Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Monstrous Faith + GIVEAWAY @mattmikalatos @TyndaleHouse

Last year, I reviewed Matt Mikalatos' first book, Imaginary Jesus, which I absolutely loved, particularly from a perspective of the psychological dimensions of faith. He recently released a second book, Night of the Living Dead Christians through Tyndale House Publishers. Here is a great video interview with Matt (who happens to be a Star Trek fan, too, which makes him awesome in my book):

I've been long looking forward to reading this book, but since I've been overworking, my wife has graciously agreed to review it at this time:

The other day as I walked around Barnes and Noble, I was amazed at the sheer amount of "monster mania." It seemed like almost every single book in the fiction section featured vampire after vampire, werewolves, and zombies. There's no doubt about it, monsters are "in." And I'll admit, I do enjoy a good vampire/werewolf novel! But it seems like the genre has been...well, a little overdone.

I was a little skeptical at first that Matt Mikalatos' new book, Night of the Living Dead Christian, would be anything new. I even wondered if it might take the annoying tone of so many other Christian books, denouncing how evil a fascination with creatures might be (a.k.a. "anyone who reads Twilight is on the path to hell!") So I was pleasantly surprised to find out how much FUN this book is! You can tell that the author is a bit of a scifi/movie geek, and I mean that in a good way...there's a definite fondness for all things monster coming through the writing.

Mikalatos takes on the classic movie monsters with a great sense of humor and irreverence, playing up the stereotypes in a unique and clever way and relating them to cliched Christianity (for example, I loved the fact that the zombies were stuffing flyers praising their fearless church leader into doors around town, on a mindless mission to convert brains rather than eat them). It reads like a humorous novel, and never feels "preachy," yet grapples with some big questions and issues about our faith in an insightful way. At one point, when asked about why the werewolf doesn't consider himself a Christian, he replies "If claiming to be a Christian meant personal transformation, the world would be a far different place. As it is, I know far too many Christians who are worse men as Christians than they were as pagans." So true!

I also found interesting the way that Mikalatos inserts himself as the main character, something I have rarely if ever seen done in literature. It seems to break many of the "rules" of writing, and that's part of what makes it so awesome. It doesn't seem to be done in an arrogant way, but rather shows a snarky, self-depricating wit that is a lot of fun to share in.

All in all, this book is an enjoyable ride, and will fit nicely into any monster lover's bookshelf. I'd definitely recommend it to all my fellow "doomed to hell" Christian Twihards. ;)

Laci Morgan

I have a certificate for a free copy of the book to give away here on the blog. In order to enter, leave a comment saying why you would like a copy. You can get additional entries by (1) following me on Twitter, (2) retweeting my Tweet about this post, and (3) subscribing to my blog by email or RSS. Leave a comment on the blog letting me know you did these (if you already follow me on Twitter or subscribe to my blog, that counts). The contest will close on Sunday at midnight. I will need a way to contact you, so either leave your email address, subscribe to the comments feed, or check back here.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Gospel According to Dickens @christianaudio

I haven't read any of Charles Dickens' original writings since probably middle school. At that point, I know I never really appreciated the beauty of his work and words. I recently listened to christianaudio's version of A Christmas Carol, which is one of their best audiobooks yet. Simon Vance's narration was excellent, with an engaging dramatization.

At a recent Bible study, someone brought up how A Christmas Carol was particularly a message about caring for our neighbors. While most of us have heard the story many times, hearing Dickens' original words really sent the message about the power and importance of loving our neighbor. While God was never explicitly mentioned, the Gospel is written all over this classic.

While it is a short book that can be easily found for free, christian audio is also offering it for free for this month!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

When the Bottom Drops Out @PastorRobBugh @christianaudio

I had high hopes for Robert Bugh's When the Bottom Drops Out, which explores the challenges to life and spirituality when we face the deepest pains. Bugh's personal experiences definitely lend credibility to his encouragement to find faith in the darkest of circumstances. Unfortunately, the book can be frequently disjointed, moving between anecdotes, theologizing, and references stories of pain in the Bible.

Bugh's books shone brightly when he validated the emotional pain involved when the bottom of life drops out. However, just when the recognition of the reality of the situation was becoming strong, Bugh would switch to abstract theologizing. This would turn the book into more of a cognitive intervention to an emotional problem that served more to invalidate than help encourage.

The book was not bad, it just seemed like Bugh was trying too hard to provide a profound theology and reflection on the pain of life.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Poor Tactics of #180movie @TBBMediaGroup @audrajennings

I was intrigued by the marketing related to Ray Comfort's documentary 180, claiming to instantly change people's minds about abortion through one question.

The film is short and available for free online through their website and on YouTube. While I am quite pro-life (that's another subject for another time and more complex than any politicos want to make it), I actually disliked this documentary and found it ineffective with fallacious arguments.

Are there similarities between abortion, the Holocaust, and murder? Depending on one's view, sure, there could be. However, how we make those comparisons are central.

Comfort jumps from one topic to another in quick-fire succession, not really allowing his interviewees time to think and consider his arguments (not all of which are good or fair by any means). Also, even though he says people changed their minds (and admittedly, they said they did), we need to remember some principles of social psychology. When you have someone in your face who is aggressively interrogating you and you know they won't leave you alone until you agree with them, especially if you don't have a good argument in contrast, then you, too, might simply agree to get out of a situation. While some of the participants seemed truly moved, others seemed to be more annoyed.

I would be more curious to interview them months later to see if it stuck.

He also demonstrated a stereotypic proselytizing that is quite aggressive, emphasizing that someone will go to hell because they are a lying thief. Besides the fact that he does not define blasphemy accurately, this sort of approach has consistently been shown to not lead to lasting change. It's great for the moment to make a decision based on fear, but there is no presence of an individual being drawn to the amazing love of Christ.

Rather, Jesus is simply presented as a really good lawyer. We like to have them around us and on retainer, but we're not likely to be good friends with them...

What I would like to see in drawing people toward Christ and toward the reduction of abortions is not fear tactics and shame-based polarities, but rather toward love and appreciation for life in all forms and situations. It's about improving the world, not just avoiding sin.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Viewing the Bible Through Life Expectancy and Neurodevelopment

I was recently reading a book for a class I'm teaching. Part of it explored the changing life expectancy globally. Most people know that we have a much longer life expectancy now than ever before. What I think we often forget is how short it really used to be (and still is in certain parts of the world).

Here's a couple of stats from 1998 of life expectancy: Andorra: 83.47, Canada 79.56, Nigeria 41.00, Sierra Leone 37.00. That's a big of a discrepancy if I've ever seen one.

But this post isn't about public policy and public health. What I find interesting is looking at the life expectancy in years past. For the US, 77.2 was expected in 2001, 59.7 in 1930, and only 35.0 in 1789. That's a huge jump.

But then think about how life was in Jesus' time. I highly doubt medical care and lifestyle were better than 1789. I saw somewhere that 35ish was about the life expectancy is Jesus' time period.

The first thing this should impact is artistic depictions of Jesus and his disciples. They often appear to be in their 40s and 50s. I doubt it, just from the fact of life expectancy. Plus, biblical scholarship puts them far younger anyway.

And then Jesus dying at 33 doesn't make him seem so young, honestly. Not that that didn't minimize the sacrifice. These types of executions contributed to the lower expectancy.

However, beyond all of this, there are always questions about violence in the Bible. If we take life expectancy seriously, then we should pay attention to average ages. In 1800, the average American was 16 years old. He or she was 36.5 in 2000.

Let's see. Would the world be different being run by 16 year olds versus 36 year olds?

Plus, it is commonly known that the frontal lobes are not fully developed until around age 25. If you don't know the frontal lobes are responsible for executive functioning, like planning, judgment, self-control, etc.

So let's look back at the Bible in context. God is not talking to the modern American with the same education and amount of time to develop (and I'm not trying to imply we're better than those people in biblical times, by the way). God is talking to a people who are predominantly young with non-fully-developed brains. Suddenly, it makes a lot more sense to provide stricter, black-and-white rules that leave no room for ambiguity.

Laws needed to be quite directive because they were acting as the people's frontal lobes. We give our kids very absolute rules in order to protect them. As they get older, we nuance them more because they can handle it. Why do we view the Bible and God's rules any differently?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Utter Absurdity of Inerrency @JohnPiper

On October 15, I saw someone retweet something John Piper tweeted: "The prophets give no evidence of ever using "um" or "ah". These are weak, learned fillers and can be unlearned for Christ."

Now, I'm hoping this was satirical, but I don't know. I haven't seen anyone else write about this post, so maybe it was humorous. However, I'm sure someone somewhere believes it. And it demonstrates the absurdity of an extreme inerrency model of the Bible.

For those unfamiliar with interpretation terms, inerrency is the view that the Bible is completely true in every word. The pure form of inerrency holds that it was dictated from God. Therefore, each word (in the original texts) is holy.

If the words really were dictated by God, then this makes sense. However, there is absolutely no evidence of this nor does it even make sense why God would approach Scripture this way.

In contrast, infallibility holds that the message of the Scriptures is true, while certain elements, like exact history or science, do not have to be completely accurate.

Of course, these are gross generalizations of each form, but for summary purposes, there you are.

Back to Piper's tweet. It takes the idea of the Bible being dictated absolutely literally. If it's dictated, and the prophets are the voice of God at the time, then the lack of "um" or "ah" would indicate they were not used by these holy people. However, there are a few problems with this. Most of the writings about the prophets are clearly not meant to be transcripts of their prophecies. Further, even modern transcripts, which would likely be more accurate than ancient ones just due to our ability to record and listen again, rarely include filler words and sounds. The transcript can be accurate and still leave things out.

And then just the judgment that they are weak is absurd. Since Moses had a speech problem, did that make him weak?

When we start worshiping the Bible rather than the Living God, we very quickly lose sight of the message of the Scripture and focus on debating such worthless things as filler words. And dedicate whole blog posts to them...

Monday, October 24, 2011

My New Favorite Bible Translation @CommonEngBible @TBBMediaGroup @audrajennings

Ever since I got the Mosaic Bible two years ago, I have been a big fan of the NLT. However, the recently released Common English Bible has made me betray my beloved NLT and use the CEB primarily.

A lot has been written about the benefits of the CEB (and its downsides). Much of this has been written by scholars with much more education on the topic of translation than I have, so I'll direct toward those. However, what I can say is that it is quite useful. What I loved about the NLT was that it was easy to read while maintaining what I considered appropriate fidelity to the original texts. The CEB takes this a step further, really making the language accessible to people. While it is easy to read, it is also quite easy to listen to. It has been the primary translation used in our church for the last few months, and it has been quite appropriate for lectionary readings both as a group or individually.

Besides its pragmatic benefits, I like a lot of the philosophy behind the CEB. The fact that it was first released digitally (and free through YouVersion) shows that the publishers are really trying to interact with modern culture and also are not necessarily as focused on making a profit.

I like how it was developed interdenominationally and with laity through reading focus groups of people who approached it not only theologically but practically. Those who follow translations know that a very literally accurate translation may be quite unreadable to the modern English speaker...

The aspect of the CEB I appreciate the most is its break with using particular words all the time. As has been discussed elsewhere in the blogosphere and academia, language can lose meaning over time as we become numb to the power of particular words, especially religious words. Sometimes changing the word makes us pay attention to the passage and the meaning again. The CEB does this, not without controversy. However, I have found it to be helpful to re-engage the text and really explore what the Scriptures actually mean rather than what I assume them to mean based on preconceived notions of certain language.

If you haven't explored the CEB yet, I highly recommend you do. The physical Bibles themselves are pretty cheap, although again, it can be found for free digitally in some markets.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Sunday, October 23, 2011

We're Adopting!

After a lot of thought and prayer, Laci and I have decided to pursue adoption, which we’re really excited about and really feels like our calling. The process takes a while, but I wanted give you a heads-up about stuff that will be going on for us in the next several months.

The first stage we’re in right now is raising the initial funds, so we’re doing a few fundraisers, and if any of you want to help out with any of them, we’d definitely appreciate it. First, we’ll be selling some stuff at a craft fair in our hometown of Grand Terrace on November 5. If you have any homemade crafts you want to donate, that would be great. We’re also hoping to do a garage sale in the next month or two, so donations are also welcome to that. Finally, we’re planning on getting people together to go to TV tapings. If you haven’t been to one, they’re a lot of fun, and depending on our group size, they’ll actually donate to our adoption fund!

I know money is tight, so I’m not asking anyone to donate any money, but if you would like to go to a TV taping or something, that would be helpful and fun. And your love and prayers are always appreciated!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Loved As You Are @christianaudio @David_C_Cook

Brennan Manning has long emphasized the importance of grace and God's unconditional love. His speaking and books have touched thousands, if not millions. While I have heard wonderful things about him, I realized I have never actually read any of his works. So my first direct encounter with Manning was through his memoir, All is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir.

This book is an exemplar of the power of grace through all circumstances and actions. I was not aware of Manning's history and controversy, although the fact that he has kept and grown in his faith through it all makes me respect him even more so. I think his mantra that God loves us as we are, not as we should be is profound, simple, complex, and deeply meaningful. This reminder can remove shame, which inhibits change, and moves us toward openness and freedom to love God and accept love from God.

An element that particularly stood out over the course of this book was the clear way human relationships affect our relationship with God. The psychological community interested in spirituality have described this in terms of God image. However, Manning's experience with his mother, father, grandparents, siblings, church, and wife vividly demonstrate the power of how we may trust God more or less based on our ability to trust other. And even more so, how much we are willing to believe God loves us because others have or have not loved us.

While only God can love perfectly, this is an important reminder to consistently engage in loving acts and love people as they are. This helps them see the face of God, which is the ultimate evangelism. Manning has done just that for innumerable people.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, September 26, 2011

Love or God? @markgalli @christianaudio

The first part of my review of Mark Galli's God Wins, primarily based on Randy Alcorn's preface is here. This post reviews and engages the rest of the book, solely based on Galli's words.

Galli cites Jeremiah that the human heart is evil and deceitful. However, this is not the full picture. It ignores the New Covenant promises that Paul describes and that John Eldredge has spent many books emphasizing: Christ gives us a new, good heart. This missing element is overlooked by many of the neo-Calvinists today, which creates a punitive justice-focused system of salvation and theology and that I believe is far too narrow in focus.

Galli's first chapter clarifies different types of questions: Questions about God and questions about oneself. Galli illustrates this with examples from Mary when she asks how God will make her pregnant (not doubting that God will be able to do it) and Zechariah questioning how he can be sure that God really will give him a son (doubting the agency of God). Galli argues that Mary's type of question is good, while Zechariah's is sinful.

The contrast is compelling, but I'm not sure it's accurate. Galli seems to forget the clear case of Thomas after Jesus' resurrection, demanding to see physical evidence to believe that the resurrection has actually occurred. This sounds more like a Zechariah question to me. Yet Thomas was not at all condemned, rather met with deep love and the evidence he needed. God, of course, does not always provide the evidence we want, but asking is not necessarily sinful.

Galli argues that Bell only presents God as agent. He describes the downfalls of this extremely well, explaining that God as agent means God doing things for us. I completely agree with Galli that God as agent misses the Gospel, with God as lover as a more accurate and deeper understanding of God. This is one of my criticisms of most of the neo-Calvinist movement--I only see them presenting God as agent and leave out the whole relationship thing. At the same time, to be fair, this may be my reading of them, just as that is Galli's reading of Love Wins. I actually read that lover element in Bell's work far more than an emphasis of God as agent. If Bell limited God to this agent role, I would be in complete agreement with this criticism.

Additionally, Galli and other critics of Love Wins have argued that Bell does not present a full picture of the Gospel. I agree; he didn't. But I don't think he meant to. He was focusing on a particular element, just like most books do. In academia, an entire book can be focused on an incredibly narrow topic in order to go in-depth. In the popular press, people aren't used to this, but I think that's a better analogy for Bell's work. Bell was simply asking questions about the theology of Heaven and Hell, which is only a small element of the Gospel.

Further, Galli has joined the chorus of many others who have criticized Bell for asking questions and not resolving them. I don't see the problem there. Bell explicitly states he wrote Love Wins in order to get people to think, not necessarily to draw a line in the sand. Readers of my blog know that I value that type of perspective, so I obviously appreciate that type of writing more than taking a clear stance. Yet that makes it harder to categorize someone...

At one point, Galli criticizes Love Wins as presenting Christ's Incarnation as more important than the crucifixion and resurrection. I'm not sure that's an accurate depiction of the book anyway, however, even if it were, that may not be incorrect. Protestantism has historically emphasized the resurrection, hence the empty cross that is frequently displayed in churches. Roman Catholicism has focused on the crucifixion, resulting in the crucified Christ on display. However, a lot of the Orthodox Church has prioritized the Incarnation. So there is, in fact, a significant history of focusing on the Incarnation.

One of the central lines and arguments in Love Wins is the question, "Does God get what God wants?" while referencing Scripture that God wants all people to be reconciled to him. Yet the book also discusses how God loves us so much that he gives us what we want, so if we want Hell, we can have it.

Honestly, the way Bell phrased this no-win question was not entirely fair, but it's a beautiful literary style and excellent for an argument. However, Galli takes it a bit concretely, emphasizing how people's wants are not stable nor can be very healthy for us. Using the analogy of a child's wants, a loving parent does not simply give into those desires. In fact, love gives someone what they need, not what they want. True enough.

However, I didn't read Love Wins in the same way. I would have a hard time believing Bell meant this type of superficial wanting. Rather, it is a deeper acceptance or not of the reality of God's love. The best example of this I can think of is from Les Miserables (spoiler alert, if you don't know the story). Javert, the officer of the law, has been tracking Jean Valjean for decades, with the belief that once a thief, always a thief. When Valjean spares Javert's life later, Javert is unable to accept that reality. He cannot live in a world of grace and transformation, so he commits suicide. He would rather die than live. That's the wanting that God will not force on us. There are people who will not be able to handle who would be accepted in Heaven, so they choose Hell.

This relates to another one of Galli's central criticisms of Love Wins: It gives too much weight to people's free will. Galli argues that people running their own lives is not freedom, but rather slavery to sin, and there is definite truth to that. He also basically argues for a bondage of the will perspective, explaining how the Holy Spirit is what gives us faith to believe in God. Again, I think Galli read Bell's book too literally. The bondage of the will and freedom of the will debate has existed for centuries and continues to do so, now particularly in the realm of neuropsychology. I'm not going to get into that debate for now, but again, the point is that there is a long, strong history supporting a freedom of the will and even some combination of bondage and freedom.

Galli also criticizes Love Wins as presenting God as impersonal and not present in Heaven. I would simply chalk this up to differences in reading because I read Love Wins as an intensely personal, relational Father who is the epitome of Heaven. Bell may have used different language than many evangelicals do in describing the personal nature of God. However, I found the language incredibly meaningful and personal.

Like many critics of Love Wins, Galli labels it as supporting universalism. The problem with most of these comments is that they use a particular definition of universalism. The way I have always heard universalism defined is that all religions are essentially equal, along the ideas that all paths lead to God. That's most definitely not what is presented in Love Wins. In fact, on page 78, Bell states, "What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody." Earlier, he explains that Jesus is the only way to God. However, does not mean that people of other faiths cannot be saved through Jesus: "What he doesn't say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn't even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him" (p. 77).

Some people cannot comprehend how a person Jesus could save someone from another religion and not be a universalist. But this perspective would state that Christianity does have greater value and insight into life and God than other faiths. It is a Christianity worth believing, as Doug Pagitt has said. True universalism would say Christianity is not better than any other faith. That is simply not present in Love Wins.

What I think was the best contribution this work provided to Christian literature on the argument for eternal damnation was that finite events have long-term consequences. A car accident that was not my fault can result in an amputation or many other issues. The decision to get drunk once can lead to all sorts of behaviors with very lasting consequences. This is how many things work, although we try to think all consequences don't last. Galli's argument is that this is the situation with Heaven and Hell and our decision to follow God in the present life. Rather than God necessarily punishing us, those eternal states are simply the natural consequences. The question Bell raises that many people have asked still remains, though: Would a loving God set up these as the natural consequences?

Ultimately, God Wins is stimulating, but I found Love Wins to actually demonstrate a fuller and deeper view of the Gospel and God than God Wins, albeit Galli's reason for writing this book was the lack of fullness and depth in Love Wins from his perspective. If one is very interested in the Heaven-Hell debate, this is a good resource for additional ideas.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, September 5, 2011

Richard Foster Book Release Party Saturday @renovareusa

My wife and I are hosting a book release house party for Richard Foster's new book, Sanctuary of the Soul, exploring meditative prayer. We will explore ideas in the book, fellowship, and join in a conference call with other house parties with Foster! It all happens this Saturday at our house in Grand Terrace, CA, at 4PM. If you'd like to join us, let me know!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Love or Justice? @markgalli @randyalcorn @christianaudio

I'm currently listening to the audiobook version of Mark Galli's God Wins, a response to Rob Bell's Love Wins. I started writing some responses while I'm listening to it, so I don't forget them all. I wrote so much in response to just the preface, I thought I would post this first, especially since the preface wasn't Galli's work at all and so should be somewhat separated from his review.

Randy Alcorn wrote the preface to Galli's book, and it actually sets a quite negative tone. One of the things I appreciated about Galli was that he stated he is not criticizing Rob Bell or what Bell believes, but simply what the book, Love Wins, says. I think this is a fair attempt at taking the personal attack feel out of a discussion. Unfortunately, Alcorn's writing seems to take jabs at Bell along the lines of what DeYoung, Piper, and others have done.

Like many of the neo-Calvinists, Alcorn emphasizes the role of justice in Christ's sacrifice. He (and Galli) at times, present love and justice as mutually exclusive. However, Galli does properly state that this depends on how one defines love. I would add that it also depends on how one defines justice. Yes, love without guidance is not all that loving.

However, Galli, Alcorn, and many people seem to equate justice with punishment. Just like love without consequences is a very anthropocentric idea, so is punishment-focused justice. Our emphasis on fairness and forensic-like exactitude is not necessarily theocentric. In fact, it flies in the face of most of God's most explicit commands about justice (Jubilee, anyone?). What if forgiveness- and grace-centered love is the true definition of justice?

While Galli doesn't really use this perspective explicitly, Alcorn argues that Bell and others forsake the straightforward meaning of Scripture. Personally, this argument is something that drives me nuts. There is no such thing as a straightforward meaning, particularly of the Bible. Everything takes interpretation, especially when it was written thousands of years ago. Even something contemporary, being read within the culture it was intended for, takes interpretation. Love Wins is a perfect example. Galli says Bell's book says some things that I simply do not see in it. We have interpreted it differently. And Bell is one of the more straightforward authors out there. If something like this takes interpretation, there's really no legitimacy in reading the Bible from a "straightforward meaning" perspective.

Alcorn also criticizes Bell's book for disregarding historical church doctrine. This argument itself is controversial, as there is substantial evidence that a wideness of God's grace has been held by many influential Christians over the centuries. But yes, official doctrine has been rather narrow. The thing I find ironic about this is that it is Protestants, often those who who hold the label of "Reformed," who emphasize this argument. The Catholic Church used this exact same argument against Luther and other Reformers. As Galli says, newer isn't always better. Older and traditional isn't always better, either.

As humans, we are fallible. That means our theology is fallible. I hope our theology improves over the centuries. The theology of the Hebrews and Israelites certainly did. That doesn't make latter people better, but they did learn from their ancestors. We need to be wise about our theology. That means giving serious weight to the thought that came before us. But it also means taking a critical look at it.

Galli is much fairer in his part of the book, and Alcorn states how open-minded and fair Galli has always been. This is one of the things I have appreciated about his writing over the years. However, thus far into the book, it would have been much better without the preface.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Priesthood of a Physical Church @KeithGiles

Keith Giles, an organic/house church advocate who offers all of his books for free electronically, recently released This is My Body: Ekklesia as God Intended. First off, this book is a very easy read. The way Giles separates the chapters makes it feel like you are moving the book quickly and easily.

The book itself is intended to examine a biblical basis for what the institutional church and worldwide Church should look like. Long story short, Giles provides a wonderful, well-thought-out argument for the priesthood of all believers in a way that is accessible to most people (rather than heavy theological language). He notes important implications for what that looks like institutionally, including the lack of hierarchy. One of my deep spiritual/ecclesiastical values is an egalitarian organization, so I really appreciate the many angles Giles approaches this, from the role of pastor to the relevance of a "spiritual covering." There are so many wonderful things he says that I could elaborate on, but that would take forever and probably be redundant with his work. :)

There were a couple of parts that I struggled with. At one point, Giles mentions that he so dislikes it when churches raise so much money to put into creating or buying buildings rather than going to people. His rationale for this is wonderful, and I agree. When I was an elder at The Gathering, we talked about ways to make sure all of our income would go back out, which is what Giles' community succeeds at.

At the same time, I can and have seen the value of larger communities (Giles argues for very small groups) and church campuses. I grew up in small church communities and am currently drawn to the philosophy of house/organic churches. At the same time, I have been a part of some very large congregations lately. Particularly as one has been in the news lately in part because of poor financial planning related to their building,  I have seen first-hand how much time, energy, and money goes into buying and maintaining church property. A lot of time, energy, and money that could go into people.

At the same time, my wife and I have come to appreciate the opportunities available with a larger congregation.  While a lot of money may flow into administrative and building costs, these communities provide a lot of services to the world around them that smaller groups could not do. While the churches themselves may spend less on administration and building if they were small and without a building, then other organizations and businesses would have to pick up the slack on service. This might not happen at all. When it does, it usually occurs with non-profits, who also will often rely on donations and have the same administrative and building costs as churches. They frequently have more, as churches can often more easily be staffed by volunteers. In the end, more money may reach people if the institutional church does the work and includes the overhead. I get and agree with Giles' philosophy, but practically, biblical times were quite different than modern times when it comes to interpersonal service.

Further, church buildings can be services in themselves. While I hate the waste of space many sanctuaries are, many well-planned buildings can and are used for many activities and offered to the community to use. Further, appropriately thought-out buildings can teach spiritual stories and inspire people to go out and serve more. Yes, it is difficult to watch tens of millions of dollars go into a new building when people are starving. Yet what is the cost if that new building becomes a refuge for people to relax and become rejuvenated to then go out and help those starving neighbors? While I am very much a utilitarian with many things, I have come to value the importance of space that is life-giving. I've been to more utilitarian church buildings and those that are intended to be a sanctuary. I am much more open to people after spending time in the latter.

The other part I struggled with was a section on women leaders. Giles argues for the equality of women in the church with some excellent arguments. But then he ends by stating, "However, the authority to rebuke or confront a believer caught in sin seems to rest on those male elders and overseers who were recognized as having a Fatherly position within the Body" (p. 142). This statement stood out in stark contrast to the rest of this section and his book, which all provided examples and support for his claims. While the complementarian/egalitarian debate was not really the issue here, this statement just seemed unsupported.

While I spent most of my time here on the parts I did not fully agree with, they were actually relatively minor parts of the book. For anyone interested in organic church models and thoughts on hierarchy in ecclesiology, I highly recommend this book.

Monday, August 15, 2011

My Struggles with the Philosophy of Blogging

I've been an inconsistent blogger lately. Actually, I've rarely blogged at all in the last month or two. I frequently feel guilty about this. But honestly, my blog is fairly low on my priority list compared to other aspects of my life (namely my career and my family). And my life has become quite busy lately, not the least of which is because of a promotion I got at work and picking up a new online teaching position, among other things I won't get into now.

This has gotten me to think about my approach to blogging compared to others. One of the big differences I've seen is that many prolific bloggers love writing. They write for fun. They read for fun. They comment on other blogs for fun.

I honestly don't love writing. I never have. It's always felt like work. What I do love are ideas. And over the last few millennia, ideas have primarily been shared through writing. So I have had to learn. But if I'm not inspired and energized, it's hard to write.

My academic side is also probably a liability--I have this feeling of obligation to make sure all of my writing is top-notch, at least from the perspective of conveying thoughts clearly and with tight arguments. This adds to the burden of the writing process. So I'm going to try to write more with less-than-fully-thought-out ideas. We'll see how well that works. :) However, when I do a book review, I also feel an obligation to be quite thoughtful, which counteracts this goal.

One of the other things I've struggled with is how to much to self-promote. There is a lot of information out there about gaining followers. One blogger I follow suggested making your name very clear on all the pages because you are your brand. I've gone through boughts of trying to figure out how to increase my following. Yet that's never been my goal. While it would be fun to have a large following, I think it would also feel like a greater burden in many ways, living up to so many people's standards. And again, my goal hasn't been to self-promote. It's simply been to share ideas and to get people to think. One could argue that if I self-promoted more, I could do that to a greater degree. That's a possibility. But it doesn't feel right for me right now...

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Margaret Wills Guest Post: The Last Will Be First, Part 2

A few weeks ago, I reviewed Margaret Harrell Wills' amazing bookPressing Into Thin Places. After that post, she graciously agreed to write a guest post for Jacob's Café. The second of the two part guest post is below. Click here for the first part.

There was a purity of spirit and generosity about Jimmy. Even though he planted the apple tree, he knew the apples were there to share. Jimmy was unpretentious and unencumbered by feelings of superiority or the need to make comparisons. It was not in his nature to shut people out, to judge because someone looked or thought a different way. I realized that I was not so generous.

I was different than Jimmy.

I began to think of prideful, self-righteous Ruby Turbin in Flannery O’Connor’s story, Revelation. Ruby had everyone in town categorized according racial, social or economic status. She had a sliding caste scale of sorts which determined, in her mind, how valuable, how important everyone was. Ruby, of course, had a tremendous degree of self-satisfaction regarding her position in the world. One time she broke out into ecstatic praise thanking Jesus as she thought about all the lesser people she could have been instead of herself.

It happened one day when she was out on her farm feeding her pigs. She was conversing with God when she was overcome with a vision, a revelation; a vast parade of souls was marching to heaven. In the front of the line singing and leaping and clapping were all the people Ruby looked down on. There were the poor, the poor in spirit, the unenlightened, the uneducated, the downtrodden, the misfits, and the mentally impaired. Yes, ahead of everyone else were all the poor souls who were last in Ruby Turbin’s caste classification. She stood transfixed, staring at the procession of people until she spotted herself and her husband Claud…trailing far behind.

Flannery O’Conner describes the scene:

“And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right…They were behind the others with great dignity accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”

Flannery O’Connor

Sometimes our virtues are burned away in the light of a revelation. I thought about Jimmy. I remembered the words of Jesus who said, “The last will be first and the first will be last.” And then I thought how we often breeze through life looking down on others; Looking down, without thought, on people whom we have categorized as less spiritual, less bright, less sophisticated, less prosperous, less educated, less clever that we. We shut them out before we ever sit across the table from them… God, forgive me. Let me move at least a little way up in the line. See in me,You, and not Ruby Turbin.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Margaret Wills Guest Post: The Last Will Be First, Part 1

A few weeks ago, I reviewed Margaret Harrell Wills' amazing book, Pressing Into Thin Places. After that post, she graciously agreed to write a guest post for Jacob's Café. The first of the two part guest post is below.

I first met Jimmy on a Sunday afternoon. He sat across from me at my sister Betsy’s dining room table. Betsy had invited him to join our family for after church dinner. Jimmy is an intellectually challenged, middle aged man. He was a healthy three-year-old little boy until Rhyes Syndrome took him a hair’s breadth from death and left him with a life of mental impairment, severe headaches and seizures.

Jimmy wore nice dress pants, a sport coat, a white shirt and a blue clip-on tie. The tie had a few small spots on it from other dinners. Onto the tie Jimmy had a prized possession; a rather large Noah’s ark tie pin. He was proud of the pin which he pointed to and mentioned several times.

Jimmy was not bad looking. In fact, just seeing him, you might have thought he looked like, business man (minus the spots on his tie). But when Jimmy talked, you knew. You knew he was different. His speech was halting and slow. It sometimes seemed he had to push his words out with a bit of added effort.

Jimmy could carry on a limited conversation and sometimes he talked about God. It was reported that Jimmy once went to a Christian music concert and the whole time had his hands raised in the air, singing and swaying to the songs as they were sung. He also once took notes in church while the preacher was talking and ended up with something that had nothing to do with the sermon. He did manage to write down the word Holy Spirit. He insisted on showing his notes to the preacher after the service.

Jimmy had a naive innocence and purity about him, a sense that the world was good and fair because he was. One time Jimmy said he was going to plant apple trees in his front yard. His friend asked him what he was going to do if people came and stole the apples from his tree. He thought a moment like he could not grasp the concept of someone stealing. Then he said he would put a sign out that said, “Share.”

At the table that day he fretted about the fat that was on the meat he was eating. He poked at it saying he didn’t eat fat because his mother told him it was bad for him. He informed us he could recognize fat by just looking at it. He was noticing fat. Once he spotted some, he took great effort in whittling the fat away from the meat. Our conversation lingered for a while on the fat on the meat and the fact that he could make spaghetti all by himself. He said he made good spaghetti. He emphasized and drew out the word the g-o-o-d.

Suddenly, out of the blue, Jimmy, in his slow deliberate way, made a pained statement. With a raised voice he blurted out, “I need a girl. “You want a girl?” my sister Betsy said. ”Yes, I want a girl real bad,” Jimmy replied. He then said that he had a girl once. “You had a girlfriend?” I asked. “Yeah,” Jimmy responded and then, in his halting speech, he said, “I had a girl once and she died. We asked Jimmy what happened to her. He got a grieved look on his face, his eyes narrowed and his forehead began to collect deep furrows. “I don’t know,” he said, “She just got sick and then she died real fast. I loved her. I loved her whole lot.” Jimmy said as he dragged out the words whole lot.

Jimmy then began to tell us in his slow cadence about his love for the girl. “I gave her a necklace, I gave her flowers, I gave her a ring. I really loved her. I was going to marry her. The word marry lingered long on his lips. “You don’t give a ring and flowers to a girl unless you really love her,” Jimmy said in a reflective voice. “She died,” Jimmy said again. “Do you have a picture of her?” Betsy asked. Jimmy said he had a picture of her on his dresser at home but he was saving her in his mind.

I wanted to leave the table, or just put my head down and cry for Jimmy, and his grief that had traveled over the miles of time and stayed, stayed in this gentle man, like a disturbing dream that lingers in the early morning.

Jimmy suddenly announced he had a bad headache. We asked him if he wanted some Tylenol but he couldn’t decide. Then we asked him if he wanted to lie down. “Yes, Jimmy said, “I want to lie down on a bed.” We found a bed and Jimmy went to be by himself. I wondered if he slept and if, in his sleep, he forgot about his memory of grief. Or perhaps he lay down and dreamed of the girl he loved; the girl he gifted with a necklace, a ring, and some flowers. A man needs a woman. God knows that. Jimmy needs a girl. He has a ring and some flowers and a heart to give to a girl who is waiting for a boy to really love her.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Richard Foster House Party @renovareusa

Long time readers of my blog know that I love Richard Foster's work, especially Streams of Living Water. On September 10, My wife and I will be hosting a house party for the release of Foster's new book, Sanctuary of the Soul. We will have a time for discussion, fellowship, and even a conference call with Foster. More information is available on the Renovaré website. We'd love to have you there. If you're interested in coming (there is no cost unless you want to buy the book), let me know!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Book I Wish I Wrote @TBBMediaGroup @audrajennings

Over the years, explicit doctrine, firm belief, and absolute proof from the Bible and science have become rather unimportant in my faith. In many ways, they provided the early foundation of my faith, with the experiential elements of faith being central now.

In Pressing Into Thin Places, Margaret Harrell Wills explores the powerful idea of being grounded in the knowledge of faith later being augmented by the powerful experience of thin places. The concept of thin places is rooted in Celtic Christianity, but has since expanded through many traditions. It explains a location or experience where the boundary between heaven and earth is virtually nonexistent, or thin. This idea fits very nicely within the incarnational tradition I so love.

Wills does a beautiful job demonstrating the power and diversity of thin place experiences. It helped me note how many such experiences I've had that I never recognized as such. She also explains how these experiences can help create and maintain hope through challenging, dark times of both faith and life. It's also helpful to see how we can encounter God in thin places even during dark nights.

The book is broken into nice, small sections that makes it an easy read casually, devotionally, or even intently. Ultimately, this is the book I wished I had written. It has helped reliven my heart and get me back in touch with core of my faith. I found it far easier to encounter God in this book than in any of the other Christian books I have read and reviewed lately.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher
. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Peacemaking Heart @PMMinistries @christianaudio @caReviewers

During my graduate program, I got to be involved in a research project exploring Muslim-Christian interfaith peacemaking. It included dialogue between evangelical Christians and Muslims from across the country to create a new peacemaking manual. My dissertation was a secondary study on this initial project, too, so I became very familiar with ideas of faith-based peacemaking.

Since that time, I have been very interested in the few faith-based peacemaking programs in existence, particularly those that are of any good quality. Peacemaking Ministries has been one that I have been following for a few years that I have really liked. They offer a variety of paid and free resources, including a weekly email devotional.

Ken Sande, the founder of Peacemaking Ministries, wrote Resolving Daily Conflict along with Kevin Johnson. This book provides some very strong peacemaking techniques that are well grounded in both the Bible and peacemaking theory.

The thing that frustrated me in my peacemaking research is that many of the peacemaking suggestions were rather repetitive and separated from actual practice. Sande's work is augmented by his own peacemaking work, which makes it far more credible. However, being familiar with the peacemaking literature, the techniques are not that novel.

There were two elements of this book that I really appreciated. The first was the broad definition of peacemaking. Rather than just looking at traditional violence, Sande and Johnson note how managing daily conflict is actually peacemaking,

The more notable element coincided with one of the conclusions of my dissertation, that peacemaking activity needs to be rooted in the development of a peacemaking heart. What I noted is that virtually all peacemaking literature solely looks at actions. The problem with that is action without real intent will fall flat, hence the relatively ineffectiveness of peacemaking training programs and interventions to revolutionize the world. I proposed that developing more of heart of peacemaking would make the techniques more successful.

Sande and Johnson's work is the first and only text that explains peacemaking strategies that actually explores and encourages developing such a peacemaking heart. They initiated their tome through explaining how peacemaking is central to God's heart, the Christian faith, and Christian living. They emphasized how important it is to be close with God and have our hearts shaped by God in order to be effective peacemakers.

Again, although the actual peacemaking strategies are nothing new, the emphasis on heart and connection to God puts this text far above other resources that I have encountered.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Revising Christian Language @christianaudio @caReviewers @FrankViola @TBBMediaGroup @audrajennings

There has been a lot of talk in Protestant Christianity lately about continued reformation. And many people and sects of course argue that they are being true to the apostolic church (assuming there was a monolithic idea of such an organization). The more progressive people often attack the conservative evangelicals on being too narrow with their definition of the Gospel. In contrast, fundamentalists criticize liberals as being unbiblical and therefore heretical.

Frank Viola recently released his newest book, Revise Us Again, exploring ideas of what a modern revision of the Church would look like. While no one book can really tackle all of the ways we need to be continually reformed, Viola does a nice job of not really getting into the endless debated details. Not that those issues are not important.

However, as a psychologist, I have come to value the role of the process of communication. Content is was is being said, while process refers to not just how things are being said, but the emotional aspects involved in the conversation. Usually, the process is really what is at stake when there is conflict, not the content itself.

Viola spends more time examining the process of current Christian dialogue. He nicely notes that people have different communication styles that either allow two sides to communicate effectively or to not understand one another at all. The goal, of course, would be to notice one's own style and that of the person with whom they are communicating and then attempt to adjust the style in order to effectively engage one another.

Some of the problem I see is that what he simply calls communication styles are more than just a style. I think they actually reflect paradigms or world views that are expressed in different language. I'm planning on writing another blog post specifically exploring these points in his book. Nevertheless, I found the three styles he presented (charismatic, quoter, and pragmatist) quite compelling and accurate depictions of how various groups communicate.

Ultimately, Viola does a good job of providing logical and biblical evidence for a reasonable faith, both in doctrine and practice. While at times simplistic, it is also written in a way that makes it accessible to a very wide audience.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Is the Bible Necessary for Faith?

I've been noticing statements of faith more frequently recently. Such statements can be for churches, universities, nonprofits, and even individuals. One of the things I've seen is that the authority of the Bible as inspired or inerrant usually is placed rather high on the bullet points of faith.

Of course, the inerrancy v. infallibility v. other options debate is something on its own, and making a position on that spectrum is probably part of the purpose of this part of the statement of faith. Yet I think this debate also reflects onto the presence of this element of such statements of faith.

People frequently question the authenticity of others' faith if they do not view the Bible in the same way they do. The new president of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, for instance, has been implying that people may not be true Christians if they do not take inerrant views of the Bible that support Creationism.

However, does believing in any form of biblical inspiration necessary for faith and a relationship with God?

I'm inclined to say no. Obviously, millions and billions of people over the millennia have had no Scriptures. It really wasn't until the Protestant Reformation that the Bible became more accessible and widely known. People who don't have access to the Bible in their language do not have any less faith.

I think this drive toward the demand of biblical authority is for everyone to have a single document to be able to root their faith. This is fine and even good. However, I think many times people use it as a proof text, needing something to prove a belief system "beyond a shadow of a doubt," which I simply believe is not possible.

At the same time, could someone be a Christian and not believe the Bible was divinely inspired? They might agree with it wholeheartedly but only see it as a reflection of several humans' journeys. It can still be something to root faith in, but not as something to defend oneself against those they disagree.

While I do believe in biblical inspiration (infallibility, not inerrancy), I also wouldn't necessarily question someone's faith if they did not have faith in the Bible. Communication from God occurs in many other ways, too. And as others have said, the Holy Trinity is not Father, Son, and Holy Bible. And then there's the whole controversial history of what's considered canonical...

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

DO Less, BE More @TBBMediaGroup @audrajennings

The title of this post is something I have often known I need to do. I keep myself busy and pride myself on my accomplishments. At the same time, I know this is my Achilles' Heel, as I can quickly burn myself out. And the more I do, the less I usually feel connected to God.

I've read several books that talk about slowing down, but many are honestly just lame. They talk a lot of theory and make excellent points, but they make it hard to put into practice. John Busacker's new book, Fully Engaged: How to DO Less and BE Moreattempts to tackle the issue of overburdened American lives.

Most of the underlying principles he discusses are honestly nothing new; I've heard them many a time and have told my clients and families about them frequently. However, his presentation is different. At the end of each chapter, which are easy reads, he includes some exercises. These are not the cheesy, artificially-created application questions or strained spiritual disciplines that so often appear in contemporary self-help books. Rather, they are non-time-consuming questions, reflections, or actual activities to help the reader self-reflect.

Ultimately, I think this is the strength of Busacker's work and what is often missing in most dialogue about busyness, stillness, and connecting with God. He asks the reader to look in themselves and see what's stopping them from being able to slow down. As a psychologist, I think this is vitally important, as we often try to simply replace one thing with another without exploring why we don't want the replacement in the first place.

At the same time, we do need to replace the maladaptive portions of our lives with something positive. I appreciated how Busacker focused on our values and living congruently from them. Much of the exercises and reflections are oriented in such a way to help the reader explore his or her values.

I tend to pride myself on knowing my values and living from them. But there was something in the way Busacker presented this material (I can't put my finger on it) that hit deeper. While I do think I have a clearer sense of meaning and purpose than many in modern society and live from that purpose to a great extent than a lot of people, I'm still greatly lacking. This is true specifically in my "down time," or more accurately, my inability to let myself have a down time.

The way Busacker reminded me of my values and the priorities of each of them really helped me slow down this weekend. I allowed myself to rest, which is something I greatly needed. Busacker's conceptualization of a fully engaged life, contrasted with "life worth" is particularly helpful. It does not discount the role of work and achievement, but puts them in their proper place:

Leading a fully engaged life begins with a multi-coordinate focus on your life worth—a realization that
     Relationships matter more than anything.
     Health determines your quality of life.
     Work gives voice to your giftedness.
     Hobbies engage your energy beyond work.
     Learning animates your imagination.
     And Faith gives all of your life purpose. (p.36)
What do you need to do to be fully engaged in life? What does full engagement mean?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Finding Value, Identity, and Purpose in the Bible @iShineLive @TyndaleHouse @AdamSab

As I've said before, I love collecting Bibles. And over the past year or so, I've really come to love the NLT in particular. The new iShine Bible recently caught my attention for two reasons: It's compact (I've been wanting a small Bible) and it's aimed at tweens (the population I primarily work with in my psychology practice).

The main selling point of the iShine Bible is that it will help kids discover their value, identity, and purpose in Christ. Those of you who know me well know that those are three things that I value highly in spirituality and psychology. I definitely see those at play not only in tweens' lives, but throughout all generations. In fact, the short devotional essays on each concept was meaningful to me personally (I often struggle with those, especially my own inherent value).

These values are a perfect fit with the Bible. However, they were really separated into their own sections. While the content is definitely congruent with the narrative of the Bible, I would have liked to see more devotional elements sprinkled throughout the text. As it stands, the iShine Bible is mostly a nice tract on value, identity, and purpose in a compact Bible. Not bad, just not remarkable.

The media links are a nice engaging touch that takes the Bible out of an isolated book into a world of engagement, which should be the case. There is also a section written in language appropriate for tweens about various questions tweens may have about theology and life. The answers are clear with good Bible references. However, they are often over-simplified. In working with this age group, I can attest to the fact that they can deal with far more intellectual complexity than we often assume.

Interestingly, it took me a while to find out why it's called iShine. At the bottom of the dedication page, there is the little phrase, "Because I am, I shine." I like it. It's simple and to the point. And it was actually quite meaningful to me. Perhaps the shorter devotionals could be useful for this population. It's not too much to get overburdened by, but enough to make one think. If nothing else, I think the iShine Ministries are off to a good start.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the Tyndale House book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Why did you become a Christian?

Over the past several months of conversations and observing spiritual dialogues, one of the things I've become aware of (in part thanks to my wife's observations) is that the reasons people became Christians makes a big difference on their current faith and how they approach faith challenges. This may not be a big surprise, but I've never heard anyone talk about the relationship.

I became a Christian on Palm Sunday my freshman year of high school. It was a quiet decision during youth group. I was a bit embarrassed. I know I didn't realize the full weight of the decision until I built my relationship with Christ. I don't remember all the details, but I know I finally believed God was real in Christ. His story made life make sense, and I wanted a relationship with him.

My decision didn't have to do with eternity. I don't recall Heaven and Hell being on my mind at all. Nor was doctrine or the Bible. It was simply wanting to know this God who structured the world and gave meaning to life.

I think that's why I'm so able to hold a lot of my beliefs relatively loosely. I don't need to have a clear definition of who is going to Heaven and who to Hell to feel secure in my faith because that's not a motivator for me. I also don't need to defend the Bible or particular doctrinal issues because they really don't affect my relationship with Christ.

Of course, we could argue that if you don't believe in the Trinity, the Christ with whom you think you have a relationship is not real. There is some truth to that. Yet, God still pursues us. And our God image develops over time and through relationship. I didn't have a fully accurate picture of my wife when I married her. I still don't. But it develops over time and that doesn't diminish the reality and power of our relationship.

What's your story? Do you see that affecting how you deal with questions, doubt, and controversy?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Salvation of Sabbath @booksneeze

Back in my first year of undergrad, I spent a couple of weeks intently trying to keep a traditional Sabbath: I would do no homework or studying on a Sunday and spend time in prayer, in nature, and reading non-school-related books (I can't say non-academic--I read those for fun :) ). That didn't last long. I have a lot of trouble not being busy. It's very hard for me to take a break and just have fun (you should see how much paid leave I have accrued at my job).

Now I work for a Seventh Day Adventist institution, and the SDA tradition heavily emphasizes the Sabbath (from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown). Yet the particular sub-organization within which I work minimizes that. I've seen a lot of people talk about Sabbath and live it legalistically, but I do not really see people who live it well in a way that truly benefits their lives and relationship with God.

Over the last few months, I've been slowly going through Dan Allender's Sabbath, part of Phyllis Tickle's The Ancient Practices series. Those who read my blog know I'm not a legalist when it comes to spiritual disciplines or anything spiritual, yet I do love topics of spiritual formation. I tend to engage in ones that are more active. Yet something drew me to this book. I think I knew I needed a Sabbath.

Allender's book starts off in some ways like a traditional book on Sabbath, reminding readers of the biblical mandate to take a Sabbath. However, he continues to explore the richness of Sabbath as something for our joy, pleasure, and fun. He emphasizes that Sabbath "is not merely the cessation of work; it is turning from work to something utterly different from what we normally call rest" (p. 26). In the ensuing chapters, Allender beautifully explores what this means, from explaining "Sabbath as a structure that mediates grace throughout creation" (p. 30) to it being "the most sensual day of the week" (p. 72).

This reframing of Sabbath from the absence of something to the fullness of God is absolutely vital and makes Sabbath not only more desirable, but reasonable. It makes sense why God wants us to engage in a Sabbath.

Yet I have a feeling I had trouble reading this book because this is something that is so hard for me to do. I have spent some moments in the last week engaging in more of Allender's sense of Sabbath. And it has been rewarding. Having a goal of something to work toward, meaning joining with Christ, makes Sabbath so much easier and realistic than just stopping all work.

Allender's quote of Eccelsiastes 4:6, "Better to have one handful with quietness than two handfuls with hard work and chasing the wind," particularly hit me as meaningful and poignant. I think that may be my new motto verse as a reminder and a lesson. But that doesn't mean Sabbath is not useful and productive. It's just productive in an eternal sense. As Allender states:
The Sabbath is our play day--not as a break from the routine of work, but as a feast that celebrates the superabundance of God's creative love to give glory for no other reason other than Love himself loves to create and give away glory. (p. 82)
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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Discussion on Membership, Authenticity, and Doctrine

Last month, I wrote a post about seeking unity among theological disagreement. It described some of my personal struggle at the moment and continues to emphasize what I long for and struggle with with regard to community.

In any case, two of my friends have posted very thoughtful comments on the post. I highly recommend you read them if you're interested in the topic. They bring up some wonderful points that I could not say so eloquently.

Friday, May 6, 2011

300th Post!

In a move of shameless self-promotion, this marks my 300th blog post! Thank you to everyone who reads this and additionally those who provide feedback. What's most meaningful to me is to know that some of the things on this blog have helped people continue to deepen their faith journey. It really keeps me going! Blessings to you all!

On that note, I would always love to have feedback about what you all would like to see here and what you find most and least helpful.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Follow-up on bin Laden, Justice, and Children of God

On Monday, I posted a blog about not celebrating bin Laden's death. It was also posted on Sandals Church's blog in an edited version. I have received a ton of positive feedback. In fact, the pastor of another large church in the area posted the Sandals version, and one of the parents of one of my kids saw it and told me she loved it. :)

Of course, with anything controversial, there are those who disagree. The two main protests were important enough to warrant a longer response, in my opinion, as they don't just deal with the bin Laden situation, but about a lot of life.

The most common critical response was that people aren't celebrating bin Laden's death, but the execution of God's justice. It is good to celebrate justice, I agree. However, we have to be careful to not attribute our sense of justice to God. We must not anthropomorphize God and assume that what we consider to be justice is what God considers to be justice.

Honestly, I don't think justice was done in this situation. Justice would have been putting bin Laden on trial in front of the world Again, I don't see that being practical in this situation nor am I condemning the killing of bin Laden. But I'm not convinced God's justice was done. The need for punishment in clear, concise ways is often more of a human need than a divine need.

Just because our sense of justice has not been done does not mean God's sense of justice was not done.

Another comment was about bin Laden being a child of God. One person stated that my post blurred the lines of who was adopted into the kingdom of God too much. I strongly disagree.

As humans were made by God and made in the image of God, we are all children of God. That does not necessarily mean we inherit the kingdom of God. We still have to accept that inheritance. Yes, the Bible talks about being adopted into God's family. That is one metaphor to understand how we are reunited with God.

I find clearly demarcating who is and who is not a child of God is more to satisfy our own need to self-justification and self-assurance of salvation than honestly and authentically seeking Truth.

Monday, May 2, 2011

I'm Not Celebrating bin Laden's Death

I, like many, was shocked when I heard last night bin Laden had been killed. It's one of those days that after almost 10 years, many of us thought would never happen. I had just started my time at UC Berkeley when the twin towers fell. It defined much of my time in Berkeley. The 9/11 attacks defined a lot of my psychology work, too, as my dissertation focused on Muslim-Christian interfaith peacemaking. When I went to New York City to present some of the results at the Association for Moral Education, my trip felt like a pilgrimage. Seeing Ground Zero brought tears to my eyes, and I remembered why I spent years on this project.

I am relieved that bin Laden can no longer wreck havoc. However, I am saddened that it had to be death. Not that I'm surprised. I remember debating a Berkeley poli sci prof back in late 2001 or early 2002 that practically, the only way to really stop bin Laden was for him to die (can you image the rescue attempts and bounties and blackmails that would occur if he was imprisoned?).

Yet death is always tragic.

I'm definitely not an Obama fan, but I give him (or his speechwriter) a standing ovation for his address to the world last night. He recognized the significance of this tactical feat (after 10 years of trying, it definitely was a major feat). He acknowledged the Bush administration's contributions to this fight. And he didn't glory in death.

I, like many, hope and pray this brings additional closure to all of the families of people who died in the terrorist attacks and resulting military actions over the years.

At the same time, however crazy it may sound, we must remember that bin Laden was one of God's children. I have no doubt that God cried at bin Laden's actions. But I'm sure he cried at bin Laden's death, too. No matter the horrific actions we may take in life, we are still made and loved by God.


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).