Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Christian Humanitarianism @christianaudio @caReviewers

I received two complimentary audiobooks from christianaudio at the same time: Jesus Manifesto (reviewed yesterday) and Humanitarian Jesus by Christian Buckley and Ryan Dobson. I was expecting to like the former more than the latter, but that's exactly the opposite of what happened.

Humanitarian Jesus was much more engaging and legitimately struggling with real-life issues that many Christians are facing today. As being "missional" is one of the hot new things for young Christians, it is important to know what it actually means to be missional.

Social justice is important. So is evangelism. But how do you define each?

That's exactly what this book tackles. The first half of the book is Buckley's argument for finding a delicate balance between both social justice and evangelism (he says both are needed explicitly). And yes, Buckley wrote the whole thing. He says that in the introduction. Dobson helped him get the interviews that comprise the second half. His name probably helps sell copies, but I don't think he was particularly involved.

Buckley is an excellent writer and is definitely on the more conservative end of the missional/social justice spectrum. However, unlike the negative and unfair stereotype of conservatives being unwilling to consider alternatives, Buckley does a great job of looking at all the options when engaging humanitarianism.

This is particularly seen in the second half, in which Buckley interviews a very wide variety of well-known (on the order of Franklin Graham and Tony Campolo) and not-so-well known Christian leaders who also engage in humanitarian work. I found the second half much more interesting and engaging. This is where the reader (or listener) gets to hear from the people who are actually doing the work and how they approach the balance of humanitarianism and evangelism.

The views are on both extremes and everywhere in between. And that is a good thing. It helps the reader/listener really engage all the nuanced issues in the arena of missional living. As Buckley states, the goal of the book is not necessarily to convince people of one perspective or another, but to get people to look at their views again and understand the complexity of the issues. For that, I have a lot of respect. And the book achieves that.

As with other audiobooks, I wish Buckley would have read it himself. The narrator was excellent (one of the best non-author narrators). However, there is something lost when the author does not read his own work, particularly when it comes out of a particular passion.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Jesus Deficit Disorder @christianaudio @caReviewers @FrankViola @lensweet

Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola's The Jesus Manifesto looked rather interesting when I got a review copy of the audiobook from christianaudio. I've heard many good things about Sweet and Viola, so I was excited to listen to this book.

For a text that is based in so much passion, I once again was disappointed by the fact that neither of the authors read their text. So much is missed when the author does not read their own text.

I think that would have made a big difference here. Much of the passion was lost. In fact, a lot of the book seemed overstated. Although God can never truly be overstated, the use of metaphor and hyperbolic adjectives was just too extreme. The point was lost.

While I agree with the intended worshipful comments, I got bored with the book.

Also, the basic premise that the church has Jesus Deficit Disorder (a lack of focus on Christ) is just not one I really buy. I agree that many churches and people definitely suffer from this, the communities of which I have been a part have focused a lot on Christ.

The "Jesus Deficit Disorder" is just one example of a metaphor or phrase that appears clever at first, but just comes across as cheesy when paired with so many other such phrases. It gets old.

It's not a bad book. If you want a book that is a devoted worhsip of Jesus, Jesus Manifesto does it well. You can even sign a Jesus Manifesto. These are good things. The audiobook just didn't really move me at all...

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Trusting Neuroscience and the Soul @TyndaleHouse @AdamSab

Anatomy of the Soul by Curt Thompson, MD, a psychiatrist intrigued me as it lands squarely in the middle of the integration of modern mental health science and spirituality. This is the first book I received from the Tyndale Blog Network for review that particularly lands in my area of expertise (for those who don't know, I'm a licensed psychologist with an undergrad degree in Religious Studies).

What I appreciate about Thompson's work is that it addresses the neuroscientific findings related to relationships, including relationship with God. For those who have studied neuroscience or psychobiology, some of the material is clearly redundant, but I thought Thompson did a very nice job of summarizing the biology of the brain to help people understand the brain's basics. And then he did not simply relegate all of relationships and spirituality to random brain firing.

He acknowledges that there are biological correlates to spiritual experiences. And that does not bother him. I have not seen any satisfying texts that really engage both hard neuroscience and orthodox theology in such a way that Thompson has done. In fact, he has helped me reconcile information from both sides that often seem irreconcilable.

It's not that he really says anything new (after all, "there's nothing new under the sun" :) ), but he combines ideas and makes connections in ways I have not previously encountered. Such connections are the core of creativity and genius.

He does make some overstatements about the ability of techniques to quickly make changes to life. Or at least these are implied, like his subtitle: "Surprising connections between neuroscience and spiritual practices that can transform your life and relationships." Again, there is nothing new I saw in the book. Rather, it is more of analysis, connecting spiritual practices to biological changes in the brain, which lead to spiritual transformation, and such transformation leads one back to the beginning of more spiritual practices.

I have worked my way very slowly through the book because I wasn't simply willing to read it quickly and for a cursory review. Thompson has made some excellent arguments that will hopefully be the basis for some future blog posts. I may even use the tome in a class or two I may teach...

Again, the content itself is not particularly new; it's the connections. And Thompson engages in excellent process, not willing to ignore the struggles of ambiguity and Truth. In fact, one of the best quotes from his book is right at the beginning, p. 8-9: "When I know that I know something because I can logically prove it, I step away from trust. When I no longer trust, I am no longer open to being known, to relationship, to love." Such a struggle between logic and trust can be manifested in many spiritual and life struggles. It is important to land on the side of trust.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Spirituality of Cartoons @lacigrl @DonBluth

My wife is an animator. What a cool job, huh? Well, a couple of weeks ago, we went to an animation meet-and-greet with animation legend, Don Bluth. I don't know much about animation, but I know Bluth. He created my first favorite movie and character: An American Tail and Fievel, respectively. So I was actually quite excited to go! I have to say, it's weird seeing the person out of whose hands came Fievel. And then shaking that hand. Fievel is so cool, yet meeting Bluth brings it to a more human level.

Anyway, that's a tangent. Sort of. But another topic for another time.

One of the things Bluth said (Laci wrote a nice summary of the night of her blog, with a lovely picture of her and Bluth) is that hope is so important in film, particularly cartoons. He commented that that's part of the reasons animation (especially 2D) is failing--the films have become more cynical and sarcastic and lack any hope.

I think he's absolutely right. The morning of the event, I had some of the American Tail songs stuck in my head, and I was trying to figure out why I love that movie so much (yes, I have it on DVD, thank you very much).

His comment about hope answered that. The films I love the most are very hopeful. But not blind, idealistic hope. It's hope in the face of a lot of struggle, pain, and heartache. In some of my favorite cartoons, like American Tail, Lion King, Up, and Oliver & Co., things don't work out like people plan them to work out. In fact, things often go very, very wrong. Yet they end up finding joy, love, and hope, although that process is not always easy.

In many ways, the best animations show a sort of dark night of the soul. The characters experience a time when hope seems to be lost. They suffer. And yet they rise again. Life keeps going. Hope springs eternal.

This is an important theme to remember. We often forget it even in our daily, explicitly spiritual lives. Most of our "cool" movies don't address it or help this out at all. Yet the cartoons of our childhoods do. Maybe we need to remember that...

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Marital Separation's (Lack of) Virtue

Christianity Today ran an interesting article last week regarding Al and Tipper Gore's separation and how separation can be pro-family. The author, Glenn Stanton, is the Director of Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family, so the perspective is definitely from the value of not getting divorced, which is something I also value and would advocate for.

Before I read the article, I was expecting it to be something about how separation is acceptable because the couple is not actually getting divorced, so they're technically still married and following God's law. This kind of perspective is a really lame cop-out and a step into legalism, I think.

In many cases, the only difference between separation and divorce is piece of paper from the courts.

This was not the point of the article, but I have a feeling this was an underlying message. Stanton's point is that marital separation can be a sort of "pause button," allowing the couple space to breathe, re-evaluate their relationship, and then reconnect in a healthier way. While I could see this happening (Stanton said that happened to his marriage), I'm not convinced that's the reason anything near the majority (or even any semblance of a significant minority) of people separate. Rather, the article felt more like Stanton feeling the need to defend his own past separation.

From a psychological perspective, I could see pros and cons of marital separation. Looking at Stanton's argument, sometimes people do need space in order to reconnect. However, there are much better ways than separation. People definitely need to address the problem earlier (although this is not common--most people only seek marital counseling when they have basically already decided to divorce).

The best point Stanton makes is that separation brings the couple's community together, letting everyone know there is a serious marital rift and that they need help. Community is important. But if it takes formal separation to get people to help, it's not much of a community...

I also think separation from Stanton's perspective can actually be more damaging than helpful. I would think people more often will use it as an excuse to get separated to make themselves feel less guilt about the separation. They will "try" to reconnect, show it didn't work, and then use that as a theological excuse for divorce.

And then there's the issue if there are children. Much research has shown that divorce definitely causes problems in kids. However, it also consistently shows that a constantly feuding couple who remains married does MORE damage to the kids than if the two divorced. Separation could be seen as a way of having a balance between marriage and lack of feuding. However, I don't think it does this well.

In fact, I think separation would be worse than divorced because of the ambiguity involved. Are mommy and daddy staying together? Are they separate for good? Kids don't do well with ambiguity, particularly when it comes to their families and living situations. Our treatment team at work often tells parents not to tell kids of major plans unless they are sure it will happen. If there's a chance it won't, the rollercoaster of expectation and anxiety just causes more problems.

So in summary, "separation" sounds nicer. It's more theologically friendly, as we haven't sinned by getting "divorced." But this is really more of a legalistic view. In many ways, I think separation is more dangerous and damaging than divorce. This is not always true, as in Stanton's case. But it needs to be approached cautiously, in my opinion.

What do you think?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Biblical Context

This past week there were two good (and very different) blog posts about biblical interpretation and the importance of context.

The first is from BioLogos on lack of evidence intra- and extra-biblically for inerrancy. The thing I love about BioLogos and this particular post is that they challenge our traditional assumptions, but do not give up on the sanctity and holiness of the Bible. It's just approaching it differently.

So many people take hard-line stances on things like biblical interpretation because they feel that if their particular method of interpretation is wrong, then their whole faith disappears. This doesn't have to be the case, which is a major purpose of this blog... And unfortunately, taking a hard-line stance often removes context from interpretation, which actually makes our faith less accurate, in my opinion.

The second article is by Dan Kimball, in which is uses the analogy of Scary Mary applied to the Bible. I'd never heard of Scary Mary, but it's a remix of scenes from Mary Poppins to make the movie look terrifying. Kimball includes the video in his post, so you can see it there.

It's an excellent analogy, though, of how removing the context from a excerpt of something drastically changes its meaning. Yet we do that frequently with the Bible, to the detriment of everyone...

Monday, June 7, 2010

Polarized Thinking in the Church

Last year, when I was running group on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), we would often discuss polarized thinking (also known as black-and-white or dichotomous thinking). In exploring how this can be damaging, people often discuss how it hurts ourselves. But I also think it's important to point out how it hurts others.

When we view people with our dichotomous thinking, we often thinking of them as either perfect or horrible (this idea is known as splitting). While it can feel good to be thought of as perfect, it is also anxiety provoking and setting others up for failure.

A perfect example is clergy. As a society, we often view clergy as perfect (or supposed to be perfect). A perfect example of this expectation of perfection is when people make mistakes. We've had several big-name pastors "fall" in the last couple of years.

We're never shocked when an actor has an affair (or even a politician), but a pastor? What makes them so special that they are free from temptation and sin? Really, they're more susceptible to such problems because of how the church community uses and abuses pastors.

So we hold this view of perfection, then the person doesn't meet that expectation, and so they move to the opposite extreme. This is not healthy, helpful, or biblical. Jonathan Brink wrote a nice post regarding Ted Haggard and the shock people have that he could start a new church. He also has nice, but sad joke about the situation.

But seriously. Why can't he start and led a church? He should not have been kicked out of his last church, in my opinion. He's human. He's made mistakes. That's what would make him a GOOD pastor! But then again, he moved into the area of sexual sin, the black hold of evil...

Friday, June 4, 2010

Article Round-up

Here's some good and interesting articles from this week:

Reimagining the Slippery Slope Challenging the idea of the "slippery slope," particularly relating to male-female non-sexual relationships.

Does God Change His Mind? Exploring the purpose and mechanism of prayer from the perspective of a Christian physician.

God As Deliverer A post from John Eldredge exploring God as a deliverer versus God as preventer. Never thought of the difference before.

Where Is God When Things Fall Apart? An article that's very relevant to this blog and exploring how to respond when life falls apart. Since that never happens... ;)

Is Monogamy Just a Myth or Is It Possible? An interesting exploration of monogamy by Sue Johnson, one of the founders of EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy). Nice points, but there's also some limitations to the argument. Still a good read.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Boring Interior Castle @christianaudio @caReviewers

My latest review for christianaudio reviewer's program is Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle (which was made possible with a complimentary copy from christianaudio). As many people know, my undergraduate studies focused on religion, particularly hagiographies and texts like St. Teresa's. So I was quite excited to have the opportunity to read (er, listen) to this book. I was familiar with St. Teresa before, but I had not read this book yet.

Unfortunately, I was quite disappointed. It was honestly just boring, and I think this was because it was completely devoid of passion and seemingly too controlled. When discussing spiritual formation and connecting with God, a lack of passion is the least useful thing. The presentation of Teresa is that she was abundantly controlled in everything she did, thought, or felt. This is stark contrast to Bernini's sculpture of her in ecstasy.

In the book, St. Teresa did mention the importance of control of emotions and passion. Yet one needs a passion for God to truly connect. This was one of my biggest criticisms of hagiographical texts--they were more focused on control than releasing oneself to God (not that these are always mutually exclusive). I still do not recall St. Teresa mostly focusing on control; I have thought of her being more passionate than many of the saints.

So the text really may have been focused on self-control and was an accurate portrayal of Teresa's intentions. However, the passion also could have been lost in translation. This is an older English translation of Spanish and then read aloud. There's a lot of potential for misinterpretation there. I have to give some credit, though, too, that there may have been passion that I just couldn't hear. Shakespeare sounds very dispassionate and over-controlled, yet his work is anything but that. You just have to be able to listen to it appropriately (which I cannot do :) ). I would like to hear a modern translation and see if that changes anything.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Michelangelo's Incarnation

This is an interesting article about Michelangelo's painting in the Sistine Chapel. Long story short, some scientists and art historians have argued that Michelangelo secretly included internal human anatomy (specifically the central and peripheral nervous systems) in the image of God. At first, the argument seemed like a stretch, but after reading all the arguments, I can see it.

In any case, whether or not it's a real hidden message, the idea of connecting human intelligence to the image of God is an interesting thought. No one knows for sure what the possible hidden message could be, but I also think this is a nice way of emphasizing how art can lead us to deeper devotion and theological understanding in a way that the simple written word could never reach.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

God Told Me So

How often have we heard (or even said) "God told me so" or "God told me to..."? I dislike that phrase a lot people I have found people use it frivolously and without God actually telling them anything. It's amazing how our desires quickly become what "God wants..."

There is a new book, entitled God Made Me Do It, addressing the absurdity of many people's claims of God's assertions. There is an associated site about people's tweets about what God has commanded.

I think it's hilarious and can be a good way to remind us of truth. Although I could see some others thinking it's heretical and blasphemous. What do you think? What's the line between humor and heresy?


Got a question, struggle, or doubt you'd like to see addressed here? Contact me, and I'll try to discuss it (and may even help you get an answer).