the outworking of these in the total Christian life.  Hegel would be proud; or would he?

In his survey of the Biblical material, Hart makes the distinction between Pauline and Lukan emphasis on the doctrine of the Spirit with a helpful enumeration of Luke's language in reference to Acts.  Paul speaks of initiation and Luke complements this by adding the empowering nature of the Spirit.  It was good to see the range of vocabulary Luke employs describing the work of the Spirit.  The following phrases are used: baptized in, come upon, filled with, the Spirit is poured out, receive the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit is given, and the Holy Spirit falls upon believers.   The emphasis is clear to Hart; Luke's emphasis is the "power for mission" dimension of pneumatology.  Such a both/and of initiation and empowering fillings seems to be a good tact when considering the overall witness of the text.  I found the categories of pneumatology on page 128 to be a great addition to the book, although a bit broader than the topic of Spirit "baptism."  Though perhaps beyond the stated topic, I felt this was a strength in Hart's contribution.  His categories of the Paschal work of the Spirit (Salvation, conversion, present in the Johanine literature), the Purifying work of the Spirit (Sanctification, Consecration, found in the Pauline literature), and the Pentecostal work of the Spirit (Service, Charisma, found in the Lukan account in Acts) are very helpful in viewing a dimensional work of the Spirit.  I also found his treatment of tongues to reveal some irony in the debate about the gifts of the Spirit.   Some use 1 Cor 12-14, which is addressing an overemphasis on tongues, to overemphasize tongues, while others use the same few chapters to rule them out all together.  The truth does seem to lie somewhere in between.  Finally, I agree with Dr. Kaiser that his use of Jesus' baptism and the decent of the Spirit as paradigmatic for our own empowerment for service brings problems in Christology that are not addressed in Hart's essay.  Also, Kaiser's critique that he misses the main issue in the debate between Pentecostals and Evangelicals about the "baptism" of the Spirit is on target.  I enjoyed seeing the multidimensional work of the Spirit in this essay, but the baptism of the Spirit is either regeneration/initiation/conversion or something else.   I would therefore prefer the language of one baptism, many infillings to the attempt to make the baptism a big happy metaphor into which we can stuff all our pneumatic wanderings.   With all that said, Hart's essay was insightful into the broad workings of the Spirit in believer and church and a joy to read.

Part 4 - A Wesleyan Perspective on Spirit Baptism by H. Ray Dunning 

H. Ray Dunning writes for the Wesleyan viewpoint as one who is striving to maintain a tradition which has been fragmented and perhaps high jacked over the years.  In reading his historical account of the thought of Wesley on the ministry of the Holy Spirit one can see why.  As Wesleyan thought diverged under his successors and then subsequently moved into the American holiness movement, and then Pentecostal thought, one can see why Dunning makes such a concerted effort to clarify the views of Wesley himself rather than his theological descendants.  Much of the essay focused on Wesley's primary theological concern; that of the moral transformation of the believer.  Wesley's concern was the sanctification, or making holy, of the Christian and his pnuematology kept this as a primary concern.  The Spirit was the agent of sanctification in Wesley's mind; the Spirit transforms the believer's life.   As a result Dunning's efforts focused upon character and moral development rather than gifts and empowerment.  Wesley held that initial salvation was indicated by the biblical terminology of baptism in the Holy Spirit.  He then held that entire sanctification, a second work of completion in love by the work of the Holy Spirit, but he did not equate this to the "baptism." (193).  As much of the Pentecostal arm of Christianity traces its roots back to Wesley and subsequently American revivalism, Dunning provided a great look at the historical evolution which brought about today's debate.  The American Holiness movement departed from a classic Wesleyanism and then this departure, combined with Finney's revivalist theology, led to the Pentecostal revival in the early 20th century (see page 204-206).  This was helpful to understand how movements and their modifications spawn certain viewpoints over time. 

Dunning's own Wesleyan view was primarily Christological in focus.  The Spirit is focused on the mission of Christ and the working of Christ in us to change our lives.  This view of the Spirit as the working of Christ's mission to bring forth the new age of the Spirit, change the lives of the believers, was a good complement to the foci of the other essays.  In his focus on moral transformation rather than gifts of the Spirit, I think Dunning missed something organic to the very work of the Spirit he seeks to preserve. The gifts in the New Testament are given to build up the body, which includes the transformation of the people of God.  This corporate nature of the gifts is missed by Dunning in that a body, serving in mission, according to the gifts of the Spirit is morally transformed in the process.  I see his neglect of the charismas as his not wanting to be overly "gifts centered" like some in Pentecostal and Charismatic circles, but I see the charismas needed for the body.  The gifts are given to assist in mission and to fulfill Dunning's noble realization in Wesley's theology, the ethical transformation of the believer.   Although my own view of sanctification is different than that of Dunning (ie my rejection of Wesleyan perfectionism), this perspective is appreciated as the goal of the believer ought to be increasing sanctification and holiness over time.

Part 5-Spirit Baptism: A Catholic Perspective by Ralph Del Colle 

The final chapter is a Roman Catholic perspective on the Pentecostal revival and outpouring of the Spirit in Catholic faith.  This chapter was interesting to me for several reasons.  First, the noted evolution of the Catholic renewal as originating from the interaction with the Protestant Pentecostal movement is a fascinating occurrence.   Second, as Del Colle states, the concern for stated Catholic thought about the Spirit's movement flowed from existential and pastoral concerns.  Something is happening! So the question as to how one thinks about the practice from within the framework of Catholic dogma and spirituality must be addressed.  Del Colle notes that the classic Pentecostal doctrine of subsequence enabled quick reception of the Pentecostal experience into long standing ecclesial traditions (p 244).  Something has happened, but it is a subsequent experience that in no way invalidates Sacramental Catholic theology.  This enables the Catholic system to remain intact while the church, over time, figures out the right place to fit in official teaching on the matter.  The rest of the essay, both historical, and the offering made by Del Colle are about how Catholics have gone about integration of Spirit baptism with the Catholic system (249).  Some have connected it to a fullness of the Spirit received at the rite of initiation, that of water Baptism.  Others have connected it to the rite of continuation, the Sacrament of Confirmation, while still others have given it an extra-sacramental status and related it to a Protestant understanding of "multiple infillings."  Del Colles own constructive proposal holds fast to the sacramental giving of the Holy Spirit in water baptism and the continuation through confirmation.   His view then claims outpourings of the Spirit upon the Catholic as an available experience related to the reception of the sacraments, not replacing them. The Spirit is given to renew the believer, enrich the believer in the full scope of the graces and gifts to be richly received as the Lord gives, but not coveted for their own sake (279).  Overall, I found this essay interesting and an enjoyable read.  Like Hart, I was encouraged to see a portion of the body, wrestling to integrate a thoughtful theological response to a Pentecostal experience in its members.  My main problem was with the whole system of Catholic Sacramentalism.   Del Colle, as a good Catholic scholar, goes to great links to fit the experience many have had into Catholic dogma.  Yet, he does very little to seek to align it with the teaching of the Bible as the norm for doctrine.   However Del Colle's contribution to the volume was much appreciated.  He is very well read and grasps the larger confessional debates.  His approach is a good illustration of wrestling with new theological issues with a pastoral concern for genuine renewal and Christian well being.  The historical connection of Catholic Pentecostal renewal taking place after a renewed evangelical concern (trust in Jesus alone, concern for the lost, etc) among Catholics was a very welcome addition to his essay.

Conclusion 

On the outset of reading this book I was not looking forward to a long discussion of something I have looked at with some depth over the years.   So I must say that I was very pleased and pleasantly surprised by the volume.  I loved the historical horizon provided by the book as each author positioned doctrine within its pastoral, historical, and theological context.   The tone of each writer was collegial and the voice of the book was one that seemed to be moving towards a mutual appreciation, and perhaps even some doctrinal convergence.  The classic Pentecostal and the Reformed view perhaps will never meet, but recognition of the initial baptism of the Spirit into the body (1 Cor 12:13) and continued infillings of the Spirit (as seen in Acts and Eph 5:18) seems to be embraced by all.   I am torn with whether a Cessationist viewpoint should have been included in the book as it is a position still held by many.   Perhaps this view would have been injurious to the tone of the book and personally I am happy to see the influence of cessationism fading as its textual support to me seems scant.   As with most multiple view books, this one is helpful in the formation of ones own views on a matter as seeing all sides represented is always helpful is such growth.  So for this I am very thankful to have been given this volume to read.  May the Lord, the Sovereign triune God of the Bible, continue to save, sanctify and empower his church by the Promised Holy Spirit, our counselor, comforter, teacher and deposit of the glories to come!



[1] It is especially relevant in discussions of church polity as the Acts narrative provides several texts which weigh heavily in that debate (Acts 14:23,15, 20:17-38)

The Physics of Christianity

Well, I took the book The Physics of Christianity with me on vacation in late July looking forward to a refresh of some of my undergraduate course work at UNC Chapel Hill and to see how a contemporary Physicist integrates his scientific work with the doctrines of the Christian Faith. Let me be honest up front that I only got about half way through the work and was tracking with it at a level of investigation to review the book here on the blog. To be frank, I simply didn't finish the book...as it got more and more bizarre as I read on and we ran out of vacation time.

It begins with some big claims that all of the discoveries of modern physics confirm the Christian narrative and its categories. The existence of God as the first cause of the universe, the triunity of this God and beliefs such as the resurection of the dead and eternal life. All fine and dandy. What followed was a pretty approachable discussion of some modern physics. General relativity, quantum mechanics and the standard model for particle physics were all on the docket. I will say that for the uninitiated it will be difficult reading. I did 3 years of a BS in Physics before switching to Applied Computer Science and I found the reading accessible. I kept thinking...you need at least some basic understanding of physics and an analytic mind to follow this.

After the general introductions the book just started getting odd. The singularity at the beginning of this universe, the singularity at the end of this univers and the singularity which began the "multiverse" becomes "Father, Son and Holy Ghost" - The quantum reality of the multiverse and tunneling theory become the means by the multiverse Jesus walks through walls and rises from the dead. Most bizarre was that the resurrection and eternal life become us uploading into supercomputers buried deep in bedrock safe from nuclear blasts. We'll live forever singing Kum Ba Yah in the matrix. No kidding. And I thought being banished to Chiron Beta Prime would be a ride.

Here is an example of someone fully trained and convinced in his own field (Physics) and wandering around in one he clearly does not understand (theology). I applaud Tipler's boldness and zeal and certainly his theories are very interesting if you are a fan of sci-fi. Yet the Christianity of this book was unrecognizable once Tipler's theory of everything had its way.

One final note - here is a full review of the book by Canadian Journalist Denyse O'Leary - something I am unable to do as I did not have the time to finish the work as vacation was a bit short this summer. I wish Tipler the best in his efforts to integrate Physics and faith - a much needed enterprise.  I would only suggest having some theological dialog partners and perhaps reading a few simple catechisms along the way.

The Story of Christianity

 

 

I have recently started a book for a new seminary class I am taking on the history of the Christian church.  You never know how good of a read a "textbook" will be so cracking this one I was wondering whether it would be a good read or a rather sterile experience.  To my delight I was extremely pleased with the first 15 or so chapters.  So I wanted to pass on my recommendation of this volume.  It is extremely approachable for any level of adult reader, written with an engaging style and thorough in its coverage of the ancient sources.  I found myself wanting to get to my homework because the book was so good.  One thing is certain - any reading of early church history shows me how soft we have become in the American church.  I was inspired by the fortitude and commitment of those who followed the risen Jesus to share the good news in their communities. 

Here is a link to the book.  A great resource for any library or someone who is daring to step into the ancient art known as reading.

The Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Reformation by Justo L. Gonzalez

In

Book Review - Great Leader, Great Teacher

 

 
Gary Bredfeldt, Great Leader, Great Teacher – Recovering the Biblical Vision for Leadership (Chicago, Moody, 2006) 208 pp.

 

Introduction

It only takes a moment in a bookstore to see that leadership and success literature abounds in our country. Leadership is an entire industry in America spawning seminars, DVDs, personal training and the ever present stacks of books. The church is also in love with the leadership genre, with all of the above offered for both ministers and lay people alike. Human beings universally recognize something very insightful in this. God has designed human beings with a need for leadership, some of which he delegates to us, without which our world would decay into chaos. There is much to learn from many disciplines regarding leadership. The social sciences and business schools offer profound insights that believers may find helpful in their efforts to lead people in the mission of the gospel. Yet many times we can place things in an order which is foreign to our worldview. Instead of searching for the voice of scripture on our manner of leadership, we can adapt a completely secular view of leadership and then graft this on to the Kingdom of God. Gary Bredfeldt, in his recent book Great Leader, Great Teacher – Recovering the Biblical Vision for Leadership, calls the church to a different paradigm. Instead of beginning with the avalanche of schemas from other points of view, he challenges us to do the work to recover a uniquely scriptural view of leadership. From this point of view, what he calls the biblical vision for leadership, we might then walk faithfully in our leadership, even when plundering theories from other places. The following is a review of his work to recover the biblical vision and offer this to the church. A brief summary of the work will be given, strengths and weaknesses discussed, and personal ministry insights and applications will be drawn in closing.

Brief Summary

The thesis for the book is stated clearly in chapter one of the book: “The most powerful means of leading the people of God is by teaching them the Word of God” (Bredfeldt 2006, 18). The first half of the book endeavors to unpack and demonstrate this, to show where the church has lost it leadership moorings having adopted its models from the world rather than biblical foundations. In this half of the book a high commitment to the primacy and priority of the word of God was the main focus. Building upon this ground, the second half of the book begins with robust discussions of the virtues (qualities) and competencies (skills) required for the task of biblical leadership. From there the book examines the challenge of leading change, the contexts of the churches to which leaders are called, and closes with a chapter focused on persevering amidst the many challenges a biblical leader faces in the twenty-first century.

Strengths

Bredfeldt’s book has many strengths and insights for those who desire to lead in a biblical fashion. First and most outstanding is the book’s laser clear focus on the importance of Scripture in leading the people of God. Second, a strong a critique of leadership tendencies in the local church today was a welcomed asset. Third, the book focuses on Jesus as modeling a different sort of leadership than the success paradigms of the world. Jesus led differently, so much so that many might call him a failure. Fourth, the relationship between the virtues of a Christian leader and his competencies was very helpful. Finally, an unexpected engagement with contemporary philosophical and cultural shifts was a welcomed addition at several junctures in the book. Though at times it seemed the author incorrectly categorized some people within some movements, a reflection on the many problems in the philosophies of our day was very enjoyable. These five strengths will be covered in turn.

Strong Emphasis on the Bible

Right from the beginning Bredfeldt makes it very clear what his primary concern is for contemporary Christian leaders. Bredfeldt states very early in the book that ideas and the modeling of them so powerfully move the world (19). This has been and will continue to be reality on the earth. This being true, our ideas and our lives must originate and be modeled upon the Word of God. Today God’s people live in a shocking ignorance of God’s Word (38) and many lives display a corresponding anemic condition. Leaders must preach God’s Word and personally live in light of its teaching (44). The focus on the Bible as a map for understanding life (42) a revealer of our sin (44) and a director to God’s will (48) was refreshing. It would have been good to see the Bible’s primary focus, the revelation of the person and work of Jesus Christ for our treasuring, adoration and exaltation, included in the work, but the purposes for Scripture mentioned were helpful. Overall there is no better ground upon which to base Christian leadership, than Bredfeldt’s focus on the Scriptures. In the Bible, God reveals truth which must be taught to God’s people, lest they be led astray into heresy (49) with their joy and freedom swept away in the process. This is a tragedy taking place in far too many corners of the church. Finally, his use of many biblical persons like Ezra, Paul and Jesus illustrated his point from within the pages of the Bible he exhorts others to teach.

Critique of the CEO/Manager Model

Bredfeldt spent quite a few words in critique of certain models of leadership absorbed by the church in America today. Primarily in his crosshairs were the leader as a CEO or corporate manager (34). He leveled the critique at leadership which becomes far more concerned with mission statements, graphs, vision, projects, budgets, and statistics than bringing the meat of Scripture to God’s people. Though at times his tone may be construed as dismissive of all things managerial, Bredfeldt did not dismiss them. The managerial and executive functions of a leader are actually highlighted in the latter parts of the book. The point made is that these things cannot replace the centrality of the leader being a teacher of the people. If a Christian leader remakes himself in the mold of a CEO or manager, he just may lose his heart in the process. An excessive focus on growing the organization, seeking personal recognition, and the making of a ministry career can rob a leader of his true calling and joy (40). Bredfeldt’s concern is that leaders may focus their success criteria on the very same things upon which the American enterprise is obsessed. Many will measure a church by “size, rate of growth, and the number of square feet in the newly constructed facility” (78). Or as many insightful people have quipped there is more to leading the church than butts, budgets, and buildings. It is reiterated that planning, statistics, facilities, etc. are not to be dismissed, but the placing them as the pinnacle of success gives way to a managerial pragmatism which is found more on the pages of Forbes than in the Bible. A fine exhortation which is much needed in our day where  copycat models and mega-churches do abound.

Jesus the Failure!

One of the more intriguing chapters of the book dealt with Jesus as a failed leader when judged by the worldly rubric of success, status, and political standing (50-52). Bredfeldt summarizes this with a pithy rhetorical question on page 50 “What leader wants to be crucified by those he seeks to lead?” In seeing Jesus as the failed leader there is a point to be made. After all, Jesus has spawned and inspired a movement that claims some 2 billion adherents today and has shaped the destinies of people and nations over the last 2000 years. What greater success story could there be? Yet in terms of immediate, temporal, worldly, business methods – Jesus would be a failure. Yet he is not. The reason being is that he taught, shepherded and inspired his followers with the truth of God. Such an impact is lasting, not flashy and fading. The

Marriage of Virtues and Competencies

Though perhaps not an original insight, it was good to see the book’s focus on the virtues and competencies of biblical leaders. A person must be a type of person that is trusted and exemplifies character if people are going to follow. A competent jerk, no one shall follow. On the other hand a person can be a great guy and exhibit the highest levels of incompetency. Being and doing must flow together in effective leadership. A book on leadership which does not see this is deficient. Though virtue is making a comeback, much of the world is satisfied with results at any cost. A biblical leader must never tread such ground.

Assessment of Contemporary Culture

Finally, the book provided an enjoyable treatment of prevailing contemporary philosophies. There were two primary critiques offered in relating to today’s cultural moods; Bredfeldt presented these as ditches that we ought to avoid (70). The first dealt primarily with accommodating the edges of postmodern thought while the latter dealt with that of isolation from the culture. He critiqued the postmodern views of truth as relative and truth as that which is derived as useful to the community (74-75). It was expected that the author would rightly come down hard against the excessive accommodation to culture found in churches. The pragmatic cultural urge was critiqued in the mega sized, theology light churches found in increasing number today (76-79). In addition a strong critique of the existentialist urge of the Emergent strain of the church was also levied (79-80). Again, it was no surprise to read Bredfeldt’s critique of those who have rejected an objective revelation of truth from God in favor of the cultural winds of either pragmatism or existentialism. What was not expected was the equally strong warning against the fundamentalist urge to isolate the church from culture (80-82). It is often that the sin of cultural accommodation or worldliness is focused upon. While the sin of a separated church, disconnected with Non Christians, is sometimes overlooked. The inclusion of the warning to the isolated was refreshing indeed. Bredfeldt’s idealistic yet difficult exhortation was to lead from the center. The task we must lead towards is that of being relevant and biblical, biblical and culturally accessible (82). This was a joy to see in this volume.

Weaknesses

In confession, I must admit that I peaked at some content at the end of the book before taking up the read itself. What was read there was a weakness which almost biased me against the work. This would have been very unfortunate. Yet there were a few shortcomings found later in the volume mainly surrounding chapter 8 – Leadership in Context: Four Basic Types of Churches. We will briefly touch these below. Some Unnatural Classifications Though charts and graphs are helpful, the book intensified in fitting things into boxes, quadrants, diagrams and categories towards the end of the book. I did not find this to be helpful to the book’s over all theses particularly where the classification just seemed at best odd, at worst, flat out wrong. Chapter 8 showed a determination to describe every sort of church today within a grid of four categories (Power Church, Program Church, Pluralistic Church, Proclamation Church) built by the combination of four other categories (Spirit/Truth, Works/Faith). All of it was nice and tidy, but it seemed to fall short of really placing things in nice boxes. There was of course some truth in the categorizations, but also some clear errors. One of the most glaring was the classification of various scholars, pastors, and teachers which were placed in the pluralistic category of church. It appears that Bredfeldt lumped together a large amount of men who have associated with one another in some way in the past. For this reason they were categorized side by side. One quick example will illustrate. Under the pluralistic section pastor’s Mark Driscoll and Doug Padgett are lumped together (172). This is ironic because these two men might as well be from other planets in terms of ecclesiology, homiletics, and theological method. Driscoll advocates eldership and authority, preaching as preaching, and a reformed, biblical hermeneutic and method. Padgett advocates a flattened church polity, preaching as dialogue and a malleable, culturally dictated hermeneutic. Literally, a re-imagining of literally everything.  One believes there is a faith once for all entrusted to the saints, the other believes the church should reimagine its doctrine in every age and cultural setting. These two men’s essays and responses in the recent book Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Church – Five Views (Weber 2007) makes this clear. There are other people listed together in this section that cause one to scratch his head, but it will be left at one example for the sake of brevity. At the conclusion of all the church categorizing, his exhortation was towards the center of the spirit, truth, faith, and works intersection. This was diagramed on page 174. The plea for balance is appreciated; it just seemed that such a plea could have been accomplished without most of this chapter; certainly without throwing some people under an Emergent bus in the process.

Application to Life and Ministry

There are many things in Great Leader, Great Teacher which are of great benefit to my ministry responsibilities. First, the emphasis that Scripture must steer the direction of the leader is absolutely invaluable. It is so easy to give way to the lure of success, station, and status when it is peddled in the church by those who are “doing it right.” As I am working towards planting new churches, the reminder to keep teaching central is greatly appreciated. The pulpit, small groups, and ministries to the poor, all need to engage in teaching the biblical gospel. This was a great reminder of a value currently held dear. Second, the care not to capitulate to the world and give way to an impotent cultural captivity is needed in every era. Efforts in church planting should walk a balanced line of utter biblical and theological faithfulness, while faithfully contextualizing and incarnating the church in contemporary culture. Such a balanced approach to ministry in the twenty-first century will shape our desire to reach out to people in culture, but hold to a theologically driven paradigm. Bredfeldt’s book has encouraged us to avoid the ditches of excessive pragmatism and existentialism while living lives connected with unbelievers in culture.

Conclusion

Bredfeldt’s efforts to inspire Christian leaders to lead as teachers are timely yet not reactionary. There is no exhortation in this book to jettison leadership principles and only preach a sermon once a week. This is a book on leadership, but a book with a goal to ground all leadership with a biblical vision. The leader who does not teach the Word of God will run his own soul and life of his congregation aground upon the rocks of the world. Yet the faithful man who desires to lead by teaching charts a clear course from God’s Word into God’s Mission in the world. One could not help to hear Paul’s words to Timothy echo in this desire: Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. 1 Timothy 4:16 ESV I found the book well worth the time.

Reference List:

Weber, Robert, Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches – Five Views (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2007)

In

Book Review - Simple Church

 

Thom S. Rainer and Eric Geiger, Simple Church – Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples (Nashville, Broadman and Holman, 2006) 257pp.

Introduction

A simple revolution is afoot. Some people know it, some people do not. From the elegance of the Google home page, to the industrial design of the products from Apple Inc, to the system of air travel put forth by Southwest airlines, or better pizza, better ingredients1; simplicity is in. This revolution, so says Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger, has made its way into the church as well; and this is a good thing. This review will briefly summarize the argument made by Rainer and Geiger in their recent work Simple Church – Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples (from here on, Simple Church), discuss some of the strengths of their position, highlight a few shortcomings and then close with some thoughts of application for life and gospel ministry. To the summary we now turn; hopefully it will be simple.

Brief Summary

The thesis of the book is that a revolution is happening. A simple revolution; one in which the churches that move everything along a basic pathway for spiritual formation are growing and flourishing while those who cram menus full of disconnected programs are well…simply floundering. The thesis is supported by research done by surveying a range of churches and measuring their responses to questions geared to gauge the simplicity of the church along several criteria. The results of the survey were that having a simple process/path to spiritual maturity is a key factor in the success of a church (success here defined as a growing congregation). The statistical results of the survey were at a level of .001; a number that is highly significant, apparently a range of correlative significance that causes mandatory singing among statisticians (14). They define a simple church as “a congregation designed around a straight-forward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth” (60).

The results of the research led the authors to several conclusions which they summarized along four lines. Each simple church had clarity, movement, alignment and focus. The rest of the book breaks out these aspects – a clear process, moving people along this process sequentially, aligning all ministries and programs of a church to the process, and maintaining focus by saying no more than David Spade on a capital one credit card commercial. Their conclusions were that to be or become simple means to survive. The call towards the end of the book is that churches must return to a simple process of discipling people; or die. Simple enough? Now some strengths and weaknesses of simply being (or in the case of this book the process of doing) the church will be examined.

Strengths

This book has several outstanding and helpful points to make. For the sake of brevity, the strengths will be summarized along three lines. First, the much needed critique of the propensity for churches to become spazzed out program factories to the detriment of the mission of God will be discussed. The second strength is the exhortation to church leaders to become “designers or architects” of communities rather than men busy implementing church fads and running programs. The final strength to be focused on will be some great leadership insights offered in the book.

Critiquing the Spazzed Out Menu Church

One of the things which stood out in this book is the illustration and critique of the church that labors to fill its menu with programmatic delights which pack full the schedule of pastor and parishioner alike. The reality that too many Christians are “busy” with church stuff, including leaders, was brought out both with the fictitious illustrations of Pastor Rush (4-8) and with the real life illustration of First Church (41-46). The contrast between the spazzed out programming spinning “First Church” and the more simple “Cross Church” to be a compelling method to get this point across. Whether or not the authors were poking at their own tradition with the chosen names to represent the churches will never be known, yet it did seem to indicate a simple Cross centered church to be preferred to the bulky traditional church perpetuating programs.

Community Designers and Architects

The second area of strength for the book was the use of the metaphor of builder or architect for church leaders and pastors. The metaphor is biblical for it is Paul’s own description of his discipling the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 3:10-15). Now some may object that Paul is speaking of building people, not systems and processes for the church. Yes, Paul is speaking of the work among the people, but certainly his work would have contained a method. We see this in other parts of the New Testament as Paul describes his ministry. He passed on the gospel to the people (1 Corinthians 15), he demonstrated from Scripture that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 18:28), he preached the cross (1 Corinthians 1), he established young leaders (see 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus), he proclaimed Jesus, admonished and taught (Colossians 1:28, 29) and he showed concern for the poor (Galatians 2:10). Jesus himself certainly had a method as well as shown briefly in this volume (160-162) and in more detail elsewhere.2 So the architecture metaphor of Paul is rightly applied to architecting church processes, if those processes indeed are about making disciples of Jesus Christ. The emphasis on designing processes that are simple, clear, with movement, aligning all things, and staying focused is a great reminder in the wilderness of evangelical pragmatism which consistently peddles a new model for “doing church” to the masses who want to “do it right.” The emphasis on design calls pastors to pull out of the fray of the day to day operation of the church to bring heart and mind before the clean air of the throne of Grace, seeking God’s direction for the church. The book encourages us to step back and see the big picture. (26) Pastor Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill Church in Seattle repeatedly exhorts pastors to make sure they take the time to work on their church not simply in it. Anyone who has experienced the phone calls, e-mails, and meetings of a growing and needy congregation will realize this need to pull out, pray, and get clarity on what we need to do and what should be left on the cutting room floor.

Some Highlights for me personally that spoke to good architecture:

  • “A plagiarized biblical vision is always a good thing” (39) – Yes, we ought to take our method and vision from Scripture.
  • Seeing numbers across the church process horizontally so you can observe not just growth, but sequential movement. (47-48)
  • Have the process touch every member of the family, each ministry to each age are experiencing the same process (182). I did find a flaw here as well, as the family is still not experiencing the process “together” in the fashion the book described. The focus was still on creating programs that separate the spiritual formation of the family out into women, men, kids, etc.
  • Recruiting members of the staff team to the process, rather than simply recruiting an all star team without any alignment to the philosophy of ministry (53).
  • Focusing your new member class on the process (152) so everyone is exposed to the way the church lives out the gospel together. Doing this from day one for people becoming members.

General Leadership Insights

Finally, the book offered several good insights and general principles for leadership. The insights ranged in topic so this will treat them in the order they occurred to the author of this paper. First, an emphasis was placed on seeing philosophical as well as theological alignment on staff teams (174). It is not enough to believe the same things, but also to have agreement on how and what to do in accomplishing the things we believe. Different churches will have different emphases, but if a staff team is going in six different directions within the team, unity and teamwork becomes problematic. Second, the emphasis given on leaders actually doing what they call others to do (132) is not groundbreaking but a necessary statement to make. My only fear is that many ministers find much of the gospel difficult and leave it untried. If a pastor does not want to spend time with and love the poor, he may never preach about it and lead a process towards this. This is very common in many evangelical circles. This book reminds that preaching and living should be conjoined; that leaders cannot shrink back from preaching obedience to Jesus, even when it requires that we not neglect the matter ourselves. Third, in the discussion on alignment, the book gave a great reminder that people “drift from alignment” over time (75) to be indispensible to leadership. Leaders must never tire from saying the same things over time. Say it differently, say it with freshness, but it must be said. New people do not know and have the history with the process and old people go to sleep. Words and deeds should be present so the process is both known and seen. Alignment will otherwise dissipate over time. Finally, the authors did a good job presenting the tension involved with the pace of change to move a congregation to a simple process. Do it fast, but not too fast – wisdom for both the impatient and procrastinator. Let the Spirit guide the brake and gas pedal, but the leaders/designers must get moving nonetheless. These were the leadership insights found helpful in the volume.

Weaknesses

Though for the most part the book to have helpful insights, it did have a few weaknesses and drawbacks. Two will be covered here: 1) the linearity of the process description and 2) the possible pitfalls of being so process driven. Each will be handle in turn.

Linearity, Front Doors, and Person Centered Entry Points

Throughout the book the emphasis is placed on moving people through a process and system of spiritual growth. The reader is exhorted to think through the entry point of the process and then how they will move program to program in the system. In literally every example the front door to the church was the Sunday worship service. Though this is probably a valid insight and good design; to expect people to “show up first” on Sunday, it needs to be nuanced in our day as the church must take the gospel to people who simply are not “coming to church.” Much has been written today about the influence of relational networks and the rapid spread of the early church and the process in which conversions take place. Rodney Stark, sociologist and historian at Baylor University, makes this point very clear in Cities of God - The Real Story of How Christianity Became and Urban Movement and Conquered Rome, his recent study of conversion in the early church. His argument was that conversions occurred through the relational networks of Christian believers moving through the empire in the course of commerce and everyday life.3 In thinking through entry points into a church, the thinking needs to be that every person is an entry point, every small group, every service rendered to the poor, as well as the Sunday morning. It is agreed that Sundays should still be considered a main entry, yet the emphasis on having other smaller, even person centered entry points was lacking. A simple process designed as described in this book would support a multiple entry point church without adjustment, but the people must be lead to think of their lives together in a certain fashion. Are they “coming to church” and “bringing others to church” or are they the sent people of God into culture as missionaries, representing and bringing the gospel everywhere they live, work, and play? There is an immense difference in the two. Members should see the home, the pub, the small group, the place of common interest, the civic club, the soccer fields etc. as possible first steps in a simple process. The congregation must be discipled to be missionaries in culture.

Potential for Process Idolatry

The other concern found with the work was the obsessive focus on the process itself. In some cases this could have people forgetting who we are to “be” within the process. Getting the good process in place does not solve the problem of the heart. The church can easily make an idol out of a process. If the process becomes an idol, our churches could feel like robotically focused factories that miss people “in the process.” It is understood that the authors’ argument is that returning to a simple discipleship process will focus people on God, but it must be said that systems can become ends to themselves. One quick example. Rick Warren offers a diagram of turning a core in to a crowd in his purpose driven system. It looks like the following:

 

Without stating the obvious there is someone very important missing from the diagram. The diagram is designed to show the different audiences and persons which the church is targeting with their programs and efforts. Now in defense of Warren, the diagram assumes the triune God is “everywhere in the picture” but my concern with process-centrism is that people could begin to miss God in the process. Even in a clear, Love God, Love Neighbor, Love the World, processes we cannot assume that people’s affections are being directed to God and not the self oriented consumption of the simple programs of the church. Simple is better in that there is less to consume, but if the content of the programs is lacking the church can be running people through a process and not be accomplishing much of any real substance. It seems more could have been said about the theological vision within the ministry process, how people change, but perhaps that is another book and this is a critique of something that is not the intended purpose of this volume. Yet this was a concern when interacting with the text.

Conclusion

Overall Simple Church is a practical and helpful read. For churches which are overloaded with events and programs the book will prove to be invaluable. One thing not mentioned by the book, nor so far in this review is the gift simplicity gives to the Christian who desires to spend time with lost people. When life together as a church is simplified people will have more margin to spend time doing things with and for people outside of the church community. In an era where Christian people must go to others in the world, simplicity will only help that process. I did take to heart the good news given by the authors on page 230 – “Attention church planters: this information is good news for you. While you have little money, own no land or buildings, you are able to design from scratch.” Amen, and amen.

Notes

1. This of course is the marketing tag line for Papa John’s pizza, another company cited in the introduction.
2.Robert Coleman’s Master Plan of Evangelism is still a very helpful and simple book on the method of Jesus. Additionally, Ajith Fernando’s recent Jesus Driven Ministry is a good study on the way of Jesus from a study of the gospel of Mark.
3. For more on Stark’s recent work see my review here

References:

Rodney Stark, Cities of God The Real Story of How Christianity Became and Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (San Francisco, Harper SanFrancisco, 2006)

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Review - The Jesus Storybook Bible

Sally Lloyd-Jones, The Jesus Storybook Bible, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007)

There are times in life when something truly exceeds the expectations you had for it.  Recently, my daughters (5 and 3) and I were pleasantly surprised.  I love good resources for teaching children and walking through biblical and theological themes with them.  Unfortunately much of what is out there for kids can be a bit cheesy, not as gospel centered, and many times has illustrations that make Jesus look like a white European woman in a dress.  When I read about a new kids Bible endorsed by Tim Keller, a pastor of whom I think quite highly, we ordered it up in one of the those wonderful little brown Amazon.com boxes. What arrived was actually quite delightful.

The Jesus Storybook Bible is written by Sally Lloyd-Jones and is illustrated by Jago (one word named people are usually cool...or weird...in this case cool).  The title of the book is very appropriate as  this is a book of Bible stories.  The difference here is that the stories are all told from a christological standpoint with Jesus the foreshadowed rescuer in every narrative.  To be honest the understanding of theological typology in the Old Testament demonstrated by Lloyd-Jones is wonderful and her writing causes the reader the feel the expectation of a coming Messiah with great anticipation.  Jesus is found on every page, subtly anticipated in every story. Indeed, the subtitle of the book "Every story whispers his name" is very accurate for the text written by Lloyd-Jones.  It should be noted that this is a narrative based closely on biblical content, but not a translation of the Scriptures.  I do not think this detracts from the work but the term "Bible" might throw some people.

Here is an excerpt of the delightful prose:

“It’s like an adventure story about a young Hero who came from a far country to win back his lost treasure. It’s a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne, everything to rescue the one he loves. It’s like the most wonderful of fairy tales that have come true in real life. You see, the best thing about this story is—it’s true. It takes the whole Bible to tell this story. And at the center of the Story there is a baby. Every story in the Bible whispers his name. He is like the missing piece in a puzzle—the piece that makes all the other pieces fit together and suddenly you can see a beautiful picture. And this is no ordinary baby. This is the Child upon whom everything would depend. This is the baby that would one day—but wait, our story starts where all good stories start. Right at the very beginning...”

The illustrations are both age appropriate and fun for children but also culturally sensitive. In other words, the pictures are enjoyable and Jesus looks like a guy who was likely a middle eastern Jewish carpenter.  Jago's style is unique and creative, with almost all of his work done digitally.  You can see a sample by clicking on the following image.

 

Finally, I would recommend this for anyone to read to familiarize with Christ-centered, redemptive-historical, narrative theology.  The text is engaging and serious enough for all ages to gain from it.  I highly recommend the fathers out there to read this to their children.  There will be benefit to all involved.  Tim Keller sums this up well so I will let his words end the review.

I would urge not just families with young children to get this book, but every Christian—from pew warmers, to ministry leaders, seminarians and even theologians! Sally Lloyd-Jones has captured the heart of what it means to find Christ in all the scriptures, and has made clear even to little children that all God's revelation has been about Jesus from the beginning—a truth not all that commonly recognized even among the very learned.”

Dr. Tim Keller, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, NYC

The web site for the book is very informative and you can find an author interview, samples, ordering information, etc. on the site.  Here is the basic 411: Sally Lloyd-Jones, The Jesus Storybook Bible, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007) - Hardcover, 352 pages ISBN: 0-310-70825-7 $16.99 US $22.99 CAN £9.49 UK age: 4 and up reading level: 9-12 suitable for all the family

Book Review - Cities of God


Rodney Stark, Cities of God The Real Story of How Christianity Became and Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (San Francisco, Harper SanFrancisco, 2006) 280pp.

Introduction

Rodney Stark brings a unique perspective to the history and development of Christianity. Not only is he a responsible scholar who seeks to construct reliable histories, as a sociologist he looks at the events, times, places with an earthy human perspective. Stark’s most recent book, Cities of God, (henceforth COG), is an interesting analysis of how the Christian faith spread first through the urban areas of the Roman Empire. Stark tests his urban hypothesis with several available samples of social data from the first several centuries of the movement. His use of quantifiable social data from the first three centuries of Christianity makes this book unique in its treatment of the subject. Rather than reading a theory onto data, Stark’s attempt is to form a hypothesis and then test it using quantitative methods. I was interested in the book for a few reasons. First, it is looks seriously at the Christian faith as an urban phenomenon. With the populations of the world continually moving towards large urban centers, Christianity as an urban faith is of paramount interest today. Second, the book places the fledgling Christian movement in its proper social/cultural world, neither idolizing the early days of the church, nor minimizing the faith commitments of the early propagators of the gospel. In this review I will briefly summarize the work, look at what I considered some of its strengths and weaknesses, and then draw a short conclusion. At the outset I want to make my position clear. I am looking at the work primarily as a practitioner, albeit one who is scholarly interested. I am not an historian or sociologist and will make no such intimations in my review. Others will likely want to evaluate Starks work on the grounds of his statistical methods, sociological assumptions, and historical conclusions. This is not my goal. I will simply look at this work from a standpoint of one interested in history and what we might learn from the church’s past.

Summary of the Book

Stark’s main thesis in the book is very interesting indeed. His claim is that the meteoric rise of the Christian faith in the ancient world can be accounted for by the following factors. First, that religious conversion takes place through existing social networks and relationships. Second, these networks primarily took root in the densely packed urban centers of the Roman Empire. Third, the growth of Christianity in a relatively short time span can be accounted for by a moderate rate of conversion in these major population centers.

To support his thesis he first develops a sociology of conversion from research done with the Moonies in the United States during the second half of the twentieth century (COG 8-13). He then uses this to reinforce the idea that conversation comes first through relational connections and only secondarily through ascent to new belief systems. Stark goes on to support his thesis by researching social data in 31 major cities of the empire. He first models how moderate rates of conversion in cities and spreading through travel/commerce could easily account for the flowering growth of the faith. Along the way he adjusts and supports his conclusions by looking at various social conditions and their affect upon acceptance of Christian beliefs. These additional factors are a literal tour de force of ancient religious practices in the Roman Empire. He spans the influence of eastern religions (Isis and Cybele worship), thoroughly factors in the rich response to the gospel in Hellenized Jewish communities of the Diaspora, and dances through the influence (or more accurately lack of influence) of the various Gnostic heresies so popular with religious scholars and pop fiction of our day. He finishes with a brief chapter on the last days of Paganism before closing with an exhortation towards the use of quantifiable data in testing our historical hypotheses. The book also includes a thorough appendix highlighting the data underlying his research – all the sociology research geeks will rejoice in this I am sure.

Critical Analysis

In evaluating this work I will do so by briefly looking at what I considered to be the strengths and weaknesses of the book. I will look first at the strengths as they occupy most of my analysis, and then move to one major drawback I found in the book. I consider the latter minor in comparison to the strengths, but it does involve serious theological assumptions which affect our understanding of the progress of Christianity.

Strengths

I found Stark’s analysis to have many benefits to both our historical understanding as well as application to contemporary life and ministry. To look at the positive aspects of his work I will first comment on his emphasis on social networks and conversion. I will then look at the relationship of this emphasis to Christianity as an urban phenomenon. Next I will comment on his focus Paul’s missionary activity burgeoning from Hellenized Diaspora Jewish communities before closing with Stark’s analysis of historical studies in the ancient empire (City Abstracts, Gnosticism, Isis/Cybele worship).

Conversion as a Sociological Phenomenon

Stark’s argument is based upon a certain social understanding of conversion. I found this to be both helpful and a bit theologically shallow. First, expanding on research on conversions done with those moving over to Sun Yung Moon’s Unification Church (Moonies), Stark establishes that people move from one religion to another distinct belief system through relationships in social networks (COG 8-13). Only when strong social bonds exist in the new religion, do people find the courage and strength to move out of their traditional religious setting. In concluding his summary of recent research on conversion he makes the following summary statement:

By now dozens of close-up studies of conversion have been conducted. All of them confirm that social networks are the basic mechanism through which conversion takes place. To convert someone, you must first become their close and trusted friend. But even your best friends will not convert if they already are highly committed to another faith. (COG 13.)
I found this to be a helpful understanding for those seeking to share the gospel with others today. Evangelistic methods that are not highly relational, that do not include opportunities to love and do life with others, may be perceived as inauthentic and they may not be very effective. There is a mammoth shortcoming in this view in that almost relegates God to the sidelines of the act of conversion. This is primarily due to the author’s theological views, which color his understanding of conversion. This will be a feature of the work which will be addressed in a moment, but for now I will only say that a social network understanding of evangelism to be very helpful. Finally, while Stark does make mention of the strength of monotheism in providing both missionary zeal and long term commitment to “the one true God” his focus is clearly that conversions happen when the non committed are connected relationally with the faithful. It is in this ground that conversions take place and such soils were readily available in the urban contexts of the Roman Empire.

The Urban Spread of Christianity

Stark’s treatment of the role of urban centers in early Christianity is also very insightful. Cities in that time (as are cities today), were centers of commerce, greater population density, diversity of peoples, and the movement/exchange of ideas. In the Roman Empire travel increasingly took place via sea routes with the Roman road system being difficult to pass with commercial goods. The roads were a great network throughout the empire, but they were designed primarily for the nimble movement of roman soldiers throughout the provinces (COG 74). As a result the major port cities became the preferred urban hubs for commercial travel. Christian believers committed to the new faith would carry their beliefs with them establishing social networks in the port cities where they lived and did their work. Believers saw discipleship to Jesus as a new way of life, at times being known simply as followers of the way (Acts 9:1, 2). They lived and travelled the empire in the normal courses of life taking the message of the gospel with them into new social networks, precisely the contexts in which conversions take place. Stark traces the early movements of the gospel through the larger, Hellenized, port cities of the empire, with those being closest to Jerusalem becoming Christianized first (COG 76-83). Stark also connects the success of early Christianity to cities which had prominent religious diversity and acceptance of other eastern religions (namely Cybele and Isis worship). His idea here was that cities with these religions were already accepting beliefs that were different than those of the classical paganism of Greece and Rome hence making religious movement easier. This focus on the successful mission to cities should also encourage Christians who are interested in the mission of Jesus to focus on urban social networks for making disciples in the post Christian west.

The Mission within Diaspora Communities

Another strength of the book is Stark’s focus on Hellenized Jews of Diaspora communities which were found in the port cities. These Jewish communities had become very Greek in culture with many leaving some of the strictures of The Law (COG 125) prior to the arrival of the Christian gospel. These were Greek speaking Jews who were almost living between cultures; quite ready to accept a new way which is in many ways are middle ground between Athens and Jerusalem. Stark sees the Christian mission to these communities a significant factor in much early Christian conversion. His conclusion:

For many Hellenized Jews, a monotheism with deep Jewish roots, but without the Law, would have been extremely attractive (COG 126)

Hellenized Jews and “God-fearers” who were associated with the synagogues would be the beachhead in many major Roman cities. The result of the conversion of Diaspora Jews would be vehement opposition from the Jewish traditionalists holding onto their culture – precisely what we observe in the book of Acts.

A few final strengths

There are a few other features I want to mention before closing my remarks on the strengths of the work. First, the brief abstracts on the 31 prominent ancient cities were very valuable as an educational experience. It was interesting to see each geographical region of ancient Europe and the major cities that propelled it into the middle ages (See Chapter 2 – The Urban Empire). Additionally the background and theology of the ancient near eastern religions of Isis and Cybele were very interesting and bit bizarre. I will just refer the reader to page 91 of the book for some spooky weird stuff on the Cybelene priests. I will just say that I would have been a quick drop out from Cybele Seminary and that modern drag queens have nothing on these ancient enthusiasts of the eastern goddess. Finally, the chapter treating the history and influence on Gnosticism is worth the price of the book. For those who have read the Ehrmans and Pagels of the world on the so-called alternative Christian communities in the early church, this chapter is extremely helpful. Stark demonstrates sociologically that these aberrant and heretical sects were not major players in the expanse and propagation of the faith. They were heretics practicing a different religion than the Christian faith which spread through the urban centers of Rome. For those interested in discussions of the heretical Gnostic sects, chapter 6 of Starks work is a welcomed addition to that discussion.

One Glaring Weakness

Reading Theological Presuppositions into Research

My main frustration with Cities of God was not sociological but theological in nature. Starks is not a theologian, but he presses his theological perspectives a bit awkwardly into some of his research. The place this surfaces is discussing the way conversions take place and what God can and cannot do in the process. The problematic sections surface in the chapter on Christianization. He begins with a discussion of a phenomenon known as mass conversions which are recorded in the book of Acts and thought by some historians to be the only explanation for the massive growth of the church in its first 300 years (COG 64). Stark finds these mass conversions (including those recorded in Acts) dubious for four primary reasons – theological, sociological, historic, and arithmetic (COG 65). For my purposes I will focus on his theological objection to mass conversions, which in fact he literally applies to all Christian conversion in general. I will quote him at length so as to not misrepresent his view:

Harnak was right that mass conversions would qualify as miracles. And that’s precisely the theological basis for rejecting their occurrence. God could have created human beings incapable of sin and in no need of Christ’s sacrifice. But he didn’t. God could have caused all human beings to accept Christ. But he didn’t. Either act would have violated free will. It was in this spirit that, as scripture reports, Jesus charged his followers to go and “make disciples of all nations.” So why would God perform a lot of little conversion miracles? Intervention in human affairs to compel even one person, let alone a few thousand people, to embrace Christianity is inconsistent with essential Christian doctrine. (COG 65, emphasis in original.)
I find this quotation almost unbelievable in light of both church history and the witness of the New Testament. First, there are vast Christian sources from history which teach precisely that conversion is in fact a work of God This tradition can be traced through all Christian sects and is found prominently in reformed groups represented in the works of Spurgeon, Edwards, Bunyan, Knox, Calvin, and St. Augustine of Hippo. Yet even outside of the reformed line others consistently give God at least a role in conversion. The great Catholic doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, a strong proponent of the freedom of the will in conversion, readily taught that man cannot be converted but by an act of God. A brief citation from his Summa Theologica will suffice.
Likewise, the order of nature can only be restored, i.e. man's will can only be subject to God when God draws man's will to Himself, as stated above. So, too, the guilt of eternal punishment can be remitted by God alone, against Whom the offense was committed and Who is man's Judge. And thus in order that man rise from sin there is required the help of grace, both as regards a habitual gift, and as regards the internal motion of God. (Summa Theologica – Question 109 – The necessity of Grace, Article 7 - Whether man can rise from sin without the help of grace?)
It seems that Stark’s view here is at odds with, at the very least, large segments of Christian thought and history; it seems equally out of step with the New Testament. John’s gospel describes conversion as a new birth and that birth as being from the work of God. Additionally, Jesus taught clearly “all that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37) and additionally “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). Paul uses the metaphor of Christians being made alive by God to describe conversion in Colossians 2:13. Finally, Paul’s treatment of calling in 1 Corinthians 1 and Romans 8 also seem to indicate God’s intervening work in conversion. I do not want to go into the detailed debates surrounding the doctrines of election and effectual calling in this book review, I only want to say that Stark seems to fall radically to one side of the spectrum in describing God’s role in conversion. Stark’s view is almost completely naturalistic, a conversion based only on sociological factors, needing little if any work from the Spirit of God. Additionally, the dismissal of the accounts in Acts of mass conversion is also suspect for all who maintain a high view of the inspiritation of Scripture. Scholars who research the effects of preaching in historic revivals may also find the statement:
One sermon, no matter how dynamic, does not prompt the fundamental shift of identity essential to a religious conversion; even after these listeners had been baptized, there would have been a great bit still to be done before any of them could have been claimed as Christian. (COG 64, 65)

to be a bit problematic. I acknowledge that Stark may be using the term conversion in a more holistic fashion, but when dealing with theological issues I would have preferred greater clarity. Stark’s theological views of conversion and freewill perhaps bias him against supernatural explanations of early church growth which would perhaps compliment his conclusions based on helpful sociology. I found this to be the most glaring weakness of the book.

Conclusion

Overall, I highly enjoyed Cities of God and recommend it highly as a useful study for those thinking about missional engagement in complex cultural settings. His insights into the importance of social networks and urban centers will prove helpful to church planters and missionaries who take the message of the gospel into our world today. For those who can see past his theological perspective (read – relax intensely reformed brethren), I commend this book to those interested in studies pertaining to early Christianity and missiology.

Book Review - The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible

Many times a book fails to live up to its own title - Paul Wegner's The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible is not such a book.  Indeed what you get with Wegner's work is a tour de force history of the Christian Bible.

The book contains some standard fair concerning the canon of the Old and New Testament, extra canonical works, a survey of the major Greek and Hebrew texts underlying the Scriptures.  What is surprising is how thorough each section of the book actually is.  

The work is very much true to its title and takes the reader on a journey from ancient texts all the way up to our modern English Bible translations.  The work covers almost every English Bible from the time of Wycliffe up to the publication date of the book.   The book covers the development of ancient languages, the various texts of the Scriptures and early translations into various languages in the ancient world.  The chapters on the history of the English Bible is worth the cost of the book in itself as it is an excellent survey of translation as well as the people, places, and political controversies surrounding the translation of the Bible into the venacular. 

I found the various sections of the book to stand very well on their own so purchasing the book to serve as a reference volume is recommended as well.  It is scholarly resource, but one I found to be approachable.  My main problem with the book is that it was so interesting my pace in reading it was considerable slower than the time I allocated to plow through its pages. 

For those who want to see the fascinating twists and turns of history, language, translations, and the struggle forward of the church around its holy writings, this journey is worth the time to read. 

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The Exodus Decoded - An Interesting Documentary

 

Recently the History Channel showed a new documentary by Simcha Jacobovici entittled The Exodus DecodedThe documentary is presented by award winning producer James Cameron (of Terminator and Titanic fame) who makes several appearances throughout the treatment of the Biblical Exodus.  A friend of mine caught the new documentary when it was on TV; I ordered the DVD because we don't get the channel. There are exerpts of the show available online and the trailer is very good. Before the brief review I wanted to give the brief description of the aims of the project

After six years of unprecedented research, host Simcha Jacobovici and a team of renowned archeologists, Egyptologists, geologists, and theologians shed revelatory new light on the Exodus and the era's ruling Egyptian Dynasty. Their new theory pushes events hundreds of years earlier than previously thought, allowing age-old stories to sparkle with new perspectives and startling historical import.

First, I will say that the creativity and production quality of this DVD is amazing.  The CG animation is fantastic with Jacobovici presenting from within this ancient-future looking set which smells of mystery, archaelogy, transcendence and wonder.  The camera zooms in and out and the viewer travels through the CG from the host, out to on location footage, to artifacts, and back again.  It is too hard to even describe, but is a must to see. The trailer can give you the feel.

Now the content of the film is basically an effort to prove that the Biblical Exodus is a real historical event.  It takes the narrative of the Bible as its source and stays faithful to the biblical accounting while seeking to demonstrate the reality of the events from the point of scientific investigation.  Jacobovici traverses the disciplines of forensic archaeology, vulcanology, Old Testament studies, and the histories of Egypt, the Ancient Near East, and the Greeco-Roman Mediteranean.  Evangelical Old Testament and ANE James K. Hoffmeier of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and author of the recent Ancient Israel in Sinai: Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition, makes a few appearances in the film offering expertise from his area of research. Jacobovici's theories and chronology are controversial and challenged by many scholars; the reality is that Exodus studies have many chronologies and many theories surrounding its dating.  This documentary suggests a very early date (around 1500), make the move to identify the Hyksos with the Hebrews (he is not the only one to do this), and uses geological phenomenon to account for the ten plagues. Basically, the plagues that God brought on Egypt are explained as being the result of a volcanic eruption, and a related effect which occurred in the Nile river delta.  Some of these explanations are plausible, others quite ridiculous (the death of the first born is a bit silly)

The science of the plagues is indeed interesting and though I in no way suggest this is what actually happened, its plausibility is attractive.  And if this were to be the case for some of the plagues, it would in no way "take God out of the equation" by providing a natural explanation for the actions of God.  It is clear that God did use natural things (frogs, gnats, etc) in the plagues, directed by his providential command, at the time Moses was speaking before Pharoah (just who the Pharaoh was is a big issue in dating the Exodus).

It is an interesting documentary which I believe is worth your time.  I am no expert in ancient Egypt, ANE Semitic scholarship, so if you are I would love to hear your thoughts...but I do think this film is a welcome tool for discussion of the events in the Bible.  Though obviously a bit of a showman, Jacobovici seems to be a believer in the historicity of the biblical Exodus as his final statement in the documentary shows.  I'll paraphrase from memory:

Was the Exodus a myth or a mere coincidence of natural phenomenon or was it an act of God establishing a New Covenant with mankind?

I'll only say this in closing - good question...and indeed one further question may be asked. Did the God who redeemed his people from the house of slavery, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, establish a new and lasting covenant with the peoples of the earth. This time not through the law written on stone tablets, but written on the hearts of his people. This time the covenant was established by the one who fulfilled the law of Moses, now sits on the throne of David, who sealed and established the covenant in his own blood...Jesus, the Son of God himself (See Hebrews 8)

This wiki has an outline of Jacobovici's theories. Theories abound on all of this...I don't buy all the stuff in the Exodus Decoded, ibut this one was at least a fine production that tries to follow the narrative of the text. 

(HT-Greg Hardin) 

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