Monday, January 27, 2014

Do you see mud or masterpieces in humanity? @J0hnBurke

One of the biggest complaints non-Christians have about Christians is feeling like they're being condemned. Many Christians feel the need to call out sin and remind people of how fallen they are prior to telling them about the love of Christ. I've discussed my perspective before, strongly disagreeing with this viewpoint, instead advocating for the importance of encouraging people and helping them feel valued.

John Burke's newest book, Mud and the Masterpiece: Seeing Yourself and Others Through the Eyes of Jesus argues a similar perspective. Burke's basic thesis is that there is mud covering the masterpiece that is humanity, created in the image of God. We often put too much focus on the mud, sometimes discarding the masterpiece that has been covered. Instead, we need to recognize the masterpiece, focusing on restoring the beauty of God's work of art rather than on how ugly the mud looks.

Burke does a wonderful job of providing support of this approach through biblical references and powerful anecdotes. Since he narrates the audiobook version, you can hear the authenticity of his words. His approach to building community and moving people toward Christ is right on in my mind.

What may surprise some people who may think this grace-filled approach is only for liberals is that Burke has pretty traditionally conservative evangelical values. They come out through his anecdotes, but unlike some of his more notorious colleagues, he's not heavy-handed. He doesn't shove these values down anyone's throat from what I heard. Also absent was any form of guilt, shame, or condemnation. If more people who shared his worldview approached others in his way, there would be far more growth in Christian churches.

But that's where my criticism of the books lies: It's primarily focused on reaching the non-Christians and bringing them into relationship with Christ. And it is an excellent book for that. But the basic principle of the text is so important for Christians lifelong. This is also where many churches fall short--they do a wonderful job of getting people in the door, but continuing to support their development is a major challenge and shortfall, as I've previously discussed.

At one point, Burke bemoans the stagnant immaturity of many Christians in churches, but then doesn't connect his incredibly important arguments to this problem. Even a chapter or two could have been applied to noting how calling out the masterpiece of people can continue to help people's spiritual formation. Perhaps Burke hasn't consciously applied this theme to that area yet.

All in all, this is a meaningful book with a very strong message. Indeed, recognizing the masterpiece of God's work is central to the Gospel, and Burke aptly demonstrates the power of this message on people's lives.

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, January 20, 2014

Whose Side Are You On?

Jim Wallis is well-known by many Christians, and he often is viewed as controversial in the evangelical community, as he uses the term evangelical while promoting progressive ideals through the social justice group, Sojourners. I've never read or listened to any of his work, so I was intrigued to listen to an audiobook version of his (very long) tome, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn't Learned about Serving the Common Good.

The book, running at about 14 hours for the audio version and 300 pages for the print edition, has a lot of information and examples of Wallis' points. Many posts could be written about these points, but I was generally impressed with Wallis' ability to be rather balanced and try to find a common ground in the name of the Gospel.

The basic premise of his text is a fundamental shifting of the paradigm of faith in politics, which argues God is always on our side (whichever side you're on). As the title of the book suggests, Wallis asserts that this perspective and the question of whose side God is on misses the point. We should be asking if we're on God's side. While I'm sure this argument has been made before, and it's not simple to live out, I really appreciated how this view shifts the focus from being anthropocentric to being theocentric. Both sides of the political (and theological) aisle seem to increasingly emphasize humanity as central rather than trying to find out how to re-orient to be in line with God. The result, Wallis argues, should be striving toward the common good rather than our individual, siloed good. And I agree.

If you like texts on the politics of religion, this is a great addition. But the print version might be better. Again, I haven't listened to Wallis before, but for him being such a national leader who has to speak regularly, his narration of his own book was less-than-impressive. In fact, the almost monotonous tone made some very important points seem unimportant. I usually love authors narrating their own works because you can hear their passion and interest in their points, even if their readings aren't great. Unfortunately, both were lacking here, making me sometimes question if Wallis even believed what he was saying. I hope he does because his points are important and much-needed.

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, January 13, 2014

The Importance of Community

Back in 2010, I reviewed the second in James Bryan Smith's Good and Beautiful series. Recently, I had the opportunity to listen to an audiobook version of the third book, The Good and Beautiful Community. Most of my reactions about the process of the book were similar to the prior. Smith is a good, accessible writer, who makes abstract concepts easily understandable.

One of the big differences is that this book did seem to tread some new material in contrast to The Good and Beautiful Life. It still is rather introductory, especially for those who have read a lot in the area of the importance of community. But I have a feeling Smith was on the front edge of this movement, as this book was originally published in 2010.

First, my repeated criticisms are the stronger influence of the contemplative tradition on Smith's form of community building in addition to the reliance on spiritual disciplines. I've written about my view of the limitations of both before, so I won't rehash that. I think both are valuable, especially in community-building, so this isn't truly a bad thing; I would have just liked to see more options from the other of Foster's streams.

One of the elements I most appreciated was Smith's emphasis on the role of community as going through the faith journey together. And being humble. Smith spends an entire chapter exploring how to love those with whom we disagree. This is such an important topic that I often don't find adequately addressed in most discussion of community. I've discussed the topic before on my blog, but it's great to hear balanced efforts toward unity from a national leader. Smith was able to include anecdotes to illustrate his points well (as was helpful throughout the book), and in this section, the story was not just about actually being able to achieve unity. That's one of the things I found most helpful: This book is not about perfection. It's about how to live in an imperfect, fallen community, and how beautiful that is.

Some of Smith's arguments for the need for being in a faith community are a bit weak in my opinion, but he's never heavy-handed or forcing of his opinions. In fact, I experienced his sharing of his perspective as quite grace-filled in recognizing the various ways people approach and experience community. And this method reinforced his view all the more by practicing what he was preaching.

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, January 7, 2014

Remembering My Grandpa, Part 2

Great-grandbabies brought energy
Yesterday, I posted Part 1 of this series about my grandpa ("Papa"), who died on Christmas night.

After Papa died, I was thinking more about his influence on my life. While I had explicitly realized how his life taught me to live out my priorities, I suddenly realized how much he impacted the way I approach faith.

One of my favorite quotes is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words. In my reflections, I realized that I may have fallen in love with this quote because that's how my grandpa shared the Gospel.

As I mentioned yesterday, one of our traditions while living together was going to a weekly meeting of the local Biblical Archaeology Society, where an academic would come and share various findings and thoughts about archaeology and religion. We would always have dinner beforehand and have great conversations on the way home. Papa would regularly read all sorts of materials on faith and science and discuss them with me.

What I didn't appreciate at the time was that this man, who was 60 years my elder, would actually ask my opinion and thoughts. And he truly wanted to know. Even after he retired, he wanted to continue to learn and build his faith, including from his grandson.

In retrospect, this behavior taught me two major things: Humility and persistent faith through questions. My grandpa, who grew up during the Great Depression, who worked a farm with his family, who fought and lived through the South Pacific battles of WWII, who raised three children, who watched his wife and daughter die of cancer, thought he could even learn from his punk grandson. If that's not humility, I don't know what is.

And talk about living through major world changes, including through scientific discovery. He wasn't terribly vocal about his faith, but it persisted until the end (the last time my wife and son saw him, he proudly showed his new large print Bible he was reading). This blog and much of my interest in faith is about finding a way for faith to persist despite a variety of challenges. I never realized it before, but I think my grandpa was absolutely central to that perspective and allowing me to maintain faith through my own trials.

I miss you, Papa, but I thank you for sharing your life with us!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Remembering My Grandpa, Part 1

Papa and Brendan
As many of you know, my grandpa, who turned 90 in August, died on Christmas night. It wasn't a surprise, but that didn't make easy, either. For those who don't know, I lived with him for a couple of years in graduate school until he was put on hospice the first time (7.5 years ago, after which he was kicked off because he was doing so well). This gave me the rare opportunity to really get to know my grandpa well, in a way that many people don't get to know their grandparents.

One of the ways I have long known he impacted me was by living according to his priorities. Those who know me know I'm pretty ambitious. I've long derived a lot of meaning from the things I've done and accomplished.

My grandpa (I named him "Papa") didn't have a prestigious career (he retired from a department store selling window dressings). He served in WWII, married my grandma, moved to California (both grew up on Ohio farms with numerous siblings), and went to art school. As Papa and I would go to weekly Biblical Archaeology Society meetings, he would sometimes talk about how he wished he had gotten a PhD in one of these fields. But he ended his higher education in order to make sure his family had enough money once kids came along.

He retired before I can remember him working. But how often does a grandkid really think about his grandfather's career and status? I have a good friend whose grandpa is well known and who I respect. I've sometimes thought about what it would be like to live under that shadow (and I've heard stories). Then I've compared that to my relationship with my grandpa. Would I have loved Papa more or respected him more if he had done all these amazing things? I can't imagine that I would. In fact, I probably would have loved him less because he would have been around less and therefore I wouldn't have known him as well.

As I hear more and more stories about the personal lives of the ambitious, "accomplished" people I respect, many of their marriages and relationships have fallen apart. Sometimes numerous times. But I remember my grandparents' 50th anniversary. I think priorities have something to do with that.

So a big lesson Papa taught me (just by living his life, never explicitly) was to live out your priorities. And family and faith are my priorities, far more than career. I hope I can live up to the standard Papa set. 


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).