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!


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).